The Billionth Monkey is the hilarious new weird fantasy novel from Richard Kaczynski.
In this blog, I will walk through the book and, post by post, explore its clues, Easter eggs, and references to popular and nerd culture. Some references are obvious, while others are what Mystery Science Theater 3000 might call "1% jokes."
SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven't read the book yet, you may want to explore the other pages in the nav bar below.
A couple returns to their honeymoon hotel only discover to their dismay that
they’re featured in the in-room porn film. This
story about being secretly videotaped is a bona fide urban legend,
and all the facts related about it on page 151 are accurate. A variation of it even
featured in an episode of Married…with Children, in which the Bundys go
to a seedy motel and encounter a sex video featuring their neighbors
(“I’ll See You in Court,” Season 3, Episode 10). Because of the sexual
nature of the episode, Fox censors would not allow the episode to be aired
in the United States until 2002…some thirteen years after it was
originally scheduled to be broadcast.
The urban legend of the secretly videotaped honeymooners was the basis of the infamous "lost episode" of Fox networks' Married With Children. "I'll See You in Court" remained unaired for thirteen years, but is now considered one of the series' best (and most outrageous) episodes.
For Further Reading
Jan Harold Brunvand, “Filmed in the Act” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 146–7.
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How many intelligent monkeys does it take to break reality? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop? The Billionth Monkey offers an answer to one of these questions. Belanger’s impromptu lecture on page 148 is entirely spot-on and factual, except that bit at the end about the billionth monkey. That’s completely fake.
Or is it?
While I won't repeat what is already in the book, here’s some back-story that Belanger doesn’t cover: The “hundredth monkey” story was first told by Lyall Watson (in 1975’s introduction to Lawrence Blair’s Rhythms of Vision and again in his own 1979 book, Lifetide). It was popularized by two other writers in 1981: Rupert Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life championed the tale as evidence of the existence of morphic (or morphogenetic) fields. Meanwhile, Ken Keyes Jr.’s The Hundredth Monkey used it as a parable about how to affect positive social change. The story soon achieved urban legend status—most relying on third- and fourth-hand accounts with distortions introduced in each retelling—and was also embraced by the New Age movement. The veracity of the story had since been questioned, including the metaphor-busting observation that the number of monkeys in the sweet-potato washing colony studied was only 58, far fewer than a hundred.
Lyall Watson’s story of one hundred macaque monkeys on the island Koshima was, to Rupert Sheldrake, proof of morphic fields and to Ken Keyes Jr., a metaphor for how to avoid nuclear war.
And yes, A New Science of Life was indeed called “a book for burning.” See John Maddox’s now-famous review in Nature, September 24, 1981, 293: 245-6 (article behind paywall).
I meant no slight to Watson or Keyes by not mentioning them in The Billionth Monkey. The truth is that I learned about the hundredth monkey story from reading Sheldrake when his book first came out, so that is how I had Belanger, a fellow academic, tell it. Besides, his monologue is long enough without adding in the above details. That’s what this blog is for!
Lawrence Blair, Rhythms of Vision: The Changing Patterns of Belief (London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1975).
Lyall Watson, Lifetide: A Biology of the Unconscious (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979).
Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981).
Ken Keyes, The Hundredth Monkey (St. Mary, Ky: Vision Books, 1981).
The dialog on page 148 about obscure urban legends was an excuse for me to make up some silly—and completely false—urban legends. Unlike the popular ones that play an important role in The Billionth Monkey, I had a lot of fun inventing these obscure ones. At the time I wrote this, I was unaware that the Harvard Lampoon had published the humorous book Mediagate (Atlantic Monthly, 1988), which contained a fake publisher’s notice for the latest urban legend book by the great Jan Harold Brunvand. The Embarrassing Fart and More New Urban Legends purportedly included such doozies as the Senile President, the Adulterous Evangelist, and the Smelly Gym Sock. It would have been meta fun to reference some of these. But then again, the Harvard Lampoon legends seem to be culled from the headlines of 1987 rather than the obscure backwaters of urban lore …so it’s probably just was well that I didn’t reference the book. I like the scene just the way it turned out.
Harvard Lampoon's Mediagate (1988) includes a fake publisher's notice for The Embarrassing Fart and More New Urban Legends, which pokes fun at Jan Harold Brunvand’s many books on urban legends such as The Choking Doberman and Other Urban Legends (1984), The Mexican Pet: More "New" Urban Legends and Some Old Favorites (1986), Curses! Broiled Again! The Hottest Urban Legends Going (1989), and The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends (1993).
The mentions of room 237 (page 144) and Jack Daniels (page 147) are both references to The Shining (1980). While in Stephen King’s novel the “forbidden room” (or at least the one that Hallorann strongly recommended avoiding) was room 217, but in Kubrick’s film it is 237. The reason for this change is that the Timberline Lodge, which was used for exterior shots of the Overlook Hotel, requested this change out of concern that guests would refuse to stay in room 217; thus, a non-existent room number was chosen. As it turns out, 217 is the lodge’s most-requested room.
[However, see my post about page 127 where I show that 217 is the gematria value of “shining” in Hebrew.]
When Destiny Jones refers on page 144 to weird things that have happened to her while camping, I had no particular urban legend in mind. Campfires, however, are the traditional place for sharing spooky urban legends. Thus, a campfire is the opening scene for the entire Nickelodeon anthology series, Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990–2000). It is also such a common trope that there best-of lists of horror movies about camping (e.g., here and here). So the possibilities are endless for what Destiny may have meant here.
Moving on to page 147, in Kubrick’s film Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) is often found drinking Jack Daniels in the hotel bar. On a related note, see my post about page 129 where I insist that the gas station attendant Lloyd is not a (conscious) reference to the bartender in The Shining.
There just aren’t good kabbalistic terms for “clove cigarettes” or “Overlook Hotel,” so I had to supplement the Tweezer Easter eggs on pages 134 and 142 with some random interesting numbers. While they may not have anything in particular to do with the posts they go with, gematria geeks should nevertheless be entertained.
Page 134 features a picture of Destiny Jones’ obligatory goth smokes, clove cigarettes…except clove cigarettes were outlawed in the United States in 2009, so she was forced to switch to cigarillos (kind of like cigarettes wrapped in tobacco leaves rather than paper). In this post we find the following numbers:
85 (from 4,285 followers) = the Hebrew word פה, peh, mouth i.e. the place where cigarettes go.
231 (from 2:31 pm) = in the kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah, the number of “gates,” i.e. the number of unique pairs of the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, given by the combinatorial 22!/(20! x 2!) = (22 x 21)/2 = 231.
56 (from 56 likes) = Nu (in Crowley’s cosmogony a form of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, Neuth, or Nuit) transliterated as N=50 and U or V=6. This is a shout-out to readers of Perdurabo.
On page 142, we have a photo of the exterior of the Overlook Hotel (actually the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, Oregon; photo taken by yours truly). The numbers in this post are:
471 (from 4,710 followers) = “Overlook” transliterated into Hebrew, i.e.
O = ע = 70
V = ו = 6
E = ח = 5
R = ר = 200
L = ל = 30
O = ע = 70
O = ע = 70 K = כ = 20
(I used the non-final form of כ because I needed to keep the increased number of followers in the four thousands to keep it consistent with previous and subsequent posts. A whole lot of juggling was involved in coming up with these Easter eggs while making sure the times, followers, and likes were consistent with the actual story and from post-to-post.)
The “Slasher under the Car” rumor-scare claims that criminals will lie in wait beneath a woman’s car at the shopping mall. When their intended victim returns, the criminal uses a razor or tire-iron on the shopper’s Achilles tendon, immobilizing her in order to facilitate robbery or rape. The story is more popular during the Christmas season, when stealing gift purchases is the motive. Sometimes (but not always), the slashing is connected to gang initiation rituals. Brunvand traces the origins of the “Slasher under the Car” legend to the 1950s at the Northland Shopping Mall in suburban Detroit. It began circulating nationally after 1984, and peaked in 1992.
A panel from “The Slasher Under the Car,” a one-page serial art version of
this urban legend from Robert Loren Fleming, Jan Harold Brunvand, and
Robert F. Boyd, The Big Book of Urban Legends: Adapted from the Works of
Jan Harold Brunvand (New York: Paradox Press, 1994), 18. Art by comic book veteran Dærick Gröss, who has worked with Marvel, DC, Image, Malibu, etc., and adaptations of Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned.
Best and Hutchinson (1996) have identified a host of urban legends in which gang initiations purportedly involve committing some horrible crime. These include the well-known “Slasher under the Car,” along with the equally common “Lights Out” (in which a gang initiation involves driving at night with the headlights off and killing the first motorist to helpfully flash their lights), and the far more obscure legends of “The Castrated Boy” and “The Cheek Slasher.” These stories tell us more about how society as a whole perceives—and perceives a threat from—gangs rather than about how gangs actually operate. These perceptions and fears may also tap into a more general fear of initiations and secret societies.
In addition, such urban legends are serve to make sense of otherwise senseless acts of violence. Why did this crime happen? Because the initiation required it.
According to Brunvand (2001), a variant of the "Slasher under the Car" legend began circulating in 1999, with the slasher hiding beneath cars at gas stations. Which brings us to our scene in The Billionth Monkey. For me, the most fun part about writing this book was re-imagining these urban legends into fantastic, larger-than-life, Hollywood-blockbuster versions. The description of the Slasher on page 132 as “the biggest Mexican they had ever seen” is a quote from the opening scene of the movie Desperado(1995):
My comment about the Slasher making the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs (page 132) references the Star Wars cantina scene, as does the conclusion where Belanger flips a coin to the attendant and says “Sorry about the mess.”
Eleanor Wachs, “The Mutilated Shopper at the Mall: A Legend of Urban Violence.” In Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith (eds.), A Nest of Vipers: Perspectives on Contemporary Legend V (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 143–60.
On the Internet, the cool kids spell words replacing letters with similar-looking numbers. For example, the letter “o” could be replaced with the number 0, giving us “n00b” for a newbie, or “pr0n” for pornography. Similar substitutions can be made with 4 for A, 1 for lowercase L, 3 for E, etc. This practice is called leet, and variously spelled eleet, 1337, L33T. Leet isn’t just about substituting numbers for letters; there are other peculiarities that are unique to computer culture. One example is using the suffix –age to turn a verb into a noun, as in “major suckage.”
We’ve previously seen a couple of examples of leetspeak in The Billionth Monkey: 1) the ID-10-T code back on page 17, and 2) the term “pwn” in Destiny Jones’ Tweezer post on page 118.
About that Stephen King novel adapted into a motion picture by Stanley Kubrick…
I’ve posted twice previously (here and here) about references to The Shining in The Billionth Monkey.
Now, in The Billionth Monkey the gas station attendant in Sidewinder (page 129) is named Lloyd. This is not meant as a reference to The Shining. I just thought it was a good name for the character. It was the first thing I thought of, so I used it as a placeholder and in later revisions saw no reason to change it. Not until I later re-watched the movie did I realize that Lloyd was also the name of the creepy ghost bartender in the Overlook Hotel. Nevertheless, my gas station attendant makes for an obscure reference to the movie, even if I didn’t intend it as such. At least not consciously.
Stephen King’s The Shining came out in 1977. While the Overlook Hotel doesn’t survive in the book, it does in the film. The thought of someone returning to the scene 30–35 years later and finding things very different due to climate change struck me as a hilarious comment on how much the world has changed since 1977. It’s especially hilarious since the weather was a key plot point in both the book and movie. If Mr. King ever reads The Billionth Monkey, I hope he sees the humor—and fondness—in my little homage.
I don’t know if it’s possible to list all the Star Wars and Shakespeare jokes, puns, and references on the Wikibard
website. The banner at the top of the page is modeled after Wikipedia.
The section “News from around the Globe” (“the Globe” being the famous
Shakespearean theatre) consists of actual Shakespeare news stories mixed
with fictional news from The Billionth Monkey. The page introduces us to the new Hamlet Special Edition comic book, as well as the opposing viewpoint in “Ham Stabbeth First” paraphernalia. Visitors to Wikibard can actually vote in the poll at the bottom of the page.
Some people disapprove of Shakespeare's revisions in Hamlet Special Edition.
Here is a list of puns on the home page:
Prominent Shakespeare Scholars Speak Out
the short and the long of it: This phrase, which lives on as an idiom in modern times, is commonly attributed to Shakespeare, who used the phrase in The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Misdummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice. The OED says the phrase predates the Bard, but he certainly popularized it.
biggest of the biggs: Reference to Biggs Darklighter, friend of Luke Skywalker in Episode IV.
secret plans to force it into being a Wedge issue: Three more Star Wars references: secret plans (of the Death Star…what Episode IV is all about), the Force, and Wedge Antilles.
doth protest too much: From Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene II.
Frances Beye-Cohn: Pun on Francis Bacon. We met her back on page 89.
anger leads to hate, and hatred leads to suffering: Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.
If you prick us, do we not bleed?:The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1.
Randy Goodyear: Shakespearean vocabulary from the phrase Randy=horny. Goodyear is from the phrase “What the good-year?” i.e. what the deuce or devil…making this a Shakespearean #DevilReference.
Wyoming University for Social Sciences: See page 87.
Hamlet Holiday Special: Refers to the notorious (and repressed) Star Wars Christmas Special.
Jack Guardant: In Shakespeare’s works, “Jack” is a contemptuous term, while a guardant is a guard, protect, or keeper. Thus “Jack guardant” is a “Jack on guard” or a “Jack in office.” See Coriolanus, Act V, Scene 2.
Central University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne: This references the urban legend about colleges with unfortunate acronyms; see my blog post about page 59.
Yowza: Not just a common expression of surprise, it is also the name of Joh Yowza, a character added to the Max Rebo Band in Jabba’s palace in the special edition of Return of the Jedi.
song and dance number: Reference to one of the “enhancements” made to the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi.
ooh la la: Reference to Oola, then Twi’lek dancer in Jabba the Hut’s court.
threepenny space opera: A play on the Threepenny Opera, as space opera is the genre of film/story that Star Wars falls into.
What a piece of work: A line from Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, famously set to music in Hair. The phrase “piece of work” has quite a different meaning in modern vernacular!
Thanks for ruining my childhood: Common fan over-reaction to Star Wars Special Edition.
Holly Malkin: Holly was a common plant in Shakespeare’s time, and is recommended to those trying to do a “Shakespearean garden.” Malkin was a familiar form of “Mary.” (Also: the model has a Complete Works of Shakespeare balanced on her head.)
“I come to bury the Special Edition, not to praise it”: Based on the famous line from Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2.
Bob A. Fettinger: Contains the name “Boba Fett.”
has seen better days: The earliest documented use of this phrase is in the play Sir Thomas Moore (1590), which has been partially attributed to Shakespeare. It also appears in Timon of Athens and As You Like It.
Bono Bodkin: Not only is “bodkin” a reference to a blade in Hamlet, but the name contains the word “bonobo,” which is a #MonkeyReference.
This is the worst: From King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1.
Bart Lederhosen: Rhymes with Darth Vaderhosen..
winter of my discontent: The famous opening line from Richard III,
Luke Gorgas: Spoonerism of George Lucas.
Of all base passions… From King Henry VI, Act V, Scene 2.
Mort Duvinaigre: “Mort du vinaigre” means “a ridiculous oath,” from All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 2, Scene 3.
angry dexters and the jet-setters who have too much time on all their hands: This means something, but I’ve forgotten what. Sigh, sometimes I’m too clever for my own good. Please let me know if you figure it out!
Sly Snotless: A play on “Sy Snootles,” the singer in the Max Rebo Band in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi.
Whew, and that’s just the main page! WikiBard’s first three news stories (at the time of this writing) are also loaded with jokes likes these. The rest are actual Shakespeare news stories, for that added sense of truthiness.
Like the Wikibard announcement on page 89, the news update on page 128 is another riff on Star Wars. If the previous gag referenced The Phantom Menace, then this one is based on the Special Edition of the original Star Wars (rechristened Episode IV: A New Hope in 1981) and fans’ reactions to the changes that George Lucas wrought on the beloved childhood memories of millions.
Thus, we find Shakespeare revising his beloved Hamlet twenty-five years after originally penning it, much like Lucas’ special edition came out in 1997 to mark the twentieth anniversary of Star Wars). Just as Star Wars Special Edition benefitted from improved CGI, deleted scenes, and cleaned audio tracks, Hamlet Special Edition “features improved iambic pentameter and restores scenes that had become possible due to advances in the technology of dressing squires as women” (p. 128). And just as Lucas sent fans into rages of “Han Shot First” for changing the cantina scene between Han Solo and Greedo, so has Shakespeare enraged purists with a similar change to the deadly confrontation between Hamlet and Polonius.
This meme made the rounds after the Force Awakens trailer hit.
[I am unable to locate the creator, but would be happy to credit them.]
To protest this last change, Shakespeare fanboys scholars don T-shirts proclaiming that “Ham Stabbeth First.” To further blur the lines between fiction, social media, and reality, “Ham Stabbeth First” T-shirts and other products are actually available through Café Press. The pose of the fencer is reminiscent of a famous publicity photo of Han Solo from the original Star Wars movie.
This blurring of fiction, social media, and reality led to the creation of a six-page preview for a fictional Hamlet Special Edition comic book as part of The Billionth Monkey. But that’s a story that I’ll save for when the blog get to that part of the book.
The “Come play with us!” post on page 127 of The Billionth Monkey has some fun Easter eggs. The line alludes, of course, to what the twins say to Danny in The Shining. Therefore in Destiny’s Tweezer update we find:
64 (the number of “plusses” on the post) = נוגה (to shine) i.e. The Shining.
217 (from 2:17 pm) = בהיר, bahir (shining, brightness). 217 is also the original haunted room number in Stephen King’s book. When Stanley Kubrick filmed the exterior of the Timberline Lodge for the Overlook Hotel, the lodge asked him to change the room number in the movie version out of fear that people would refuse to stay in room 217 (it is now, in fact, the most-requested room at the lodge). Take that, Kubrick numerology conspiracy theorists!*
93 (from 4,093 followers) = unrelated to The Shining, this is the number of times in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 that HAL transmits the message “All these worlds are yours to explore.” [Readers of Perdurabo might recall some additional meanings for this number.]
The creepy twins (and creepier wallpaper) from The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the novel by Stephen King.
*Is it just a coincidence that page 127 and room 217 share the same digits? I’ll never tell!
On page 126 of The Billionth Monkey, Nicholas Young’s mention of Abraham “trying to find ten righteous dudes in Sodom” refers to the famous story of Sodom and Gomorrah as told in Genesis 18:16–33. You can read it online here.
Nicholas concludes the conversation by referring to being between the devil and the deep blue sea—an idiom that dates back at least to 1637. As with “the devil to pay” on page 106, proposed nautical origins of this phrase are dubious. The more parsimonious and generally accepted explanation is that the phrase simply refers to facing two options both of which are deadly. And it’s also a #DevilReference!
The Lamborghini Diablo VT is a real car, manufactured from 1999–2001. Automobiles aren’t my forte, so I’ll just say that it’s a high-powered, 550 horsepower, V12 sports car. According to Car and Driver, its horsepower is more than that of four Toyota Camrys.
At $275,000 apiece, only 23 of the 1999 model sold in the U.S. It’s unlikely that the 2001 model sold many more than that. So Nicholas and Bruiser are lucky to have found one! And a good thing, too, since the Diablo is also a #DevilReference.
Although Stephen King’s famous novel The Shining was inspired by his stay at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the author states plainly on the recto of the dedication page, “Some of the most beautiful resort hotels in the world are located in Colorado, but the hotel in these pages is based on none of them. The Overlook and the people associated with it exist wholly within the author’s imagination.”
Similarly, Kubrick’s equally famous movie adaptation was mostly filmed on soundstages, not in any real hotel. Elements were inspired by other hotels. Exterior shots in the film were of the Timberline Lodge near Portland, Oregon, but the inside of the lodge looks nothing at all like the fancy resort shown in the movie. In an ironic bit of life imitating art, the Stanley Hotel announced just a few months ago that they were adding a hedge maze as an homage to The Shining.
Nevertheless, this fictional hotel has secured a very real place in our popular imagination. On the Internet, one can find all kinds of Overlook merchandise to buy: t-shirts, mugs, barware, posters, etc.
Because the Overlook Hotel is such an important part of pop culture—and because it was conveniently located between Devils Tower and New Mexico—I wanted to pay tribute to this fictional place. In so doing, however, I wanted to clearly credit the place to Stephen King’s novel, and its visual aspect to Stanley Kubrick. By doing so, that made its becoming real in The Billionth Monkey more striking. But I also wanted to emphasize (humorously) that the hotel’s transition into reality in the 2010s involved some interesting changes from what we’re familiar with in the 1970s. I only hope that Stephen King—if he ever reads this short scene in the book—takes it as the lighthearted tribute that it was intended to be.
Destiny’s Tweezer post on page 123 “The bigger the dick, the harder they fall” concludes the “Ski Accident” urban legend that started on page 109. Her post contains the following numerical Easter eggs:
405 (from the time 4:05) = שפכה (penis), which relates to the first half of Destiny’s post.
160 (the number of followers Destiny picked up since her previous post on page 118, i.e. 3946-3786=160) = נפל (to fall), referring to the second half of her post.
42 (number of “plusses” for this post) = the number that Douglas Adams made famous as the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
The iconic “I’ve had it with this bully” moment undoubtedly comes from the 1983 holiday classic, A Christmas Story (which, as you read this, is undoubtedly playing 24 hours a day on some cable TV holiday channel). Indeed, on page 121, the narrator even refers to Ben Tucker taking the Scott Farkus Incident “to an extremely dark and brutal place.” As you can see in the clip below, the original was pretty brutal…so just imagine what it was like with Bruiser!
And so, in need of a name for my bully, I tried to make a spoonerism of Scott Farkus. That gave me a profoundly unsatisfactory Fark Scottus. With only a slight tweak, it became Frank Scotus. Close enough for an urban legend!
Page 122’s tale of Barbara Smuts and Goblin is a true story, one of those quintessential NPR “driveway moments.” I still remember listening to Radiolab while driving home one afternoon in 2010, turning onto my gravel driveway about halfway through recounting her tale of the bully chimpanzee. I had to sit in the car until the story was finished. Hearing her first-hand account was entertaining and hilarious. And the fact that she wound up at the University of Michigan—my home state!—where she is now professor emerita made the story extra appealing. It always stuck with me, and when I began writing The Billionth Monkey—and Bruiser’s origin story in particular—I flashed back to this tale and realized it not only really explained Bruiser’s psychology, but also gave me another #MonkeyReference.
Destiny’s social media update on 117 was a tricky one numerologically speaking because there just aren’t ancient Greek or Hebrew words for “colander,” “jumper cable” or “photocopier.” So I tossed in a pair of references for readers of Perdurabo:
13 (number of plusses to the post) = אחד, Achad (One), the magical motto of Charles Stansfeld Jones, Crowley’s heir apparent.
667 (from 3,667 followers) = η κοκκινη γυνη (The Scarlet Woman), 1. the title Crowley gave his magical consorts; 2. the neighbor of The Beast.
The Easter eggs were similarly tricky for the “knockout game” post on page 118. Here we have one actually relevant entry, plus two more just for kicks (again for readers of Perdurabo):
786 (from 3,786 followers) = פון, or PWN transliterated into Hebrew. Pwn is leetspeak slang for totally owning or conquering something.
11 (number of plusses) = the number of magick in Crowley’s system.
333 (from the time 3:33) is the number of Choronzon from John Dee’s Enochian system.
These early posts involve small numbers and weird subjects that make it hard to come up with goodies to hide in them. But I promise these numerical Easter eggs get better!
A word on the “knockout game” is in order. The existence of the game—in which youth sneak up on a random, unsuspecting stranger and hit them as hard as they can in the head in an effort to knock them out—has been hotly contested. Some claim that the prevalence of such attacks has been grossly exaggerated by the media to create hysteria, and that some attacks that have simply been assaults have been mischaracterized as the knockout game all in order to feed a racist narrative. The other side of the argument claims that the liberal media just doesn’t want to accept the truth. At the time I wrote The Billionth Monkey, the news was full of reports, debates and refutations. Read more about the knockout game here and here. Things have quieted down since then, but either way mention of the knockout game—along with
other pop culture references in the book—place the story sometime in the
Before the humble colander was embraced by Pastafarians who have been touched by the noodly appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it played a role in urban legend. Indeed, appears in my favorite urban-legend-based scene in The Billionth Monkey. And best of all, the legend is one of those rare stories that may actually have some basis in reality.
According to legend, some small-town police (Radnor, Pennsylvania, is the most common location) are interrogating a clearly guilty but uncooperative perp. In order to extract a confession, they put a colander on his head and connect it to a photocopier which has on its copying plate a piece of paper on which the police have written “He’s lying!” On questioning, whenever the suspect gave a dubious answer the police pressed the “copy” button, and out popped a piece of paper alerting them to the suspect’s falsehood. Before long, the police had their confession.
According to Brunvand (2001), the story first appeared in print in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1977. Columnist Clark DeLeon reported that Judge Isaac Garb heard the associated case and suppressed the confession. In 1993, Garb confirmed that he did indeed hear the case before his Court of Common Appeals in Bucks County, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Mikkelson, however, is skeptical that a colander would just happen to be sitting around a police department.
True or not, the story had legs, spread widely, and underwent predictable changes as it grew in popularity. It appeared in the TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets in the episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Season 1, Episode 8, March 24, 1993). Amar and Lettow (1995), in their law journal article about the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause, report that this actually happened recently in Detroit (page 873–4). Critics of voice-stress analyzers have compared the technique to the colander copier caper (as Brunvand calls it). And according to Savage (1998), the story was told to the Supreme Court as part of the testimony in its decision concerning the use of polygraph evidence.
A variant of the story was used in the January 6, 2008, episode of The Wire, “More with Less” (Season 5, Episode 1).
Jimmy Kimmel Live! has reinvented this legend—with buzzers and lights—into a hilarious series of “Lie Detective” shorts with children. Here’s the first in the series:
The character name “Bruiser” may sound as cliché as his evil-Popeye appearance, and initially I only intended it as a placeholder for a to-be-determined better name. But as I wrote this scene, I recalled the old Steven Wright joke:
“Some friends of mine got me a sweater for my birthday. I'd have preferred a moaner or a screamer…”
Once I made that connection, I was in love with the name. It’s one of my favorite jokes in the book. And—unbeknownst to me when I wrote this scene—over the course of the story Bruiser would turn out to have a host of other little problems.
Despite my describing him as an “evil Popeye,” his dialect is actually an homage to another comic book character: Ben Grimm, better known as the Thing from the Fantastic Four…my favorite comic book as a child.
Muad’Dib is the name of the kangaroo mouse on the desert planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s epic Hugo and Nebula award-winning sci-fi classic, Dune (1965). The book’s hero, Paul Atreides, adopts the surname Muad’Dib as his chosen name of manhood while living incognito among the Fremen. Haunted by visions of his destiny, Paul ultimately concludes that the Sleeper must awaken: that is, he must drink the deadly Water of Life and, surviving the ordeal, become the Kwisatz Haderach, the super-powered Bene Gesserit of prophecy.
The original cover of Frank Herbert’s Dune (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965).
Destiny’s offhand comment about being caught wearing nothing but a motorcycle helmet references another well-known urban legend from the 1960s, often passed off as a true story (see, for instance, the Madison State Journal article about “an Ohio housewife” reprinted in “Percolation and Runoff,” 1964). The legend typically goes something like this:
While doing the laundry, a housewife decides to add her dress to the wash. She also puts on a football helmet that happens to be in the basement. In some versions, she does this to protect her just-set hair from leaky pipes, and in other versions it’s because of spider webs. Just then, the naked woman hears the cough (or knock on the door) of the meter-reader who professionally does his job and, on leaving, remarks, “I hope your team wins, lady!”
"I hope your team wins, lady!"
Details vary, as expected with urban legends: Sometimes the housewife is wearing a raccoon coat (perhaps added to “clean up” the story for print). Sometimes she is discovered not by the meter-reader, but by the mailman, or by a plumber who finally showed up just as she had given up on him. The story is popular enough to turn up in Erma Bombeck’s Aunt Erma’s Cope Book (1979). Although the person caught unaware (and undressed) is always a woman and her discoverer always a man, but Brunvand (1990) reports a parody version in which the characters’ genders are reversed.
For Further Reading
Anonymous. “Percolation and Runoff.” Journal of the American Water Works Association, December 1964. 56(12): 35–36, 38, 40, 42, 44.
Jan Harold Brunvand. “The Nude Housewife,” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001, 294–5.
Barbara Mikkelson, “Chicago Bare,” September 20, 2015, Snopes.com.
[I make a conscientious effort to credit all images used on this blog, but the image accompanying this post appears on several hundred sports websites and none that I looked at gave photo credit. I would gladly add credit if provided with the information.]
It seems hardly necessary to explain The Matrix to anyone reading this blog, but the movie did celebrate its sweet sixteen this year, and a few people have been born since 1999. In the film, Laurence Fishburne plays Morpheus, a mysterious character who offers the hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) a choice in the form of two pills: blue and everything goes back to the way it was before they met, or red and how he sees the world will never be the same.
The scene has become so ensconced in the meta-language of pop culture that it has launched a thousand “What if I told you” memes beginning in 2012.
A Billionth Monkey-themed example of the Morpheus Meme.
(This one points out that various fictional people, places, and things in TBM also exist on the Web.)
Like those on page 106, these Tweezer Easter eggs involve numerology based on the idea that alphabets also doubled as number symbols in ancient Hebrew (gematria), Greek (isosephia), and other languages, thus meaning that words in those languages all have numerical values. (This is unlike English, whose alphabet has no designated numerical values.) Practitioners of gematria often work from the premises that these numerological values are inherent in the language's morphology, that words have specific meanings for a reason, and that words with equivalent numerical values are therefore meaningfully connected. Some use it as a tool for contemplation. In The Billionth Monkey, we’re using it for entertainment.
In the first Tweezer post—“Some college kid just told me that I don’t exist”—we find:
21 likes = אהיה, “existence”; one of several names of God in the Old Testament, the “I am” part of “I am that I am” in Exodus 3:14.
120 (from 3,120 followers) = ον (being), a term from Plato’s dialogue Parmenides to express the idea that to exist means to be intelligible.
310 (from 3:10 pm) = יש, another Hebrew term meaning “existence.”
This diagram of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, as popularized in Western esotericism, shows אין, Ain (Nothing), as one of the three Veils of Negative Existence at the top. (Art by Frater Ash, image from Thelemapedia.)
The second tweeze—“Not only do I not exist, but I’m also wrong”—only has one goodie hiding in plain sight: 61 (from 3,161 followers) = אין, literally “nothing” or “non-existence.” So the Easter eggs on these two posts go hand-in-hand, not only in terms of the plot of The Billionth Monkey, but also in terms of the numerological Easter eggs.
There are plenty more to come as we work through the book.