back to article Four techies flummoxed for hours by flickering 'E' on monitor

Salutations dear readers, and congratulations on reaching the last working day of the week, on which The Register runs On-Call, our reader-contributed tales of gigs that get you giggling. This week, meet “Sonny”, who told us of his first job as a System Engineer with a local IBM PC reseller, in the early 1980s. Or as Sonny …

LDS
Silver badge
Joke

"by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

In good circle, educated people would never use the M...C... word.

Anyway, I would have been much more worried when I discovered the reason of the flashing E, and I would have looked for a place very well shielded from the radar dish (how tall was the building? Or was it the ground radar?)

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Complete nightmare with the ADF files and the config floppy for each PC, but the ability to pull apart a PC in seconds with that small blue lifting tool under the hood of the IBM PC's - joy

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

I fondly remember my first ever (attempted) PC upgrade was to add a MC Soundblaster to an IBM 286. I never managed to make it work; which meant I didn't get to listened to sampled speech in Dune II - which made me very sad; but also probably set the path for my career.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

You can download a direct port of Dune II for Android for nowt... It lends itself well to tablets!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

I fondly remember my first ever (attempted) PC upgrade was to add a MC Soundblaster to an IBM 286. I never managed to make it work; which meant I didn't get to listened to sampled speech in Dune II - which made me very sad; but also probably set the path for my career.

So you've never got anything to work EVER?!?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Man, Dune II was terrific.

-

My first paid IT work was with BBC Bs but my PC IT career is largely down to memory management skills honed by trying to get Civ running on university PCs without uninstalling the hideous printer drivers, the absence of which caused serious tantrums among the non-gaming users.

I imagine there's quite a few commentards who started out in much the same way.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

A non techy admin friend in the airport business had to meet up at Heathrow by the '23cm radar'.

(You know the big red one in the middle that's always on the TV and does the ground scanning stuff,)

When they eventually turned up; the explanation was;; yup they thought 23cm was the sizel.....

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Sadly most of the PS/2s I worked on required a Phillips (or another crosshead flavour) screwdriver to remove the case lid. The case lids were badly fitting too.

So it was one minute to remove the lid and one minute to expose the motherboard. Do the job, two minutes to refit disk drives etc, five minutes to refit the case lid and five minutes to wipe up the blood.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

You had to change the IRQ from the default IRQ 7, that conflicts with the LPT1, to IRQ5.

I am sure that you are glad your problem haas a solution. ;)

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Coat

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

"Pwhoooor, look at the size of his Micro Channel Adapter Description File collection..."

>>>>>> Mines the one with...actually, you probably don't want to know....

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

five minutes to wipe up the blood

You gotta leave the blood - it's what the daemons[1] feed on!

[1] Yeah, yeah - TSRs on the PC. But then the 'joke' wouldn't have worked..

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

My first hardware install was a sound card into a 486 DX33. Physical install went fine, Win 3.1 played the startup sound, my brother and I gave each other high-fives... and suddenly File Explorer was "not found". Not a single program worked. Huh. Restarted - no Windows. In our inexperience, we didn't know what IRQs were, much less realize that having the sound card on the same IRQ as the hard drive could cause problems, like corrupting the entire Windows directory. My parents were NOT happy.

I still have my folks' Atari Video Pinball machine (white version). 7 built-in games, no cartridge capability. Still worked last time I tried it.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

"wipe up the blood"

I'm sure they sharpened the corners of those case panels on purpose.

Mind you, my worst IT related bloodletting used to come from copper bonding tape.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Back in the early nineties (in the dark days before email) I had the luck of mentoring a new far younger workmate who had just joined us. This job wasn't anything technical but we did use computers mostly for Word and Excel. Anyway on the first day I suggested that we go for lunch and then I'd go off to a meeting from there. When I came back there was an IT support bloke sitting there reattaching the VGA cable to the monitor. Puzzled I asked what had happened and VGA wasn't screwed in and had fallen out over lunch. Except I knew that couldn't be the case because I'd tightened the screws a week earlier when it looked loose after moving the monitor. Weird but then these things happen, thought nothing of it and continued on with the day explaining things to my new workmate.

I was off the next day but after lunch the day after that he complained that his computer wasn't working again and started turning the monitor on and off. I really didn't know what he thought was wrong but I asked if I could help.

Do you know anything about computers?

A little.

During lunch my computer crashes, this is the third time.

What are the symptoms?

The screen goes black

Okay what are you using as a screensaver if anything?

What's a screensaver?

Turned out he was new to IBM compatible computers and had never encountered a screen "time out" before. The first day he'd thought it must be the cable and had disconnected that, then phoned IT support. Second day he called IT support and the computer had magically "fixed itself" whilst he was waiting for someone to turn up. When I showed him that he only had to touch the mouse or the keyboard for it to work the look on his face was priceless. His only previous computer experience was on an Acorn.

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Pirate

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Technical Manager of one place I worked at always wanted to dismantle broken LCD screens "To see how they work".

It always ended with him cutting his hand badly.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

The 23cm Radar has gone now.. http://nats.aero/blog/2014/12/end-era-iconic-heathrow-landmark/

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

My first install was a Western Digital FileCard (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardcard : A HDD and interface circuitry on an ISA card) into a Amstrad 1640 (IIRC). Surprisingly, bearing in mind I knew nothing about IRQs etc at the time, it worked for the rest of the time the company kept both me and the PC.

I was made redundant a couple of years later. As far as I know, the PC could have outlasted the company.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

"the ability to pull apart a PC in seconds with that small blue lifting tool under the hood of the IBM PC"

The early PS/2s were like that. Older models, not so much.

But the article also brings back memories of a summer job writing code for a now-defunct company(1) whose main product was project management software. This was 1987, so Microsoft Project was some way in the future, and the software ran on a wide range of mainframes and different sizes of minicomputer. What would today be the server room had an IBM 4300-series something or other, VAXen, a Wang, probably a DG thingy, and so on. (The office was in Westborough, MA, if that helps.)

Anyway, there was this big contract with IBM, and my fellow student and I were provided with brand-spanking-new PS/2s, a desktop Model 50 and a tower-format Model 60. Trivial to open and dismantle, with floppies full of ADF files, especially with the 3270 terminal emulator cards we got so we could log onto the 4300, produce text-mode data dumps from the software running there, and download it onto the PC for post-processing to produce graphical displays.

And of course, the IBM contract provided those cards, which duly arrived and they let us two students loose to install the cards in the machines, and then to install the support software.

And there was the pen plotter. For an American size of paper, approximately the same as A1. It had a bar over which you draped the paper, and the head ran left/right along that, while the paper moved front/back. We had fun putting weird colour combinations in the pen carrier and then plotting things. The manual included detailed instructions, with pictures and words of about 0.75 syllables, on how to put the mains plug into the socket. (The socket on the wall that provides the electricity.) There were similar instructions for the other end of the cable, with just a normal kettle-type plug.

Fun times. (To say nothing of the 3.5-inch external floppy drive for the PC/XT on the other desk. It was mounted on its side, and the friction between the edge of the floppy and the bottom of the drive was low enough that the eject button could throw the disk entirely out of the drive and onto the floor.)

EDIT: forgot the footnote.

(1) "a now-defunct company": these words feature a *lot* in descriptions of my career. Maybe I'm cursed, or maybe I'm just bad at choosing companies

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Ah, VAX. My one-and-only experience with a VAX was an employer who had one that was both recording live production data, and running the entire calibration scheduling system. In 2005. It was, surprisingly, quite reliable. And besides, the primary record for the production data was actually paper - specifically chain-printed on serial dot-matrix printers. (They were great. Wouldn't stop for anything, jams were extremely rare, and when "low" on ink would simply produce lighter print, instead of stopping like an inkjet.)

Twelve years later, different employer - and someone in my office has a chain-feed dot-matrix printer for the express purpose of printing triplicate NCR forms.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

My most memorable early add-on was the HP ScanJet interface card. A huge, solid bit of kit that could double as a cricket bat.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

"Technical Manager ...It always ended with him cutting his hand badly."

So you didn't try to dissuade him?

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

What's all this about PCs & PS/2s? Has nobody used S100?

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Since we're all discussing our first hardware installation.

Mine was on the old HP 2100, it was replacing a failed serial card.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/HP_2100

Then the joy was reloading the thing, with its 8" floppys and setting the registers for each load iteration.

Those were the days.

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Coat

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

@phuzz

"Pwhoooor, look at the size of his Micro Channel Adapter Description File collection..."

Take a peek...

http://www.mcamafia.de/mcapage0/adflist1.htm

http://www.mcamafia.de/mcapage0/adflist2.htm

http://www.mcamafia.de/mcapage0/adflist3.htm

http://www.mcamafia.de/mcapage0/adflist4.htm

http://www.mcamafia.de/mcapage0/adflist5.htm

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

"Has nobody used S100"

No, but I've used SS50 (SWTCP 6800).

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Optional

...and that young man went on to invent Flash. True story.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

my father taught me at a young age (about 60 years ago, now) that all tools and most things you work on require occasional blood sacrifices . . . i thought i found the one job, draftsman, that broke his rule and was thinking of telling him when i cut a finger to the bone while trimming mylar sheets to size.

it was years later that i discovered that they make computer cases from old razor blades.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

My first PC was the Amstrad 1640. Parents had far newer (and frequently replaced) but mine as a 1640.

Upgraded quite a bit from scavenged bits, out went the B: floppy and in went a 30mb HDD. Sure I did something to get colour (EGA?) graphics. A modem went in, 9600 baud or something terrible I think, and I even stripped the whole thing down to spray it black. Looked half decent really, and ahead of its time.

Absolutely no idea what I actually did with it though.

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@LDS

I would have been much more worried when I discovered the reason of the flashing E, and I would have looked for a place very well shielded from the radar dish

Well, there's the chance of getting a little extra tan. And by tan I mean slightly burnt skin. Nothing to worry about ;-)

Note to myself: don't wave fluorescent tubes with bare hands in front of radar to see if it's on.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

...or lifting floor panels edged with what felt like razorblades

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Not just S100, S100 running TurboDos, tweaking the MiniWinnie hd driver, and supporting multiple 910 terminals. Oh, the joy of CP/M based Wordstar and Multiplan. Multiplan, which had linked sheets about 10 years before Lotus got it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Didn't have the money for that fancy stuff. My first computer was a COSMIC ELF.

After getting done with college, I then I bought an Ohio Scientific Instruments Challenger 8P with dual 8" floppies that could hold around 250K bytes each.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

My first install was a Western Digital FileCard (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardcard

Thanks! I've seen a couple of these IRL (in a metal scrap yard, went hunting to see if there was any cheap PC stuff, they were in a machine that was an XT in at least late 486 days). Have had many people tell me they could never have existed.

Even better, the one in the linked wiki is on a 8-bit card! No way to argue it's PCIe or some internal USB device!

Thanks muchly. Now have some "See, I told you so" emails to send! (But will be worded differently).

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Mushroom

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

(1) "a now-defunct company": these words feature a *lot* in descriptions of my career. Maybe I'm cursed, or maybe I'm just bad at choosing companies

If the humans and Minbarri start something called "The Babylon Project" during your lifetime, please stay away from iterations 1 to 4, thanks.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

"Technical Manager ...It always ended with him cutting his hand badly."

So you didn't try to dissuade him?

Sometimes experience can be the best teacher.

And the most entertaining for those of us standing nearby!

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Happy

Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

COSMAC. Oh the memories... punching in hex codes to get a light to blink or something.

Cheers!

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Dune... the building of a dy...nasty

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Correct - but I had some kind of trainer/cheat for Dune II that did IRQ emulation, meaning I had to set my AWE-32 to IRQ9 (from memory), which then buggered up the VGA card...

Fun times!

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Windows

Re: "an Ohio Scientific Instruments Challenger 8P"

Wow, someone else actually bought Ohio Scientific! My first personal computer was an OSI C4MP --- 6502 processor, something like 16KB of memory, and a 5.25" floppy.

Sort of an Apple II alternative, but OSI's attitude was that they built the hardware, the OS was your problem. As in, create a disk file by first loading the monitor routines from the system floppy, using it to manually allocate as many sectors on the target floppy as you expected the file to need, then load the editor from the system floppy, edit the file (typically in BASIC), swap the target floppy back in and save the file to the disk. If you got cheapthrifty and allocated too few sectors, nothing for it but to discard all your work, de-allocate the file and start over with more sectors.

Double-sided floppies? Cut a read/write notch on the other side, and put the floppy in the drive upside-down.

Old phart icon, 'cuz that was in the 1970s.

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Re: "by the size of his Micro Channel Adapter"

Upvoted, for bringing back memories of the COSMAC ELF, and the RCA CDP-1802 processor. Still have my '1802 kit-built board stashed away somewhere, wonder if it'll still fire up?

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Have a similar story but it was network connectivity and a microwave oven. The cables were in the wall and ran behind a cheap microwave oven in a room below.

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Had similar issues with a user who would find the image on her screen (this was 1997, so CRT not LCD) shimmering and bouncing several times in the day, most notably around lunchtime. Microwave oven in the kitchen the other side of the wall :-)

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Thumb Up

I have a similar story but from a long, long time ago.

One day my parents were out for the evening. So I decided to play computer games on the family TV (because it was colour). Now this was a long time ago as I wrote at the start. So I ended up looking for somewhere to put..a cassette recorder. Luckily there were some stacked tables in the living room so I put one in front of the TV and placed the recorder on there. Then for half an hour I struggled to get anything to load from the damn recorder. I tried several games but to no avail - I could barely get the Spectrum to even flicker the screen border. In frustration I kicked the stand over and the cassette recorder ended up dangling beneath it on its leads.

Low and behold the border started to flicker a bit. So on a whim I rewound the tape and tried again. The game started to load. That made a 15 year old kid very happy :)

Of course this is not a problem any child would suffer today but it served as a useful lesson for the rest of my life concerning electrical equipment and interference ;)

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"Have a similar story but it was network connectivity and a microwave oven"

I'll raise you baby monitors and WiFi.

When I was consumer phone tech, WiFi was in its infancy. Most users didn't care about the Internet, and those who did mainly used the pre-installed AOL environment. Only a few folk had wireless adaptors as nothing we sold came with it built-in back then.

We noticed a spike of failed WiFi connections in the early evening... people calling in (to our premium rate number, as 3rd party peripherals weren't covered on the free warranty helpline!) to report their performance had just dipped, or they've lost connection. Netscape Navigator was taking ages to load pages, that sort of thing.

One guy came into work quite excitedly when this had been going on a while with a solution.... he'd just had a baby, and bought a baby monitor. On the back of the packet it proudly stated it used the "new digital 2.4GHz band"... hang on, isn't that the same as WiFi?

First customer we had... "do you have a baby monitor?" "Yes, I've just turned it on as little Bobby has gone to bed, I wanted to go online and.... erm..... <think of something that's not smutty>" "Right... could you just turn it off and see if things improve for a minute?"

Bingo. No easy solution as the customer is then forced to choose between alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.thomas-the-tank-engine and the safety of their little darling. But a reason nonetheless.

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>but from a long, long time ago

No, it wasn't a long long time ago........

Ohhhh we used to DREAM of having a cassette recorder! Woulda' been almost magical to us. We used to load games by slotting them into the front of a wooden panelled Atari. We got woken up every morning by my Mum shouting about who'd not swapped the leads back on the telly! Cassette Recorder!? Hmph.

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No, it wasn't a long long time ago .........

Ohhhh, we used to dream to have a wooden panelled Atari, we used to have a pong machine with paddles which only had one game, problem was one of the paddles was broken, so it was a "one sided" game.

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Re: No, it wasn't a long long time ago .........

One sided pongs! Luxury! my dad used to pick up broken TV games machines in the market and we had to fix them before use. One had a motorbike bike jump game that had enough screen space for about 20 buses and ramps, I could do about 35 buses by listening for the landing ramp/crash, sounds after the bike had disappeared from the screen.

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Re: No, it wasn't a long long time ago .........

If your paddles were broken what you needed was.....cyclepong

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9urO--9rZeA

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Re: No, it wasn't a long long time ago .........

My cheap but cheerful car stereo still has issues like this. FM reception suffers if I leave my 3.5 mm aux car plugged in. Audio quality through the aux car suffers if I use the head unit's USB socket to charge my phone. But hey, the stereo takes SD cards so I forgive it.

(The vehicle came with a Sony head unit that despite having RCA inputs on the rear would not accept aux input. Apparently it needed either a Sony CD changer or else a microcontroller-based DIY project to enable aux-in. I took it apart and tried soldering cables directly to its disc drive daughter board, but was left with a lot of left over screws and no sound. I took some irrational satisfaction in torturing such an obstinate but of kit to death)

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Re: No, it wasn't a long long time ago .........

You had sound!? Luxury! We used to dream of having no sound. We just had a tarpaulin covering the hole where the broken TV should have been. We had to get up at 12 o'clock at night, lick the tarpaulin clean with our tongues, go to work for twenty four hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.

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