Chemical plant taken offline by the best one of all: C8H10N4O2

Who doesn't like a cup of coffee? Anything electrical, that's who

Who, Me? A lot of folks in technology and affiliated industries use caffeine as stimulant of choice. A hot cup of Joe is just the thing at the start of a long day shift after an all-nighter, because sleep is for the weak. Importantly, though, it must not be shared with the computers.

This week's Who, Me? concerns a reader we'll Regomize as "George", even though he's ultimately only peripherally responsible for the disaster. George worked as an "instrument artificer" (which probably isn't a made-up thing) for a large multinational chemical company, and his job involved stints at various different plants, rotating every few months.

At these plants, there would be two control rooms: one with all the instrument panels and recording equipment (George's domain) and one with the computers (into which only the acolytes in white lab coats were deemed fit to enter).

George was a curious type, though, and liked to ask a lot of questions. Every once in a while he would encounter an IT acolyte whose desire to show off matched that curiosity, and thus work could be avoided.

On one of George's rotations, he found himself working with an acolyte called Martin (also Regomized) who George describes as a genius widely regarded as "harmless".

You always have to keep an eye on the harmless ones.

Martin had set up the computer system at his plant with an "A" machine that did the controlling and ran the recipes for mixing chemicals (some exothermic), and an "S" (for standby) machine that acted as a watchdog, following along and logging all actions to some huge noisy dot matrix printers. Both computers were the very latest thing at the time, and resembled nothing so much as props from a sci-fi movie.

Martin was understandably proud.

One coffee break, George got Martin expounding on the many virtues of his system so exuberantly that he broke the cardinal rule and allowed him into the very sanctum in which the machine was housed. He proudly showed off the kit and even racked out one of the "A" machine's central processors to show all the cards closely stacked vertically inside, each densely packed with chips. The drawer movement was lovely and smooth, just like a filing cabinet, and about two feet off the floor.

Bear in mind that this was only a few years since our correspondent had first laid eyes on a digital calculator, so he was suitably impressed. Martin waxed lyrical about the processing power, the complexity of the system and its resilience – it had two processors!

He also placed his paper cup, half full of coffee, on the closely packed cards in order to better explain something with both arms …

He pirouetted around to press the rack in with his toe. It slid in with a smooth click, and with that it was discovered that the "A" machine was not Java-compatible. It crashed, closely followed by the "S" machine in sympathy, and then the plant itself went out in sympathy (all thankfully failsafe – remember those exothermic chemicals).

A week later, repairs were complete and the rules about who did and who did not get to go into the computer room were rather more tightly enforced. Martin must really have been a genius, because he didn't lose his job.

Have you ever found yourself in a fluid situation with technology? Spill by sending Who, Me an email. ®

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