illusory trivia roundup

Time to roundup some topics that came up in the last two weeks of bar trivia. Buckle up for failed marketing campaigns, precision measurement, extreme botany, and mirages…

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1. The fata morgana is an uncommon type of mirage, in which objects near the horizon are duplicated (sometimes multiple times) and distorted. It’s named for the enchantress Morgana, foe of King Arthur, because the mirages were thought to be black magic.

I’ve learned that mirages can be divided into two categories: superior mirages, in which the mirage appears above the actual object. Those happen when the air below the line of sight is colder than the air above it (an atypical thing, which is why superior mirages are comparatively rare). The fata morgana is a superior mirage that only happens when a temperature inversion meets an atmospheric duct (don’t ask me to explain that), which causes multiple stacked and distorted duplicates of the original object. An inferior mirage is more common, and occurs when the mirage is below the actual object; it’s the standard oasis-in-the-desert illusion.

a fata morgana

Fata Morgana is also the title of a 1971 film by auteur / lunatic Werner Herzog. The film is not a coherent narrative, but an unstructured sequence of shots and themes—such as “Scientist with Monitor Lizard” and “What we can learn from the turtle”—stitched together while the narrator reads a Herzog-adapted version of the Mayan creation myth. Herzog described the film as “a big success with young people who had taken various drugs.” I swear if you cracked Werner Herzog’s head open it would just be the inside of Jeannie’s lamp with the Mike Myers “Sprockets” sketch playing backwards on an infinite loop projected on all the walls. 

Life imitates art, but art also imitates life; the universe is a cosmic ouroboros in which circumstances and experience intermix then deliquesce in an infinite fractal miasma of reality and unreality. Anyway, Herzog filmed the movie in Cameroon without official sanction; his crew was briefly imprisoned because the cinematographer’s name was similar to a German mercenary who had recently been sentenced to death; Herzog himself was jailed, beaten, and infected with bilharizia.

Fun fact: Fata Morgana forced Blockbuster to create a “Teutonic Arthouse Gallimaufry” section.

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2. The rarest orchid is the ghost orchid (the eponymous blood orchid of Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid is as fake as Jon Voight’s accent in the original Anaconda). The ghost orchid is cool because it has an extremely long nectar spur, and only one insect—the giant sphinx moth—has a proboscis long enough to pollinate it. The giant sphinx moth is both giant and sphinx-like, by which I mean it is full of mystery, by which I mean its wikipedia entry is only like 100 words long.

I want to talk about another flower, though: Rafflesia are the single largest flowers in the world, with petals that can be up to three feet across and weight up to 20 pounds. They also—and here’s a thing I did not know existed—are parasitic: they attach to a host vine by means of something called an absorption organ, and have no stems, leaves, or roots. And as if a giant parasite flower was not unsettling enough, they also emit the strong scent of decaying flesh and are sometimes referred to as the “corpse flower” or “meat flower” (note this is not the same corpse flower that only blooms every ten years and is sometimes in the news; it’s a totally different corpse flower).

it me, the 20 pound parasitic flower that smells of death

The flowers are named for Thomas Stamford Raffles, “idealistic entrepreneur, a romantic imperialist, and passionately anti-slavery”, and nominal “founder” of Singapore. Raffles was heading an expedition in the rainforests of Sumatra in 1818 when the flower was discovered. All indications are that it was dubbed Rafflesia as an honorarium, but given that it’s a death-scented parasitic corpse flower, perhaps it was an insult.

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3. The People’s Court stands alongside Divorce Court, representing the old guard of adjudicatory reality TV. Taking the bench in 1981, Judge Wapner ruled for 12 years and 2,484 episodes before the show was canceled; it idled for four years before Ed Koch took over in 1997. So TPC is 36 years old. Divorce Court, though, is SIXTY years old. It debuted in 1957, hosted by Voltaire Perkins (actual name!), and featured dramatized reenactments of actual divorce proceedings.

This is all fascinating because I assumed divorce was an essentially verboten topic in Pleasantville-era America. In 1953, I Love Lucy featured a pregnancy in which characters were not allowed to use the word pregnant; in 1957 Leave it to Beaver producers negotiated with network censors to allow a toilet tank to be shown on screen (showing the toilet bowl was a step too far). It’s famously cited that it took until the mid 1960s before a married couple was shown sharing the same bed on television (technically incorrect; it had been shown briefly in 1947). And yet here was Divorce Court featuring stories like “a woman gives her son up for adoption, then later tracks him down and marries him” or “a father stages a series of “accidents” with his children to collect on insurance money” and other heteronormative titillations. It’s almost as though the aseptic wholesomeness of postwar boomer culture is, in reality, a gauzy artifice of idealized retrospection.

Other research notes:

  • In 1998, Judge Wapner returned for Judge Wapner’s Animal Court, a show of animal-based arbitration. It was canceled in 2000.
  • Leave it to Beaver had the first toilet on TV; the first out gay couple was in Norman Lear’s Hot l Baltimore. That’s HOT L, like a neon sign for Hotel Baltimore, but the ‘e’ is burned out. Even money that the name was more daring than featuring a gay couple.
  • Apropos of nothing: remember that show Cheaters? Turns out that a) it’s still airing, 2) that time Joey Greco got stabbed by an angry boyfriend was staged, and d) it’s now hosted by Clark Gable III. Yes, that Clark Gable.

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4. A fifth of alcohol is a fifth of a gallon, which is 757 mL. Dipsomaniacal readers and/or measurement fetishists may notice that booze comes in 750 mL bottles. That’s true: the 750 mil bottle is called a “metric fifth” and it’s a relic of the 1970s attempt to metricize the US; the ATF set new (metric) standard bottle sizes in 1979, prior to Reagan’s defunding of the metric program (in fairness: apparently Frank Mankiewicz, who was George McGovern’s and RFK’s press secretary and once president of National Public Radio, urged Reagan’s advisors to end the project because he had some weird vendetta against the metric system; some political historians speculate that Mankiewicz not secretly removed support of the metric system from the Democratic platform, McGovern might have won the 1972 election).

Interestingly, the US has a longer history with metric than you might think. The Metric Act of 1866, for example, provided for the use of metric measures in commerce and set official conversions. The US was one of the original signatories of the 1875 “Treaty of the Metre” which codified standards for the metric system; Utah’s original constitution asserted that the metric system would be taught in public schools.

But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that serious thought was given to a metric conversion, which was then undertaken with such gusto in the 1970s that there was a logo. Not joking: there was literally a logo for the metrication project:

metrication logo

Also, all this metric talk is an excuse to trot out one of the greatest charts of all time, describing imperial units of length (see also here for a similarly byzantine display of volume measures).

I don’t know why people find this so difficult. There’s 4 digits in a palm, 2 palms in a shaftment, 3 shaftments in a cubit, 11 cubits in a perch, 4 perches in a Gunter’s chain, and 10 Gunter’s chains in a furlong. My car gets 8 rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way I like it.

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5. Surge—originally called MDK, or Mountain Dew Killer in internal documents—was released to extremely extreme fanfare in 1997, before lapsing into decrepitude in the early 2000s, whence it was sent to Norway for hospice care (where it was called Urge). It has only recently been re-released in a marketing campaign called RESURGENCE.

Another 1990s Coke product born first in the minds of marketers—directly from the idea box of the main who brought us New Coke and Fruitopia—was OK Soda. Whereas Surge was aimed at base-jumping Xtremos, OK Soda was a laser-guided missile at cynical, disaffected, anti-corporate Gen Xers too hip to be marketed to. 

Urban legend has it that it was called “OK Soda” because when you tasted it, you said “Eh, it’s ok,” but the officially endorsed story is that a marketing study found that the only word more recognizable than “Coke” was “OK”. So, sure, why not make a soda out of it. On the other hand, the cans and advertising artwork were done by Daniel Clowes (of Ghost World fame), and Charles Burns. I’ll admit it: the cans were kind of cool. The soda, though—and I remember it—was extremely mediocre. I strongly recommend this deep dive into the history of OK soda. In it, you discover that Clowes used the eyes of Charles Manson on his can drawing: “They made me sign all this nondisclosure paperwork and stuff,” he said, “but nothing ever said, ‘Don’t put a mass murderer on the can.’”


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