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Saturday, April 15, 2017

If all the world had a laugh track, nothing would be funnier than elevator music... Aunt Minnie's funeral... the Cubs losing... slipping on a banana peel (wait, that's already funny)...

Nothing makes me feel more duped than to listen to the laugh track behind the Big Bang Theory or even I Love Lucy and think laughing was my idea.

On the other hand, if the whole world had a laugh track, Donald Trump would have us laying in the aisles. (I know, not funny but I... ha ha ha... just can't... ha ha ha... help myself.)

So after all these years of bitter--but hilariously funny--resentment over this fake, not even realistic laughter that starts at the same moment and stops as if someone put a giant hand over the audience's collective mouth, sometimes at the right spot, most often trying to make something unfunny, funny, I sought to understand more.

Well, I did. Here's the skinny:

Charles "Charlie" Douglass, a sound engineer with CBS Radio after World War II, is the man who invented the laugh track. So who can get too mad about a guy who helped develop shipboard radar systems for the Navy, no doubt saving many lives.

Before television--in 1948 there were only 100,000 televisions in the United States--audiences often experienced comedy listening to the radio or watching live performances as part of a studio audience. Live audiences didn't always laugh in the right places or at the correct moment. So when the show was broadcast, crowd reactions often went amiss or just weren't that funny. It was a problem for the producers and listeners/watchers alike.

Want to see what I mean? Watch just a few minutes of this Big Bang Theory episode filmed on a sound stage with no audience and see what you think. The laugh track or sound augmentation has been stripped away. Not much fun, right?

If a joke did not get the desired chuckle, Douglass added appropriate laughter. If a live audience laughed too long, he gradually muted the laughter. This was known in the industry as "sweetening" to get a "just right" response.

Comedian Milton Berle
Comedian Milton Berle, listening to a post-production editing session, felt a joke he told fall flat. After Douglas inserted a laugh, Berle said, "See? I told you it was funny."
Soon, Douglass was simulating the audience response for Bewitched, The Munsters, Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch and more. While this augmentation was controversial at the onset, it soon became standard practice. His "laff box" was kept secret at first. It actually was a box, about 2 feet tall and operated like an organ. The device was padlocked so his technique could not be known. Few in the industry ever witnessed Douglass at work. The 'laff box" actually turned up in a 2010 episode of Antiques Roadshow to be valued at $10,000.

Today, it is a digital device about the size of a laptop with a great many more laughs and other human sounds. The technique has evolved... though sometimes, not for the better because no matter how much laughter, some things are still turkeys.

But I am now a believer of the need--though not every imposed laugh track fits my taste or worse, works to milk a lame situation--laughter is worth it. It still bothers me to be instructed when to laugh. But then again, laughter is always worth it.  

Wonder where the quote "Laugh and the world laughs with you... " comes from? Read on and be in awe.

It was poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, born in 1850, who knew, even that far back, what is really important in life. Her poem "Solitude"  resonates through time and seems to have special relevance today. Here's her first few lines for you sluggards who will read no further, but do yourself a favor and read the whole poem below and take it to heart. It's worth it.


Related Poem Content Details

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all,—
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Are you smarter than you think or dumber than others around you? HINT: The answer is yes.

I used to write a popular magazine column about nothing. It was just my musings of life and items that caught the general interests of my readers. One of it's best features was a section I called "Dumb Crooks." That section drew the most mail from all over the world. Seems people just love to hear and share true stories that are funny and hard to believe.

There was a story about a man who, without a mask or any disguise, robbed two banks. When quickly apprehended, he was incredulous as to how the police recognized him. He was under the belief that if he rubbed his face with lemon juice, it would make him invisible to surveillance cameras. It didn't.

Dumb crooks most often don't know they are dumb. But then, many times, neither do some of us. That condition--being not as smart as we think we are--is known scientifically as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

As Wikipedia simplifies it, "The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher that it
really is... Research also indicated high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others."

The pattern of over-estimating (or underestimating) competence was seen in diverse skills such as reading comprehension, practicing medicine, strategic game playing and driving. In comprehensive tests with undergraduate students in psychology courses at Cornell University, Dunning and Kruger examined student self-assessment of logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills, and humor. After being shown their test scores, the students were asked to estimate their own rank in class. Most noted was that students who were about to get Ds and Fs thought they had turned in B or better work.

"Across four studies," the authors found that "participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performances and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd."

Also learned: students of high ability tended to underestimate their relative competence. Participants who found tasks to be easy, erroneously presumed that the tasks also must be easy for others thus assuming others were as competent, if not more competent, than themselves.

The conclusion: The smartest don't give themselves higher marks. The less learned don't know that they are and make statements they regard as just as profound. Belief of the listeners is whatever it is by who is listening.

Best news though,  a follow-up study suggests that grossly incompetent students improved their ability to estimate their rank after minimal tutoring in the skills they had previously lacked, regardless of the improvement gained in skills.

See, education is always good.

Isn't it sad that in the United States, we chose to prioritize more dollars to punish and incarcerate criminals, build walls and prioritize the wants of our congressmen who spend to get reelected than to educate youth at every level under all circumstances for the enrichment of our future.

NOTE: There are other writings such as THE STORY OF  STUPIDITY: A History of Western  Idiocy from the Days of Greece to the Moment You Saw this Book, by James F. Welles, Ph.D. that are interesting and/or fun to read as we learn why we are often so gullible, but that's today when all of us seem to be living in a stupider world and believing in most things we see in social media and hear elsewhere.

 Special Bonus section:
Dumb Crooks from my past

     In Chicago, a man brandished a gun as he held up a store. As he pulled the magazine out of his gun to show the store manager it was loaded, the gun discharged, shooting the crook’s finger completely off. The gunman regaining his composure, fled with a television set and five bucks
      Police used the finger to get a print that helped find and convict the robber.

     Of all the great dumb crook stories, the strangest is of Yugoslavian Siamese twins Ennio and Mario Borovac. The 35-year-old brothers were joined at the stomach and chest and shared vital organs. Unfortunately, they also shared breathing space, and Mario had bad breath.
     Ennio tried and tried to tell Mario to do something about his breath, but Mario simply wouldn’t brush his teeth! Mario finally got tired of the lectures and slapped Ennio in the face. Ennio plotted his revenge. He got a gun and shot his brother. Twenty minutes later, Ennio bled to death.
     The police belatedly charged Ennio with first-degree murder–although shooting his brother was technically a suicide.

     In a bumbling rampage that covered three square miles of southwest Houston, Texas, and lasted only an hour, a crook later nicknamed “Lucky,” robbed a McDonald’s, ran to a nearby auto parts store and took a hostage, shot at a police officer, released the hostage and grabbed a second hostage with a car, forced the him to drive to a condominium complex, kicked open a door, got into a gunfight with one resident, tried to steal another car but couldn’t get past the complex’s electronic security gate, ran to a nearby Dairy Queen, tried to commandeer a meat truck, was beaten and disarmed by the truck driver, escaped by running into a residential area and began jumping fences, landed in one backyard where he was attacked by a terrier, jumped another fence and landed in a yard where he was attacked by a pair of German shepherds, managed to get away from the German shepherds but was taken into custody by police and charged with six felonies.
     Still think you’re having a bad day?

     One dumb crook is the good driver who was leading police on a high-speed chase through suburbia. Skillfully, the police stayed on his tail despite the crook’s twists and turns and daring evasive action.
     How were police able to stay with him? Good driving? Luck? Maybe a combination of both— and the fact that the escapee, like every good driver, properly used his turning signals for each and every 100-mph turn.

     An East Coast burglar loves shiny shoes. Sometimes he polishes his shoes two or three times a day. He was convicted after evidence showed he paused during a burglary long enough to shine his shoes, leaving his can of shoe polish and a personalized rag behind.
When asked by his public defender, “You almost have a fetish about your shoes don’t you?” the man answered, “Yes, I do.”
    If the shoe fits…

     A prisoner spent two days “highlighting” his body (private parts and all) with yellow marker pens in an attempt to convince his warden that he had a severe case of jaundice. He wanted a transfer to a hospital where he could escape more easily.
     He almost got away with it until one night a guard caught him coloring his face.

     A man who robbed a liquor store with a shotgun told the clerk to give him the bottle of scotch he saw on the back counter. The clerk refused because he didn’t believe the crook was 21. The robber quickly whipped out his driver’s license to prove the fact. The clerk, satisfied, put the scotch in a bag, and the robber left happy–until the police showed up at the address listed on the driver’s license and arrested him.

     A Filipino man must have learned his crime skills by watching Wyle E. Coyote. On a flight to Manila, he donned a ski mask and swimming goggles, then pulled a gun and a hand grenade announcing he was hijacking the plane. When the pilot convinced him that the plane was low on fuel, the hijacker decided to simply rob the passengers. With $15,000 in loot, he ordered the pilot to lower the plane to 6,500 feet. He strapped on a homemade parachute and told the attendant to open the door. The hijacker had trouble getting through the door with his parachute on, so the attendant helped by pushing him out. Before leaping, he had pulled the grenade’s pin and mistakenly tossed it back into the plane. Clutching the live grenade to his chest, he blissfully sailed back to earth. Well, almost back, that is.

*Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

THE 'GOD" MOLECULE: Heaven can wait. I'm going to live forever and ever.

As the story goes, a bottomless cup of coffee and Olive Garden's endless breadsticks got together to gloat about their immortality.

So now that coffee and breadsticks have it made, what about us? Well, the good news is that science and Silicon Valley with its billions and billions of dollars are working toward one of the grandest human feats of all time--immortality. For Real!

Progress so far: mice and certain worms in the lab can be treated to double their life spans and more with a breakthrough discovery of how the 'God molecule' found in mice and humans, can be used to bypass the typical aging process. Happy 200th birthday Mickey and Minnie! Sorry worm, you just got eaten by a bird.

But, you say, mice are not humans. Ah yes, I knew there was a catch.

This is true stuff however, taken seriously by many intelligent, moneyed people used to doing incredible things. The April 3, 2017 The New Yorker carries the story, SILLICON VALLEY'S QUEST TO LIVE FOREVER: Can billions' of dollars worth of high-tech research succeed in making death optional? And during a six-hour drive home from a visit with my daughter and family, I also listened to an NPR program discussing the broader issue. It was surreal and mind-blowing!

This whole thing got its jump-start because of NASA's search for a work-around so that future astronauts on a many-month journey to Mars may avoid the deadly potential of cancer-causing radiation en-route.

the article tells of a recent meeting of scientists and rich people that are into this, at T.V. producer Norman Lear's house. Immortality was the agenda. Actress Goldie Hawn kicked it off when she asked Liz Blackburn, a Nobel Prize winner for her work in genetics, this question: "I've been told about a molecule ... that helps the health of a cell.... Some in Hollywood call it 'the God molecule.' " 

A doctor who runs a health care hedge fund and is a big financial contributor to the immortality cause offered  "... the idea that aging is plastic, that it's encoded. If something is encoded, you can crack the code. If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!"

The founder of  a biotech firm which intends to grow new organs from people's DNA said "Clearly it is possible, through technology, to make death optional."

One attendee has already commissioned a backup version of his wife... a 'mindclone' robot named Bina48, so that should her enhanced aged body fail, her brain could be uploaded to 'the cloud' then downloaded to her avatar. (I already see an age old problem: Help! I've forgotten the password!)

Also noted is that by 2020, for the first time, there will be more people on Earth over the age of sixty-five than under the age of Five. But the unresolved question posed going forward: Is it "Death is optional" or "Death will just have to wait?"

So here's the take-away: If immortality or an elongated life is doable--and these very rich and able people believe it is--Silicon Valley culture and lots and lots of money will make it happen. We once thought TV's1970's Six Million Dollar Man--augmented with a body-full of robotic parts to keep him ageless and strong--to be sci-fi. Then we are actually far, far beyond that premise as something maybe possible.

That however does beg the questions: did Maude, of the movie Harold and Maude, waste a perfectly good body when she died herself in at a mere 80 and has Shirley MacLaine already been there
Shirley MacLaine
and back a handful of times?

But hey, if money and brains can get there, who are we to argue... except of course, the morality and spirituality of the whole thing. If you finally die at the age of 245, is there a heaven for avatars?

Godspeed... or not?