Road Signs Make Great Toys
November 2003. After Thanksgiving with my family, I visited my girlfriend Elise in Whitman, Massachusetts, just a half hour drive from where the original Pilgrims had the first Thanksgiving. Elise didn't have any food at her apartment, and it turned out that hey, guess what, on Thanksgiving evening all restaurants are closed, especially in this rural area.
Fortunately, I found a bar that was still open, and they made pizzas -- although they had no delivery. So I went to place the order, and wait. I don't drink, and a drunk older woman hit on me, so soon I was waiting for my pizza outside the bar, in the parking lot.
A road sign was there, a big one with blinky lights. The blinky lights blinked, beckoning me with their sonorous phrase: "Road Work Next 3 Miles". While I have never wanted to steal a road sign, because that would not be a nice prank, I had always wanted to program one. It was Thanksgiving evening, with virtually nobody on the road, so there were no safety concerns.
So I tapped on it. Tipitty tap tap. But I was getting nowhere. Even my MIT magic wasn't helping. When they build road signs, they sure don't make them easy to edit! The whole thing seemed like a rough cut from assembly language. It was built by a hardware engineer, not a software engineer, I could tell. I had nothing better to do, but still... standing here with cars whizzing past me, tippity tapping... I sure didn't want a police car to drive up. Darn. I was going to have to give up.
That's when I figured it out. I got the sign to say, "Happy Thanksgiving!". Then the next morning, at 7am so that we would not disturb drivers, Elise and I took several photographs of the sign saying goofy things. Don't worry, we put it back afterwards. Those flash strips on the traffic cones really capture the flash from the camera. Yes, these are all real photos, not digitally edited!
These days, I notice that most road signs are locked up, or don't come with a keyboard. I have never gotten around to putting a spare keyboard in the trunk of my car, but the idea delights me.