Linucon 2005: Customers Do The Craziest Things

The title suggests this panel should have been stories from tech support front lines. It was a bit more general than that. The panelists and the audience shared particularly memorable stories they’ve experienced while working in computer or technology industry that did not necessarily involve customers. And no, none of the old chestnuts about retractable cup-holders or little white food pedals.

The panelists were supposed to be Rusty Allen and Stu Green, but Stu didn’t show up. Too bad, because as I remember from Austin Linux Group meetings 5 years ago, Stu is quite an entertaining speaker. So Rusty Allen alone held down the fort. And the audience stepped in with funny stories of their own.

Impossible to press two buttons simultaneously?

At that time Rusty Allen was working as a system administrator or perhaps providing tech support to the employees of the company where he worked. One day he got a call from an executive who had some computer trouble. Rusty first tried to tell him to press Alt+Clear in order to clear the screen so that he could then tell the guy what to type in order to fix the problem. (Actually, I don’t think there is a “Clear” key on modern keyboards, but from what I understand this was before PCs.) The executive asked: “so I have to hold down the Alt button and press the Clear button simultaneously?” Rusty said yes. The guy asked: “is there any other way to do it?” Rusty was puzzled. He said, “if you have a problem that’s keeping you from doing that, tell me and maybe I can help”. The executive said: “I have one arm”.

Rusty was taken aback, and didn’t know what else to say except to suggest politely that the guy do it the way he finds best. He figured that someone who climbed up to a high position in the company probably had ways to get around his handicap.

A chipmunk operator

There was this company that never had enough backup tapes. They kept buying and buying tapes and still kept running out of them. Then one day they were doing something to the computer room, perhaps re-laying a cable that was in the way, IIRC. In the process, they, quoting Rusty, “popped open the floor”… and there were paper grocery bags full of tapes underneath. They popped open the floor in several other places, and everywhere they found bags and bags of unused tapes. They found 4 or 5 caches like that. Eventually one of the third shift operators confessed he put them there. He explained: “I had my own stash of tapes, but people kept taking them!” In reality, he was using some “recreational stuff” and kept forgetting where he put the tapes. They started calling him Chipmunk after that.

But he didn’t lose his job, since it was hard enough to find third shift operators as it was.

An operator stripped to the waist

A programmer walked into rhe mainframe room. There was about 120 degrees in the room. The operator was there, stripped to the waist, and something was burning. The programmer ran to the emergency shutdown and hit the big red button, so that nothing would continue to burn. It was a button meant for absolute emergencies, when you don’t care whether your machines will come back up afterwards, you just want to shut them down NOW! Then he asked the operator what happened. “Well, we’ve lost some cooling!” the guy explained. “And I decided to only run one job at the time, so that it won’t heat up as fast!”

Back then with those machines the heat generated by them didn’t really depend on whether you ran 1 task at a time or 20 tasks at a time. But the operator thought it was like burning gasoline: the less you use, the less heat would come out.

Linucon 2005: Customers Do The Craziest Things
CIMG0862 Rusty Allen at the “Customers Do The Craziest Things” panel

Metal particles mysteriously sucked into a hole

At a gas company in Houston a computer room was next to a secretary’s desk. An electrician came over and said he needed to install a new socket over there (in the secretary’s office). He attacked the wall with a circular saw, and noticed that the metal particles were being sucked into the hole he made. He didn’t know or ask what was on the other side, only thought it was neat that the particles went into the other side of the wall: it meant he would not have to clean up.

Turns out he was drilling into a system that provided air circulation for the company’s mainframes. All the metal shavings were sprayed into circuit boards of the machines. I don’t remember if there was any mention of the whole company screeching to a halt, but that wouldn’t be impossible, because, like Rusty said, back then one careless action by an operator could knock thousands of computers off line.

Disaster planning, said Rusty, is not so much planning for a hurricane as for operator spilling coke on a machine. That’s much more likely to happen.

A human setting off radiation detectors

Rusty’s sister, a biologist with a Ph.D., was taking medication for a thyroid problem. She started noticing at work that there was a problem with data collection that would happen whenever she walked into the room. Finally they figured it out. The researchers were using radioactive tags to collect their data, and her medicine contained something (I guess iodine?) that emitted beta particles.

Better obey those laws of physics

Apropos recent events (hurricanes Katrina and Rita), an audience member named Paul had a typhoon emergency preparation story. This happened in Asia, where typhoons are common. Before one hit, employees were loading valuables into a bank vault. Then they watertight-sealed the bank vault door and ran off into typhoon shelter. Afterwards they came back, tried the lock combination to open the door, and even though it was correct, the door wouldn’t open. Then they realized that the atmospheric pressure was a little bit low when they closed the vault, and the current higher atmospheric pressure outside the vault was keeping it shut very effectively.

So they drilled a very small hole in the door and it whistled for about a week until the pressure equalized, giving a new meaning to “whistle while you work”.