A short tale I’ve been wanting to tell.
Back when I worked at Raytheon, right out of college, I shared a huge bank of cubicles with the entire lab of engineers who were working on the same large project to which I was assigned.
I shared that area with a lot of great people, but also one or two really annoying ones. There was one really annoying, smug little fellow who was also just out of college and had the general attitude that he was too good for everything and everyone. He wouldn’t or couldn’t stop talking about his Eagle Talon. That’s how I know to this day that the car has all-wheel drive. I still don’t care, but I can’t forget it. His name is long forgotten, but the car I remember. Since I can’t remember his name, let me call him “Vinny.” Wait - that might have been his name. Let’s go for “JL” because I think John Leguizamo would be able to play him perfectly if they ever made a movie about him. Which they would not.
One day JL came into the cube farm with an even more simpering expression than usual. And he had something he was bursting to show people.
He called it an “idiot stick” and the idea is both clever and stupid, and sums up his personality nicely. This story I’m telling you isn’t the most interesting story in the world, but what makes it an almost perfect story is that when I tell you about this “idiot stick” and how the thing works, you will immediately understand what sort of person JL was at that time. Having not seen him in 15 years, I’m hoping he’s improved.
JL’s “Idiot Stick” was a puzzle. He’d approach you and ask you if you liked puzzles (or he’d present some other sort of opening that would allow him to get close enough to you and agree to participate). I heard that he was going around the office subjecting people to his idiot stick, and it was pissing them off. And I like puzzles. So I made my way over to his cube.
He was in there telling his cube mates about how he and his dad had invented this thing, nobody had ever seen it before and were they were planning to sell it and make a ton of money. Nowadays he would have a website or be selling it through eBay. In those days, I don’t know how you marketed such a thing.
“I hear you’ve got an interesting puzzle.” I called into the cube. He had one of the larger group cubes that was shared with a few other people. It was somewhat central so it tended to attract a small social gathering.
“Yeah. Do you want to see it? It’s called the ‘Idiot Stick.’” he said.
“Ok, it involves your shirt.”
He approached me and I allowed him to fiddle with one of the buttonholes on the front of my shirt. While he did this he used one hand to keep me from seeing exactly what he was doing. “There” he said when he was done.
I looked down and saw that he had attached some sort of thing to my shirt. He began to explain the predicament I was in. This idiot stick was now attached to my shirt and until I figured out how to un-attach it, I was going to look like an idiot. As I walked around the office, people would be able to see that I hadn’t yet solved the puzzle. (Or he would remove it at some point and not tell the solution)
Sadly (for JL) while I am not a genius, I am also not an idiot. And as an avid puzzle-solver, I have come into contact with many types of puzzles. The one he had attached to my shirt was, indeed, somewhat challenging and required some creative thinking to remove, similar to some of the creative thinking required to solve tavern puzzles where you have to pass a large object through smaller hole without damaging anything. I had prior practice thinking laterally, and with some very similar tavern puzzles. I knew the principle behind the trick. Before he was even done explaining that I was going to look stupid for half the day, I had removed the stick. I handed it back to him.
At the time of removal, the victim is supposed to want to assuage his embarrassment by subjecting other people to the same humiliation. I didn’t share the sentiment. Not that I don’t like to pass on a good puzzle, or don’t like to fool people. It wasn’t the puzzle that bugged me. It was the “idiot” appellation and the fact that it turns something that ought to be fun into a form of bullying.
“Interesting.” I said. “That is a clever trick.” Seeing his smug smile turn into a surprised look made it fun again. Full circle!
I walked out and told my friends how the trick worked (if they wanted to know). I didn’t want them to look silly.
I can’t remember exactly what the stick looked like, though I remember the general principle behind how to install and remove the stick. Once you know that, this type of trick no longer fools you. It involves shifting your focus from the stick to your shirt. It truly looks impossible, like a tavern puzzle.
I wonder if the stick ever caught on. I wonder if there is a market out there for trying to make your co-workers look like idiots all day long. How to win friends and influence people.Posted by James at April 24, 2006 1:34 PM