Introductions Necessary: the Best TV Show Intros

The term "golden age of television" is thrown around a lot in reference to the shows of the 1950s (many of them done live), but in my humble opinion, we're really in the golden age right now. Shows like Mad Men, The Wire and The Sopranos (which kind of started it all, intro-wise as well as show-wise) are proof that television is allowing itself to be smarter; shows like Lost that TV is allowing itself to tell more complicated, ambitious (even baffling) stories; shows like Arrested Development that TV can tell jokes not everyone in the audience will get. The best shows aren't talking down to audiences anymore; they've stopped caring about catering to the lowest common denominator, and in doing so they've elevated the whole art form.

Maybe that sounds a little highfalootin', but heck, even looking at the intros to these shows will tell you that we're dealing with a new kind of animal. Sopranos fans with TIVOs: how many seasons did you find yourself watching the intro every week, even though you could skip through it? Here are some of our recent faves, and a few classics thrown in for good measure.

The Sopranos

Let's start with the one that started it all: The Sopranos. The intro feels so loose and improvised, and slowly it dawns on you that's it's more than a travelogue, it's a story: Tony's going home. The song makes all the difference, and in keeping with the improvised nature of the intro's visuals, it's appropriate that creator David Chase simply heard the song on an LA indie radio station one day (KCRW), called the station to find out what the song was called, and licensed it.


I've never seen an episode of Weeds (I'm told it's great), but I think the intro speaks for itself: it sets the delicate, ironic tone of a show about a woman selling pot to raise her kids in a "perfect" suburban community -- without showing any of the characters, without hitting us over the head. "Little Boxes" is a 1962 song by Malvina Reynolds, who was inspired to write it while driving through suburban Southern California. Cleverly, the show asked a number of other musicians to cover the song, and has used versions of "Little Boxes" by Elvis Costello, Death Cab for Cutie, Regina Spektor and others.

Six Feet Under

Another modern classic. Six Feet Under is a show with a really tricky tone: it's a drama about a funeral home but it's not unrelentingly morbid, and the song here reflects that. It's quirky and hypnotic without being creepy. That every image in the intro is about death is actually pretty subtle (save the tagged toe): the hands coming apart cutting to the blue sky; any more heavy-handed and this would've felt like overkill; any lighter and it would've blown away in the breeze.

Mad Men

This intro doesn't tell a story, like some do, but some of the themes of the show are here: the "protagonist" of the intro (Don Draper?) is literally inscrutable -- he reflects no light -- as befits a character harboring a dark secret; he lives in a world made of mix-n-match clipart; he's in freefall, which can only end in disaster. (If you watched all of season one, you know what I'm talking about.) And I'm ready to put the music on endless repeat in my iPod.


How often does Edward Gorey animate an TV show intro -- or anything, for that matter? So charming, so classic -- perfect.


I didn't love the show, but this intro blows me away. Do they give out Emmys for intros? They should.

Heatvision and Jack

This hilarious show starring Jack Black as an astronaut made "smartest man on Earth" by exposure to "inappropriate levels of sunlight" and his talking motorcycle/former roommate (voiced by Owen Wilson) is one of the funniest TV show concepts I've seen. Too bad it never got picked up -- but the first episode, and its hilarious intro, will live on forever. It owes a clear debt to The Six Million Dollar Man and its ilk. (But let's face it, I just like saying "ilk.")

The Simpsons
You've all seen it so many times, posting it here would be redundant. At the same time, not mentioning it would be a sin.

The Twilight Zone

Nothing set the mood like the intro to the Twilight Zone. Even if the episode to follow was cheezy (as many were), the intro always gave me goosebumps.You may now argue with me in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]