back to article Naughty sysadmins use dark magic to fix PCs for clueless users

Welcome again to On-Call, the Friday slot we dedicate to readers' tales of odd jobs at odd times. This week: two readers spin webs of illusion to convince users their troubles had disappeared as if by magic. Let's start with “Levi”, who told us of his time “in the third tier role of a customer support department.” One fine …


  1. Long John Brass Silver badge


    Once upon a time ago (1990's), A co-worker & I chopped a whole bunch of chips off some dead motherboards, placed them in a nice little velvet bag that some mouse came in.

    The shtick was we would huddle round a misbehaving machine & throw the "Bones". If the letter side on most were up the machine could be saved, if the "chips were down" then the PC was back to base for repair.

    What scared us was how many people (users) thought this was an acceptable way to diagnose a computer fault :(

    1. Sandtitz Silver badge

      Re: Voodoo

      Check This Out

      Poor quality and Finnish subtitles, but I guess Smith&Jones wanted to show how many people see computer repairs - black magic.

      1. Chemical Bob

        Re: @Sandtitz

        I have seriously considered doing shit like that. Closest I got was keeping an old bone my dog gnawed on in my toolbox.

    2. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Re: Voodoo

      I just fix the problem and tell the lusers that computers are afraid of me.

      1. Nunyabiznes

        Re: Voodoo

        Ah, the fine art of electronics intimidation. I know thee well.

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Voodoo

        It also convinces users by saying something along the lines (to the computer)... "Either work or you'll be a boat anchor". The look as I've walked away is priceless.

        Sidenote.. I had a poster in the lab/shop with a voodoo priest on it with the words: "Computer fixed. No chickens needed to be killed... this time". I retired, left the sign and from friends still there, the poster is still hanging in it's spot.

        1. oldcoder

          Re: Voodoo

          Did that once to a bill changer to get change for another soda.

          The bill was rejected, but after the "take it or else", it went through just fine...

          And the supervisors jaw dropped...

          "Whats the matter? It worked didn't it?"

      3. Stephen W Harris

        Re: Voodoo

        A few years back I was in a hotel 4,000 miles from home. I was about to go to the bar, so stopped off at my co-workers room to collect him. He was on the phone with his wife; the TiVo had got into a reboot loop and he'd spent the last 10 minutes trying to fix it remotely. But nothing. In desparation he said to his wife, "I'm going to pass you over to Stephen; he's good at this stuff" and then paused... "Oh, it's working now!"

        Sometimes just the treat of me is enough to scare devices into working, from a different continent :-)

    3. FuzzyWuzzys Silver badge

      Still works for me albeit now much constrained

      As a young spotty herbert I learned the ways of the "force", a wee young lad of 7 I started playing with computers. As I reached my teenage years ( circa 1986) and with my 8bit micro and 16bit AtariST knowledge I easily gained knowledge of the PC and needed...

      a) alchohol for free/cheap

      b) to attract young women

      I was often times summoned to perform incantations on possessed machines, much laying of hands ( well, re-seating ISA cards and cables! ) and thus the machine was reborn as if by magic. Much rejoicing, gifts of cans of beer and gratitude of many people including some of the aforementioned young ladies.

      Sadly these days my skills while still in demand it's just the beer and gratitude of women as ever but now my wife keeps a close eye on those I impress to ensure they not too impressed!

  2. Filippo

    Users are already inclined to think that computers are magic, right now. Now, imagine adding a few tens of thousands more years of stratified software and hardware layers. I think computer engineers will be renamed Techpriests of the Machine God way before that.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      They'll all be robots.

    2. BongoJoe

      I make it just under a hundred years before the Priests of Syrinx assume control.

      1. The Count

        Naughty sysadmins use dark magic to fix PCs for clueless users

        Geddy Lee for high priest!

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        > Priests of Syrinx



    3. jake Silver badge

      Happened long ago, Filippo.

      We've been called monks, wizards, gurus, gods & godesses and many other similar "mystic" handles since the dawn of digital computing. So much so that it has become a major source of humo(u)r.

      See 1987's Tao of Programming:

      That is just one example. There are many more. The Jargon File can point you at other examples, if you are so inclined.

      1. I am the liquor

        Re: Happened long ago, Filippo.

        A personal favourite:

        A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.

        Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: “You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong.”

        Knight turned the machine off and on.

        The machine worked.

    4. Admiral Grace Hopper

      We are all servants of Landru

    5. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      Machine God

      Blood for the Blood God!

    6. Bob Dole (tm)

      So, by your estimation, this will be in full swing around 40,000 years from now?

  3. Rick Leeming

    Blessed Blake Protect Us

    It's all gets a little bit COMSTAR after a while.

  4. chivo243 Silver badge

    Cotton balls and alcohol

    My first IT manager used to keep a small bottle of holy water next to his workstation. He would trot it out when some of our more "well known" users had issues. It was always good for a laugh.

    It's Friday everybody! Let's have one!

  5. getHandle

    +1 for Charles Stross

    +several million, actually, IMHO! And not just the Laundry Files. Accelerando is another of my faves.

  6. Jeroen Braamhaar

    surprised ...

    ...because El Reg has its own resident fictional sysadmin in-house already!

    Fear the BOFH's wrath when he discovers he's been overlooked!

    1. Simon Sharwood, Reg APAC Editor (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: surprised ...

      Nah. Figured y'all knew about BOFH already. And besides, who says it is fiction?

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: surprised ...

        It was fiction on Usenet, and it's still fiction. Tired, derivative of itself fiction at that.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: surprised ...

        "And besides, who says it is fiction?"

        After all, no survivors have ever turned up to say otherwise.

  7. Norman Nescio Silver badge

    "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

    In some people's eyes, I am a 'tech magician' (admitting this will probably make my powers vanish through the mechanism of hubris, but we'll see) - many times I've heard swearing coming from a relative or colleague because they couldn't do something on their computer; they finally ask me to help, and I turn up, and just by standing there suddenly everything works. Sometimes I have to sit down and 'do exactly the same as they were doing'.

    My suspicion is that it has something to do with 'mechanical sympathy': my knowledge of the underlying technology and the way in which the user interface developer was thinking helps. People don't help themselves by double-clicking everything; leaving CAPS LOCK on, pressing '(Carriage)Return' to move between fields in a dialogue box instead of 'Tab' etc.

    In the same way that some people understand how cars work, so don't treat the accelerator as a binary control; brake smoothly and progressively and not jerkily at the last minute; turn the steering wheel while the road wheels are turning; and not relying on power-steering to scrub the wheels round when stationary etc I think some people have a knack for using IT well, and others do the equivalent of crashing the gears.

    So when I turn up, just the mere fact of me standing by them makes them take that little bit more care, and suddenly things work. It isn't magic: but some people prefer to think that than question their own competence at using their own computer.

    1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      Pretty much happens to me all the time. User: <something> is not working. I go over to watch the user demonstrate the problem. User: <something> is working now.

      1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        When talking someone through a problem and this happens, I just claim that it's "telepathic healing" and that it comes at no extra charge.

      2. Tikimon Silver badge

        I call it "Mechanic Effect"

        I used to do quite a bit of freelance auto repair, and still am asked for help with them. It's almost a script.

        "Hey, can you take a look at my car? It's been making this weird noise all week."

        "Sure! Fire it up." (crank up vehicle, listen attentively...)

        "That's funny. I swear, it was doing it earlier."

        Machines ARE afraid of the Skilled Fixer. They see that knowledgeable swagger in our walk and decide to straighten up before the tools come out.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: I call it "Mechanic Effect"

          "Machines ARE afraid of the Skilled Fixer. They see that knowledgeable swagger in our walk and decide to straighten up before the tools come out."

          But carry a large hammer, just in case they don't get the message.

    2. VinceH Silver badge

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      "So when I turn up, just the mere fact of me standing by them makes them take that little bit more care, and suddenly things work. It isn't magic: but some people prefer to think that than question their own competence at using their own computer."

      I get similar but had never thought about why - your analysis of what happens makes a lot of sense, though. I usually explain it away to the users as the computer being afraid of me.

      1. Dave Parry

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        I concur with the above. However, for user consumption, I referred to the effect as my 'Guru Field'

    3. nijam

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      All true enough, though I will point out that it was perfectly normal, and sensible, to use CR to move to the next text box down until Microsoft came along and screwed up window manager ergonomics. Just as it used to be sensible to use DEL to delete a character (hey, the clue's in the name), and now we have to use BS. Microsoft is likewise the origin of BS, as we all know.

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        Yes, most Microsoft references to BS don't mean backspace ;)

    4. Clockworkseer

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      I've actually used this for software fault diagnosis from time to time.

      They try it with me watching, it works. Turns out that when you're watching, they slow down a fair bit so you can see they aren't messing it up because they don't want to be the one at fault. The actual fault is that when they're doing it normally, they're typing and flipping between screens and fields so fast that the software can't entirely keep up and does untoward things. Useful to know sometimes.

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      "So when I turn up, just the mere fact of me standing by them makes them take that little bit more care, and suddenly things work."

      Another factor can be that simply explaining what they were doing to someone else makes them think about what they were doing & they spot what they were doing wrong. And I think we can all remember ourselves included in "they" at some time or other.

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        This is just one specialised example of Murphy's Law, called the Inverse Demo Effect (IDE). The Regular Demo Effect (RDE) states that the chances of a program being demoed crashing is a steeply increasing function of the number of people watching, potentially weighted by the Embarrassment Factor (EF) which increases the chance of a crash with the importance of the event, or pay check of those watching. Conversely, the IDE states that the chances of a bug or crash occurring is inversely proportional to the number of sys-admins or developers watching

    6. W4YBO

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      Well stated.

      Along the same line, part of one of my situation dependent email signatures...

      "I repair neither computers nor software. I repair users.”

      1. ma1010 Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        "I repair neither computers nor software. I repair users.”

        As does the BOFH. Often by use of a cattle prod.

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      "In the same way that some people understand how cars work, so don't treat the accelerator as a binary control"

      Oddly, I understood how the accelerator worked when I was learning to drive, but still had the bad habit- picked up on by my driving instructor- of doing this.

      I actually wondered at the time whether this was a symptom of having grown up playing racing video games with an old Atari-type digital (i.e. on/off) joystick where the accelerator *was* effectively binary. Or maybe I was just a crap driver, who knows...

      1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        After playing Elite before learning to drive I would instinctively accelerate to the speed I wanted, then let go. After all, I'm at the right speed, I no longer need to accelerate, so I cease to instruct the vehicle to accelerate.

        Even the instructors baby-talk name of "the go faster pedal" reinforced that. I no longer need to go faster, so release the go-faster pedal.

    8. foxyshadis

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      Many years ago, Microsoft RDP and Citrix had an odd bug that sometimes caused a modifier key (shift, ctrl, etc) to stick despite being unpressed. Ever since then, I've always had a habit of running a finger across all the modifier keys just in case, when a password doesn't work the first time, to "remind" the system of the actual state of the keys. It seems to work! I rarely mistype my password twice in a row. ;)

    9. Simon 4

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      I call it "Lucky Totem IT Support".

      And yes, as I explain to customers, it's still chargeable.

    10. AceRimmer1980

      Re: mechanism of hubris

      Ah, these hubris mechanisms, they're known to be unreliable. Regular applications of humble pie should keep them in balance.

  8. GlenP Silver badge

    No quite wizadry but...

    Back when monitors were often cased in large cuboid metal boxes I had a user who complained that the "picture" was unsteady. Anyone who was around at the time will know that a sharp knock on the case would often sort this particular problem.

    I told the user that the fix was very delicate and must only be performed by an IT professional with the proper training, then *Bang* as I hit both sides of the monitor (with my palms, didn't really want to leave a dent but makes more noise that way). She jumped about 2 feet out of her chair, but the monitor was fixed and worked perfectly thereafter until updated.


    1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      Re: No quite wizadry but...

      Good old percussive maintenance.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: No quite wizadry but...

        "Good old percussive maintenance."

        Apparently you get in trouble if you try that on the users themselves

        1. Admiral Grace Hopper

          Re: No quite wizadry but...

          Many years ago, in simpler, more direct times, we used to keep a cricket bat with "USER EDUCATION TOOL" magic markered on the back in large, angry letters.

          1. Christoph Silver badge

            Re: No quite wizadry but...

            Also known as the LART - Luser Attitude Readjustment Tool.

            Hopefully you won't need to resort to the OADS.


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