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!


Old News

Click to view: 1977 KMBC-TV Kansas City newscast, complete with wood-paneled set and pink-suited reporter (Copyright © KMBC-TV)

Most of us can recall at least one occasion where we’ve come across something on television that was so boring or repulsive that we asked ourselves, “My God, who watches this stuff?”

The easiest way of figuring that out is to watch the commercials. If they show a bunch of young guys getting together for a good time, it’s safe to assume that the audience is heavily skewed toward males aged 18-29. If the ads are for prestigious Wall Street investment firms and high-end hotel chains, however, the audience is more likely skewed toward middle-aged and older professionals.

Spend half an hour watching CBC News Network and — despite the youthfulness of newer personalities such as Nil Koksal and Kalin Mitchell — you’ll quickly get the sense that the viewership of all-news channels skews toward the 55-plus demographic. Young adults, after all, are not key customers of no-medical-exam-required life insurance, Grey Power car insurance, contraptions that make it easier to get in and out of the bathtub or of the various other advertisers that help keep the CBC News Network on the air.

The same demographic skew exists south of the border. New research this week shows that Fox News has one of the oldest audiences among the major U.S. cable networks (median age: 65 years), followed by CNN (63 years). Network news programs also tend to attract a more mature demographic: the typical “60 Minutes” viewer is 61 years old, while the typical “Dateline Sunday” viewer is just three years younger.

Their children are more likely to be watching lighter fare when they turn on the television. The typical “Family Guy” viewer is 30 years old, making it one of U.S. network television’s youngest shows. “The Office” (median age: 35 years) and “Scrubs” (38 years) also tend to attract a younger audience.

Surely this news must give pause to backers of the proposed Sun News Channel, which some have billed as “Fox News North” in recognition of Sun Media’s small-c conservative leanings. Not only would a new all-news channel fragment a Canadian market that is only a fraction the size of the neighbouring U.S. market — and less partisan to boot — they would also be dependent on many of the same accounts that CBC News Network and CTV News Channel depend on. Then again, perhaps their plan is to force one of the two incumbents out of the game. Only they would know for sure.

It also makes you wonder if the greying of the all-news audience portends a less well-informed Canada of the future. The old way of watching the news — a 10 p.m. date with Knowlton Nash or an 11 p.m. session with Lloyd Robertson — might be old-fashioned and no longer practical in an era when you can click on the stories that interest you and ignore the rest, but at least you learned bits and pieces about politics and the economy while you were waiting to hear about the latest celebrity scandal.

Now… who cares about China or what effect interest rates will have on your household finances when your mortgage comes up for renewal? Lohan’s in trouble again!

On the bright side, we’ll simply do what human beings have always done when confronted with a changing world: adapt to it. And instead of hearing about what effect events overseas might have on Canadians’ lives from CBC’s Peter Mansbridge and CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme, we’ll get Family Guy‘s Peter and Lois Griffin to raise the subject.

On a completely different subject, several of us Winnipeg bloggers are making plans to converge later this month for beers and to finally meet one another in person. Visit the Winnipeg Bloggers group on Facebook or contact me via e-mail (mcdougak[at]mts.net) to find out more.