Daily Archives: March 2, 2019

The Book of Answers – Information before Google.

Before Google existed, the fastest way to get an answer was to call the New York Public Library Telephone Reference Service. It has been operating 9 hours a day 6 days a week since 1968. The Book of Answers is a fascinating summary of the most interesting answers and questions fielded by the service.

The Book of Answers
The Book of Answers

Unlike Google or Wikipedia, the NY Public Library goes to great lengths to make sure that the answers they give are accurate. The Library’s answers are not influenced by what most people “think” the answer should be. What goes into Google or Wikipedia is not the truth, but rather what Stephen Colbert refers to as truthiness. That is, something that people think is true because it sounds true.

What percentage is each color in a bag of M&Ms?
What percentage is each color in a bag of M&Ms?

The Book of Answers has a section devoted to correcting misconceptions people have on a number if items. These include items such as:

  • Despite what most people believe Poinsettias are not poisonous.  Despite this fact every Christmas season every local T.V. station runs at least one story warning people about poisonous Poinsettias.
  • Panama Hats are not made in Panama. They are and have always been made in Ecuador.
  • Abraham Lincoln was not the first President born in a log cabin. Andrew Jackson was actually the first.
The New York Public Library's main Reading Room.
The New York Public Library’s main Reading Room.

There are also some fascinating but lesser known facts about a huge variety of subjects.

  • New Zealand was the first nation to give women the vote in 1893. Switzerland did not allow women to vote until 1971.
  • The most common color candy in a bag of M&Ms is Brown composing 30% of the candies. Red, Yellow are 20% each and Green, Orange & Tan are 10% each.
  • The covering on the end of a shoelace is an “aglet”.
  • The metal hoop that supports a lampshade is a “harp.”

The Book of Answers was written by Barbara Berliner with Melinda Corey and George Ochoa. The Book of Answers was published in 1990 at which time Barbara Berliner was the head of the New York Public Library’s Telephone Reference Service.  It is nice to know that despite Google and Wikipedia, this service still exists.  

Women did not get the vote in Switzerland until 1971.
Women did not get the vote in Switzerland until 1971.

There strict rules the Reference librarians must follow before they can answer any questions. There are:

  • Librarians are not allowed to guess about any answers. They must have a verified source for the answer or else truthfully state that the answer is “We don’t know”. In that case the library will try to find the answer and call you back at a later time.
  • Librarians will not give you the answers to any contest that is still open. In other words, you can’t use them to cheat on a quiz show or radio contest.
  • They won’t give you the answer to the impossible questions such as “what is the meaning of life?” or “why does anyone watch The Kardashians?

You can still find this little gem of a book on Amazon, and it is a lot of fun to browse through. After all, in this confusing world don’t we all really need to have “The Book of Answers?”

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The Green Book – a feel-good movie but a complete lie

The Green Book is a “feel good” movie that also happens to be a complete lie about race relations in America. It is supposedly the true story of pianist Don Shirley’s 1962 tour of the Deep South where he played for all-White audiences. Fearing for his safety, Don Shirley recruited tough guy Tony “Lip” Vallelonga to be his chauffeur.  Though completely opposite personalities, they come to understand and respect each other, leading to a life-long friendship.

Viggo Mortensen & Mahershala Ali in "The Green Book"
Viggo Mortensen & Mahershala Ali in “The Green Book”

Mahershala Ali is perfect as Don Shirley, as is Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip. The action is exciting and well filmed, and audiences leave the theater feeling uplifted. However, The Green Book has been widely criticized by African Americans, especially Spike Lee, because Hollywood’s portrayal of the 1962 tour does not match what really happened. Here is a list of the major flaws with The Green Book.

The Negro Motorist Green Book was distributed by Esso gas stations.
The Negro Motorist Green Book was distributed by Esso gas stations.

Don Shirley was not playing for White Audiences in the South. It was a tour of historically African American colleges in the South and the audiences were African American. The whole scene of Shirley playing for rich White folks in a private home and then being told he could not use the bathroom never happened. It was a pivotal plot point in The Green Book but was a complete Hollywood fabrication.

Don Shirley
Don Shirley

Don Shirley was not estranged from his family. He had a close relationship with his siblings, nephews and nieces his entire life. Writers Nick Vallelonga (Tony’s son), Peter Farrelly and Brian Currie are all White. They did not contact Shirley’s family while making The Green Book. Nick Vallelonga has openly admitted that he did not even know that any of Don Shirley’s family still existed. Instead, The Green Book portrays Don Shirley as a lonely, isolated man who is “saved” by being invited to dinner with the Vallelonga family. In fact, some members of Don Shirley’s family actually attended many of his concerts in the South.

Spike Lee does not think The Green Book should have won Best Picture.
Spike Lee does not think The Green Book should have won Best Picture.

The Green Book pretends that racial profiling by police officers only happens in the South. The Green Book has several scenes where Don and Tony are roughed up by Southern policemen who seem to automatically hate all African Americans or Italians. Then when they are returning home, as soon as they cross the Mason-Dixon Line the police become friendly helpers. A police officer points out that their rear tire is flat, and then stays with them to direct traffic around the car in a raging blizzard. Following the logic of The Green Book, relations between the police and the African American community in the Northern city of Chicago must be excellent.

Nick Vallelonga
Nick Vallelonga

The Green Book gives the impression that racial tensions are somehow relegated to the past. After all, the Deep South no longer has legalized segregation and even the police forces are now integrated. Most people today don’t even realize that there actually was something called The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was a guide to what hotels and dining establishments African American’s were allowed to use in the South. The fact that this legalized racism no longer exists makes audiences feel good about how much progress has been made.  Spike Lee has stated that The Green Book gives a false sense of progress, and is a feel-good movie on race relations designed for an old audience. Spike Lee may have a point. At the theater where we saw The Green Book, the average age of the audience was about 67.

Linda Cardellini & Viggo Mortensen in "The Green Book"
Linda Cardellini & Viggo Mortensen in “The Green Book”

The Green Book is a “White Savior” Story. Tony Lip has to teach Don Shirley how to stand up for himself and be tough. Time after time in The Green Book, Tony saves Don from problems brought about by Don’s timid nature, or his own stupidity of going places without bringing Tony along to protect him. This is repeated so often in the film that you begin to wonder how Don Shirley actually survived in the world before he met his White Protector. Hollywood has a long history of making “White Savior” films. These include The Blind Side, Dangerous Minds, and even To Kill a Mockingbird. The mark of a White Savior movie is that its focus is about how heroic the White person is to be helping the unfortunate African American who would be lost without the savior. The main star is the White character, with the African Americans playing only supporting roles.

This may be a little bit of a hard judgment for The Green Book. After all, Don Shirley is portrayed as being immensely more talented, educated and literate than Tony Lip. In fact, the most amusing parts of The Green Book are when Don Shirley helps the almost illiterate Tony write beautiful love letters to Tony’s wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini). Don Shirley’s letters are so elaborate and romantic that Dolores begins reading them to her jealous friends.

Tony "Lip" Vallelonga
Tony “Lip” Vallelonga

Overall, The Green Book is an enjoyable film to watch, but don’t fool yourself into believing that you are seeing an actual portrayal of history. We can’t help thinking that it would have been so much better if the writers had taken the time to fully research the events and get input from Don Shirley’s family. It is true that despite their different backgrounds Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga did become lifelong friends. It would be fascinating to know what really happened when the toured the Deep South 57 years ago.