On-Call Welcome once more to On Call, The Register’s regular foray into the freaky world of tech support.
This time, we meet “Alexis”, who was called upon to help solve a mystery for a legal publishing company during a boozy lunch with its boss – something we can all get behind on a Friday.
“During the early 1980s, I was dabbling in a little freelance consultancy work,” Alexis told us. “This was back in the days of the early PCs, which didn’t have hard drives, and both machine operating systems and software applications had to be booted up from floppy disks.”
Alexis – who was learning the hard way there really is no such thing as a free lunch – was getting his brains picked by the MD ("while I was picking at my spaghetti”) when the boss mentioned one office's computer problems.
“The issue was that, first thing in a morning, the computer wouldn’t work properly, but after a couple of hours it would begin functioning properly – until the following morning, when the problem reccured.”*
The firm was stumped. It had had the hardware tested, and done the same for the software on the floppy disks, but everything came back fine.
Alexis said that before the end of the alcohol-fuelled lunch, at about 4pm (those were the days!), the MD had even confided that there was a rumour that the office, located in an old building near St Paul’s Cathedral, was haunted.
“It had even been suggested that perhaps the ghost objected to the introduction of new technology into an office that probably hadn’t changed much since Victorian times,” he said.
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On visiting the office one morning, Alexis did indeed find that it took the computer at least an hour before it was functioning properly – and that “some parts of the office were distinctly spooky”.
But our fearless techie continued his investigation, concluding that if it wasn’t a supernatural problem, there might be a natural cause: human error.
“I had the staff describe their daily routine, which on the face of it seemed perfectly normal,” Alexis said, with nothing screaming out "operator error".
“Anything else?” asked 1980s Alexis. “No,” replied the staffers... Well, apart from the fact they stored all the floppy disks in the office safe overnight.
Being a great iron lock-up that had probably been there since the 19th Century, they reasoned this was a sensible, secure, fire-proof location.
But what the staff hadn’t realised was that the difference between the room temperature office and the cool interior of the safe meant that condensation formed on the magnetic surfaces of the disks overnight.
“It was this that was causing the computer disk drives to be unable to read them first thing the following morning,” Alexis said. “After a couple of hours the condensation evaporated and the disks began operating normally.”
And so the mystery was solved. “No ghosts – unless the condensation counts as digital ectoplasm," said Alexis.
As our critics will no doubt agree, El Reg does love a good scare story. So if you have any more tales of spooky sysadmins or terrifying tech traumas, send them in here or email the author directly, over here. If we get enough, there’s a Halloween special in it for you all. ®
* FWIW, similar problems with morning go-slows at Vulture Central are often solved by pouring coffee down writers' throats.