This article is more than 1 year old

Pager hack faxed things up properly, again, and again, and again

Where else can you read a story that starts with a Wang hack and ends with a wedding?

Who, Me? Ah, dear reader, how nice to meet you once again at the water-cooler analog The Register likes to call Who, Me? where we admit our past errors without fear of judgement. OK, maybe a little judgement.

For your consideration this week, meet "Jack" who spent some time in the 1990s working for a large insurance broker – the type that handled airlines and shipping fleets. The firm relied on heavy iron from Wang - the redoubtable Wang VS, no less - which was steady as a surgeon and largely automated. Once it was up and running, human intervention was rarely required because things hardly ever went wrong.

Humans were, however, kept on-site and paid to intervene just in case the VS became a hot mess.

In the best traditions of capitalism, Jack's boss wanted those humans gone. Would it not be possible, the boss wondered, to have a system set up such that the Ops team were summoned if and only if they were actually needed?

The task fell to Jack to work it out. The time and expense involved in setting up a VS-to-PC bridge (the obvious solution) was beyond scope. But Jack found a way to have the VS send faxes (ah, the '90s).

Jack took that idea and mutated it cunningly: given that a fax is just a phone call, he could design a system that would make a call to a pager (ah, the '90s, again) and then immediately end. The empty page would be interpreted as a call to action by the recipient in Ops, who would know to attend to the VS.

Now, Jack's supervisor didn't want the Ops team to know that their role was disappearing over the horizon. So he took the test pager with him at the end of the day. If he received an empty page, he would know the system worked. So far so good.

As it happens, the very day the system was ready to test, the supervisor was going on a first date with a new romantic interest, so he was "excited and nervous as hell" as Jack tells it. This is an important detail.

As luck would have it, at 6:30PM on the day of the big date, a minor error struck the VS as it cranked through an end-of-day process.

Jack rated it "something that would normally be silently logged and left until the next day." But his pager hack didn't differentiate between minor and major errors, so his program sprang into action and sent a "fax" to the pager. The supervisor received it, saw it was blank, nodded appreciatively and went on ignoring it.

Except here's the thing you might have forgotten about faxes: if the number they dial doesn't respond with a fax handshake they hang up and try again. And again. And again. And again. And they'll keep on doing that, relentlessly, until someone tells them to stop. Some fax machines even and print a page that records the failure to connect.

Jack had forgotten that about faxes and had not thought about emulating a fax handshake on a pager.

By 9:30pm, as Jack tells it, a great many fax/pages had been sent and a great many error reports had been printed - evidence of Jack's hack that betrayed the reason for its creation.

Jack learned something from this incident: "how to keep a blank expression in the face of a very, very angry colleague."

Happily, the story doesn't end with anger: the supervisor's date apparently managed to see the funny side of the perpetually pinging pager, and they married two years later.

Have you ever changed the course of someone's life (for better or worse, for richer or poorer) with something you did at work? Tell us about it it an email to Who, Me? and we'll tell the world.

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