When director George Pal first came to the United States from Hungary, animator Walter Lantz helped him obtain U.S. citizenship. As a tribute to their friendship, Pal inserted Woody Woodpecker into most of his films:
In Destination Moon (1950), a Woody Woodpecker cartoon explains the principles of space travel.
In When Worlds Collide (1951), Woody is visible in an airport scene at the beginning of the film.
In War of the Worlds (1953), Woody’s figure is visible among the branches of a tree as the Martian spacecraft first fly over.
In Tom Thumb (1958), Woody’s laugh can be heard during a Russ Tamblyn dance sequence.
In The Time Machine (1960), a little girl drops a Woody Woodpecker doll.
In The Power (1968), George Hamilton looks in a store window and sees a mechanical Woody.
In Doc Savage (1975), Pal’s last film, the reference is subtle. No woodpeckers appear in the film, but near the end an elderly woman is helped across the street by a Boy Scout. The woman is Grace Stafford, Lantz’s wife — and the voice of Woody Woodpecker.
“Bored silly” one day, science fiction author Damon Knight and his wife invented logogenetics, “the new science of selling stories without actually writing”:
Get two books and open each to a random page.
Choose a word from the first book and then another from the second that might reasonably follow it. Write these down.
Read the next word in each book. Write these down.
Continue in this way, discarding “lousy” words as necessary, until you’ve spliced together an entire story.
As an example, Knight combined A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A with Ray Bradbury’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun” to produce The World of Null-Apples, by A. Ray Van Vogtbury:
Gosseyn moved, but around the door.
‘Swallow the pills.’ In the sky with great desperate coming-in, danger flowering unreal whistlings, Prescott quietly said, ‘From the women that saw it, helicopters will blizzard.’ The hotels, the private people, cities that rose to strange power. Warm, strangely, with easy pink picture faces, because the race of bound men would sound mysterious. ‘You opposed the assault, man!’
Murder. Two supposed chocolate Gosseyn malteds. He smiled curtly, for the mute problem would slowly, reluctantly untangling, tell him the partial color acceptance. It again was a picture of a mind, dark, closer to sanity, one uneasy white reverie shining down. …
Logogenetic writing seldom makes sense, but Knight points out that it’s ideal for writing little books to go with exhibitions of ultramodern art. And he found it particularly entertaining to combine how-to articles from Woman’s Day:
With a whisk knife, sweep 3/4 inch under crust. Vacuum 1 cup grated pedals or rugs. Spread seats in trunk; put dirt on floor. Bake 1 tablespoon moderate detergent, 325° F., in hot bucket. Break upholstery apart, and serve.
The hedge maze at Hampton Court has been entertaining visitors since 1695, occasionally belying its reputation for ease. In Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), Harris says, “We’ll just go in here, so that you can say you’ve been, but it’s very simple. It’s absurd to call it a maze.” Then, after two miles of wandering:
‘The map may be all right enough,’ said one of the party, ‘if you know whereabouts in it we are now.’
Harris didn’t know, and suggested that the best thing to do would be to go back to the entrance, and begin again. For the beginning again part of it there was not much enthusiasm; but with regard to the advisability of going back to the entrance there was complete unanimity, and so they turned, and trailed after Harris again, in the opposite direction. About ten minutes more passed, and then they found themselves in the centre.
Mazes have exercised a peculiar fascination for the mathematically minded. The young Lewis Carroll composed this one for a family magazine — the object is to make your way from the outside to the central space; it’s acceptable to pass over or under another path, but a single line means your way is blocked.
Cambridge University mathematician W.W. Rouse Ball constructed this maze in his garden. He notes that unless a loop surrounds the goal, the wanderer can defeat any maze by trailing one hand along a wall, and “no labyrinth is worthy of the name of a puzzle which can be threaded in this way.”
Hampton Court is modest in comparison to the modern hedge maze at Longleat, a stately home in Somerset. Its 16,000 English yews enclose 1.75 miles of paths that require an hour and a half to traverse; the course includes six wooden bridges from which to plot a path to the goal, an observation tower.
And Tennessee’s Odyssey mirror maze covers 5,000 square feet with a field of eight-foot mirrors set at 60-degree angles to create the illusion of an enormous vaulted crypt:
In solving any of these, as Harris discovered, the chief danger is overconfidence:
Said a boastful young student from Hayes,
As he entered the Hampton Court maze:
“There’s nothing in it.
I won’t be a minute.”
He’s been missing for forty-one days.
A successful concert with mouth-organs, combs, and tissue-paper and penny whistles was given by the [British] Guards in the front-line trenches near Loos. They played old English melodies, harmonized with great emotion and technical skill. It attracted an unexpected audience. The Germans crowded into their front line — not far away — and applauded each number. Presently, in good English, a German voice shouted across:
‘Play “Annie Laurie” and I will sing it.’
The Guards played ‘Annie Laurie,’ and a German officer stood up on the parapet — the evening sun was red behind him — and sang the old song admirably, with great tenderness. There was applause on both sides.
Mount Everest rises 29,029 feet above sea level, and Ecuador’s volcano Chimborazo rises only 20,702 feet. But because Earth bulges at the equator, Chimborazo is actually farther from the center of the planet. If we could connect the two peaks with a water pipe, in which direction would the water flow?
H.G. Wells demonstrates how to dismount a bicycle, June 1895:
“Observe when your left foot is descending & about 30° from the nadir. Stand on left pedal throwing up right leg. Bring this in a graceful curve over the hind mud guard & leap lightly to the ground. The treadle moves against your weight & assists the leap. Then smile. Thus.”
That’s from a letter to an old college friend. “The bicycle in those days was still very primitive,” Wells recalled of the bicycle craze of the 1890s. “The diamond frame had appeared but there was still no freewheel. You could only stop and jump off when the treadle was at its lowest point, and the brake was an uncertain plunger upon the front wheel. … Nevertheless the bicycle was the swiftest thing upon the roads in those days … and the cyclist had a lordliness, a sense of masterful adventure, that has gone from him altogether now.”
“I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me; he chastened me considerably in the process.”
With the “smoker’s hat,” patented by Walter Netschert in 1989, you can finally interact with nonsmokers without giving offense. A visor will intercept your smoke and direct it to a filter, and you can add a clip to hold the cigarette and a cup to catch ashes so that there are no waste products. The exhaust can even be scented.
This seems like a lot of trouble, but for some it’s worth it. “When I don’t smoke I scarcely feel as if I’m living,” wrote Russell Hoban in Turtle Diary. “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.”
Futility Closet is a collection of entertaining curiosities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, designed to help you waste time as enjoyably as possible.
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