Life as an Extreme Sport

one common refrain

Aaah, Google. Every year, you remind me why, if I were to ever leave academia, I would run as fast as I could to your hallowed doors. This year’s 1 April joke is another example of the fabulously twisted humour running through the hacker-run domains of the computer industry. The San Jose Mercury News has a good roundup of recent jokes at Google, and they’re so familiar they ache.

I think the best joke I was ever involved in was probably pulled when I was at Microsoft, and we did similar to the Mercury News mentioned sand in an office. When I was at Microsoft, the Core Networking group was in a newer building with cubiffices – cubicle material, but the walls stretch to the ceiling, forming an office. The nice thing about these, at least from a practical joke point of view, is that they were very easy to break into – just get a ladder, punch your way up through the ceiling (typical office drop down ceiling tiles), and drop yourself gently onto the desk – you were good to go.

Of course, in our case, we didn’t actually want in. We just wanted to get the straw in. For long and ultimately irrelevant and long-gone reasons, we filled the assistant director’s office with straw. A lot of straw. So much straw, I’m not actually sure he could open his door. I’m pretty certain, in fact, we closed the blind to his hall window and then stood there in our own offices, discreetly laughing, as he tried to open his door, finally clued in that we’d had some fun while he was on vacation, and reluctantly went to get the ladder to see just what we’d done. Someone had rigged a webcam on the top of the straw, so when he lifted up the ceiling tile, we could all watch exactly what his expression was – and it was, indeed, priceless. And made the two days of work it took to get the straw out of his office more than worth it.

Of course, I can’t tell a Microsoft story without telling an Apple one (must balance out allegiances); many moons ago (very much dating my time at the company), a bunch of us snuck out from Building 2 and 3, over to Building 6, where we promptly stole every Newton we could get our hands on, replacing them all with etch’n’sketches and notes that “these might be less buggy.”

Aah, good times.

The…staidness of academia is probably one of the things that has been most difficult for me to adjust to. I have a rather well-defined sense of humour, and for years I worked in environments that looked more like overgrown toy stores than offices. I come from a long tradition of office nerf wars, water gun fights, and team built spud guns. The shift from that to the hallowed halls has been interesting, and I often have to reel in my impulse for mischief. And it really hasn’t helped that one of my immediate responses to encountering that sort of staidness is to do something, anything that would counter the mood.

Control wasn’t so hard at the University of Washington, in large part because CHID was a bit more software-industry than most departments, and I worked in the UW computer labs as a sysadmin, where many of the people I worked with shared the hacker humour vibe, and we could send each other stupid, geeky email and play pranks with ease. It was a good escape valve. Here, I’m noticing that sans that escape, I’m a touch pent up and a bit more mischievous than is perhaps wise. Hence my serious consideration of going back into improv comedy. I’ve not been able to join up with the class I’d like to take, due to my travel schedule, but when that calms down I’ll likely find myself on the stage again…for the release, if nothing else. If I’m going to open my mouth to find God speaking, I’d rather it be on a stage than in a classroom.

Still, if you occasionally see the corners of my mouth drift up at inappropriate moments, or catch a far-away gaze in my eyes when I should be focusing on whomever’s lecturing, chances are good I’m just containing impulse and dreaming of running away – not to the circus, but the computer.