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In early March, Charlie Summers, listmaster of the Internet OTR Digest, finally decided on a possible April Fool's Day prank to play on the subscribership of the OTR Digest. He began the tradition in the year 2000, when on April 1st, the issue mailed to the subscribers contained the actual messages from the April 1st, 1995 issue (the list's very first April Fool's Day), but decided on something that might actually top the last year's prank.
With the idea somewhat fleshed out, he contacted Stephen A Kallis, Jr., author of Radio's Captain Midnight; The Wartime Biography suggesting that he might want to send the entire April 1st issue of the OTR Digest in Captain Midnight's Secret Squadron Code-O-Graph cipher.
Mr. Kallis, resisting the temptation to have Mr. Summers committed, offered to help, supplying various scans and photographs of Code-O-Graphs, and suggestions for the proper method of encrypting the information. (Remember that unlike real Secret Squadron messages, this would not be a simple short message containing no numbers, but a huge digest issue!) It was decided that the 1945 Code-O-Graph would be used; a replica was reworked from a scan, printed, and tested. Next a computer program was written that would take actual messages and properly encipher them using the Master Code X-1 ("X Minus One" - get it?) so that should anyone be crazy enough to decrypt the messages (some people were!), they would be able to read what subscribers posted. A support web page was built, pointing to the GIF and Acrobat versions of the Code-O-Graph. After test runs, cross-checking, and serious doubts on the part of yours truly, the plans were finally completed.
On Sunday morning, April 1st, 2001, the fateful issue was released. And literally within the hour, the fun began.
I received the first in what was to become a torrent of email messages suggesting that I had slipped a cog for proposing to protect the email addresses of the subscribers in such a heavy-handed fashion. Some were concerned, many were outraged, and a precious few realized what was going on almost immediately. But most of the letters received throughout the day were clearly letters of protest, in about 10 cases accompanied by unsubscribe messages.
What was unknown to me at the time was that at the same time I was receiving the direct concerns of many subscribers, a veritable flurry of messages was travelling around the 'Net, between subscribers trying to decide how to handle the obviously-deranged suggestion of the listmaster. Copies of some of those messages eventually reached me, but by then I was convinced by all of the mail I personally received that the prank had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams!
The very first letter's author wasn't sure but was a little suspicious:
But then, maybe it's all a joke and I'm just having a nightmare.
This was followed by a few messages which were obviously in on the joke, and appreciative. And one person, apparently not spending the time to read the endless, boring, dullsville, overlong diatribe, mearly noted a problem:
I just received today's copy of the Digest and got nothing but numbers after the first post.
But soon, the real frustration of the subscribers started coming through. In this example, the author helped me prove to Mr. Kallis why the word "manual" was so important in the posted message:
With all due respect to Stephen Kallis, this is one of the most stupid ideas that I have heard of in my 61 years of life. Do you really expect all the subscribers to decode, MANUALLY, each and every letter in each posting? I think not. To me, a much more sensible solution would be to encode the email addresses of the submitters.
I've never seen a listserve commit suicide before, but then I always thought that they existed for the benefit of those _on_ the list. Who has the time to sit and manually decode hundreds of lines of text?
I decided to take the tack of replying to any messages received with the simgle line, "You DO know what today's date is, don't you?" or a variation like, "Please check the calendar for today's date..." In almost every case, this was sufficient, although a few times I had to be a bit less subtle.
I did mention that some people actually sent me messages in cipher, like:
26-15-22-26/ 7-22-8/ 22-3/ 22-12-16-17-21/ 23-13-13-21/ 6-13-2-19/ 26-15-22-26/ 7-22-8/ 22-8/ 8-11-19-2-22-4/ 22-8/26-15-19/ 22-10-20-6-19-5-26/ 23-17-8-15!
10-19-20-3-20-6-12, 20 22-21-22-6 26-16-13-6-2 25 19-22-26-22-19-22-6-8
12-16-16-2 16-6-22 8-18-25-19-24-20-22!
...and my personal favorite:
Some people tried to reason with me:
I could be all wrong about this, but, as much fun as the code may be to use, it takes a bit of time and effort. You can delete quite a few spams in less than a minute. If the subject is up to a vote, count this as one against.
...as if that would ever work. By this time the first of the unsubscribes becan to appear; I decided to handle them differently, and send those who unsubscribed, "I do hope this isn't prompted by the recently-released APRIL FIRST issue of the Digest..." which again was enough for most people, but I did need to be a bit more blunt with a subscriber or two. One person cut right to the chase:
What is this sh*t? Do they really expect that I've got time to decode every LETTER of every message on this list????
...and another sugegsted that:
...your transmitter has slipped its frequency, your needle has jumped the groove of your transcription and your magnetic tape has wound tightly around your capstan and it about to break and permanently re-arrange your oxide!
...which frankly had me laughing so hard I fell off my chair. This next subscriber was pretty disgusted while still following the instructions:
I think this idea is a real pain in the neck. I'd rather get spam than trying to figure this out. (Yes, I dl the decode pdf file) I still think this is a real hassle. What I could previously read easily is now a major decoding job.
And this one apparently got the joke - I think:
You have way too much time on your hands!
One subscriber would have gotten himself in serious trouble had he written to Mr. Kallis instead of to Mr. Summers:
Actually, ya had me going there until I came to the part about the Captain Midnight Decoder Ring!
Of course, everyone on the list should know that there never was a "decoder ring," but only badges. And one subscriber sent me a true story about a hamster that I cannot repeat here, but puts me into hysterics every time I think about it...although I'm guessing I laugh less hard about it than his wife does...
This from one subscriber again shows how much power the word, "manual" has to anger:
You had an excellent newsletter, and I did enjoy every issue. Thanks, and maybe someday I'll find myself reading it again, as long as I don't have to decode the entire thing manually!!!
By now, some of those who had earlier complained were sending in rather sheepish, "You got me!" messages. But the day was still young:
Do I understand this new encryption plan correctly? We have to take the decoder and MANUALLY decode each number in the Digest, and then beginning in May any postings to the Digest must be MANUALLY encoded. <snip> Since this encryption scheme is a simple one and since the message of how to get the decoder and use is now public, might it be that the scheme is already compromised?
...which implied I needed to think up something new, and quick! And still some were frustrated:
Charlie, Huh!?!?!? I didn't understand a thing you said. What the h*ll is all this encoding and downloading and using decoder rings?
...and again confused about that whole "decoder ring" business. One painfully honest soul said:
I am lost and confused. I miss my Digest the way it was.
...and another long-time subscriber almost blew a gasket:
i would normally never presume to tell someone how to run their newspaper or digest, but.....this coding is ridiculous, i can't even begin to discuss it. i have to put my feelings in print on this.
Some of the most satisfying messages came after the subscriber realized what was going on:
You got me hook, line and sinker!!! It only took me a couple of hours to figure all this out. I even had other people writing me asking "What the hell is he talking about?......and "What the hell are all those numbers"!!!!! Some of us old guys about had heart attacks when we realized what we would have to go through just to read the Digest!
Got me! Please tell me I am not the only one.
i'll be a son of a, i had to go get my blood pressure taken.
This subscriber pretty much summed up the problem with the new format:
Just got the new approach to things and while I appreciate the need to keep names out of spam network, I'm afraid I don't much about the use of the decoder system or have the time to sit down and try to decode a whole newsletter.
If I want to write a very long letter to the digest, it would take me hours to manually put my letter into code. I can't afford that amount of time. THIS IS A VERY BAD IDEA!!!
Well, yeah, but a pretty funny one...this subscriber got it:
You're killing me! That was hysterical. Thanks for a good laugh!
And this good sport who complained earlier:
Ya got me--but good!!! My most humble, sincerest and abject apologies. <snip> Geezerhood has established a firm foothold on my psyche
This one is one of my favorites:
I am a joker and love to kid my friends, but, boy, did you get me! Every April Fool's Day, I prepare myself so no one can put something over me. But you succeeded! This is the best April Fool's joke every played on me. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. It was brilliant! Thanks for making my day.
One subscriber who received my, "You DO know what the date is, don't you?" messages replied:
Charlie, that's nearly cruel. No, it never dawned on me. I've been lurking on this and the other OTR emails for about 4 years. The thought of not being able to read them was what my mind was focused on. It was a good one. I'll be telling it on myself tomorrow.
While still the frustration wasn't yet over:
This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. A nine year old with a Commodore 64 could probably crack these codes, even with the "Master Code" changing daily. <snip> Sorry folks this is a stupid idea brought about by someone determined to make us relive his radio memories. I can't believe you fell for it.
He, he...that's ok, I can't believe YOU did, either. And very shortly thereafter, from this same subscriber, I received:
Sorry for that.
You got me.
...which ranks near the top of my personal favorites, followed closely by this compliment from the same author:
I'm in awe Charlie, this was masterful.
Now this subscriber got it:
Charlie, you are the greatest! But I hate to think of the anger you're going to get hit with from people who swallowed your balderdash!
Anger? He, he...na, of course not...but some folks did get into the spirit of things:
i like the new system and have been spending the entire day decoding. but i did not know there was so much to learn about ovaltine. my decoder works well.
This subscriber suggests:
Again I suspect that this has got to be an April fools day joke,or else you and Mr. Kallis have gotten hold of some very powerful hallucinogenic drugs.
Well, no, not in the last couple of decades, anyway. (Relax, folks, it's just a joke.) I really liked this compliment:
I NEVER get April fooled. Until: Once by NPR when they ran a story about drilling for oil in Central Park (complete with the sounds of drilling in the background) And the second time by your Digest using the Captain Midnight 1945...you get the idea.
Well, yeah, but NPR needed sound effects. This subscriber took the listmaster to task:
The April 1st issue of the OTR Digest is the best I've ever read. You might say that I can really COUNT on it. My only complaint is why we can never lighten up a bit. For example, the April 1st issue could have included some humor or even a practical joke. But no, it's just serious business as usual.
I promise to lighten up a bit in the future. No, really, I will...
I want to thank ALL of the subscribers of the OTR Digest for being such great sports...whether realizing immediately or having realization dawn slowly, everyone took the prank with grace and humor...which is the whole idea of April Fool's Day!