Torches and waterslides

Well, Monkey, it’d been over a month since the last time you swam in a pool, and I thought it high time we went for a swim. In fact, it was so overdue that I felt it was also a good time to go for a Surprise Weekend. And that’s a big deal, because it’s been almost a year and a half since our last one.
Why so long? It’s been a number of things. First, I worked a lot, and too hard. It wore me down and I was almost always too tired to do things that we should have done. It’s a poor excuse, Monkey, and I’m sorry that it’s all I have to offer. Second, doing things in Costa Rica was always just that much harder than it really needed to be, at least when planning for us. You can only go to Arenal so many times, and getting to the coast never seemed to be as easy for us as it was for others. After a while, we planned all of our weekends, rather than letting one of us surprise the rest.
Needless to say, I wanted to change things up a bit.
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Weekend at Tabacon

When Alex and I first came to Costa Rica 3.5 years ago, we went on a little packaged tour. The tour included a two-night (possible three-night — Alex and I are struggling to remember which it was) stay in the Arenal area. Our first afternoon/night included a hike around the south side of the active Arenal volcano, and dinner and a splash at the Tabacon Hot Springs.
At the time we’d been there, it was highly magical. We’d seen lava (in the form of red-hot tumbling rocks) rolling down the side of the mountain, the clouds of steam rolling through the trees illuminated by the carefully-placed lights. It was something to behold.
Ever since then, Alex had wanted to go back. Rack up Surprise Weekend in Costa Rica #3.
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Pwned

This morning, the Blue Business Unit (aka the Mercedes-Benz USA team) decided to prank the Gold Business Unit (aka the Rolex team). Toilet paper — hundreds of rolls — over everything. Silly string. Blue streamers. And randomly-attacked items with Saran Wrap.
Call it petty jealousy, call it bravado, call it a need for decorating our space without input. We still got pwned.
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Surprise birthday weekend in Revelstoke

This weekend, it was my turn to be surprised. And surprises came in droves.
Sunday was my 34th birthday. I find it a little hard to believe that I’m actually that old. I always figured when I was in my 30s, I’d be more … mature. And yet I find myself being more immature with each passing year. I guess I’m holding to my pattern — 18 years old, with a heap of experience. For now, I think that’s a good thing. Experience helps, and one can’t get too mature. You lose all the fun, after all!
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Surprise weekend at Bow Lake

Surprise weekends are a good thing. Especially if you have a good place to go.
We have no standing rule that says we have to go anywhere, though. Although the “rules” (such as they are) suggest that staying at home is an option, we have yet to actually do that. This weekend was no different.
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Surprise weekend in Edmonton

It’s been a while since our last surprise weekend (see [[Surprise Visit to Drumheller]]), but not for a lack of wanting. We’ve been that busy. Either Alex has had to work (the joys of working in the medical community) or we’ve both been traveling. This weekend was the first one we’d had to get away.
It was a bit of a special one, but for no other reason than we’d barely seen each other in almost three weeks. I was away in San Jose for a conference (see [[Search Engine Strategies Conference 2004 San Jose, Calgary to San Jose]]), followed immediately by the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival (see [[2004 Calgary Dragon Boat Festival]]), and then Alex was off in Ontario for a week and a half. So I had to plan this weekend’s getaway so we’d have some time to ourselves.
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Surprise Visit to Drumheller

This weekend was a bit of a surprise. Not that it suddenly appeared from out of nowhere, but that until something happened, I had no idea what was yet to come.
The weekend started with the one thing I did have control over: a barbecue. Specifically, the first Jerks BBQ of the summer. What is a “Jerks BBQ”, you might ask? The group of people that I work with most around the office are The Jerks. Effectively, we’re mostly web developers. Why “Jerks”? Well, we have a rather odd term of endearment around here: “JERK!”. Hence, we’re Jerks.
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How to throw a surprise party (and not get caught)

Surprise parties are one of those great little joys in life. While I’ve never had one thrown for me, I’ve thrown a couple myself. They’re not the easiest things to do, to be certain, but they are definitely some of the most fun.
What makes a surprise party so good? If you’re the host or planner, it’s from the giddiness that forms from knowing what will happen. If you’re the guest of honour (or the victim, depending on your point of view), you get the joy of knowing that people have planned something just for you. It’s a special feeling … or rather, I would hope that it is (not actually knowing myself).
I’m going to speak to the planners, which I assume is why you’ve come to this page. (If you think someone is planning a surprise party for you and are trying to find out if it’s true, I can offer no hints here. If they’re following these suggestions, you won’t know until it’s too late.) You’ve got a hard task ahead of you, but it is a rewarding one if it’s done right.
At all times, you need to remember who is in control: you. Everything that happens is because of you. If you lose control, don’t expect things to go off without a hitch. You can delegate, but you need to know that those you’ve delegated to are trustworthy and reliable. Otherwise, your intended surprise might end up a dud.
There are some basic rules you should follow to ensure that your party goes well and without hitches. Above all, you don’t want to get caught in making the preparations, and spill the beans to the indenting surprisee.

  1. Secrecy are the first and second words
  2. Separate and isolate communications
  3. Better to over-involve than under-involve
  4. Inform clearly and explicitly
  5. Know what’s going on at all times
  6. Be mindful of what you say
  7. Cover your tracks
  8. Make sure you have a backup plan

Secrecy are the first and second words

The first rule of the Surprise Party is: you do not talk about the Surprise Party. The second rule of the Surprise Party is: you do not talk about the Surprise Party.
You never know who’s around and don’t think for a second that the six degrees of separation is a myth. So idle chatter about a surprise party is not a wise idea. Similarly, you should always make sure that any communications you send are to specific people, be it by phone, email, or IM. Never send things by post (unless you’re certain there is no way information could leak), by fax (it’s out in the open), or leave voicemails on residential lines (especially if the intended victim lives there).
Swear everyone to secrecy. This means they cannot discuss it with anyone else except you. And ideally, unless they’re involved with the planning or execution, they shouldn’t need to. The less anyone talks, the less chance of the wrong people finding out. As the WWII saying goes: Loose lips sink ships.

Separate and isolate communications

As alluded to above, you need to make sure your communications lines are clear and isolated. This cuts down on crosstalk chatter and sidebars, which are guaranteed to cause problems.
When you talk to people, talk to them individually. This is best because you get immediate feedback, and there’s no question about whether or not they understand what is being asked of them. If you have to do discussions with a group, make sure each person acknowledges what you have said and/or asked. The last thing you need is ambiguity.
Make sure your communications are direct — never make public statements. If you have to send out invitations, make sure that they’re received in a private manner (e.g. the office, through email, talking on the phone). Never leave messages where others can see or hear them, especially if it’s the person you’re surprising.
Finally, don’t communicate unless you have to. Updates are fine, but don’t randomly send out information until you’re ready to do so. This lessens the change of leaks.

Better to over-involve than under-involve

On the flip-side of secrecy is an inadvertent foul-up due to conflicting plans. The best laid plans can go to pot in mere seconds by the actions of someone who is not privy to the surprise party. So when you’re planning, make sure that everyone within the sphere of influence knows what is going on. They don’t have to be invited, just need to know that they can’t foul things up.
Naturally, you can’t cover for everything. There are always things that you simply can’t plan for. (For that, see “Make sure you have a backup plan”.) Consider it as an 80/20 rule. You can cover 80% of all possible actions with relative ease. The remaining 20% are a lot riskier and difficult, and might not interfere with your plans, anyway.
You need a list of culprits. Some will be invited, some not. The list of invitees is up to you, but they still need to be informed:

  • friends
  • significant others
  • co-workers
  • teammates
  • housemates
  • roommates
  • spouse
  • parents
  • siblings
  • aunts and uncles
  • cousins
  • nieces and nephews
  • uncle’s cousin’s roommate’s older brother’s girlfriend’s dog

Okay, that last one was a bit much, but you get the point.
Really consider who you’ve got on your list. Each of these people will have contact on a regular basis, and could introduce plans that could thoroughly foul up anything you’ve got going.
Family is particularly important, especially if the party does not directly involve family. Family is the single most powerful thing for some people, and is the reason why your intended guest might decline your casual invitation to spend time with their parents. So if you’re throwing a party, make sure the family knows what’s going on.
Plan big. Get as many people as you can. Sure, you can throw a small surprise party, but why bother when you can have a big one? Besides, you can get a much louder yell out of more people.

Inform clearly and explicitly

Once you’ve got your key list of people, make sure you give details. Tell them everything they need to know: time, place, reason, attire (if any specifics are desired), and who the other people are.
Make sure that you get accurate contact information for each person, and ensure that it’s secure (e.g. that no-one else might inadvertently overhear something they shouldn’t). You might have to employ one or more of your intended invitees to help out if you don’t know enough people up-front.
Don’t be vague at any time. Once you have the details, make sure they’re broadcast to everyone else. Make sure everyone else knows the details, so there’s no question. People need to make sure that they arrive at the surprise location before the unsuspecting target(s) arrive. There’s nothing worse than a surprise with only a few people.

Know what’s going on at all times

Know your details, and know them cold. Make sure you can answer any question about the party or the plans if asked, without having to refer to notes (unless it’s something esoteric). It’s a bit of work, but it’s easier when you’re running around trying to organize things.

Be mindful of what you say

In short, you have to learn to lie.
This is particularly important if you’re the one doing the planning, and the person you’re surprising is close to you (spouse, significant other, friend, family). If you want to conduct a surprise, you need to make sure you don’t tell them anything accidentally.
You also have to make sure they don’t suspect anything. This is the hard part. Humans are inquisitive by nature. If you have a look of “something’s up”, the other party will immediately suspect something. You have to be able to look someone square in the face and say: “No, honey, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Be able to avoid the topic. If they want to plan something for the same time that you’re planning the party, allow them to do so. This will keep them occupied and they will not expect anything than their plans. Defuse the plans as necessary by canceling reservations (while informing of the real plans), or deferring purchases as long as possible. If necessary, go to a backup plan and use some of the invitees to construct a “just in case” scenario to distract.

Cover your tracks

Never leave your plans lying around, even if you live alone. Chances are, someone will see what you’re doing, and if it’s the wrong people, it’s game over. Hide them in drawers (under locks, if needed) or in password-protected files. Delete messages once you see/hear them. Jot down only the most crucial notes.
Create distractions. This is the same technique magicians use to make a ball disappear before your eyes. Make fake plans that will keep someone on their toes. You can even create real plans designed to take the person away from what’s going on, only to bring them back to the surprise to unfold.

Make sure you have a backup plan

No plan is ever perfect. So long as you deal with humanity, you must expect something to go wrong. Be it discovery of the plans, suspicion of a surprise, a sudden illness, disappearance of the subject (hey, it’s been known to happen), or transportation failures, make sure you’ve got something in your back pocket to save the day.
Some things you can plan for. If the gig is up, and you’ve got a few hours before the surprise is planned to go off, admit to a surprise. Just not *the* surprise. Grab a couple of friends and set them up at a different location. Do a small surprise there. Have them all need to leave for different reasons (when in reality, they’re all going the same place you will be going), and then head to the actual surprise.
Some things you can’t. If the gig is up less than an hour away, you might pretty much be screwed. At that point, you might have to resort to the worst thing you can do: ask that they act surprised when they enter the room, if nothing else than for the benefit of everyone else.

A few suggestions

The Home Surprise Party.
This is an easy one, if planned well. Ensure that a trusted person has the keys to the house or apartment. Make sure everyone arrives at least an hour ahead of schedule for decorations, etc. Make sure all cars are parked away from the home. Set a window of 10 minutes before you arrive with the subject so that no-one comes in. If you can, call ahead with a pre-defined ring (twice, and then twice again) to set a “five minute warning). Lights should be off (or in whatever expected state they should be in), and all evidence (especially shoes) should be hidden.
The Office Surprise Party.
A little more difficult, but often the most fun. Call the person away from their desk (get a manager to call them into a closed office or another floor or building) for 30 minutes. Decorate their desk, string lights and streamers, set out snacks and cake (if possible). Get the manager to walk them back to their desks such that it would be difficult for them to see what is about to happen until it’s too late. This works best in environments with actual offices or tall-walled cubicles.
The Central Location Surprise Party.
Sometimes, due to size, you’ll need to hold a surprise party at a restaurant or hotel ballroom. These are harder, since you might draw immediate attention. The trick is then to give the person a reason to have to go there. In the case of a restaurant, you can go under even the most simple reason: lunch or dinner. Make sure you have reservations for all the guests, and make sure the restaurant knows that it’s a surprise party. Ballrooms are much harder, since they have special purposes. You can play it by going to a hotel’s restaurant, and go into a different room. If it’s a community hall, say you were asked to pick something up.

Abort! Abort! Abort!

Okay, let’s face facts. This could go wrong. You might not actually succeed. There are a million things that can go wrong, and you might get to the point where you have to pull the plug and abandon the attempt.
First off, don’t panic. Secondly, don’t feel bad. And thirdly — and most importantly — don’t tell the Surprisee. EVER.
There’s a couple of reasons for this. You (or someone else) might try to surprise them again. There’s no sense in tipping off your potential victim by telling them “oh, well, we tried, but it didn’t work” — they might thing you might try again. And if you do, the surprise might not be as effective.
But most notably — I think, anyway — telling someone runs risk of actually hurting their feelings. Not for the failed effort, but because it might be something they really, really wanted. Finding out that you came close to having a wonderful surprise, but it won’t happen is … well, it’s really hard to learn, and it can be very depressing. This is not something you want your surprisee to go through.
So, yes, you may have to just suck it up. You tried, it didn’t work, and aside from those who you’d already talked to (and you should make sure they know why it’s aborted), no-one else needs ┬áto know. In the end, it’s better for all.

Practical Jokes Around the Office: Wrapping a Desk

There is an Old Klingon proverb that says: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
It is very cold in December. (Well, when we’re not chinooking, anyway.)
Several months ago, I fell victim to an attack. Not a physical or verbal attack — a water balloon attack (see [[Critical Mass Reckless Summer Reunion]]). This was orchestrated by the Delichte brothers, Jason and Darren. (I’m still not sure how I became the focus of their attention. I’m not sure if I should be honoured or horrified.) I certainly owe them a special “thank you” for that particular event, and one day, when I find something appropriate, I shall.
But first things first.
The water balloon attack could not have been pulled off without inside information, namely my boss, Allard. As you know, I tend to carry cameras with me. The Delichtes made sure I was camera-free by having Allard make sure that my cameras were at a safe distance. He did it very well, too — I had no idea that I was being set up. At least not until a line of water bombers appeared on the hill above the volleyball courts.
As the sayings go: One good turn deserves another; no good deed goes unpunished; eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth; wrong me, do I not revenge?
For the last few months, I’ve been plotting and scheming, trying to think of something good to pull off. The trick, of course, is so that the person at the receiving end has no knowledge what is to befall them, yet can do nothing about it once it’s happened. Not as gruesome as Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”, but certainly something that when seen, will provoke the appropriate feeling of “he got me”.
Such it was that in a moment of brilliance (or drunken stupidity, they’re pretty much interchangeable), it came to me. I would give Allard a nice, gift-wrapped present.
His desk. And everything on it.
I wish I could take credit for this little idea, but I must confess that Chris had mentioned it around the time we were replacing Teak’s files with several cubic feet of candy (see [[Revenge is Sweet]]). But no-one had acted on it around here, so it was left as a possibility. And with Allard taking a couple of days off for the Christmas holidays, I was presented with a prime opportunity for revenge.
Yesterday, I made a little trip out to Costco, to acquire a few rolls of cheap(er) wrapping paper. I didn’t know exactly how much I’d need, but the desks aren’t that small (Allard has an end unit, which means vertical surfaces), and while his desk isn’t even remotely as cluttered as mine, there are still a number of things that require wrapping.
I arrived at the office around 19:00. I needed to make sure that there was no-one else around on the second floor. My goal was to complete the task without anyone knowing who it was. I wanted the mystery effect to last at least a few days (Allard won’t be back until the 29th), and because Allard arrives so early in the morning (before most of the people on this floor), I wanted the effect to be seen before he “opened his gifts”.
The first thing I did was take reference photographs. I needed to know (roughly) where everything was so I could put it back in a wrapped state. Then came the fun part: wrapping. I started with the aisle-facing side of his desk — it was the easiest thing to do, and a good place to start. It didn’t take long, but admittedly, didn’t really leave me with a sense of accomplishment. I still had a long way to go.
I got bogged down in the details. The table legs are not straight cylinders — they are slightly arched, and taper quite a lot towards the top; the shelving racks are like blocky shovels, which do not wrap easily (or nicely). It was 21:45 when I came to the realization that I needed help, or be up all night.
For the record, I would love to give credit where credit is due. I would love to stay who it was who loaned two hours of their time to my task, as strange (and draining) as it was. However, in the interests of preventing any form of retribution, they will remain nameless. But their help was invaluable, and definitely prevented me from staying too late. They left shortly before midnight.
I continued working until everything had at least some wrapping paper around it: the desk, side table, filing cabinent, phone (wrapping the cord was no fun), the monitor and monitor stand, the laptop dock, the keyboard, mouse and mousepad, more books than should be allowed on a desk, the chair, the light post, and his nameplate.
Everything was put back in the place it had been originally found. Cables were plugged back in. Ideally, everything should be exactly as it was before … just covered with wrapping paper. There are even bows on a few things. (I had toyed with using ribbon, but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. That’s a little more detail than I really care to think about.)
Towards the end, admittedly, I was getting a little sloppy. My back was killing me, I was hot, tired, and desperately wanting to go to bed. But I finished, leaving the chair perhaps a little less wrapped than I would have liked. Around 1:45, I finally packed up my things, cleaned up the evidence, and made for home.
I skipped gym this morning — I needed the rest. After the “workout” I’d had moving things around and wrapping, I figured I’d had enough exercise for a while. (Yeah, I’m stretching. I’ll do cardio all week to make up for it.)
A couple of people were already in the office when I arrived. It didn’t take long for word to spread. People were taking notice. Even the less-than perfect wrapping job was being lauded. And if nothing else, the smiles have been worth all the time and money.
After all, if you can’t get a good laugh out of revenge, why do it at all?
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Revenge is Sweet

When the temperature falls to -21 degrees with the wind chill, and the sky dumps 15 centimetres of snow on the ground, that’s when a young man’s fancy turns to…
Revenge.
Some months ago, Chris’ and my collective birthday to be exact, our friend Teak decided that he would give us each a small token of … well, sugar. Specifically, a lunchbox full of it. When I opened my little gift, candy spilled all over my desk. How he managed to get the candy in there and the lid shut is beyond me…
Needless to say, when word of Teak’s birthday came roaming around, Chris and I started thinking. Initially, it wasn’t anything mean or nasty, but then Chris joked about getting even with Teak for the months of sugar. (I still have some of mine.) It wasn’t too long before the joke turned serious, and it was time to execute.
Step 1: The plan.
This was perhaps the easiest part. The basic principle was sound: Get one of Teak’s desk-side cabinets (they’re a little over two feet tall, about one and a half feet deep, and a foot and a quarter wide — I don’t have a ruler, so these are estimates). Empty it. Then refill it. With candy. The trick, of course, was to do it when Teak wasn’t around (he’s been in the office late a lot, so working around that was a bit tricky).
Step 2: The supplies.
Sugar. And lots of it. In short, a trip to Costco, about the only place we can get such huge quantities of glucose goodness without completely breaking the bank. There’s a lot to consider when buying for a stunt such as this. You don’t want full-sized chocolate bars — they’re too big. Halloween ones would have been perfect, but those haven’t been in the stores for almost a month. You also have to be careful not to get too much of one thing. For example, too many M&Ms, although perfect for something like this, means you need more of them. Also, you want variety.
This meant we had to carefully choose our ammunition. I wish I’d remembered to bring the list of things we bought, but it’s along the lines of:

  • Four boxes of sour gummies (including cherry and watermelon flavours)
  • Two small tubs of more sour gummies
  • One tub of marshmallow rats (yes, rats)
  • One large tub of sugar lollipops
  • One small tub of Chupa Chups (lollipops)
  • One box of Blue Whales (gummies that taste like those blue freezies)
  • A couple packages of marshmallow peaches
  • Two huge bags of M&Ms (peanut variety)
  • Two bags of Jelly Belly jelly beans
  • One container of candy necklaces
  • One tub of Double Bubble gum (the ones with Bazooka Joe comics)
  • Three boxes of chocolate and caramel Rice Krispie squares (about the healthiest thing we threw in)
  • One large bag of Werther’s (sp?) caramels

There’s probably more, but we were having too much fun shopping for this stuff.
Step 3: The prank.
I was in the office again this weekend, partly because I had some work to do, partly because I’m overhauling my personal website (coming soon to a URL near you), and on Sunday, because I had to know when Teak wasn’t here anymore.
Around 6:30pm, I took a short trip upstairs. First good news: Teak wasn’t there. Second good news: Neither was anyone else. Best good news: The poor fool had left his cabinet unlocked. A little after 7:00, Chris called to say he was ready to have fun. I whipped over to the apartment, picked up my roommate and brother in mischief, and returned to the office.
The security guard was puzzled to say the least when we walked in with two huge boxes overflowing with packages of candy. We went upstairs to the Creative Services floor, and found that the lights were still off. (I’d turned them off when I’d inspected the floor earlier.)
The first thing we had to do was clean out his cabinet — the lower part, anyway. Teak had a lot of files, which would of course get in the way when trying to empty the various tubs, boxes, and bags. Fortunately, there are other cabinets which weren’t in use. A simple transfer, and we were on our way.
Almost … first, we had to line the lower bin with waxed paper. We didn’t want to make a total mess.
Then came the fun part — filling the drawers. Taking several containers, we started pouring. Mind you, this isn’t some random thing — you have to do it carefully. You don’t want to make a parfait of candy — you want a nice, even dispersion. We had to mix a few times to get the right distribution. But the end effect looks … nasty, actually, and the smell’s quite powerful.
Filling the lower drawer, we proceeded to the upper drawer (filling it with mostly small stuff, including M&Ms, and finally the top bin (which sits under the seat), also nice and full. The surprising part was that we’d had leftovers. We’d originally thought we didn’t have enough, and worried that the joke would only be partially realized. But ’tis better to have too much and do the job right than not have enough and do a half-assed job.

The final touch was on Teak’s computer. Like most of our Designers, he has two monitors (one is usually for seeing the artwork, the second for all the tools). Chris made up two images that were placed on the backgrounds of each of the monitors. One read “Sugar is sweet.”, the other “Revenge is sweeter.”
I couldn’t stop giggling the entire time. I so wanted to put up a camera and videotape Teak’s arrival this morning. I so wish I could have seen the look on his face.
Ah well, all’s well that ends well. At least until Teak tries to up the ante. If he’s smart, he won’t — starting an arms race with us is … foolish.
All I can say is: There’s always room for…