Time for an old-school roundup of topics that came up at bar trivia: 80s sitcoms, giant flying beasts, compendia of ephemera, and prestigious awards…
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1. We learned about the Farmers’ Almanac, in publication since 1818 and not to be confused with the Old Farmers’ Almanac, which dates to 1792 and is America’s oldest continuously published periodical, beating out Teen Vogue by three years. Both books combine trivia, ephemera, essays, horoscopes, and long-range weather predictions based on a secret formula held in the same vault as the formula for New Coke.
Farmers almanacs themselves are much, much older. Hesiod’s Works and Days, an 800-line poem of agricultural instructions, dates to 700 BCE. A full millennium older is a Sumerian clay tablet that is considered the oldest farmers almanac. Almanacs in general are also quite old and quite common. Babylonian hemerologies gave advice about things to do or avoid on certain days of the year. The Egyptians produced almanacs to predict the flooding of the Nile; the Greeks produced parapegma describing various stellar events and associated weather changes; first-century AD Islamic astrologists compiled zij, or star tables.
By the 1600s, almanacs began to take on a more modern form, collections of miscellany, agricultural tips, and astrological information. An early 19th century example was called The Prophetic Almanack and promised discussion of the “Ominous Tendency of Particular Configurations of the Planets.” This kind of palmistry and astrological prognostication was so common as to induce satirical almanacs with absurd predictions like “This month we may expect to hear of the Death of some Man, Woman, or Child, either in Kent or Christendom.”
But most relevant for our trivial purposes is Chambers Book of Days, by Robert Chambers, published in 1864. The subtitle: “A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character.” It is a mammoth 1600+ page book listing, for each day of the year, notable births, deaths, or associated saints, with “erudite essays” on several of these individuals for each day. So, yes: it was literally the trivia roundup. You can preview it here, and if anyone is looking for a birthday gift for me…
Chambers himself was most well-known, at least posthumously, for the natural history treatise Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Published anonymously in 1844, the book quickly became a bestseller. It presented a heretical, radical, and amateur theory of human origins and evolutionary change in a gray area between Lamarck’s theory of evolution based on acquired characteristics, and Darwinian evolution, which wouldn’t be published for 15 years. By some views, the book primed Victorian society to accept the idea of evolution; it even included arguments against intelligent design.
At the time, Lamarck’s idea of evolution of acquired characteristics—that, for example, a giraffe stretching its neck to reach a higher leaf will subsequently give birth to offspring with longer necks—was at the time thoroughly discredited. In fact, the entire idea had been so demonized that it had basically taken down the whole concept of evolution with it. And so Chambers’s book was denounced not just by clergy, but also scientists (one of the subsection on the wiki for this is titled “Scientific gentlemen respond”). Here’s a representative review:
““The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” has started into public favour with a fair chance of poisoning the fountains of science, and sapping the foundations of religion. Popular in its subject, as well as in its expositions, this volume has obtained a wide circulation among the influential classes of society. It has been read and applauded by those who can neither weigh its facts, nor appreciate its argument, nor detect its tendencies; while those who can – the philosopher, the naturalist, and the divine – have concurred in branding it with their severest censure.”
By the way, Chambers was a committed phrenologist, and supposedly many of the threads he tied together in this book came from meetings with his phrenology pals. He died in 1871, but was not revealed as the author of the scandalous work until 1884.
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2. Here’s a pitch: a suburban robotics engineer creates a lifelike child robot named Vicki, then convinces his family to “adopt” the robot while pretending it’s a real child and exploiting its labor in an effort to perfect some kind of robot assistant. Hijinks ensue. Inexplicably, Small Wonder lasted for four full seasons and almost 100 episodes, including sheer inanities as “The Burrito Story”, in which the son attempts to mass-produce robot-made burritos, and “The Fats of Life”, where the dad gives his robot daughter an appetite, “which creates excess digestive gases and causes her to be bloated.”
It turns out the guy who created Small Wonder was plagiarizing himself, as he’d created the 1964 series My Living Doll, a title and concept made only more distressing by virtue of their unironic situation in a particular cultural zeitgeist. The show lasted 26 episodes with Julie Newmar as the eponymous android (actually, the technical term for a female robot is—brace yourself—gynoid). It was the origin of the phrase “does not compute,” and preceded The Stepford Wives by nearly a decade, except it wasn’t a satire.
Then go the other direction, to the 1991 sci-fi action thriller Eve of Destruction. The titular Eve is a terminatrix programmed with, among other things, repressed memories of domestic violence from its creators childhood. After being shot during a botched bank robbery, the cyborg runs amok, all while fitted with a nuclear device and a 24-hour self-destruct mechanism. Only the nation’s top counter-terrorist super soldier, Gregory Hines, can stop her.
The malevolent fembot goes on a killing spree, attacking every chauvinist who calls her a bitch (not kidding), and delivering a spontaneous penectomy during oral sex, because who needs vagina dentata. It would take you a month of Sundays to even catalog, much less analyze, the scope and magnitude of Freudian subcurrents in a movie where the female protagonist is an android with a nuclear bomb where her genitals should be. This movie is what you see when you open the lid after putting repressed childhood trauma and a bundle of unresolved sexual neuroses in a pressure cooker with a timer set to “two decades on the fringes of the film industry.”
Little known fact: Eve of Destruction occurs in the same cinematic universe as Small Wonder, leading some film scholars to speculate that Eve is actually a mature Vicki, a toxic mixture of psychoses forged in a childhood crucible of social ostracism and the malfunctioning of a primitive artificial limbic system.
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3. The Pulitzers are awarded by Columbia University since 1917. In 1962, the jury and board selected a biography of William Randolph Hearst to received the award. Columbia University trustees vetoed the selection, and no award was given in that category for that year. I’m sure it was totally above-board and wasn’t about holding a half-century grudge in the Hearst-Pulitzer feud. Hemingway was similary denied an award in 1941 for For Whom the Bell Tolls, when the president of Columbia petitioned the board to reconsider how it would look for the university to endorse a book with frank sexual content (and, presumably, unstinting machismo).
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4. Pterodactyls, it turns out, are not dinosaurs. They’re flying reptiles. Archaeopteryx are actual dinosaurs, and are considered by many to be a transitional species as dinosaurs evolved into birds. The 2005 movie Pterodactyl scores a 3.1/10 on IMDb and costars Coolio. A clutch of preserved pterodactyl eggs inside a dormant volcano deep in the Turkish forest suddenly hatch, and in a landmark moment of cinematic realism, they all immediately suffocate, having been adapted to an atmosphere with vastly more oxygen. Then Coolio raps the entire Gangsta’s Paradise album from inside a volcano.