'Please store the internet on this floppy disk'

Plus the farmer who had mastered phone cameras, but wasn't yet good at email

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On-Call Welcome again to another edition of On-Call, which we run daily during the news drought that is the week before Christmas to share the tech support stories that readers sent in earlier in the year.

Today: Especially dim users who asked for especially simple fixes.

One such story came to us from "Jim", who was once given the job of deploying a shiny new fleet of laptops to his team.

"These laptops had combo PCMCIA cards that provided LAN and 56K modem ports, and required a dongle for the LAN portion," Jim explained.

The rollout mostly went well, other than one user who Jim told us "had been having ongoing issues with his desktop and was happy to finally be able to switch to his laptop and port replicator on his desk. As I was installing it and showing him how to hook everything up, he continued giving me a mostly polite rebuff about taking so long to get around to him."

The user's grumpiness increased overnight, as Jim came to work to find "several voicemail messages from him demanding I come by as soon as I got in".

Upon arrival, Jim was lambasted for having left the new laptop unable to connect to a network, and told off for doing his job so badly.

"I walked over to his desk, and took a second to assess the situation and saw the issue immediately.

"Slowly, very deliberately, as he was starting to ramp up his complaining, I plugged the dongle into his laptop. His access was restored immediately. He looked at me sheepishly, and apologised and then turned back to his work."

Down on the farm

"Don" told us he once worked for a company that "dealt with farmers" under circumstances that required photographic evidence of its work.

"Around 2010 one such farmer was up to date enough to use a five-year-old Motorola feature phone to take the photos. But that was the limit of his skills: The phone was posted to our office in a jiffy bag.

"The data cable was bespoke and not included, but luckily the phone had full charge and Bluetooth so I was able to transfer the photos to my phone and then to the network.

"The event kept the office in occasional giggles for months."

The physical layer

"George" sent a story from his time working as tech support manager for seminal 1980s Cambridge outfit Torch, which gave the world some fine Unix desktop workstations.

Users in those good old days typically had little computer experience. Unix experience was scarcer still.

So George wasn't entirely surprised to hear his colleagues explaining how to fix an issue with letter-by-letter instructions about what to type to solve the problem of a printer that wouldn't.

The user was also told to fiddle some switches on the esoteric hardware of the era, but even that didn't help.

George eventually overheard a conversation that went like this:

Tech support chap: OK, we need to check the cable.

Customer: Which cable?

Tech support chap: The one connecting the computer to the printer.

Customer: I don't have a cable connecting the computer to the printer – do I need one?

Tech support chap (with lip now profusely bleeding): Yes

Customer: Oh... this is much more difficult than I had imagined.

Roll with it, please

Lastly for today, meet "Andre" who "worked as a sysadmin in the University of Mining and Geology in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the '90s".

Andre told us the university's internet was so good it became a commercial service provider and therefore had to take on support for its users.

"We've had our share of interesting situations, like the time a user showed up holding a 3.5" floppy insisting that a colleague of mine should 'store the internet' on it."

Andre said things got far, far worse when "we started switching users to Eudora from the previously used text-based interface".

For those of you who don't remember Eudora, it was a fine email client with a good GUI for its era.

But not good enough for one user, who called Andre to complain that half his email was missing.

The 1990s was not the golden age for email reliability, and Andre surmised that the user was dialling in for mail on the 1,200bps or 2,400bps modems that were common at the time. Those devices often glitched, leaving mail stranded.

Andre's diagnostic efforts eventually saw him send a substantial text file to the user to see if it would all land.

Doing so meant he had to hang up on the user so they could plug in their modem, download the mail, disconnect the modem and call back to report that "half the message is missing!"

So Andre tried again with a smaller file, which produced the same result. A few similar tests later, with ever-smaller files, and Andre finally asked which half of the message was missing.

To which the user responded "the right half".

"He had resized his Eudora window down to the point where it could not show the full message and did not know how what horizontal scrollbars are for," Andre told us.

Have your users missed blindingly obvious problems? If so share their stupidity with On-Call and we'll try to give your story a run in 2018. ®

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