Check your bits: What to do when Unix decides to make a hash of your bill printouts

Symbol shenanigans turned out to be the least of the government's problems


On Call Fire up the Cossie*! We're going back to the '80s with an On Call tale that combines the drama of a fast Ford motor with the eldritch horror of Unix serial port settings.

"Neil," today's Regomised reader, ran a consultancy specialising in Uniplex, an office automation suite compromising the usual suspects: word processing, spreadsheets, email, database and so on. It predated Microsoft's efforts in the integration arena by a good few years.

"It supported printers from the FX-80 upwards," Neil explained, "but by far the most popular was the HP LaserJet series with its 8-bit ECMA-94 charset."

Hard though it may be to believe, the first HP LaserJet turned up in the 1980s. Compared to the dot matrix or daisywheel-based alternatives, it was fast and quiet. The output quality was great and it was even possible to conduct a conversation next to one, rather than lose one's fillings to the rattling of a daisywheel.

But all did not always go smoothly.

"One day I got a frantic 8am phone call from a large County Council," he told us. "A brand spanking new HP LaserJet had been installed, been persuaded to connect to a serial port but… disaster… it would not print '£' signs. All that came out was a '#'."

This was bad. The freshly printed bills simply could not be sent out without the requisite "£" sign. Think of the protests.

The county council had a problem, and it needed it fixed. Now. Money was no object compared to getting that symbol sorted, and a purchase order was faxed to Neil's office for a single day of "emergency consultancy." The fee involved ran comfortably into four figures.

Neil was blessed with a Ford Escort Cosworth as his company car – "an ex-Ford management car with every extra" – and blasted the 153 miles from the office to the site.

The fix? He logged in as root and "proceeded to set 'stty -cs8' on the printer serial port." Problem solved. "Older versions of Unix," he explained, "used to default to 7-bit which meant if Uniplex sent an 8-bit character the 8th bit was stripped off so the printer received a character 128 less than it should have been."

At the risk of setting off an ASCII flame war over code tables, we'd venture that this meant "£", which is ASCII 163, became ASCII 35, which is a "#".

"The grateful IT manager even bought me lunch before I drove the 153 miles home."

"Best part of the day out?" Neil recalled happily. "The drive in my new Escort Cosworth, because back then you could whizz along the M4 and around the southern M25 and M20 – no cameras and no queues!

"You just do not get the same level of job satisfaction or client adulation when supporting clients remotely, do you?"

Rarely have we heard "job satisfaction" associated with being On Call. But then again, we spent the late 1980s trundling around in a rusty old Mini rather than an Escort Cosworth. How did you extract the joy from a client call? Share all with an email to On Call. ®

*Aka: The Ford Escort Cosworth

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • North Korea pulled in $400m in cryptocurrency heists last year – report

    Plus: FIFA 22 players lose their identity and Texas gets phony QR codes

    In brief Thieves operating for the North Korean government made off with almost $400m in digicash last year in a concerted attack to steal and launder as much currency as they could.

    A report from blockchain biz Chainalysis found that attackers were going after investment houses and currency exchanges in a bid to purloin funds and send them back to the Glorious Leader's coffers. They then use mixing software to make masses of micropayments to new wallets, before consolidating them all again into a new account and moving the funds.

    Bitcoin used to be a top target but Ether is now the most stolen currency, say the researchers, accounting for 58 per cent of the funds filched. Bitcoin accounted for just 20 per cent, a fall of more than 50 per cent since 2019 - although part of the reason might be that they are now so valuable people are taking more care with them.

    Continue reading
  • Tesla Full Self-Driving videos prompt California's DMV to rethink policy on accidents

    Plus: AI systems can identify different chess players by their moves and more

    In brief California’s Department of Motor Vehicles said it’s “revisiting” its opinion of whether Tesla’s so-called Full Self-Driving feature needs more oversight after a series of videos demonstrate how the technology can be dangerous.

    “Recent software updates, videos showing dangerous use of that technology, open investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the opinions of other experts in this space,” have made the DMV think twice about Tesla, according to a letter sent to California’s Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), chair of the Senate’s transportation committee, and first reported by the LA Times.

    Tesla isn’t required to report the number of crashes to California’s DMV unlike other self-driving car companies like Waymo or Cruise because it operates at lower levels of autonomy and requires human supervision. But that may change after videos like drivers having to take over to avoid accidentally swerving into pedestrians crossing the road or failing to detect a truck in the middle of the road continue circulating.

    Continue reading
  • Alien life on Super-Earth can survive longer than us due to long-lasting protection from cosmic rays

    Laser experiments show their magnetic fields shielding their surfaces from radiation last longer

    Life on Super-Earths may have more time to develop and evolve, thanks to their long-lasting magnetic fields protecting them against harmful cosmic rays, according to new research published in Science.

    Space is a hazardous environment. Streams of charged particles traveling at very close to the speed of light, ejected from stars and distant galaxies, bombard planets. The intense radiation can strip atmospheres and cause oceans on planetary surfaces to dry up over time, leaving them arid and incapable of supporting habitable life. Cosmic rays, however, are deflected away from Earth, however, since it’s shielded by its magnetic field.

    Now, a team of researchers led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) believe that Super-Earths - planets that are more massive than Earth but less than Neptune - may have magnetic fields too. Their defensive bubbles, in fact, are estimated to stay intact for longer than the one around Earth, meaning life on their surfaces will have more time to develop and survive.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022