Zombie Attack

When I left Texas State University to go work for Magnolia, I decided that one last big prank was in order. My usual partners-in-crime and I brainstormed for a while one afternoon and eventually came up with a scheme we liked: we would zombify our bosses’ offices. Plan Z was born!

 

In order to bring this off, my compatriots Jeff and Nick snuck into our department head’s office one night a couple of weeks before my scheduled departure and, while carefully keeping their eyes peeled for building security or other suspicious types, scanned a variety of posters, awards, and family photos that adorned the office with a portable scanner and laptop they had brought with them.

 

We then split those scans up among several different people, at this point bringing in Cheesy Steve from the design department. After looking at several “how to zombify people” videos on YouTube, we tweaked the photos in Photoshop, either transforming people into zombies (in the case of University personnel), or simply adding shambling undead into the scene (in the case of adorable grandchildren).

 

We also scoured the internet for Zombie family portraits or other pictures that might not immediately seem out of place in a collection of family photos. Google image search was immensely helpful as we assembled an arsenal of assets for this mission, as was Charles, our QA guy. (By this point, I had begun to laugh about this being the first prank we had pulled that was elaborate enough to require a Project Manager.)

 

 

Next, we printed out all of the altered images on a high-quality photo printer. The smaller snapshots were no trouble, but those bigger than 8.5″x14″ were a special challenge, as we had to print them in multiple parts and then tape the parts together as inconspicuously as possible to make large-format posters that weren’t obviously printed in pieces.

 

 

Now all of the preparatory work was done. With a thumb drive full of zombie family portraits, we slipped into the office of my immediate boss. He already had a screen saver going with a bunch of his personal family photos, so we were able to slip in the additional images without any trouble, verifying that one of the new ones would come up among the legitimate ones about every fifth time the screen saver showed a photo.

 

 

Next, we snuck back into the department head’s office and replaced the original family portraits and posters on his desk and walls with our doctored images. In order to take the heat off of my coconspirators if things happened to go badly, I also put copies of my business card in the frames between the “zombified” image and the original. (We left the originals in the frames so that our work could be easily undone, as we’re big on not causing permanent damage with our schemes.)

 

 

We carefully rearranged everything, comparing the room to the reference photos we had taken before doing our original scans, to make it look as unmolested as possible, and then went home smirking, fully expecting to be called in to the office the next morning. We weren’t sure whether our department director would appreciate or deplore the prank, so it was a good thing that mine was the only name associated with it and that the following day was to be my last at the University.

 

 

Much to my surprise, 5:00 rolled around without a word from the head office. I hadn’t counted on this. One of the photos we replaced was right next to our department head’s computer keyboard, so we’d figured he would certainly see the zombie that had taken up residence there within minutes. And we had altered posters that were several feet on each side. Surely one of the visitors to his office would notice, even if he didn’t! I left the University that day with a certain amount of sadness: both because I was leaving behind a great team of people with whom I’d worked for many years, but also because our terrific prank hadn’t even been noticed.

 

 

As I began my new job, I asked my friends back at the University every day if our shenanigans had been discovered, but the answer kept coming back “nope.” This went on for two weeks, until finally we got word that the screensaver additions had been discovered and summarily deleted. (This also surprised me — who finds extra photos on their computer and doesn’t make any effort to find out where they came from?) Finally, some of my friends started dropping hints to various people around the head office, and the department director discovered the additions at last.

Fortunately, his reaction was better than we’d even dared to hope. He thought it was hilarious, brought several people into his office immediately to see our work, and decided to leave it all in place. While a few of the family photos have now reverted to their original form, I believe all of the posters are still up.

 

 

This was ultimately a very satisfying scheme to pull off. Lots of people got into it and helped in various ways, it didn’t cause any harm, and even the victims got a good laugh and some lasting pleasure out of it. Additionally, I was delighted to hear today that the team has plans to keep the pranks coming even now that I’m gone. It’s good to have a legacy!

Great big thanks to all the participants. You guys rock at your real jobs, at this sort of thing, and as friends.

 

Now It Can Be Told

Now that I’ve left Texas State University’s employ, there are a couple other pranks that my partner-in-crime Jeff Snider and I pulled that can be made public.

Prank the First

Texas State University wrestles with something of an institutional inferiority complex. This is caused by the fact that it used to have a reputation as one of the biggest party schools in Texa,s and that it’s just down the road from the similarly named, but even more enormous, University of Texas. Whenever we attended conferences, we had to explain to people that shouting “Hook ‘Em!” at us was actually something of a hostile gesture.

As part of its image rehabilitation, the marketing department began heavily pushing its new “Rising Star of Texas” slogan — verbiage that many of us thought still sent a disappointingly weak message. But they were committed to it, and plastered it on everything they possibly could, including the screen that came up on our conference room projectors while they warmed up.

One day, while sitting in the conference room, I had a thought: “If these projectors can be customized to display the logo and this unfortunate slogan, they can also be customized to display something else.” A bit of quick googling yielded a PDF manual for the projectors, which explained in detail what one needed to do to make the change. Bingo.

So Jeff and I got the University Logo, sucked it into Photoshop, did a little editing, and made a guerilla run to the conference rooms around our floor. Now, when the projectors are powering up, they proudly display the Texas State logo, but with a different caption than usual:

TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY
A Great Plan B…

It’s pretty subtle, as the projectors get brighter as they warm up, but it’s definitely enough to catch if you’re paying attention. (Which most people apparently aren’t, as this one has been in place for over a year.)

Prank the Second

There is an architectural model that the University commissioned at some point in its history, presumably to show off the planned construction of some building or another. Since the cost of such things is substantial, the University has chosen to keep it on display in the first floor of the library where I worked. It is covered with a plexiglass box that is secured to the base of the model by nothing more than its own weight and gravity.

Since we often had to be in late at night for various maintenance activities, we took advantage of the opportunity to place all sorts of things in the model with the tiny cars and people that normally inhabit it: miniature rubber chickens, a jet fighter, a Millenium Falcon, etc. (The Falcon was especially gratifying, as it remained illegally parked in one of the car lots for several months.)

Our coup de grace, however, was a full-scale dinosaur invasion that took place one night:

This one, alas, only stayed in place for two days. It was, however, widely appreciated. Jeff was particularly pleased when, a day after the dinos has been removed, he saw a student coming down the stairs, looking over expectantly at the model, seeing that it was now dinosaur-free, and letting out a disappointed “Awwwwwww!”

These sorts of things increased my enjoyment of my tenure at the University significantly. But there was one prank that we pulled as a parting gift to my bosses of which I’m especially proud, and which I will write about soon. Stay tuned…

The Heist

During my junior year at The King’s College (1991), I was a Resident Assistant and thus had a room to myself. One of the ways I took advantage of that situation was by launching a string of practical jokes, most of which were directed at Steve Everhart, my boss and the Resident Director of the dorm. The culmination of the series was what I’ve come to call “The Heist.”

At that time, my college was in the process of planning a move to a new campus. As part of this process, they had commissioned one of those nifty models that shows what a building site will look like once the buildings are constructed and the site is landscaped. This particular one was about 3’x5′, had rolling Styrofoam hills, several structures, roads, a lake, and a number of little automobiles on it. It was also surrounded by a Plexiglas case screwed on to the base so that passers-by wouldn’t poke it or pilfer the little automobiles.

One day I decided that the model, which was displayed in the library, needed to disappear. So that night, Glenn Gonzalez and I snuck into the library through an adjacent office to which I had a key. Since walking through the halls of the school with this large model in tow would of course attract attention, we instead snuck it out of the building through the door that falsely claimed that it was a fire door and an alarm would sound if you opened it. (We had previously verified this in reconnaissance missions.)

We then brought the model around the school to the back stairwell, which another friend had opened for us, and up to the second floor of the dormitory. Waiting until the coast was clear, we finally got it to my room without having been seen. Since I had two beds in my room, I simply replaced the mattress on the top bunk with the model, put sheets and a bedspread on it, and made it up to look just like another mattress. Stage one was complete!

Over the next few days, I showed it to several friends, including Ross Prinzo, who had given me the idea originally. Among the select individuals who got to see it was a certain David Granniss, who laughed hysterically for a full minute, and then stopped abruptly with a look of inspiration on his face. “What is it, Dave?” I asked. “There ought to be army men in it!”

Well, of course he was right. I leaped into Oslo the Land Shark, my trusty Italian-manufactured steed of the time, and made a beeline to the toy store. Unfortunately, upon examining the army men available there for purchase, I determined that given the difference in scale, they would tower over the buildings in a Godzilla-like fashion. Rather than army men, I ended up purchasing a selection of Micro-Machines, which were more suited to this application. Among them were tanks, missile launchers, and helicopters.

After unscrewing and removing the Plexiglas case, we deployed the missile launchers across one of the higher ridges overlooking the campus. The tanks rolled among the buildings, and we used cotton to create smoke both at the muzzles of their weapons, and at the married student housing, which they were bombarding. (I was bitter about not having a girlfriend at the time, a circumstance whose reasons are perhaps, in retrospect, rather obvious.) The Apache-style helicopters were suspended from the Plexiglas case with fishing line, swooping into the site in formation from one of the corners of the display. By the time we finished, we had an impressive looking war diorama, set in the beautifully landscaped Silver Lake campus.

Upon completing our improvements to the model and reinstalling its case, we determined to sneak it back into the library and replace it where it had previously been. This took a bit more planning, as some of the doors we had used had crash-bars, and would only open from one side. We eventually sent an operative into the library before we retraced our previous steps. The model made it back to its display table without further incident.

The next day, we kept our distance from the library to avoid drawing suspicion to ourselves, and thus only heard secondhand about the discovery of our modifications. Apparently the president of the college, fulfilling some of his fundraising duties, had VIPs from off-campus on a tour. As he described in glowing detail the plans the college had for its new location and showed the model off, he suddenly noticed that all was not as he expected. Needless to say, maintenance was soon there restoring the display to its former, mundane state.

Our triumph lasted only a day, but still causes me to stop every once in a while and laugh to myself. And then to go cause more mischief.

(Note: if this story is familiar, it’s because it’s a repost from an old version of the website. One of my friends requested that I get it back online, so here it is again.)

SuperNerd!

Last night I posted to Twitter:

Watching a Nova show on string theory. (It was a requirement to maintain my supernerd certification this month.)

This morning, my friend Jeff presented me this, created in cooperation with his wife Fazia:

SuperNerd Certificate

This of course immediately became one of my new favorite things. Be sure to appreciate the seal and the signatures!

Of Teddy Bears and Farting Dogs

My friend Amy Boyd has, over the time that she has worked at Texas State University, acquired a fairly impressive collection of stuffed animals. This was not because she bought them herself, or even because she’s particularly fond of them, but because someone gave her the first one as a joke. Other people got it into their heads that she collected them, and have given them to her as gifts until her desk was awash in them.

Among these unsolicited stuffed critters was one Walter the Farting Dog, a stuffed canine apparently based on a children’s book series of the same name. Walter is a scruffy-looking beast who, when squeezed, emits a distinctive flatulent sound. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), his batteries were eventually exhausted, and his noisome and noisy gastric distress came to an end.

I thought that Walter deserved a second lease on life, but that it would be much funnier and more surreal for Walter to do something entirely different when resuscitated. While on an outing with Abigail, we happened across a Build A Bear workshop, where I noticed a good selection of voice boxes for their bears — just the thing for Walter! I explained to Abby what I had in mind, and we rooted through their selection of sounds until we finally settled on this. The woman at the desk was a little baffled that I only wanted the voice box without a bear around it, but happily obliged me when I started waving around the Lincolns.

A couple of weeks later, I divulged the plan to Jeff Snider, and we kidnapped Walter early one morning to do the necessary surgery on him. Putting his old scouting skills to good use, Jeff deftly snipped Walter’s belly stitches, extracted the old sound box, slipped in the new one, and with a surgeon’s precision, sewed him back together so neatly that one would never know by looking that Walter had been through trauma. (Photo gallery is here.) We thought about neutering him while we had him sedated, but decided that with the romantic hurdles he already faced, it was probably unnecessary.

Walter in the Operating Room.

Walter in the Operating Room.

We discreetly replaced the dog on Amy’s desk, and then began the most difficult part of the whole process: waiting for someone to discover Walter’s new personality. Neither of us could go squeeze him ourselves, as we would give ourselves away all too quickly. But nobody who was already familiar with Walter had any inclination to squeeze him any longer, as his batteries had died long before.

Fortunately, we were rescued from our purgatory about a week and a half later, when Whitten picked Walter up and gave him a good squeeze.

“Let’s go shopping!” chirped Walter.

“What the h***?” responded Amy promptly.

A few more squeezes elicited more of Walter’s new vocabulary, all delivered in a cloying preadolescent whine:

“Hey, Girlfriend!”

“It’s great to have a new friend like you!”

“You look great!”

“You are too cool!”

All of this happened while I was at lunch, alas. After our earlier Cuckoo Clock prank, Jeff and I were immediate suspects, and since I lack the ability to lie well, all the details quickly spilled out. Amy thought it was hilarious, and has now demanded that we install the flatulence voicebox into her stuffed spider.

Cuckoo Clock

Our department has an annual white elephant gift exchange. If you’ve never participated in one, they go something like this:

  • Player A chooses a wrapped gift from a pile and unwraps it.
  • Player B then can select another wrapped gift, or steal Player A’s. Player A then selects a new wrapped gift.
  • Player C selects a wrapped gift or steals one of the other player’s. They then have the option to steal from someone else, eventually forming long looping chains of theft, or to choose a new wrapped gift.
  • And so on until everyone has had a turn.

This year, there were two gifts that came up that I was interested in: a couple of bottles of beer and a beanie. I managed to have both pass through my hands about a half dozen times before I decided to end the madness: I took a horrible silver plastic battery powered cuckoo clock from another player and finished the rest of the game unmolested.

cuckooclock1.jpg

After the exchange concluded, I left the clock in its packaging for a couple of weeks on my desk, while I pondered what I could possibly do with this travesty of a timepiece. After much thought and consideration, I decided that the appropriate answer was this: cause some mischief.

So, on the night of December 27, when my compatriot Jeff Snider and I were already in the office late at night for a system update, we decided to strip all the faux-bavarian plastic off of the clock, remove the hands, and hide it in our boss’ suspended ceiling, where it would peal forth hourly with its sickly electronic mewling. We taped up the speaker to make it a bit quieter (and therefore more difficult to find), lifted a ceiling tile, tossed it on top of one of the light fixtures, and beat a hasty retreat.

[Audio:Cuckoo.mp3]

When everyone came back from the holiday, we were surprised to hear nothing about it for a couple of weeks. It occurred to us that we hadn’t actually stuck around long enough after putting the batteries in for the first time to verify that it was working correctly, and wondered if our prank had been stillborn. Word came to us through the grapevine a few days later, however, that it was indeed causing some havoc. Reports escalated for a few days after that until the situation finally came to a head in a fairly entertaining fashion. The story, as I’ve reconstructed it from various people’s accounts, is this:

After a couple weeks, Mike had had enough of the dreadful electronic caterwauling, and came storming out of the office, asking “what is that horrible noise? Has one of you got that as your wretched cell phone ringer?” Kay, the administrative assistant, explained that she (rightly) thought it was coming from his office, and assumed it was some kind of gadget or alarm that he had set up.

They then noticed that it was going off regularly at 13 minutes after the hour, and knowing now to expect it, grew increasingly agitated with the situation over the next few days. Finally, one afternoon, Ron (of Ron-A-Thon 2007 fame) had enough of their frustration, and pulled a ladder into the work area and started rooting through the ceiling at the appropriate time. He quickly located the loose bundle of batteries, a timepiece, and wires, and reached the conclusion that any right-thinking person would:

Gutted Cluck

He thought it was a bomb.

They called Joan, the head of the library in which we all work, and Todd, one of her staff, to have a look at it. Todd fortunately quickly reassured everyone that it looked harmless, and was most likely just a prank, thereby narrowly averting an evacuation of the building and a visit from the local constabulary. (And, incidentally, allowing this story to actually be told.)

Kay kept the gadget on her desk for a few days while Mike began asking pointed questions in staff meetings: “Do any of you know anything about a little electronic chime that was in my ceiling? We think it may have been pulled out of one of those musical greeting cards as a prank.” We all had a good laugh about it in the meeting, feigning ignorance until Mike had the perspicacity to start asking people individually “Did you have anything to do with this?” Jeff, unable to tell a lie, hedged until Mike was sure he was involved. From there the whole sordid tale came out.

Fortunately, all the involved parties had a good sense of humor about it, though Mike has promised revenge most foul will come our way when we least expect it. I say: Let the games begin!