Scoot on over for a wheely tricky mystery with an electrifying solution

The computer is a chauvinist, you say?


On Call Round off your week with an electrifying tale from the land of chunky-knit sweaters and addictive television mystery drama serials. Welcome to a Scandinavian On Call.

Today's story comes from "Kristian" (not his name) and takes us back to the era of punch cards, tape stations, and hard disks the size of washing machines.

Our hero was a travelling technician, blatting around the Nordic countries offering repair, support, and general technical hand-holding services for customers with deep enough pockets to afford the big iron of the time.

Some used a very advanced CAD/CAM system for textiles, which required relatively high-end HP minicomputers (likely something from the 16-bit 2100 series and its many derivates, which ran from the 1960s through to the 1990s).

"I had just installed a new system at a site that manufactured, among other things, bras," he told us.

The computer room itself was the very latest in modernity and style. "The flooring," explained Kristian, "was some new-fangled synthetic that was supposed to be conductive so as to guard against static electricity." The cabinets and consoles were custom crafted from metal. All very impressive, and probably expensive, stuff.

But all was not well at the site. The boss of the team was convinced that the mysterious beige and grey box had taken a distinct dislike to her. Every time she went to the main console (a terminal perched atop the computer and hard disk), the system would abruptly shut down.

The problem also only happened to her. The other users did not get the same treatment from HP's finest.

High-end lingerie not to be denied, a support call was placed: "The system was a male chauvinist," the complaint went, "and clearly hated her guts."

Our hero professed himself a bit confused. Other than in the fever dreams of movie makers, computers were not sentient and certainly did not take against specific users. This customer was, however, adamant and understandably very upset. So a call-out to the site was made to both unruffle feathers and get to the bottom of the problem.

Nothing was obviously wrong. Kristian watched other users come and go from the console. The team leader, however, had no such luck.

"As soon as the lady in question scoots over in the office chair and approaches the console terminal, system promptly shuts down!" he told us.

A mystery indeed.

A solvable mystery, however. "It did take me some trial and error to pin down what was happening," Kristian told us, "but I figured it out."

He opted for a simple demonstration. The room lights were turned off and the curtains drawn. He then sat himself down on the boss's chair and wheeled himself over to the metal desk with the console.

"Lo and behold," he said, "as soon as the chair was within a centimetre, a nice blue spark jumped from the chair to the desk, and the system promptly shuts down."

It transpired that the fancy chair used by the boss had plastic wheels, and the boss was the only one with a desk within "scooting distance" of the terminal. A single scoot would generate enough charge to upset the HP minicomputer.

"The floor was just false advertising," Kristian said.

Ever had a hardware failure that turned out to have nothing to with the hardware at all? Or staged your own Poirot-style denouement to demonstrate your cleverness? Of course you have. Send your story to On Call. ®

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