So you locked your backups away for years, huh? Allow me to introduce my colleagues, Brute, Force and Ignorance

It's Hammer Time

On Call Welcome back to On Call, The Register's wall where readers inscribe the antics of users so those on the other end of the phone might consider their career choices.

Today's tale sees the return of Register favourite Alessandro, whom we last encountered "taking one for the team" in a real sense as he fought to hang on to his Unix guru in the face of some Oracle plonkery.

Even managers have to start somewhere and, like many of us, Alessandro's illustrious IT career began in support. In this case, working for a small IT company many years ago.

"I was," he told us, "sent out to one of the earliest customers."

The client was a veritable dreamboat: they never called and always paid their maintenance on time. They were also, as Alessandro put it, "a bigwig accountant."

"Not our accountant," he added. Which was handy, considering what happened next.

Of course, the honeymoon couldn't last, and eventually Alessandro was sent to pay an inevitable on-site visit with the simple instruction: "Whatever happens, just fix it!"

Alas, the reason for the call-out was vague: "The computer doesn't bloup-bloup any more and just sits there."

Alessandro obediently trotted to the site and found, even by the standards of the time, an ancient, beige (it might have been white once upon a time) IBM XT that would not boot.

Friends drinking beers after work

Beware the Friday afternoon 'Could you just..?' from the muppet who wants to come between you and your beer


You can imagine the horrors that lurked within. As well as the tar from years of tobacco smoke, there was "ash, spider webs and assorted dirt".

"My first problem-solving question of the day was: Do you have a vacuum cleaner?"

Having cleaned the thing up, Alessandro hoped it might boot but alas, nothing.

No problem: "Where are your backups?"

A box of floppy disks was extracted from a safe (sensible) but Alessandro was given only two of the 10, labelled BACKUP01 and BACKUP02. After a bit of awkward prodding, the customer admitted to "safely keeping the original backup locked away for years because he was told to…"

But he'd never actually taken another. For years.

What to do? The bigwig would not be keen on re-entering all the data. Brute force and experience would have to come to the rescue.

"Back then," Alessandro told us, "you could actually hear a computer boot: first the power supply's fan would spin up, a second-and-a-half later the hard disk would spin up while the first BIOS messages were displayed."

This was where the problem lay. The disk got rather hot to the touch but did not appear to start spinning up, leaving the old XT floundering.

Alessandro proceeded down his fault-finding tree: "Do you have a hammer?"

Of course not (unless one counted the hefty mallet-shaped thing lurking in the shed) so casting around for an alternative, Alessandro alighted on a natty leather-bound agenda.

"After duly asking permission to use said agenda as a hammer and receiving permission I went on to power up the (still open) computer, waited for the fan to spin up, seeing the first BIOS message coming on the screen and… WHACK!"

Nothing. The disk still refused to boot. After warning the customer that a few goes might be needed, Alessandro turned it off, turned it on again and thumped the recalcitrant machine once more.

Still nothing.

"By this time, the customer was in a bit of distress and said that I clearly didn't know what I was doing, after which I told him all his data was lost anyway and there was nothing to lose."

Alessandro pointed at the binders on the shelves and warned the customer that all those figures would need to be re-entered by hand into a new computer if this didn't work and continued to give the obstinate disk a good thrashing with the binder.

The customer was soon on the phone to Alessandro's boss, complaining that he was just bashing the disk with an expensive executive agenda rather than fixing anything when… the disk spun up: "The computer booted right up in the DOS menu and I heard the customer say: 'Oh... It just bloup-blouped again!'"

As he frantically backed up the customer's data, Alessandro learned what was meant by "bloup-bloup".

While well versed in the lingo of ledgers, computer jargon was beyond the customer. He had therefore made up his own. The noise the PC made as the old Seagate drive creaked into live and MS-DOS crawled onto the screen was "bloup-bloup", and so that was the phrase for "it booted successfully".

Now educated, Alessandro instructed the customer to make backups every day, order a new PC and, for goodness sake, do not turn the old thing off.

Three weeks later another call came in from the beloved customer. The PC had been accidentally turned off, but not to worry – backups had been made, so could a new one be brought over?

Oh, and "please, don't send the crazy hammer guy!"

Ever brought one of IBM's finest back to life with a satisfying slapping? Or got your own words for the mysterious activities undertaken by a computer's internals until your operating system of choice pops up on-screen? Come carve your own tale into the confessional wall with an email to On Call. ®

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