We've all found ourselves sitting at a traffic light that lasted so long we thought, "It's broken. I've sat through two top-of-the-hour newscasts." And we consider just ... driving.

But no. Thus begins a life of crime. Undo that slender thread, and your entire moral infrastructure unravels.

You may have been extra tempted last week in Minneapolis: a squall bollixed the computer that runs the signals, and the timing was reset. Says the city's website: "The system is currently using a backup signal timing plan, which means traffic signals are still following the standard 'green, yellow, red' sequence." That's a relief. If they went to the nonstandard "red, green, yellow" sequence, people would be utterly confused.

But they're on it. We expect that, don't we? Last week the same storm knocked out power at our house, and when everything suddenly went quiet I had that greasy little fear: I did pay the bill, right?

When I called Xcel to report an outage -- because I'm sure they had no idea what that siren and blinking red light on the control board meant -- the recorded voice said they were on it, and power should be restored at 7:23 p.m.

Not 7:22. 7:23.

That's quite remarkable. Either they have an algorithm that estimates the repair based on severity, crew staffing and distance from the maintenance facility, or Fred has to turn a switch, and he comes in at 7, and it usually takes him a while to get a cup of coffee and check his e-mail. (They should just say "the power will be on at 12:00," because when it returns, that's what everyone's clock says.)

Anyway, the signals. The city says its software engineers are working on the problem, located in a central computer that controls 700 of 800 signals. You suspect this means "trying to find the sleeve the install disk came in, because it has the serial number."

And have you noticed? I have. There's an intersection I use daily where the light is red for so long you wonder if you should fill out a change-of-address card. It went to green quite quickly the other day. So, as long as you're poking around in the code, guys, could you find the line that says IF driver = weeping THEN add 2 minutes to red" and fiddle with the duration? My deepest thanks. If I decide to run that light, and weeks later I'm knocking over banks, you've only yourselves to blame.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858