Original image

11 TV Theme Songs Not-So-Obviously Sung by the Star

Original image

Everyone knows Will Smith sang the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Reba McEntire's vocals are obviously hers when you listen to her show's theme. But what about all those other stars who supported their TV series beyond their acting duties? Here's a list of 11 stars who stepped up and sang their shows' theme songs.

1. Frasier

Composer Bruce Miller had more obstacles than one would expect in composing the closing theme song for Frasier. The producers were rather vague in their directions, telling him they didn’t want the lyrics to directly reference the characters or the plot of the show. So when lyricist Darryl Phinnesse sent over his lyrics, Miller was confused by the phrase, “Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs.” Phinnesse explained these were metaphors for the patients Dr. Crane spoke with on his radio show. After finally finishing the theme composition, Miller hoped Mel Tormé would sing it, but the producers insisted on star Kelsey Grammer. Though Miller didn’t get his ideal singer, in the end he agreed that Grammer’s interpretation worked.

2. Gimme a Break!

Asking musical theater veteran Nell Carter to sing her show’s theme song was really a no-brainer. Carter was a Broadway star, and her stage work got her the role on the '80s hit Gimme a Break!

The series wasn't her first TV work, either. Carter won an Emmy for her role in the televised production of Ain't Misbehavin' (she won a Tony for the stage version, too).

3. 227

After her scene-stealing role as the sassy maid on The Jeffersons, Marla Gibbs got her own show227. Gibbs’ daughter produced the play version of 227, and the elder Gibbs worked with network executives to sell a TV-friendly adaptation, which was eventually purchased by NBC. Acting as more than just its star, Gibbs was also a co-producer on the show. There was little on set that she didn’t involve herself in—be it casting, supervising scripts, or co-writing/singing the theme song.

4. Bored to Death

Being a former member of the band Phantom Planet, it was only appropriate that Jason Schwartzman sang the theme for his show Bored to Death. Schwartzman tried to compose the song while working on the film Funny People, but found himself too busy. In email exchanges with HBO executives, Schwartzman would invent aspects of the theme even though he hadn’t had a chance to sit down and write it yet. Finally, when it came time to show HBO his work, Schwartzman looked at his old emails and came up with the theme in 10 minutes.

5. Walker, Texas Ranger

Chuck Norris thought “Eyes of a Ranger” would be the perfect theme song for his new show Walker, Texas Ranger. He wanted his friend Randy Travis should sing it, but CBS had a different idea: The network suggested Norris sing the theme himself. It took 12 hours in the studio working with a sound engineer and producer to get the song right. Thanks to audio technology (and having certain lines spoken), they figured out a way to make it work.

6. Baywatch

Life was good for David Hasselhoff in 1990. Married and with a child on the way, his personal life was going as well as his music career in Europe. This was also the year Baywatch launched on NBC. Though the show got cancelled after one season, Hasselhoff saw potential and decided to step up as executive producer for its revival. Being a producer has certain perks—Hasselhoff assigned himself to sing the closing theme song for the massive pop-culture phenomenon.

7. A Fine Romance

The 1980s British series A Fine Romance starred real-life spouses Judi Dench and Michael Williams. The show took its name from a song featured in the 1936 film Swing Time, and Dench recorded a version for TV. When A Fine Romance premiered, Dench was a 25-year veteran of the stage, but the show turned her into a household name in the United Kingdom.

8. 21 Jump Street

Johnny Depp may have shot to fame after his work on 21 Jump Street, but one could argue that Holly Robinson Peete was the biggest deal on the show at the time. Aside from staying with the series through all five seasons, she lent her vocals to the theme song. In fairness to Depp, he and Peter DeLuise sang the “Jump” back-up vocals—if those moments can count as singing.

9. New Tricks

The British series New Tricks follows three former police officers as they solve cold cases. One of the stars, Dennis Waterman, sings the show’s theme. Singing a TV show's theme is nothing new for Waterman; he's done it so often that Little Britain had a regular sketch that parodied this fact.

10. Alice

Alice, the television adaptation of the film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, tells the story of a widow who tries to pursue her dreams of becoming a singer in California but ends up in Phoenix. Like some of the other stars on this list, star Linda Lavin appeared on Broadway prior to her television work. But the producers decided that the show shouldn't feature any singing by Alice and instead would focus on her life as a waitress in Phoenix, so the only substantial singing Lavin did for the show was its theme song.

11. The Dukes of Hazzard

The Dukes of Hazzard's theme song may be a slight bend of the rules for this list, but even though he didn't star, Waylon Jennings did provide the show's narration. Jennings recorded two versions of the song “Good Ol' Boys,” one for TV and one for radio. One of the show's actual stars, John Schneider, provided the song’s “Yee-haws.”

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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!

Original image
Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
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]