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A Brief History of Jeopardy!

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The long-running game show is adored by millions. But there was a time—and another time, and one more time—when questions swirled around its survival.

When he welcomed a reporter into his Southern California home, the 44-year-old Alex Trebek was on a roll. Trebek was an industry veteran. For years, he’d worked as a newscaster and sportscaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation while trying to kick-start his career as a TV personality. So far, nothing had stuck. But at the start of the 1984 TV season, he landed something promising—a job as the host of Jeopardy!

Everett Collection

Unfortunately, the program had a checkered history. Ratings had soared in the 1960s and early 1970s, but the show had also been canceled—twice. Now the high-paying trivia contest was being updated for a new generation. And as Trebek had quickly learned, Jeopardy!’s biggest hurdle was convincing station managers that a smart game show deserved premium air time. It was a hard argument to make. Programmers knew that established game shows like The Price Is Right and Family Feud could reliably draw a mass audience. But a show this cerebral was a gamble. In several major markets, including New York, Jeopardy! was relegated to a 2 a.m. time slot, a ratings wasteland. Trebek and the producers were pressured to dumb down the program and make the clues easier so viewers wouldn’t feel left out. Still, he remained optimistic.

As he and the reporter chatted, Trebek suavely flipped on his TV. At the time, Los Angeles was an outlier, airing the show at the decent hour of 3 p.m. But instead of seeing himself trot out to greet the audience, Trebek saw Jack Klugman. The local affiliate had replaced Jeopardy! with reruns of Quincy, M.E. “The fact that Quincy was a coroner seemed appropriate,” Trebek would later write. His optimism instantly disappeared.

What a difference three decades make. Trebek no longer worries about job security. But before viewers grew accustomed to shouting answers at the screen, its host and crew had to resolve one nagging question: Was Jeopardy! too smart for its own good?

Creating Jeopardy!

In the early days of TV, game shows were a network’s secret weapons. The programs were cheap to produce, with no highly paid actors, and they attracted rabid fan bases—everyday people who could identify with the ecstasy that came from winning a new oven. According to Olaf Hoerschelmann, Ph.D., director of the school of mass communication at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, “One successful quiz show could get a 50 percent ratings share or more—half of all households watching.”

At the height of the genre’s popularity in the 1950s, Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question became national obsessions. City streets, Hoerschelmann says, were quiet when they aired. But with ratings and revenue at stake, producers became hungry for melodrama, so they manufactured suspense by feeding answers to contestants. It was all fun and games until 1956, when one contestant blew the whistle, and Congress stepped in to investigate.

Having broken the audience’s trust—and inviting a federal law that prohibited the fixing of game shows—the genre all but disappeared. This didn’t sit well with Merv Griffin, a television host, producer, and game show developer for NBC. On a flight to New York in 1963, Griffin was discussing his worry with his wife, Julann: How could he convince a network to take another chance on trivia?

“Why not just give them the answers to start with?” Julann mused.

She was joking, but Griffin’s eyes lit up. Back in his office, he outlined a template: 10 subject categories, each containing 10 answers of varying difficulty, with a dollar value assigned to each. Griffin invited friends over to his Central Park West apartment for run-throughs. Although he wasn’t the first to use the inverted answer format—1941’s CBS Television Quiz had a similar premise—Griffin was sure he could create something special. He called his show What’s the Question? and presented it to NBC executives.

The network was intrigued, but skittish. To convince the execs, Griffin reminded them that, unlike in decades past, there was little money at stake. Instead of tens of thousands of dollars in prize money, some clues were worth just $10. Before long, he got the green light.

As Griffin refined the format, the network wanted to ensure that the show was compelling enough. What the game needed, one executive suggested, was “more jeopardies.” “I didn’t hear another word he said,” Griffin later wrote. “All I could think of was the name: Goodbye What’s the Question?, hello Jeopardy!” After months of tinkering, he presented his show for final approval.

The game was streamlined into six categories. The rounds moved from Jeopardy, to Double Jeopardy, with harder questions worth more cash. In NBC’s boardroom, Griffin pasted envelopes onto poster board and filled them with index cards revealing the answers. He emceed the run-through himself.

“It’s too hard!” Mort Werner, the head of NBC, cried, throwing up his arms in frustration. He hadn’t gotten one question right. Werner’s assistant leaned over to him and said, “Buy it.” 

Soon enough, Griffin had ironed out the details. Art Fleming, a game show novice, was selected to host, and for background music, Griffin composed a rather suspenseful tune. But the real proof of concept was the ratings, and Jeopardy! found itself in an unlucky spot, pitted against The Dick Van Dyke Show. Jeopardy! made its debut at 11:30 a.m. EST on March 20, 1964, and it was an almost instant hit. Within weeks, it had grabbed 40 percent of the viewers in its time slot. People were playing along on college campuses and during lunch breaks. Despite its success, NBC felt less demanding clues would reap greater rewards: They wanted 13-year-olds to be able to keep up. Griffin refused. He wanted the program to stay smart. This was a competition between adults, and he saw little sense in diluting a game meant to highlight intellect.

“Griffin’s genius in designing games was, if you’re changing channels and hit one, you don’t need anything explained to you,” says Bob Harris, a multi-time contestant and strategy expert who penned a memoir about his experiences, Prisoner of Trebekistan. “The shows that have failed spend half their time explaining what’s happening.” Griffin’s instincts were spot-on. Between 1964 and 1975, Jeopardy! taped more than 2,500 episodes. The show regularly beat reruns and soap operas.

Then, in 1975, the network abruptly pulled the plug. Despite solid ratings, NBC wanted to appeal to a younger, female demographic. The show was reinstated in 1978, then canceled again less than six months into its run. Daytime soaps had come to dominate afternoon time slots. Worse, network research indicated that viewers weren’t interested in another incarnation of Jeopardy! The show was at risk of becoming a footnote in Griffin’s career.

Jeopardy! in Jeopardy

Everett Collection

In 1983, Griffin met with executives at King World Productions about doing a syndicated version of Jeopardy! Though the show had fizzled, Griffin’s career had not. Wheel of Fortune—a game that had grown out of his childhood passion for Hangman—had become a monster hit by the fall of 1983. Griffin had other successes too, including Click and Ruckus. But for all his hits, Griffin couldn’t let go of Jeopardy! He still believed his quiz show had legs. Luckily, King World execs agreed, and they had reason for their optimism: The board game Trivial Pursuit, which had debuted in 1981, had grown into a phenomenon, proving consumers had a healthy appetite for trivia. Additionally, they knew if they paired Jeopardy! with Wheel, it would be easier to sell networks on the programming block.

As Griffin envisioned updating his show for the 1980s, a decade blinking wildly with VCRs, video games, and MTV, Griffin dreamed up a glossier, flashier show—one with a hightech game board made up of video monitors instead of paper cards. Decades removed from the quiz scandals, he also wanted higher monetary stakes, with individual clues worth up to $2000. The original theme song would be rerecorded with synthesizers.

Fleming was the revamp’s earliest casualty. King World suggested that Griffin hire the younger, more polished Trebek to helm the faster-moving game show. “He’s like a pilot for the show,” Harris says. “He knows how to keep the tone right and when to lighten it up.”

Trebek’s charms notwithstanding, King World executives parroted the same concerns as their predecessors, advising Griffin to dumb down the questions. Again, Griffin refused. But this time, he had an ally in Trebek.

“We were getting feedback saying, ‘It’s too tough,’ ” Trebek recalled later in an interview. “I told them, ‘Well, I’ll ease up on the material.’ And I didn’t ease up.”

Rather than placate the syndicate, Griffin and Trebek raised the intensity of the game. Runners-up would no longer be allowed to keep their winnings. The original show proved that players sometimes wanted just enough to make a specific purchase and would stop buzzing in once they met their goal. (One contestant needed money for an engagement ring and stood silent as soon as he earned enough.) Now, players would be tempted to wager on Final Jeopardy, ensuring the entire game would remain suspenseful.

When Jeopardy! reappeared in the fall of 1984, the makeover wasn’t noticed by many. The show, perceived as a warmed-over relic of the 1970s, was stuck in deadend time slots. Then, shortly after its debut, New York’s ABC station tried it out in the early evening. Ratings immediately improved. Other affiliates noticed and followed suit. While Jeopardy! was still a poor fit for daytime, its pace proved perfectly suited for evening airings.

Trebek suggested viewers could be drawn in better if they felt more like participants. In its earlier iterations, contestants could ring in before the host finished giving the answer, which made for a frenzied game. By 1985, the show prevented players from hitting the buzzer until Trebek finished reading so the home audience could shout out answers too. As they tweaked the formula, King World and Griffin realized they’d struck gold. The faster pace, the syndicate’s patience, and Trebek’s tailor-made emcee skills all turned Jeopardy! into a permanent and profitable fixture on the dial.

Five years later, Jeopardy! was being watched by more than 15 million people daily, and 250,000 applicants applied each season for one of the show’s 500 available slots. As the show went on, its rituals—the pervasive theme music, phrasing answers in the form of a question—became cultural touchstones.

A last significant tweak was the removal of the five-game limit for returning champions. With that ceiling removed, Ken Jennings famously went on an unprecedented 74-show winning streak in 2004, garnering headlines across the country and further embedding the show in the cultural consciousness. Jennings’s celebrity, Hoerschelmann says, meant that the quiz show genre had come full circle. “It was no accident the show got more popular once it lifted the limit,” he says.

The current 2013–14 season is Jeopardy!’s 30th in syndication. Pulling in an average of 25 million viewers a week, it shows no signs of slowing—though Trebek has hinted he’ll step down in 2016. While producers will face a challenge finding a successor, it would seem a sure bet that Jeopardy! will continue to celebrate a brand of cognitive aptitude rarely found on television. In the smartphone era, when information is instantly accessible, it’s more impressive than ever to watch someone conjure answers without Wi-Fi.

Jeopardy! is a very classic hero’s journey,” Harris, the former player, says of the show’s enduring appeal. “The contestant is achieving goals with escalating stakes and obstacles. There’s even a three-act structure. The only difference between this and what Joseph Campbell laid out is there are three heroes.” Four, if you count the viewer at home, a pen standing in for a buzzer, realizing they know a lot more than they thought they did.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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