Thank God It's April

It's 4.52 in the morning, do you know where your children are? It's time to get up, to see if our evil plan has succeeded. It's 4:53 a.m. (If you look closely, you can see that it's 4.52 a.m.)

But before I get into that, let me tell what preceeded this moment, and about the format in which the story is told. I brought my digital camera to the events I'm going to tell you about, but the pictures weren't great. Therefore, I took a couple of additional ones afterwards which I'll use randomly for added dramatic effect.

But first I'll explain how I ended up getting up this early.

I'm a teaching assistant in a project-class of the computer science department at the university of Groningen. Because of the collaboration with Sweden this year we called it ISEP, International Software Engineering Project. The idea is that students in the final year of their bachelor phase complete a real software project from a real company. The teams are about 9-10 students big. Each team consists of two "Swedish" students (mostly exchange students, though) and about 7 or 8 Dutch students.

We also have contacts with a professor in Canada, Paul Sorensen, who is supposed to give a lecture on quality assurance, something that's very important in ISEP. However, planning this QA lecture has been a bit of a problem. The lecture should be given through a video-conference set, and the last attempt of this lecture failed because we couldn't establish a connection with Canada.

The Dutch and Swedish teaching assistants have weekly video conferences to discuss how things are progressing and what the problems are in the teams. Last week we wondered if it wouldn't be a cool idea to pull a April-fool's-day prank. So we started thinking.

Zef thinks

We came up with two.

Zef has an idea

The first one was, because of Paul Sorensen's busy schedule, that the lecture on QA had to be held at 10 p.m. thursday the 31st of March. Because of the time difference, that happens to be 6 a.m. here in the Netherlands and Sweden. Not very convenient, but what can you do? We sent out an e-mail to the students asking them to attend.

And that's why I'm up now.

As I cycle to the university, different people are passing by. Some very dedicated workers, other dedicated, ehm, party animals/drinkers. When I arrive, one of the other teachers is already waiting with a big bag of food. We decided to at least offer those that show up a simple breakfast. As I put away my bike, the other teacher arrives as well. So, now we just have to wait for the students to come.

Marco and Louwarnoud are waiting (Louwarnoud and Marco, the two other teaching assistants are waiting for somebody to turn up.)

We wonder if even a single student will show up. The day before we received some responses to the e-mail ranging from "Ha ha!" to "I really can't come, because busses don't drive that early and staying over isn't an option either because bladiebla." However, when we made the final arrangements yesterday afternoon, one of the groups came to our room asking about whether the lecture really couldn't be postponed. When we told them it wasn't our prefered time of day either and that we had to get up early also, they said "Ok, we'll see you tomorrow then." The question is whether we're messing with them, or they're messing with us. Or to put it in Chandler Bing's words: have the messers become the messees?

We wait. We arrived a little early at 5.45 a.m. It's 6.05 a.m. when the first - and only - student arrives. We wait until 6.30 a.m. outside in the freezing cold before we decide to not wait any longer and get in. Upfront we decided to not tell the students about it being a joke, but just act normal and see when they'd get it.

"Let's have some breakfast first." We sit down and have breakfast.

Breakfast (It's breakfast time.)

Time passes on. It's 7.20 a.m. when one of the teachers says that he really has to get home to get his kids to school. No response from the student. A little later he finally asks: "so... this is an April fool's day prank after all?"

Yes it is.

Later we'll hear that in Sweden two students appeared. The cruel fact is that both were exchange students, probably from countries where they don't know the concept of April fool's day.

But there's more to come. As I told you, we have two pranks prepared. The second one, though, took a bit more effort to prepare.

Last week somebody came up with the idea to create a make-believe grading wiki. A wiki that contains remarks on all the teams and all individual team members. The nasty thing is that we would load it with purely negative comments; all based on actual facts, but massively blown out of proportion: if something went somewhat wrong, it would be something destructive; people who are not very assertive, became people who never spoke, and of whom we doubted that they did anything at all.

This wiki would be hosted on the server that all the other ISEP stuff was hosted on as well. The only security measure would be an obfuscated url (think: a lot of underscores). There was only one problem, how would we leak the URL to the students?

Yesterday we finally came up with a good way. In my year, there's someone who, as the (unverified) rumour goes, got a job at a department of our university in a quite unusual way. The department we're talking about here develops software that is used to let students know their grades and let them sign up for courses. What this guy did was enter their office, throw a big pile of print-outs on the table saying: "this is the contents of your database, if you want me to secure it better you'll have to hire me." And so they did.

The relevance of this is that this guy quite often posts and mails people about very poorly secured websites. And it would be plausible for him to find this grading wiki, with... a little help. We discussed this with him and he agreed to co-operate. To make his "finding" more plausible we put a link to a picture on his webserver on the wiki. When it gets loaded, he can see the refering (wiki) URL in his logs. And there you go: that's the plausible way to find out.

At the time of this writing (it's 8.49 a.m. by now) I see that he has posted his findings on a forum that is frequently read by many of the students here. He camouflaged it with some other finds from his apache logs. Brilliant. Now, let's see what the responses will be.

While we're waiting for something to happen I write a couple of scripts to track who's been visiting the wiki, but nothing spectacular happens, it gets a couple of hits, but not from more than a couple IPs. Would all this work be for nothing?

And finally, at 6.33 p.m. the first IM message comes in, "nice wiki you have there". Others seem to have seen it as well. All knew immediately that it was a joke, but thought it was a cool one. At 10.43 p.m. I edit the wiki to let it say that they were dealing with a April fool's day joke and that the contents of the wiki is fake.

Sadly, neither of our jokes worked out as we would have wanted (i.e. a load of students in the morning and mass-hysteria in the afternoon). We had a pretty good time preparing and executing them, though.