There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?

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Just before Easter, the Bank of England revealed the design of its latest £50 note, the reverse of which features a portrait of the code-breaker and computing pioneer Alan Turing.

There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?

In addition to the standard security features (holographic patches, foil ornaments, ultraviolet text, etc.) the note includes a slew of references to Turing’s life and work, including: a ticker tape of his birth date in binary code; sunflower spirals relating to his morphogenetic research; and technical drawings for the British Bombe that helped crack the Nazi’s Enigma code. 

Then, to promote the note, the bank enlisted the British intelligence agency GCHQ to incorporate these “geeky Easter Eggs” into a “seven-hour” hunt — “our most difficult puzzle ever.”

What, you may well ask, is going on?
 
* * *

Easter egg hunts are said to date to sixteenth-century Lutheran custom and — like many “traditions” from tartan to Christmas trees — were popularized by Queen Victoria. However, our modern, secular and technical idea of such hunts dates to the dawn of popular computing  and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first codified in 1986:

“Re: Few More Option-keys Tips in net.micro.mac (Usenet newsgroup) 25 Apr. Why not have a periodically updated list of these option, command, and other combination Easter egg type-of-things?”

In this context, Easter eggs are:

“An unexpected or undocumented message or feature hidden in a piece of software, intended as a joke or bonus. Also: a feature of this kind in film, music, and other forms of information or entertainment.”

In the age of the internet, it’s almost impossible for Easter eggs to remain hidden for long. Indeed a cottage industry is now dedicated to documenting hidden features the moment they are found. Curiously, this mayfly shelf-life has not deterred Easter egg creators: Bonus features now appear across every sphere of endeavor, earthbound and extraterrestrial.

When in February the parachute of NASA’s Perseverance rover unfurled over Mars’s Jezero Crater, it revealed two binary code messages enciphered in the fabric’s multicolored pattern: the GPS coordinates for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, and a reference to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1899 “Strenuous Life” speech — the exhortation, “DARE MIGHTY THINGS.”

There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?

Even landing on the Red Planet, it seems, demands a little secret pizazz.

*  *  *

The industry most associated with Easter eggs (confectionary aside) is computing — and hidden in games, applications and operating systems is an ever-expanding catalogue of curiosities. Most are relatively picayune jokes, but a few are decidedly non-trivial efforts — from the secret space simulator in Microsoft Office 97 (accessed via the Excel cell “X97:L97”) to the software son et lumière in the Tesla X:

One of the most committed Easter egg concealers is Google, which has incorporated a panoply of search gags both frivolous (“askew,” “loneliest number,” “define anagram”) and technical (“emacs,” “recursion,” “”). Not all that glitters is gold, however: Many Google features billed as Easter eggs (“breathing exercise,” “metronome,” “color picker”). Not all that glitters is gold, however: Many Google features billed as Easter eggs (“breathing exercise,” “metronome,” “color picker”) are really little-known or un(der)-documented functions. The same distinction holds true with computer games, where finding hidden objects and unlocking obscure features are integral to the action: Genuine Easter eggs exist outside the gameplay.

Why computing developed such an Easter egg addiction is unclear, though several catalysts spring to mind: the in-joke meme-rich culture of coding; the joy of experts talking over the heads of users; the quest for credit when programmers were traditionally anonymous; and the painstaking process of compiling code which inspires pains to be taken inside the code.

That said, Easter eggs existed in popular culture long before popular computing.

*  *  *

Easter eggs have a trio of characteristics — humanization, humor and hiding in plain sight.

Humanization

“There is nothing so important as trifles.” — Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Man With the Twisted Lip (1891)

Although Sherlock Holmes is commonly depicted brandishing a magnifying glass, what delights readers is his ability to spot clues visible to the naked eye: a specific breed of dog from the bite marks on a walking stick, or the ash from 140 brands of tobacco. If these “elementary” Easter eggs are gratifying today, they were revelatory to Victorian London’s swelling ranks of white-collar workers, who queued for each new story installment eager for what Professor John Carey argues was something approaching redemption:

“Characteristically at the start of a story [Holmes] scrutinizes the nondescript person who has arrived at his Baker Street rooms, observes how they dress, whether their hands are calloused, whether their shoe soles are worn, and amazes them by giving them an accurate account, before they have spoken a word, of their jobs, their habits and their individual interests. The appeal of the Holmesian magic and the reassurance it brings to the reader are, I would suggest, residually religious, akin to the singling out of the individual redeemed from the mass that Christianity promises.”

By uncovering the Easter eggs of everyday life, Holmes plucks anonymous individuals out of the crowd and bestows on them humanity.

Humor

An opposite but equal trick was mastered by Alfred Hitchcock, who delighted the masses by inserting an individual — himself — into some 40 movies, carefully timing his cameos lest the hunt distract from the plot.

Although Hitchcock’s Easter egg appearances are often self-deprecatingly human (missing a bus, being annoyed by a child, lugging a cello), their primary function within the films is to undercut the tension with humor. Outside the films, however, the cameos are but one of many promotional tricks at least as calculating as his cinematography. Much has been written on the suspenseful motifs of Hitchcock’s oeuvre (birds, blondes, doubles, MacGuffins), but equally significant are the humorous motifs of his persona: the suit, the silhouette, the “stern” public warnings. By scrambling the Easter eggs of his work and life, Hitchcock created a brand that fused humor and horror, an oxymoronic combination encapsulated in his choice of theme tune, Charles Gounod’s jauntily macabre “Funeral March of a Marionette”:

Like the smile of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, Alfred Hitchcock’s silhouette lingers long after the master of suspense vanished from our screens.

Hiding

There are two reasons to hide: To evade and to delight. While the vast majority of Easter eggs are motivated by the latter, a few are inspired by the former — to tweak the nose of power.

Usually such tweaking is deployed by the weak against the strong. William Shakespeare is one of numerous authors down the ages who played to the groundlings while evading the censor with deniable double entendre — not least Malvolio’s eyebrow-raising innuendo in Twelfth Night:

“By my life, this is my lady’s hand. These be her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s. It is in contempt of question her hand.”

Occasionally, though, the powerful deploy Easter eggs themselves — as illustrated by two fleeting incidents from the Trump presidency. It may not have been significant that in 2017 President Emmanuel Macron entertained Donald Trump with a marching-band medley of Daft Punk, though their faces tell a different story:

There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?
There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?
There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?
There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?


*  *  *

BYO Eggs

It’s notable that the trend of user-invented Easter eggs has flourished in the world of franchised fast food where inhuman uniformity — even before touchscreen ordering and robotic cooking — was the raison d’etre.

Once upon a time, “off-menu” meant special dishes at select restaurants known only to the cognoscenti: the “secret” burger at Joe Allen, say, or Le Bernardin’s unlisted pot de crème egg. Nowadays a throng of websites share crowd-sourced suggestions for the oddest frankenfood orders: Chipotle’s “Quesarito” (a burrito wrapped with a quesadilla), say, or Burger King’s “Suicide Burger” (4 beef patties, 4 slices of cheese, bacon, special sauce).

Chain food should mean that Subway’s Meatball Marinara tastes the same in Manhattan as in Minneapolis; and it certainly allows the Economist to gauge international currency misalignment using the omnipresent Big Mac. Indeed, regional variations across global chains are so “exotic” that they regularly  inspire news stories and even become memes:

It is against this backdrop of head-office standardization that grass-roots customization thrives: stolen moments of humanization in a homogenized world. Moreover, the tiny rebellions of menu hacking seem also to echo the remarkable popularity of faux-Prohibition “speakeasies” (complete with hidden doors and secret codes) in an age when alcohol could hardly be more accessible.

Interestingly, not everyone is onboard with off-menu. In-N-Out Burger rejects claims of a secret menu as an “urban myth” and is anxious not to exclude anyone:

“Ok, you’ve heard the rumors, wondered what was on it, maybe even felt a little left out of the loop. But in reality, we don’t have any secrets at all. It’s just the way some of our customers like their burgers prepared, and we’re all about making our customers happy.” 

There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?

And Kristin Salaky, news editor at Delish, argues that “secret menus are, in fact, a very bad idea” — not least because of the pressure they put on staff:

“Food is supposed to be fun, but it’s not fun to make other people suffer so that you can get an Instagram. There are real reasons to get substitutions, even major ones, at restaurants. Simply wanting the clout and wanting to get a cool Instagram is not one of them, in my opinion.”

To be fair, not all fast-food hacks are inspired by gluttony or swank. Some are penny-wise, like the “poor man’s Big Mac”; others are simply pragmatic:

*  *  *

Occasionally what appear to be ornamental Easter eggs are the result of practical considerations. For instance, just as financial ledgers had marbled fore-edges to indicate if a page had been torn out, so banknotes have a constellation of circles that stymie the use of scanning hardware and imaging software.

There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?

Although this concealment is usually ascribed to cultural mores of humility, the greater catalyst may be environmental, as Professor Klaus Zwerger explains:

“Western joinery enables the interested spectator to follow the carpenter’s intentions. Japanese carpentry developed along climatic restrictions. In order to protect the most vulnerable functional joinery it had to be executed invisibly to the outside. (Aesthetic demands to hide those parts of a joint that make it work and only present the clean and undisturbed surface are consequences.)”

Often the interplay between essential elements and playful Easter eggs is central to the process of design — confirming the wisdom of Charles and Ray Eames that “the details are not the details; they make the product.” 

In this way, it is practical and poetic that Gerald Holtom’s 1958 CND logo is formed from the semaphore for N[uclear] and D[isarmament], and that the Bluetooth icon is based on the Younger Futhark runes Hagall (ᚼ) and Bjarkan (ᛒ) which represent the initials of Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson whose unification of Denmark and Norway pre-echoed the unification of short-range wireless.

There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?


*  *  *

Scrambled Eggs

Thus far, more or less, it’s all been fun and games. But Easter eggs may also be eroding the foundations of Enlightenment reason. If this sounds melodramatic, consider QAnon — the vile Trumpian conspiracy cult that posits a “deep state” cabal of pederastic and cannibalistic Satanists. Mad as this conspiracy is, it has destroyed families and friendships, and a January 2021 YouGov poll showed that 30% of American Republicans, and 12% of independents, who had heard of QAnon had a favorable opinion of it.

Significantly, QAnon is not a blunt-force “big lie” like the “false flags” of domestic terror, or the “crisis actors” of school shootings. Nor is it a tin-foil chemtrail conspiracy like “the Moon landing was faked” or “Elvis lives.” Instead, acolytes of QAnon follow an infinitely unwinding “breadcrumb” trail “dropped” by a “shadowy insider” known as “Q.” As Walter Kirn wrote:

“Q is part fabulist, part fortune-teller, holding up a computer-screen-shaped mirror to our golden age of fraudulence. He composes in inklings, hunches, and wild guesses, aware that our hunger for order grows more acute the longer it goes unsatisfied.”

This hunger is precisely what makes Q’s convoluted memes, myths, numerology and synchronicity so pernicious. QAnon warps the dopamine pleasure pulse of Easter egg hunts into a gibberish grail quest where obvious drivel (Trump’s “covfefe” typo) is imbued with deep significance.

Although QAnon-ism shows signs of wavering in the aftermath Trump’s defeat, the lure of conspiratorial Easter eggs is likely to endure, further to poison the well of rational debate. As Jared Holt told Vox:

“Even if Q posts and Trump gradually take a backseat role in the movement, many of the tagalong theories — on topics including 5G, vaccines, and alternative medicine — will produce significant risks to the public.”

It’s no accident that Russian disinformation evolved from creating dissent to amplifying existing domestic divisions, seamlessly switching its target from pro-Trump to anti-vax.

*  *  *

Poisonous conspiracies aside, the point of Easter eggs is that they are pointless: Gleefully inessential and joyously supernumerary.

Furthermore, because they are hidden, Easter eggs reward the enlightened and penalize no one. Such passivity is in stark contrast to the vexatious sleeve-tugging of “chatty packaging” and corporate “brandter” — of which more in a column to come.

One could, presumably, live a worthwhile life unaware that the Amazon “smile” points from “A” to “Z”, or that typing “askew” into Google tilts the search results — but surely such knowledge adds a certain sparkle to the gaiety of nations, if not their tax take. 

There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?
There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?
There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?
There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?
There’s an Easter Egg in This Column. Can You Find It?

But the remarkable longevity of Holmesian humanization and Hitchcockian humor suggests that, when well done, Easter eggs — like Heineken — somehow refresh the parts other branding techniques cannot reach.

To those who observe this cavalcade of concealment and sneer, “But do we really need Easter eggs?” we can turn once again to Shakespeare, and the timeless response of King Lear:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.

According to many internet sources, the first usage was in 1979, in reference to hidden feature in the Atari game Adventure.

There are those who claim this three-day “brooch warfare” was merely a coincidence — despite the Queen regularly selecting her jewelry with a razor-sharp eye for historical significance.

The hidden messages are: The bicycle and rider in the “Tour” of Tour de France; the two friendly “Ts” sharing salsa in Tostitos; the analog wave “VA” and binary “IO” in Sony VAIO; the headphone “b” in Beats; the Golden Gate Bridge in Cisco; the gesticulating conductor in the London Symphony Orchestra’s initials; the fossil record product references in Unilever’s “U”; the anatomical serving suggestion inside KY; the smiling “g” of Goodwill; the smile formed by the letters of Tui; the bear in the snow of the Toblerone mountain; the chicken capital “C” of Chick-fil-A; the “31” flavors in the Baskin Robbins’ initials; the razor-edged “i” in Gillette; and, of course, the negative space arrow between the “E” and “x” of FedEx.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion's advertising and brands columnist. He created the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series, and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world.

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