Brutus makes a mechanical man with a model of simple user interface design. The control offers the actions to stop – walk – run – sit; and there’s a dail for his voice. Robeye talks in a bit lower voice than Popeye does in, I guess, a cue to the audience. He’s using Robeye to mess up Popeye’s good name, much like he’d done with a simple marionette in 1944’s Puppet Love. Robeye meets the actual Popeye, sending Popeye into a fit of self-doubt we haven’t seen since 1939’s Hello, How Am I, when Wimpy impersonated Popeye. There have been a lot of duplicates and robots in Popeye, who, let’s not forget, is a rough-and-tumble sailor who likes a good fight. It’s surprising there haven’t been more Popeye robots before. The would do it again.
Brutus and Robeye’s first steps are pretty low-key ones. Confusing Popeye. Going to Roughhouse’s Diner to put Wimpy’s meal on his tab. Also, I guess Popeye has a charge account at the diner. It gets serious when Robeye shows up early for Popeye’s dinner with Olive Oyl and does the usual sorts of tricks. Calling her food poison. Yanking a chair out from under her. Throwing water in his face. You’d think Olive Oyl would recognize when she’s in another duplicates cartoon. But these patterns are always more obvious to outsiders.
Speaking of patterns. Once again Brutus sabotages his own successful scheme. Not, for once, by getting grabby at Olive Oyl. By showing Robeye off so Popeye understands what’s going on. It’s common enough that a villain’s hubris wrecks them. And the cartoon only has like five minutes of screen time for the whole plot, so you have to get to the climax somehow. Here, Popeye grabs the remote control and switches it to ‘Get Brutus’. I hate to cut a Roughhouse appearance but Brutus fighting Popeye for the control could have used the time better.
And we close with Olive Oyl recognizing she should have known. Popeye explaining Brutus “wanted to quiz me with you”, a use of the word quiz I did not know was out there. And Robeye eating the cans of spinach. All fair enough, the sort of competent if unexceptional cartoon you expect from Paramount.
I bet Brutus is so embarrassed he put a “Get Brutus” option on the control.
We’re back to 1960 now, and back to Gene Deitch’s studios. So there’s no story credit and the producer credit is William L Snyder. I don’t know what the organization of these videos is. So here’s Which Is Witch to watch.
Something it’s hard for kids to learn is that just because a good guy does a thing doesn’t mean they’re doing something right. A hazard of stories, especially short ones with familiar characters, is jumping to the action without justifying it. This is a good example. Popeye and Olive Oyl are sailing to Sea Hag Island. Why? They’re going to surprise her. All right, but why? Sea Hag eventually mentions she’ll get back to piracy. But it’s not clear she was doing anything before Popeye stirred up trouble.
Yes, yes, of course. Sea Hag’s a villain, we know she’s villaining even when Popeye isn’t there. But, as of the start of the cartoon, what has she done that needs a response? Going off living on an island shaped like her, and running an army of off-model Goons? (They’re the same model Goon as in Goon With The Wind, so I suppose this is how Gene Deitch liked them to look.) There’s warnings there, but what is Popeye responding to?
If we get past the motivation problem, though, we’ve got a pretty snappy cartoon here. Popeye’s sneaking up fails. Sea Hag has, of course, a duplicate robot Olive Oyl ready to dispatch and stir up trouble. We’ve had duplicate Popeyes before; I’m not sure if this is our first duplicate Olive Oyl. We also have the Sea Hag’s pet vulture. In the comic strip he’s named Bernard. Here he’s Sylvester. I have no explanation for this phenomenon.
There’s also a bunch of little points that almost but don’t quite make sense. Olive Oyl sees Popeye kissed by a woman about Olive Oyl’s height and about Olive Oyl’s weight and wearing Olive Oyl’s clothes, on the Sea Hag’s island, and her first suspicion is not “the Sea Hag’s pulling some stunt”? Popeye left his spinach behind in the boat because … ? The Robot Olive Oyl is more in love with Popeye than willing to follow the Sea Hag’s directions. That one I’m all right with, actually, since the slightly-too-perfect duplicate is a good bit.
Despite my doubts about the plot, the cartoon’s got a lot to commend it. A good pace. Pretty fluid animation considering its limits. A lot of camera pans to make a little bit of motion seem like more. A plot with twists, too, as the Sea Hag outsmarts Popeye’s sneaking-up, and the Robot Olive Oyl betrays the Sea Hag. Some pretty lively voice acting, too, especially from Jack Mercer.
This is another cartoon with a wrong title, though. Which Is Witch, and a premise that there’s a duplicate Olive Oyl, implies a story where it’s hard to tell two Olives Oyl apart. Popeye’s a little confused, but it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t complicate the story any. I wonder if the title fit the story outline, but the finished product mutated away and nobody had a better title.
I’m still left wondering, in an echo of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff: what was Popeye’s plan? Go in, get captured, and escape? Mission accomplished, I guess?
O G Wotasnozzle, inventor, was created by Elzie Segar to give us a reason to read his other comic strip, Sappo. He migrated to Popeye, bringing the strip the occasional wacky invention. In the King Features cartoons he showed up a fair bit, usually with the time machine that Olive Oyl dusts at the start. The cartoon does nothing to explain what this is or why it would do anything, but you know? When you’re seven years old? Somehow you never need anything explained. Each year I regret I can no longer follow the plot of Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. To a kid, it makes intuitive sense. Of course Olive Oyl should accidentally activate the time machine and get sent off to … somewhere.
Olive Oyl gets a cute line about how “scientists don’t seem to mind a little dust as long as it’s cosmic”. That is such a 1960 line. It’s not that space scientists have lost an interest in cosmic dust, but when do you ever hear about it anymore? Also Olive Oyl looks back over her shoulder at the camera. For this era of cartoon, it’s a subtle movement. This is also about where everything falls apart.
Wotasnozzle comes in and, using stock footage, discovers his time machine tampered with. And in other stock footage realizes that “they’ve” got Olive Oyl. Also that “they” are an entity that exists. Who are “they” and what do they want with Olive Oyl? … Great questions.
Wotasnozzle phones Popeye, who’s in what looks like stock footage of sleeping. His half of the call has something to do with something being “decontaminated”. And what was contaminated? Great question. Popeye rushes over to Wotasnozzle’s lab and eats his spinach right away. It’s the sensible thing to do, but raises the question why he doesn’t start every cartoon with the spinach power-up. Other than for fear of making the cartoons too short. Then we see the time machine as its stock footage normally works. Thus the gloved mechanical hand sliding Popeye through the air while Wotasnozzle runs merrily around the machine. Given all the work Wotasnozzle has to do to make this run it’s surprising Olive Oyl could get sent anywhere without help.
The time machine sends Popeye to my heart’s deepest desire, a great domed city. Apparently it’s in space for how Popeye flies around it. But he can’t break through, so Wotasnozzle hurries him back for more preparation. The tool that will make all the difference: invisibility pills. He swallows them in a cross-section animation. I recognize it from early-60s parodies of some indigestion-relief pill. I don’t know which. All I know is the parodies.
Does the invisibility work? Sure does, illustrated by using stock footage of Popeye doing the sailor’s hornpipe but leaving out parts of the animation cells. You have to animate invisibility somehow, and Fraser goes for having Popeye just not be seen. When we the audience have to know where he is, it’s footprints. It’s a workable answer. It doesn’t explain how Wotasnozzle can follow along on his viewscope, but there is a lot about Wotasnozzle’s lab that isn’t explained. Anyway this has all been a bunch of plot. Now it’s time for the cartoon to really sit on our heads and make us beg for mercy. There’s three minutes, 15 seconds left.
Back in the future(?), Popeye figures he can now sneak past the guards. What guards? Where did they come from? Wasn’t the problem an impenetrable dome? … Great questions.
He strides past a robot(?) guard to the civic center. He pushes through a crowd made up of the robot(?) helmets, without bodies, because to walk around he’d have to take two steps to the right. He reads that Olive Oyl’s on exhibit. Off to the monorail for a ride to the Palace Circle. This is important because it sets up a monorail chase that won’t make sense later.
He arrives at a giant robot statue holding an enormous dome. It looks like the cover that snooty waiters use to bring food to the Marx Brothers. And then we jump to the completely wrong background. We’re supposed to see Popeye trying to figure how to get over a moat to the Olive Oyl exhibit. But since what we see is a giant interior of a monorail car. So good luck figuring out why Popeye can’t walk across what looks like as open a plaza as anything on the Brutalist college campuses I attended. Also how do we know this is Palace Circle? How do we know Olive Oyl is here? Where do those two guards blip to when they disappear? … Great questions.
Popeye frees Olive Oyl from her captivity, a chair that doesn’t have armrests. Also a ball and chain. He tears off the ball and chain, throwing it at the guards to get them fighting. His invisibility starts to wear off, giving him the chance to use the sailor’s hornpipe stock footage again, this time with bullets shot at him. Then he swallows the other invisibility pills Wotasnozzle gave him for just this sort of emergency. There’s a curious glow around where Popeye’s chest should be here. It’s a neat effect, suggesting maybe that he’s supposed to become visible again. But there’s so little of this cartoon that seems like it was animated on purpose. I can’t rule out that it’s a long-lived compression artifact in the YouTube file. The glow starts about 20:46, though, which probably means it’s just some weird effect.
Popeye ties the guards’ antennas together, which starts them electrocuting each other, which seems like a design flaw. Olive Oyl warns they’re calling out the guards and what do you know, but the giant robot statue in the Palace Circle orders the guards called out. Also the statue is itself a robot, I guess. It could be the robot king. Who knows?
They make a getaway in the monorail, which is brilliant except for being stupid. It turns out that cars behind and ahead of them converge on Popeye’s car. Popeye declares that he’ll “bam-bobble them with me invisible muscles”. By this he means he’ll have his car go on the underside of the monorail, which is a thing that monorail cars can do. The pursuing cars collide. Also Popeye’s car crashes into the robot statue back at the Palace Circle, which is an occurrence that makes sense. Popeye and Olive Oyl climb out from right where they started and Wotasnozzle remembers he can just bring them back now.
Popeye’s got one of the robot(?) helmets stuck on his head. Still, he knows they’re home safe and sound. While sneezing, Olive Oyl inhales two invisibility tablets right off the counter, which is a thing that happens, and she blips out of the cartoon. Well, she kisses Popeye some. The Sailor Man declares, embarrassed, “this invisibility has ruined my visibility”. The declaration seems like it meant something to somebody at some point.
This cartoon invites us to ask many questions, but most of them are versions of “the heck am I watching?”. It’s not that this has to be an incoherent story. The premise is good, and up to Popeye’s return to the future it’s presented well. But then we’re hit with what seem like missing scenes, such as establishing that there’s a guard for Popeye to get past. Or that the giant robot statue is not just decoration but can bark out orders. Or that the robots even speak: they’re mute for so long that it’s weird when the robot starts to speak. Add in the animation glitches and what should be a straightforward cartoon loses coherence.
It’s also a disappointing vision of the future. It’s basically a domed city, a monorail, and the light bridge. These are good props but there’s not much done with them. And the background error makes the introduction of the light bridge seem pointless. Certainly having Olive Oyl get lost, and Popeye get sent after her, demands a good chunk of the five-minute run time. But why not have Popeye interact with a local instead of push his way past a crowd they don’t want to really draw? Popeye having a false start and having to return to Wotasnozzle is a nice bit of business, but would the cartoon have been better if we met the Future Robot(?) King instead?
But if they didn’t have some good jokes about of future-life to, it’s better not to force it. I’m content with a weird cartoon where everything falls just short of being motivated. It’s better than Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Brutus doing their usual routine in a Suburban Boring house that also has computer buttons. Which, you’ll trust me, they could do.
I got to wondering whether every major cartoon character in the 60s built a homemade robot. Then I thought out who I could remember doing this: Popeye. Wile E Coyote, in one of the Rudy Larriva cartoons. That’s about it, although I’d bet money that, like, Mister Jinks tried one on Pixie and Dixie. It seems like something which was in vogue, anyway.
Popeye lays out the premise by talking to himself. It’s an efficient way in to explaining why he’s building a robot. For this short, he’s so sloppy a person as to, like, hang wading overalls from the curtain rod. I’m curious how he got them there in the first place. Like, I’m cluttered because I can’t bring myself to exert the energy to put stuff away. Hanging wading overalls like that seems like more effort than anything you could do with them. The tire in the living room makes sense, of course. I don’t know why he has the Holy Grail sitting on the mantle. I love his standing lamp, though.
You know the short’s something when I’m pondering things like that. Most of my notes are stray random odd bits. Like, Popeye subscribes to Popeye Popular Mechanics? You might think they didn’t micro-target subscribers like that back in the day, but remember, this is the era when the Saturday Evening Post decided to improve its fortunes by cancelling all subscriptions from people with undesirable zip codes. Somehow this plan turned out to be stupid and failed.
Anyway, Popeye builds Mac the Mechanical Man. There’s some spare parts left over, a thing I expected to set up mischief. I’m still not sure it didn’t. Mac, ordered to clean, pops a washer-woman’s hat out of its head and then goes ballet-dancing around the room. Ordered to cook, Mac pops a chef’s hat out and makes pancakes the traditional way: using bullets and pouring oil on them to light them on fire. It’s a bit daft. I’m not clear it’s supposed to be the fault of the leftover parts. I guess Mac was trying to make crepes suzette after all, even after being told Popeye wanted “flapjacks”, both things that were not on Mac’s menu-board chest.
I’m curious why Mac doesn’t speak. It’s not like they were afraid of having Jack Mercer or, especially, Jackson Beck double up voices. Maybe it was to keep Mac a bit alien. If he’s joking around with Popeye (you know he’d be joking around with Popeye) then Brutus coming in and rewiring him to be Evil is darker stuff. Still, Mac’s got an expressive face, and he acts flamboyantly, more alive than anyone else in the short. Maybe giving him a voice would let him too completely take over the short.
So Brutus remembers he’s not in this short, and comes in to set Mac on a rampage. But why? I guess to give the cartoon a climax. Jokes of Mac doing some household chore all weird are fine, but shapeless. On the other hand, it’s not as if Coyote-and-Road-Runner cartoons have a storyline, or as if we like the cartoons where there is. It’s a measure of how slight Brutus’s role is that he and Popeye never directly confront each other. It’s not until after Mac has shot the bomb back at Brutus (somehow having worked out that it’s dangerous?) that Popeye even knows Brutus is here today. There’s no spinach either, or mention of it apart from Mac’s menu board. I wonder if Grant and Schmidt wrote this up for any old cartoon character and wrote Popeye in when, say, the Beetle Bailey series didn’t have room for it. Or whether they made that for Beetle Bailey too. Close with Popeye happy at his mechanical servant and dreaming of Olive Oyl’s approval, and Mac going wild for that.
This cartoon seems like it ought to be boring. It sets up a premise, shuffles it around a bit more, then tosses in a bomb to bring it to an end. I wasn’t bored, though. The pacing was decent. Mac went about the housekeeping chores in weird ways, which made that worth watching. The animation drawing is … I’ll call it loose, to the point you can ask whether anyone drawing this had model sheets to refer to. But I’ll take loose and weird-looking. I may not agree with whatever Popeye is doing with his lips at about 13:52 there, but I agree he has the right to do it. It puts life into what’s otherwise a dead scene.
Is there a comic minigenre funnier than early-60s Old People complaining about The Beatles? Arguably, it is early-60s Old People trying to make fun of Elvis. Let’s watch Mueller’s Mad Monster. This is a Larry Harmon-produced cartoon; Paul Fennell directs.
There was a cartoon attitude popular in the 1950s and 60s that I grew up liking. Call it Cartoon Existentialism. This is where characters do some role, not because they have reason to. They just know they have this role and they’re going to play it. You see this in any of the little home-appliance animals in The Flintstones, who shrug that it’s a living. Or fairy tale stories starring, like, Huckleberry Hound, where the characters shrug that this blue dog is messing up their routine.
Mad Mueller is such a creature. He’s introduced as the mad scientist at a nice spooky storm-ridden castle. He’s building a monster because what else does a mad scientist do in such castles? It’s a robot because, what the heck. It’s 1960. That the cartoon is soaked in this attitude of “what else are we going to do” predisposes me to like it.
I still do. It’s barely an animated cartoon. As the monster Irving carries off Olive Oyl, Popeye lets off a fair bit of trash-talking and daring bragging. Almost anything as long as he doesn’t have to walk over there. I have days like that. There’s one real moment of life in the cartoon, around 9:09 as Popeye and Irving get into a good fight cloud. It’s fun and has a nice sound effect to it. We could wish there were more of it. But there is something that amuses me in the fight being such a short sequence so repeated. It’s almost an extraction of what makes a cartoon fight cloud.
There is a fair bit of dialogue. And it’s trying to be funny. Many of the jokes work for me, at least a bit. Mad Mueller telling the camera, “I push the little button. That looks like a good button,” for example. That really captures the Cartoon Existentialism of the piece.
The dialogue wants to be funny. So if you find something amusing in the idea of a Frankensteinian monster named Irving, you’re in good shape. If you like the idea that a spooky castle is in a neighborhood named Horrors Heights? Yeah, that works. Or this doesn’t do anything for you and the cartoon is wholly lost. I grant the premise that “Irving” is a funny name for a monster isn’t a strong joke. Or that Mueller can’t quite name Worcestershire sauce as he tries to whip up artificial spinach. Better, I think, is the casual way that Popeye speaks to Irving “as one monster to another”. Olive Oyl picks this up too, telling Mueller about how “your monster is beating up my monster”.
Popeye doesn’t have his spinach on him. Why? Well, so Olive Oyl and Mad Mueller have something to do in the end of the cartoon. Popeye smashes Irving to pieces and then rebuilds him. Why? Well, because you don’t want a mad scientist going around without a monster. Popeye rebuilds Irving into a figure who looks like Elvis Presley, Olive Oyl tells us. (I only see it about half the time.) Why? What else are you going to do? It’s a cartoon from 1960, you gotta do something.
I’m sorry, I’d really like to get something done, but I’ve been reading Fred M Grandinetti’s Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History and trying to figure out just how many times in the 1960s cartoons they did “Brutus or the Sea Hag builds a Robot Popeye”. It’s somehow even more if you include “Brutus or the Sea Hag builds a Robot Olive Oyl”. And none of that considers the time the Whiffle Hen turned Wimpy into a werewolf.
I have to apologize a bit for today’s Talkartoon. Not for the content; for the presentation. I can’t find it on archive.org. I’ve found it on YouTube, and that looks good, but the link might expire when I’m not looking. If you’re reading this sometime in the future and find that it has, please let me know and I’ll try to fix things. Might even be on archive.org by then.
The cartoon was released the 5th of February, 1932, just a couple weeks after Boop-Oop-A-Doop. There’s no credits for the animators; not even guesses. It’s the last Talkartoon we can say that about.
The cartoon feels anachronistic. For the first time in ages Bimbo’s got the starring role. And he’s got his older, more screwball-character model design. Betty Boop — well, is Betty Boop even in this one? The cartoon was included in the Complete Betty Boop Collection videotapes in the 90s, but on what grounds? She isn’t named, and she doesn’t look much like Betty Boop. Mostly; there’s the scene where she comes out of the circus tent about 4:50 in where she’s basically on model. She looks closer to the possibly proto-Betty-Boop who figured in Grand Uproar or Teacher’s Pest. And there are a lot of scenes where the camera puts the scene in a circle surrounded by black. Sometimes this irises out to a whole scene. It’s a common technique for cutting between scenes or setting focus that silent movies (cartoons and live-action) used all the time. It faded out with the coming of sound, for reasons I’m not sure about. Here it’s everywhere. Given all this I wonder if the cartoon wasn’t made months, maybe a year, earlier and not released until later on.
Oh yeah also it’s about Bimbo’s Robot. In 1932. If that weren’t bizarre enough the cartoon opens with Bimbo’s television. It’s common enough these days to tell stories about stuff that hasn’t been invented yet. It’s startling to realize they were telling stories about stuff that wasn’t yet invented that long ago. Yes, yes, there were experimental television rigs that could transmit upwards of four blurry lines of a Felix the Cat clock back then. It was still a thing for the imagination, not something everyday people could experience. It was a thing of the future, the way robots were too.
Well, since Bimbo wears his car to go boxing it’s more of a mecha than a robot properly. But the concept was still in rapid flux back then. They wouldn’t even discover how to pronounce “robot” so it doesn’t sound weird until 1964.
Despite the screwball-character model Bimbo isn’t a nutty character here, no more than any inventor in a cartoon is. It’s made up for by the story being an actual, successfully formed story. There’s clear motivation for everything Bimbo does, and it builds to a climax that makes sense. It’s a surprisingly non-zany cartoon, but it’s well-crafted.
I can’t say there are any jokes you’re likely to miss by blinking. The horse on top of Bimbo’s invention shack is good but it’s not much of a joke per se; it’s just atmospheric weirdness. Nor are there any real body horror jokes. I can’t figure out what’s going on at about 1:50; I think maybe a dart going through a fanciful heart got cut off by the framing? There’s some good camera work, when the car goes weaving all over the road and when Bimbo’s Robot gets punched high up above the ring. A mouse finally turns up ringing the bell about 4:25 in, and similarly later, and waving a flag during the parade at the end. And I get a good solid laugh from the referee cat’s fast count-out of One-Round Mike.
It’s overall a rather solid showing for Bimbo, who for a wonder gets to lead the flow of action. And for the cartoon, which sets up its premise and develops it without unmotivated weirdness. This might be the one flaw of the cartoon, in that there isn’t a baffling side to it. I’m sorry there’s not information available on who wrote or animated the cartoon. The cartoon shows a plotting skill that is uncommon for Fleischer cartoons of the era. One more anachronism.
The area library got He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe: Minicomic Collection. This is a heck of a book, compiling all of the minicomics that were originally included with toy figures back in the day. It’s a lot of book, something like 24,864 pages and more reading than I had to do to earn my Master’s in Mathematics. The books start out weird, but soon settle in to a comfortable routine. Most of them, at least once the cartoon had got started and they had a specific continuity to pay attention to, are about He-Man talking with his New Friend, Whatever This Current Toy Is. New Friend worries that he’s not as good as the rest of the Masters of the Universe, and then Skeletor does some nonsense or other and New Friend’s unique abilities turn out to save the day, even if his power is that he’s made of rock. Or it’s a new villain who uses his powers to be the greatest possible menace ever to He-Man who still foils the villain, even if it turns out his power is that he’s got more than one eye. But sometimes there’s a variation. Like in this one.
So here Man-At-Arms is able to make a robot which, sure, that’s fair enough. He’s a guy with a helmet and green leggings, of course he can make robots. What I’m dubious about: he can make a robot be invincible? Should that really be in Man-At-Arms’s power set? At the least shouldn’t he get someone higher-ranked to sign off on this? Another dubious thing: he can give robots hearts? I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, just, again, should he be doing this without Institutional Review Board approval?
I know I’ll feel like a fool if we get to Friday and the world as we know it hasn’t ended, but I’ll deal with that if it comes. You know how your neighborhood has that vaguely creepy, inexplicable shop? Ours is this office supply shop. It’s got a faded poster for Fischer Space Pens on it, and a sign advertising their typewriter repair, and about four billion office chairs forming a sea of chair-space in the front half of the shop, and you never see anyone going into or out of it. Been there forever.
I have gone into it. We needed some manilla envelopes and I figured, hey, if I don’t patronize the weird local shops they might go under and we’ll have to rely on multinational-corporate creepy stores. Those are nowhere near as interesting, although they do have better bathrooms you can use. But it still seemed like a good idea so I went in, bumped my shin into fourteen different kinds of office chair, and eventually got to the cashier’s desk, in the middle of the shop, where nobody was.
And I stood, faintly anxious, and realizing that the store seemed to have a lot of desks and office chairs and typewriter supplies, but manilla envelopes? Not so clearly there. In back someone was talking on the phone, but I couldn’t make any sense of the conversation. Well, also I didn’t want to eavesdrop, since I was concluding the shop was a front maintained by aliens, possibly robot dinosaurs from another dimension, who were examining mid-Michigan most likely in advance of an invasion. Eventually someone wearing her finest human guise did come out, and was startled by me. I admitted my manilla-envelope needs and she went into the back room for what seems like too long, unless the room is much vaster inside than the laws of ordinary geometry would allow to fit in the building. She came back with four, not all the same color, and apologized that they were not properly manilla envelopes. She wrote out a receipt on one of those pads the waitstaff at a diner uses to scribble down nothing that looks like anything you ordered and a price that isn’t what the register actually rings up.
So yeah, secret portal back there where the alien robot dinosaurs keep enough office supplies to answer the curious venturer. Bear in mind, I didn’t let the manilla envelope thing stop me from ever stepping inside again. I went back a couple months later when we needed some security envelopes. Also this makes me realize our household envelope need is bigger and more diverse than I thought. But once again it was a good five awkward minutes before a “clerk” came out of the “back room” to see how to get me out of the base with as few suspicions raised as possible. And he had to go in back again for a dusty box of security envelopes and wrote out a receipt by hand for it all.
Wednesday, the local alt-weekly says, they’re going to be closing up their office-supply-store cover operation. The paper was vague about why they’re closing up just now, but my love reports that their Facebook page says … in July … some grumbling things about the landlord selling the building. Ah, but, before that: the news that their typewriter repair guy is back. And before that? That their typewriter repair guy is going to be out for “surgery” a while. That takes them to the start of the year.
So, I have to figure, the cover story of being an office furniture and typewriter repair shop has outlived its utility, and they’re going on to the next phase of their operation, and we’re going to have to live with the consequences. I’m figuring to spend the day no closer than Grand Rapids.
Source: The C E Hooper Radio Survey of the 2nd of June, 1939.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose sharply as everyone took the what-the-full-moon-reveals-about-you test and more people came out “were-dragon” than even they had secretly hoped. Even Mopey Pete who figured he couldn’t hope to do better than were-hyena and would have been okay with that came out were-sea-serpent and yes, that ranks below were-dragon but it’s still pretty cool, especially if it comes with a bay or major lake to were- in.
So we’ve got this worrisome story courtesy Reuters: Robot mother builds and improves its own children. According to Matthew Stock’s report, researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Having Never, Ever Seen A God-Awful Movie developed a robot that builds its own “child” robots, tests them out, and improves the next design.
So far the MommaBot merely “constructs a design using between one and five plastic cubes that are stuck together using glue”. This isn’t too alarming, although I note my mother sent me to make stuff by sticking together styrofoam balls on toothpicks. These would immediately fall apart again, thus ending any peril from styrofoam-ball-robot technology. Glue is an obvious game-changer.
I suppose the saving grace is that since this is British researchers working on it, the immediate goal of all this robot-building-robot experimentation will be a robot that can build its own model railroad. Then on to a robot that can look at its own model railroad while telling everyone no, they may not play with it because they’ll disrupt the timetable. Eventually we’ll need almost no people to fret about model railroads at all, although who knows what we’ll do instead.
For today’s cartoon I’m stepping back into the Fleischer Color Classics, with a short released the 26th of August, 1938: All’s Fair At The Fair. The title gives away the subject: it’s a World’s Fair cartoon, and since it was the late 30s it’s a severely Art Deco setting to show off the automated and mechanized world of tomorrow, the one that doesn’t really need people in it.
This is a setting, and a hook to hang jokes on, that’s well-designed for the Fleischer Cartoons: Max and Dave Fleischer had a particular thrill for ingenious mechanisms and gadgetry. Sometimes I suspect they’re a little bothered to have to have characters in their cartoons, and so the automated, people-less World of Tomorrow plays to their strengths. After the initial scenes this is a very empty World’s Fair, with just one country-hick pair of characters appearing at all. I’m not sure the characters even had any written dialogue. The way they mutter evokes the contemporary Popeye style, in which the voices were recorded after animation. But Elmer and Miranda haven’t got the personality of Popeye and Olive Oyl, and Jack Mercer (the voice of Popeye) and Margie Hines (who had taken over voicing Olive Oyl and Betty Boop) couldn’t do much to give them character.
But this isn’t one to watch for the characters. It’s one to watch for gadgets doing things, and for the lovely background and set designs. That works, all, doesn’t it?
It’s easy to ask why the alien robot has dreadlocks, although asking it answers the question. We’re almost forced to ask why any alien robots wouldn’t have dreadlocks. I think the bigger question is how does the alien robot have dreadlocks, but that’s only longer if you use certain variable-width typefaces which kern the ‘h’ and ‘y’ together a bit tightly. The real question is why the alien robot dog has six legs when the alien robots seem to have only four limbs, although I bet it’s one of those “why does Goofy walk on two legs while Pluto walks on four if they’re both dogs” kinds of questions.
Among the stuff dug out of the attic and basement for the yard sale has been a couple of Furby dolls, which turn out to almost kind-of work for the most part. With the new batteries put in it turns out at least one of them will suddenly pop its eyes open and start muttering chipper things in Furbish, the sing-songy language created by JRR Tolkein, and then keep at it a couple minutes until it gets bored and goes back to sleep for hours and hours.
This made us realize: when the thing was put up in the attic years ago, with batteries in, it was probably doing the same thing, waiting for a random moment and then popping open its servo-controlled eyes and wiggling its slightly lopsided ears and demanding attention in one of several dozen phonemes, and then falling back into a silent wait that might end without warning.
So, now we can finally explain why the bats in our attic were having nightmares all those years. Good to know.
So if you’re like me you got around to thinking about rock-paper-scissors, because you saw somebody wearing a Big Bang Theory-inspired T-shirt reading rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock and were trying to remember how the rules to that went, only to remember that while you kind of respect The Big Bang Theory for getting its nerd jokes accurate you also feel a kind of vague dissatisfaction whenever the show comes on, or up, the kind that inspires you to take the broom out and start a sweeping project that might reach as many as four houses up the street before the energy burns out. I might be over-generalizing from my experience.
But what I was thinking particularly about it is there’s a robot out there that’s able to reliably win rock-paper-scissors contests. And I mean really, seriously win, beating even champion rock-paper-scissors players, the kind of people who insist they’re champion roshambo players because when they tell people they’re champion rock-paper-scissors players they get all kinds of snarky resistance. “Oh yeah,” they hear, “and I knew a guy in college who was one of the world’s top coin-flippers.” “Shut up,” they answer, and start to explain the details of human psychology and discerning choice patterns which lend themselves to long-term strategic insights, and the conversation soon passes the “nuh-uh” phase and turns into a brawl. By using a more obscure word everyone enjoys a more peaceful existence, as it’s easier to get along than admit you don’t know what someone is talking about, and when you think about it this explains about twenty-two percent of all human interactions.
The idea that a robot can now reliably beat humans at rock-paper-scissors suggests there’s been a real breakthrough in getting robots to fritter away time. Someday humans might be able to let robots do all manner of minor and marginally useful selection tasks, like one-potato-two or settling shotgun disputes ahead of a trip to PathMark, or maybe checking if PathMark is still a thing that exists and replacing it with, I don’t know, A & P if it doesn’t.
Then we might see robots finally come to their potential of saving us from the minor tasks that, if we really thought about them, we’d realize we don’t need to do. They might sneer for us at the satellite TV descriptions of shows on the channels we don’t watch, or maybe take over the whole of playing hopscotch. The savings in excessively minor time-consuming tasks would compare favorably to the time which would be saved if you never accidentally put your socks on inside-out ever again.
At least, that’s the promise you might think this all has if you don’t know how the rock-paper-scissors robot works. The reason it can beat anyone is it watches the human’s hand, and it can tell the difference between the first fractions of a second of throwing rock, or paper, or scissors, and then picks what it throws. In short, it succeeds by cheating. I’m not sure “cheating robot” is really that big a breakthrough in robot technology. The artificial intelligences behind Civilization games have been cheating for years because there’s no way the Aztecs build Michelangelo’s Cathedral right from under me, and the only thing you’d gain by putting a robot in to cheat at Civilization is you could punch it.
But that overlooks the interesting part, which is that a robot can now figure out in fractions of a second which of three ways you might extend fingers. Surely in time the computer will be able to figure out dozens, maybe hundreds of potential hand signs, each linked to some desirable behavior like “turn up the music” or “change the channel to something more sneer-worthy” or “order an appliance to send information over the Internet”, and they’ll be able to follow those directions before you even finish making the hand sign. By 2025 we could see the average home become a haven of quiet as everyone sits on top of their hands in the middle of an empty room, feeling too nervous to even twitch, because last time they sneezed and ineptly covered their mouth, then tried to shake it off, they ordered services from three online companies and sent a panic alert to the Coast Guard, and they don’t dare start that trouble again. Thus, as ever, does rock-paper-scissors bring life to a Ballardian nightmare. Can’t wait.
Today’s cartoon is another silent-era one. I hope I’m not trying people’s patience with these, but they are more commonly public domain (so I feel safer including them), and I find them fascinating, and this is after all a place where I share stuff that amuses me. But, anyway, this one is an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon, called, aptly, Mechanical Cow. It comes from Walt Disney Productions, directed by Disney and animated by Ub Iwerks and surely others, though it was produced for Universal Pictures, before Disney went into business for himself proper. Famous-in-animation-circles story.
Anyway, the plot is what might as well be the standard-issue black-and-white cartoon: genially pleasant, faintly Harold Lloyd-ish lead character goes about his business, with a string of amusing gags where he does something clever with the stage business, and then his girlfriend gets introduced and gets captured by the big bad guys, and then, the lead has to go rescue him. The plot doesn’t matter. Look at the animation: it’s much smoother, more naturalistic, more skillful than even the very good work of the Fleischers or the other studios of the time. Disney and Iwerks had great talent and great craftsmanship, and that shows through in, for example, the moment when Oswald steals the cow’s bed.
Curiously to my eyes, the fact that this is a mechanical cow doesn’t seem to figure much. You could recast it with a real cow and … all right, some of the jokes would become more disturbing, but I don’t think they’d be that much worse than was already the norm for silent-era cartoons. I have to wonder if the animation team started with the title — and it’s a good starting point for a cartoon, certainly — and then developed the short without quite making full use of it.
This isn’t going to be a particularly sophisticated little installment. What sets it off is that I was reading the story comics. I didn’t think much of the story strips when I was a kid; they were just this inky-black column on the left side of the Star-Ledger‘s comics page where there were never any jokes and nothing seemed to happen. There’s still nothing happening, albeit at a much slower pace than back then, but I’ve come to understand the charms of their storytelling structures.
That’s not to say I won’t giggle where it’s really not meant as a result of the strip not doing what it wants. For the first, here’s Wednesday’s Mary Worth, by Karen Moy and Joe Giella, which is the usual setup in which Mary is using a tiny casserole to shove her way into someone else’s life. It’s just the looks on Mary’s and then Iris’s faces that makes me laugh. The two of them have plastered these wide-eyed stares and are looking any any direction except at the person they’re talking to. And then you notice in the second panel either Mary’s falling over backwards or else she’s thrusting her hips at Iris, and either way, well.
The other is from back in the day when they knew how to introduce and run through a story in a reasonable time. From April 1959 it’s Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, and in this story Flash has been impressed into an alien army’s suicide squadron and is being put up against a training robot which … well, perhaps there’s a time when I would have taken “this knife-fighting robot — it plays for keeps!” in utter seriousness, but that time was before Futurama introduced us to robot criminal Roberto.
I laughed so at the reveal of the knife-fighting robot that my love called downstairs to ask if I was all right. I swear.
(Again I apologize for the comics being small on the page. If you click on them you should see a wider version, and appreciate the strips in more of their glory.)