Ooo, a mystery bit of script! Seems legit. Let's see what happens when we run it

A bit more time on coding could save hours in the mail room


Who, Me? Monday is upon us, and with it another confession from a Register reader to make one consider one's own programming choices in the latest entry of our Who, Me? saga.

This week's tale comes from a person we'll call "Chris" and is set in the closing years of the last century, back when Windows 95 first introduced an uncertain world to the Start button and Donald Trump was just that guy eyeing up the Miss Universe pageants with a view to making a purchase.

Chris spent the mid-1990s working for a UK law firm as a senior developer on a case and document management system. Being a clever sort, he was tapped to whip up a quick script to schedule a letter to be sent to the firm's customers, advising them of a change in bank details.

Swearing and ranting

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"The letter was duly written," he told us, "and a quick five-line script knocked together and run to send it out."

It all went swimmingly and, as with many little ad-hoc scripts, was promptly forgotten about by all involved. "For a few months at least," said Chris, ominously.

And it was indeed a few months later that there was a knock on the door of the office that housed Chris's team. Did the gang have any idea why the outgoing mail batch was a good deal larger than expected?

"The system," Chris remembered, "had a virtual outgoing mail tray, and the post room used to batch-select and run them on one of the Xerox Docuprint monsters of the time, the printers so big they came with their own Sun workstation and rattled out upwards of 130ppm."

Indeed, the Xerox behemoths were quite the thing back in the day. The DocuPrint 135, for example, could churn out up to 1.5 million pages a month and had a capacity of 6,900 sheets. Enough for a forgotten bit of script to spew out all manner of paperwork.

Chris and a chum duly trotted off to the post room to investigate: "Lo and behold, there were a good few thousand more prints than they'd usually expect, with another few thousand still in the mail queue."

He glanced at the mail queue and saw, to his horror, a very familiar-looking change of bank details letter. "Oops."

"Turns out," he said, "someone on our processing team had found a script without a descriptive name, and ran it to see what it would do."

Because, of course, anyone using a computer and finding a mystery bit of code is going to simply run it and see what happens, aren't they? Just like a kid and an all too attractive flashing button before them. Of course they will.

Chris was not entirely blameless. In the hurry to write the script, he hadn't bothered with niceties such as prompts, warnings or anything to indicate the paper-based devastation that was about to happen.

The curious operator simply ran the file, saw a brief hourglass flicker on the screen, and then moved on, "blissfully unaware that they'd just engaged a mass of document-production servers to start filling the mail trays."

Chris was tediously honest and professional and, rather than attempt to direct the blame elsewhere, confessed immediately to being the author of the ream-munching script. The luckless operator was also tracked down and given a stern talking to.

It was, however, those in the post room that, undeservedly, received the worst of the punishment. Genuine mail had to be separated from the thousands and thousands bank-change letters vomited out by a combination of Chris's script and the Xerox machinery.

"Safe to say," he said, "never again have I written a batch script without a decent name and a 'Are you sure you wish to proceed?' message."

Ever seen a mystery batch file and thought "I wonder what will happen if I run this?" Or left an innocuous bit of script lying around that later caused mayhem to unfold? Of course you have – send your confession to Who, Me? for absolution or, at the very least, a pseudonym. ®

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