Know the difference between a bin and /bin unless you want a new doorstop

Short sharp loss of privileges for poor sysadmin who emptied that directory


Who, Me? The UK has bins, the US prefers trashcans, and computers like their /bin. How do you think today's episode of Who, Me? is going to go?

Our story takes us back to the early 1990s when our reader, Regomized as "Jeremy," was a young PhD student in a biology lab.

"Our supervisor was very fond of technology, and of looking good in the department," he told us, "and one year he found himself with some spare money from a grant."

We'll pause while academics wipe the tea they will have sprayed over their screen at the words "spare money from a grant" before Jeremy continues his story.

"He decided to buy a shiny new computer for our group," he said. Up until then the team made do with sharing a Mac Classic – good for playing Risk and printing PhD theses, but not much else. However, the supervisor was keen to splash some cash.

"The machine he bought was a Silicon Graphics Indy," said Jeremy, "which was a very funky and shiny machine for the time. It was one of the most powerful computers in the entire department and he rode the wave of prestige this brought."

"Funky" is one word for it. While ostensibly a low-end machine in comparison to its bigger Indigo siblings, the Indy had a ludicrous specification when put up against the average PC of the time. The base model featured a mighty 16MB of RAM with hard disk and video options to boggle the mind. It also had a suitably eye-popping price tag.

The version in Jeremy's lab had a colossal 1GB of hard disk storage, which was stuffed full of graphics demos to show off the computers' capabilities. Perhaps a bit too full, considering the real-world work that the lab needed to do.

"One of the postdocs took on the role of sysadmin for this machine," said Jeremy, "but he didn't appear to have much experience with Unix machines."

Hunting around the disk turned up a very bloated directory called '/bin'.

Bin? The Mac had a bin on the desktop that needed to be emptied. This must be the Indy equivalent, right? Full of stuff that just needed to be cleared. One swift tappity-tap later and /bin was a distant memory.

As was the ability of the very, very expensive box to do anything other than light a baleful power LED. Our postdoc had managed to transform Silicon Graphics' finest into a lump of redundant silicon.

"Cue much hair-pulling and despair," said Jeremy. "It didn't have an optical drive, and there was no easy way to restore all those lost files."

It was the team in the genetics lab that saved the day – they had an array of Indies burning CPU cycles on DNA sequencing. One was liberated and used to get Jeremy's machine up and running once more. Unsurprisingly, the postdoc responsible was swiftly relieved of his administration duties.

As for what became of the resurrected Indy, other than as a means of showing off, there wasn't a lot of use for it, as it turned out. It spent the next two years being used for browsing the web and creating the occasional poster.

Still, as a lesson in knowing difference between a bin and /bin, we'd argue it was invaluable.

Has anyone not accidentally deleted something very important that seemed irrelevant? How did you recover from the black screen of non-bootability? Tell all with an email to Who, Me? ®

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • A discounting disaster averted at the expense of one's own employment
    I know what this process needs: Microsoft Access!

    Who, Me? A tale of discounts and process improvement via the magic of Excel, Access and a fair bit of electronic duct tape we imagine. Welcome to Who, Me?

    "James" is the Regomized reader of record today, and continues the theme of running the risk of doing a job just that little bit too well with an ancedote from the end of the last century involving his first job out of university, at a certain telecommunications giant.

    The job involved a process of calculating the discount received by big customers (the ones with multiple branches). "For the life of me I can't remember what the main DB was called," he told us, "but it was the old style green writing on a black screen that took forever to download the necessary data."

    Continue reading
  • In IT, no good deed ever goes unpunished
    When being helpful can mean being shown the door

    Who, Me? Going above and beyond in IT can sometimes lead to also going directly out of the door, as one Register reader found when discovering that sometimes efficiencies can be less than rewarding.

    A reader Regomised as "Will" told of us his days working at a now-defunct company that produced large telephone switches. In those days whenever a major software revision occurred, customers were expected to send in their configurations and Will's group would merge them into the latest and greatest. A new load would then be returned to the customers.

    It was not a fun process, not least because of constant hardware and software failures during the merge process. "When I first started, there was a constant grumble about how unreliable the machine used for the merging was," Will told us.

    Continue reading
  • An early crack at network management with an unfortunate logfile
    It's a backronym, right?

    Who, Me? Come with us on a journey back to the glory days of Visual Basic 6, misplaced enthusiasm and an unfortunate naming incident. Welcome to Who, Me?

    Today's tale comes from a reader Regomised as "Stephen", who was working in the IT department of a Royal Air Force base. "My duties were many," he told us, "from running daily backups of an ancient engineering system using (I kid you not) reel-to-reel tapes to swapping out misbehaving printers."

    This being the early 2000s, his boss loaded up our hero with more tasks. He could change printers and tapes, so Visual Basic (and its bedfellow, Access) should present no problem.

    Continue reading
  • What do you do when all your source walks out the door?
    Where the phrase 'don't put all your eggs in one basket' originates

    Who, Me? Who has got your back up? Forget comments in code, what do you do when all your source has been packed into the trunk of a family sedan? Welcome to Who, Me?

    Today's story, from a reader Regomised as "Al", concerns his time at a company in the 1980s. The company was working on a project to replace thousands of ageing "dumb" terminals with PCs. "The Great PC Invasion and Distributed Computing Revolution were under way," Al observed.

    "The company had hired a collection of experienced PC and minicomputer programmers who were led by a management team of Mainframe Gods (as they viewed themselves)."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022