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18 Supercalifragilistic Facts About Mary Poppins

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More than half a century after it hit theaters, Mary Poppins is still one of the most beloved films ever. Here are some of the most interesting facts about Mary and the people who brought her to the silver screen.

1. It took more than 20 years to convince the author of Mary Poppins to sell the movie rights.

It all started in the early 1940s, when Walt Disney told his daughter Diane that he would make her favorite book into a movie. He was probably assuming that any author would be thrilled to hitch her name up to the Disney wagon, but quickly discovered that P.L. Travers was not just any author. For more than 20 years, Travers refused to deal with Disney. It was only in 1961 that she finally relented, mostly because she needed the money.

2. Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke weren't the only options for the lead roles.

Angela Lansbury and Bette Davis were also considered for the role of Mary. Cary Grant was Walt's favorite for Bert.

3. Julie Andrews almost passed on the movie.

Because she had originated the role on Broadway, Andrews was hoping to be cast as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, so she didn't accept Disney's offer right away. Warner ultimately decided that Audrey Hepburn was their Eliza. Andrews and Hepburn ended up vying for a Golden Globe for their respective roles. When Andrews won, she took the opportunity to cheekily thank Jack Warner during her acceptance speech (which you can see above).

4. Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent has been named one of the worst accent attempts in film history.

Van Dyke has defended himself in recent years, saying that his vocal coach, an Irishman attempting to do a Cockney accent, was just as bad. “I don’t talk to British people because they just make a mess of me,” he told NPR in 2010.

5. The Sherman Brothers wrote 30 songs for the movie.

Roughly 20 of them were cut, but some found new homes. “The Beautiful Briny" was later used in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the melody from “Land of Sand” was eventually recycled as “Trust in Me” from Jungle Book.

6. “A Spoonful of Sugar” was inspired by the polio vaccine.

To help woo Andrews to the part, Walt Disney had the Sherman Brothers write a special tune for her. The duo penned a lovely song called “The Eyes of Love.” Andrews hated it. The rewrite ("something catchier," according to Walt) proved to be a struggle for Robert Sherman—until he went home to see his kids. They had received their polio vaccine that day and informed him that it hadn’t hurt at all; the medicine was simply placed on a sugar cube and they ate it like candy. Voila.

7. Walt Disney’s favorite song was “Feed the Birds.”

Not just his favorite song from the movie—his favorite song ever. Richard Sherman has said on several occasions that Walt would stop by the Sherman Brothers office every Friday and request a private performance.

8. P.L. Travers hated the movie with a passion.

Though Travers was given script approval, she wasn’t given final script approval. She wept when she saw the final result at the movie’s premiere. “I said, ‘Oh God, what have they done?’” she later said. Travers hated the animated sequence. She hated the house the Banks family lived in. She hated that they changed the time period. She hated that Mary Poppins was pretty. She hated the songs. And she loathed Dick Van Dyke. Travers vowed that she would never work with Disney again.

You can hear her going over her notes with the Sherman Brothers and screenwriter Don DaGradi below:

9. Some of the nannies lined up at the beginning of the movie are actually men.

I bet you can tell which ones.

10. That’s Julie Andrews whistling the robin’s part during “A Spoonful of Sugar.”

An accomplished whistler (who knew?), Andrews recorded the robin's sweet tune. In order for the bird to move and nod during the scene, by the way, Andrews had to wear a ring that connected to it. Yards of cable ran from the ring, up her arm, and out to engineers who could control the bird’s movements.

11. Disney was sued over “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Though the Sherman Brothers claimed they made the word up themselves, a 1949 song called “Supercalafajaistickespeealadojus” would seem to say otherwise. The writers of the song, Barney Young and Gloria Parker, sued for $12 million. They lost because lawyers were able to present evidence showing that the nonsense word had been around, in some form or another, for decades. Indeed, the Sherman Brothers later claimed that their made-up word was a variation on a similar word they had heard at summer camp back in the 1930s: “super-cadja-flawjalistic-espealedojus.”

12. David Tomlinson did double duty.

Tomlinson, the actor who portrayed the stodgy Mr. Banks, also provided the voice for the talking parrot on the end of Mary Poppins’ umbrella. Tomlinson also did a couple of voices for the “Jolly Holiday” scenes, including a jockey and a parrot.

13. The children were originally nannied by the Bride of Frankenstein.

The nanny who leaves the Banks family at the beginning of the movie, making way for Mary Poppins, is Elsa Lanchester. Horror movie buffs know her better as the Bride of Frankenstein.

14. There was almost a Mary Poppins ride.

Due to the popularity of the movie, a Mary Poppins ride was scheduled to be installed at the Magic Kingdom instead of Peter Pan’s Flight, a hit attraction at Disneyland. Roy O. Disney canceled the project, feeling that East Coast guests who had never gotten the chance to visit Disneyland would want to be able to ride the same rides.

15. The “Feed the Birds” snowglobe was almost trashed.

Wondering what happened to the “Feed the Birds” snowglobe from the movie, Disney archivist Dave Smith hunted through company storage to see if he could dig it up. He located it in a janitor’s closet. The janitor told Smith that he had spotted the snow globe in a trash can, but felt it was too pretty to throw away.

16. The cherry trees on Cherry Tree Lane were real—but the blooms weren’t.

To create the effect of blossom-laden branches, artists hand mounted thousands of twigs and paper blooms.

17. Disney Imagineering exists because of Mary Poppins.

Without the financial success of the film, Walt wouldn’t have been able to expand his baby, W.E.D. Enterprises, the department that helped create that animatronic robin. In 1965, he made a division of W.E.D. Enterprises just for animatronics, calling it MAPO—Manufacturing and Production Division, but also MAry POppins. MAPO later created animatronics for Pirates of the Caribbean, the Enchanted Tiki Room, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and more. W.E.D. (that's Walter Elias Disney, by the way) Enterprises was later renamed "Imagineering."

18. Disney won five of the 13 Academy Awards for which Mary Poppins was nominated.

The company had never experienced such a successful night at the Oscars—and hasn’t since. (Poppins didn’t win Best Picture, however; that prize went to My Fair Lady.)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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