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Zannaland.com

The Story Behind Saving Mr. Banks

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Zannaland.com

When Walt Disney’s daughters were young, they loved a little book about a magical (and slightly sadistic) nanny named Mary Poppins. He promised them that he would someday make a movie out of the series, and 20 years later, he delivered. But it was no easy task, which is what the upcoming film Saving Mr. Banks is about.

It took Disney—Walt himself, not a bunch of execs with money-stuffed briefcases—16 years of wheedling, convincing, and coaxing before author P.L. Travers would agree to let him make a movie. She believed that Disney would make Mary Poppins a twinkling, rosy-cheeked delight—and to an extent, she was right. Disney did give her script approval, but no doubt later regretted it, since script approval proved to be an extremely painful process. Every little word, every tiny detail, seemed to be a point of contention.

After they finally came to terms on a script and the movie was filmed, Travers screened it and then asked Walt, “When do we start cutting it?” Disney shook his head and explained that she had script approval—not film editing rights—and refused to change a thing. Travers was furious.

Since Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney production, of course, I’m guessing that the movie will end with P.L. Travers and Disney agreeing to disagree goodnaturedly. But nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the picture above of Ms. Travers smiling with Walt and Julie Andrews at the movie premiere, she was actually miserable. She cried when it was over, feeling her characters and ideas had been butchered.

Mary Poppins, Travers said, was “already beloved for what she was—plain, vain and incorruptible—(and now) transmogrified into a soubrette. ... And how was it that Mary Poppins herself, the image of propriety, came to dance a can-can on the roof-top displaying all her underwear? A child wrote, after seeing the film, ‘I think Mary Poppins behaved in a very indecorous manner.’ Indecorous indeed!” Other things Travers hated:

- The animated horse and pig.
- “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
- The idea that Mary Poppins would have a romance with anyone so commonplace as a chimneysweep.
- Turning Mrs. Banks into a suffragette.
- The idea that Mrs. Banks should be named Cynthia instead of Winifred (Cynthia was considered "unlucky, cold and sexless"). Though Travers did win that battle.
- The Banks house. It was too grand.
- The servants. Too common.
- American words and phrases like “outing,” “freshen up,” and “on schedule.”
- Dick Van Dyke.

She swore that as long as she was alive, Disney would never defile her beloved Mary Poppins again. And she stuck to her guns, even in death: Travers' last will and testament stated specifically that if a stage musical was to be made, the Sherman Brothers could not be involved, only English-born writers could be used—no Americans—and absolutely no one from the original film production was to be involved.

Based on her anger at Disney even more than 30 years after the release of the movie, I get the feeling that Saving Mr. Banks romanticizes the Walt Disney-P.L. Travers relationship a lot. I'm guessing that if Ms. Travers were still around, she would be as happy about this film as she was about Mary Poppins.

That being said, you bet I’m going to shell out $9.25 to watch Tom Hanks do his best Walt Disney impression come December.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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