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Clever in its cleverness

Zug.com has some good pranks sometimes. This is a nice one. I learned something, though, and I’m ashamed that I didn’t realize this. The phrase that Bruce Campbell (Ash) has to say before picking up the Necronomicon is actually an homage to the phrase that was used to stop Gort, the robot in the 1951 film “The Day The Earth Stood Still”.

Electronic road signs are annoying. I don’t have a problem with these signs warning me about road construction, except when they’re left up — flashing their stupid warnings — well after the work is completed. Recently a construction company left a pair of these signs in my neighborhood, blasting out their pointless messages. Being a creative tinkerer, I decided to do something about it.

This was the first time I had attempted a prank like this, so I expected the control box to be locked, and the programming functions password-protected. I was wrong. First of all, the control cabinet had no lock. Swinging open its door, I found a deliciously inviting handheld keypad, then took a wild guess and pushed a button labeled STOP. The display on the control box flashed ENTER PASSWORD. I was about to give up in disgust when I noticed that someone had written the password in large Sharpie lettering above the box.

I entered the password, and lo! The sign ceased its flashing and turned itself off. SELECT FUNCTION, the keypad blinked, and great was my joy!

I set about puzzling out the command-and-control sequences. Ten minutes later, I gleefully pressed START, put the control pad back in the box, and closed the door. Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press, I give to you the result:

With only a few minutes of road sign hacking, I had programmed an homage to the 1951 sci-fi film The Day The Earth Stood Still, the phrase that was used to stop Gort, the robot in the film, from taking over the world.

I drove my car down the road to the next sign, which was in the same condition: unlocked, with the admin password clearly written in thick black Sharpie. I quickly set about reprogramming the hapless device, and was about halfway done when I heard, to my horror, the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps.

It’s amazing what goes through your mind in a situation like this. I knew I could cut and run, but I would risk the witness getting my car’s license number, since I had parked just across the street. I thought about turning to confront the interloper (how DARE anyone interrupt me when I’m illegally reprogramming road signs!), but had no idea what I’d say for an opener, especially if it happened to be one of the construction crew or the local gendarmery.

I decided to simply stay bent over the keyboard, calmly typing away, fairly sweating forth an attitude of “I know what I’m doing, I’m supposed to be here.”

The footsteps got closer, and then, oddly enough, continued in place. A breathless male voice said, “Uh … hello?”

I stood up and turned around. It was a jogger, still running in place. I smiled disarmingly, and returned the greeting. “Have you checked the other sign yet?” he panted.

A moment of shock ran through me. “Not just yet,” I replied, glibly, still debating whether I could get away with a hasty retreat. “What’s up?”

He gestured northward, towards the location of my first electronic victim, and shook his head. “It’s saying something really weird. It’s like, in another language or something. I think it must be broken.” All the while, he continued jogging in place, rotating slightly as though reacting to counter-torque from the earth’s rotation.

I could feel my pectoral muscles quivering, as I harshly suppressed a crippling fit of the giggles. Somehow, I managed to keep a straight face. “I’ll probably get to it next,” I said reassuringly. “Thanks for letting me know.”

The jogger nodded, turned, and continued up the hill. Working quickly, I finished my modifications to the second sign, as displayed here:

There is some amusing irony to this sign, in that the area around Mt. Rainier has a reputation as a UFO “hot spot.”

My work complete, I left the area quickly and quietly, returned home, and shared the whole story with my life-mate. Halfway through, she was laughing so hard I was worried she might choke. It was contagious, and we both ended up in a quivering heap on the bed.

As for the modified messages, they stayed up nearly two days before someone finally turned both signs off for good. And thus my mission was complete: I not only got rid of the signs in a humorous and nonviolent way, but I gave myself a chuckle every morning on my commute to work. By programming that phrase, the machines were unable to take over the world.

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