Yesterday I received a phone call from a most serious sounding web promotion/search engine optimization guy. He represented “the biggest company in the industry” and claimed to have hundreds of thousands of clients. Not himself, obviously, but the company. Maybe it was true; don’t know, don’t care. For many years I handled my own web promotion and now I have a local tech genius who consults for me. I like to spend my money here in town whenever possible.
Back to the phone call: The caller seemed much more like a salesman than a tech person, bandying about phrases such as “activating all your listings” and “checking your keywords for optimization,” which are semi-nonsensical anyway, and probably intended to befuddle the web novice. He then asked me to confirm that I was the owner of megaspacenews.info and went on to exclaim, very enthusiastically, how sure he was that I would be wanting to expand my site and promote it on a national, or maybe even international level.
I couldn’t help laughing, but I did try not to laugh directly at him.
“That site is an April Fool’s prank. I’m a science writer and that is a one-page site that I put up as a joke.”
“Oh. I guess you won’t be needing our services then,” he replied, and apologized for calling me. It was immediately clear that I wouldn’t be spending any money with him. Game over.
I have the greatest affection and respect for my colleagues in the meteorite world. Well, nearly all of them. There are a couple of extremely nasty people in my field, but we can save that story for another day. Let me rephrase my statement: I have the greatest respect and admiration for nearly all of my colleagues in the meteorite world, but I am also a career prankster, and I do so enjoy a complicated little joke at the expense of my friends and peers. I go for “the long prank” as a con artist might say, or “the overly elaborate prank.” A burning paper bag of something unpleasant on the neighbor’s porch just does not do it for me.
So, when my calendar announces it is late March I start thinking about what type of April Fool’s jape I will foist upon my usually good-natured science comrades. Since we are all such a bunch of modern Internet junkies, I usually end up with something that lives and laughs within the digital realm. The past few years I have gone to considerable trouble to construct fake websites featuring a science article that looks and feels genuine, but with content so absurd that only the most stoned readers could possibly think it real. At least, it seems that way to me. The truth is, many people still get taken in.
This spring I purchased the domain name megaspacenews.info, for the amazingly low price of $1.99. There was some kind of .info sale going on. I guess that domain suffix is not as hot as the originators hoped it might be. I came up with the tag line “BECAUSE IT’S YOUR UNIVERSE TOO,” and went on to type up a nonsensical ditty intentionally filled with misinformation, entitled “Bush to Join Panel on Meteorite Alertness, Defense and Evasion” and built the site around it. I tossed in a few genuine web ads to make the thing look real, added a nice astronomy background image, inserted a whole lot of links to fabricated stories (and one real one that sounds crazy but is actually true: “Texas dog finds rock from outer space”) and, shazam!, a fake website in no time. Actually, it takes a lot of time, and one of my ex-girlfriends used to chastise me endlessly: “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?” And of course the answer to that was: “No, I really don’t. Time spent on April Fool’s is time spent well.”
So, here is my April Fool’s joke for 2009. Don’t miss “THIS WEEK’S TOP ASTRONOMY AND SCIENCE STORIES” links at the bottom of the page; my favorite part.
The good people in meteorites and astronomy are not the only ones to be targeted by my deformed sense of humor. That just wouldn’t be right. I’ve had my fair share of fun with esteemed colleagues in biology and paleontology as well. A few years ago, my good friend Tom Caggiano—a highly skilled fossil hunter with a devilish sense of humor, and secretary of the New Jersey Paleontological Society—invited me to concoct a bogus article for the April edition of their journal, the Paleontograph.
I wrote a lengthy review of a book that never existed, entitled: Bone Idol: My Life in Time. I so amused myself devising quotes in the author’s overblown writing style, that I called up a friend, in the middle of the night, and read a few hundred words to her. I laughed myself silly; she was not amused.
Ostensibly the autobiography of a famous paleontologist, Arthur Burleigh Chaplin, Bone Idol is a Forrest Gump-like tale in which “Burley” survives the Titantic’s fatal 1912 voyage, appears in one of the films by his cousin, Charlie Chaplin, talks his way onto Roy Chapman Andrews’ Central Asiatic Expedition of 1922, flies with Eagle Squadron during the Battle of Britain in World War II, works for Special Operations, discovers some kind of strange new dinosaur, gets involved in shenanigans during the Cold War, moves to Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s and lives out the last of his 102 years in the kooky town of Jerome, Arizona. In other words, a ludicrous fantasy, but it was great fun to write. I even designed a cover for the book.
Quite recently, I received an email from the editor of a paleontology publication asking, very courteously, if she could quote from my review of Bone Idol for their newsletter. I wrote back, thanked her for her interest and said of course she could use anything she liked, but was she aware that the article was an April Fool’s prank and the book didn’t actually exist (although I so enjoyed creating it that perhaps it lives on in some alternate universe). Shortly thereafter, I received a very terse reply: “Well, I guess we won’t be needing it then.” (I think she was embarrassed, poor thing).
My regular readers will now immediately understand why I am concerned about the veracity of information presented on the web, as discussed in last week’s tale: “Ning Probably Means ‘Unisex,’ The Marginal Merits Of Wikipedia, And William Gibson Was Right Again.” If I can cook up a fake website in a few hours, then so can a lot of other people.
The enthusiastic salesman who called and tried to convince me to spend upwards of $70 a month on optimizing a one-page joke website didn’t spend much time looking at the site himself. There is just the one goofy made-up story there, along with some links that lead to “error message” pages. Yes, they are keen to sell you web optimization services, but I don’t think they are doing a whole lot of research on the sites they target.
Well, I suppose I have really let the cat out of the bag now and you all think you will be ready for me next April. Hah! Now I shall be forced to devise an April Fool’s prank of Moriarty-like complexity to perplex my dear TucsonCitizen.com readers. And really, I do it all out of affection.