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28 Fun Facts About The Wonder Years

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20th Century Fox / corgi

Here are some things you might not have known about the award-winning—and much-beloved—1960s-set coming-of-age tale.

1. THE BASIC CONCEPT BEGAN AS A FILM SCRIPT.

“We played around with writing a screenplay that used narration as a device,” series co-creator Carol Black told New York magazine in 1989. “We just started to think that there was a lot of potential fun in that ‘cause you can really play with the contrast between the narrator’s point of view and what the characters are doing. And you can go inside their head and expose what they’re really thinking when they’re saying something different … And then we just sort of jumped from there to thinking that effect is accentuated when you have an adult narrator looking back on childhood.” Black created the series with her husband, Neal Marlens; the couple had previously worked on Growing Pains.

2. THE SERIES WAS INSPIRED BY A CHRISTMAS STORY.

From the coming-of-age theme to the use of narration, A Christmas Story inspired the spirit of The Wonder Years. Peter “Ralphie” Billingsley even appeared in the series' final two episodes as one of Kevin’s roommates.

3. ITS LACK OF LAUGH TRACK AND SINGLE CAMERA SETUP WERE REVOLUTIONARY.

The Wonder Years set itself apart from other shows of its time, production-wise, with its single camera setup, use of a narrator, and complete lack of laugh track. “The Wonder Years [showed the television industry] that it’s OK to create a show like that—to take out the laugh track, to try different camera styles—to take a risk,” Josh Saviano told Salon last year.

4. FRED SAVAGE WAS THE OBVIOUS CHOICE FOR KEVIN.

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Casting kids is never an easy task. To help them in finding their lead actor, Marlens and Black interviewed five casting directors for recommendations. All five of them suggested Fred Savage, who at that point was best known for his role in The Princess Bride. “By the time we actually settled on a casting director, we had already resolved that we should see Fred,” Marlens told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988. “Knowing nothing about him, we arranged to screen some unedited footage of a film he was making at the time, Vice Versa … [We saw] a marvelous actor with a natural quality, which essentially means he has no quality at all except being a kid. It sounds funny, but it’s a rare thing to find in a child actor. It’s the same thing we looked for and discovered in Josh Saviano and Danica McKellar.”

5. THE SHOW IS SET IN ANYTOWN, USA.

Though no specific location is ever given for Kevin Arnold’s hometown, that’s not the doing of the series’ creators. Neal Marlens wanted to set The Wonder Years in Huntington, Long Island—his hometown—and additional elements were also pulled from Black’s hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland. But it was at ABC’s insistence that no city or state was ever mentioned. Still, many eagle-eyed watchers have combed through the series for clues—like Jack Arnold’s license plate and Wayne’s driver’s license—that place the show in California, where it was filmed.

6. THE WONDER YEARS PREMIERED AFTER THE SUPER BOWL.

After more than 80 million viewers tuned in to see the Washington Redskins crush the Denver Broncos (final score: 42 to 10) on January 31, 1988, they were treated to the series’ premiere—which Marlens called “a bit of Americana after the quintessential example of Americana.”

7. IT WON ITS FIRST EMMY AFTER JUST SIX EPISODES.

Though it wasn’t an immediate ratings bonanza, The Wonder Years was a critical smash from the get-go. On August 28th—with only six episodes screened—Marlens and Black took home the 1988 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

8. FRED SAVAGE BECAME THE YOUNGEST LEAD ACTOR EMMY NOMINEE.

In 1989, at the age of 13, Fred Savage became the youngest actor to be nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category. He was nominated again in 1990.

9. DANICA MCKELLAR’S TOUGHEST COMPETITION WAS HER SISTER.

When it came down to casting the role of dream girl Winnie Cooper, there were two final contenders: Danica McKellar and her sister, Crystal. “It was practically a tossup,” casting director Mary Buck told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. After choosing Danica for the role, Crystal was hired for the recurring role of Becky Slater, Winnie’s one-time rival for Kevin’s affections.

10. KEVIN AND WINNIE’S FIRST KISS WAS THE REAL THING.

In the series’ premiere episode, Kevin and Winnie share an awkward first kiss, a coming-of-age ritual neither of the young actors had yet to engage in in real life. “The one good thing about getting your first kiss on camera is that you know for sure it’s going to happen,” McKellar recently recalled to ABC News. For his part, Savage called it terrifying. “We were both really scared and nervous and—and—didn't know what was going to happen or … if we were going to do it right.”

11. A MUTUAL CRUSH WAS INEVITABLE.

Though they swear the relationship eventually morphed into a brother-sister sort of bond, both Savage and McKellar admitted to having mutual crushes in People. “I was in love with her for the same reasons every other boy fell in love with her,” said Savage. “You won't meet a sweeter, nicer girl—and she's gorgeous.”

“In the beginning we had a mutual crush,” added McKellar. “Then things went into the teasing stuff and then into a more comfortable, brother-sister thing.”

12. SOME OF KEVIN AND WINNIE’S DIALOGUE WAS LIFTED FROM REAL LIFE.

“Kevin and Winnie’s relationship was, in some ways, defined by my friendship with Fred and some of the things that we would say,” McKellar told Collider. “The writers would actually take lines from things that we were saying to each other, off camera, and put it into the script. There was this whole episode dedicated to, ‘Do you like him, or do you like him, like him?’ That was an expression that he and I used when we were talking about some guy that I had a crush on, in real life. And then, it showed up in a script, a few weeks later. There were a lot of blurred lines.”

13. A GROWTH SPURT CAUSED WINNIE AND KEVIN’S BREAKUP.

Kevin and Winnie’s on-again, off-again romance was one of the series’ key storylines. But on at least one occasion—between the show’s third and fourth seasons—the breakup was more of a practical decision when a growth spurt saw Danica McKellar standing much taller than her sub-five-foot onscreen beau. The couple was kept apart just long enough for Fred Savage to catch up to his co-star’s height.

14. IT WAS DAN LAURIA’S SUGGESTION THAT JACK BE A VET.

“I really didn’t contribute that much, but the one thing I did contribute to the character is that when we were shooting the pilot I said to Neal, ‘Look, I’m a vet. I’m a Vietnam veteran and a Marine, and I think if the story is that I’m a vet, that’d fit the character,’” Dan Lauria recalled to Paste. “Before we even finish the pilot, he said, ‘Well, if we go, Dan, we’re going to make you a Korean War vet to fit the frame.’ And so they did, and it paid off. There were a number of episodes where it was mentioned that I was a veteran and when my daughter left for college I gave her my old duffle bag from the service. We always had the Vietnam War in the background on the TV at the dinner table. So there were actual news clips.”

15. JASON HERVEY’S BROTHER WAS THE REAL WAYNE ARNOLD.

20th Century Fox

“There were so many things that I borrowed from our real life experiences,” Hervey told Uproxx of his brother, Scott. “I’ll give you an example: Juliette Lewis was my girlfriend on the show at the time, and it was the driver’s license episode. We took Fred—I mean, Kevin—to the mall because my mom made us, and I dropped him off at the absolute, absolute furthest end of the mall parking lot and I said to him, ‘Well, technically, this is the mall.’ And when I picked him up, of course, he was already flirting with this girl, and sure enough Wayne pulls up and I tell him to get in the car, and then every time he went to reach for the door, I kept jerking it forward. And obviously, the first day of 7th grade, my brother did that to me in real life, and just embarrassed the hell out of me.”

16. GROWING UP WAS PART OF THE SHOW’S DEMISE.

The Wonder Years was a show about growing up, which is partially what led to its wrapping production after six seasons. “There has always been a question of just how long the wonder years last,” executive producer Bob Brush told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, following the series’ finale. “As the kids were developing and getting older, there were of course new stories to tell, but the tension and constraints of the deadline of the concept of the wonder years were beginning to press on us … When [Fred Savage] became 16 and 17, there were really things he needed to get to that we couldn’t do at 8 p.m., especially with the kind of venerable cachet that the show had obtained with its audience. We would get notes from the network saying, ‘You could do this on any show besides The Wonder Years.'”

17. THE SERIES ENLISTED THE SOPRANOS CREATOR DAVID CHASE’S HELP.

In an effort to breathe a more mature life into the series, producer Ken Topolsky commissioned Sopranos creator David Chase to write a script. “When it’s a suburban kid who has a pretty good life and he’s complaining about mom not letting him do something, you just want to smack him,” Topolowsky told The Wall Street Journal. “That’s when we felt that Kevin’s wonder years were over.” Though he calls Chase’s script “phenomenal” and “one of the best,” its storyline—which included hard drug use—would have been too big a leap for the family-friendly series.

18. DANIEL STERN WASN’T THE ORIGINAL NARRATOR.

Though Daniel Stern’s voice is the adult Kevin Arnold we all know and love, it was Arye Gross who narrated the original pilot. Eventually, the series premiere was re-recorded with Stern.

19. MARILYN MANSON WAS NOT PAUL PFEIFFER.

It’s one of those Internet rumors that never seems to die. But somehow, somewhere, someone decided that Josh Saviano, the actor who played Kevin’s BFF Paul Pfeiffer, was in fact Marilyn Manson. Which is simply not true. Though that hasn’t stopped the shock rocker from getting in on the fun. “I met [Marilyn Manson] once,” Savage recently recalled to ABC News. “He came up to me, and he goes, ‘You know, we worked together.’ I was like, ‘I do. I do know that.’”

20. BUT PAUL PFEIFFER REALLY DID BECOME A LAWYER.

In the series finale, Kevin shares that Paul attended Harvard and became a lawyer. Which isn’t too far off base. In reality, Josh Saviano attended Yale and became a lawyer. He’s a partner in Morrison Cohen’s Corporate Department, where his area of expertise includes “building, protecting, and exploiting celebrity and corporate brands.”

21. FANS WERE DISAPPOINTED THAT KEVIN AND WINNIE DIDN’T END UP TOGETHER.

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Executive producer Bob Brush knew that fans of the series wouldn’t be happy that it didn’t end with Kevin and Winnie’s happily ever after. “Some viewers will be surprised that nothing works out the way your fondest wish would be,” Brush told the Los Angeles Times. “The message I wanted in there is that that’s part of the beauty of life. It’s fine to say, ‘I'd like everything to be just the way it was when I was 15 and I was happy,’ but it seemed more nurturing to me to say that we leave these things behind and we go on to forge new lives for ourselves.”

22. THE LITTLE BOY’S VOICE IN THE FINALE IS DANIEL STERN’S SON.

As the series concludes, the voice of Kevin’s little boy is heard asking his dad to come outside and play catch. The voice is Stern’s son.

23. THE SERIES GAVE A BOOST TO MANY YOUNG ACTORS’ CAREERS.

Juliette Lewis, Jim Caviezel, Alicia Silverstone, Giovanni Ribisi, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, David Schwimmer, Carla Gugino, and John Corbett (then known as Jack) are just a few of the actors who found some of their earliest roles on The Wonder Years. Even Robin Thicke got in on the action, as a young man doing his teenaged best to pick up a girl.

24. JACK ARNOLD DATED MAGGIE SEAVER.

Before The Wonder Years, Marlens and Black had created Growing Pains. Which is how Dan Lauria heard about the role of Jack Arnold. “I had done a part on Growing Pains, and I was going out with Joanna Kerns [who played mom Maggie Seaver on the show] at the time, so I heard about it through her,” Lauria told Paste. “My agent couldn’t get me in, and Joanna said, ‘Well, why don’t you call Neal? He likes you, you guys got along.’ ‘Cause we both grew up on Long Island, so we would tease each other [about] which school was better at sports. And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that, it’s so unprofessional,’ and Joanna went in and actually called Neal, and she came out and said, ‘Neal said be there tomorrow at 10 o’clock. He thinks you’re perfect.’”

25. YOU WON’T HEAR JOE COCKER IF YOU WATCH IT ON NETFLIX OR AMAZON.

Like many rock-heavy shows before it, one of The Wonder Years’ biggest hurdles in coming to DVD has been in clearing the rights to all its music. When the series popped up on digital streaming services a couple years back, its iconic theme song—Cocker’s cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends”—was noticeably absent, replaced with another (far inferior) cover.

26. YOU CAN HEAR JOE COCKER ON THE DVD RELEASE.

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Time Life executives spent two years preparing the series' new DVD release, and securing the rights to Cocker’s theme song was their top priority. “If we couldn’t clear that song, there was no reason to go onward,” Jeffrey Peisch, Head of Video at Time Life, told The Wall Street Journal, noting that the company spent a total of seven figures in order to clear the rights to Cocker’s version of the theme song, along with 284 other songs, for DVD release (totaling 96 percent of the original music).

27. BUT YOU WON’T HEAR THE DOORS.

Among the songs the producers couldn’t get the rights to are The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” and “Light My Fire,” Richie Havens’ “Here Comes the Sun,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” and Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel.”

28. FRED SAVAGE WILL ALWAYS BE KEVIN ARNOLD.

Though he has made the transition from actor to producer and director of shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Party Down, Savage told GQ that “The persona of The Wonder Years is something that's going to be with me forever. And I'm happy for that. It's nothing that I'd ever shy away from, and it makes me feel so good that it's something people still remember and talk about it and think of it so fondly. I think now I've established myself as a director, but starting out, I'd be foolish to think that every opportunity that came after The Wonder Years didn't stem from The Wonder Years. So I owe so much of everything to that show.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
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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]

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