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12 Royal Facts About Roman Holiday

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The not-quite-romantic comedy Roman Holiday introduced the world to Audrey Hepburn, and to Vespa scooters—though only one of those things was subsequently honored with a U.S. postage stamp. (It was Audrey.) Roman Holiday won Oscars for Hepburn’s performance, for its story, and for its costumes, and was nominated for seven more, including Best Picture and Best Director for William Wyler. It also kickstarted a new era of American movies being shot in Rome—“Hollywood on the Tiber,” the trades called it—and has been a beloved classic ever since. Here are a dozen graceful facts about it.

1. ONE OF THE BIGGEST STARS IN THE WORLD SHARED BILLING WITH AN UNKNOWN.

Gregory Peck already had 18 films and four Oscar nominations under his belt when he was paired with Audrey Hepburn, a newcomer who’d had small roles in a handful of movies but nothing substantial. Given his status, it’s no surprise Peck’s contract called for solo top billing in the credits. But shortly after shooting began, Peck called his agent and said Hepburn’s name should appear with his above the title. The agent: “You can’t do that.” Peck: “Oh, yes I can. And if I don’t, I’m going to make a fool out of myself, because this girl is going to win the Oscar in her very first performance.” So maybe he was being pragmatic more than generous, but still. Stand-up guy, that Peck (and a bit of a prophet, too).

2. THE DIRECTOR DELAYED PRODUCTION TO WAIT FOR HEPBURN.

William Wyler, at this point an eight-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner (for Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives), had good instincts. He knew Hepburn was perfect for the role of Princess Ann as soon as he watched her screen test in the fall of 1951, and was unconcerned about her relative lack of film experience. But Hepburn almost immediately became unavailable, starring in Gigi on Broadway starting on November 24. Wyler’s solution? Wait for her to finish. Paramount execs, equally enthusiastic about Hepburn’s screen test, supported the plan, even though nobody knew how long the play would run. It ended up closing on May 31, 1952; shooting on Roman Holiday began 23 days later.

3. HEPBURN CRIED REAL TEARS IN THE FILM BECAUSE THE DIRECTOR YELLED AT HER.

For whatever reason, Hepburn had trouble conjuring the tears for the scene where she and Peck bid an emotional farewell to each other. She later said: “The night was getting longer and longer, and [Wyler] was waiting. Out of the blue, he came over and gave me hell. ‘We can’t stay here all night. Can’t you cry, for God’s sake?’ He’d never spoken to me like that … I broke into such sobs and he shot the scene and that was it.” (She said Wyler later apologized, sort of: “I’m sorry, but I had to get you to do it somehow!”)

4. THAT’S A REAL SCREAM OF SURPRISE WHEN PECK PRETENDS TO GET HIS HAND BITTEN OFF, TOO.

He perpetrates this dad joke in "The Mouth of Truth” scene, where you stick your hand in a statue and it gets bitten off if you’re a liar. (It doesn’t work in real life, by the way.) The script called for Peck to briefly pretend his hand was being chewed off, but he took it one step further, hiding the hand in his jacket sleeve and pulling out the “stump” to horrify Hepburn. Wyler and Peck would both later claim credit for this idea, but their accounts were in agreement that part of the fun was not telling Hepburn beforehand what Peck was going to do. Poor Audrey.

5. IT WAS SHOT IN BLACK-AND-WHITE NOT BECAUSE WYLER WAS OLD-FASHIONED, BUT BECAUSE PARAMOUNT WAS CHEAP.

The studio wanted to make the film on its own Hollywood backlot, but Wyler wouldn’t budge on shooting on location in Rome. Paramount finally agreed, but only if Wyler could finance it with “blocked funds” (a percentage of money that Paramount’s films had made in Italy that could only be spent in that country). When that only amounted to about $1 million, Wyler cut costs by shooting in black-and-white. He would later say that he didn’t even think about color until he was in Rome and it was too late, but in fact he’d always wanted to shoot in color, and had said as much months before production began.

6. THE WRONG SCREENWRITER WON THE OSCAR.

Ian McLellan Hunter was credited as the writer, but he was fronting for Dalton Trumbo, who’d been blacklisted for not cooperating with the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. (Hunter wrote a subsequent draft, too, but never claimed to have been the screenplay’s originator.) When Roman Holiday won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story (then a separate category from Best Screenplay, for which it was also nominated), it went to Hunter, who had refused to attend the ceremony. In the early 1990s, the Writers Guild of America and the Academy Awards people posthumously returned the credit and the awards to Trumbo.

7. IT ALMOST STARRED CARY GRANT AND ELIZABETH TAYLOR, AND FRANK CAPRA ALMOST DIRECTED IT.

The director of such sentimental classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington almost made Roman Holiday in the late 1940s, and he supposedly had Grant and Taylor ready to star. (This would have been icky: Taylor would have been about 16, Grant about 44.) But Capra balked at the low budget Paramount proposed (some sources say he was also wary of having anything to do with a script written by a Communist), and he sold the project back to the studio in 1949.

8. IT HELPED VESPA SELL A TON OF SCOOTERS.

The Italian motor scooter Vespa had been around since 1946 and had sold well in its native land. But Roman Holiday introduced it to an international audience, and did so in a manner so appealing that all the money Vespa had could never have bought such advertising. Not only does the movie show a beautiful woman and one of the world’s most beloved actors having the time of their lives as they ride a Vespa around Rome, that image was even featured on the movie poster. Little wonder the company sold 500,000 Vespas between 1953 and 1956, matching the number it sold from 1946 through 1952.

9. IT’S HOW GREGORY PECK MET HIS SECOND WIFE.

Peck’s marriage to the former Greta Kukkonen was an unhappy one at this point, and there were many rumors of his dalliances with other women. Still, they remained together for the sake of their three children, and the whole family went to Rome together. On the way there, however, at Paramount’s request, Peck stopped in Paris to do an interview. The reporter was a lovely young woman named Veronique Passani. She visited Rome to interview Peck again during the shoot, and Wyler said that’s when the two fell in love (though Peck always maintained it wasn’t until later). Whatever the timeline, Peck and Passani were married on December 31, 1955, shortly after his divorce from Greta was finalized. They remained married for the rest of Peck’s life.

10. IT’S ALSO HOW AUDREY HEPBURN MET HER FIRST HUSBAND, INDIRECTLY.

Hepburn and Peck became lifelong friends through Roman Holiday. It was at a cocktail party at Peck’s house after the film’s release that Hepburn met actor Mel Ferrer, whom she subsequently married. They had one child together before divorcing 14 years later.

11. THERE WAS A REMAKE. THERE’S A GOOD REASON YOU DON’T REMEMBER IT.

On December 28, 1987, NBC aired a TV movie version of Roman Holiday starring Catherine Oxenberg (from Dynasty) and Tom Conti (from British TV and the David Bowie film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence). It was poorly received (“one of the more embarrassing duds of a decade,” said The New York Times) and no one ever spoke of it again. Until just now.

12. AUDREY HEPBURN WON AN OSCAR FOR HER PERFORMANCE, THEN LOST IT.

Misplaced it, that is. At the ceremony in March 1954, she was so excited and overwhelmed by the win that she took the wrong route to get to the stage, gave a breathless speech, and then left the trophy in the ladies’ room. She and Oscar were soon reunited, however, and lived happily ever after.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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