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Everybody's time is precious, pal: Sometimes it isn't only the terminals that are dumb

Modem life is rubbish

12BoC On the third day of Christmas, the bork gods sent to me: petty angry user, flightless Windows signage, and a server they said had ceased to be. Welcome to the Twelve Borks of Christmas (12BoC): a collection of Register reader stories of amusing and frustrating tech sightings over the festive period.

We take a jaunt over the Atlantic for today's tale, from a reader Regomised as "Keith".

Our story takes place back in the days when modems were frequently found attached to dumb terminals. Keith and his team were responsible for supporting a fleet of the devices and, over the years, they had become rather good at spotting their various problems after a few simple questions.

On the day in question a member of Keith's team received a call from one of their paying customers.

"Seems the terminal was not working," recalled Keith, "so my partner went through the standard list of questions and got to asking what the lights on the modem were."

One of the lights was flashing, a symptom the team knew was the result of a loopback mode being activated. This was activated by a switch on the back of the box that was often inadvertently turned on by a careless modem move or debris falling behind. A simple fix, surely?

Alas, no. "The user refused to look at the switches," said Keith. "The modem was in a place 'where nobody can touch it' and he was losing tens of thousands of dollars per minute wasting his time on the phone with us!"

Such was the volume of the user's distress that Keith could make out both sides of the conversation. The customer was located a mile away and the techie really didn't fancy a trudge in the rain to fix something that could be dealt with by a simple flick of a switch.

The customer would not be persuaded and, after presumably burning yet more cash by refusing to look at the back of the modem, "screamed something to the effect of 'I pay you tons of money for a service and I demand you come and fix it!' and hung up."

"Well," said Keith, "my unfortunate pal had to pack up a spare modem and take the long, wet hike to an obscure location that he ended up searching about 15 minutes to find when he was at the block due to the varied entrances to the building."

Cold, dripping and miserable, he eventually reached the customer's desk. From 20 feet away he could see the problem. The modem was perched on top of the dumb terminal, and next to it was a pile of papers as high as the terminal itself. As the miserable techie approached, he saw someone grab a paper from the top of the pile... jarring the modem as it was dragged over it.


Since Mr Angry was not present (presumably burning another few thousand in a bathroom stall), the tech grabbed the person at the neighbouring desk, and showed them where the offending switch was.

"Oh, yeah, we know," was the response. "That gets flipped about once a week and we always reset it. Don't know why Mr Angry is being a prick today, he knows too."

A longer-term workaround was needed. So the cable was freed from the pile of papers and the modem rotated through 180 degrees. The switch was now facing away from the papers and so less likely to be accidentally knocked. Sorted!

"Problem resolved, my friend made the long march back with the spare modem," said Keith, "arriving in an approximation of a drowned rat, leaving a three-foot puddle next to my desk as he explained the scenario."

While no hint of an "oops, sorry" was ever forthcoming from Mr Angry, Keith continued dealing with the customer for many more months. He never did speak to Captain Thousand-Dollar-A-Minute again – "He insisted on the secretary forwarding the calls to me so he wouldn't have to apologize to my man." ®

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