Sunday, March 27, 2011

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 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.

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. 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.

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

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Vernal Equinox—It's Officially Spring!

Druid celebration of the vernal equinox

Equinox translates literally to "equal night."

On March 20, 2011, at precisely 7:21pm 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 23, 2011, at 5:05am 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 (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 here in the Northern Hemisphere. And by coincidence that six weeks takes us to within a few days of the spring equinox.

The spring and fall equinoxes are the only two times during the year when the sun rises due east and sets due west. They are also the only days of the year when a person standing on the Equator can see the sun passing directly overhead.

Another equinox oddity: A rule of the calendar keeps spring arriving on March 20 or 21—but sometimes on the 19th. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian calendar, which most of the world now observes, to account for an equinox inconvenience.

If he hadn't established the new calendar, every 128 years the equinox would have come a full calendar day earlier—eventually putting Easter in chilly midwinter. Before the pope's intervention, the Romans and much of the European world marked time on the Julian calendar.

Instituted by Julius Caesar, the old calendar counted exactly 365.25 days per year, averaged over a four-year cycle. Every four years a leap day helped keep things on track.

It turns out, however, that there are 365.24219 days in an astronomical "tropical" year—defined as the time it takes the sun, as seen from Earth, to make one complete circuit of the sky. Using the Julian calendar, the spring and fall equinoxes and the seasons were arriving 11 minutes earlier each year. By 1500 the vernal equinox had fallen back to March 11.

To fix the problem, the pope decreed that most century years (such as 1700, 1800, and 1900) would not be leap years. But century years divisible by 400, like 2000, would be leap years.

Are we confused yet? :)

With an average duration of 365.2425 days, Gregorian years are now only 27 seconds longer than the length of the tropical year—an error which will allow the gain of one day over a period of about 3,200 years. According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, equinoxes migrate through a period that occurs about six hours later from calendar year to calendar year, due to the leap year cycle.

The system resets every leap year, slipping a little bit backward until a non-leap century year leap nudges the equinoxes forward in time once again.

And now we are officially confused? :)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

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.

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

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.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Cats and Dreams and Magic Charms

My guest blogger today is Icy Snow Blackstone talking about her March 15 release, GYPSY CHARM.

When Lisa Carpenter befriends the gypsy Mrs. Lee, she doesn’t realize what a chain of events she’s set into motion. Taking the old woman back to her camper, she’s introduced to grandsons Isaac and David, two gorgeous hunks complete with golden earrings. They move with the grace of panthers stalking prey, their touch when they shake hands with Lisa leaves her skin tingling. Lisa leaves Mrs. Lee’s with two things: A magic charm, good for one wish, and a bodyguard (though she isn’t aware of that gift) in the form of Mrs. Lee’s black cat, Tomas. 

Once Lisa discovers Tomas has followed her home, their association doesn’t begin very auspiciously. The first thing the hapless feline does is get himself mauled by a neighbor’s Great Dane. A scratchy visit to the vet saves the day but then Tomas has to face roommate Annie who has definite ideas concerning stray cats, and one of them involves neutering, so the two definitely don’t hit it off! Nevertheless, Tomas takes his assignment very seriously, and sticks to it, in spite of Annie’s continuous criticism. He’s going to protect Lisa…from over-amorous boyfriends, and anyone else who threatens.

One thing Tomas can’t protect Lisa from is her own dreams…or does he have a hand…uh, paw…in those, too? The night after he arrives, Lisa’s sleep is invaded by the image of a man whose face she can’t see…a man moving with catlike grace…a man over whom the shadow of a giant cat hovers. He knows her; he believes she knows him. He says she’s the only one who can save him…

…who is he?

Only Tomas knows and he isn’t telling!


Tomas was going on his self-appointed rounds.

He'd gotten a good look at the layout of the house while Annie washed the pizza dishes, and now—while those two were out of the way—he was making certain the house was secure. Protecting Lisa. Just as Mrs. Lee ordered.

Studying the kitchen door, he gave a cat-nod. Okay, backdoor shut and locked. Trotting briskly into the living room, he looked at the two windows opening onto the front lawn. Hmmm, better check that left one. He scampered over, standing on hind paws to tap the bottom of the sash with a front paw. Good, shut tight. The front door was locked also.

So...that leaves only the bedrooms...

For just a moment, he stood there, looking from Annie’s room with its open door to Lisa’s on the opposite side of the living room. Which one to check first? Tomas didn’t really want to bother with Annie. That neutering remark still rankled. The girl was rude, sharp-tongued, and had made some pretty crude comments. What does she eat for breakfast, anyway? Cactus?

Sauntering cautiously over to the open door, he peeped in.

Empty. Good.

A few steps brought him to the bedroom window. A quick swipe at the curtains knocked them out of the way to reveal the sash in place and locked. So far, so—

“Hey, what are you doing in here?” Annie appeared in the bathroom doorway, toothbrush in hand, mouth smeared with white foam.

Uh-oh! Tomas backed away. He stared at her face, eyes wide. My God, she’s foaming at the mouth!

“What's the matter? Haven’t you ever seen anyone brush her teeth before?” Annie spluttered toothpaste as she spoke. Tomas turned his head, making an odd disjointed little sound sounding suspiciously like laughter. Cat laughter.

“Get out of here!” Picking up a pillow, she swatted at him, and as he galloped for the safety of the living room, tossed it back on the bed and returned to the bathroom.

Okay. Fine. Tomas watched her disappear inside Let someone break in and steal you. See if I care...

...but he knew he’d better not let that happen. Mrs. Lee had entrusted him—not Isaac or David—and for a very good reason, and he’d better not screw up this time. Turning his back, he stalked with feline dignity into Lisa’s room.

Gypsy Charm will be available from Class Act Books on March 15, 2011.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

100 Most Memorable Female TV Characters

I just came across a list of the 100 most memorable female television characters and since March is Women's History Month, this seemed like a good time to share at least the top 10 with you.

Remember, we're talking about memorable characters rather than the focus being on the actresses who played them.

10) Edith Bunker (All In The Family, played by Jean Stapleton)
The kind, compassionate and non-judgmental counterpart to the brusque, bigoted Archie Bunker.

9) Claire Huxtable (The Cosby Show, played by Phylicia Rashad)
As an attorney she could bring home bacon as well as fry it as mother to five kids. Firm but fair. Tough but sensitive and caring.

8) Veronica Mars (Veronica Mars, played by Kristen Bell)
A former popular high school student, she learned that becoming awesome was the best revenge.

7) Carmela Soprano (The Sopranos, played by Edie Falco)
A complicated but always strong, fiercely loyal, and compelling woman who couldn't resolve her guilt over enjoying the ill-gotten lifestyle provided by her husband.

6) Buffy Summers (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar)
She reliably and efficiently kicked bad guy ass while dealing with the normal ups and downs of teenage and 20-something life.

5) Elaine Benes (Seinfield, played by Julia Louis-Drefus)
She always let her male cohorts know that she was the one to be reckoned with.

4) Peggy Olson (Mad Men, played by Elisabeth Moss)
She refused to be relegated to the background in a sexist, male dominated industry.

3) Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy, played by Lucille Ball)
She couldn't stay out of trouble, but it was only because she refused to let anyone keep her in the kitchen and out of the spotlight.

2) Laura Roslin (Battlestar Galactica, played by Mary McDonnell)
A politician thrust into the role of president after most of humanity had been killed, she help lead the survivors to a new home.

1) Mary Richards (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, played by Mary Tyler Moore)
She inspired a whole generation of working girls to go for it all: friendship, love, and a successful career.

There were also several actresses who played more than one character on the top 100 list.

Bea Arthur: She's #45 as Dorothy Zbornak on Golden Girls and also #20 as Maude Findlay on Maude.

Tracy Grandstaff: She's #68 as the voice of Daria Morgendorffer on Bevis And Butt-head and its spinoff Daria.

Valerie Harper: She's #32 as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff Rhoda.

Katey Sagal: She's #66 as Gemma Teller on Sons Of Anarchy and also #46 as Peg Bundy on Married With Children.

And there were television series that had more than one woman character to make the top 100 list.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: had Willow Rosenberg at #78 played by Alyson Hannigan and also Buffy Summers at #6 played by Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Cagney And Lacey: had Mary Beth Lacey at #39 played by Tyne Daly and also Christine Cagney at #22 played by Sharon Gless.

Cheers: had Carla Tortelli at #48 played by Rhea Perlman and also Diane Chambers at #30 played by Shelley Long.

Golden Girls: definitely the winner with 4 characters in the top 100 list. Blanche Devereaux at #45 played by Rue McClanahan, Dorothy Zbornak at #40 played by Bea Arthur, Sophia Petrillo at #33 played by Estelle Getty, and Rose Nyland at #18 played by Betty White.

I Love Lucy: had Ethel Mertz at #38 played by Vivian Vance and also Lucy Ricardo at #3 played by Lucille Ball.

Laverne And Shirley: had Shirley Feeney at #42 played by Cindy Williams and also Laverne DeFazio at #28 played by Penny Marshall.

Mad Men: had Joan Harris at #16 played by Christina Hendricks and also Peggy Olson at #4 played by Elisabeth Moss.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show: had Rhoda Morgenstern at #32 played by Valerie Harper and also Mary Richards at #1 played by Mary Tyler Moore.

And finally two non-human female characters (in addition to Daria) who made the top 100 list.

Miss Peggy is #26 (The Muppet Show) and was voiced by Frank Oz.
Marge Simpson is #24 (The Simpsons) and was voiced by Julie Kavner

Any women characters in television series that you consider most memorable?