Sunday, March 28, 2010

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

The first of April—April Fool's Day or All Fools' Day as it is also known. A holiday 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.

There's also speculation that April Fool's Day was tied to the vernal equinox (first day of spring) in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when Mother Nature fooled people with changing and unpredictable weather.

The celebration spread throughout Britain during the 18th 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.

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 planed 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 is 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. Hundreds of 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.

Tell me about your favorite April Fool's Day prank.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Vernal Equinox--It's Officially Spring...

...but this is the sight that greeted me when I looked out my office window the morning of the spring equinox.  A fresh overnight snowfall that continued through the day.

Equinox translates literally to "equal night."

On March 20, 2010, at precisely 1:32pm Eastern Daylight Time the sun crossed 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 on September 22, 2010, at 11:09pm Eastern Daylight Time.

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 recognize as observatories. Not only the spring and fall equinox days, but also the summer and winter solstice days.

I think it's also interesting to note a connection between the spring equinox and Groundhog Day (a 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.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

St. Patrick's Day—a word or two about 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, about 1900.

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.

There are four places in the United States named Shamrock—Mount Gay-Shamrock, West Virginia, and Shamrock, Texas, are the most populous. The other two are Shamrock Lakes, Indiana, and Shamrock, Oklahoma.

There are over 36 million U.S. residents who claim Irish ancestry. This number is almost nine times the population of Ireland.

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.  And may the luck of the Irish be with you.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

They Keep Their Oscars Where?

Tonight (Sunday, March 7) is the Academy Awards ceremony where the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences hands out Oscars to the winners in a multitude of categories including Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. But once the hoopla of the night dies down and dawn brings the next day, where do the winners keep the coveted statuette?

Russell Crowe (Best Actor 2001—Gladiator) keeps his at his Australian ranch in the chicken coop where he says it inspires the chickens to lay larger eggs.

Timothy Hutton (Best supporting Actor 1981—Ordinary People) keeps his in his refrigerator. His sister put it there as a joke and it's still there.

Jack Nicholson (Best Actor 1998—As Good As It Gets, Best Actor 1976—One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Best Supporting Actor 1984—Terms Of Endearment) is rumored to use one of this three Oscars as a hat stand.

Goldie Hawn (Best Supporting Actress 1970—Cactus Flower) says her Oscar lives in her Meditation Room

Dustin Hoffman (Best Actor 1980—Kramer vs. Kramer, Best Actor 1989—Rain Man) says he used to keep them out of sight, but now they're on his mantel in his study.

Cate Blanchett (Best Supporting Actress 2005—The Aviator) used to keep it on her grand piano but has recently moved it to her study.

Mira Sorvino (Best Supporting Actress 1996—Mighty Aphrodite) keeps her Oscar on her dresser in her bedroom along with some childhood memories.

Liza Minnelli (Best Actress 1972—Cabaret) keeps hers next to the one her father, Vincente Minnelli, earned as Best Director in 1958 for Gigi.

Catherine Zeta-Jones (Best Supporting Actress 2003—Chicago) keeps her Oscar in her house in Bermuda because not many Oscars have lived there.

Jodie Foster (Best Actress 1989—The Accused, Best Actress 1992—The Silence Of The Lambs) says she used to keep them in the bathroom because they looked good with the faucets, but when they began to corrode on the bottom she moved them to a trophy case in the den.

Emma Thompson (Best Actress 1994—Howard's End, Best Adapted Screenplay 1996—Sense And Sensibility) keeps her Oscars in the bathroom. "They're great big, gold, shiny things. They're up there tarnishing quietly along with everything else I own, including my body."

Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Sarandon, Lionel Richie, and Sean Connery are also rumored to keep their Oscars in their bathrooms.

Gwyneth Paltrow (Best Actress 1999—Shakespeare In Love) keeps her Oscar in storage. "I don’t want that thing in my house. It scares me."

Tilda Swinton (Best Supporting Actress 2008—Michael Clayton) gave her Oscar to her agent as she promised in her acceptance speech.

Jamie Foxx (Best Actor 2004—Ray) gave his to his manager.

Angelina Jolie (Best Supporting Actress 2000—Girl, Interrupted) gave it to her mother.

Jimmy Stewart (Best Actor 1941—The Philadelphia Story) sent his Oscar to his father in Pennsylvania who displayed it in the window of the family's hardware store for twenty-five years.

Shelley Winters (Best Supporting Actress 1960—the Diary Of Anne Frank) donated her Oscar to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. She kept her second one for 1965's A Patch Of Blue.

Olympia Dukakis (Best supporting Actress 1988—Moonstruck) had her Oscar stolen two days after she won it. It was the only thing taken by thieves who broke into her house.

Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress 1940—Gone With The Wind) willed her Oscar to Howard University in Washington, D.C. It disappeared during the campus riots in the 1960s.

And as for the new Oscar recipients—the envelope, please…