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9 Game Show Stories Worth Retelling

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There's something intriguing about watching someone answer a question, or spin a wheel, or pick a suitcase. That's why game shows have been around for nearly three-quarters of a century. Here are some of our favorite stories from game show lore.


The first game show ever broadcast was Spelling Bee, a BBC program that premiered on May 14, 1938. Host Freddie Grisewood dressed as a schoolteacher and asked guests to spell words. Advertisers flocked to support the program, but it received terrible reviews, as Spelling Bee was widely regarded as the most boring show on television. As Independent columnist Thomas Sutcliffe said in 2000, "One of the few happy consequences of the Second World War [was] that it took Spelling Bee off air, making the world safe for more sophisticated entertainment."

Truth or Consequences was the first TV game show in the United States, airing as a one-time experiment in 1941. But the show did not appear again until 1950, when television had caught on commercially. The CBS Television Quiz was the first television game show to be broadcast regularly. It premiered on July 2, 1941, and ran until July 1, 1942.


You probably know about the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, but not every winner had the answers before showtime. One of the biggest legitimate winners of that era was a young psychology professor from Columbia named Dr. Joyce Brothers.

She had given up teaching to raise her newborn daughter, and in an effort to supplement the family income, Joyce applied to be a contestant on The $64,000 Question. She chose boxing as her field of expertise, and by memorizing sources that included a boxing encyclopedia, Joyce Brothers became the only woman to win the top prize.

Two years later, she appeared on the spin-off, The $64,000 Challenge, where experts were brought in to quiz contestants in their selected field. Brothers' knowledge of the sweet science was too much for the seven boxing experts; she answered each question correctly, bringing her total earnings to $134,000.


Why does Jeopardy! require contestants to give their answers in the form of a question? Well, according to show producer Merv Griffin, the idea came from his wife Julann. Merv was brainstorming ideas for new game shows, and his wife mentioned that there hadn't been a successful Q&A game since the quiz show scandals. Julann suggested Merv switch things up a bit, giving the answers to the contestants and letting them come up with the questions. Merv loved the idea, and so did NBC.


When Let's Make a Deal began, studio audience members wore their regular clothing. A few weeks into the series, someone brought a sign to get Monty Hall's attention. The sign read, "Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, I came here to deal with you." It worked, as Monty chose the player to be a contestant. As time went on, more people brought signs, and later wacky hats. The costumes and signs became a part of the show and got crazier and crazier as the years went on.


I think it's safe to say that host Chuck Barris did not take NBC's cancellation of The Gong Show well. On the final episode, Barris appeared as a contestant, singing Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It," and he even gave the camera the finger. (NBC censored the gesture.)


During its very long run, The Dating Game had many celebrities compete to be selected to go on an all-expenses-paid date. These celebrities included Steve Martin, Suzanne Somers and Ron Howard. But there were some unique celebrity daters as well. Also appearing on the show were Paul Reubens (as Pee Wee Herman), Murray Langston (as The Unknown Comic), Groucho Marx, and on the 1972 Christmas show, H.R. PufnStuf made an appearance. But I'm very sorry to report that I don't know if he won the date.


Using the pause button on his VCR, a man named Michael Larson discovered that the "random patterns" on the Press Your Luck game board were not random at all, and he was actually able to memorize the sequences. When he was on the show, he used this information to stop the board exactly where he wanted. On the single game Michael appeared, he played 35 consecutive times without hitting a Whammy, and ended up earning over $110,000 in cash and prizes. When CBS investigated, they decided that figuring out the patterns was not cheating and let him keep his winnings.


You may know that John Carpenter was the first contestant to win the million dollar jackpot on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? But do you know the name of the first contestant who was booed by the audience? As it turns out, it was the same contestant. This happened when Regis introduced Carpenter and mentioned his employer "“ the IRS. And to make things worse, he worked as a collections agent.


On an episode of The Price is Right that aired December 16, 2008, a perfect Showcase bid occurred for only the second time in the show's history. But it was the first time since the Double Showcase Rule went into effect, so the contestant won both showcases. When it happened, the show's producers and host Drew Carey were suspicious of the activities of certain audience members during the bidding. Because of this, there was a 45-minute delay between the showcase presentation and actual reveal. In interviews, the lucky (or very skilled) contestant Terry Kniess stated he did not cheat, but was a studious viewer who had watched the show closely for years.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Stephen Missal
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]