Minnesota Tweeting


I’m not surprised to pick up Twitter followers who’re surprising to me. That’s part of the normal process of existing on Twitter. Every day all of us get followed by self-proclaimed “social bacon ninjas” and people who proclaim to care on behalf of companies we’re fighting with.

A couple weeks back I mentioned Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, and got followed right away by someone who tracks Minnesota stuff. I’m flattered, since my impression of Minnesota has been formed entirely from walking past the giant Snoopy statue in the airport there and from watching Mystery Science Theater 3000. So I figure the place is pretty friendly and prone to dancing and then kneeling down to make snarky comments about stuff, much like the entire Internet.

The Minnesota guy seems to have dropped me, though. I’m not offended, considering how I haven’t been talking about the airport since then. But that reminds me that I got followed by someone running for a Minnesota congressional district in 2012. His account still says he’s hoping to win his election in 2012. I don’t suppose there has to be a connection. Minnesota has to have easily more than eight people in it. But what if there is? If there’s one thing we know about social media, it’s that social bacon ninjas who care on behalf of the people at AT&T who don’t are everywhere.

Flintstones Mathematics


I don’t have very high expectations when I watch The Flintstones, or when I enjoy some of the show’s spinoff theme products, like the 1990s movies or the pinball machine based on the first one. Mostly the show’s existing is enough. But I have to have some standards. Now, here, from the bottom of the playfield from the pinball machine is an example of the Flintstones licensed theme product bothering me.

The play field shows off a 'Firerock' rock tire from Fred Flintstone's car.
Lower play field of The Flintstones pinball machine. Photographed by Casey Davis at the Internet Pinball Database.

I concede that not every Flintstones bit of rock-themed wordplay can be as natural or as smooth as naming celebrities “Stony Curtis” and “Ann-Margrock”. That’s an impossibly high standard. But I want them to be better than naming the place “Texarock”. “Texarock” is just a sad, sighing surrender from the idea of writing rock-themed wordplay. Anyway, look at the tire on the center of the pinball playfield: “Firerock”?

Of all the possible products to place in the movie they couldn’t get Firestone? Or worse, they did, and they screwed up the name? Either way, it’s a sad moment in this movie we didn’t really need.

Anyway, since I’m done grousing about that, over on my mathematics blog have been a couple of discussions of mathematically-themed comic strips, and if you haven’t read them already I’d be grateful if you did read them now. If you have read them already then I’ve got nothing to complain about. Except the Flintstones pinball machine, anyway.

Power Challenge of the Week


This week’s challenge: say some nice things about Brutalist architecture without it coming out sounding sarcastic. Here are some attempts.

  • “That one looks pretty inviting.”
  • “That actually makes a dramatic end to the green-roof part of campus.”
  • “I can see how the concrete fountain the plaza originally had would have balanced the composition.”
  • “Hey, that’s right, this side does look like a child’s harmonica.”
  • “It’s the way the entrance looms over people that makes gives the building character.”
  • “I would not have guessed this was built in 1975.”
  • “The patio area certainly doesn’t need plants.”
  • “It’s not until a winter storm that you appreciate those concrete pillars on the southern side.”
  • “It’s very effective in the way it overpowers the people walking around it.”

Robert Benchley: The Rope Trick Explained


There is no such thing as the Indian Rope Trick, the stunt where a rope gets tossed up in the air, and an assistant climbs up it and vanishes. There never was. The entire stunt was a creation of 19th-century western magicians. I know, I was shocked to learn it too. Peter Lamont’s The Rise Of The Indian Rope Trick: How A Spectacular Hoax Became History describes much of the trick’s cultural history. Lamont mentions how the humorist Robert Benchley was an early and fervent skeptic that there was ever such a thing as the Indian Rope Trick.

In this piece, collected in My Ten Years In A Quandry And How They Grew, shows off some of Benchley’s skepticism about the trick, although it isn’t one of the pieces Lamont quotes, for fair reason.

The Rope Trick Explained

In explaining this trick, I need hardly say that it is known as “the Indian rope trick.” That is the only trick that everyone explains, as well as the only trick that no one has ever seen. (Now don’t write in and say that you have a friend who has seen it. I know your friend and he drinks.)

For readers under the age of three (of whom, judging from several letters at hand, I have several) I will explain that “the Indian rope trick” consists in throwing a rope into the air, where it remains, apparently unfastened to anything, while a boy climbs up to the top. Don’t ask me what he does then.

This trick is very easy to explain. The point is that the boy gets up into the air somehow and drops the rope down to the ground, making it look as if the reverse were true. This is only one way to do it, however. There are millions of ways.


While in India, a friend of mine, a Mr MacGregor, assisted me in confusing the natives, in more ways than one. We dressed up in Indian costume, for one thing. This confused even us, but we took it good-naturedly.

Then I announced to a group of natives, who were standing open-mouthed (ready to bite us, possibly) that Mr MacGregor and I would perform the famous Indian Rope Trick under their very noses. This was like stealing thunder from a child.

Stationing myself at the foot of a rope which extended upward into the air with no apparent support at the other end, I suggested to Mr MacGregor that he climb it.

“Who—me?” he asked, hitching his tunic around his torso.

This took up some time, during which part of our audience left. The remainder were frankly incredulous, as was Mr MacGregor. I, however, stuck to my guns.

“Up you go, MacGregor!” I said. “You used to be in the Navy!”


So, like a true yeoman, Mr MacGregor laid hands on the rope and, in a trice, was at its top. It wasn’t a very good trice, especially when viewed from below, but it served to bring a gasp of astonishment from the little group, many of whom walked away.

“Come on in—the water’s fine!” called Mr MacGregor, waving from his pinnacle (one waves from one’s pinnacle sideways in India).

“Is everything fast?” I called up at him.

“Everything fast and burning brightly, sir!” answered Mr MacGregor, like a good sailor.

“Then—let ‘ergo!” I commanded, sounding Taps on a little horn I had just found in my hand.

And, mirabile dictu, Mr MacGregor disappeared into thin air and drew the rope up after him! Even I had to look twice. It was a stupendous victory for the occult.


“Are there any questions?” I asked the mob.

“What is Clark Gable like?” someone said.

“He’s a very nice fellow,” I answered. “Modest and unassuming. I see quite a lot of him when I am in Hollywood.”

There was a scramble for my autograph at this, and the party moved on, insisting that I go with them for a drink and tell them more about their favorite movie stars. There is a native drink in India called “straite-ri” which is very cooling.


It wasn’t until I got back to our New York office that I saw Mr MacGregor again, and I forgot to ask him how he ever got down.

Statistics Saturday: Nations of Africa Ordered By Length


I choose to believe this project will someday be remarked upon by someone else with a comment like “you won’t believe how this changes the way you see the world!”

  • 1. Chad
  • 1 (tie). Mali
  • 1 (tie). Togo
  • 4. Benin
  • 4 (tie). Egypt
  • 4 (tie). Gabon
  • 4 (tie). Ghana
  • 4 (tie). India
  • 4 (tie). Kenya
  • 4 (tie). Libya
  • 4 (tie). Niger
  • 4 (tie). Sudan
  • 13. Angola
  • 13 (tie). Gambia
  • 13 (tie). Guinea
  • 13 (tie). Malawi
  • 13 (tie). Rwanda
  • 13 (tie). Uganda
  • 13 (tie). Zambia
  • 20. Algeria
  • 20 (tie). Burundi
  • 20 (tie). Comoros
  • 20 (tie). Eritrea
  • 20 (tie). Lesotho
  • 20 (tie). Liberia
  • 20 (tie). Morocco
  • 20 (tie). Namibia
  • 20 (tie). Nigeria
  • 20 (tie). Senegal
  • 20 (tie). Somalia
  • 20 (tie). Tunisia
  • 32. Botswana
  • 32 (tie). Cameroon
  • 32 (tie). Djibouti
  • 32 (tie). Ethiopia
  • 32 (tie). Tanzania
  • 32 (tie). Zimbabwe
  • 38. Mauritius
  • 38 (tie). Swaziland
  • 40. Cape Verde
  • 40 (tie). Madagascar
  • 40 (tie). Mauritania
  • 40 (tie). Mozambique
  • 40 (tie). Seychelles
  • 45. Ivory Coast
  • 45 (tie). South Sudan
  • 47. Burkina Faso
  • 47 (tie). Sierra Leone
  • 47 (tie). South Africa
  • 50. Guinea-Bissau
  • 51. Equatorial Guinea
  • 51 (tie). Republic of Congo
  • 53. São Tomé and Príncipe
  • 54. Central African Republic
  • 55. Democratic Republic of the Congo

Betty Boop: Hollywood On Parade


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:


Last week I showed off Betty Boop’s first live-action appearance. She had a second, with a new actor. This second person to play Betty Boop in person was Bonnie Poe, who would also voice the character in animation from 1933 through 1938. If I am reading the release dates correctly, this live-action short is the first time her version of Betty Boop was heard. So I cover two Betty Boop firsts at once.

This is an installment of the Hollywood On Parade series, in which Paramount pointed the camera at its stars puttering around. They might be doing it in character, they might be doing a sketch, they might just be trying to further the illusion that every celebrity is pals with every other celebrity. This one is more of a sketch.

Last week’s Musical Justice short was one that could easily have been a cartoon. This week is even more so. Indeed, it’s been cartoons by all the major studios. The scene opens on a Hall Of Fame, and the wax museum figures come to life in that identity-challenging way that wax museum figures do. In a stunning plot twist replicated only in every Betty Boop cartoon ever, a menacing figure kidnaps Betty and it’s the responsibility of the bland pleasant male lead to rescue her.

Before watching, I must warn: there’s some ethnic humor in the middle, about 5:20 in. I love this era of filmmaking but I don’t see why they found that kind of humor irresistible.

The bland pleasant male figure made the protagonist is Eddie Borden, a celebrity I don’t feel bad about calling obscure. He was in the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, the Internet Movie Database tells me. I don’t remember what part he played in it, but I’m sure he was funny, because for crying out loud even Zeppo was funny in Monkey Business. He also appeared in several Laurel and Hardy movies, though again, I don’t recognize the parts.

The short looks ready to follow a straightforward plot as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula wakes, abducts Betty, and then vanishes, and Borden pursues her. It’s easy to imagine the six-minute cartoon that would be made of this plot. They’d surely have wandered through sets and tried to pick up more characters, as done here. I’m willing to suppose audiences at the original release (the 10th of March, 1933) had a better chance than I have of recognizing stars like Charles Murray and George Sidney. They’re the Safari-I-Guess guys who do a vaguely-Abbot-and-Costello bit and join Eddie Borden. (Murray you might, possibly, know as the Wizard in the unfortunate Larry Semon-produced 1925 Wizard of Oz movie.) But would the animated version of this end with Gayne Whitman as Chandu the Magician?

Possibly. Nonsensical endings were not unknown at the Fleischer Studios. But I admit I don’t get this conclusion. From the way it reads Chandu seems to be the villain of the piece, which seems out of character, but then what is the ending supposed to be?

It’s a curious short. Bela Lugosi and Clara Bow are celebrities famous enough they’re still recognizable. Don’t tell me if I’m wrong. Bonnie Poe is at least recognizable to vintage animation fans. The other celebrities are at least well-connected. It takes longer to get through its points than the animated version would, possibly just because they had ten minutes to fill instead of six. And it shows how easily one could do a Betty Boop cartoon in live action, leaving only the question of why they didn’t do it more?

Ridiculous Episodes Of History


Tamim Ansary’s book Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan describes the first time Afghanistan sent a diplomatic mission to the United States:

The Afghan delegation came to New York in 1922, but as it happened a ludicrous adventurer hit town at the same time: an old woman named “Princess” Fatima Sultana … She came festooned in jewels and looking like every New Yorker’s image of a Theda Bara-style exotic from the mysterious east. Her jewels included one particularly large diamond she called the Darya-i-Noor (River of Light). She was travelling with a rascal who called himself the Crown Prince of Egypt. …

To make matters worse, these two con artists fell victim themselves to an American con artist named Weymouth, who convinced them he was with the Department of the Navy and said he would present Fatima to the president of the United States — he had his eye on that diamond. The New York press didn’t know which was the real diplomatic delegation, and they picked the one they found more entertaining: Princess Fatima and her entourage.

Princess Fatima would lose her diamond and run out on her hotel bill. The actual Afghans got ignored. And we have to wonder how the United States lived through a bad episode of Top Cat. I don’t mean to make myself sound too intelligent. I was nine before I realized I was smarter than some episodes of Three’s Company. But I was definitely only eight years old before I couldn’t buy the fake-exotic-royalty-in-New-York plot. The heck, people?

But the incident reflects something historians hope you won’t ask about. Until about 1975 the whole world was so casually run that anybody could put anything over on anybody else, anytime they wanted. For example, from 1927 through 1931 the cash-strapped Soviet Union stayed afloat by selling counterfeit trains on the New York Central. Passengers would gather around a marvelous painting of what looked very much like a train. They’d only notice fourteen hours later that neither it nor they had gone anywhere. The scheme finally ended when the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. The Pennsylvania Railroad wanted to laugh about this, but they had just bought track rights through the Canadian province of “Roberta”.

In 1852 a group of Americans hoped to take over Cuba for the benefit of the Cubans, they kept telling themselves and everyone else. So they built a replica of the White House and the Capitol in Havanna out of some wood they had left over from another project, to lure the American government over. As it happens they only managed to fool the vice-president, William R King. He didn’t die of embarrassment at being fooled, but when he left for the real Washington he only got as close as Alabama.

In 1817 Great Britain annexed the Caribbean island of Saint Martin O’The Lee. Its exact location was unknown to everyone and the land was proven in 1932 to never have existed. Despite that, sectarian violence continues along the arbitrarily-drawn border known as Chamberlain’s Belch. That’s named for Neville Chamberlain, but not that Neville Chamberlain. Also not the other Neville Chamberlain you’re telling people you thought of right away because you want to seem smarter to them. It’s the other other one.

In the mid-30s a mysterious figure claiming to be another brother wormed his way into Popeye’s nephews. The hoaxer would appear in shorts for over a decade before vanishing, probably absconding, never to be heard from again. And the amazing thing is that five years after that another of the so-called nephews would vanish, revealing he had been an impostor all along too.

In 1645 an Italian lawyer presented King Louis XIV with a moon for Venus. Astronomers kept insisting they saw it for over a century. It wasn’t until 1762 that everybody involved admitted that they had to be dead of old age by then. And so it they were, and we went back to ignoring that big shiny moon-like thing hovering around Venus. Don’t stare.

Dozens of Rhode Island cities in the 19th century fell for groups of organized rowdies presenting themselves as the state government. The actual state government chased after them, wielding brooms and biographies of Roger Williams, for decades before the last of them finally set up in New London (“Mystic”), Connecticut as a government-in-exile. They’re still there.

We’ve tightened things up since those days. Today, anybody can still put anything over on anybody else. But they have to go through a metal detector and put their keys and loose change in a plastic bin first. It’s progress.

Why I Should Be Making A List Before Going To Meijer’s


What We Needed What I Got
Butter Noodle-Roni
Eggs Pond thermometer seems useful
Toothpaste Pasta-Roni
Condensed milk More Noodle-Roni maybe?
Paper towels If I pick up some hamburger buns, we might turn out to have veggie hamburgers, which we can then eat
Soda crackers Leftover Easter egg coloring boxes? And only a dime? Score!
Chow mein noodles Didn’t know they even made Woody Woodpecker chew toys for pets
Printer paper I could get a Strawberry Fanta Zero from the freestyle Coke machine up front
Those felt pads for the bottom of furniture so they scratch the floor up a little more slowly It’s not like salt for the sidewalk will rot by next winter
Peanut butter Chunky peanut butter

When We All Stopped Watching Deep Space Nine


Before I get into this, a couple days ago my mathematics blog had another group of comic strips to talk about. I like that sort of talk and I hope you’ll at least give it a read and see whether you like it too. That done, remember like 1992 when we tried out watching Deep Space Nine? Remember that we stopped, but not why? Here’s why. It’s an episode called “Move Along Home”, when a flock of tabletop gamers from the Gamma Quadrant invaded the station. Anyway, here’s what you missed from that episode, if you didn’t watch it in the first place:

In a foggy room Deep Space Nine's Commander Sisko takes a swig of a vaguely orange drink.
They’re from a different quadrant, that’s why they buy their party glasses from the dollar store.

A daring choice at the Stardate 46600 Sommelier Competition as Commander Sisko decides to pair a Denebian coq au vin with a tall glass of Strawberry Fanta Zero.

Deep Space Nine's Major Kira stares into the wide-open mouth of some guy with different face markings from the usual.
Crow: Uvula?
Tom Servo: No, I went to William and Mary, actually.

“The little dangly thing at the back of your throat has a smiley face on it.”

The Deep Space Nine crew bangs at one of those diamond-shaped space doors while a kid plays hopscotch without them.
If you’re not sure whether you remember the episode, see if this is still in your head: “Allamaraine, count to four, allamaraine, then three more, allamaraine, if you can see, allamaraine, you’ll come with me,” and then repeat that for thirty-five minutes before the characters catch on.

“Oh, please open up, Family Feud door, that we may compete against the stars of the hit CBS sitcom Dave’s World!

And that’s about it, except that the episode was — really! — nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Hairstyling for a Series. Which is an actual thing, which is kind of wonderful.

Oh, also, just yesterday I had another bunch of mathematically-themed comic strips so if you wanted to read about those too I’d be glad. Thank you.

The Road Warrantiers


A controversial thing going around Michigan right now is a public referendum for a road-repair plan. As side effects it also changes how schools get funded, changes the sales tax, and requires a band of the state National Guard to tromp into Toledo once every two years and say, “Is too ours anytime we want it”. It’s kind of complicated. Even the media guides to it drift off after a few paragraphs and admit, “every time they explain it to us it sounds like it makes sense but then we leave the room and we forget how it works again”.

But there’s advertisements for it on the TV now. One advert just explained how under the new plan roads will have to be warrantied. I never thought of warrantying road construction before. I guess I had just assumed that as long as nobody stole your road within four months of construction then everything was fine. It’s kind of comforting knowing that roads can be warrantied and maybe even will be. But now I’m imagining my next visit to Best Buy. I’ll be waiting at the customer service desk, trying in despair to think of anything I can buy that wouldn’t be a waste of my $5 gift certificate. And ahead of me will be the Mayor of Lansing, holding a chunk of where I-496 turns into 127, pointing to a receipt that’s eight feet long, and arguing a pothole. I always get stuck behind problems like that.

2,038 Sentences With Numbers In Them


The Off The Leash blog recently mentioned how one of the top social media tips is using numbers in headlines. I could use some social media top … ish-ness, certainly, and since I’ve got a mathematical background I shouldn’t have any trouble including numbers in things. So here’s some sentences that have a number (2,038) put in them:

  • “This set of lectures and their subsequent study of the mockups and trainers gave the [ Apollo ] astronauts a better feel for the Soyuz flight control systems and onboard displays and the environmental controls for oxygen 2,038 generation, temperature levels, and food, water, and waste management. ”
    — originally from Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell’s The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, NASA SP-4209.
  • “If you think that nobody would know that a girl in the company had 2,038 married a baronet who was a member of parliament and expected to be in the Cabinet in a few years, you’re wronging him!”
    — originally from P G Wodehouse’s Jill The Reckless.
  • “Only the Neptunian’s grasp on the controls had kept the cylinder heading down through those currents, and now, as he leaped 2,038 away from the controls for the moment and drew his tube, those currently immediately seized upon the unguided cylinder and in the next moment had whirled it over and sidewise with immense speed and power!”
    — originally from Edmond Hamilton’s The Universe-Wreckers, as printed in the June 1930 Amazing Stories.
  • “I really tried, but every place I went they 2,038 slammed the door in my face!!”
    — originally from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip of the 26th of May, 1973.
  • “He [ Dutch writer Adrianus Romanus, in his 1593 text Ideae Mathematicae pars prima ] uses this notation in 2,038 writing his famous equation of the forty-fifth degree.”
    — originally from Florian Cajori’s A History Of Mathematical Notation and writing about unknown quantities being raised to powers.
  • “They might just as well have settled that he [ Saint Dunstan ] was a coach-horse, and could just 2,038 as easily have called him one.”
    — originally from Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England.
  • “During that beautiful eulogy seen where there about to launch Spock into the stars Kirk says `of all the souls I’ve encountered… this was the most … human‘, is this unintentionally insulting Spock 2,038, because in the series he repeatedly states that he is not human and one point states that he felt insulted by the implication of Doctor McCoy.”
    — originally from a TrekBBS discussion about The Wrath of Khan.

How’d I do?

Statistics Saturday: Nations of Europe Ordered By Length


This listing of nations of a particular continent proved to be the most challenging of any continent so far. This is due to the large number of European countries with names the same length as one another. The student of history knows that is a consequence of the famous Treaty of Ulm of 1802, which I need hardly tell you closed out the war of 1805. You’ve probably read something about it. If you haven’t, you should, as it’s a fascinating problem of history and geography.

  • 1. India [ It’s working! I tell you, it’s working! ]
  • 1 (tie). Italy
  • 1 (tie). Malta
  • 1 (tie). Spain
  • 5. Cyprus
  • 5 (tie). France
  • 5 (tie). Greece
  • 5 (tie). Latvia
  • 5 (tie). Monaco
  • 5 (tie). Norway
  • 5 (tie). Poland
  • 5 (tie). Russia
  • 5 (tie). Serbia
  • 5 (tie). Sweden
  • 5 (tie). Turkey
  • 16. Albania
  • 16 (tie). Andorra
  • 16 (tie). Armenia
  • 16 (tie). Austria
  • 16 (tie). Belarus
  • 16 (tie). Belgium
  • 16 (tie). Croatia
  • 16 (tie). Denmark
  • 16 (tie). Estonia
  • 16 (tie). Finland
  • 16 (tie). Georgia
  • 16 (tie). Germany
  • 16 (tie). Hungary
  • 16 (tie). Iceland
  • 16 (tie). Ireland
  • 16 (tie). Moldova
  • 16 (tie). Romania
  • 16 (tie). Ukraine
  • 34. Bulgaria
  • 34 (tie). Portugal
  • 34 (tie). Slovakia
  • 34 (tie). Slovenia
  • 38. Lithuania
  • 38 (tie). Macedonia
  • 40. Azerbaijan
  • 40 (tie). Kazakhstan
  • 40 (tie). Luxembourg
  • 40 (tie). Montenegro
  • 40 (tie). San Marino
  • 45. Switzerland
  • 46. Vatican City
  • 47. Liechtenstein
  • 48. Czech Republic
  • 49. The Netherlands
  • 50. The United Kingdom
  • 51. Bosnia and Herzegovina

Betty Boop: Musical Justice


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:


It’s usually stupid to turn a cartoon character into a live-action one. Most cartoon characters, at least the beloved ones, are things that don’t make sense in live action: wisecracking rabbits and talking mice and brilliantly stupid moose and the occasional giant robot or so. As a moving illustration that works fine. Somehow the unreality of a drawing that changes by itself makes the unreality of a teapot with a personality make sense.

And yet there’s Betty Boop. After a couple of cartoons she settled down to being a stylized but still recognizably human figure. She would get into quite some surreal and bizarre situations. But she could also host quite mundane situations, things as easily photographable as singing until she melts the heart of a skeptical audience. Of the cartoon stars of the early 1930s she’s one of the few who could plausibly be played by a real-live person. And so she was.

So this week’s First Betty Boop entry is her first appearance in live action, in a short released the 26th of December, 1931. Mae Questel, who would voice her most of her animated run, also plays her in real life. Rudy Vallée, whose voice would grace several of her cartoons, appears as the host of the short as well.

The short is a bit of a strange one, and I apologize the best copy I can find of the whole thing is split into two parts. Betty Boop only appears in the second. I also apologize for the ethnic humor of the first musical/comedy act featured. I don’t know who “Henry Whitewash” is supposed to be, and I can’t find much in my meager vaudeville or early-movie references. I don’t know if his was an actual vaudeville or early-movies act or something made up so later generations watching the short could feel uncomfortable. His bit takes to about 5:20 into the video to wrap up, though, and give way to Rudy Vallée singing to a troubled couple.

The short falls into that strange genre of the Abstract Concept Court, in this case the Court of Musical Justice. (Compare it to the Court of Responsible Car Operations in beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000-featured short X Marks The Spot.) I’ve actually seen several shorts along these lines. The strangest was 1943’s Heavenly Music, actually a heavenly court in which a then-modern crooner (Frederick Brady as “Ted Barry”) was tried for his earthly crimes against music. He won an acquittal by insisting that all the major lines of his music could really be traced back to respectable dead white composers who were on his jury, such as Bach and Beethoven and the like. In this case, the judge is Rudy Vallée and the jury his Connecticut Yankees, but the general line is the same. Modern music is accused of wrongness, but that’s all right, because it turns out to be swell stuff.

The short, and its genre partners, seem almost designed to train undergraduates majoring in cultural studies on how to read the motives behind a text. Modern music is openly charged with corrupting the morals of the nation, just as charged by the older folks in the audience. One imagines they came into the theater just to take a break from yelling at clouds. But the young get the satisfaction of their music actually being played and being defended and acquitted. The defense isn’t all that great — it amounts to “aw, c’mon, it’s not that bad, and besides it can be fun” — but it’s enough to get grampa off your back. It’s hard not to notice Paramount Pictures trying very hard to cuddle up close to the music those kids like without seeming to approve so much that their parents and grandparents complain. Only the movie ticket revenue may bridge the generation gap!

This is one of only two live-action appearances Betty Boop made. I don’t know why there aren’t more. The character doesn’t require anything more than a dress and a wig to perform, and is obviously able to carry off “show off a musical number” shorts. Possibly they worried about over-exposing the character, although it’s hard for me to see how a couple of live-action shorts added onto a dozen animated shorts a year would do that. As it stands, it’s the start of a stunted branch in a character’s media presence.

Discovering Stuff About Guinea Pigs


A history of the local zoo mentioned that the place used to have a guinea pig mound. It supported this claim with one of those slightly blurry black-and-white photos you get in local histories, showing what is certainly a mound maybe twenty feet across and not so high in the middle. This inspires all sorts of questions, like, why don’t more zoos have guinea pig mounds? An individual guinea pig might not be a very exciting animal, what with it mostly wanting to stand where it is and stare back at you with the expression that says, “I have some projects I could get to too, if you wanted to leave”. But get a big enough mass of them together and at any time you’ll have maybe two of them scurrying along as much as two feet before deciding they could just stop and stand where they are instead.

Another question it raises is: so, guinea pigs live in mounds, then? And I don’t know. Back in middle school I bred guinea pigs (the guinea pigs did most of the breeding, while I did the hard work of explaining to my parents why their cages didn’t need cleaning, even as the odor melted my bagged Star Trek comic books off the walls where they’d been hung as horrible decoration) but that’s in the highly unnatural environment of ten-gallon aquarium cages. I now know ten-gallon aquarium cages are terrible places to keep guinea pigs, and I wouldn’t do it again, but that’s what the guide books back then suggested was perfectly all right. I should have known their research was suspect, since the books were published by leading manufacturers of rodent scuba gear, but I was young and the guinea pigs thought they looked great in wetsuits. Plus several of them said their favorite superhero was Aquaman. Who would be suspicious?

Still, do guinea pigs live in mounds? A friend wisely noted that of course they do, if all you give them to live in is a mound. But if a mound weren’t at least tolerable, the guinea pigs would have words with their keepers. Most of those words would be “fweep”, with a couple “wheep” phrases included for good measure, but it would get the point across, especially when the keepers needed to sleep.

In the hope of finding some dubiously sourced, not-quite-grammatical sentences that were almost but not quite on point, I went to Wikipedia. Their article mentioned how guinea pigs aren’t found naturally in the wild. They’re creatures of domestication. That’s a heady thought. There are things it’s obvious there would never be if humans didn’t exist — Saturn V rockets, Dutch stroopwaffel, competitive Rock-Paper-Scissors leagues, Elvira-themed pinball games, Phil Harris’s novelty song “The Thing” — but how many such items would you have to list before you thought to mention “guinea pigs”? I needed at least six.

But the guinea pig article says that cavies, which is how people who want to sound like scientists but are not actually scientists refer to guinea pigs (scientists just say “guinea pigs” and giggle at people who say “cavies”), or their wild counterparts “are found on grassy plains” with no mention of mounds. So guinea pigs are perfectly camouflaged to live on mounds and not so perfectly for grassy plains. It also mentions guinea pigs “occupy an ecological niche similar to that of cattle”. It’s been days since a sentence delighted me so much.

Now my mind swirls with thoughts of herds of guinea pigs roaming the plains like ankle-high cattle. Itty-bitty cowboys, possibly costumed mice, watch over the herds, with lassoos made of dental floss and perhaps riding the backs of hares. All the cowboy-mice stay alert, listening for the sounds of mass “wheep”ing that marks the start of a guinea pig stampede. It’s a massive, thundering squirming of the critters that can get as far as four feet before all the guinea pigs remember that instead of running, they could be not running. And all this could be going on just underneath our line of sight, at least if we live near grassy plains or mounds. It’s inspired me to spend more time looking down.

Ferret Skepticism


At the pet store is a plastic cage full of ferrets, which the label says are “lively tubes of furry fun”. Thing is every time I’m in the pet store, the ferrets are sprawled out on their backs, sleeping, dozing tubes of socks that had a wee too wild a party last night. I’ll suppose they’re fun, but the evidence isn’t on stage there. Just as well. Right next to them are guinea pigs, whom I understand much better, because while they may not be tubes of fun or anything they are always looking around with an expression that says, “Are you certain I was supposed to be invited to this meeting?”

Robert Benchley: The Tariff Unmasked


One of the hardest things to remember about United States history is that up to about 1939, if you wanted to get into an intractable, incredibly bitter fight, you mentioned the tariff. Since then, nobody’s cared about it. In this piece from his book Love Conquers All Robert Benchley looks over the then-current tariff revisions and mentions some objections.

THE TARIFF UNMASKED

Let us get this tariff thing cleared up, once and for all. An explanation is due the American people, and obviously this is the place to make it.

Viewing the whole thing, schedule by schedule, we find it indefensible. In Schedule A alone the list of necessities on which the tax is to be raised includes Persian berries, extract of nutgalls and isinglass. Take isinglass alone. With prices shooting up in this market, what is to become of our picture post-cards? Where once for a nickel you could get a picture of the Woolworth Building ablaze with lights with the sun setting and the moon rising in the background, under the proposed tariff it will easily set you back fifteen cents. This is all very well for the rich who can get their picture post-cards at wholesale, but how are the poor to get their art?

The only justifiable increase in this schedule is on “blues, in pulp, dried, etc.” If this will serve to reduce the amount of “Those Lonesome-Onesome-Wonesome Blues” and “I’ve Got the Left-All-Alone-in-The-Magazine-Reading-Room-of-the-Public-Library Blues” with which our popular song market has been flooded for the past five years, we could almost bring ourselves to vote for the entire tariff bill as it stands.

Schedule B

Here we find a tremendous increase in the tax on grindstones. Householders and travelers in general do not appreciate what this means. It means that, next year, when you are returning from Europe, you will have to pay a duty on those Dutch grindstones that you always bring back to the cousins, a duty which will make the importation of more than three prohibitive. This will lead to an orgy of grindstone smuggling, making it necessary for hitherto respectable people to become law-breakers by concealing grindstones about their clothing and in the trays of their trunks. Think this over.

Schedule C

Right at the start of this list we find charcoal bars being boosted. Have our children no rights? What is a train-ride with children without Hershey’s charcoal bars? Or gypsum? What more picturesque on a ride through the country-side than a band of gypsum encamped by the road with their bright colors and gay tambourine playing? Are these simple folk to be kept out of this country simply because a Republican tariff insists on raising the tax on gypsum?

Schedule D

A way to evade the injustice of this schedule is in the matter of marble slabs. “Marble slabs, rubbed” are going to cost more to import than “marble slabs, unrubbed.” What we are planning to do in this office is to get in a quantity of unrubbed marble slabs and then rub them ourselves. A coarse, dry towel is very good for rubbing, they say.

Any further discussion of the details of this iniquitous tariff would only enrage us to a point of incoherence. Perhaps a short list of some of the things you will have to do without under the new arrangement will serve to enrage you also:

Senegal gum, buchu leaves, lava tips for burners, magic lantern strips, spiegeleisen nut washers, butchers’ skewers and gun wads.

Now write to your congressman!

Century of Slapstick #77: Chaplin’s “The Tramp”


I’m embarrassed to have missed the exact centennial of this. Well, it’s a year full of exciting centennials. Fortunately vaudeville and comedy-history enthusiast Trav SD noticed the day. So, please, a tiny bit late, appreciate the anniversary of the debut of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.

Mathematics Comics and Star Trek


My mathematics blog had another roundup of comic strips yesterday, so I hope you’ll consider going over and reading them, even if I don’t have any pictures from the comics on hand there. (There’s links for each to Gocomics.com, which I believe is a reliably stable archival source for the strips, which is why I don’t include images.) Since that’s not particularly visual, then, let me give you my thought about a scene from the third episode of Star Trek: Enterprise.

Several folks in Star Fleet jumpsuits wandering around in a field, as seen from high above, because this was early enough in the show they could afford crane and helicopter shots still.
The actors on Star Trek: Enterprise want to know if they’re finally allowed back in the studio now?

Jean-Luc Picard’s Blow-Up.

Statistics Saturday: Nations of Oceania Ordered By Length


(This one was complicated by my learning that “Oceania” still looks wrong to me even when I have independent evidence that I’m spelling it right.)

  1. Fiji
  2. Niue
  3. India [ I choose to think my ploy to increase my Indian readership is working. ]
  4. Nauru
  5. Palau
  6. Samoa
  7. Tonga
  8. Tuvalu
  9. Vanuatu
  10. Kiribati
  11. Australia
  12. New Zealand
  13. Cook Islands
  14. Solomon Islands
  15. Marshall Islands
  16. Papua New Guinea
  17. Federated States of Micronesia

Betty Boop: Dizzy Dishes


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:


While there’s one more “first” Betty Boop to include, the above review of first appearances — of her character design, of the short-lived revision in the late 30s, of her character as someone named Betty Boop, of her as protagonist — brings me to the final of the really compelling “first Betty Boop cartoons”. This would be Dizzy Dishes, the 1930 short that’s credited as the original appearance of Betty Boop.

She’s not named, although come to it nobody in the cartoon really is. She’s also not the protagonist; she comes in at about two minutes forty seconds in, and spends a minute on-screen, as the waiter-protagonist gets distracted from his mission of delivering spot gags set in a cabaret. She sings, with the protagonist — usually identified as Bimbo, and I suppose that’s as good a name as any — taking some or all of her “boop-oop-a-doop” refrain from “I Have To Have You”.

Plot and characterization are not the primary focus of an early-30s Fleischer cartoon, which is why we never really get a clear answer why Bimbo is so reluctant about delivering the roast duck to the demanding customer, who looks to me like Disney’s Pegleg Pete, with a couple early hints of Bluto worked in. The Internet Movie Database claims the character is Gus Gorilla, which is believable enough, and that he’s voiced by William Costello, who would be the first animated voice of Popeye. Delivering six minutes or so worth of gags are the focus and that’s done fairly well with an opening string of demanding customers and Bimbo’s attempts to keep up (watch how he handles a demand to make two bowls of stew).

I hate to say it, but Betty Boop’s appearance slows the proceedings down, though they do recover their odd and occasionally nightmare-fuelish bent (the roast duck lays an egg! And it hatches!) soon enough. Soon enough Gus Gorilla loses his patience, and goes after Bimbo, and I am kind of on Gus’s side here. It all ends, as any great early-30s cartoon will, with a resolution that makes you go, “wait, what?”