George Clooney of IT: Dribbling disaster and damp disk warnings scare the life out of innocent user

Practical jokes: just don't


On Call Welcome to another entry in The Register's On Call files, where we learn that the hilarious pranks of an IT joker can be enjoyed as much as millionaire actor George Clooney's "fun" leg-pulling.

"Jim" returns once more to pages of On Call with a tale of poorly targeted japery and an unfunny practical joke. Is there any other sort?

We skip once more to the 1980s and the mighty IBM XT, a fleet of which Jim was tasked with supporting. Data entry had been done by punch cards back in the day, but the PC now reigned supreme. Keypunchers banged in information via keyboard, as Jim explained: "Floppy disks holding the keypunch program were inserted to provide the OS, and then the other floppy in a dual system held the precious data, from which the company earned its crust."

The floppies in question were of the 5.25-inch variety although the XT had an almost impossibly exotic 10MB hard drive as part of its normal set of equipment. The users, however, were trained to boot from the floppy disk and do their important keypunching duties.

Up until the fateful day.

"One morning," Jim told us, "I got a panicky call from one of the keypunchers, who screamed, 'The computer says it's full of water!'"

Impossible, thought Jim. Even if the keypuncher had been a little clumsy with the water bottle, the PC would not whinge about it. There might be a puff of smoke, maybe a spark, and that would be that.

Moisture sensors that display messages on screens are, after all, a relatively recent thing. This hack well remembers taking a borked iPhone to a UK Apple Store and being told the thing had clearly got wet and he should not use it in the rain. In the UK.

Dutifully, Jim pitched up at the desk of the distressed user. He booted up the PC: "It duly said that Drive C: was full of water and made a sucking sound as the XT said, 'Draining...'"

The keypuncher was convinced they had somehow ruined the very expensive IBM kit. Work would not be done, and the walk of shame through the office with a sad cardboard box of personal effects seemed in the offing.

Through a sobbing haze of tears and snot, they looked to Jim for salvation. And salvation he had, in spades.

"I consoled her," he said, "calmed her down, gave her a new disk with the proper boot OS on it, and set out to find the dastardly dastard who'd given her a floppy with 'drain.com' on it, set to run on startup."

What a lark! We remember those amusing DOS programs from back in the day. DRAIN.COM, according to an old forum, "throws up a fake error saying there's water in your floppy drive, then runs the 'spin cycle' (plays with the disk motor and plays a rising tone over the PC speaker - much more funny if you have an actual 5.25' drive for it to play with)"

Funny indeed.

Jim did eventually find the perpetrator. He took him to one side for a quiet word: "If you'd tried that on me, I'd have laughed and shared a drink afterwards.

"Trying it on a keypuncher who wasn't experienced enough to realise that it was a joke was a terrible trick to play.

"If you do it again, I'll personally march you off the premises never to return."

There was, he told us, no further DRAIN.COM hilarity thereafter.

Did Jim do the right thing, or was he a bit of a humourless grouch? Have you ever had to deal with the fall-out from a joke gone wrong? Or were you the perpetrator? Confess all with an email to On Call. ®

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