Who Made That?

In the NYT Magazine (on Sunday the 19th), a “Who Made That?” piece by Daniel Engber on the captcha. Some weeks ago, another one of these pieces on laugh tracks on television.

On the captcha:

a cryptographer at Carnegie Mellon, Manuel Blum, perfected the idea [of a test that a human being was posting] . With the help of several graduate students, including [John] Langford [now at Microsoft] and Luis von Ahn, Blum set up the first effective system for screening out spam bots: strings of letters and numbers that were distorted using simple software, random numbers and a standard set of rules. “The program was completely public,” Blum says. “Except for those random numbers, everyone would know exactly how the program worked.”

What about the name Captcha? That was Blum’s idea. “I remember trying to come up with a ‘gotcha’-like acronym.” The best he could manage was: Completely Automated Public Turing test for telling Computers and Humans Apart.

Laugh tracks. I haven’t found the original NYT piece, but there’s a lengthy Wikipedia article on the subject. Excerpts:

A laugh track (or laughter track) is a separate soundtrack for a recorded comedy show containing the sound of audience laughter. In some productions the laughter is a live audience response; in the U.S., the term usually implies artificial laughter (canned laughter or fake laughter) made to be inserted into the show. This was invented by American sound engineer Charles “Charley” Douglass.

… In early television, most shows that were not live used the single-camera filmmaking technique, where a show was created by filming each scene several times from different camera angles. Live audiences could not be relied upon to laugh at correct moments; other times, audiences would laugh too loudly or for too long.

CBS sound engineer Charley Douglass noticed these inconsistencies, and took it upon himself to remedy the situation. If a joke did not get the desired chuckle, Douglass inserted additional laughter; if the live audience chuckled too long, Douglass gradually muted the guffaws. This editing technique became known as sweetening, in which recorded laughter is used to augment the response of the real studio audience if they did not react as strongly as desired. Conversely, the process could be used to “desweeten” audience reactions, toning down unwanted loud laughter or removing inappropriate applause, thus making the laughter more in line with the producer’s preferred method of telling the story.

… The first American television show to incorporate a laugh track was the sitcom The Hank McCune Show in 1950.

Current tv shows differ widely in how they use laugh tracks. Some don’t use them at all — there’s a list in the Wikipedia article — while others use them obtrusively. (I would enjoy the enormously popular The Big Bang Theory more if it didn’t have such an annoying laugh track.)

One Response to “Who Made That?”

  1. eric zwicky Says:

    antiques roadshow had a guy a few weeks ago who bought the original laugh-track machine at a storage auction. the appraiser said it was the one that the inventor kept closely-guarded, and used himself rather than let other people see how he was doing it. i can’t remember the name, but i am guessing it was charley douglass.

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