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You can always rely on the Ancient Ones to cock things up

When white goods go bad

Something for the Weekend, Sir? We have installed a water feature in Dabbs Mansions. It’s an impressive vertical fountain with a splash radius of two metres. In hindsight, it was probably a mistake to install it in the utility room.

To be honest, I don’t even remember ordering it. The first I knew about the whole thing was returning home after an hour and a half of copious sweating in the gym (the laces on my trainers are so difficult to untie) to find my wife even more drenched than myself.

Naturally, I was taken aback to see Half-life standing in two inches of water in the utility room. She was garbed in an oilskin and rubber wellies, completely wet through and holding a mop in one hand and a plunger in another.

Goodness, I thought, was it Saturday already?

What I believed we had installed was a new washing machine. The previous day, some nice men took the old one away, plugged in the new one, ran a supply-and-drain test, then left.

Less than 24 hours later, we decided to try it out with a full wash – at which point the new washing machine, with all its blinking lights and computerised controls, decided to reconfigure itself into a dumb fountain pump and reconfigure our utility room into an indoor Lake Geneva.

I would have loved this as a child: I always wanted to be one of The Champions. By preference, I'd be William Gaunt because he seemed kind of dopey and that's a look I perfected from infancy.

Youtube Video

The pump worked brilliantly. Unfortunately, the drainage pipe didn’t.

A plumber was duly called and he proceeded to reproduce the fountain effect three times: once to confirm the problem, a second time to make absolutely sure and a third time, I suppose, just for fun.

For readers who find tales of domestic white goods thrilling and stories about plumbing curiously arousing, you may be fascinated to learn that the culprit was the external drainage pipe being completely blocked by roots.

For me, though, the fascinating aspect of this otherwise bland anecdote is that a drainage pipe that had been entirely root-free for the last 18 years would suddenly become blocked solid quite literally overnight. These alien-like roots grew at an uncannily accelerated rate, from “non-existent” to “100% blockage”, in the few hours between the new washing machine being tested and us actually using it.

To add to the Twilight Zone feel to the day, the fridge blew a fuse and a lightbulb in the shower chose that moment to begin flickering.

Half-life found the experience annoying and unsettling. But as I patiently tried to explain, albeit while standing waist-high in swilling turds as I cleared roots from the blocked drain in front of the house (not a good look, especially when presenting a TED Talk), there is nothing mysterious about stuff going wrong in unlikely ways. Nor is there anything bizarre in the synchronicity of multiple unassociated devices going wrong at the same time.

They are simply doing it on purpose to piss us off.

I defy any reader to tell me they don’t experience this on a regular basis at work. System faults and service outages never occur in isolation but in what appear to be concerted, progressive scenarios of self-destruction, orchestrated by the Old Digital Gods.

Has your server died? I bet that’s the moment your backup server also chooses to start teetering, while your Restore routine inexplicably begins acting like a two-year-old in a supermarket till queue.

Has your website gone down? That’ll be because your bosses launched a £10m digital marketing promotion the previous day, the site developer is on vacation and the hosting company support centre is on fire.

Truly, the Ancient Ones are wicked buggers, intent on causing maximum difficulty while lending the strongest whiff of weirdness to anything touched by their interfering tentacles.

My suspicions in this respect were first confirmed some years ago during a dev project, whose freaky scenario would be worthy of Astounding Tales comic in an episode entitled The Cursed Dialog of Thoth.

As a matter of course during usability testing, I logged a minor issue involving a pop-up information message window that read:

Please ensure the child element is linked to it’s parent.

I’m sure you agree it doesn’t matter much compared with, say, the world refugee crisis, but I politely asked for it’s to be changed to its. The wayward apostrophe was traced to a language file and duly eliminated.

Two weeks later, an update to the system was rolled out and the UAT process recommenced. Shortly after, I stumbled across the following pop-up information message window:

Please ensure the child element is linked to it’s parent.

How the hell did that get back in there? I logged the typo again, which as before was traced to a language file and nixed.

Not long after this, we were treated to another update. I was treated to:

Please ensure the child element is linked to it’s parent.

This time, even the developers were looking spooked. According to their investigations, the update had not rolled back to a previous language file as suspected, since all other corrections remained intact. It was as if the system had determined to retype just that one apostrophe all by itself.

The text file was corrected once again and pushed out to clients. Users could once again enjoy the system unmarred by the prospect of the black cloud of inaccurate punctuation disrupting their on-screen experience.

The next morning, however:

Please ensure the child element is linked to it’s parent.

“What the FUCK...?!” wailed one of the shocked devs in their office aquarium when he saw it. Questions were asked at the 9am stand-up, 10am sit-down and 11am prostrate meetings. Questions were raised in the House. Red telephones lit up in the Bat-Cave. The issue was escalated to the UN, the pope and the Dalai Lama.

Long after I departed the project, I learnt that this message had been corrected several times over the years, even rewritten using phraseology entirely without possessives, only for it to occasionally revert to its evil original for no logical reason.

I found myself back at that company recently and couldn’t help but have a go on the slick current iteration of the system. Discovering without any surprise that my nine-year-old username and password were still valid, still granting me admin rights that I had no rights to any more, I tried to assign a child element.

Please ensure the child element is linked to it’s parent.

I think this is fantastic. Just when you worry that everyday life is rational and dull, it’s brilliant to be reminded that you can always trust the Old Gods to keep cocking things up for us. After all, we can always call upon Ikabai-Sital to put things right.

Anyway, must dash. I’ve just thought of yet another novel use for the plunger and mop.

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. At the risk of hexing it, he wishes to assure readers that his washing machine is now working fine. His unsavoury gym clothes are now clean and fresh and his Y-fronts have a kind of bluey whiteness he likes.

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