A character catastrophe for a joker working his last day

Or: How to give 1,000 workers an extended lunchbreak


Who, Me? A warning in this week's edition of Who, Me? concerning the overuse of messaging and the dangers of a careless character or two. Or three.

Our story today comes from a reader Regomized as "Dan" and takes us back to the 1980s, when he was working for a certain oil company.

At his site were two IBM systems. One was for interactive users and ran VM/CMS (a hypervisor with a lightweight single user operating system on top) and the other was a batch system running MVS.

This being the days of mainframes, "there was a computer operator for each system," recalled Dan, "largely responsible for changing tapes."

Our story is set long before the days of Slack, and even predates IRC, but the operators still managed to communicate without having to physically talk to each other using the cp msg command. A simple enough thing that permitted chatting via the console. The incident happened just after lunch when the two operators were messaging each other. This was also around the time that the disaster thriller The China Syndrome was doing the rounds.

For those unaware, The China Syndrome deals with a nuclear plant brought perilously close to meltdown. While it is most definitely not a comedy, one of the operators decided that japes inspired by the drama would be just the thing.

It was also his last day on the job (and, as things turned out, we suspect would have been his last day even if he hadn't been working out his notice).

"He decided to have a bit of fun," remembered Dan, "so he was sending messages about the movie."

"As I entered the computer floor the interactive system suddenly stopped for the company's 1,000 users."

That was... unexpected. Dan headed to the system console, expecting to see some sort of abort and restart message from the stricken computer.

"Instead what I saw was 'msg mvsoperator Warning, warning, meltdown in progress!!! ###shutdown required immediately!'"

Ha ha – very funny. Except it wasn't funny at all because the operator had forgotten something very important about characters in messages.

"The shift supervisor came running out of her office to see why the system was down while I was starting to laugh."

"Unfortunately for the computer operator, the # was a line terminator character so the shutdown command was executed."

A thousand pairs of thumbs were twiddled as the computer was brought back online. And the shutdown command? A system upgrade turned up within days to add a simple prompt: "Do you really want to do this?"

Ever had a bit of harmless fun take down your office? Or were you the one forced to add that prompt when somebody else did something very, very silly? Confess all with an email to Who, Me? ®

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