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15 Golden Facts About Almost Famous

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Fifteen years ago, Almost Famous—Cameron Crowe’s poignant, semi-autobiographical film about going on tour with rock stars in the 1970s and writing about it for Rolling Stone—was released in theaters. The film launched Kate Hudson’s career and won Crowe his (so far) only Oscar. Here are some rockin’ facts about the classic rock-driven movie.

1. THE ORIGINAL ENDING INVOLVED NEIL YOUNG.

In 2015, Cameron Crowe told Vanity Fair that he intended for the film to end on Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand) playing the family Neil Young’s “On the Way Home.” “In the end, we decided not to hear that song or her dialogue, and to let the sequence live in a montage as the Stillwater tour bus drives away to the sound of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Tangerine.’ That song was more eloquent in its summary of the movie than any spoken words,” Crowe said.

2. KATE HUDSON RESEARCHED GROUPIES AND ROCK STARS’ WIVES FOR HER ROLE AS PENNY LANE.

In a 2000 interview with The Morning Call, Kate Hudson said she prepared for the role of Penny Lane by listening to a lot of classic rock music, reading former groupie Pamela Des Barres’ book I’m With the Band, and interviewing the wives of rock stars. “You look in their eyes and you see a sadness,” Hudson said. “You can tell how much they lived, and how jaded it gets in that world. But, at the same time, they knew what they were getting themselves into.”

3. CAMERON CROWE’S MOM LIKES THE FILM, EXCEPT FOR THE BAREFOOT PART.

Frances McDormand’s character, Elaine Miller, is based on Crowe’s own mother, Alice, who has appeared in most of his movies (including Almost Famous). Before production began, Alice read the script and liked that the mother wasn’t too “shrill.” But it bothered her that Elaine walked around the house without shoes and socks. “She’s troubled by the fact that people will think she went barefoot,” Crowe told Amazon UK. “Which is kind of like saying, ‘Well, the murder is fine, but you had me commit the murder in a red dress, and I never wear red.’”

4. CROWE AND NANCY WILSON WROTE A LOT OF THE FILM’S SONGS ON THEIR HONEYMOON.

Crowe told Film Comment that while honeymooning in 1986 with his then-wife, Nancy Wilson of the band Heart, they holed up in a cabin in Oregon and created a fake band and wrote songs, “knowing sort of one day we might do a movie where we could use the stuff,” he said. “Almost 15 years later, those songs became a reality.

5. DESPITE BEING NOMINATED FOR FOUR OSCARS (AND WINNING ONE FOR BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY), THE MOVIE FAILED TO BREAK EVEN AT THE BOX OFFICE.

DreamWorks decided on a slow rollout, so the film debuted in a paltry 131 theaters the weekend of September 15, 2000, but grossed a robust $2.3 million. One week later, when it was released on an additional 1000 screens, it grossed less than $7 million. The overall U.S. tally was $32.5 million. Add that in with the foreign take of $14.8 million, and it didn’t match its budget of a $60 million, nor did it come close to Jerry Maguire’s $273.5 million worldwide haul.

In 2001, Crowe told Entertainment Weekly why Almost Famous failed to capture a bigger box office: “Our movie about 1973 got its ass kicked by a movie from 1973,” he said, referring to the re-release of The Exorcist. With the release of two different DVDs in 2001, including Untitled: The Bootleg Cut, Almost Famous managed to find an audience.

6. GLENN FREY TAUGHT CROWE HOW TO CRAFT A PROPER BUZZ.

Russell Hammond, Billy Crudup’s character, was loosely based on Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and in real life Frey actually uttered the “Look, just make us look cool” line to Crowe. Frey also contributed a lesson on how to hold a drinking buzz, which Crowe scribbled down. “If you want to craft a buzz correctly, you walk into a party, you drink two beers quickly,” Crowe shared with Rolling Stone. “Then you drink a beer every hour and 15 minutes after that. You’ll always have a buzz and you’ll never get too embarrassing.” After their 1970s encounters, Crowe and Frey worked together again in 1996, when Crowe cast Frey as Dennis Wilburn in Jerry Maguire

7. CROWE WROTE A PART FOR DAVID BOWIE, BUT IT DIDN’T MAKE IT INTO THE FINAL SCRIPT.

A publicist named Russell DeMay, who was based on The Beatles’s publicist Derek Taylor, showed up in earlier drafts of the script. “I wanted David Bowie to play that part,” Crowe told Film Comment. “I just thought it would be the greatest thing, rumpled white suit, and that was an important character that I'm sorry is not in there, because the publicist used to not be the buffer, the publicist used to be one of the band.”

8. PATRICK FUGIT HAD TO BE SCHOOLED IN CLASSIC ROCK.

Crowe and the production team received hundreds of audition tapes for the part of William Miller, but Fugit’s tape surprised Crowe. “Patrick was funny and kind of awkward and not jaded in the slightest. He was just a raw talent,” Crowe told The Washington Post. Crowe flew the Salt Lake City-based Fugit—who was born nine years after the movie takes place—to Los Angeles. Fugit thought Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull were solo artists, not bands, and at the time the only music he owned was a Chumbawamba CD. To educate Fugit, Crowe made him listen to classic rock. “He gave me all these albums from Led Zeppelin, The Who, Neil Young, David Bowie, Peter Frampton … He told me, ‘I want this stuff coming out of your pores,’” Fugit said.

9. CROWE THINKS THE MOVIE IS A LOVE LETTER TO MUSIC, NOT TO ROCK STAR DECADENCE.

Critics berated the film for its lack of sex and drugs, but in 2005 Crowe told Paste magazine that his rock star friends understood the film. “And it was those guys that were the biggest fans of Almost Famous that said, ‘Yeah, sex and drugs and stuff are a part of rock ’n’ roll, but a true musician never picks up the guitar at first because they just want sex and drugs.’ It’s usually because a record blew their head off, and they never could go back to whatever they wanted to be before. And that’s what I think Almost Famous is about—it’s about getting your head blown off by a piece of music, and everything else is secondary.”

10. THE FILM’S TITLE DERIVES FROM BEING ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF CELEBRITY.

Before Crowe produced the movie, the original title was Untitled and then The Uncool, but the studio told him he had to rename it. “I used to go to concerts and I would see Mick Jagger, then off to the side are these people standing by the amplifiers,” Crowe explained. “You look at them, and you think, who are they? Are they groupies? Are they friends of the promoter? Are they married to the bass player? Because they’re almost famous.”

11. THE CHARACTER OF PENNY LANE IS PARTLY BASED ON LIV TYLER’S MOM.

Bebe Buell dated a lot of rock stars back in the day, including Todd Rundgren and Steven Tyler (Liv’s dad). During an interview between Buell and Crowe in Talk magazine, Buell told Crowe about how in real life she twirled in concert debris just like Penny Lane does in movie. “I once did that in Madison Square Garden,” Buell recalled. “I couldn’t believe how small it looked without anybody in it. It looked like a basketball court. These rooms just come to life and look so huge and vibrant when they’re filled with people!”

“In the screenplay version, there’s a longer speech that Kate Hudson gave that I must say is a tribute to Bebe,” Crowe said. “It’s about how she first went to a concert and almost got crushed but was saved and pulled up on stage. The idea was Kate was saved and pulled backstage. They gave her a Coke and a lemon, and she never went home.” Crowe also revealed Jason Lee’s character, Jeff Bebe—who is based on Paul Rodgers of Bad Company and Free—was named after Buell.

12. ALMOST FAMOUS PURPOSELY CAPTURES A MORE INNOCENT TIME IN ROCK MUSIC.

When Crowe set out to make the film, he thought movies set in the early 1970s were missing a certain quaintness that existed at the time. “Mick Ronson, David Bowie's guitarist, died before we made the movie, and somebody got a deathbed interview with him and asked, ‘How did it feel to be at the ground zero of decadence in rock?’ And he said, ‘It was a very loving time and a very naive time, or at least it was to me.’ And I just thought that was profound,” Crowe told Film Comment. “But the whole global change in rock, cool being a mass concept, was still around the corner, so it was still a little more personal, and all I can say is passionately naive. And I really wanted to catch that.”

13. THE MOVIE REUNITED CROWE’S MOM AND SISTER.

In 2000 Crowe revealed to Rolling Stone that he and his sister, Cindy (Zooey Deschanel’s Anita in the movie), had a falling out after their dad died in 1989 and that his sister and mom had been estranged since then. “After my dad died, the chemistry of my family got f***ed up, and in my wildest dreams, I hope the movie helps my mom and sister communicate. They talk through me now, but three and a half weeks ago our family got together. The one fake scene in the movie—the reconciliation at the end—actually happened in its own weird way.”

14. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN WORE CROWE’S VINTAGE GUESS WHO T-SHIRT.

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Crowe admitted to keeping many souvenirs from his days as a teenage rock journalist, including a T-shirt from the group The Guess Who. When William and Lester Bangs (Hoffman) meet at Sun Cafe, Bangs is wearing Crowe’s own T-shirt. “Lester dressed in promotional T-shirts, which was funny because his message was that corporate America is just around the corner ready to seize rock with merchandising and commerciality, but he had no problem wearing rock T-shirts,” Crowe told Entertainment Weekly. “They were free, and they fit.”

15. WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER: FIRST DAY OF CAMP PAYS HOMAGE TO THE FILM.

One of the most famous moments in Almost Famous is when Russell stands atop a roof, high on drugs, and screams “I am a Golden God” to the teenagers below, then jumps into a pool. Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer prequel series has Chris Pine playing a Russell Hammond-like character who stands on top of a roof and riles the campers to sing a song with him.

It’s also revealed that Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) is not a camp counselor but an undercover reporter for Rock ‘n’ Roll World magazine. In Almost Famous fashion, her editor tells her not to make friends with the campers, but she does anyway.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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