Monthly Archives: April 2014

Can you count the Santas?

For this month’s end of the month guest post, Arun writes from the left coast about SantaCon in San Francisco.

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santacon0As the sun peeked through the serene landscapes of San Francisco, a city often known as the liberal capital of the United States, everything looked a bit extra Christmassy for a random December morning. One might wonder, what’s so different today in this city that often teases you with its weather but never disappoints you. You see splashes of red and green and white embellished with fake beards and jingling bells and mistletoes. Yes you are right, Santa is in town. Not one, not a hundred, but thousands. It is time for one of the most unique jamborees one could experience in this beautiful city – It is SantaCon!!
 
As much as San Francisco is known for its quirky festivals and marathons, this one really stands out and is very near and dear to San Franciscans. Despite all the festivities being centered around bar crawls and partying on the streets, there is definitely a more wholesome nature to SantaCon as it brings together ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages to celebrate one man’s contribution to the world’s happiness – good old Santa Claus! People also make toy donations on this day to celebrate the holiday spirit of sharing and giving.
 
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All Santa enthusiasts gather in the morning by the landmark Christmas tree at Union Square to show off their many different Santa, elf and reindeer costumes no matter what the weather is like. From heavy rain in 2012 to a beautiful sunny day in 2013, they flock in large numbers before they disperse to various parts of the city crawling from bar to bar. SantaCon is also a great exhibition of creativity in this tech savvy city with a lot of the costumes and props made from scratch over many days. To watch a bunch of guys and girls in their 20s wearing LED lit costumes with a sprinkle of naughty and a lot of nice dragging each other on a hand crafted sleigh from bar to bar exemplifies the energy of youth amongst San Franciscans. While at the same time, some people choose to be a tad more creative or not creative at all (the choice really depends on perspective). A sight not rare at all in San Francisco and maybe not for the faint hearted, you will also run into adventurous men and women who choose to bare almost all donning just a beard or a hat or a few beads letting the Santa spirit touch them in a more intimate fashion; probably their own way of letting Santa know that they’d like some new clothes as Christmas presents.
 
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Sometimes I wonder… it is events like SantaCon which could arguably be categorized simply as excuses to dress up and party, that really bring people from different walks of life, different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds together under the roof of one city to forget all their worries and concerns and celebrate the joy of Christmas. If only people decided to whole heartedly adopt this spirit every day of their lives instead of waiting for the holiday season or SantaCon, this world would have a lot more to be proud of. But despite some of the drunken revelry and debauchery, San Francisco makes a sincere attempt every year to spread this message through SantaCon and manages to hold up high standards of unity in diversity all year round which makes it one of the most loved cities in the world.

~Arun

29 Apr 2014

Found on Amazon…

These days it is common to look at product reviews and compare price value equations before we make any purchase decisions. Who even selects a place for lunch or dinner without consulting Yelp? However, read customer reviews for entertainment? Whoever heard of such a thing? But trust me, there are customer reviews that read like National Book Award winners… and they are on a site that most of us visit regularly, amazon.com, world’s largest online retailer!
 
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There is this product, a banana slicer, that is available for sale at amazon.com. A simple tool to slice bananas into even sized pieces. This banana slicer has 4832 customer reviews. Till today. That is important because the comments have been coming for seven years, and I’m sure that count will go up. So what is there to write about a simple banana slicer, you ask? Aah, here is a sample…
 
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Did you see? More than 50 thousand people found that review helpful! That is, including me! 🙂 And 458 of them wrote comments on the review. And the comments are pretty much in the same vein as the reviews.
 
Here is another interesting one…
 
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How did it happen that such a large number of customers were interested in writing reviews of this product when on an average, a product on the site gets less than 50 reviews? It is what I would call viral reviews. I mean, the comment tendency must have spread like a virus among the customers!
 
The first review of the product is dated May 19, 2007. A regular review; good product, as advertised. And it continued till March 2, 2011, with a few reviews appearing over the years. Then, the fun started with this one on Mar 3, 2011.

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And, it never stopped… gets better and better. The imagination, time and effort that goes into these are commendable.
 
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And this is the latest one…

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These are the five star reviews; there are single star reviews as well, which are equally hilarious.
 
Here is a link to the banana slicer reviews. Don’t forget to check out the comments on the reviews. Also, the 456 questions that have been answered.
 
There are some customers (writers) who specialise in reviews which are a lot more than reviews. Here are a few links you may like.
 
A collection of 41 reviews

Huge collection of 111 reviews

Small collection, but hilarious
 
P.S. I liked the reviews so much that I couldn’t help ordering one… no, actually two! 🙂
 
order-at-amazon

~Ria

25 Apr 2014

Parodies: Better than Originals?!!

Early in life, I began watching, reading, and listening to parodies, spoofs or imitations that attempt to mock the original. It was also the same time I realized that I sort of enjoyed parodies more.

 
I don’t know if it is because of the inherent cynical humor and sarcasm or that I just liked humorous stuff better. I remember my uncle being a strong influence in this area. He is a huge fan of parody songs. While driving long distance in the car, he would play the parody songs in a loop and the whole family loved humming to the songs’ tunes. I wonder if this gave any newfound meaning to my child’s mind matching parodies to the actual creative products of the mind.
 
My interest in parodies sparked again when I recently watched The Hungover Games, a cross between The Hunger Games and The Hangover. The story is about how the main characters go about celebrating the bachelor party of their friend as in The Hangover. They do this by winning a fight as shown in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
 
hungover-games

The film has spoof elements from other movies too. A real parody in its true sense! It is so hilarious that I was Rolling On the Floor Laughing the whole time. That’s when my mind floated back to the first spoof movie I ever watched: Scary Movie, a horror comedy film, in 2000. Since then, there have been five sequels parodying the successful horror movies of the year. I read that the latest sequel, Scary Movie 5, released in 2013, based on Mama, did not really make it big at the box office.
 
Spoofing music videos is another common activity these days. And it all starts with the popular ones. There are many takes on the Happy video from Pharrell Williams, shot in cities and countries around the world. Though some of these are not necessarily spoofs, there have also been many of those spoof videos. Also, how can I not mention the most popular spoof video of 2013, the one on Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball, featuring Nicolas Cage?!!
 
It was interesting to follow the news stream on the First Kiss youtube video that went viral and its parodies that came by soon after. The video shows 20 strangers kissing for the first time in front of the camera. Noted for its unconventional outlook on human relationships, the video was supposed to take on a greater meaning when it was found that it is actually launched as an ad campaign for a clothing store. Alas, this was disillusioning for the general public.
 

The parodies, as expected, were fun. The most popular parody of that video was a video from LA-based sketch comedy troupe, Pimm’s Girl. In television, the Colbert Report can be considered as the best parody talk show, where he assumes the persona of an ultra-conservative character and does it with a forever-straight face. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is another remarkable parody news program and many from the younger generation have declared that they get their news update from that program!

~Cux

22 Apr 2014

How much flowers is too much flowers?

My dear readers have to excuse me for writing about flowers too much; what can I do? Wherever one looks it is all flowers… the Macy’s flower show gets over, it is the orchid show at New York Botanical Garden. Then it is time for the cherry blossom festival at Washington DC, and at Branch Brook Park next door! Not to forget all the trees flowering all over the place… in the local park, on the sides of all the streets, and of course, outside my window… Aah… the abundance of spring…
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Soooo… about the cherry blossom festival. This year, I got the timing exactly right. The three day weekend I had planned there was precisely when the season peaked. And it is cherry trees bursting out in blooms everywhere you look. The difficult part is to decide when to stop taking pictures… 🙂

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The Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC is one of the nation’s greatest springtime festivals. From the modest beginnings when a group of school children re-enacted the initial planting in 1927, the festival has grown to programs lasting five weeks with more than 1.5 million people visiting Washington DC for the occasion.

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Despite the crowds, it is a fantastic experience to walk under the cherry trees in full bloom. Glimpses of blue sky through the pink and white petals… with the black branches making artistic outlines… and a breeze would send showers of petals down to the ground. This season of bliss lasts just about two weeks, and towards the end of that time, there will be carpets of pink and white all over the place.

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The cherry trees in Washington DC were a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan. The gift of two thousand cherry trees from the Japanese Embassy, to be planted along the Potomac river, arrived in 1910. However, it was discovered that the trees were infested with insects and had to be destroyed.

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A second gift of cherry trees, now increased to 3,020, arrived in 1912 and were planted around the Tidal Basin, a partially man-made reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel.

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Today, these cherry trees around the Tidal Basin put out the best show in town!

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More trees, received as gifts as well as grown from cuttings from the original trees, have been planted, around the Tidal Basin and along the Potomac River. The most common cherry blossoms are of the Yoshino variety, in white or pale pink, each flower having five petals. The Yoshino trees are the first ones to bloom in early spring.

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The Kwanzan trees bloom two weeks after the Yoshino trees kick off the show, and are of a darker pink colour and have multiple layers of petals.

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The original trees that were planted in Washington DC came from the banks of the Arakawa River in a suburb of Tokyo. In 1952, those cherry trees, along the Arakawa River, had fallen into decline and the National Park Service of the US sent saplings from the descendants of the original trees back to Tokyo to restore the original grove.

Washington Monument seen through the cherry blossoms

Washington Monument seen through the cherry blossoms

Interesting facts… In 1938, it was decided that a number of cherry trees had to be cut down to prepare for the construction of the Jefferson Memorial (BTW, my favourite memorial in all of DC!) and a bunch of women angry at the prospect of cutting down the trees chained themselves together in protest! And could be pacified only with a promise to plant more trees framing the memorial.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial framed by cherry blossoms

Thomas Jefferson Memorial framed by cherry blossoms

~Ria

18 Apr 2014

A Toast to Ontario’s Crowning Glory

It’s very common that many of my friends envy me my home close to the Canadian side of the famous Niagara Falls. After all, it is the most well-known of the waterfalls with the maximum number of visitors and also the largest in North America. It is indeed an amazing sight to look at the gigantic sheet of water thundering down and splashing on the rocks below, often creating multiple rainbows.

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Located on the US-Canadian border, on the Niagara River, there are three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls, namely the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls. Among these three, it is the Horseshoe Falls that takes the spotlight with a width of 2,600 feet (790 m) and a height of 173 feet (53 m).
Niagara Falls came into being 10,000 years ago when the ice melted after the Wisconsin glaciation and the water from the Great Lakes made its way through the Niagara River to the Atlantic Ocean, forming Niagara Falls on the way. Gradual erosion over the years has given the Falls its current shape. Geologists predict that, at this rate of erosion, the Falls will be nonexistent in 50,000 years.

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American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls

Compare the height of the people to get an idea of the size of the waterfall!

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Horseshoe Falls

The name, Niagara, comes from the name of the local people who used to reside in the area. Niagara Falls happens to be a hop, skip and jump away from my home city… one of the reasons for having seen the Falls in every season, may it be spring, summer, fall, or winter. And I must admit, it is the fall season I like the best when the trees are in brilliant colors, the gardens are well-tended, and the beautiful scenery extends beyond the magnanimous flow of water to the fall colors, the orangish-red foliage of the trees and the iridescent floral gardens.
In the winter ice storm of 2013, Niagara Falls looked picturesque as a huge ice sculpture. It was subfreezing temperatures most of the time though fun to hang out.

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The Maid of the Mist boat ride is a summer event that takes you to the base of the Falls where you are drenched by the mist from the Falls. A thrilling experience, worth a try.

Niagara Falls has been a venue for many publicity stunts. In 2012, Nik Wallenda, a tightrope artist, walked across Niagara Falls on a wire strung from the American side to the Canadian side. That was a major show for the public, broadcast live on national television as well as a great achievement for him.

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In earlier years, there have been people who have rolled over the Falls or jumped over. In 1901, Annie Edson Taylor survived the experience of rolling over the Falls in a barrel. Sam Patch was the first person to jump over the Falls. Some of these daredevil stunts were staged to garner money.

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Along the falls lies a commercial town filled with casinos, posh hotels and restaurants, observation towers, souvenir shops, amusement parks, game shops, neon billboards, and advertisements.

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Surrounding this area is the wine country and the provincial town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is this town that I always look forward to while visiting Niagara Falls. Not only do I get to taste different kinds of wine from the nearby vineries but also for its quiet splendour and relaxing environment.

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~Cux

15 Apr 2014

I Have Prosopagnosia!

The other day, I was listening to Radiolab on NPR and it suddenly hit me… I have prosopagnosia!
Not a severe case, but a fairly bad case, enough to be severely embarrassing when it hits me! 🙁
 
Prosopagnosia also called face blindness, is the inability to recognise faces even when one might be familiar with the person. It is a cognitive disorder of face perception where the ability to recognize faces is impaired, while other aspects of visual processing (e.g., object discrimination) and intellectual functioning (e.g., decision making) remain intact, says Wikipedia.
 
Initially, the term was applied to conditions following acute brain damage. However, recent research has proved that a congenital or developmental form of the condition also exists where people are born with it or acquire it early in life, and what is more, it affects a large number of the population.
 
A German study conducted in 2006 and reported in the American Journal of Medical Genetics found that about 2% of the population suffered from prosopagnosia. Another survey conducted by Dr. Ken Nakayama of the Harvard University indicates that as much as 10% of the general population might be suffering from prosopagnosia to various degrees.
 
In its severest form, prosopagnosiacs fail to recognise even their close friends and family. Especially when they meet people away from the familiar places where they routinely interact. Even in its milder forms, prosopagnosia can be the cause of terrible embarrassment and social discomfort. That is exactly what my experience was.
 
Take the time when I was having lunch with a bunch of people from work. And this guy at the next table turns around, ‘Hi Ria, how are you?’ He gets up and comes over and starts talking. It is all I can do to hold up my side of the conversation, without giving away the fact that I have no clue who he is! Meanwhile, I’m busily going through mental lists searching for his identity. Obviously, he is a contact from work, possibly from a past workplace. So my questions go in that direction… ‘So how is work?’ ‘Oh you know how it is… same old, same old’. No win there. ‘And how is everyone at work?’ ‘Hey, I changed jobs recently, did you know?’ And he is busy getting his wallet out and extracting a card for me. My sigh of relief was not audible, I hope! I took the card, looked at it and all I wanted to do was kick myself! How could I forget this guy? We occupied neighbouring cubes at my previous job, been a party to private jokes, mostly at the expense of cow-orkers – no that is not a typo – and shared innumerable lunches. How could I? I’m so glad that the rest of the conversation was a genuine pleasure!
 
Or think about this situation. I’m walking along in the city, with my friend Ashley. On a Friday, after work, headed to our favourite watering hole. We are stopped at a light waiting to cross. And this guy stops by us and starts talking to me. ‘Hey, hey, how are you? Long time, no see’. And I’m smiling and talking and searching in my mind for his name. And I know, I should be introducing Ashley right away. She is looking at me like ‘what is wrong with you?’ He is looking at her… and at me. And all I can say is, ‘sorry, gotta rush. Talk to you later’. And I cross the road, almost running. Fortunately, Ashley knows me well, and has no problem believing the fact that I couldn’t introduce her just because I didn’t know the guy’s name! And to this day, that remains a mystery!
 
I hardly ever enjoy a movie with many white men actors for the simple reason that I’m pretty much unable to keep the characters and their names straight in my mind!
 
Though my experiences with prosopagnosia has been totally awkward when they occurred, they have not been that frequent to warrant any anxiety. Generally I have written them off as caused by a busy mind. But now, in the light of recent enlightenment, I’m forced to reconsider. And I have come to the conclusion: yes, I suffer from prosopagnosia!
 
If you want to test your ability to recognise faces, check out this page at Radiolab Blogland.
 
You can read more about prosopagnosia at

Just Another Face in the Crowd; article in New York Times

Prosopagnosia research centers

NINDS Prosopagnosia Information Page

Face Blind; article in Wired Magazine

~Ria

11 Apr 2014

What’s New in Animation Movies

Frozen, the animated film that won the Academy Award for the Best Animated Feature last year was my viewing choice this past weekend. The film struck a chord with me, in its wonderful treatment of the story, the fantastical imagery, the soulful soundtrack, and the message it finally delivered. I couldn’t but realize how female characters are on the rise in animation movies.
 
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Frozen is a story about two sisters who help each other find their way in life.
 
Another female-oriented film, Brave, won the Academy Award in 2012. The movie is about a mother and a daughter who save each other from the tangles of fate.
 
I can’t help wonder at the meaningful messaging both these films convey. Where we were used to watching male characters that made us laugh and cry with their hilarious antics in films like Shrek, Monsters Inc, Ice Age, Finding Nemo, Shark Tale, Ratatouille, Despicable Me, Rango, I could name a zillion, here we are now onto a new dimension with female characters dominating the storyline, teaching us a thing or two about life.
 
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Don’t get me wrong, I completely loved the earlier films that were pure fictional entertainment. That was my Friday night unwind-after-work activity. I would usually wake up the next day not remembering a thing about the film except that I had a good time watching it. The films were very creative and innovative and compared well against the real people films in several aspects. I, for one, could relate to many of the characters in certain situations. However, the way that I could totally identify with the female characters in Frozen and Brave was amazing.
 
Do the female-oriented thematic films winning the Oscars two years in a row portray a trend for animation movies in the near future? I sincerely hope so and look forward to more such movies. Catching up with some data from Wikipedia, Frozen is the highest-grossing animated film of all time and the ninth highest-grossing film of all time, in any category. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film, the BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film, five Annie Awards (including Best Animated Feature), and two Critics’ Choice Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song.
 
Brave was the 13th highest-grossing film of 2012, the eighth highest-grossing Pixar film, and the third highest-grossing animated film in 2012 behind Ice Age: Continental Drift and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film, and the BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film. It is cited as the first Pixar film with a female protagonist and an audience profile that consisted of 43% male and 57% female.
 
I am happy to note from this that there were many more women who could connect with such films, encouraging a growing segment of female viewership. Definitely a changing trend worth capitalizing on!

~Cux

08 Apr 2014

Seasons, wonderfully changing…

We are at a very interesting time now… I mean, weatherwise. The bad cold of winter is gone… but spring is not fully here either. Everywhere one can see the signs of spring… tree branches sprouting buds all over… shoots are coming out of the earth promising to be tulips and daffodils and hyacinths… the thrill of anticipation is echoing in every bird song. What a beautiful time!
The other morning, I was walking to the train station, for the first time this season without ear muffs or gloves. There was this comfortable chill in the air… and can you believe it, unexplainably I felt sad for the departing winter!
 
I love living in the north east where seasonal differences are well-marked. Recently one of my friends was talking about how she is fed up of the winter season and would love to move to California! I had to question her… how will you put up with the same-old same-old every day? Wouldn’t even greenery and sunlight go unappreciated if they are around all the time? One has to wonder…
 
The earth revolves around the sun (or is it the other way around?) and causes the seasons. Everybody knows that. And if you are living in a temperate and subpolar region, you get to enjoy the changing seasons. And what makes the changing seasons more interesting is that one’s entire life style changes with that. Food, clothes, activities… it is like you get to change your life style every three months!
 
Spring, I’m sure is the favourite season of a majority of people. It is the eye candy season; wherever you look, nature is dazzling you in resplendent colours. Even a crack in the sidewalk will sprout a dandelion with a lovely sun-like little flower. And the trees… not a leaf on them… all covered in flowers. It starts with the cherry trees which are the first ones to bloom in the season, to be followed by crab apples, dog woods, plums, golden rods, azaleas…
 

Then the temps go up… and leaves break out on the trees. The flowers have done their thing and gone. Now it is time for the green to take over… and for picnics and beaches and outings. The sun comes up at five and goes down close to nine… still the day seems to be not long enough! Aah, the fun!
 

Slowly the leaves start changing colour… the brilliant colours of fall are so much brighter than that of spring’s pastels. Yellow, gold, orange, red… the slanting sun rays add to the dazzle. But alas, fall is so much in hurry and leaves so soon!
 

The first snow flake of winter! You look up and it gently settles on your face. A touch of coolness and it’s gone. Then they start coming in torrents and cover the ground with soft crunchy whiteness. Time to make a snow man! Standing at the window of a warm house, with a warm drink in your hand and watching the snow floating down under the street lights… magical!
 

And when the bone-chilling cold sets in, it’s time to pack my bags and depart for warmer climes. To come back in another two months to wait for spring… 🙂 You know how some animals go into hibernation during the winter… my escape to the tropics is my hibernation!
 
So now I’m waiting for the beautiful spring to arrive. It is almost here, and the cherry blossoms are just around the corner… Various predictions place the peak blooming of the Washington DC cherry trees between April 8 and 15. And incidentally, guess who is going to be in DC that weekend! 🙂

~Ria

04 Apr 2014

Is today your day?

Did you expect anything interesting to happen when you went to check your mail at Gmail? How long did it take you to identify ‘Shelfie’ – Sharable Selfie – as this year’s April Fools’ Day joke from Google?

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The tradition of celebrating April 1st as Fools’ Day has been in existence for a while. Though there are several stories going around about the origin of the tradition, the most popular one places its origin in the late 16th century. When Europe started following the Gregorian calendar, the start of the new year was moved to January 1st from the earlier April 1st of the Julian calendar. However, some of the population refused to accept the change and continued to celebrate New Year on April 1st. The rest of the population made fun of them, calling them fools, and played pranks on them… or so goes the story. Is there a very pertinent hidden moral to this story? Like, you are a fool if you fail to embrace change? 🙂 But, I digress…
 
Today April Fools’ day has become more of a corporate occasion, with companies vying with each other to come up with the funniest ad, blog post and tweet. An ‘app’ to unlock an iPhone by rubbing a beard over it, a service to rent out your desk space, an inflight service where passengers can select their on climate (Cancun Afternoon, Standard Day in Los Angeles, and Chicago Polar Vortex, among the choices), homes with chocolate floors… these are some of the interesting products and services advertised on April 1st, 2014.
 
Netflix joined in with its offering of two new entertainment offerings – rotisserie chicken and sizzling bacon, which could be enjoyed online. And Youtube too got in the April Fools’ Day game with a video that claimed credit for every viral video on the internet, including Harlem shake and planking included.
 
My favourite one is an announcement from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater tourism office about sightings of a ‘Manaphin’ off the coast of Florida. Of course, in this day of hybrid names like ‘cronut’ and ‘dossant’, one can easily make out that a manaphin can be nothing other than a cross between a manatee and a dolphin! Look at the perfect timing of such a creature appearing exactly on such a day as April 1st! 🙂
 
Of course, it all started with Google. And theirs are the best ones yet. Google’s first April Fools’ Day joke, the MentalPlex, was an advanced search service where users could do a search by projecting a mental image of what they wanted to find whilst staring at an animated gif. And on the search results page, users got awesomely funny error messages. Samples include:
• Error 01: Brainwaves received in analog. Please re-think in digital.
• Error 666: Multiple transmitters detected. Silence voices in your head and try again.
• Error 006: Query is unclear. Try again after removing hat, glasses and shoes.
 
Another one, in 2008, was Google Book Search Scratch and Sniff. To use it, users were asked to place their noses close to the monitor and click Go, which will load the odours. After several attempts, when the hapless users will click Help, they were taken to a page that described the origins of the April Fools’ Day!
 
This year, politicians in Washington DC decided to join in the fun. The Whitehouse announcing the creation of the President’s Council on Beards, Ted Cruz getting a tattoo of Churchill with a cigar, the Republican party claiming the colour blue, Bill Clinton changing his twitter avatar… all happened this year.
 
And a last one that only a local can enjoy… Democratic strategist Joshua Henne named himself Governor Christie’s spokesperson and announced a press conference in Fort Lee, advising attendees to arrive very, ‘very, very, very early – as traffic has been known to build up at the nearby George Washington Bridge during rush hour’… 🙂

~Ria

01 Apr 2014