Good and Ugly

Technical but interesting: Designer Iginio Lardani’s title sequence for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly contains only one error, and it’s in Lardani’s own credit (2:33 above).

“[A]n ‘error’ specific to optical printing caused by improper loading of the footage and mask being composited — Newton’s rings — appears in his title card alongside the text stating ‘TITLES | LARDANI,” notes film historian Michael Betancourt in Semiotics and Title Sequences (2017).

This appears to be an inside joke meant for other title designers. According to his son, Lardani had complete freedom in creating the design. Betancourt writes, “Recognizing this specific ‘error’ in the card stating ‘TITLES LARDANI’ depends on technical knowledge of the optical printing process. … given the technical perfection in the rest of the sequence, it is not just a ‘beginner’s mistake,’ but implies a conscious choice to include this compositing error in the design.”

“It is a joke only comprehensible (even recognizable) by an audience that recognizes the Newton’s rings and understands what they are — an error in the optical printing; this knowledgeable audience specifically includes title sequence designers rather than the general public. … Because it is specifically a specialized, technical mistake, its recognition will be severely limited to his peers — suggesting that they are the ones being addressed by it.”

Set Dressing

William Wellman vowed that his 1927 dogfight movie Wings would contain no stock footage or studio fakery. But after assembling his own planes and film crew, he kept them resolutely on the ground for weeks. When Paramount asked what was missing, he gave them a bewildering answer: clouds.

“Motion on the screen is a relative thing,” he said. “A horse runs on the ground or leaps over fences or streams. We know he is going rapidly because of his relation to the immobile ground.” But a plane alone in the sky may produce no sense of motion at all unless there are clouds around it — and the skies above Wellman’s San Antonio shooting location remained stubbornly clear.

Producer Jesse Lasky later wrote, “There were days on end of perfect sunshine, and our $200-a-week director wouldn’t turn a camera, while overhead mounted at thousands of dollars a day. I confess that we were about ready to yank him off the picture and replace him with someone who would be more amenable.”

In the end they were glad they waited — when the clouds arrived, Wellman’s cameramen took off, and Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture.

In a Word

velitation
n. a minor dispute or contest

devel
v. to beat or thrash

herile
adj. pertaining to a master

satisdiction
n. saying enough

Somebody once asked pool hustler Don Willis how good Glen “Eufaula Kid” Womack was.

Willis said, “I never saw him play.”

“What do you mean, you never saw him play? I heard you just beat him out of a lot of money.”

“I did,” Willis said, “but he never got to shoot.”

(From Robert Byrne’s Wonderful World of Pool and Billiards, 1996.)

The Carolwood Pacific Railroad

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Walt Disney loved trains. In 1947, when he showed off his Lionel set to animators Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston, they revealed that they had ridable sets in their backyards. So two years later, when Disney bought 5 acres in Los Angeles, he set about building his own ridable railroad, 2,615 feet long and completely surrounding the house. To placate his wife, he named the locomotive after her and added an S-curve tunnel to avoid her garden.

Disney retired the train in 1953 when a derailment left a 5-year-old girl with steam burns, but he credited the Carolwood Pacific Railroad with inspiring Disneyland, which is encircled today by a narrow-gauge steam railroad that draws 6.6 million passengers a year.

Podcast Episode 226: The Great Match Race

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America’s first national sports spectacle took place in 1823, when the North and South sent their best horses for a single dramatic race that came to symbolize the regional tensions of a changing nation. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Great Match Race, which laid the foundations of modern American thoroughbred racing.

We’ll also ponder a parasite’s contribution to culture and puzzle over a misinformed criminal.

See full show notes …

For What It’s Worth

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Based on an ancient Hindu game, Snakes and Ladders (Chutes and Ladders in ophidiophobic America) is at heart a morality lesson: As you progress by die roll from square 1 to square 100 and spiritual enlightenment, your way is complicated by virtues and vices. Landing on a snake (or chute) will send you back to an earlier square, and landing on a ladder will send you ahead to a later one. Each of these shortcuts is associated with a precept — “Carelessness” leads to “Injury,” “Study” leads to “Knowledge,” and so on.

In 1993 University of Michigan mathematician S.C. Althoen and his colleagues considered the game as a 101-state absorbing Markov chain. The shortest possible game lasts seven moves, the longest is infinite, and according to their calculations the expected number of moves in the Milton Bradley version of Chutes and Ladders is

\displaystyle  \frac{225837582538403273407117496273279920181931269186581786048583}{5757472998140039232950575874628786131130999406013041613400},

which is about 39.2.

Troublingly, the average length of a game without snakes or ladders (just the 100-square board) is almost exactly 33 moves: “Apparently the snakes lengthen the game more than the ladders shorten it.” And, while adding a ladder will generally shorten the game and adding a snake will lengthen it, this isn’t always the case: In the original game, adding a ladder from square 79 to square 81 lengthens the expected playing time by more than two moves (to about 41.9), since it increases the chance of missing the important ladder leading from square 80 to square 100. And adding a snake from square 29 to square 27 shortens the game by more than a move (to about 38.0), since it offers a second chance at the long ladder from 28 to 84.

So, arguably, we might advance more quickly through life with more vice and less virtue.

(S.C. Althoen, L. King, and K. Schilling, “How Long Is a Game of Snakes and Ladders?”, Mathematical Gazette 77:478 [March 1993], 71-76.)

La

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On its 35th anniversary, THX, the sound quality assurance company founded by George Lucas, released the original score of “Deep Note,” its audio trademark, which debuted at the premiere of Return of the Jedi in 1983 and is now familiar from countless films. Essentially it’s a stupendous D chord; the U.S. trademark registration reads:

The THX logo theme consists of 30 voices over seven measures, starting in a narrow range, 200 to 400 Hz, and slowly diverting to preselected pitches encompassing three octaves. The 30 voices begin at pitches between 200 Hz and 400 Hz and arrive at pre-selected pitches spanning three octaves by the fourth measure. The highest pitch is slightly detuned while there are double the number of voices of the lowest two pitches.

“I like to say that the THX sound is the most widely-recognized piece of computer-generated music in the world,” says James A. Moorer, who wrote it. “This may or may not be true, but it sounds cool.” And now that we have the score you can do this:

Self-Taught

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Image: Flickr

Jazz guitarist Pat Martino had a burgeoning record career by age 20, but in 1976 he began to suffer headaches, followed by mania, depression, and seizures. He attempted suicide several times, but hospitalization and electroshock therapy brought no relief. In 1980 a CT scan discovered an arteriovenous malformation that had begun to hemorrhage, and a surgeon removed 70 percent of Martino’s left temporal lobe.

After the surgery he didn’t know his name, recognize his parents, or know he was a musician. When his father played his old records for him, “I would lie in my bed upstairs and hear them seep through the walls and the floor, a reminder of something that I had no idea that I was supposed to be anymore, or that I ever was.” But when a visiting friend played a major seventh chord, Martino found that he wanted a minor ninth and took up the instrument again.

“As I continued to work out things on the instrument, flashes of memory and muscle memory would gradually come flooding back to me — shapes on the fingerboard, different stairways to different rooms in the house,” he wrote.

Aided by his father, friends, photographs, and mainly by his own recordings, he learned the instrument afresh, “to escape the situation, and to please my father.” Neurosurgeon Marcelo Galarza writes, “The process of memory retrieval took him about two years. Although he never lost his manual dexterity, the necessary skill to play guitar again to his previous musical level took years to bring back.”

In 1987 he recorded his comeback album, The Return, and he’s made more than 20 albums since then. Galarza writes, “To our knowledge, this case study represents the first clinical observation of a patient who exhibited complete recovery from a profound amnesia and regained his previous virtuoso status.”

(Marcelo Galarza et al., “Jazz, Guitar, and Neurosurgery: The Pat Martino Case Report,” World Neurosurgery 81:3 [2014], 651-e1.)

Horse Play

Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young-adult novel, features a life-size horse puppet devised by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Three actors cooperate to bring the character to life; philosophically, puppeteer Basil Jones says that Handspring aimed to offer “a real horse on stage, … a horse that is disinterested in what the humans are saying around him” and that remains “slightly unpredictable.” That’s informed by an enormous amount of study and practice — new puppeteers visit stables, watch DVDs, and study horse gaits and psychology in what Jones calls “a total immersion”:

Together with the rehearsals the puppeteers have two months of training before they see their first audience. Over scores of performances, the puppeteers become shamans of the horse. Their intuition as to what their fellow puppeteers are about to do becomes finely tuned. This triple performance is a pretty special event to watch on stage.

It seems to work. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote that “puppets are often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns,” but in this case the puppets are “truly magnificent creations.” The Guardian‘s Michael Billington agreed: “The joy of the evening … lies in the skilled recreation of equine life and in its unshaken belief that mankind is ennobled by its love of the horse.”