The wastepaper basket is on the other side of the office – that must be why they put all these slots in the computer

Wow, this PC is hot stuff... actually it might be a bit too hot

On Call Can you smell burning? Is it the Friday morning bacon? Are you having a stroke? Or is it something more sinister? Find out in this week's episode of On Call.

Regomised as "Will", our hero was the IT manager for a government department responsible for supporting lawmakers and looking after a number of security agencies and task forces.

The Regomiser takes anonymity very seriously so we'll leave it up to you to guess the country involved. The story itself takes place nearly 30 years ago.

"One such task force was aimed at overhauling national policy for targeted crime prevention," said Will. As is so often the case, one member was, as Will delicately put it, "a little bit hard of thinking" when it came to new technology.

The user's "lack of computer fluency was exceptional," he went on, "even for the 1990s."

Woman singing loudly at work

We know it's hard to get your kicks at work – just do it away from a wall switch powering anything important


Will's day usually involved at least one visit to the user's desk to demonstrate, once again, how to change a font, reorder cells in a spreadsheet, or create a chart or two. The joy of impromptu training dispensed by an IT professional over and over again.

It went on like this until the day when The Call came in. Well used to the user's cries for help, Will answered the telephone, ready to tell the user where the "any" key was located and give instruction on where a mouse might be inserted.

Today's call was different. Smoke was coming out of the user's computer! Will barked out instructions to turn the device off and rushed to where it was located.

Unlike several contributors to this column, Will had managed to persuade the users that keeping their computers on their desks was A Good Idea since it stopped fluff from the floor being sucked into the inner workings and causing problems.

This PC was in the recommended position, on the desk, but was indeed emitting smoke. Nearby staff, perhaps hopeful of a morning trip to the local coffee shop, inquired if an evacuation might be in order.

Bravely, Will removed the case and peered within.

There was no evacuation needed today.

The user had come up with a fire-starting wheeze that Will had not anticipated.

"I found a 10-15cm stack of memo-cube type note paper inside the computer," he explained. "It had been building up over many months and nestling on the CPU and memory like a cosy thermal blanket.

"The stack had been nicely framed by the power supply (blocking the fan), some adapter cards and the side of the case. Until it started smouldering."

Will swiftly flipped the computer over and tipped the embers onto the floor, where he stomped them out.

The user never gave him an explanation for why the paper had been inserted. Will speculated that maybe dropping them into the wastebaskets destined for the shredder was not deemed secure enough. Or perhaps reaching for the bin was too much of an effort.

Whatever the reason, the user had spent the last few months feeding handwritten notes into the 1-2mm gap in the case between the blanking plates for the floppy drives (not fitted due to security requirements). Once the paper was out of sight, it was out of mind.

"Apart from a stern talking to from me," sighed Will, "there were no other repercussions" for the user.

"My visits to help," he said, "finally came to an end a few months later when the task force was moved to another government agency."

Hopefully not one responsible for Health and Safety.

Creativity is the name of the game when it comes to user-inflicted computer destruction. Share your tales of the surprises you found when answering a call for help. An email to On Call is all it takes. ®

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