Can't get that printer to work? It's not you. It's that sodding cablin.... oh beautiful job with that cabling, boss

Goodbye, Mr Chips


On Call There are few things worse than when someone nicks your chips, be they of the potato or silicon variety as our latest delve into the annals of On Call reveals.

"Ben", as the Regomiser has dubbed today's contributor, was tasked with supporting a network consisting of a pair of decade old HP1000 minicomputers. The devices ran the Real Time Executive (RTE) operating system (RTE6, according to Ben) and the software used by his company was written in Fortran.

The application itself was to analyse oil wells and a Versatec plotter was used to spit out a curve showing data versus depth. Ben told us he later wrote an extension to locate areas where water was being extracted instead of oil; he hoped to call it "Well Analysis - New Knowledge" but his nerve failed and the potential for acronym naughtiness was sadly lost to time.

Back in the mid-1980s, however, all was going well. A satellite office was keen to get their hands on the application. Ben got the call, and a second-hand minicomputer was sourced. Our hero set out to the office to get the gear up and running.

Initially things went swimmingly. Until it was time to plug in the printer. No second-hand cast-offs needed here – the device was still available off the shelf. But, alas, it did not work. Sure, it passed all the self-tests and Ben checked the driver configuration against a known good system, "but I could not get it to work," he told us.

The usual round of telephone ping pong kicked off as Ben and the vendor's support engineer tried everything possible to solve the problem.

"The engineer resorted to blaming our cabling," Ben told us, "Unfortunately for him, he voiced his theory to the newly promoted supervisor, who was offended and said, 'I installed that cabling and I believe it's correct. You can replace the cabling. If it fixes the problem, I'll pay for it. If it does not fix the problem, you pay.'"

Unsurprisingly, the engineer lacked the authority to agree to the plan, and so the problem dragged on and on.

The printer was connected to the computer via a hefty interface card "something like 20x30cm, containing lots of discrete electronic components," Ben recalled. Since everything else checked out, it was decided that on his next visit he would take the card back to the head office and swap it with one from a working system, thus slicing off another branch in the fault tree.

Back at base, Ben killed the power to one of the working machines and yanked the card. As he prepared to insert the new card "I sensed that they were different."

"I looked again, and the new card had a full row of nine discrete integrated circuit chips missing, just the empty slots where they should have been soldered..."

Little wonder that it did not work. The printer vendor did not comment on exactly how unfinished hardware had been shipped but quietly dispatched something containing the requisite chippery and, surprise, surprise, the printer sprang into life.

"Maybe in budget," remarked Ben, "but certainly not on time."

In these days of shouting at recalcitrant Wi-Fi printers, it is reassuring to know that the devices have always been capable of mysteriously not working, even before everything went wireless.

Ever found yourself on the receiving end of a vendor's silicon stinginess or solved the seemingly unsolvable? An email to On Call is all it takes for your go on the Regomiser. ®

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