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That time Windows got blindsided by a ball of plasma, 150 million kilometres away

In praise of mouse balls

On Call Welcome to On Call, that time of the week when you can luxuriate in the aggravation endured by others, safe in the knowledge it would never happen to you, right?

"Russ", now an IT manager in Newcastle, regaled us with a story set a good few years ago, when Windows was at the height of its powers and mice were shedding their balls.

Back then, before his meteoric rise to management, Russ was working on the support desk for a major chemicals company. He received a call from a member of staff working in reception complaining that "a mouse had stopped working".

This was back in the days when every other PC seemed to be a HP or Compaq, replete with a branded pointing device.

Russ dutifully grabbed a spare and "walked across and had a look". He watched as the recalcitrant rodent was given a nudge.

"Sure enough, no movement at all."

He then had a crack at the mouse: "Tried it myself. Worked perfectly!"

Russ stepped back and allowed the user to poke the thing again: "Didn't work. Weird."

This went on for a while. Russ would try, and the mouse worked perfectly. The user would then have a go and the mouse steadfastly refused to respond, the Windows pointer remaining in place.

Perhaps Compaq had installed some sort of early palm-print recognition, or maybe the user's hands were just too sweaty? Baffled, Russ switched out the suspect mouse for the new one.

"Worked fine for me."

But surprise, surprise: "User tried. Wouldn't work..."

Russ was getting ready throw in the towel at this point; time had worn on and the game of pointer ping-pong showed no sign of abating.

Then, in an unexpected twist, the mouse mysteriously began responding to the user.

Ever the professional, did Russ spend the rest of the day trying to understand the problem?

Of course not. He "ran away quickly before it stopped again".

Alas, the next day at the same time, the phone rang again. The mouse had stopped working.

Again Russ grabbed a new mouse, and again the same scenario played out. The mouse would work for Russ, but not for the user.

Our hero tottered around to the user's side of the desk to have a good look around. Perhaps there was some hidden cable or loose connection that only shorted if the user leaned just there...

Russ "had to squint because of the low sun coming in through the window".


"Eureka!" he told us, "the sun was at just the right angle to swamp the optical sensors. When I tried, my shadow was blocking the sun. It worked. When I stepped back the sun swamped it again.

"Pulled the blinds down, fixed the problem."

Sometimes the loss of mouse balls can have the most unexpected of consequences and ludicrously simple of solutions.

As a postscript, Russ told us that the case design of the mice was a tad shonky and the light had likely slipped through the cracks when the sun was in just the right place. It, according to Russ, has "never happened again."

Ever been stumped by a seemingly impossible problem, only to find the answer is about as low tech as it is possible to be? Same here. Drop an email to On Call and tell us all about it. ®

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