Sunday, March 26, 2017

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

Friday, April 1, 2016—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?

The 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 19, 2017

10 Scariest Places On Earth

I recently came across a list that claimed to be the 10 scariest places on Earth.  The list isn't a reference to most haunted places. That would have made it a Halloween blog. :) Although, a couple of the places on this list are said to be haunted. Some of these places have been abandoned due primarily to man's misdeeds. This list is in no particular order.

1)  Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic (pictured above)
When you have the remains of over 40,000 people, what do you do with all those bones? The Abbot of Sedlec went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1278 and brought back some dirt he claimed came from Jesus' burial site. Immediately thereafter Catholics from all over Europe started demanding burial in the Sedlec Ossuary cemetery. The cemetery obviously didn't have the space to accommodate all the continual requests. In the 16th century, the church staff dug up everyone buried there and used those bones for decoration: there's a chandelier made from one of every bone in the human body, garlands of skulls, and a replica of the Schwarzenberg coat of arms made from bones.

2) Centralia, Pennsylvania
Our incredible natural resources is one thing that has made America such a prosperous country. Unfortunately, those natural resources can occasionally turn on us and that's what happened when a coal mine near Centralia, Pennsylvania, caught fire in 1962. The veins of coal ran under the town which ultimately turned Centralia into a literal hellhole. Temperatures over 1000 degree Fahrenheit accompanied by belching clouds of poisonous gas. Once the initial conflagration settled down, people began to move back but soon discovered that the veins of coal were still burning resulting in blazing hot sinkholes that swallowed people without warning. Most of the residents have moved away.

3)  Pripyat, Ukraine
A colossal example of man's ability to really screw up the planet is on display in Pripyat in the Ukraine. The town's former population of 49,000 was evacuated following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Now referred to as the zone of exclusion, it looks like a freaky ghost town. The few people who have ventured back into the town report an atmosphere of desolation and terror. Dolls on school house floors, vehicles in disrepair on the roadsides, and the skeleton of an abandoned amusement park that's hauntingly scary.

4)  Aokigahara Suicide Forest
The Aokigahara Forest at the base on Mt. Fuji in Japan is associated with multiple demons in Japanese folklore. There's something about the supernatural forest that drives people to suicide. An average of 100 people travel to Aokigahara every year to kill themselves, mostly by hanging or drug overdose. Legend says that in the 19th century families would abandon their elderly relatives there to die when they couldn't take care of themselves.

5)  Lome Bazaar, Togo
If you've ever been to a street market in a third world country, then you know how crazy things can be. So, take all that energy and put it in a bazaar that sells only materials for voodoo and you have the Lome Bazaar in Togo. The bazaar is a one stop shop for a wide variety of terrifying things used to perform frightening functions. The absolute volume of grisly death that stares at you is enough to make the strongest person weak in the knees.

6)  Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia
The Khmer Rouge period of Cambodia's past is one of the scariest genocides in history. Millions of innocents were slaughtered and the museum is located where it all happened. In Khmer, "Tuol Sleng" translates as "Strychnine Hill." The museum is housed in a former death camp and notoriously haunted by ghosts of the thousands who died there. Of the 17,000 people who were admitted to the prison, only seven survived.

7)  Body Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee
Sometimes science has to do some pretty disgusting things to make advancements, but we don't make them vacation spots. Studying the decomposition of the human body can give researchers lots of knowledge useful to medicine, forensics, and others. To monitor a body decomposing in real time, you go to the body farm on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It's a 2.5 acre of land and at any time has multiple bodies laid out in various positions. Over 100 corpses are donated to the Body Farm every year. Several detective/forensics/crime shows, both entertainment programming and documentaries, have used the concept of the Body Farm in their episodes.

8)  Helltown, Ohio
The village of Boston was founded in Ohio's Summit County in 1806 and succeeded until 1974 when something weird happened. President Ford signed a bill authorizing the area to be turned into a national park, the houses were purchased and boarded up, but no park was ever built, resulting in a deserted town in the middle of nowhere. The newly named Helltown spawned some terrifying legends including Satanist sacrifices, mysterious toxic waste spills, and an escaped mental patient who wanders the woods.

9)  Fengdu, China
With China's population, there isn't much room left for a ghost town—except for Fengdu, located on the north bank of the Yangtze River. Fengdu is completely abandoned. It's rumored to be a junction point between Earth and the underworld where rampaging demons grab unaware souls.

10)  La Isla De La Munecas, Mexico
Dozens of small, uninhabited islands dot the canals south of Mexico City. It's not just the polluted runoff from Mexico City that makes the area less than desirable. Fifty years ago, a man named Don Julian Santana lived the life of a hermit on one of the islands. One day he fished the corpse of a young girl out of the water. As a form of protection, he started hanging dolls from the tree limbs and branches on his island. He continued to do this over the next few decades until the entire island was cluttered with broken, weathered dolls giving it the appearance of a terrifying place.

And that's the list of ten. Have any of you ever been to any of these places?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

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. The climate is too cold and damp for reptiles that cannot internally generate their own body heat.

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 didn't become associated with St. Patrick's Day until many years later.

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 several hours rather than days.

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 5, 2017

Daylight Saving Time and the Vernal Equinox

Every March we have two annual observations that are not holidays—one is man made and the other is science/nature. The first is the start of daylight saving time and the other is the beginning of Spring. Grammatically speaking, daylight saving time is correct but the common usage over the years has been daylight savings time.

In the U.S., at 2am on the second Sunday in March we set our clocks forward one hour for the start of daylight saving time—or to put it another way, we lose one hour of sleep. This year, the second Sunday falls on March 12, 2017. And on the first Sunday in November at 2am we reverse that process by setting our clocks back one hour—we get an additional hour of sleep to make up for that hour we lost in March. In 2017, that first Sunday is November 5th.

Standard time—the creation of time zones—was instituted in the U.S. and Canada by the railroads in 1883. Due to the vast width of the two countries stretching thousands of miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, it was necessary to establish some method of standardizing train schedules. However, it was not established in U.S. law until the Act of March 19, 1918. The Act also established daylight saving time which was repealed in 1919 while standard time in time zones remained the law. Daylight saving time was re-established in World War II. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 brought standardization of start and stop dates but allowed for local exemptions from its observance. Since then the official beginning and ending dates have changed several times, the most recent being in 2007.

Those states that have opted for the exemption from daylight saving time are Arizona (except for the Navajo, who do observe daylight saving time on tribal lands), Hawaii, and the overseas territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands

There are several states that are split between two time zones. Oregon and Idaho are split between the Mountain and Pacific time zones. Florida, Michigan, Indiana (I think I read somewhere that one of Indiana's time zones observes daylight saving time and the other time zone does not), Kentucky, and Tennessee are split between Eastern and Central time zones. Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, North and South Dakota are divided between Central and Mountain time zones.

At one time, Alaska covered four time zones. That has been changed and Alaska is now in two time zones. More than 98 percent of the state's population are in one of these zones, now called Yukon time, which is one hour earlier than Pacific standard time and four hours earlier than Eastern standard time.

And then there is the other annual observance, the one dictated by science/nature—the vernal equinox.

Equinox translates literally to "equal night."

On March 20, 2017, at precisely 6:29AM eastern daylight time, the sun crosses directly over the Earth's equator. That moment is known as the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere announcing the arrival of spring and the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere announcing the arrival of fall. A second equinox will occur in September.

The fact that the Earth has distinctive seasons is due to the 23.4 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. The Earth receives more sunlight (longer daylight hours) in the summer and less sunlight (fewer daylight hours) in the winter.  The tilt of the axis makes the seasons opposite in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. At the north pole summer gives six months of daylight while at the same time the south pole is experiencing six months of darkness. The closer you are to the equator, the daily hours of daylight and darkness become more equal.

The fall and spring equinoxes are the only two times during the year when the sun rises due east and sets due west. Modern astronomy aside, people have recognized the astronomical connection to the season changes for thousands of years. The ancients of various civilizations all over the world built structures that illustrate this—temples dedicated to their various gods that modern man recognizes as observatories. Not only the spring and fall equinox days, but also the summer and winter solstice days (most and least daily hours of daylight).

I think it's also interesting to note a connection between the spring equinox and Groundhog Day (another holiday derived from the practices and celebrations of the ancients). If the groundhog sees his shadow on February 2, we have six more weeks of winter. And by "coincidence" that six weeks takes us to within a few days of the spring equinox.

A little bit of equinox trivia: According to folklore, you can stand a raw egg on its end on the equinox. One spring, a few minutes before the vernal equinox, twenty-four almanac editors tested the theory. For a full work day, seventeen out of twenty-four eggs stood up on the large end. Then three days following the equinox, they tried the same test again. And guess what? The results were similar.  Perhaps the second test was still too close to the time of the equinox?  :)

And there you have it—your science lesson for the day.