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The Wonderful Stories Behind 6 Classic TV Theme Songs

Many of today's TV shows have dispensed with the traditional theme song in an effort to squeeze in more commercial time, which fills traditional television fans with a sense of melancholy. Does anyone out there still remember a time when a show's theme song told the back-story of the series, or was catchy enough to become a Top-40 hit? As Archie and Edith might sigh, "those were the days." Stroll down memory lane as mental_floss takes a look at the stories behind some of TV's classic theme songs.

1. All in the Family: How Budget Restrictions Turned Actors into Singers

The cozy picture of Archie and Edith Bunker sitting at the piano singing "Those Were the Days" seems so in context with the series, it's hard to picture All in the Family without that opening. However, that homey tableau that seemed so perfectly designed to set the tone for the series was concocted strictly out of necessity. Producer Norman Lear had used up his allotted budget by the time he'd filmed the pilot, leaving no money to hire professional singers or musicians to perform the theme song. Series stars Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton stepped in at the last minute to help him out.

2. Gilligan's Island: Explaining a Show's Premise in a minute (or less!)

Cheers, The Addams Family, and of course, Gilligan's Island, all after the jump.

When producer Sherwood Schwartz first showed network executives his pilot for Gilligan's Island, the suits liked parts of it, but demanded some changes before they bought the series. By the time the first episode aired, new actors had been cast as the Professor, Mary Ann and Ginger and the group was already shipwrecked. In order to explain the premise of the series, Sherwood Schwartz jotted down some lyrics and worked with George Wyle, who came up with the melody and fine-tuned the words to "The Ballad of Gilligan's Island." Their intent was to explain precisely why these seven disparate personalities had ended up shipwrecked on an uncharted tropical island. By the way, it was series star Bob Denver who went to bat for Dawn Wells and Russell Johnson and demanded that the theme song lyrics be revised for the second season from "...and the rest" to "...the Professor and Mary Ann."

3. Happy Days: How Royalty Fees Changed the Show

Happy Days premiered in 1974 to the strains of Bill Haley & His Comets performing their classic "Rock Around the Clock" as the opening theme song. The show became a massive hit, and programmers expected it to have the legs to run in syndication for several seasons. Studio bean counters, however, quickly realized that they might lose money in the deal because of the steep royalties they had to pay for the song. The good news was that Paramount had commissioned (and owned the rights to) the show's closing theme, written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. So beginning with Season Three, the familiar "Sunday, Monday, Happy Days"¦" song was repurposed as the opening theme for the series.

4. How Cheers got its Theme Song

The first collaboration between Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo began in 1981, when they were brought in to write the songs for a proposed Broadway musical called Preppies. One of the first tunes they churned out was "People Like Us." Months later, out of the blue, a Hollywood producer contacted Portnoy; he'd somehow heard a demo tape of "People Like Us" and wanted to use it as the theme to a new TV show scheduled to appear on NBC. Unfortunately, the song contractually belonged to the Preppies folks, and they refused to let it go, especially for use on a [derisive snort] sitcom. Time was running out "“ the airing of the show's pilot was quickly approaching "“ and the duo frantically wrote and submitted five more songs before NBC finally decided that "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" was the perfect fit for their new show, Cheers.

5. Snapping to It: The Addams Family opener

Vic Mizzy is a legend when it comes to TV and film songs; he's the man responsible for everything from the Green Acres theme to the spooky organ theme from the Don Knotts film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. But his most popular composition is undoubtedly the theme song for The Addams Family. Filmways was tight with their production dollars, so Mizzy ended up not only composing the tune, but also singing it. (He recorded his vocals on three separate tracks and then blended them together in the final mix.) Once the song was in the can, it was time to film the opening credits. Mizzy approached director Sidney Lanfield and explained his vision of close-ups of finger-snapping cast members. He added that a "click track" (the steady beat of a metronome on tape) would be required so that the actors could snap on cue. Lanfield basically replied, "What do I know from click tracks? Do it yourself." So Mizzy ended up directing the opening scenes where the cast members impassively stared at the camera while snapping their fingers when prompted.

6. How a pair of Monkees Wannabes Turned Lemons into Lemonade

Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart had a successful track record as a songwriting duo; they'd composed the 1961 hit "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" as well as the theme song for the soap Days of Our Lives. Boyce & Hart were not only songwriters; they were also performers. That led them to audition for parts in a new NBC sitcom based on a rock and roll band. Neither Tommy nor Bobby made the final cut for The Monkees, but their musical ability impressed producers enough for them to be brought on board for a steady gig as the show's chief songwriters. The duo composed the show's theme song "(Hey Hey) We're the Monkees," as well as "Last Train to Clarksville," "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" and 20-some other tunes for the Prefab Four.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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