Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced techie is indistinguishable from magic

And with a wave of his hand, the printer was fixed

On Call Friday is here and while we cannot promise a break in the weather, we can bring forth another recollection from those brave souls staffing the helpdesk courtesy of The Register's On Call mailbag.

Today's tale comes from a person the Regomiser has elected to call "John" and rolls back the decades to when DOS and dot-matrix ruled the roost, and a GUI in the office was a dim and distant dream.

Our story takes place as the 1980s rolled into the 1990s and US television drama Miami Vice was wheezing its last.

Sadly, toiling away in IT support, John's duties were somewhat more prosaic than the antics of Crockett and Tubbs. His recollection begins with the inevitable phone call: a printer in one of the company's depots was behaving erratically.

"As the most junior member of the team I was sent to investigate," he said. The workers at the depot in question had a reputation for playing practical jokes so John was offered up as the sacrificial lamb.

Making his visit early in the morning, when everything was working, John checked the offending machine. It was a Brother dot-matrix printer, replete with fan-fold paper featuring sprocket holes, and was connected to an IBM PC running DOS and WordPerfect.

Apps and operating systems in those days did not demand the same level of interminable updates and patches of today, and having checked that the cables were connected correctly and nothing was amiss with the autoexec.bat and config.sys files, John drew a blank. He noted down the settings and asked the jesters in the depot to give him a call when the printer started misbehaving again.

Sure enough, at 1pm, the call came through. The printer had stopped working.

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I got 99 problems, and all of them are your fault


Left alone to deal with the offending device while everyone else headed off for lunch, John pondered the problem. Using his notes, he verified that nothing had been changed, but still the machine was silent.

However, the online light was off. Obvious, right?

He leaned over the printer to check the connections, and the light came back on again, seemingly by itself.

Lean back, and the light went off.

Nervously looking around in case some japery was being enacted, John repeated the process. There was nobody wielding some sort of printer remote control. Was the thing possessed?

"I slowly lean over again to look at the cables behind the printer and again the online light goes on," he told us. "I slowly stand back up and off it goes."

He didn't tell us exactly how long it was before the penny dropped, but when he tried once more he noticed his shadow was moving across the printer as he leaned forward: "As my shadow reaches the rubber roller that pushes the paper, the online light comes on."

He began waving his hands over the printer like some sort of 1980s TV magician to find the spot that was causing the issue. Peering into the guts of Brother's finest he spotted a light detector used to ensure paper was loaded so printing onto the rubber roller would not happen. The afternoon sun shone directly onto the spot, tripping the detector and knocking the printer offline.

When the staff returned from lunch, John proudly announced the problem was resolved. First he demonstrated it not working. Then, "like a magician," he closed the window blinds with a flourish and the printer began to do its stuff. "You'll like this, not a lot, but you'll like it," he did not say.

Eventually he explained to the befuddled users what was going on before returning to his office, the conquering hero.

"My boss," he told us, "was very impressed."

The printer manufacturer, Brother, was also impressed: "They acknowledged that they had a handful of reports of intermittent faults for this model and following my solving the root cause, they designed a plastic piece that fit over the light detector to prevent this issue."

Ever performed some IT wizardry that was indistinguishable from magic for the average user? Or had a major manufacturer tweak their product in the face of your extreme cleverness? The time has come to share your On Call moment with an email to The Register. ®

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