Joke That'll Get You Arrested

Don’t say that I didn’t warn you:

If you are sitting next to someone who irritates you on a plane or train…

1. Quietly and calmly open up your laptop case.
2. Remove your laptop.
3. Boot it.
4. Make sure the person who won’t leave you alone can see the screen.
5. Open your email client to this message.
6. Close your eyes and tilt your head up to the sky.
7. Then hit this link:

If you try it, post what happened in comments.

Posted on May 19, 2007 at 10:16 AM148 Comments


JohnMu May 19, 2007 11:07 AM

Which airline has broadband en-route?

Save the SWF file and drag+drop it into your browser 🙂

Thras May 19, 2007 11:14 AM

What’s really funny is call up a random number in the phone book and tell whoever answers that you’re calling from the local police department and that there’s been a terrible accident involing their child.

That’s “ha, ha” funny, isn’t it?

This one I just thought of: I could visit a nearby hospital while wearing a white lab coat. Then I’d pick a random patient and say: “I’m sorry to tell you this, but the test results came back and you only have a few days to live.”

My god, but that would crack me up.

Thanks for the bomb countdown idea though, that’s even better.

tcliu May 19, 2007 12:02 PM

@Thras: Except there hasn’t been any hysteria over the two jokes you came up with yourself… Context, buddy… Context.

jammit May 19, 2007 12:22 PM

I thought about doing it, but I don’t think there’s internet access in Guantanamo.

David Dyer-Bennet May 19, 2007 12:33 PM

I don’t think there’s internet access on most planes, either. Since it’s flash, not server-side, there’s probably some way to cache it on your laptop so it’s always there when you need it, though.

the warner bros May 19, 2007 12:44 PM

“That’s ‘ha, ha’ funny, isn’t it?”

No we want funny “uh oh”.
‘what’s funny uh-oh?’
points up at falling piano
‘uh ohhhhh…’

Nick Lancaster May 19, 2007 12:49 PM

It does make me wonder if the Arabic script is what qualifies as ‘suspicious’ in most people’s minds, however. Would just a wallpaper bearing a piece of Arabic script be ‘suspicious’ to some? What about Hebrew, or Chinese?

A countdown is perfectly normal, and we think that way all the time – there are countdown widgets for desktops, we think in terms of x shopping days before Christmas, or y days before the Iowa Caucus.

Heck, a bunch of imams proved all you have to do is pray quietly in the corner and ask for a seatbelt extension …

Andrew May 19, 2007 1:05 PM

Nice. I like the flash. I’m going to use it in my “bomb threats” class.

Bemused May 19, 2007 1:05 PM


“Joke That’ll Get You Arrested”

Where are you coming from here Bruce?

You have rightly and consistently appealed to us to refuse to be terrorised – yet now this.

You cannot have it all ways. Playing a “joke” about a bomb timer is in poor taste.

Why not shout “Allah Akbhar” loudly as well?

Why not shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre?

Surely we should be seeking to promote calm and reason – not inflamatory stunts.

Guido May 19, 2007 1:17 PM

Thras, there’s quite a difference here. In one case, we have a huge hysteria and very few incidents that got a huge media attention. In the other case, we have no hysteria at all and quite many incidents that get virtually no media attention.

The fun thing about this countdown is that it plays with irrational fears of people.

But you’re right, it isn’t funny anymore now. Jokes are never funny if you have to explain them.

Frank Ch. Eigler May 19, 2007 1:27 PM

Context? Yes, onanize with the joke all you like in the privacy of your own blogging chair, but in the context of doing this in public? That is evil and stupid.

Bruce, what’s your point exactly? Are you also railing at the prohibitions on joking around about bombs at airports? Oh, the humanity of it all.

Anon May 19, 2007 1:33 PM

I recommend that nobody who isn’t a white American-born Christian over 35 tries using this ‘joke.’

Anonymous May 19, 2007 1:49 PM

I wonder how many people would open that up and be convinced THEIR laptop was about to explode…..

Osama May 19, 2007 1:52 PM

LOL. Bruce Schneier can’t read Arabic. He can barely read English either.

I’m not sure where anybody got off thinking that Schneier is some uber-cryptographer. He isn’t. Mr. Schneier doesn’t have a PhD degree.

Geoff Lane May 19, 2007 2:09 PM

You are Jack Bauer and I claim my $5!

As we all know, every movie bomb has an electronic counter and movie terrorists really care a lot about the style and colours used for the numbers.

Of course, in the real world the plastique explosive packed into the DVD drive slot on the laptop is triggered by CTRL-ALT-DEL.

Tom May 19, 2007 2:41 PM

“If you try it, post what happened in comments.”

Somehow I think if you tried this you wouldn’t have the opportunity to post what happened…

Anonymouse May 19, 2007 2:54 PM

Too bad it doesn’t have a picture of the moon men from “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” standing next to it. That would make it even funnier.

Reasonable May 19, 2007 2:59 PM


I am not sure what the point of this post is. I think someone who pulls this stunt should be arrested. Remember the old one about shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater?

I think this is a very bad example for the political message you are trying to convey (that there is too much airport security). The only reaction this draws is anger at the morons who would think this is funny, and at the smart man who thinks they deserve more publicity on his blog.

Plus, if someone pulls this on me, they should not be surprised if serious physical damage is done to them before the counter hits zero. And if it turns out it was only a prank.. well, I don’t think I’ll feel very guilty, and you’d be hard pressed to find 12 people outside of the DNC who would convict me for assault.

Wireless Enthusiast May 19, 2007 3:02 PM

Bemused: please explain why shouting “Allah Akhbar” loudly should be treated any differently than shouting “Jesus is Lord” or “Cthulhu Fhtagn” loudly.

LDP May 19, 2007 3:07 PM

@Geoff Lane:

I have to admit, I fell for it at first. “Ooh, no that’s a bad idea.” But then I got whiplash from the realization that the sole reason I thought that was the TV show ’24’. It’s a completely fabricated fear, akin to believing that Zeus is mad at you when there’s a thunderstorm. Of course, if I ever tried that on a train I’d be more worried about the dude next to me being from Texas, and shooting me in the head with the .45 he keeps with him at all times for this very situation.

And as for you, Mr. Osama, you yet again prove your ignorance. Bruce Schneier has his Ph.D. all right; it’s just that it’s encrypted. In fact, “Bruce Schneier” isn’t even his real name. By applying a series of transformations based on Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole, any 5th grader can see that ‘Bruce Schneier’ is thinly-veiled code for ‘Nyxol Vooqq, PHD’. All you need to do is think a little bit before you speak, and the significance of Roald and the South Pole become become blindingly clear.

See, that’s the problem with you crazy fundamentalists. Always thinking in ROT26. You’re probably not even the REAL Osama, are you?!?


Brian May 19, 2007 3:08 PM

I take it, Bruce, that you’ve never been arrested? It isn’t particularly very fun. The un-fun of getting arrested, having to deal with the police, and having to go to court (you do understand that that is what would happen, right?) greatly outweighs any laughs you might have.

Then again, maybe I have no sense of humor (I don’t, usually) or I’m taking this too seriously. Then again, some things aren’t even funny as satire.

If you still want to do this, there are many free and pay SWF catchers and decompilers. I think you could also dig through your browser cache.

Shachar Shemesh May 19, 2007 3:27 PM

@Nick Lancaster

??ני ל?? חושב שמישהו ב??מת עלול לבלבל עברית ע?? ערבית.

Or, in English, I don’t really think anyone is likely to confuse Hebrew with Arabic. They are written in the same direction, and there, more or less, the resemblance ends. 日本語 is even less likely to be confused for Arabic.

There are quite a few Hindic languages that are more likely to be confused, but I think the point is well understood.


I cheated a little. The Kanji text actually said “Japanese”, and not “Chinese”. They do use the same characters, though.

Shachar Shemesh May 19, 2007 3:49 PM

Just in case anyone wonders, I’ve asked on IRC for a translation. Here is the answer:

The characters are not shaped (i.e. – they are not transformed into the shapes Arabic letters are meant to be when inside a word). I have to shamefully admit that I did not notice this until it was pointed out to me.

The actual words mean ‘Egyptian’ – ‘That’ – ‘Force’ – ‘Security’ – ‘Exchange’

It seems like someone put an English sentence through Google/babelfish, and just pasted the result. Obviously, the result is good enough for whoever doesn’t understand the language.


C Gomez May 19, 2007 4:13 PM

If the point of the post is to say “America is so paranoid you could get arrested for this…”

I doubt it.

And even then… why would anyone do this except to draw immature attention to themselves.

And not get arrested…

tcliu May 19, 2007 4:17 PM

@Reasonable, Frank, Bemused:

Your responses are exactly the kind of hysteria that makes the fake countdown such a good joke.

You see, you have seen so many movies that you think that a countdown timer on a laptop is equivalent to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. You think that the countdown timer is what a real bomb looks like, and that, by displaying the timer, you are pretending to have initiated the countdown of a real bomb.

Guys, do you seriously think that terrorists would even have a countdown, as opposed to having the thing explode instantly? If it needed time to arm and detonate, do you think they’d get their bomb maker to design a nice full-screen timer, just for spit & polish? “Sorry, Osama, we have to delay the attack on the great satan, because brother Ali (or “4li d4 4r4b” as he is known in the demoscene) needs another day to get the intro really good looking.”

Then, after jumping to the wrong conclusion that the laptop is indeed a bomb, you proceed to do exactly the wrong thing:

“Plus, if someone pulls this on me, they should not be surprised if serious physical damage is done to them before the counter hits zero.”

How about you focus your attention on the laptop instead? You know, the thing that you think is about to explode? Or do you consider it a victory to be able to land a few punches on the guy before you are both blown to smithereens?

Summary: You guys are being worked up over a flash countdown timer. Not over something that “might be a bomb”. It’s not. It doesn’t even look like a real bomb. It looks like your Hollywood-marinated brains think a bomb should look like, but not what one really looks like. You should stop being afraid of it. What’s next? Banning progress bars on in-flight laptops, because someone thinks that it might be a bomb countdown? Especially if the user runs Windows localized in Arabic?

John Davies May 19, 2007 4:32 PM

Judging by the loons that I occasionally sit next to on my train commute they would either:

a. Not stop talking or
b. Point out the grammatical errors in the Arabic

Jojo May 19, 2007 5:19 PM

Countdown should be longer to build suspense. Also , would be good to leave the laptop on your seat (counting down slower), then get up and go to the bathroom [lol]

dhasenan May 19, 2007 5:46 PM

It doesn’t have to be valid Arabic in order to scare people. I mean, it isn’t even Arabic jibberish; it’s a cursive script written in separated fashion. But how many people glancing over will see that? Especially with a giant countdown to distract them?

yoshi May 19, 2007 5:50 PM

@some academic

some of the stupiest people I know have a Phd – so what’s your point?

Anonymous May 19, 2007 6:47 PM

The hysteria from this is certainily stemmed from a movie plot terrorism. Scary – yes, but come on!

Loose May 19, 2007 7:39 PM

I tried this with my wife. “Sit next to me dear. Look at my computer. Pretend we are neighbors on an airplane.”

“Inshallah … mutter, mutter,” sez I, as the countdown timer runs.

“Huh?” she says.

“I’m counting down and praying (subaudibly).”



Maybe not.

Bruce Schneier May 19, 2007 8:00 PM

“You cannot have it all ways. Playing a ‘joke’ about a bomb timer is in poor taste.”

Of course it is.

Does anyone believe that I am actually suggesting that people go out into the world and do this?

Posts like this are good precisely because of the conversation that results.

fusion May 19, 2007 10:38 PM

C’mon, buddies, lighten up…humor is the one true weapon against tyrants…we need all we can find…and for sheer inventiveness this deserves a small cake, at least

DingDong May 20, 2007 12:32 AM

Whenever I’m on a plane I bring a screwdriver and some loose screws and pretend I’m unscrewing the plane to pieces. I freaked one passenger out by unscrewing the overhead baggage compartment. It really freaks them out when I start unscrewing the little side windows.

Billy Bob May 20, 2007 12:45 AM

“Does anyone believe that I am actually suggesting that people go out into the world and do this?”

Do what? 99.9999% looking over and seeing this on a laptop wouldn’t freakin’ know what it is. It looks like part of a video game. If you really want fun on an airplane, go shake a can of pop in front of everybody. People will understand what’s going on and what will happen next.

This flash thing, you have to first explain it. If you have to first explain it, the joke ain’t no good.

Anonymous May 20, 2007 2:56 AM

I think some people didnt get it. Just because there’s a countdown and there’s something written in arabic it doesnt mean it’s a “bomb countdown”.

Have you ever seen a bomb with a countdown ?

bobbitybob May 20, 2007 3:00 AM

@DingDong that’s the best thing I’ve read all weekend.

@Bruce: You will go fishing in the lake of loonies won’t you :O)

Steve May 20, 2007 4:12 AM

While tricking someone into thinking they’re dying isn’t that funny. Tricking someone into thinking they’re dying of Jellybeanitis is hilarious. Displaying a giant red countdown before detonating a bomb is about as silly as Jellybeanitis.

Mark May 20, 2007 4:19 AM

What’s so scary about this scenario is that Reasonable’s comment almost sounds like a real person’s opinion.

DrPhibes May 20, 2007 5:02 AM

Well it made ME laugh out loud..Then again..I’m a Brit. We laugh at such things!

If you can’t laugh, then the terrorists have won!

Bernie May 20, 2007 5:44 AM

I absolutely did NOT think that Bruce was suggesting that anyone do this. The headline and first sentence are Bruce warning you that this will get you arrested. If anything, Bruce’s only mistake was his last sentence which should have started, “If you are dumb enough to try this, …”

Olof May 20, 2007 6:06 AM

Shachar, I don’t speak arabic that well, but a little. The first word is adabi (my adab). I knew I recognized the word, so i looked it up at wikipedia.

The arabic word for Egypt, مصر, is nowhere to be found, so flame your friends at IRC from me ^^. Anyway, I don’t think the message has anything to do with bombing, or terrorism so this is funny, and it would most likly show how ignorant many northamericans actually are.

ma as-salama

Bud Gibson May 20, 2007 7:49 AM

The words at the top don’t mean anything and are not written in proper Arabic. Someone just jumbled up a bunch of Arabic letters. The person earlier who suggested that Egyptian was won of the words was not reading from right to left, the direction Arabic is written in.

Personally, I thought it was kind of funny, but I took it as being ironic, not a serious suggestion. The fact that the words mean nothing added to my sense of irony.

Curt Sampson May 20, 2007 8:02 AM

You know what might work? If we declared, akin to “talk like a pirate day,” a “movie threat countdown” day where a lot of people agreed to play this joke at or near a specified time on the day, and publicised it widely beforehand. Ideally, the publicity would start long enough before we did this (several months?) that there would be a good deal of time to discuss the prank after the initial brouhaha, attempts to ban it, etc. had died down. (After all, it’s one thing to overreact to something as it happens, and claim that you had to do it to be on the safe side. But to plan to overreact against something that is demonstrably safe that has not yet happened, well, I can’t imagine the justification holding up when there’s time for rational argument.)

The point, of course, would be to precipitate a discussion about movie plot threats, overreactions, and the like.

J.D. Abolins May 20, 2007 9:15 AM

For what it’s worth, the blog that posted the countdown animation hat these comments about using the animation:

* *Under no circumstances should ANYBODY use the previous animation when they ask you to open your laptop during a security check on the subway, or in any other manner during which the display of the animation could be interpreted as a hostile act. Please defer all legal action to Penn & Teller, who gave me the idea in their 1997 book, “How to Play in Traffic.

I haven’t read the Penn & Teller book but the notes for the 1997 NPR interview with the authors makes the book sound quite interesting, albeit risky in the current era. Hmmm, the idea of affixing fake noses to the photos on one’s ID cards and carrying a fake nose for one’s own face…

MateFrio May 20, 2007 9:37 AM

Now all we need is to play a game of counter strike with a map that looks like the plane we are flying in.

Turn up the volume and there’ll be gunshots, the Hollywood countdown timer sounds only interrupted by the game saying “terrorists win”.

Dewey May 20, 2007 10:24 AM

That web site is horribly irresponsible. Imagine, now any terrorist in the world can create a laptop bomb with a count down in big red letters and everyone who sees it will think it a joke! They’ll kill millions!

(Incidentally, can someone translate those odd wavy lines at the top of the page that I can’t read? Does it say “Relax, this is only a Joke”?)

Stian Øvrevåge May 20, 2007 11:00 AM

I do agree that doing this with the sole intent of causing fear and out of the blue might not be the best idea. I would definitely consider this a hostile act on its own.

A boot-loader or login-theme that incorporated such a countdown as part of the normal computer operation would IMHO (IANAL) be a less hostile action.

I would have a much easier time explaining (to the police, a court, etc) that the timer is a countdown until system is booted than “I just launched this flash-file to see the fear of death in the eyes of my co-passengers.”

bob May 20, 2007 12:05 PM

some airlines do have broadband. it’s provided via satellite. this cracked me up, though I haven’t tried it in public. and you don’t need some sort of flash caching decompiling wizardry. it’s called right click, save target.

bob May 20, 2007 12:23 PM

“A boot-loader or login-theme that incorporated such a countdown as part of the normal computer operation would IMHO (IANAL) be a less hostile action.”

Um, not so much..

Used to be, when a Mac crashed it put up this image:

Airport security also makes you turn on your laptop. A friend of mine had the bad luck to have his Mac crash on wakeup, displaying the bomb. The security droid was not amused, and he was delayed at least 30 minutes explaining that he had nothing to do with the choice of image. Eventually, one of the security people who had experience with Macs confirmed that a crash displays the bomb.

And that all happened over 10 years ago.

Bhima May 20, 2007 12:47 PM

Boy, there are a bunch of whiny children today! Clearly the joke is for US sitting in our homes surfing the ‘net. Not for a dark skinned chap on airplane!

Dan Theman May 20, 2007 1:23 PM

I think this is a great, thought provoking gag.

Some jokes are funny and some aren’t. Why aren’t some jokes funny? 1) They are performed to scare/intimidate people, 2) They are in poor taste, or/and 3) They are out of context.

On my desktop PC the gag is great. In the airport? Probably not so great.

Taking advantage of an already tense situation and playing this joke (not that any of us would do so) may not be so wise, precisely because of our conditioning to believe the TV-babysitter.

I would appreciate it if everyone would keep this in mind before I’m not allowed to bring my laptop on a plane anymore. It’s bad enough I have to humiliate myself each and every time I fly. I don’t need TSA banning laptops because of some high-school prank that all of TSA won’t find funny.

TSA’s employees all operate under the delusion that they are useful and helping; let’s keep it that way and not give them anything else to ‘decide’ on our behalf.

bzelbob May 20, 2007 3:16 PM

The saddest thing about all this is that it proves that we form our opinions of the world from BS hollywood movies. A countdown timer could be counting down to anything! Why does everything think it has to be a bomb? Apparently, because of the already tense “situation”.

This goes back to a big point that Bruce has repeatedly made which is that we tend to see what we are looking for (like looking for things in clouds.)

Also, the arabic-like script at the top could mean anything as well (at least to those of us that can’t read it.)

What I would like everyone here to do is ask yourselves what would you actually do if you saw this and why? Would you even ask the person who’s laptop it was? Would you start immediately screaming “It’s a bomb!” at the top of your voice while diving for cover? Would you cower in your seat, praying to god the flight doesn’t blow up?

I think Bruce has very cleverly brought out our biases and fears and showed that many people automatically assume its a bomb based on nearly no actual evidence.

Kudos Bruce.

Stefan Wagner May 20, 2007 4:33 PM

“… post what happened”

The right neighbour told me: “old joke” – the left one “I’ve made the flash”, the guy behind me: “got that on my cellphone…”, the old woman in front: “Your rechargeable battery is burning – better turn the machine off! Got a recent backup?” – me: “Oh! really?” she: “no – just a joke.”

Paul Crowley May 20, 2007 5:45 PM

“What I would like everyone here to do is ask yourselves what would you actually do if you saw this and why?”

If I didn’t twig that it was a practical joke I’d assume it was part of a computer game of some sort.

gee May 20, 2007 5:46 PM

so now you people are starting to realise that television affects your lives? well done; idiots. maybe soon you’ll also reaslise that television has a lot more to answer for then just the what you assume a countdown timer in red means.

congratuliations, bruce, on making a bunch of idiots realise something that they should’ve known for years. but i but you yourself would still deny the affects of tv on some aspects of your life (i.e. respect for women, respect of relationships, appropriate responses to violence, etc).

Filias Cupio May 20, 2007 7:19 PM

Off topic:

They’re going to be releasing ‘tracer gas’ in London to help determine what effect a ‘dirty bomb’ would have.

“Most [dirty bombs] would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness – the conventional explosive itself would be more harmful to individuals than the radioactive material. However, depending on the scenario, a [dirty bomb] explosion could create fear and panic. Making prompt, accurate information available to the public could prevent the panic sought by terrorists.”

“Immediate health effects from exposure to the low radiation levels expected from a [dirty bomb] would likely be minimal.”

As ever, plain old explosives are the big worry. As for chemicals, compare the effects of the Tokyo subway gas attack (10 terrorists, five attacks each involving 1kg of hard-to-get sarin nerve gas, 12 dead total) with a typical backpack-bomb attack (London 7/7: four terrorists, four simple home made devices, 52 dead). Only a stupid attacker would bother with chemicals. Real pros like the IRA, for instance, never have.

Still, nobody ever made a mistake over-estimating the ability of Western citizens and in particular their media to get in a panic. “

IV May 20, 2007 9:37 PM

Anyone else notice the glitch? 0:99:99 doesn’t ever happen. The thing skips from 1 second to 0. By the way, who splits up time like that between the hundredths and thousandths of a second?

Tam May 20, 2007 10:32 PM

I’ve been taking arabic language lessons, mostly to learn more about human thinking/learning and very un-english languages. I was surprised to find the bomb joke doesn’t even come close to reasonably impersonating arabic words, but only it’s letters. It’s a funny joke, but in it’s joke it reveals a funnier, and sadder thing: our ignorance of one another. And what’s truly weird about learning arabic, from an American point of view, is that suddenly quotes like “the pilot said ‘thanks be to Allah’, ‘allah is everything’ ” no longer seem pregnant with potential terrorist meaning, they just seem ordinary responses from normal arabs in certain situations. In arabic speaking cultures it is the norm to say “Insha Allah”, ‘God willing’, and to not say it is considered arrogant. So you would say to your friend ‘see you tomorrow, Insha Allah’.
Alhamdulalah! (Thanks be to God.) Which I interpret as ‘thanks be to God there are some sane people, most of whom use Linux’ oops, hope God has a sense of humor…:)

a_lex May 20, 2007 10:40 PM

“By the way, who splits up time like that between the hundredths and thousandths of a second?”

Arabic people do ;-)!

Student May 21, 2007 2:26 AM


Well, if you have followed Iraq news you would had noticed that currently gas bombs are quite popular over there. They mix in Chlorine gas bottles in the bomb to increase the impact and make it harder for the rescue service.

Gas in itself is reasonably easy to protect against, but gas mixed with explosives is harder. That’s why they often mixed explosive and gas shells during WW1.

The rescue services now not only have secondary bombs to deal with, but also the risk of the area being contaminated with unknown poison. I think Radiac material could work just as well when it comes to preventing rescue.

Dubu May 21, 2007 2:58 AM

IV at May 20, 2007 09:37 PM:
»Anyone else notice the glitch? 0:99:99 doesn’t ever happen. The thing skips from 1 second to 0.«

Yes, I did.
And 1:99:99 doesn’t happen, either. The “fractional seconds” just go from 0 to 59, both for the middle and the rightmost fraction. So the display is more like HH:MM:SS, but running at 3600 times normal speed.

Bob May 21, 2007 3:56 AM

For those interested, the Arabic is not gibberish. Shachar Shemesh’s translation from IRC appears to be correct, though not only are the letters not “joined up”, but they’ve been written left to right instead of right to left as Arabic should be!

Drix May 21, 2007 4:07 AM

I’ve used this .swf twice in the joke form mentioned. Somehow arabic and white nerd don’t say “serious threat” when used together. They scream “that boy ain’t right”.

Reasonable May 21, 2007 6:02 AM

Two points –

  1. Thanks for the correction. Yes. My first move should be to the laptop (boot it? or is that just what they want us to do? hmmm…). Then and only then should I do my best to knock out the relevant passenger. I will remember this if I see any countdown on my next flight (Tuesday).
  2. A more important point is that the entire Bruce-ian ‘movie threat’ meme is broken.
    The probability, based on my complete knowledge, of a bomb on the plane, before I see a countdown on my neighbor’s computer is less than
    1 / 30,000 [us flights per day] * 365 [days per year] * 1[upper limit to average number of planes exploding yearly in the us in the last 10 years]
    (numbers based on )
    or about 1:10,000,000 or less.

The probability of this being a bomb, given a movie-style counter, is, say, 1:1000 (maybe there is a benefit to a countdown dashboard. maybe the terrorists also watch movies. at any rate, it’s higher than 1:10,000,000).

Given that, the actions recommended by Bruce would indeed raise the (measured) probability of this being a terrorist situation. And this, my friends, justifies a reaction.

As far as Bruce presented a cost-benefit argument against excessive security (e.g., do not scan all laptops for a countdown SWF program), once encountered, it is reasonable to react. If you carry something with wires and a clock into a plane.. umm.. just don’t. And don’t draw a wallet (or a watergun. or a chocolate bar) at a policeman telling you to -freeze-. Also, look left, right, left, before you cross the street, and always wash behind your ears.

Can I help you with any other piece of common sense, otherwise known (if not obeyed) to most 7 year olds, but not necessarily by all politically-motivated bloggers?

Neighborcat May 21, 2007 7:06 AM

IN terms of risk of deaths (even just ameriacn deaths) destruction, economic disruption, and global instability, I’d be much more alarmed to be sitting next to someone wearing a Bush/Cheney pin than someone farting around on their laptop.

tcliu May 21, 2007 7:06 AM

@Reasonable: “The probability of this being a bomb, given a movie-style counter, is, say, 1:1000 (maybe there is a benefit to a countdown dashboard. maybe the terrorists also watch movies. at any rate, it’s higher than 1:10,000,000).”

The problem with your reasoning (besides making number up out of thin air) is that you neglect to compute the probability that the laptop is a bomb given that you don’t see a countdown. See, if the probability of (bomb, given no countdown) is higher than (bomb, given countdown), then you should focus your attention on those without counters. If they are equal, you should ignore the countdown and proceed based on other evidence.

My argument is that the probability that the laptop is a bomb given a counter is less than or equal to the probability that it is a bomb given no counter.

Empirically, we have no observed instances (TV doesn’t count) of terrorists having used visible big flashy countdown timers ever, but have many, many times just exploded the bombs. Actually, of all the bombs we have seen (on board planes like Lockerbie, suicide bombers, car bombs), zero have been outfitted with flashy countdowns.

So, based on empirical evidence, the probability that an object is a bomb given that it has a flashy counter is ZERO.

Of all objects without a counter, a certain percentage (non-zero) have been bombs. We know this, because planes, cars and people have been blown up. Based on that, the probability that an object is a bomb given that it doesn’t have a flashy counter is HIGHER THAN ZERO.

So, given two people and knowledge that one of them has a bomb where one has a flashy countdown timer, and one hasn’t, it is more likely that the person without the timer has the bomb, because bombs do not have flashy timers, because real terrorists don’t bother with them and, in fact, want to remain as normal as possible before detonating their charge!

Given that a laptop without a counter is more likely to be a bomb than one with a counter, should you take action against any laptop user on the plane?

Of course not!

What this essentially tells you – if you factor in statistical noise – is that having a flashy timer on the screen is about as good an indicator of terrorism as the color of the person’s shoes.

“Can I help you with any other piece of common sense”

No mate, I’m fine. I wouldn’t want to take what little you have away from you. You go brush up on those statistics, and stay away from the TV for God’s sake.

Westwood May 21, 2007 7:50 AM

Thanks for this. I’m about to fly over the pond in a week or two, I hate flying and am not looking forward to it.

Apart from takeoff and landing, which fill me with pure (irrational, I know) terror, flying is utterly, utterly tedious.

What would I do if I saw this joke on a plane? Nothing probably: if there is a bomb about to explode, there’s nothing I can do about it except say goodbye and good riddance, cruel world, and if there isn’t, where’s the problem?

Bemused May 21, 2007 8:09 AM


“Posts like this are good precisely because of the conversation that results.”

I’m not sure about the quality of the conversation but you’ve certainly goaded many of us into a response.


“Your responses are exactly the kind of hysteria that makes the fake countdown such a good joke.”

Your critism of my post is reasonable and thoughtful. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who are neither reasonable nor thinking.
It’s the typical, average response to this joke that I was thinking of. It seems possible to me that somebody might try this joke without understanding how irrational and disproportionate the response could be. I’m not sure, but I suspect that doing this on a plane could be treated as a criminal offence by the police.

Sorry, off topic:

@Dan Theman

“It’s bad enough I have to humiliate myself each and every time I fly.”

It’s a sad sign of our times that this happens. In my more paranoid moments, I wonder if we are being deliberately softened up to prepare us for greater indignities in the future. I just try to avoid flying altogether.

wrongway May 21, 2007 8:11 AM

@westwood, your fears on takeoff and landing are perfectly rational. Almost all airplane crashes happen in close proximity to the ground.

Pavel May 21, 2007 8:17 AM

On the http://www.TheCleverest.COM‘s site, referring to the SWF:

“Under no circumstances should ANYBODY use the previous animation when they ask you to open your laptop during a security check on the subway, or in any other manner during which the display of the animation could be interpreted as a hostile act. Please defer all legal action to Penn & Teller, who gave me the idea in their 1997 book, “How to Play in Traffic.”

jayh May 21, 2007 10:10 AM

I am amazed that the commercial for the PSP game hasn’t gathered more attention:

Annoying kibbitzer on a plane, trying to tell user what to do next keeps shouting ‘cluster bomb, cluster bomb’.

a_Lex May 21, 2007 10:35 AM


=”The probability of this being a bomb, given a movie-style counter, is, say, 1:1000″=

Dear Mr. “reasonable”, where the hell from did you pull that number out?
does NOT say anything on number of “bombs with countdown screens”…

=”maybe there is a benefit to a countdown dashboard”=

Oh Holy Shoggoth shagging mary in all ports! How did you come to that idea? What is the benefit of such dashboard for a suicidal terrorist?!

=”maybe the terrorists also watch movies.”=

And another silly assumption.

Mr. Reasonable, as Jack Crawford once said, “when you assum-e, you can make an arse of both you and me”.

=”at any rate, it’s higher than 1:10,000,000″=

Oh, how come? Nice conclusion jumping, anyway…
When will you “conclude??? that Earth is 4000 years old and that homo sapiens was intentionally created by an “intelligent designer”?

=”Given that, the actions recommended by Bruce would indeed raise the (measured) probability of this being a terrorist situation. And this, my friends, justifies a reaction.”=

Yes. You should react by consulting your doctor.

=”If you carry something with wires and a clock into a plane.. umm.. “=

Like this?

=”just don’t.”=

Okay Mr “Reasonable”, I will never try to take a 89019 Sunbeam® MP3 Ready AM/FM Alarm Clock Radio on a plane going to/from US while the country is dominated by paranoid retards like you.

=”Also, look left, right, left, before you cross the street, and always wash behind your ears.”=

Glad you remember that at least. You are not hopeless. Just don’t forget to take your Nootropil twice a day.

=”Can I help you with any other piece of common sense”=

No, you do not have any.
But, it is a free country (yet), where freedom of speech is (still) respected. So you can share some more fear-motivated bible-belt stinking gibberish. Go ahead.

P.S.: Mr “Reasonable???, you have to teach your children what they should not draw at a policeman shouting “freeze”? Oh my, my, my, that is SCARY on so many levels…

Bruce Schneier May 21, 2007 10:41 AM

“I’m not sure about the quality of the conversation but you’ve certainly goaded many of us into a response.”

It’s not bad. There’s good debate on the issue.

schwarzenegger May 21, 2007 10:51 AM

This joke reminds me of the truly genious movie “last action hero” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger where Arnold enters a suspicious house and sees a stack of paper. The first sheet has a big 5 on it. he grabs it. The next paper shows a big 4. When the next paper shows a 3, he suddenly realizes that this is a countdown and grabs his buddy shouting “This is a bomb, get out of here!” In the next scene the whole building blows up.

The whole movie is a very clever and funny parody of “movie-plots”. A recommended view!

Kaa May 21, 2007 11:08 AM

A pity the text above the countdown isn’t real Arabic.

In Arabic writing each letter of the alphabet has four ways to write it — (1) as a standalone letter; (2) as the first letter of a word; (3) as a middle letter of a word; and (4) as the final letter of a word. These four ways, four forms if you wish, are usually but not necessarily different.

In this case someone took the standalone forms of letters and just put them next to each other. Also Arabic is written right-to-left and it seems that these letters were places in a left-to-right order.

Oh well.


Saxon May 21, 2007 11:32 AM

@Wireless Enthusiast:

Christians and Cthulhu cultists aren’t known for being suicide bombers. Islamic extremists are, and frequently shout “Allah Akhbar” just before detonating themselves.

Cynrh May 21, 2007 12:37 PM

Might want to flush your browser cache, folks. Ask yourselves, have you downloaded yet another joke flash file, or has this pass-it-around joke just installed a premium quality bomb-trigger UI onto thousands of laptops across the nation, just waiting for that ‘irritating’ man in the seat next to you to slam home his C4-packed USB key into your machine? Joke may be on you, indeed.

PS. What this crack crew of script analysists should have deduced by now is that the writer of this crafty bomb-trigger UI is likely a dyslexic elementary-school jihidist that’s yet to learn the other three script forms.

Rolly May 21, 2007 12:52 PM

a_Lex, I should note that christian bombers also lead in the sheer number of bombings within (nota bene!) US territory.

They were also leading in casualties prior 9/11.
That is why fundamentalist christians are so pissed at fundamentalist musslims – because muslims broke their record!

Anonymous May 21, 2007 1:59 PM

cowsay 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,…


    \   ^__^
     \  (oo)\_______
        (__)\       )\/\
            ||----w |
            ||     ||

OMG! What a scary cow on my laptop!

CapNemo May 21, 2007 2:05 PM

Eheheheh very good joke 🙂

But if someone is stupid enough to believe that a bomb has a big red timer very conspicuous … then I suggest this person to stop watching 24 serie or any hollywood movie 😉

Dscho May 21, 2007 2:15 PM

This is sad.

Bruce tries to educate people to actually use the organ in their own skull, but they don’t.

At times like these I want to take the clue bat and use it on some commenters.

CapNemo May 21, 2007 2:23 PM

There are too many who are afraid of everything nowdays.

I remember when Paris was attacked every 2 weeks (in 1995), I never stop taking the subway or walking in the street or even fear. The subway line I took every day was blowed up just 20 minutes after I took it…

If you start going that way, then you’re lost already. It’s sad that so many are afraid of almost anything and then sue people for nothing.

John May 21, 2007 4:58 PM


You suggested a “movie threat countdown” day, but didn’t pick one.

I think everybody already knows exactly which day it should be, but they are all afraid to share the 411.

It’s a shame that we live in the sort of state that the citizenry is afraid to speak up.


tcliu May 21, 2007 5:15 PM

@Bemused: I agree with you. There are really two issues here:

  1. Is it perfectly fine to assume that a countdown timer with some Arabic script above is a bomb?
  2. Is it perfectly fine to scare your fellow passengers half to death?

I’d say the answer is no to both. The first one I have already argued. The second we agree on. I consider it equivalent to, if the person next to you admits to having severe spider-phobia, telling them that you saw a real big hairy one crawl in under their seat.

It’s only a good joke if it is fun for all.

That said, if everyone suddenly claimed spider phobia I’d start telling them to man the F up and stop being afraid of tiny insects.

@Rolly: “That is why fundamentalist christians are so pissed at fundamentalist muslims – because muslims broke their record!”

Speaking of that, Reza Alsan has a very good overview of the internal strifes in Islam and how they relate to the GWoT (in particular, how we’re going to win the war on terror) here:

“How to Win a Cosmic War”

Anonymous May 22, 2007 2:01 AM

“in particular, how we’re going to win the war on terror”

One simply can’t.

Terros is not a subject of politics against which a war can be waged.

It is merely a specific combat strategy.

valz May 22, 2007 2:37 AM

Yeah, really bad joke indeed. Gets you arrested and is perfectly comparable with shouting fire in public places.

Aren’t the terrorists using countdowns like that every time they’re hitting something?

Can’t you guys remember the big red countdowns displayed just before the planes hit WTC?

Tyler May 22, 2007 6:07 AM

That would be funnier (or more accurate) if the Arabic above the counter were rendered properly. The cursive letters are not joined together. Instead they are printed as if they were each standing alone. This error doesn’t really have an equivalent in written English, but it does show the author doesn’t have any experience with Arabic at all.

I don’t speak enough Arabic to translate what it would say if written correctly, but it looks like gibberish.

tcliu May 22, 2007 7:51 AM

“”in particular, how we’re going to win the war on terror”

One simply can’t.

Terror is not a subject of politics against which a war can be waged.

It is merely a specific combat strategy.”

Ok, true. We can’t stop the combat strategy, so given a literal interpretation of “war on terror”, we can’t win. What I meant was, “how we can solve the current problems that the western world has with the islamic world”. I meant the “war on terror” in the everyman, “bearded fanatics blowing themselves and us up”, sense.

WhoToBlame May 22, 2007 2:01 PM

So the real question that I have…

is who really deserves to be arrested? The person who starts the timer or the person who falsely accusses the starter?

After all, if I never said it was a bomb, it was your assumption.. I never yelled “bomb” or said “there was a bomb”. I just started a program on my laptop.

You jumped to the conculsion. You yelled “fire” when there wasn’t one.

Prohias May 22, 2007 4:30 PM

I think that the reaction of fellow passengers / crew is time bound.

If a middle eastern looking person on a flight were to set this off with a 10 second timer, there will be no reaction because it would be way too quick.

Take the same person on say a transatlantic flight, with a count down starting at 60 minutes, head tilted upwards with eyes closed throughout. You will have a response then, especially if this person is unresponsive or dismissive of enquiries from fellow passengers.

Heck, a middle eastern looking man taking a laptop into the bathroom will cause commotion too.

Fireman May 22, 2007 7:02 PM

I keep seeing reference to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. When I was young and impressionable (read stupid), I recall first hearing it was illegal to yell that, so of course, I proceeded find out what the reaction actually was for the modern theater goer. Of course, if yelled inside the seats, there was absolutely none, because people clearly see there is no fire and do nothing. People just ignore it unless they actually hear alarms and even then they act calmly. And no one ever remembered who yelled it anyway in a dark theater because it was such a nonfactor. I would guess, nowadays, if you actually wanted to get a crazy rush to the doors in modern theaters, you’d probably have to run in and yell “shooter!” or “bomb!” with some appropriate noises. Fortunately, I am well past being a troublemaking childhood anarchist anymore.

thunderbolty May 23, 2007 8:17 AM

i tried it at home, looks realistic enough to get the sky sherriffs on red alarm status!
don’t try it in a plane – you will certainly kicked off at the next airport …

len May 23, 2007 10:49 AM

Good point, fireman.

I’ve been in a crowded restaurant and a fire alarm went off. Who got up? Nobody.

We left a few minutes later because the alarm was still on, and quite loud.

Mark May 23, 2007 7:43 PM

I’m gonna program one of these with more time on for use as a laptop security device for when I have to disappear for a bathroom break. I mean, with a cable running into your bag and this running on the screen, who’s gonna touch your laptop?

Thomas May 24, 2007 3:34 AM

“””who’s gonna touch your laptop?”””

No one.

They’re just gonna blow it up with a droid.

Probably not the outcome you were hoping for 🙂

Dror May 24, 2007 8:12 AM

Cool. 🙂
This isn’t Arabic, by the way. The letters are not even in the right form.

molocrom May 24, 2007 4:44 PM

Irony. Some people can’t recognize it.

Bomb jokes are bad taste, ok. But in this blog I would expect readers to understand irony about security, “movie plots”, terrorism succeeding in making us uncapable of laughing.

You know, not everything has to be taken at face value: if you lose the ability to spot a joke you’ll never be able to spot a threat.

Thanks Bruce.

A Real Comedian May 25, 2007 5:39 PM

if you lose the ability to spot a joke
you’ll never be able to spot a threat.

Not if we outlaw jokes!

Then it will be true that jokes don’t kill people, truth kills people!

Data Plumber May 27, 2007 1:39 AM


“your fears on takeoff and landing are perfectly rational. Almost all airplane crashes happen in close proximity to the ground.”

I don’t know if you intended that to be a joke, but i found it to be very funny.

Truly, there’s very little to crash into at 29,000 feet.

pyromaniac May 29, 2007 1:28 PM

Anyone here knowing Arabic? I’m curious, what’s the meaning of the text over the counter.

Olof May 30, 2007 4:40 PM

Everybody who says this isn’t real arabic: well, it is. Shachar Shemesh’s translation is correct (the first word is indeed Egypt at least). And the error with rigth to left writing, and “melting” the letters together isn’t necessarily the creator’s fault. Blame Adobe, who hasn’t implemented good arabic support.

Santinasi June 5, 2007 3:20 AM

A guy walks into a bank and says to the teller at the window, “I want to open a fuckin’ checking account”
To which the lady replied, “I beg your pardon, what did you say?”
“Listen up dammit, I said I want to open a fuckin’ checking account right now.”
“Sir, I’m sorry but we do not tolerate that kind of language in this bank!”
The teller left the window and went over to the bank manager and told him about her situation. They both returned and the manager asked, “What seems to be the problem here?”
“There’s no damn problem,” the man said, “I just won 50 million in the lottery and I want to open a fuckin’ checking account in this damn bank!”
“I see sir,” the manager said, “and this bitch is giving you a hard time?”
If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.

money master June 15, 2007 9:24 AM

hah! i tried viewing this from my computer at work — bank of america — and got a message that access to the site was restricted for reasons of “computer crime”.

crooked man June 15, 2007 12:32 PM

This is a bit off topic, but

Data Plumber – midair collisions are not at all unheard of, in spite of the fact that there’s more ground to run into that other airplanes…

warc0w June 15, 2007 12:48 PM

@Bruce: your pic… you almost look like the guy who played Morris on 24.

That is all.

Tom Liotta June 15, 2007 9:08 PM

  1. Funny!

  2. No, I won’t try it. My sense of humor is decidedly not near the norm.

  3. Sad! I.e., the number of seriously negative critical comments says too much about my fellow citizens.

  4. Why do so many comments keep showing up asking “What do the letters mean?” even a week later? Sure, there might be too many comments for someone to read them all; but if the comments won’t be read, why ask the question?

Bill June 16, 2007 5:02 PM

For those that asked what’s the point or message?


Oh, so you want me to explain what’s the point of humour now?

Delete expletive as required: [Jesus/Allah/Xenu]

So what if my spelling reveals my nationality, but as you Merkins would say… bite me. 😉

Have a super day! 🙂

Syllabub June 17, 2007 7:21 AM

Almost wet myself when I opened the file – hilarious, truly hilarious. Unfortunately, too many po-faced, over-literal schizophrenia candidates have rendered it sterile now. The answer to oppression is laughter, folks!!

funny June 17, 2007 9:43 PM

this is great but if someone could tell me how to cashe this on my computer or w/e people look on my screen at school me being the only person thats allowed to use a computer in my class(long story) but i dont get internet i really wanna freak people out

Little Buffalo June 18, 2007 10:22 AM

Even better is to put a live CD of Linux ( DSL, SLAX, KNOPPIX, UBUNTU
etc….) And watch the TSA agents face as it runs through its boot up process.

99% being totally unfamiliar with anything other than Windows boot
you get some very interesting reactions. Including missing your
flight which has happened to me twice.

On a more serious note I think Bruce was trying to point out just
what happened here…totally irrational reactions to a totally
harmless situation.

That was sort of the point of the fig leaf threat cartoon also.

Gentoo August 20, 2007 8:10 PM

@Little Buffalo: What the hey? “[L]ive CD”??

If I’d had to boot the laptop I’m typing this on, having just flown yesterday, the TSA would have seen Linux booting.



poopy March 13, 2008 12:43 PM

well theres some irony in that i tried this in the train and the guy beside me said” didi you make that yourself?”

wh0 July 29, 2008 2:07 AM

Why not just leave it in someone else’s seat? Cheap laptops would work best, and when everyone’s sleeping.

This shows. . .promise. . . .

Ponox December 3, 2008 5:56 PM

This is a bit off topic, but

Data Plumber – midair collisions are not at all unheard of, in spite of the fact that there’s more ground to run into that other airplanes..

Johan Kretz July 4, 2009 9:14 AM

Reasonable: I really fail to see the contradiction here. To really pull a stunt like the countdown in the aeroplane is of course utterly immoral and irresponsible. But does that mean that the thought of it can´t be funny?
For me it´s rather the opposite. It´s often the absurdity of an action that makes me giggle when I think about it.

Taylor Wiltsey September 16, 2009 1:09 AM

try this one (got it from Dane cook. Go to a bank with either a. a pair of black gloves or b. a sharpie and a piece of paper. If you chose the black gloves go in line behind someone tap their shoulder and start putting on the gloves when they turn around say “this would be a good time to leave”. If you choose the pen and paper again go in line behind someone take the pen and paper jot down a few words then ask the person in front of you “excuse me how do you spell “shoot you in the mother-fucking face” if they’ve started running tell them it was a prank if they haven’t go on saying “come on one word two three? You gotta help me here” funny

snowmangc January 8, 2010 10:12 PM

OKay iactually tried this except in school. What makes it funny is that the same day i walked into school i had a large box with me that evryone kept asking me what was inside so i gave it to my friends to hold while i did my morning in school earands. So when i got back they asked me again what was inside i said a bomb but my friends did believe me so right before we left for class i put me hands in the air and started to look like i was praying. I opened my jacket where i had my cell phone stuck to my shirt and i said to them “it is time”then pressed it. They all looked at my phone and and said holy sh*t omg. It was funny they freaked out then when it hit zero nohting happened and they calmed down. it was funny lol

mohammad May 31, 2010 9:28 AM

My manager had show me at my job and told me that you should take it on the plane and do it in front of othere passenger..i told him i am not a Terrorist he laugh at me and told me your name is Mogammad i fell so bad i am from hear forever I have a family but i can not say him anything b,coz i need the job to feed my kids it is so sad

Tim June 9, 2010 5:31 AM

Jeez, it’s just a funny joke, folks…
… don’t take everything so seriously!

Airebella January 18, 2011 1:07 PM

My best friend pissed herself and thought she was going to explode. EPIC FAIL. bahahahah.(: thanks for the laugh

John Samuel April 4, 2011 6:52 PM

Guys, if you cannot take this as a joke then the extremist Muslim terrorist nutbags win. If you display it on a plane full of people you deserve all you get.

Melanie April 7, 2011 2:02 PM

Hahhahaha everyone freaked for a minute. My coworkers like “What is that” i didint know what to say so i just said. “The time untill my pizza arrives.” Then i ordered a pizza

Michael June 27, 2012 1:29 AM

Guys, come on: It’s an SWF flash file. Just get Orbit Downloader, open grab++ and download it straight to your hard drive.

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