Fun Facts Learned While Looking Up Other Things (Smorgasbord Edition)

by Tim Cooper on

This post was inspired by the late journalist Sydney J. Harris who would occasionally write a column he called “Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things,” in which he included bits of trivia that just didn’t fit into any other column he was writing.

In my previous editions, each post had a separate theme. Trek. Music. Words and Phrases. The post below is a mishmash of themes. A few are Trek- or music-adjacent, but most are difficult to stuff into a single category, like the Potpourri category on Jeopardy.

I found the following to be interesting, but they didn’t fit neatly into anything else I was writing.

  • British mathmetician Charles Babbage designed his Analytical Engine between 1833 and 1871. It is considered by many to be this first example of a modern computer. It had a central processing unit, which Babbage called the “mill,” and a memory, called the “store.” He left nearly 5,000 pages of notes and sketches about his computer, but never built a single production model because the technology of the day couldn’t do it. A functioning computer based on Babbage’s designs was finally built in 1991. It was more than 3 meters long and 2 meters tall, with 8,000 moving parts, weighing 15 tons. Clearly a steampunk computer.
  • During an episode in the third (final) season of Colony, the Bowmans were having trouble finding an operating vehicle because, as Jack B points out, the way gasoline is refined it breaks down pretty quickly and becomes unusable. Diesel fuel, it seems, lasts longer. I was wondering if this was a swipe at The Walking Dead, which portions of this series began to remind me of. TWD characters were still driving around as recently as the season ended 2018, which is when I stopped watching. Although I don’t know how much time is supposed to have passed, I assume that it is several years. This is not the first time I’ve heard the gasoline gripe, just the most recent time it was pointed out to me. I was always willing to overlook this bit of realism for the sake of story: If we can believe in animated dead people, why not everlasting petroleum?
  • The Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 1954 was the first coast-to-coast color television broadcast, but was watchable only on prototype color receivers because the first color TV model wasn’t available to the public until February that same year. Incidentally, the first color TV was the Westinghouse H840CK15, which sold for $1,295 (or $12,473.45 in 2020 dollars with a cumulative 863.2% rate of inflation). The average annual salary in 1954 was less than $4000, and a new car could be purchased for less than $2000.
  • Chief Iron Eyes Cody, that famous Native American who shed a single tear over litter in those “Keep America Beautiful” commercials, was born Espera Oscar de Corti, and was actually a second-generation Italian-American, a fact that he denied to his end in 1999. You would think that I would have become inured to being deceived by now, but I feel cheated by this fact. I bet littering isn’t bad for the environment either.
  • I picked up a DS9 novel written by K.W. Jeter at a library sale. I already had another DS9 book at home, also written by Jeter. I just assumed Jeter had written a lot of DS9 books. As it turns out, these may have been his only two. When I was researching the author (thinking it might just be a pen name, or a house name), I found out that he was a contemporary of Philip K. Dick, an author I’ve appreciated more and more over the years. More than a contemporary: a friend. Dick based a character in Valis on Jeter. Jeter likewise based a character in his Dr. Adder on Dick. Jeter is also credited with coining the term steampunk.
  • The actress Bonnie Beecher played Sylvia, the saloon girl who is in love with Mr. Chekov in the TOS episode “Spectre of the Gun.” She had also been Bob Dylan’s girlfriend when both attended the University of Minnesota in 1961, and may have been the inspiration for “Girl from the North Country.” She later married counter-culture icon and MC of Woodstock, Wavy Gravy, and the two were still alive and married the last time I checked.
  • Tommy Lee Jones and former Vice President Al Gore were roommates at Harvard. Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve were roommates at Julliard. Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand, both future-Oscar-winners, were roommates at the Yale School of Drama. Tim Daly, of the TV show Wings, and Tyne Daly, of Cagney & Lacey, are brother and sister. X-Files composer Mark Snow is their brother-in-law. Small world.
  • Ellen Foley was an actress for one season on Night Court. She played Billie Young, and her character was replaced the next season by Markie Post. I never thought much else about Miss Foley, and I liked Miss Post more on the show, I have to admit. But, Foley was the singer who sang the duet with Meat Loaf on “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” a fun fact I didn’t know until now. Also, the Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” was supposedly written about her by Mick Jones. There are more layers to this lady than I gave her credit for.
  • This occurred to me while reading Batman: No Man’s Land, by Greg Rucka. There’s a brief section that’s supposed to be a letter or e-mail from Barbara Gordon (AKA Batgirl and then AKA Oracle). She recounts, briefly, the origin story of Bruce Wayne-into-Batman by talking about the murder of his parents. She mentions the smell of cordite during the crime. This has become a fictional trope. Cordite was a brand of smokeless powder that replaced black powder. Its last known usage was in 1945. The “smell of cordite” in the air makes sense if Batman was created by a crime that occurred in the 1930s, since Batman first appeared in 1939. I’ll give Rucka a pass on this since Gotham City is entirely fictional. And I like thinking that the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne occurred in the 1930s, when it would have made sense to be seeing a Zorro movie. But, I give no other creators of fiction a pass on this. Personally, I could whistle past this in other fiction as well—even I have been guilty of using it—but the Internet is a haven for nitpickers.
  • I thought I was a fan of both the American rock band The Eagles and the British author Douglas Adams, but here’s something I never knew. The theme song for the original BBC television series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I saw on PBS and which led me to the novels), was an Eagles instrumental called “Journey of the Sorcerer.” It was on the Eagles LP One of These Nights, which I never owned. I always liked the theme. But how could I not have known this fact for nearly four decades?

That’ll do for now. My “Things Learned” file continues to grow, almost daily. The next time I hear a few factoids screaming to get out, I’ll post more.

3 thoughts on “Fun Facts Learned While Looking Up Other Things (Smorgasbord Edition)

  1. As far as the “gasoline affair” in TWD is concerned – apart from the problem you quoted about its breakdown over time, which I did not know about – what really amazed me was that they could still find any around, considering the characters kept moving in a somewhat restricted area, and it’s reasonable to suppose that any stocked amount would have run out long before the halfway run of the show….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re just using logic and common sense to try to confuse me. My head canon says that the same thing that reanimated the dead prevents the loss of efficacy—or “death,” to stay on point—of the volatile, combustible elements of gasoline. Only a small suspension of disbelief required. As to your point, I’m willing to whistle past the availability issue as well. It seems the Kirkman Virus is at least 99% communicable, like Stephen King’s Captain Trips. There are approximately 500,000 people in the city of Atlanta (maybe as much as 6 million in the entire metro area). And, yet, during our time in Atlanta, how many non-zombies were there? Not a surprise that there would still be gasoline in abundance, at least there in Atlanta. Rural areas? I’m not sure. I live in a city of 50,000. If only 500 people remained, there’d be a lot of gas up for grabs.

      Liked by 1 person

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