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15 Campy Facts About Wet Hot American Summer

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Image credit: Flickr //CC BY-NC 2.0

You might be able to quote 2001's Wet Hot American Summer word for word, but even the most diehard fans of Coop, McKinley, and the rest of the Camp Firewood crew probably don't know these 15 "gournal"-worthy facts about the movie's making.

1. The writers were inspired by their own camp experiences.

Director David Wain, who penned the script alongside longtime pal and collaborator Michael Showalter, remembers what a big deal Skylab was during the summer he spent at Maine's Camp Modin in 1979. "Kids like us were like, 'Oh my God, do you think Skylab's going to fall on our camp?'" Wain told Details. "And then we'd see a piece of metal and it was like, 'Do you think that's a piece of Skylab?'" The hour-long trip to town was inspired—sort of—by Showalter's camp experience. "That was something you did at my camp sometimes," he shared. "It was considered a big, awesome thing, kind of like going off campus in high school." Presumably, though, his sojourns didn't involve a crack den.

2. Showalter and Wain spent three years finding financing.

"Over and over again, we were told, 'We're giving you the money!'" Wain has said. "Then these people would disappear. I remember trying to track someone down in their office in the East Village to confront them. And the ‘office’ was someone’s house, and there was no one there by that name.” Ultimately, getting Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce—at the time, two of the cast's biggest names—to sign on helped their cause.

3. The entire budget was just $1.8 million.

Paul Rudd, who plays Camp Firewood's resident bad boy Andy, says no one was really in this for the money. In fact, "I'm not sure I got paid," he told Entertainment Weekly. "I'm not kidding … it was such a small production, and stuff fell through the cracks."

4. It launched the careers of a couple of people you may have heard of.

Before Elizabeth Banks scored the part of Lindsay (a.k.a. Barbecue Girl), she was working as a cocktail waitress in New York. Bradley Cooper, meanwhile, missed his graduation from The Actors Studio because of Wet Hot American Summer's production schedule.

5. The cast lived at the camp where the movie was filmed.

Everyone bunked together at Pennsylvania's Camp Towanda for the month-long shoot. Rudd told Details that the experience was "definitely like camp, only we were allowed to have beer." Amy Poehler (who plays talent show director Susie) joked that the shoot felt like a necessary do-over: "We were being given the chance to take one more shot at summer camp, only we were wiser, better drinkers, and more sexually experienced."

6. Yes, they ate their meals in the cafeteria.

The fare didn't really hold up, according to Michael Ian Black (McKinley). Pizza bagels "every day when you're 11 is a dream. When you're 30, and it's pizza bagels every day, you wanna kill somebody." 

7. Chief Wiggum went to Camp Towanda.

Garofalo called Hank Azaria after seeing his name on a plaque by a bunk. "She said, 'I'm staring at your name right now. What gives?'" Azaria, who spent every summer at Towanda from the time he was six years old until he was 15, told Entertainment Weekly, "It was fantastic, some of the happiest times of my life."

8. When the cast wasn't shooting, they were drinking. A lot.

"Everybody stayed up late. Everybody partied," Rudd told Details. ("There were totally random hookups," Wain admitted.) One night the group even decided to have a camp dance. "They hired this DJ, Mr. Blue, who was friends with the guys from The State, and we had a rave on the grass of the camp," Poehler told the magazine. "He played great '80s music, and we all went into the wardrobe department and put on outfits and had sparklers and danced." 

9. The weather was terrible.

It rained 25 out of 28 shooting days, turning Camp Towanda's grounds into a giant (freezing) mudpit. "We were wearing three layers of clothing at all times, unless we were shooting, when we were wearing basically nothing," Marguerite Moreau (Katie) revealed to Details. Luckily for the already cash-strapped production, the crew was (mostly) able to work around it. "The one thing about the rain is, even when it's pouring, unless you light for it, it doesn't fully show up on camera. So a lot of times we just shot in the rain," Wain said. It was, for example, pouring for the campfire intro. After a crew member tried and failed to get a fire going, Camp Towanda's director had to intervene and start a fire for them.

10. When it came to entertaining themselves, the cast got creative.

Filming took place during the pre-smartphone era, and the nearest attraction was a Walmart a half-hour away. So to amuse themselves, the cast turned to games, including Stratego, backgammon, and stickball, and spent time decorating their cabins. "We would go to Walmart and buy posters and put them in people's rooms," recalled Poehler. "I remember having a lot of *NSYNC." Another popular wall art option: Britney Spears. Ken Marino (Victor) carried around a portable TV  "'cause he wanted to watch Juliana Margulies's last ER or something," Poehler said. "I remember him running around, crying, being like, 'She went back to Clooney! She went back to Clooney!'"

11. Almost none of the movie was improvised.

Despite the cast's impressive sketch comedy chops, for the most part, they stuck to Wain and Showalter's script. As Black explained, "The script was pretty locked in. When you have a budget that small, and you have to make your days, and you're fighting the weather, there isn't time to f--k around that much."

12. Christopher Meloni looked to Rambo for inspiration.

To play deranged camp cook (and Vietnam vet) Gene, Meloni—who had just started on Law and Order: SVU—grew a beard and put on weight. At his audition, he did his best to channel film's most iconic Vietnam veteran. "I saw him as a whacked-out, cuddly Rambo," Meloni told Details.

13. The film was a financial flop.

Wain and Showalter struggled to find a backer at Sundance, and the film raked in just $300,000 at the box office.

14. Critics hated it.

Although Entertainment Weekly's film critic, Owen Gleiberman, gave it an 'A', he was one of the few who seemed to enjoy it. The Oregonian called it "agony on a stick," and in his review, Roger Ebert decided to parody "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," writing, "Wow I hate it something fierce/Except the astrophysicist David Hyde Pierce.”

15. Today, it's considered a cutting-edge classic—and is an experience Bradley Cooper won't soon forget.

Of all the stars he's locked lips with, Cooper told Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa in 2010 that Michael Ian Black is his favorite onscreen kiss. A flattered Black responded via Twitter, with one correction:  

[h/t: Entertainment Weekly, Details]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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