Even as 2017 ends with a sigh of relief, it still managed to give us a few chuckles

Well, we’ve made it to the end. “May you live in interesting times,” goes an old Chinese curse, and if nothing else, 2017 was an “interesting” year.

It was a year of revolutions. It was the year in which Donald Trump and his crew threw out all the old rules about the U.S. presidency, only to find out that it wasn’t just his supporters who wanted change as Colin Kaepernick took a knee for equality, and the “#MeToo” movement took down the high and the mighty.

Other countries, meanwhile, opted for youth. Emmanuel Macron became President of France at age 39, Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister of New Zealand at age 37, and Sebastian Kurz became Chancellor of Austria at a mere 31. In Ireland, meanwhile, the 38-year-old, openly gay, ancestrally half-Indian and half-Irish Leo Varadkar was promoted to Taoiseach — i.e., Prime Minister.

And Britain? The land that once gave Margaret Thatcher three majority governments in a row very nearly gave the keys to 10 Downing Street to Jeremy Corbyn, an unapologetic socialist, despite early expectations of a Conservative landslide.

And as 2017 ends, protests are rapidly spreading in Iran, hinting that nearly 40 years of religious dictatorship could be on the verge of being swept away by a secular and democratic tide.

While 2017 was a year of serious business and once unimaginable change, it also gave us a few good chuckles to lighten the mood a bit.

Why you should keep Alexa and Siri away from your TV. 2017 started off with a rather funny story out of Texas, where a six-year-old managed to convince her parents’ Alexa voice-recognition device to purchase her a $170 dollhouse and “four pounds of sugar cookies” — with the bill going to her parents of course. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Days later, a San Diego TV morning show host concluded a report on the story by uttering the words, “I love the little girl saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse’”.

“Ordered” or “order”? Apparently some viewers’ Alexa devices couldn’t tell the difference, and the station received complaints that “the TV broadcast caused their voice-controlled personal assistants to try to place orders for dollhouses on Amazon.” (Jan. 7)

Hi, this is head office calling! The search was on for an Irish-accented prankster this spring after two incidents in which callers claiming to be from “head office” convinced employees in Britain to close their stores and do bizarre things in exchange for prizes. In one incident, the caller from “head office” instructed employees to “…lick the shoppers’ feet… [and] even convinced the employees to ‘pretend to be a vacuum cleaner’.” In another, at a Poundworld discount store, “the staff had to refer to [two customers] as ‘Ugly’ and ‘Beast’ and in return they had to call the manager ‘Beautiful lady’ with the promise of £50 each time they said it.”

“We are both too scared to go into Poundworld now,” said one of the customers caught up in the prank. (May 23-26)

Waking up the Nation. If you’re setting up a national emergency alert system, it is naturally good practice to make sure it works. New Zealand Civil Defence dutifully carried out its own test in early October.

The good news was: The system worked.

The bad news was: The system worked — for real!

An unknown number of New Zealanders — about one-third of the nation’s phones were believed to be capable of receiving the alert — were woken up by three emergency alerts sent to their smartphones beginning at 1:32 a.m., informing them that “This is a test message for the Emergency Mobile Alert System that will be available by the end of 2017. Visit civildefence.govt.nz to find out more.”

“Dear @NZcivildefence, thanks for testing your mobile emergency alert system at 01:30AM. The whole house is awake now. #muppets,” one perturbed New Zealander wrote on Twitter.

“This is completely unacceptable … and [we] want to say sorry to every person that was woken by the messages during the night,” New Zealand Civil Defence spokesperson Sarah Stuart-Black said. (Oct. 3)

British prime minister’s speech turns into a comedy of errors. Having very nearly lost an election she was expected to easily win, and with Britain’s Brexit plans having turned out to be “no plan at all”, British prime minister Theresa May needed all the good luck she could get going into her Conservative Party’s annual conference in October. The highlight was to be her speech to the party faithful, broadcast on live television, and she must have hoped that perhaps the spirit of Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher would guide her through it.

What she got instead was the ghost of Benny Hill, as she was first handed a termination notice by a prankster claiming to be acting on behalf of Foreign Secretary (and potential leadership challenger) Boris Johnson, then suffered a coughing fit, and then had to continue on as the letters fell off the wall behind her.

By the time she was finished her speech, “Building a Country That Works for Everyone” had become “Building a Country that Works or Everyon”. (Oct. 4)

How in the world did he get up there?! A hospital offers many tempting places for an inquisitive young child to explore, and precautions are generally taken to prevent wandering. Hospital staff in Auckland, New Zealand were baffled however, in October, when a child somehow managed to climb into the ceiling unnoticed. First called at about 8 a.m., rescuers from the Fire Department managed to coax the child out of the ceiling by 9:45 a.m., but how the young explorer ended up there remained a mystery. (Oct. 19)

 

Five nude people in a car. It’s not unusual for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to respond to motor vehicle accidents, but it’s certainly unusual for them to find five nude people inside, as they did when they responded to a report of a car-truck collision south of Edmonton in November. Police were said to have considered it a “purposeful collision” and to have suspected that drugs or alcohol were involved. (Nov. 7)

What a bunch of donkeys. Jail staff in India’s Uttar Pradesh state had had enough with all the trouble the eight had been causing in the neighbourhood, injuring children and wrecking gardens. But the eight miscreants weren’t humans — they were donkeys that had been let loose in the vicinity of the jail. When the donkeys’ presumed owner pleaded ignorance, the jailers decided to lock up the eight donkeys until the problem could be resolved. Eventually, the donkeys’ owners and other local officials were able to arrange for the animals’ release. (Nov. 28)

Fare dodger gets his due. How else to end 2017, the Year of the Absurd, than with the news out of London, England that a would-be fare dodger got his “penis stuck in ticket barriers at Covent Garden Tube station”.

If you’ve taken the London Underground in recent years, you’ll know that you must go through automatic gates to get in or out of the station. Last Wednesday, one man decided to try to get a free ride on the Tube by sneaking past the gates, only to find himself pinned by them — at the crotch. Transport Police were able to free the hapless fare evader after about two minutes, but not before one bystander filmed the scene and another taunted him with “Butter him up!”

Once freed, the man reportedly “hugged a police officer and a passer-by” — though perhaps not the taunter. (Dec. 31)

Best wishes for a happy New Year!

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Border Security: Norway’s front line against illicit butter and contraband chicken

Busted: The driver of this Passat tried to convince Norwegian Customs that the 800 containers of yogurt shown here were for his personal consumption. They didn't believe him. (Click for source.)

Busted: The driver of this Passat tried to convince Norwegian Customs that the 800 containers of yogurt shown here were for his personal consumption. They didn’t believe him. (Click for source.)

On Monday, Norwegian Customs officers were on duty along the Swedish border when they pulled over a suspicious looking vehicle bearing Swedish licence plates.

Their suspicions were confirmed when they quickly discovered that the unfortunate Swede was indeed a smuggler — and that it wasn’t the first time he had been busted by Norwegian authorities.

The Customs officers ended up seizing no less than five hundred kilograms (or 1,100 lbs.) of the dastardly Swede’s goods before they could end up on the streets of Oslo, Bergen or wherever in Norway he was destined.

Five hundred kilograms of what? Marijuana? Cocaine? Heroin? No; none of these.

“Inside his getaway vehicle – a Volvo car,” a Norwegian news site reported later that same day,”was 500 kilogrammes of raw, frozen chicken.”

“The Norwegian customs team was not particularly surprised by the Swede’s haul, however, as he has been caught doing the exact same chicken run eight times before,” TheLocal.no noted in its report.

The incident came days after a Danish visitor was stopped by Customs with 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lbs.) of meat crammed into his car.

He claimed that he was on his way to attend a football game in Trondheim, and that he planned to take the undeclared meat back out of the country with him.

This might seem absurd in Canada, where chicken is one of the cheapest of meats. But in expensive Norway, where groceries are about 50 percent more expensive than in Canada and restaurant prices are more than double what we would pay, cheap food has become a lucrative black-market commodity.

One reason for the high price of Norwegian food: the protectionist policies that Norway maintains to shield its agricultural sector, despite years of complaints from other countries throughout Europe.

Under these policies, imported frozen chicken is subject to tariffs of up to $18 Cdn. per kilogram.

Contraband chicken has consequently been a problem in Norway for years. Back in 2006, Norwegian Customs — which does not screen 100 percent of travelers arriving from low-risk countries, but instead relies upon the honour system and spot checks to ensure compliance — seized a total of 25 tons of meat of various kinds, rising to 39 tons the following year.

In addition to tariff evasion, contraband meat is considered a concern because it is “virtually never refrigerated and conditions of smuggling cars are unhygienic,” a Norwegian news site reported in 2008.

“The cars are filled with meat on the floor and in the seats,” a customs official told the reporter.

It’s not just meat that traffickers stand to make money from in Norway. Norwegian Customs’s 2011 annual report tells the tale of two inept Swedes who tried to offload 250 kilograms of illicit butter to passersby in a small town north of Oslo for 500 kr. ($89 Cdn.) per kilogram.

“That they were attempting to sell the butter outside the Prix supermarket in Beistad indicates a real lack of market analysis,” the report sardonically noted. “Supermarket customers notified the police, who in turn notified Customs and Excise.”

“The two smugglers admitted having brought the butter in via Storlien the night before. If the sales had been better, the smugglers would have pocketed NOK 125,000 [$22,180 Cdn.] for the whole consignment.”

The “butter bust” happened as Norway’s heavily protected dairy industry suffered a bad year. The barriers intended to protect the industry left Norway without a backup source to make up for the domestic industry’s poor output, resulting in empty shelves during what both bloggers and the business press called the Norwegian Butter Crisis.

As the Christmas season approached — and demand for butter for Christmas baking soared — reports began to appear of people offering hundreds of dollars online to anyone who could hook them up with some butter.

Yogurt has become another heavily trafficked item in Norway’s expensive, protected dairy market. A 2013 Swedish news report explained how one man had been caught multiple times by Norwegian Customs trying to sneak a total of 720 kilograms (1,590 lbs.) of yogurt in from Sweden.

The same man had been previously stopped trying to smuggle hundreds of kilograms of cheese into Norway in the trunk of his car.

In another case last year, police were notified of an overloaded Volkswagen Passat arriving on a ferry from Sweden. The vehicle turned out to be loaded up with 800 containers of yogurt, along with large quantities of chicken and powdered milk.

Despite the driver’s pleas that he had purchased all 800 containers of yogurt for his personal consumption, his purchases — valued at more than $3,500 Cdn. — were confiscated and destroyed by customs officers.

Cruising altitude cuddling has long, colourful history

It was a case that had many people chuckling, at least for a day.

The news broke late on a Sunday afternoon, normally a quiet news day. Fighter jets had been dispatched to follow Frontier Airlines Flight 623, en route from Denver to Detroit, following reports that a couple of passengers were acting suspiciously aboard the Airbus A318 jetliner.

After landing safely in Detroit, a SWAT team boarded the aircraft and ordered passengers to put their hands on the seat in front. Passengers then watched as three people were handcuffed and hauled off for questioning.

Then came reports that the “suspicious activity” on Flight 623 wasn’t terrorism at all, but rather a couple “making out” in the lavatory.

Then came the truth. It had all been a big, stupid mix-up. One passenger was sick and had to make frequent trips to the restroom — and had gone in there alone.

On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the whole matter had been blown ridiculously out of proportion.

But even if this had been a case of a couple making love on board a commercial jetliner, it wouldn’t have been the first time.

“Prior to arrival Captain Thompson radioed operations advising that he wanted a British Airways senior official to meet his aircraft on arrival at Honolulu. He stated he had two passengers on board the aircraft who were creating problems,” read an undated telex sent back to British Airways headquarters in London sometime during the ’70s.

“We were advised that a man in seat 25A and a married woman seated 19A got together during flight and were using profane language and molesting one another,” the telex continued.

“Per Captain Thompson and the chief steward both passengers had sexual intercourse right in the plain sight of all other passengers. Captain Thompson stated once this was completed they both settled down and went to sleep and were of no bother from that point on. As a result Captain Thompson did not feel they should be offloaded.”*

While this couple faced no serious consequences from the airline for their conduct, others didn’t find airline employees to be as forgiving as Captain Thompson.

One of the most bizarre cases took place in March 1988, when four passengers were arrested on arrival in Chicago after a “fracas” aboard American Airlines Flight 37 from Zurich, Switzerland.

The trouble started when a woman traveling with her 13-year-old daughter complained to the flight attendant about the behaviour of the California-bound married couple across the aisle.

“It came to the attention of a mother who determined that kind of recreational pursuit was not the kind she wanted her daughter to see,” American spokesman Ed Martelle said in an interview.

Two other male passengers, however, had no objections to this unexpected form of in-flight entertainment. In fact, when a flight attendant tried to intervene, the two male passengers — described later by police as voyeurs — “began pelting her with food and drink.”

The couple were arrested for public indecency and possession of a controlled substance, while the two onlookers were arrested for disorderly conduct.

Ten years later, a couple found themselves in trouble aboard a South African Airways flight after they “disrobed from the waist down and got busy in full view of other passengers“.

The crew tried without luck to stop the couple, who only put their clothes back on after the Captain paid them a personal visit to deliver a message: “This is not a shag house!”

In July 1984, it was an off-duty Air New Zealand flight attendant who found herself in trouble after consuming both sleeping tablets and champagne while deadheading from Auckland to Honolulu.

The unnamed flight attendant lost her job after she had sex with a passenger in a lavatory, sat on a sleeping First Class passenger’s face, kneed the chief purser in the groin and tried to grab his private parts, and finally tried to take off her clothing.

She later said that she could not recall any of those events.

The passengers, however, likely found their flight to Honolulu to be very memorable indeed.

* – Brian Moynahan, Airport International (London: Pan Books, 1978), pp. 118-119.