Maybe We’re Sending the Wrong Message

June 17, 2013 Steve Hawley

This is going to be about pranks.  We love pranks.  Yes we do.  The problem with pranks is while they’re fun for the instigator; they may not be that much fun for the victim.  For example, there is a class of restaurants that as a “feature” have a “no tie” policy where they will cut off your tie if you darken their doorway wearing one.  This is allegedly a good joke if you have visitors from out of town who are dressed up and then you take them to a business lunch wherein you get a picture of the victim getting humiliated.  Yes, you can tell that I’m not a fan of this, just from the point of view that if I’m traveling and I only have one tie or am wearing one that I’m fond of, I will either go without or have to go buy one.  That doesn’t mean that there is no way to carry this off.  The better way is to offer the victim a different (lousy) tie on the way in, or to make sure you have a very nice replacement tie as a gift.

Here are my general guidelines for pranking your coworkers:

  1. Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.  The prank should not result in damage to personal or company property.
  2. Do not humiliate.  You see these people every day.  Don’t make that time awkward or painful by humiliating your peers.  Further, posting pictures or video should be a consent only thing – the internet doesn’t forget.
  3. Minimize clean-up time.  I try to follow a 15 minute rule.  If it takes more than 15 minutes, you’re cutting into the work day.
  4. Help clean up, when possible.

These rules didn’t just spring from the blue.  They came from experience, both direct and indirect, in terms of what has worked well and what has not.  For example, when I was in college in my sophomore year at Oberlin, I was taking a class in assembly language.  Several of the students in the class were, by and large, overqualified for the class and found it relatively easy so we decided that we should have fun with the class, and the professor, Mike Henle.  We made up our own mnemonics for fictitious instructions, including BAH (branch and hang), JEO (jump and execute operator) and BVP (be very paranoid).  The last became our informal mantra since we were getting used to seeing unusual results in our code at times that we were at a loss to explain.  We also planned little pranks that we played on the professor, but we warned him ahead of time by simply saying, “be very paranoid.”  At one point, we decided that he should have a birthday party (it wasn’t his birthday), so we warned him then got a cake made that read “get well soon grandma happy birthday Mikey”, some candles, plates and forks.  As we were setting up, the head of the math department walked in and took a seat, saying, “I heard something good was going to happen today.”  We put a handful of candles in the cake and lit a few of them (binary) and when Mike walked in, we had the whole class cut into a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”  Mike turned beet red and walked into a corner to try to hide.  Mike tried to think of a way to appease us, so before coming to class he had run to the local five and dime and bought a bag of lollipops.  Perfect.  We served up cake and lollipops and went on with class, wasting only a few minutes.

Lou took a vacation and Elaine and I decided that we were going to pull a prank on him for his return.  After bouncing around a few ideas, we decided to give him a ping-pong ball shower.  The first step was to hash out a mechanism.  I came up with this:


The notion was a box with a open bottom held shut with a latch that was linked to a mouse trap.  We would hang the box high, out of direct view and run invisible thread from the trap to Lou’s chair so that when he pulled out his chair, it would get triggered.  Awesome.  Elaine bought 3 gross of ping-pong balls and invisible thread.  I brought in a mouse trap, super glue and white glue and got to work:


Here you can see the mousetrap glued to the box with white glue with the latch in place.  We tried using invisible thread as the linkage, but it broke immediately.  Instead, I removed a length of twisted pair from a dead network cable.  It passed simple testing, we were in business.  To hang the box, we used hook-and-loop fastener strips on the box and on the HVAC ducting over Lou’s office, then ran the thread through screw eyes put in a few judicious places.  From a suggestion from Adam, we also added a bendy straw to the box to help direct the thread:


Notice that the box has some clear tape on the bottom edge.  This is the safety.  It allowed us to place the box and fiddle with things without worrying about having to clean up ping pong balls in case the trap sprung.


Elaine came up with a wonderful idea to personalize the prank a little more.  She decided to get the office to pitch in together and decorate the ping-pong balls.  We did and I want to say for the record that I work with awesome people.


Nicely done.  Lou was slated to come back on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, but we didn’t know if he was going to come in on Monday to work, so Elaine and I met at the office late on Memorial Day and set the trap.  It worked out very well.

About the Author

Steve Hawley

Steve was with Atalasoft from 2005 until 2015. He was responsible for the architecture and development of DotImage, and one of the masterminds behind Bacon Day. Steve has over 20 years of experience with companies like Bell Communications Research, Adobe Systems, Newfire, Presto Technologies.

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