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13 Loaded Facts About Withnail and I

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When the British film Withnail and I was released in 1987, it wasn’t a huge hit. It took a VHS release for people to develop a taste for the movie, which follows two “resting” thespians, the dipsomaniac Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and I (Paul McGann), in 1969. Withnail and I visit Uncle Monty (Harry Potter’s Richard Griffiths) in the countryside for a “holiday by mistake,” one in which everything goes wrong.

First-time director Bruce Robinson—who was nominated for an Oscar two years earlier for his script for The Killing Fields—based the screenplay on his own life as a broke actor in drama school living in Camden Town, England. Beatle George Harrison produced the film through his HandMade Films, which is why Robinson was able to use The Beatles’ song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the soundtrack. The film launched the careers of everyone involved, including McGann (Doctor Who) and Grant. Here are 13 boozy facts about the cult classic.

1. WITHNAIL WAS BASED ON BRUCE ROBINSON’S FRIEND, ACTOR VIVIAN MACKERRELL.

Robinson and MacKerrell were flatmates in the 1960s, and he based Withnail on his friend. “Withnail is basically me and Viv, but I didn’t sit there with a tape recorder and notepad writing down what Viv said,” Robinson told Daily Record. “I just took his acidity, his pompous cowardice, and his very pungent sense of humor and wrote that character.” MacKerrell’s friend, Colin Bacon, wrote a book about MacKerrell, who died of throat cancer in 1995 (Robinson believes that drinking lighter fluid in real life possibly led to the disease).

Although Withnail is based on MacKerrell, the movie is fictional. “He certainly had his opinions, but I never witnessed him being as nasty as the Richard E. Grant character,” Bacon said. “Withnail and I had loads of Vivian in it, but the extreme version. He isn’t the character. There’s a bit of artistic license. And the one thing Bruce Robinson warned me about was that I couldn’t claim that anything said in the film was ever uttered by Vivian or else he’d issue a writ. He’s adamant that Viv didn’t say these things, although he stated in a revised screenplay of the film that although ‘there isn’t a line of Viv’s in Withnail, his horrible wine-stained tongue may as well have spoken every word.’”

Bacon said MacKerrell was proud of the movie, “but he didn’t sit with an arrow pointing to his head saying ‘Withnail.' He had too much going for him for that.”

2. ROBINSON WROTE THE STORY DURING A DIFFICULT WINTER.

Just as I left Withnail for a job, MacKerrell left Robinson for a gig. “I was left alone with no money, no food, a gas oven, one light bulb, and a mattress on the floor,” Robinson told Premiere. “It was the winter of 1969. I was desolate, completely in despair. I was an actor and I couldn’t get a job. So one day I came back to the flat and it was snowing, and I started weeping and screaming at the floorboards. Begging the God of Equity, or any f*cking god, you know, to help me. And then it really made me laugh, the predicament that I was in. I laughed hysterically when I thought about it. And I had this old Olivetti typewriter that I used to try and write poetry on. I sat down and I started writing this story about my predicament, involving me and my friend who had now gone.”

At first the story was written as a novel, not a screenplay. A friend gave the novel to a guy who wanted Robinson to adapt it into a comedy TV series. Another guy came along and told Robinson, “this is going to make a great movie.” In 1980 that guy gave Robinson money to adapt it into a script, but the project went into limbo for six years. Eventually, George Harrison got a hold of the script and thought it was funny, and Robinson was in business.

3. SOME PEOPLE THINK THE MOVIE WAS FILMED IN THE 1960S.

The movie takes place in 1969, and the low-budget quality of it often leads viewers to think it was filmed at that time. It was not. “It comes from the mid-1980s, but it sticks out like a Smiths record,” McGann told the New Zealand Herald about the movie. “Its provenance is from a different era. None of the production values, none of the iconography, none of the style remotely has it down as an ’80s picture. I’ve had people say to me ‘Geez, I thought it was actually shot in the ’60s’—I don’t know how old they think I am!”

4. THE NAME “WITHNAIL” COMES FROM ROBINSON’S CHILDHOOD.

In 2013, Richard E. Grant revealed on Twitter that Withnail’s first name was “Vyvian,” but according to Robinson, in real life the guy’s name was Jonathan. “The reason he’s called Withnail is because when I was a little boy I knew this bloke called Jonathan Withnall—Nall. Because I can’t spell, I called him ‘Nail.’ And he backed his Aston Martin into a police car, and he was like the coolest guy I’d ever met in my life, so consequently that name stayed in my head."

5. RALPH BROWN AUDITIONED IN CHARACTER.

Ralph Brown plays the funny drug dealer Danny, who supplies Withnail and I with The Camberwell Carrot. “I read the stage directions very carefully and I decided to dress like Danny, as I saw him at the time,” Brown said about his audition, in the documentary Withnail and Us. “He was quite frightening when he came with purple nail varnish and eye makeup and all the rest of it,” Robinson said. “Yeah, he was a shock.”

“I think he had a bit of a laugh because I looked a bit foolish,” Brown said. “He probably also thought I was worth a go. He didn’t let me know how foolish I was.”

In 1993’s Wayne’s World 2, Brown reprises Danny, this time as roadie Del Preston.

6. KENNETH BRANAGH WAS OFFERED THE PART OF I.

Robinson cast McGann as I, but Robinson didn’t like his Liverpool accent, so he fired him. During that time, Robinson considered Kenneth Branagh for the part. “I offered Paul’s part to Ken Branagh and he turned me down,” Robinson said. “He wanted to play Withnail, and I didn’t want him to do that. I didn’t think he had enough nobility. Marvelous actor that he is, there’s something about Ken that is the antithesis of Byronesque; he looks like a partially cooked doughnut. Richard looks like a f*cking Byron, you know.” Realizing McGann was the best choice, Robinson hired him back.

7. UNCLE MONTY’S HOUSE SOLD IN 2009, BUT YOU CAN STILL VISIT IT.

The rural, 18th-century farmhouse where Uncle Monty lives is known as “Crow Crag” in the movie, but the actual place is called Sleddale Hall, and is located in Cumbria, England. In 2009, the dilapidated house sold for £265,000, but the new owner wasn’t able to pay for it so it went back on the market, and a man named Tim Ellis purchased it later in the year.

After the sale, Ellis said he planned on keeping the Withnail presence in redecorating it. “I first saw the film about seven years ago and have been a fan ever since,” he told The Guardian. “I would like to restore the building in a way that other fans of the film could approve of.” In 2013, an outdoor screening of the movie was held at the cottage, where fans camped out and reveled in the surreal moment.

8. THE ORIGINAL ENDING WAS MUCH DARKER.

In the novelization, Robinson ends it on Withnail filling a gun with a bottle of 1953 Chateau Margaux wine and then killing himself. The actual ending entails a drunk Withnail reciting a line from Hamlet to London Zoo wolves. “It’s sadder to let him go on with that horrible life,” Robinson told Vice. “When the I character leaves him, he’s alone. You know he’s f*cked. That was quite true, in a way, with poor Viv. A complete total f*cking disaster life he had. We worked hard on the ending: the buildup to when Fatty Grant pulled off, did he not, that Shakespeare at the end? It still blows me away. He just had that right rage.”

9. ROBINSON THINKS WITHNAIL AND I'S FINANCES MAKE THEM RELATABLE.

“Everyone recognizes what it’s like to be in an aspirant situation without a f*cking penny to your name,’” Robinson told Vice. “When I wrote that I was in the bowels of despair for my life. The game was up. Because I believed that, it became an honest expression. There’s two ways of looking at your life when you’re in your early twenties: poor and broke. I was broke, but I was never poor, because I could read Dostoyevsky. I was lucky to meet people like Viv who were educated and turned me on to literature and things I'd never dreamt of.”

Grant thinks the film’s legacy has to do with a rite of passage for young males. “They told me in Oxford it’s like losing your virginity—it’s an initiation ritual,” he told Premiere. “If you haven’t seen it you must see it; it’s a prerequisite. And the Etonians [students of Eton College] thought that it was about them. And the other people thought it was about them, so it obviously crosses over. The young British male. What I have noticed is that it appeals far more to men than it does to women.”

10. THE FILM WAS ALMOST SHUT DOWN BECAUSE THE PRODUCER DIDN'T THINK IT WAS FUNNY.

One of the producers on the film, Denis O’Brien, tried to halt production on the first day of filming. O’Brien didn’t find Grant funny—or the rest of the film, for that matter. “He said he thought all comedy should be very brightly lit,” Grant said in Withnail and Us. “He said I should I be playing it like [British comedian] Kenneth Williams; it should be arms flailing.” HandMade had produced a few Monty Python films and wanted the Uncle Monty character to be slapsticky, or a “fat cartoon character.”

“They thought that an effeminate homosexual was amusing, and I didn’t,” Robinson told Premiere. “So there was a walk around this hillside and I said to them, ‘I’ll get on the bus now and go home. I really do know what this film is and it will be funny. Either I’ll walk off now or you’re going to have to trust me and shut up.’ And of course they trusted me and shut up. And they were on edge about it until the film came out.”

“We thought we were being hysterical,” McGann said. “When we rehearsed it, it was going great and then suddenly somebody tells you’re about as funny as an orphanage on fire.” In the interim, Grant freaked out. “I had a quiet nervous breakdown over lunch, thinking, ‘Oh I’ve told everybody I’ve finally made a movie and now the thing’s closing down,’” he told Premiere. “And David Wimbury, the [co-producer], said, ‘Oh no, it’s just a ploy. The American [O’Brien] is trying to frighten Robinson, and Robinson is calling his bluff.’” By four o'clock that afternoon the producers caved and production continued.

11. NATURALLY, THERE’S A DRINKING GAME ASSOCIATED WITH THE MOVIE.

“The rules for the Withnail and I drinking game are very simple … just match Withnail drink-for-drink,” reads the rules. A caveat: Keep in mind the events of the movie take place over a couple of weeks, so if you do match them, and especially if you drink lighter fluid, you will probably die. The game says you need gin, cider, ale, sherry, whisky, red wine, and either lighter fluid or vinegar (that’s what was used in the movie) to drink along. The movie begins and ends with imbibing red wine, and in between there’s a combination of everything else. We would say “don’t try this at home,” but that’s the point.

12. IN REAL LIFE, GRANT’S ALLERGIC TO ALCOHOL.

In an ironic twist, Grant doesn’t smoke or drink, mainly because his body cannot process alcohol. In order to immerse Grant into the role of boozer Withnail, Robinson forced Grant to get drunk one night so he could have a “chemical memory” for his acting.

“He didn’t know what it was like to be drunk,” Robinson said in Withnail and Us. The director coerced Grant into drinking an entire bottle of champagne, and then having some vodka. But he immediately fell ill. “I’d have a drink and be violently sick, but I kept forcing it down so by the next morning I was drunk and then I passed out,” Grant told The Evening Standard Magazine. “I woke up 24 hours later.”

“He always described it in his memoir as this Persian carpet coming up,” Robinson said. “What he never does mention is the fact that I had to clean it up.”

13. FANS WON’T STOP QUOTING THE MOVIE TO GRANT AND ROBINSON.

“People will not let me forget it,” Grant told the Los Angeles Times. “When I’m working in the States or going through airports or [have] been in godforsaken places where I wouldn’t have expected anybody to have found this movie, there is always one person who has that look in their eye and will come over and say that they know about this movie, as though they’re the only person on the planet that knew about it.”

Robinson has likened the experience to a “colostomy bag.” “Wherever I go it comes bobbing along behind,” he told Esquire UK. “I can’t do anything without people referencing Withnail … still, kids going to university seem to discover it anew every year, or so my correspondence tells me.”

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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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