Beware the first of April

"The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year." - Mark Twain

Forget the ides of March; most of us are better warned to beware the first of April - the day when it is perfectly reasonable to wonder if your salt shaker is filled with sugar, or if that unclaimed dollar bill on the floor might be attached to a fishing line. And while there isn't a great deal of creativity in setting someone's clocks ahead a few hours to make them think they're late for work, history has provided us with hoaxes (on April 1 and throughout the year) that must be given their due for both impact and ingenuity. This week, in recognition of this annual observance of recreational fraud, a few sites that pay tribute to some of the greats. (But if you're hatching any plans of your own for this Saturday, remember the words of Hippocrates and "First, do no harm.")

Founded in 1997 (if we can believe the webmaster) the Museum of Hoaxes is the logical first stop for this week's tour - with its immense collection of deception dating back to before the invention of the word "hoax" in the 1700s. Averaging close to a million page views per month, the Museum is clearly not just for April Fool's, but it can be safely assumed that the traffic is up a little around this time of year.

With its home page set up as a blog, the Museum of Hoaxes dedicates the center of its layout to real and unreal events of current interest - from leprechaun sightings in Alabama and a denominationallychallenged counterfeiter (found in possession of 250 billion-dollar bills), to a recent theory about the Loch Ness monster, and an Everest expedition mounted by an 85-year-old and her dachshund. Along either side of the main content are listings of various subsections of content, while the top of the page holds a Google-powered keyword search and links to the site's feature categories.

The most important of these features (at least for the purposes of this article) is the Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of all time - with the No. 1 entry being a 1957 BBC television report that convinced thousands of Britons that spaghetti grew on trees in Switzerland. (The BBC has a page of its own dedicated to this famous fraud - complete with a low-quality RealVideo copy of the original broadcast, and collected memories of viewers taken in by the story.) Other notable efforts in the Top 100 list include Sports Illustrated's biography of the too-good-to-be-true Sidd Finch and his 168 m.p.h. fastball, Burger King's attempt to corner the southpaw market with the introduction of the left-handed Whopper, and New York's annual April Fool's Day Parade. (Now in its 21st year, the parade doesn't actually exist, but always manages to attract members of the media.)

Back at the Museum's home page (navigational tools vary throughout the site so you generally have to start each new excursion from scratch), other highlights include Famous Hoaxes Throughout History (with theories about the origins of the practice and a chronological listing of examples from the 16th to the 21st centuries), Worst Hoaxes, the Tall-Tale Creature Gallery, and some self-tests to see how easily you may be taken by a good story or skillful Photoshopper. And while not technically falling under the umbrellas of either April Fool's Day or even hoaxes in general, one can't help appreciating the work and resourcefulness that went into some of the Top Ten College Pranks of All Time - especially Caltech's 1961 masterpiece involving the Rose Bowl game and live coast-to-coast TV.

But while the Museum's coverage is impressive, the History page records events only up until 2002, so for those looking for a refresher on more recent deceits, Wikipedia's entry on April Fool's Day supplements its main collection with links to April 1st pages from the last four years.The pages list the hoaxes (British police using hawks to catch speeding motorists, and Google's 'smart drinks' brand, Google Gulp), as well as real news that many people thought was a hoax (revelations of British cold war plans to use chickens to regulate temperature in nuclear bombs, and Google's invitation-only Gmail). A pair of less calendar-specific pages on hoaxes includes such famous cases as the Piltdown Man, the Hitler Diaries, and the only US state that got its name as the result of a joke.

And if you find yourself wondering, this Saturday or any other day of the year, if a story you've just heard is fact or fabrication, a good, central place to start your investigations will be the Urban Legends Reference Pages - also known as Snopes.com. Online since 1995 and reviewed in this space in 2003, the Urban Legends Reference Pages covers events far beyond the more famous pranks and hoaxes, and there's a good chance that the site will have some information related to just about any suspicious story you've ever heard - from Walt Disney's cryogenic suspension (false) to the fact that some passengers on the Titanic were watching an early version of "The Poseidon Adventure" when the ship fatally struck an iceberg (at first glance true, but actually false). You might even learn something entirely new - for example, most of us have spent our lives mispronouncing the term "Mobile Homes". [Editor's note: The original version fell victim to Snopes.com's own apocryphal urban legend about the Titanic. You can't even trust the debunkers not to run around bunking these days.]

And to close with a source of practical information about the most common class of hoaxes today (those of the e-mail variety), the Sophos Hoaxes page maintains an ongoing catalog of Internet deceptions and chain letters - browsable by category or title, and with a separate page featuring the most common and most recent examples of the irritant. There are enough genuine software threats and enough legitimate causes to support without having to waste our time with the "Olympic Torch" Internet virus or chain letters that claim to generate cash for penniless orphans.

But you will want to start training for World Jump Day. It's for the good of the planet.

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