Terminal trickery, or how to improve a novel immeasurably

When contractors go bored: Stuffing the timesheet with shenanigans

Who, Me? Start your week the right way, with a Who, Me? reader confession and an improvement made to some bodice-ripping fiction.

Our tale comes from a reader we shall call "Anne", because that is not her name but she understably wants to remain anonymous.

Anne was gainfully employed as a contractor for an automotive accessory manufacturer and worked on the testing of some critical embedded software and hardware that would later be found in the wares of a number of major car makers.

As was the tradition of the time, the supposedly filthy rich contractors were kept well apart from the hardworking permies (lest those workers be lured to the dark side, we suspect. This was the early 1990s after all.)

In this case, Anne's team had been stashed into a portacabin set up in the car park. They were tasked with creating a mountain of test paperwork so vast that that even if something in the embedded code did go wrong, so much testing had been done that it was clearly impossible for it to have been foreseen.

The other thing they did was… get bored.

"Obviously," Anne told us, "cooping up a bunch of highly skilled software engineers together, working on such a mundane and repetitive task was asking for trouble."

Indeed it was. Soon tiring of the "Daily Word Game", in which a random word from an electronic thesaurus would be snuck into the documentation of the day (the winner was the one to use it the most times), the restless team turned their attention to what fun could be had with the VT220 terminals they were using.

The answer was quite a bit.

The Unix box running the show was located in the main building, and a hosepipe of Ethernet (occasionally hitting the giddy speeds of 10Mbps) was used to connect the screens via serial taps. "It was possible to cat any characters or character sequences to any other terminal, including special characters like inverse video and BELL," explained Anne.

"Although the terminal display might appear corrupted the working data was unaffected."

It started innocently enough. The contractors would invert the video or ring the bell on each other's screens, doubtlessly helping pass the time until booze o'clock rolled around.

"But then," Anne told us, "we realised that some of the Portacabin windows overlooked the hardware lab windows."

And so, of course, they worked out which terminals were visible and began doing similar things to the staff in the lab. "Sequences of multiple inverse, non inverse and bell characters would create quite a stunning result," said Anne happily.

The users – probably a little less happy. The IT Manager would be called but, just as he arrived, the terminals would be set back to normal. Then, just as he tried to leave, things would go 'wrong' once more. All it lacked was the Benny Hill soundtrack.

It escalated further. Since the contractors were allowed to do as many hours as they liked ("the customer really wanted this product in production," explained Anne) they frequently worked late. One evening, the team noticed a solitary worker still in the lab. They pulled up the text from the worker's screen and found he was writing a novel in the style of famous UK romantic story publisher, Mills & Boon.

There was only one thing for it. One of the contractors found a Jive translator and so did the obvious thing.

The worker found his carefully crafted words suddenly changed to something that might have been heard around Harlem decades previously. Timing was key – the text was changed just long enough to cause confusion, but switched back before the worker starting making changes of his own. Do no harm and all that.

"Goodness knows what he thought," said Anne.

All good things must come to an end, and when the IT Manager decided to replace one of the TTYs in the lab, the team decided to out itself. Of course, the trick with the inverse video and so forth was repeated on the new screen but, "just when he got to the door and turned to rush back, we made sure he saw us all waving from the Portacabin windows!"

"He was surprisingly good natured about it."

There is a saying about idle hands, but we're pretty sure it didn't involve VT220 terminals. What harmless shenanigans have you indulged in to pass the hours away? Or were you the victim of the antics of a contractor hidden out of sight and out of mind? Let us know, with an email to Who, Me? ®

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