View from Vitalia: This blog is not about my dog!

Some April Fools’ Day technology stories appear surprisingly believable in the atmosphere of general uncertainty and confusion.

I had been writing this blog post during this year’s ‘April Fool Week’, – an appropriate name for the week that a). started with Monday 1 April – the ‘official’ April Fools Day, which followed Sunday 31 March, the day when we had to – rather foolishly, I think –  change our watches and clocks to the British Summer Time which had already happened this year in mid-February; and b). was all consumed by the never-ending and, as it increasingly appears, nowhere-leading (read entirely useless) Brexit debate. It also means that each day of the last week, not just Monday 1 April,  could qualify as an April Fools’ Day.

Since leaving the Soviet Union, where the first day of April was officially known as a ‘Trust-No-One’ Day and therefore was not at all different in its essence from any of the remaining 364, collecting April Fools Day jokes from British newspapers has become a popular sport of mine. Unlike in the USSR, where the most widespread and pretty much the only 1st of April jest was to pat a stranger on the shoulder and say: “You’ve got white paint all over your back!”, in Britain we take April Fools’ Day seriously. Well, the media certainly does, with all the British newspapers – as well as radio and TV broadcasters – trying to beat each other in the unofficial hoax stories (or, in Trump-speak, fake news) competition, which started in 1957 with the now-proverbial BBC reportage from Switzerland featuring a family happily harvesting spaghetti from a tree.

In the European newspaper, where I worked as a staff columnist in the 1990s, we tried to be a tad more ingenious. I will never forget the ‘news story’, with our business editor’s byline, that we ran on 1 April 1993 (or 1994) to the effect that the United Nations decided to abolish Belgium as unnecessary, and the resulting protest notes, including one from the Belgian Embassy.

These days, newspapers routinely carry more than one 1st of April hoax. They also try to hide it among the real news stories, at times making the process of identifying the fakes extremely challenging and complicated.

This year in particular, with the epidemic of ‘fake news’ and the mounting Brexit madness, when wishful thinking routinely outshouts the voice of reason, one can be forgiven for having problems in separating the wheat from the chaff.

Take, for example, a page 11 story in the April Fools’ Day issue of The Times, with the byline of Tom Whipple, the paper’s respected science editor (a real person, I’ve checked) : “American teenagers take top spot in the global lying league (honest)” [brackets not mine-VV], all about the latest research to prove that Americans are more likely “to spout nonsense” (or, as they themselves call it “bullshit”) than all other English-speaking peoples, including obviously us the British. A reassuring piece of news – again, clashing with what one can see on all the multiple Brexit pages of British newspapers – broadsheets and tabloids alike. But how can one effectively verify it, despite the quoted in the story “bullshit score” from a UCL academic called Nikki Shure (another real person, I’ve checked her too) putting Americans at the top, closely followed by England and Ireland?

Let’s think logically: if the story is an April Fools Day fake, it could mean that in reality Americans and Brits (and those must include both Tom Whipple  and Nikki Shure) are not the top bullshitters, and the article lies, which, in turn, would imply that the respected British  newspaper publishes fake news and therefore the above story is true! This reminds me of an old Zen koan asserting that “any statement is false”, which means that that very statement that any statement is false is false too and hence it is true, which contradicts to the initial statement – and so on... One can easily loose one’s marbles trying to crack it. As we used to say in Russia, you can’t sort it out without half a litre of vodka...

To cut it short, I am still unsure as to the veracity of the above-quoted Times “bullshit score” story, unlike two Telegraph news items, published on the same day: ‘Plea for ‘toes of dead toads’ to help explain their decline reporting that toad-studying academics [‘toadists’ or, maybe, ‘toadicians’?] “have asked people to cut the toes off dead amphibians to help examine why their numbers are in decline”, and another one, with the self-explanatory headline Mosquitoes bite less when they listen to ‘dubstep’.

Here I have to confess that another April Fools Day story, also from The Times, did get me, meaning I swallowed it all - hook, line and sinker, at least initially I did. I had good reasons for that though. Let me explain.

Several weeks ago, I bought a dog – a gorgeous Tibetan terrier puppy called Tashi (which means ‘good fortune’ in Tibetan, or so I heard). At this point, I can visualise a number of my readers’ hard-working wrists reaching for their PC mice (or shall I say ‘mouses’ on this occasion?) to click this page closed, never to come back.

“Not another blog about someone’s new canine, for God’s sake!” I can hear them muttering. Please hold on, my dear readers and let me solemnly promise that I will never do a blog or a column about my dog (even if it’s the world’s cutest and cleverest puppy – oops, I beg your forgiveness), simply because everyone else is doing them, but this time I simply have to give Tashi a mention, the reason being that the anonymous story (and absence of a byline is a sure sign of a hoax story – as I should have guessed but didn’t!), published in The Times on 1 April was called – rather playfully –  ‘Give the dog  a drone for walkies’ (the word walkies in the headline was no doubt intended to appeal to dogs – or rather ‘doggies’ – too). 

“It is the latest accessory for the busy dog owner: a drone that walks your pet” was its opening paragraph announcing the appearance of The Drone Dog Walker device, “sold by Thumbs Up for £200” and equipped with a microphone, camera and the pioneering “leash control technology”, all of which would allow the owners to walk their dogs remotely, from the comfort of  their lounges and bedrooms! According to the anonymous April Fool reporter, the luxury Richard Walker’ model of the same device is capable of “playing a recording of a loud middle-class voice” shouting periodically: “Fenton! Fenton!”

Yet the most amazing and, to me, by far the most topical function of the drone, according to the story, was that its advanced version could, “freeze-dry any messes left by the dog, pop them into a plastic bag and then dispose of them”! 

It left me literally speechless and ready to bark with delight!

As I am writing these lines inside my cosy garden office, I can see Tashi dashing around the garden chasing birds and bees. Every now and then, I interrupt the process of writing and, having armed myself with a primitive plastic poo bag, venture into the garden and… I’ll spare you the description of the whole process with which both the dog owners and parents of young children are all too familiar. To facilitate that smelly routine of dog ownership, I was ready to believe in the dog-walking and poo-collecting drone, even if for a just couple of minutes…

I could almost hear the invisible, yet ever-so-jolly, Times journalists shouting behind my back in the old Soviet manner: “You’ve got white paint all over you – ha-ha-ha!!” 

To be fair, there could have been other reason (apart from Tashi’s regularly unsettled stomach) for me being duped so easily - canine tech, or all those constantly evolving real-life gadgets in which I as a new dog-owner started taking acute interest of late. Here’s s small selection from technology pages of British newspapers and websites, none of which appeared on the 1st of April:

-              A dog vest that senses an emergency and dials 911

-              A Petzi Wi-Fi camera and treat dispenser allowing you to “view a live video feed... as well as speaking (sic – VV) to Rover through the audio speaker”

-              A Kippy GPS tracker and activity monitor, attached “discreetly” to a dog’s collar

-              A self-cleaning dog litter box (not quite as good as the poo-picking drone, but handy, and – what’s more important – real!)

 -              An IFetch automatic ball launcher which shoots out balls for the dog to fetch and to “reload the hopper himself” (that is probably for the owners whose hands are permanently tied)

 -              iCalmDog portable speakers that automatically start playing music to calm your restless pup (probably, all classics and not heavy metal, albeit I don’t think Tashi would know the difference)

And last, but not least – a fully functioning Robotic Puppy which (or who?), according to the maker’s specifications, “sings, dances and even farts”. But, hopefully, does not do poos.

With such this proliferation of technology, is there any wonder that one can be easily duped by a much-desired poo-collecting drone?

As it was summed up in the Daily Telegraph on that very day, “The whole country is on a Code Alert for April 1. No one knows what’s real and what’s a joke any more.”

Very true. And not just for the April Fools’ Day. I dread all those daily Brexit developments which are, in essence, not developments but regressions and further divisions. It feels as if the whole of Britain is permanently split down the middle by the issue of leaving or staying. The sad reality is that the country is seriously divided, and social divisions tend to lead to clashes and confrontations.

At times like this, one feels instinctively attracted to symbols of unity and cohesion. That was why I was extremely grateful to Amberley Publishing for having sent me two recently released and lavishly illustrated paperbacks: ‘Britain’s Greatest Bridges’ by Joseph Rogers and Aqueducts and Viaducts of Britain by Victoria Owens. Each of them constitutes an ideal ‘iCalmHumans’ (see the canine equivalent above) to read at the time of social conflict, for, apart from being industrial and engineering icons and monuments, bridges have always been the symbols of unity. Metaphorically speaking, they are about connecting two opposite and often opposing sides of a country, a city, a valley, or, in the case of aqueducts, two banks of the same river. Yes, rivers separate, whereas aqueducts unite – a soothing and calming thought for both a Europhile and a Brexiteer.

Both books are not just beautifully written, but are resplendent with engineering facts and fascinating historical detail showing very clearly that, with all the multiple clashes and conflicts of its past, it is the bridges – not the gaps between them – that define this country’s character.

In short, a great Easter present not just for engineers but for all Brexit-confused UK residents, i.e.  basically all UK residents who can read, and compulsory reading material for all the MPs.

Let me finish on an optimistic note, however: this world, divided by politicians, will eventually be saved and bridged back together by engineers!

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