April Fool’s Day 4/1/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

New Year’s Day used to be, if my understanding is correct, April first. Apparently, this changed in 1582 when France switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. People who did not get the news of the switch were considered “fools” because they were still celebrating the new year on March 31 rather than December. Frankly, April 1 makes more sense to me as the first day of the new year as it’s in spring when life is returning, rather than winter when everything is dormant, although one could argue that winter is when everything is in stasis waiting to be reborn, like a fertilized egg in a womb.

A lot of people assume I would be a fan of practical jokes. My friends seem to believe that I’m particularly intelligent (I would argue that I am not) and they all know my rather unconventional sense of humor, but frankly, I don’t like other people to be the butt of my jokes. I’m rather well-known for my “ex-girlfriend” (now “ex-wife”) jokes, but when I tell these, I don’t really have anybody in particular in mind (well, maybe my ex-wife). Instead, the idea behind these jokes is to say, “this is the best I can do”, meaning that my intention is that these be self-deprecating jokes, not mean spirited. My friends who understand this often criticize me for these jokes for that very reason.

There have been, however, some marvelous larger scale practical jokes in the past. One of my favorites was pulled by the BBC in 1957. In a serious sounding and beautifully produced “news” story, they reported that the dry summer in Italy was going to lead to a pasta shortage. They draped trees with long pasta noodles and showed people cutting it down with sickles and laying it out to dry in the summer sun. It was so realistically produced that the next day there was a run on pasta in the grocery stores. This has GOT to be my favorite of all time.

Monte Python had several ideas for pranking their own audience, but they never actually were allowed to do it. For example, according to interviews with the members, they wanted to record one episode and slowly decrease the sound levels as the show progressed. Viewers were expected to continually turn up their television sets so they could hear the dialog. At the end of the episode, they would have had one final sound, as loud as possible with their audio turned all the way up. The censors refused to let them do it, thankfully, out of fear for damaging hearing and speakers. This was also fortunate for me, since I was in middle school when this BBC series played in America on PBS, very late at night. I would have had a proverbial “tanned hide” if this woke my parents up.

In 1967, Sweden did not have color televisions available to their people although it was available in other industrialized nations. The country responded with a practical joke, claiming that black and white televisions can be converted to color by covering them in nylon hose. The theory they provided is based on light diffraction and interference, not unlike the feathers of Blue Jays that are actually gray were it not for this same interference pattern making it blue. While the theory fails (largely because hose are not designed to do this), there were still many people who bought hose and stretched it over their television screens. I’m sure the hosiery industry was grateful for the prank.

Of course, as a chemist, I love the DHMO gag. There are web sites dedicated to banning DHMO, probably the deadliest solvent of all time. It is responsible for more deaths every year than any other chemical (very true), causes millions of dollars in corrosion to personal and industrial equipment (also true) and costs millions more in cleanup (also true). Of course, DHMO is an acronym for “Di Hydrogen Monoxide”, better known as water.

So happy April Fool’s Day. I urge my readers to avoid pranks that can be harmful, physically or emotionally, and I hope that you all are not victims of one yourself. I know that I had enough people laugh at me as a child that any prank designed to make me look foolish were very hurtful to me. Eventually, I grew out of this and learned to laugh at myself, largely because, frankly, I just don’t care what other people think of me anymore, but there are still people who struggle with this kind of “humor”, so be careful with it. April Fool’s Day should be fun for everybody.

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