The Gate        A Few Tiny Errors, Part I
Monday, January 3, 2000
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle

``WHAT IS TRUTH?'' said jesting Pilate, ``and could someone hand me a towel?'' Oh, how those lines from Francis Bacon echoed in my brain as I considered the 1999 edition of my Christmas quiz.

Each year brings corrections, amplifications and quarrelsome behavior. Each year is a pageant of allegation and supposition. This year was the Rose Parade of knowledge.

In all of life, and particularly in the land of quizzes, some things alleged to be facts are not in fact facts. Other facts disappear as you approach them. Still other facts are true, but less interesting than the fake facts that many people believe.

All of which is good, because the chimera of truth allows the humble columnist to wander through the corridors of history, note pad in hand, accompanied from time to time by certified experts.

For instance: Despite apparently reliable information to the contrary, that is not a badger nestled against the chin of Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill. Grant is bearded, and thus joins Abe Lincoln as an hairy man on the currency.

Also, to quote reader Mike McLeod: ``The word `United' appears not three but 11 times on the $5 bill. Look closely at the frame around the picture of Lincoln -- the outer edge of the frame, when examined under a magnifying glass, reveals the words ``The United States of America'' repeated four times on each side of the frame, for a total of eight.''

This trick is done to fool counterfeiters and columnists, two known threats to national stability.

NOW THEN, TO the oft-repeated rumor that the characters Bert and Ernie on ``Sesame Street'' were named for Bert the cop and Ernie the cabdriver in Frank Capra's ``It's a Wonderful Life.''

One Jerry Juhl writes: ``I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on `Sesame Street.' The rumor about `It's a Wonderful Life' has persisted over the years.

``I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive it was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cabdriver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format. (Jon, sadly, is no longer with us either.)

``He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.

``Do I get bonus points for this?: Oscar the Grouch got his name from a seafood restaurant called Oscar's on Lexington Avenue in NYC. Jim and Jon had lunch there once and had a really bad-tempered waiter.''

Lose a trivial fact; gain a trivial fact. It evens out.

READER WENDELL TAYLOR writes: ``Think of this: Twenty-four time zone lines converge at the South Pole. In principle one could, at that point on the earth, step randomly among them. International borders are a little murky there, but several countries lay claim. The 3 1/2 hours between China and Afghanistan are interesting but unconvincing.''

So, ``interesting but unconvincing,'' eh, Taylor? In fact, all of Antarctica is by decree and custom under Greenwich Mean Time, so all that dancing about in the snow would get you precisely nowhere, time travelwise.

In fact, Greenwich Mean Time isn't even Greenwich Mean Time anymore -- it's UT-1, which sounds ever so futuristic and official. UT-1 is not to be confused with UTC, which is something the French believe in, and which differs from UT-1 by as much as 0.9 seconds. Or so I have been reliably informed.

Tomorrow: Volcanoes, parachutes, Ginger Rogers and Pope Innocent III -- together at last!

In which we explain, amplify, correct and refute, all with charm.


Been caught stealing once, when I was

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