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27 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Unsolved Mysteries

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CBS

Join me. Perhaps you will learn some things you didn't know about the wonderfully spooky Unsolved Mysteries, a show that still creeps people out to this day.

1. IT STARTED AS A SERIES OF SPECIALS.

The three specials, called Missing… Have You Seen This Person?, were hosted by David Birney and his wife Meredith Baxter and aired on NBC in April 1986. The specials were so successful that producers Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove decided to broaden the scope of the show to include all kinds of mysteries.

2. IT WASN’T ALWAYS HOSTED BY ROBERT STACK.

When what would become the pilot episode of Unsolved Mysteries (but was then just a special) debuted on January 20, 1987, it was hosted by Raymond Burr. Karl Malden helmed the next two specials, and then Stack took over hosting duties, narrating the next few specials and the weekly episodes until the show went off the air in 2002. Later, when the show was revived, Dennis Farina took over hosting duties. (Stack had passed away in 2003.)

3. IN EARLY EPISODES, THE SHOW DIDN'T USE ACTORS IN THE REENACTMENTS.

According to director David Vassar, who directed 100 segments of the show, "in the early episodes, if there were any reenactments, we actually had the real people play themselves." That's why, he said in DVD commentary, "the acting of these first seasons when we were just getting our feet wet was not up to snuff. As we went through the seasons we were able to pay top dollar and get good people, so it just got better and better."

4. AND THERE'S AN EASY WAY TO TELL IF THE ACTORS WERE BAD.

"This is an Unsolved Mysteries hallmark, and it’s a secret," Vassar said in DVD commentary, "but if the narrator talks a lot, and the actors don’t talk at all, it means the acting is really pretty bad, and the narrator is going to cover everything up. If there’s everything out in the clear between the actors, it means the actors were usually pretty good. So the game was, how many seconds of the sync sound takes could you get to play in the open? The more sync you got to play in the open, the better the scene. Pretty simple."

5. THE REENACTMENTS WEREN'T THE SHOW'S MOST IMPORTANT COMPONENT, THOUGH.

"The interviews were so important to the way Unsolved Mysteries was produced," Cosgrove said. "People would think that the most important thing was the recreations, but really, having articulate people who can summon up the emotions of what it felt like [was key]." Said director Keva Rosenfeld, "You trusted the interviews. If you didn’t have that, you didn’t have a good episode."

6. THE SHOW'S DIRECTORS CAME FROM DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING.

"We were all used to real life," Vassar said, "and in the first couple of seasons, it shows. Only occasionally had we worked with actors, and if we did, we worked with actors as hosts because they were hosting a documentary we were making." In the beginning seasons, the show shot with a small crew, too: "On the first season, it was basically director, a director of photography, an assistant photographer, a sound man, a producer, and lighting or grip guy," Vassar said. "There were five or six of us, trying to make these little movies. It was like silent films in the 1900s. We did everything ourselves."

7. IT WAS CHEAP TO MAKE.

In the early ‘90s, an hourlong scripted drama cost about $1.5 million per episode. Cosgrove told the Baltimore Sun that Unsolved Mysteries could be made for 25 to 40 percent of that cost. “If you're the president of NBC Entertainment, which show are you going to buy?” the Sun asked. “The one that costs $375,000 to make and finishes 11th in overall ratings or the one that costs $1.5 million to make and finishes 40th?”

8. STACK COMPARED UNSOLVED MYSTERIES TO THEATER.

"We're balancing two needs here," Stack told the LA Times in 1990. "We're trying to produce theater and we're trying to do a public service."

Stack’s stage comparisons didn’t end there: He saw his duty as host, according to Cosgrove, as akin to the stage manager of Our Town. The three-act play, written by Thornton Wilder, takes place in the small town of Grover’s Corners and features stories from a period between the years of 1901 and 1913. The stage manager served as the narrator.

9. THE SHOW’S FOUR-SEGMENT FORMAT WAS A DESIGN TO GET VIEWERS.

The show’s segments covered a number of themes, including Murder, Missing Persons, Wanted Fugitives, UFOs, Ghosts, The Unexplained (Paranormal), Missing Heirs, Amnesia, Fraud, and more. Each show consisted of four segments, plus an update on an older case. "Almost every show has an unexplained death in it, and almost every show has a lost love story," Meurer told the LA Times. "Then we'll mix and match in there a legend or a gold mine, or we'll put in one of our UFO stories."

“The idea,” Cosgrove said in DVD commentary, “was to have four different segments in four different areas so people would find something that they liked.” 

10. THE SPOOKY THEME MUSIC WAS COMPOSED BY GARY MALKIN.

Unsolved Mysteries’ original goosebump-inducing theme was written by Gary Malkin, who also served as the show’s main composer. “One of the things that really worked was the music,” Cosgrove said. “I had a lot of friends whose kids would run out the room because the music scared them so much.” Producer Raymond Bridgers agreed: “The music was so distinctive that you didn’t even have to be in the room to know that Unsolved Mysteries was on,” he said. The theme was updated four times (you can hear the 1995 version here), and when the show was revived in 2008, it came back with a new theme (and new logo) altogether.

11. IT PULLED IN GREAT RATINGS…

In 1990, the show ranked #11 for all TV series that year. “Once a sleeper, the reality series hosted by Robert Stack, former star of The Untouchables, now is just a flat-out smash,” the LA Times wrote two years later. “In the last four weeks, for instance, the unshowy but rock-solid series has demonstrated its clout—ranking 3rd, 16th, 8th and 10th in the ratings.”

12. ...AND WAS NOMINATED FOR SIX EMMYS.

The category was the Outstanding Informational Series, and Unsolved Mysteries was nominated in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1995. Unfortunately, the show didn’t win, losing out to PBS’s Nature (1989), Smithsonian World (1990), The Civil War (1991), TNT’s MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992), PBS’s Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers (1993), and PBS’s Baseball and NBC’s TV Nation (1995).

13. PRODUCERS HAVE SOME IDEAS ABOUT WHY THE SHOW WAS SO SUCCESSFUL.

Number one, of course, was Robert Stack, whose poker-faced delivery could send chills up anyone’s spine. “Bob’s contributions were immense, really impossible to calculate,” Cosgrove said in a tribute to the actor after Stack’s death in 2003. “His fame and charisma helped attract an audience.” Said Bridges: “No one could deliver a spooky line like Robert Stack.”

Number two: Curiosity. "People are fascinated by the idea that they might be living next door to one of these people, and might be able to help find them," Meurer told the LA Times in 1990.

And number three: “One of the things that attracted people to the show,” Cosgrove said, was that “they wanted to be scared.”

14. THANKS TO JACK THE RIPPER, THERE WAS AN UNSOLVED MYSTERIES HALLOWEEN SPECIAL.

In its first year on the air, Unsolved Mysteries had a Halloween special—an entire hour devoted to ghosts. "Bob was pretty skeptical at this point about doing an entire hour about ghosts," Cosgrove said on DVD commentary. "He definitely, I don’t think, thought it was a great idea for us to change the formula of having four segments of different categories for this Halloween special. It was a little risky doing an hour on one topic."

NBC had asked the producers to create a one hour special, Cosgrove said, because the network "had gotten wind that there was going to be a Jack the Ripper special in syndication, one of those live event specials, that revealed the secret identity of Jack the Ripper at the end of the show. And they said, 'We want you to come up with a stunt program on Halloween.' But we said, 'Wait, we’re the people producing the Jack the Ripper special—we don't want to do that!' And they said 'We don’t care!' So we came up with this, which clobbered the Jack the Ripper special."

After this, though, the show would occasionally do single-topic episodes.

15. THE SHOW ONCE BLEW UP A CHURCH.

The segment "Lucky Choir" tells the story of a choir that met to practice every Wednesday night at 7:25pm. Except one night, when every choir member was late—and, as a result, avoided an explosion at 7:27pm that surely would have killed them. The producers chose a church in Unadilla, Nebraska, that was slated for demolition, and planned an explosion. They flew a special effects expert to the site and surrounded the church with five cameras framed by plywood boxes that would protect the gear and the cameramen. "We were supposed to cave in the roof, and we framed [the shot] slightly above the roof," Rosenfeld, who directed the segment, recalled. "[The special effects guy] blew it up way bigger than we expected. A fireball went into the air, probably a quarter mile. We were all scared."

Shrapnel speared the plywood boxes around the cameras and their operators, and debris rained down for 20 minutes. "The cameraman walked up to the macho special effects guy, pretty angry, and said 'What did you put in there?' And this macho guy goes, 'Ninety-five sticks of dynamite and three 10 gallon tubs of gasoline,'" Rosenfeld remembers. "We immediately rushed the site to film the scene because we couldn’t recreate that. We knew we weren't doing that again."

16. A NUMBER OF STARS GOT THEIR BREAKS ON UNSOLVED MYSTERIES.

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In his first professional acting gig, Matthew McConaughey appeared as a (shirtless, of course) murder victim in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. "They got the guy," the Academy Award winner told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year. "They found him around Bryan, Texas, about two weeks after that show." Virginia Madsen also co-hosted the show with Stack in 1999. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines, MADtv’s Stephnie Weir, Saw’s Ned Bellamy, and Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim also appeared in episodes.

17. ONE OF THE SHOW'S MOST POPULAR SEGMENTS WAS ALSO TOUGH TO SHOOT.

It was called "Mystery Hum," about the Taos Hum, so named because the low-frequency sound began to be reported in Taos, New Mexico, in 1992. (In other parts of the world, it's called the Bristol Hum, the Bondi Hum, or just "The Hum.") Director Bob Wise said the segment was particularly difficult to film because there weren't many visual elements for the audience—and the hum's low frequencies didn't come through televisions well. Still, he said, "we got a lot of response to this, because a lot of people around the country and the world are hearing this same thing, and there’s a whole network of people who hear this thing."

18. THE SHOW USED A VISUAL EFFECTS COMPANY CALLED AREA 51.

That company was tasked with creating the show’s effects, from sparking clocks to creepy ghosts to, appropriately, aliens. In fact, the “Allagash Abduction” segment featured some of Cosgrove’s favorite effects created by Area 51. “We had such detailed paintings and drawings from [the abductees], and we based our special effects session on their drawings and paintings, not just from the descriptions,” Bridgers said.

19. BUT SOMETIMES, THEY DID EFFECTS THE OLD FASHIONED WAY.

In Unsolved Mysteries' early years, visual effects weren't very advanced and the show didn't have a huge budget for them, either. "When you’re shooting ghost stories, it gets kind of tricky if you want to do it without special effects," director Bob Wise said in DVD commentary. The crew was forced to get creative: For the episode "Gordy's Ghosts," Wise chose to give the ghosts an overblown white look. "We put a lot of light on [the actor's] face," Wise said. "The poor little girl could barely keep her eyes open." For another sequence that showed a ghost lying down next to the little girl on the bed, the crew took off the mattress and had the actor lie on boxes, and pulled on springs underneath to achieve the effect. Ghostly effects in other episodes were created in camera using double exposure and projection.

20. ROBERT STACK—AND THE PRODUCERS—WERE PRETTY SKEPTICAL OF THE PARANORMAL STUFF.

Though Stack was, in Cosgrove’s words, “terribly proud of our contributions to catching bad guys,” he was pretty skeptical of the show’s paranormal and extraterrestrial segments. “In some of those narration sessions, he’d be like, 'Come on, Raymond!'” Bridgers recalled. But even Stack found some stories—like the “Allagash Abductions” segment—pretty compelling. “[That] one even nailed Bob,” Cosgrove said. “[It] got under his skin. These guys were so normal and credible and stood to gain nothing by making up a story.”

As many as 80 percent of the supernatural cases were dismissed outright, according to Bridgers. But, like Stack, the producers found themselves swayed by certain stories. “When we pick a ghost story, we’re always mindful of those stories where there seems to be a historical reason for there to be a haunting,” Cosgrove said in the DVD commentary for “Black Hope Curse.” “I don’t think any of us, when we started Unsolved Mysteries, really believed in ghosts ... we’ve all had to take a second look at our preconceived notions after the experiences that we’ve had. Initially we’d be very skeptical of stories, but when you find that there is a story, that there are facts and history and accounts from the past that match up to what people see ... it takes your breath away, and makes the stories a lot more credible.”

21. NOT EVERYONE WANTED THEIR MYSTERY ON UNSOLVED MYSTERIES.

In the early days of Unsolved Mysteries, it could be tough to get people who'd had supernatural experiences to appear on the show—they were afraid, Cosgrove said, of exposing themselves to potential ridicule. "Back then, people didn’t want to come out of the woodwork to say that they’d seen ghosts," he said. "It was really tough to get people to agree to do the interviews." Still, there seemed to be some therapeutic value in it for the interviewees. "Having us talk to them and pay such close attention to them and help them explain it to the public seems to help them," Cosgrove said.

22. THEY FILMED MANY OF STACK’S SEGMENTS AT A MASONIC TEMPLE.

The temple was located in Pasadena, California. “We liked it as a set because it evoked ghostly spirits and things like that,” Cosgrove said.

23. UNSOLVED MYSTERIES RAN ON FOUR NETWORKS.

The show spent 10 seasons on NBC before moving to CBS, where it aired for two seasons before being cancelled. It later ran on Lifetime and on Spike TV.

24. THE REALITY SHOW SPAWNED TV MOVIES...

Victim of Love: The Shannon Mohr Story, which aired in September 1993, was based on an Unsolved Mysteries segment from November 1987. In the movie, Mohr (Sally Murphy) marries Dave Davis (Dwight Schultz) in a quickie Vegas ceremony. She soon discovers that he’s a pathological liar who neglected to tell her about his first wife. When Mohr dies of what appears to be a horse riding accident, her parents become suspicious. John J. O’Connor, who reviewed the movie for the New York Times, wrote,

The parents embark on a 10-year campaign to seek justice. A journalist and a detective prove most helpful. Confronted with mounting evidence against him, Dave flees the country, finally ending up in American Samoa. How can he be found? There's one possibility left, says the detective: "Unsolved Mysteries." And so we find the actors in this movie recreating the interview the real parents gave on the "Unsolved Mysteries" broadcast. The repackaging turns out to be an ingenious plug for the series itself. … Actually, Dave wasn't captured for more than two years after the original telecast. Credit, it seems, must go to the reruns. Marketing comes full circle.

Other TV movies followed: Escape From Terror: The Teresa Stamper Story (1995), Voice from the Grave (1996), and The Sleepwalker Killing (1997).

25. ...AND A DRAMATIZED SPIN-OFF.

It was called Final Appeal: From the Files of Unsolved Mysteries. According to a synopsis from the New York Times, the show was “a reality-based series based on the NBC series, Unsolved Mysteries. [It] examines real-life cases of potential injustice involving convicted persons who, according to impartial observers, may be innocent.” Stack hosted. Final Appeal premiered in September 1992 and was cancelled shortly after.

26. MANY OF THE MYSTERIES ACTUALLY GOT SOLVED.

“Join me. Perhaps you may be able to help solve a mystery,” Stack said at the beginning of each episode. The show asked its viewers to call police or a tipline if they had any information on a crime, missing person, or lost loved one—and boy, did they. The LA Times wrote about one case that appeared on Unsolved Mysteries in 1988:

It was no mystery to Jerry Strickland and Melissa K. Munday when police showed up at their door in Moses Lake, Wash. Hours earlier they had been watching television as the show "Unsolved Mysteries" mentioned them in connection with the unsolved robbery and slaying of a gas station worker near Pontiac, Mich. Police got about 15 calls from area residents after the program aired, and Officer John Mays and Sgt. Dennis Duke arrived to find the couple waiting for them, Mays said.

Unsolved Mysteries covered more than one thousand cases, and according to its website, more than half of the episodes featuring wanted fugitives have been solved. Over 100 separated families have been reunited—including LeeAnn Robinson, who ran away from her father’s home when she was 16 and found her brother and sister years later through the show. "I was standing there in the studio (after the program ran) and this guy came over and said, 'I have your sister on the phone,'" Robinson said. "I just started to cry. I cried for a week."

27. AND YOU CAN STILL HELP SOLVE A MYSTERY.

Though the show isn’t currently in production, visitors can submit information that might pertain to an unsolved crime on the show’s website.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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