We don't know why it's there, we don't know what it does – all we know is that the button makes everything OK again

It must be working, look at the LED

On Call An On Call reminder this week that all must worship the mystery beige box with the single baleful LED eye, no matter what one thinks it is used for.

Our tale comes from a reader Regomised as "Mike", an on-site engineer. Mike spent the late 20th century on the road, coming to the rescue of customers up and down Britain.

His story takes place in the 1980s, a decade that began with the debut of the Rubik's Cube and ended with the arrival of the World Wide Web.

Users had yet to learn the delights of seeking solutions to their problems via myriad ad-slinging search engines. Instead, Mike was called upon to deal with their complaints.

"I worked for a company supplying CAD systems," he told us. "These systems generally had some kind of 2D plotter for output, usually pen-based, but occasionally early inkjet technology or even a kind of wet electrostatic system."

"Which still gives me nightmares," he added.

The issue at hand concerned a mighty A1 pen plotter manufactured by Calcomp. Calcomp, for the uninitiated, was all about the plotter (besides other peripherals) and dominated the market in the latter part of the 20th century. It remained a thing right up until end of the 1990s before shutting up shop, although the name continues to live on.

The plotter in question was misbehaving: "It would occasionally refuse to work although there were plots in the queue," explained Mike. "I had a look, tested it and initially found no problem."

It was connected via a serial port. Sometimes a reset of either the plotter or computer was needed ("a good old DEC VAX 11/750") to restore the device to life.

Or sometimes a jab of a button on the formatter under the floor.

The what?

Mike had never heard of such a device, but the drawing team insisted it was there. A floor tile was lifted and, sure enough, nestled among the cables was a beige box with a Calcomp logo, red LED, and a single "Reset" button. Prodding the button caused the LED to flash and then go steady.

Mike poked around the rat's nest, but found nothing obvious amiss. He decided instead to check for bad cables.

"I traced the cable from the serial port on the VAX, through a patch panel, under the floor and up to the plotter, completely avoiding the magical beige box."

The suddenly redundant formatter merely glared back at him, its single red LED glowing in defiance.

"I had, and still have, no idea what that box did," he admitted, "apart from giving a sense of satisfaction and a powerful placebo effect."

Our money is on a no-longer-needed bit of kit that an engineer could not be bothered to remove. Or maybe, just maybe, a box to delay the inevitable callout just long enough for the shift to change.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below and share your own experience with mysterious devices that are at once critical and utterly pointless with an email to On Call. ®

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Verizon: Ransomware sees biggest jump in five years
    We're only here for DBIRs

    The cybersecurity landscape continues to expand and evolve rapidly, fueled in large part by the cat-and-mouse game between miscreants trying to get into corporate IT environments and those hired by enterprises and security vendors to keep them out.

    Despite all that, Verizon's annual security breach report is again showing that there are constants in the field, including that ransomware continues to be a fast-growing threat and that the "human element" still plays a central role in most security breaches, whether it's through social engineering, bad decisions, or similar.

    According to the US carrier's 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR) released this week [PDF], ransomware accounted for 25 percent of the observed security incidents that occurred between November 1, 2020, and October 31, 2021, and was present in 70 percent of all malware infections. Ransomware outbreaks increased 13 percent year-over-year, a larger increase than the previous five years combined.

    Continue reading
  • Slack-for-engineers Mattermost on open source and data sovereignty
    Control and access are becoming a hot button for orgs

    Interview "It's our data, it's our intellectual property. Being able to migrate it out those systems is near impossible... It was a real frustration for us."

    These were the words of communication and collaboration platform Mattermost's founder and CTO, Corey Hulen, speaking to The Register about open source, sovereignty and audio bridges.

    "Some of the history of Mattermost is exactly that problem," says Hulen of the issue of closed source software. "We were using proprietary tools – we were not a collaboration platform before, we were a games company before – [and] we were extremely frustrated because we couldn't get our intellectual property out of those systems..."

    Continue reading
  • UK government having hard time complying with its own IR35 tax rules
    This shouldn't come as much of a surprise if you've been reading the headlines at all

    Government departments are guilty of high levels of non-compliance with the UK's off-payroll tax regime, according to a report by MPs.

    Difficulties meeting the IR35 rules, which apply to many IT contractors, in central government reflect poor implementation by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and other government bodies, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said.

    "Central government is spending hundreds of millions of pounds to cover tax owed for individuals wrongly assessed as self-employed. Government departments and agencies owed, or expected to owe, HMRC £263 million in 2020–21 due to incorrect administration of the rules," the report said.

    Continue reading
  • Internet went offline in Pakistan as protestors marched for ousted prime minister
    Two hour outage 'consistent with an intentional disruption to service' said NetBlocks

    Internet interruption-watcher NetBlocks has reported internet outages across Pakistan on Wednesday, perhaps timed to coincide with large public protests over the ousting of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

    The watchdog organisation asserted that outages started after 5:00PM and lasted for about two hours. NetBlocks referred to them as “consistent with an intentional disruption to service.”

    Continue reading
  • Suspected phishing email crime boss cuffed in Nigeria
    Interpol, cops swoop with intel from cybersecurity bods

    Interpol and cops in Africa have arrested a Nigerian man suspected of running a multi-continent cybercrime ring that specialized in phishing emails targeting businesses.

    His alleged operation was responsible for so-called business email compromise (BEC), a mix of fraud and social engineering in which staff at targeted companies are hoodwinked into, for example, wiring funds to scammers or sending out sensitive information. This can be done by sending messages that impersonate executives or suppliers, with instructions on where to send payments or data, sometimes by breaking into an employee's work email account to do so.

    The 37-year-old's detention is part of a year-long, counter-BEC initiative code-named Operation Delilah that involved international law enforcement, and started with intelligence from cybersecurity companies Group-IB, Palo Alto Networks Unit 42, and Trend Micro.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022