'The capacitors exploded, showering the lab in flaming confetti'

In 'On-Call' techies blame users for messes. In 'Who, me?' it's all your own fault

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Who, me? Welcome to the very first edition of “Who, me?” a new Reg column we hope will prove as entertaining as our Friday On-Call tales of tech support gigs gone wrong.

In Who, me? we’ll celebrate the times techies stuffed up, the lessons learned and the career consequences.

To kick things off, meet “Alvin”, who “In the early '90s was an undergrad at an electrical engineering college.”

As you’d expect of such a student, Alvin “was prototyping a circuit I had put together on a bread board which was connected to a PC clone used by one of my Professors.”

“The connection was via a PCI prototyping card that supplied all of the data lines, and power directly from the motherboard. The circuit I was working on was not behaving as it should and in the process of debugging I narrowed it down to a simple 3 to 8 converter chip.

Alvin told us he “started testing the chip by manually applying input signals and checking the outputs when the chip went TITSUP (Total Inability To Support Undergraduate Prototyping).”

And not just TITSUP, but TITSUP and KABOOM!

“The 3 to 8 converter chip exploded, sending a small piece of packaging shrapnel into my forehead and leaving an actual crater in the chip,” Alvin recalled. “The power surge of the chip failing violently also made my professor’s PC to go TITSUP.” That’s a Total Inability to Support Unexpected Powersurge, by the way.

[Kudos to Alvin for giving us two new TITSUPs – Ed]

Next: “All of the capacitors exploded showering the lab in flaming confetti.”

Suffice to say that not much was left of the PC. The only part Alvin could recognise as intact was a floppy drive. The rest was either glowing, or smoking, or both.

Among the wreckage was a hard disk drive, which was more of a problem than you’d imagine because we’ve so far neglected to tell you that this was the professor’s main PC and its disk was full of research data and papers. Alvin survived the incident, both literally and in terms of not being thrown out of college. He even managed to get the disk working again, by buying an identical drive and marrying its logic board to the platters from the dead machine.

He’s kept the cratered chip to this day as a reminder of the dangers in digital circuit design, and also offered readers two lessons. Firstly, “when prototyping, use a separate power supply on the bread board.“ And secondly, “Never prototype using your professor's computer.”

Have you blown things up, broken them, lost data, caused downtime or fat-fingered code in unhelpful ways? If so, clicking here to write to Who, me? is just the thing to get your failure off your chest, and into an anonymised Reg story on some future Monday. ®


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