Monday, April 4, 2016

The Book of Presidential Trivia and Meat Facts

Which five U.S. Presidents aren’t buried on U.S. soil?

While you think of the answer: did you know that the United States has a Hot Dog Month, and it’s July? I learned this from the Book of Presidential Trivial and Meat Facts, a 1984 booklet produced by the American Meat Institute packed with information about, well, U.S. Presidents and meat.

I’ve been ill and mostly bed-ridden for the last few days, and since my concentration span hasn’t allowed me to read anything too taxing or watch long films with complex plots, I’ve subsisted on a diet of Seinfeld and Columbo episodes, the odd YouTube clip, two old issues of La Settimana Enigmistica and the aforesaid book.

Ordinarily the pleasure with Columbo would be to watch it at its proper pace, to fully appreciate the slow spinning of the lieutenant’s web and his encircling motion towards the murderer, whilst simultaneously trying not to be distracted by the horrendous wardrobes and all those grown men wearing skin-tight turtle neck jumpers. Two personal favourites: the Johnny Cash episode (Columbo: ‘Any man that can sing like that can't be all bad’), and the second of the Robert Culp episodes, ‘The Most Crucial Game’. Falk put Culp away three times, but it seems the prison system really couldn’t hang on to him.

Anyway, physical discomfort made me impatient and so I didn’t quite manage to sit through the whole set-up this time. I just watched the murder scenes at the beginning then skipped to the last ten minutes of each episode. Like a cheat.

Of Seinfeld I don’t have much to say except I heard him declare once that if the show were still going today it would be ‘annoying’, for everything now is annoying, by which I think he meant that the internet is annoying, our wired world is annoying, and in fact if you look at the early seasons the set-up of so many of the episodes is dependent on the absence of a technology for total communication: the Chinese Restaurant episode, the parking garage episode, the party at Michael Chiklis’ episode, the episode in which they all end up in the same theatre watching Rochelle, Rochelle, and all the other plots and sub-plots based on missed or crossed connections that would be a lot harder to engineer nowadays. Along similar lines, and quite interestingly I thought, the plot of the first ever episode of Taxi is premised on the fact that the money box of the public phone in the despatch room has come open and so all the drivers can suddenly make free calls, which prompts Judd Hirsch’s character to re-connect with his estranged daughter.

That queue of men waiting for the phone is not something that could be plausibly recreated outside of a period piece. Which is neither here nor there – a lot of stock story lines were thwarted when the telephone or mass transportation were invented – but it set me wondering about the expansion of communications narrows the space for invention. At least as far as comic plots are concerned. And what would a present-day Seinfeld be like, outside of the increasingly unmoored wonderings of the social media performance piece devoted to answering this very question?

Something very obvious also occurred to me: that the genius of Seinfeld was to have the character who in the story was a comedian play the straight man for the other three, who had regular jobs.

On the Settimana Enigmistica front, I’m currently stuck very near the beginning of this puzzle (I figure the second clue across could resolve as either VAN or BAR). Any passing Italian speaker is welcome to assist.

Which leaves me with business about the meat and the Presidents. It’s an intriguing combination, like industry lobbying from a more naïve past. The book does exactly what it says on the cover, setting trivia about the U.S. Presidents side by side with leading questions designed to show that meat isn’t so bad for you (less cholesterol in beef than in crab! More protein in pork than in fish!). The information concerning Presidents’ shows less obvious self-interest and is competently presented, although at least in one case I found the answer dissatisfying.
He’s the only President to lose both the electoral and popular vote yet still win the Presidency. 
The keys said:
John Quincy Adams, who in 1824 secured fewer electoral votes and popular votes than Andrew Jackson. 
But wait, isn’t that the definition of losing an election? The American Meat Institute goes no further but the answer (I had to look it up) is that there were a third and a fourth candidate, and since none of the four secured an overall majority this activated the Twelfth Amendment of the constitution, giving Congress power to elect the President. This was the so-called ‘contingent election’ of 1825 or, as Jackson’s supporters prefer to call it, the ‘corrupt bargain’ that led to Adams being picked.

However, without my favourite question in the book concerns meat and is the following:
Upton Sinclair’s classic muckraker, ‘The Jungle’, was written under contract to a publishing house of what political orientation?
To which the answer of course is: ‘socialist’. By exposing the treatment of workers and the poor safety practices of the meatpacking industry, Sinclair’s novel is credited, among other things, with causing the outcry that led to the passing of the Meat Inspection Act. This peculiar piece of likely discrediting information (socialist!), offered 78 years after the publication of the book, shows you don’t fuck with the American Meat Institute. Their memory is long.

Oh, and the five U.S. Presidents who are not buried on U.S. soil are: Jimmy Carter, the two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.


stephen said...

Comic plots could now turn on messages going to the wrong person. Or losing your phone, or being out of minutes. Accidental deletion of the crucial message. The autoresponse saying you're away still being on when you are in fact in. Any of the many ways that modern comms can screw up, in other words.

Plenty of possibilities left, I think.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes however the basic plot - you are in the wrong place, and cannot communicate that you are in the wrong place - has become harder to engineer. Only so many times you can be out of cellphone battery.

There are, on the other hand, new plots possibilities that cellular communications opens up, as exemplified by the film BURIED. Although I suspect they are mostly of the non-comic kind.

Marie Russell said...

"The Jungle" is a stunning read. If I hadn't already been a vegetarian when I read it, I would have made the switch right then.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

there is a possibiity of a similar u.s. election this year - if trump is denied the republican nomination, but runs anyway - if it went to the house of representatives, it would probably result in the election of the republican candidate, who might well have the least votes by at least one criterion