Sunday, March 30, 2014

April Fool's Day—Where Did It Come From?

The first of April—April Fool's Day or All Fool's Day as it is also known.  A date that has been celebrated for centuries.  But what in the world could possibly be the origins of a day dedicated to pranks and practical jokes?

Those exact origins remain a bit of a mystery, the most widely accepted theory says it dates back to 1582 when France switched from the Julian calendar where the new year began on April 1 to the Gregorian calendar where the new year began on January 1 as called for in 1563 by the Council of Trent.  People who didn't get the word that the start of the year had moved or refused to accept the change and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the object of jokes and hoaxes.  Paper fish would be placed on their back and they were referred to as poisson d'avri which means April fish.  It symbolized a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.  These people were considered fools and had practical jokes played on them.

Historians have linked April Fools' Day to ancient festivals such as Hilaria, which was celebrated in Rome at the end of March and involved people dressing up in disguises.  There's also speculation that April Fool's Day was tied to the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when Mother Nature fooled people with changing and unpredictable weather.

On April 1, 1700, English pranksters began popularizing the annual tradition of April Fools' Day by playing practical jokes on each other.  The celebration spread throughout Britain during the eighteenth century.  In Scotland it became a two day event in which people were sent on phony errands and had fake tails or kick me signs pinned to their rear ends.

All Fools' Day is practiced in many parts of the world with the playing of practical jokes and sending people on fool's errands.  In modern times people have gone to great lengths to stage elaborate pranks.  Here's the top ten hoaxes from a list of the best one hundred pranks of all time as judged by notoriety, creativity, and number of people duped.

1)  The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest (1957):  The respected BBC news show Panorama announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop.

2)  Sidd Finch (1985):  Sports Illustrated published a story about a new rookie pitcher who planned to play for the Mets.  His name was Sidd Finch, and he could reportedly throw a baseball at 168 mph with pinpoint accuracy.  But Sidd Finch had never played the game before.  He mastered the art of the pitch in a Tibetan monastery.  This legendary player was the creation of the article's author, George Plimpton.

3)  Instant Color TV (1962):  At the time there was only one television channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white.  The station's technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display color reception.  All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their television screen.

4)  The Taco Liberty Bell (1996):  The Taco Bell Corporation announced it had purchased the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell.  Outraged citizens called the National Historic Park in Philadelphia to express their anger.

5)  San Serriffe (1977):  British newspaper The Guardian published a special seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe, a small republic consisting of semi-colon shaped islands located in the Indian Ocean.  It described the geography and culture of this obscure nation.  Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse.  Its leader was General Pica.  Only a few readers noticed that everything about the islands was named after printer's terminology.

6)  Nixon for President (1992):  National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation program announced that Richard Nixon, in a surprise move, was running for President again.  His campaign slogan was, "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again."  Listeners flooded the show with calls expressing shock and outrage.  Nixon's voice was impersonated by comedian Rich Little.

7)  Alabama Changes the Value of Pi (1998):  The April 1998 issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter contained an article claiming that the Alabama state legislature had voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159 to the Biblical value of 3.0.  The article soon made its way onto the internet, then rapidly spread around the world.  The Alabama legislature began receiving hundreds of calls from people protesting the legislation.  The original article was intended as a parody of legislative attempts to circumscribe the teaching of evolution and had been written by a physicist.

8)  The Left-Handed Whopper (1998):  Burger King published a full page ad in USA Today announcing the introduction on their menu of a Left-Handed Whopper for the 32 million left-handed Americans.  The ingredients were the same as the original Whopper, but the ad claimed all the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of their left-handed customers.  Thousands of customers requested the new sandwich.

9)  Hotheaded Naked Ice Borers (1995):  Discover Magazine reported that a highly respected wildlife biologist found a new species in Antarctica—the hotheaded naked ice borer.  The creatures had bony plates on their heads.  When fed by numerous blood vessels, they could become burning hot thus allowing the animals to bore through ice at high speeds.  They used this ability to hunt penguins, melting the ice beneath the penguins and causing them to sink downwards where the hotheads consumed them.  It was theorized that the hotheads might have been responsible for the mysterious disappearance of noted Antarctic explorer Philippe Poisson in 1837.  To the hotheads, the explorer looked like a penguin.

10)  Planetary Alignment Decreases Gravity (1976):  British astronomer Patrick Moore announced on BBC Radio 2 that at 9:47AM a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur and listeners could experience it in their own homes.  Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth's own gravity.  Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment the planetary alignment occurred they would experience a strange floating sensation.  When 9:47AM arrived, BBC2 began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation.  One woman reported she and her eleven friends had floated around the room.

Have you ever played an April Fool's joke on someone, or had one played on you?  Tell us about it.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


—that will forever change your concept of time.  This list puts historical moments into a time-line context that will surprise you when you discover which one of two happenings is older.  At least most of them surprised me. :)   I did verify the founding date for Harvard and the date the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series, and I worked for 20th Century Fox in 1977 when they released Star Wars, but I didn't verify anything on this list beyond that.

1)  Betty White Is Older Than Sliced Bread
1928 is the date when bread was first sold commercially as sliced rather than the traditional whole loaves.  Prior to that, bakers didn't believe that sliced bread could stay fresh.  Betty White was born in 1922, six years before the invention that became the benchmark for greatness with future inventions being heralded as the greatest thing since sliced bread.

2)  Harvard University was founded before calculus was invented
Originally called the New College, 1636 is the date for the founding of Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher education in what is now America.  It should also be noted that physicist, mathematician and astronomer Galileo was still alive during Harvard's early years.  He died in 1642.  The invention of calculus didn't come about until 1684 with Gottfried Leibniz's publication of Nova Methodus.

3)  The Ottoman Empire still existed when the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series
1908 is the last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.  The Ottoman Empire, founded in the 13th century, came to an end in 1922 with Mehmed VI being the last sultan of the empire before the Turkish government abolished the sultanate and took governing control of the new republic.

4)  The Pyramids of Giza were built before wooly mammoths became extinct
It's believed that the last wooly mammoths died out approximately 1700B.C. on Russia's Wrangel Island.  The Pyramids of Giza, in Egypt, were built approximately 300 years earlier (about 4,000 years ago).  There are some claims that the pyramids might be even older than that.

5)  The fax machine is the same age as the Oregon Trail
1843 is the year Alexander Bain, a Scottish mechanic, invented the first fax machine.  The same year the Great Migration on the Oregon Trail began when a wagon train of approximately 1000 migrants attempted to travel west but probably died of dysentery along the way.

6)  Jewelry store Tiffany & Co. was founded before Italy was a country
1837 is the year Charles Tiffany and John Young founded Tiffany & Young which became Tiffany & Co. in 1853.  1861 is when General Giuseppe Garibaldi led a successful campaign to bring the various city-states together as one nation, although Rome held out for a number of years after that.  Macy's was founded in 1858, also prior to Italy becoming the nation we know today.

7)  France was still using the guillotine when the first Star Wars movie was released
1977 is the release date of the first of the Star Wars movies.  A few months later is when France conducted its last execution by guillotine.  The guillotine had been used in France for approximately 200 years.  And another French time line fact to boggle the mind:  1889 is the year of the Eiffel Tower, the same year Nintendo was founded (the company originally made playing cards) and Van Gogh painted The Starry Night.

8)  Two of President John Tyler's grandsons are still alive
1841 to 1845, John Tyler was America's tenth president.  And, surprisingly, two of his grandsons are still alive.  As of December 2013, both Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr., and Harrison Tyler, were only in their 80s…as verified by Snopes.

And there you have it…a few surprising dates from history.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

St. Patrick's Day—history, symbols, traditions, green beer, and Irish coffee

March 17—St. Patrick's religious feast day and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. A date that falls during the Christian season of Lent. The Irish have observed this date as a religious holiday for over a thousand years. Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade took place in the U.S., not in Ireland. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on March 17, 1762, (when we were still a British colony). In 1848, several New York Irish aid societies united their parades to form one New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade. Today, that parade is the world's oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States with over 150,000 participants.

Today, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated by people of all backgrounds in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Although North America is home to the largest celebrations, it has been celebrated in other locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, and Russia.

In modern day Ireland, St. Patrick's Day has traditionally been a religious occasion. Until the 1970s, Irish laws mandated pubs be closed on March 17. In 1995, the Irish government began a national campaign to use St. Patrick's Day as an opportunity to promote tourism.

Symbols and Traditions

The shamrock was a sacred plant in ancient Ireland, symbolizing the rebirth of spring. By the seventeenth century, it became a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism.

Music is often associated with St. Patrick's Day and Irish culture in general. Since the ancient days of the Celts, music has always been an important part of Irish life. The Celts had an oral culture where religion, legend, and history were passed from one generation to the next through stories and songs.

Banishing snakes from Ireland has been associated with St. Patrick. A long held belief says St. Patrick once stood on a hilltop and with only a wooden staff managed to drive all the snakes from Ireland. The fact is the island nation of Ireland has never had snakes.

Every year on St. Patrick's Day the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage is consumed. Cabbage has long been an Irish food, but corned beef only began to be associated with St. Patrick's Day at the turn of the century.

Belief in leprechauns probably comes from Celtic belief in fairies, tiny men and women who could use their magical powers to serve good or evil. Leprechauns are only minor figures in Celtic folklore, cantankerous little men known for their trickery which they often used to protect their fabled treasure. The cheerful, friendly image of the leprechaun is a purely American invention created by Walt Disney in his 1959 movie, Darby O'Gill and the Little People.
Chicago is famous for a somewhat peculiar annual event: dyeing the Chicago River green. The tradition started in 1962, when city pollution-control workers used dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges and realized that the green dye might provide a unique way to celebrate the holiday. That year, they released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the river—enough to keep it green for a week. Today, in order to minimize environmental damage, only forty pounds of dye are used, making the river green for only several hours.

Green beer, certainly associated with St. Patrick's Day here in the United States, is NOT an Irish creation. Purists claim that Arthur Guinness would turn over in his grave if anyone attempted to add green food coloring to the traditional Irish brew. Green beer is most likely of American origins.

And Irish coffee?  The forerunner of today's Irish coffee was said to have originated at Foynes' port (the precursor to Shannon International Airport on the west coast of Ireland near the town of Limerick) one miserable winter night in the 1940s. Joseph Sheridan added some whiskey to the coffee to warm the arriving American passengers, proclaiming it to be Irish coffee.

A travel writer named Stanton Delaplane brought Irish coffee to the U.S. after drinking it at Shannon Airport. He worked with the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco to develop the perfect drink. The Buena Vista Cafe started serving Irish coffee on November 10, 1952, and continues to serve large quantities of it to this day starting from the time they open in the morning for breakfast until they close at night.

So, here's to everyone celebrating on March 17 whether Irish or not. Enjoy your corned beef and cabbage, green beer, and Irish coffee.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Hollywood's Oscar® Moments--By The Numbers

Even though Hollywood is a real place (a neighborhood that is part of the city of Los Angeles), that piece of real estate has attained almost mythical proportions world-wide. It conjurs up images of make believe and magic. Or, to be more specific, it represents the home of the film industry even though Disney Studios, Warner Bros., Universal Studios, Twentieth Century Fox, MGM, NBC Television Studios, CBS Television Studios, and many other major film production companies are not physically in Hollywood. In fact, Disney Studios, Warner Bros., MGM, and NBC aren't even in the city of Los Angeles. MGM is in Culver City. Disney Studios, Warner Bros., and NBC are all in the city of Burbank.

For those of us old enough to remember Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, they burst that all of show business is centered in Hollywood bubble by letting everyone know they were coming to you from Beautiful Downtown Burbank  rather than legendary Hollywood.

The Oscar®—Hollywood's annual award for achievement in the film industry. Since the 86th annual awards show was just broadcast on March 2nd, this seemed like a good time to review some statistics connected to the American film industry's highest award.

The first awards ceremony was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929 to honor films released in 1927 and 1928. The first Best Picture award went to the 1927 film Wings. It was the only silent film to receive the honor.

As the award tradition continued, the ceremony settled into a pattern that has stayed relatively consistent to this day. The following statistics were in an article I read that covered the first 85 years of award ceremonies.

ZERO is the
Number of competitive Oscars® won by a long list of high-profile legendary actors, actresses, and filmmakers. These include Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Richard Burton, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford among many others. Alfred Hitchcock did finally win an honorary Oscar® in 1968 and Cary Grant received an honorary Oscar® in 1970.

ONE is the
Number of dollars for which a winner or his estate must offer to sell his statuette back to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before attempting to sell the statuette anywhere else. Statuettes awarded after 1950 are bound by this agreement as they are considered property of the Academy unless it specifically waives ownership. Orson Welles' 1941 Oscar for Citizen Kane was sold at a 2011 auction for over $800,000.

TWO is the
Number of words in the shortest acceptance speech ever, delivered by Patty Duke in 1963 after winning the Best Supporting Actress statuette for The Miracle Worker. Her speech was a simple, "Thank you."  [note: I read somewhere else that the same 'thank you' is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock and William Holden.]

THREE is the
Number of films that have won all of the big five awards (picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay). They are: It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

THREE is the
Number of animated features that have been nominated for Best Picture. 1991's Beauty and the Beast was the first to earn this distinction, followed later by Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010).

FOUR is the
Most acting statuettes won by a single individual, a record held by Katharine Hepburn. She won Best Actress statuettes for: Morning Glory (1933), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1982).

FOUR is the
The most Best Director wins by one person, a record held by John Ford since 1953, when he won his fourth statuette for The Quiet Man."

Length in minutes of the longest acceptance speech, a distinction held by Greer Garson, who won Best Actress in 1943 for Mrs. Miniver.

EIGHT is the
Highest number of acting nominations without a win, a record held by the late Peter O'Toole. He did finally receive an honorary Oscar® in 2002.

TEN is the
Number of musicals that have won Best Picture, the most recent being 2002's Chicago, which ended a 34-year drought. 1968's Oliver! preceded Chicago's win. The Academy took a hard turn away from song-and-dance features with its 1969 Best Picture award to Midnight Cowboy which remains the only X-rated film to claim the biggest prize [and I believe Midnight Cowboy would not receive an X-rating if released today].

ELEVEN is the
Highest number of statuettes won by a single film. Three movies are tied for this distinction: Ben-Hur (1959), Titanic (1997), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Return of the King won all 11 awards for which it was nominated, another Academy record.

ELEVEN is the
Highest number of nominations for a film that did not win any Oscars®. Two films share that dubious distinction: The Turning Point (1977) and The Color Purple (1985).

TWELVE is the
Highest number of Best Director nominations received by one person, William Wyler, with three of those nominations becoming wins.

FIFTEEN is the
Length in minutes of the first, and to this day the shortest, Academy Awards ceremony, held on May 16, 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. Awards (the nickname Oscar® didn't come into being for several years) were handed out in 12 categories. Today, statuettes are awarded in 24 categories, and ceremonies typically run three hours on average with some running much longer.

Highest number of hosts for one Oscars® telecast. For several years, the Academy used a gimmick dubbed Friends of Oscar® that featured a roster of rotating hosts for each ceremony. The broadcast with the most Friends took place on April 7, 1970, and included stars like Bob Hope, John Wayne, Barbra Streisand, Fred Astaire, Clint Eastwood, James Earl Jones, and Elizabeth Taylor. Packing in so much star power paid off for the Academy: the broadcast was the Awards' highest-rated telecast of all time.

Highest number of acting nominations for a single person, a record held by Meryl Streep. She broke the previous record of 12, set by Katharine Hepburn. Jack Nicholson is the most nominated male actor, currently tied with Hepburn's 12.

Highest number of Oscar ceremonies hosted by one person. Bob Hope holds that title which includes the first televised ceremony in 1953. Billy Crystal is second with nine hosting gigs.

Number of times that the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars® have gone to different films. The most recent split came in 2013, when Ang Lee won Best Director for Life of Pi and Argo (directed by Ben Affleck who was not nominated) took Best Picture.

Total number of Oscars® won by Walt Disney, the most ever for a single person. He was also awarded an additional four honorary statuettes, and holds the record for most wins in one year by a single person (four).

Highest number of nominations earned by a woman in any category belongs to costume designer Edith Head. She won eight statuettes throughout her career.

Maximum number of seconds that Academy rules stipulate for acceptance speeches, a rule established in 2010 and broken multiple times every year.

Highest number of nominations for a single person in any category. Over-achiever Walt Disney holds that title, too. Composer John Williams is the most-nominated living person, with 49 nominations to his credit.

Length in minutes of the shortest Best Picture winner ever, Marty (1955). Brevity seems to be a theme for this classic film. The 1956 ceremony where the prize was awarded is the second-shortest Oscar® ceremony, lasting just 90 minutes.

Length in minutes (3 hours 44 minutes) of the longest Best Picture winners ever: a tie between Ben-Hur (1959) and Gone With the Wind (1939). But GWTW has a slight edge when you add in the overture, intermission music, and exit music which takes it to 238 minutes (3 hours 58 minutes).

And there you have it—Oscar® by the numbers.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Mardi Gras And The Tradition Of Flashing

This year Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday, March 4.  In the Catholic Church, it's Shrove Tuesday, also known as fat Tuesday.  The date for Mardi Gras depends on the date of Easter—always occurring forty-six days before Easter.

In the most literal sense, the Mardi Gras celebration is the three days prior to the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  It's the last opportunity for partying and indulgence in food and drink.  In practice, Mardi Gras…or Carnival, as it is called in many countries…is usually celebrated for a full week before the start of Lent.  In New Orleans, the many parades begin on February 15 this year.

Celebrations take place all over the world with the most famous modern day festivities being in New Orleans, Louisiana; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Nice, France; and Cologne, Germany.

Even though Mardi Gras is a Christian festival, it dates back to the pre-Christian spring fertility rites and embodies many of the traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In the early Middle Ages, after converting pagan tribes to Christianity, the Catholic Church was still unable to abolish all the ancient traditions.  To combat this, the Church ended up taking many ancient feasts and festivals originally celebrated in honor of pagan gods and adapted them to Christian beliefs.  An example of the pagan roots: today revelers on parade floats still dress as Bacchus, the Greek god of wine.

The first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States was near modern day New Orleans on March 3, 1699, but it was the mid 1800s before parade organizations, known as krewes, came into being.  The first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans on February 24, 1854, by the Krewe of Comus.  They began the tradition of a parade with floats followed by a ball for the krewe and their guests.  The official colors of Mardi Gras were chosen by Rex, King of Carnival, in 1892 and given their meaning—purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.

But what about that popular activity that has become a seemingly integral part of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, much to the chagrin of the festival purists?  Women pulling up their shirts and flashing their bare breasts to procure some worthless plastic beads?

Exactly where did this tradition come from?

Well, first of all, it's not really a tradition.  It's more along the lines of what has become a traditional activity in the same vein as getting stupid drunk and passing out now seems to fall into that same 'traditional' category.  Over the years more and more media attention has been directed toward the drunken revelry that occurs on Bourbon Street which has helped in defining flashing as a traditional part of the Mardi Gras celebration.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point-of-view, flashing in exchange for beads is mostly limited to the New Orleans' French Quarter.  And even in the French Quarter, it's an illegal activity.  Women flashing their bare breasts run the risk of being arrested.

Maybe flashing is not a true tradition, but you can't deny that it has become a custom.  After all, the history of wild Mardi Gras behavior comes from celebrating the last day before LentLent being a time of atonement.  And this naturally lends itself to activities of excess and craziness.

And also flashing.

But there is one crazy excess even more daring than the momentary baring of the female breasts known as flashing.  And what, you may ask, could that be?  And the answer is having clothes painted on your bare skin.  There are artists who specialize in this.  It may have started as something simple and basic like face painting, but has grown to include full body artistic renderings.  At a casual glance, it appears that the person is clothed.  But on closer inspection, you discover that's far from the truth.  Some of these examples shown below are basic and others are quite elaborate.