back to article Military techie mangled minicomputer under nose of scary sergeant

Welcome to the fourth edition of Who, Me?, The Register's new column in which techies share their shameful secrets. This week, meet a chap who asked to be called "an apprentice human" and who told us he once worked "at an Australian military training establishment in a coastal country town." It was the early 1990s and as this …

Anonymous Coward

Ah, that.

My last job was on a military base where one room had a power disconnect switch for the entire room which got pressed at the end of operations. Something about military fire regulations.

They were supposed to check that techies hadn't, say, left a machine re-imaging its hard drive, before they pressed the button. Some days they actually did. Other times a re-image took four attempts.

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In one machine room I've been in, the light switch and emergency power off are next to each other behind the door as you enter the room. We've pleaded with the electricians to move the light switch, but they said it was impossible. I think the sparks are having far too much schadenfreude.

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At A Non e-mouse...

While I was working as the IT guy at my son's Elementary school, I solved a similar situation with Duct Tape over the switch that controlled the computer outlet. That way we could still do the Jedi Hand Wave gesture to slap off the lights but not have to worry that the computers would crash.

Then I convinced the educational masters to buy a UPS of sufficient capacity to handle the load for longer than a TseTse fly fart, installed them on the computers, & could safely remove the Duct Tape...

Except I didn't. Too many impish BOFH's in training that liked to flick switches "to see the blinky lights!"

I'm so glad I no longer do the IT support at that Elementary school. =-J

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Re: At A Non e-mouse...

We've actually taken the pump control buttons off one of our units (a water pump you'll not be surprised to hear), because school and office caretakers / staff / dogs / aliens(?), just cannot stop themselves from playing with them. After a few too many site visits to fix "broken" kit, we did a re-design. You now need a remote controller thingamajig to work them - which means everyone else has to pay 150 quid, in order to have another piece of junk in their toolbox.

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Re: At A Non e-mouse...

At my secondary school in the 1970s the 6th form common room had a kitchen, and hidden in one of the cupboards was an large isolation box, where ine could turn off power to the lights and wall sockets of most of the school blocks and to individual floors. The teaching staff never knew it was there and could never work out why 10 minutes into some boring Shakespeare play that they wanted a class to hear the power to the wall sockets went off in the English block, or why a planned French oral exam tended to suffer outages.

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"but they said it was impossible"

On the other hand fitting a cover is pretty easy.

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Getting a copy of the relevant Standard and dumping it on the electricians desk and saying "show me the paragraph that says why that is impossible" often works.

About thirty years ago (way back when you could not get electricity installed in Victoria, Australia, without an SEC inspector checking out the installation) we had an inspector refuse to approve the installation because the meter box was too high off the ground. We bitched to the sparky who did the job and he gave me a photocopy of the latest standard - two years old - that gave where he had set the meter box as being the minimum height. Rang the SEC and asked for a re-inspection by another inspector but they said he was the only one for that suburb so we went over his head to his manager who passed it sight unseen.

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buttons

I've seen similar where he door release button was next to the emergency stop button.

At a hot standby datacentre in a bunker. "'twas the BT man really!"

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Re: buttons

Well of course, we 'ad it tough. We 'ad th'ermengency button int middle, door release above it and light switch underneath. But we wur 'appy.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: buttons

You were lucky to 'ave a door.

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Windows

Re: buttons

@ Empty one:

Our mix (one red, one blue, 4 inches apart, left of door, just at hip height, no covers, no labels) was in the primary data centre.

It was suggested that we label the red one "Executive Exit Button" after a certain upper management type hit it not once, but three times over about 6 months. (after which someone got smart and wrapped a case over it)

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Re: buttons

BT "Redcare" once installed a secure telephone line for an burglar alarm for a department I worked at. The moment the engineer finished his 'installation' the entire department's network connection out of the building went completely offline - not very funny when you consider that this was an online analysis tool used by the police and others.

A somewhat reluctant BT engineer was called back to fix the problem, with threats of being handed over the police should he fail to turn up, to show us what he had done. He wanted to use the existing trunking for his telephone line but could get his cable all the way in, so his solution was to cut another cable out so that he could get his one in, in its place.

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Re: buttons

Not on the machines but we have security door release switches next to light switches. At least twice a day the lights would go out. Then they had sticky labels next to them saying "This is light switch" so the light would only go out twice a week. Now the switches are different with the security door release being a green blob. But which side of the door they are located on is random. Some times on the left, sometimes in the right, so as people walk down a flight of stairs they act like Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space as their arms flay about trying to locate the door release button. Haven't heard them crying DANGER WILL ROBINSON, DANGER yet, but that is sure to come.

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IT Angle

Re: buttons

Many years ago, back when God was a boy, a friend of mine worked with the Post & Telegraphs (told you it was a long time ago). One Monday morning he was dispatched to a Department Store who had found all of their outside lines were missing.

He found all lines live at the termination point inside the building, so it was a case of tracing the cables. He tracked them upstairs to an office with a brand-new carpet, fitted over the weekend. The 50-pair disappeared into the floor and then re-appeared further down the room. Investigations on the floor below having proved fruitless, he grabbed cable and pulled....

It turned out that a heavy-handed carpet fitter had managed to slice through the 50-pair with his Stanley knife. Being a resourceful chap he had drilled two holes in the floor and pushed the cut ends into them.

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Re: buttons

I had a fun day when all the comms were out at a showroom which I was due to visit the next day. The manager had received a call at 8pm from the alarm firm saying that the there was a problem with the line. She'd gone in to check and found out that the entire street was out not just one showroom. I was called and filled in on the problem & I then had to call the telecoms provider. I explained very patiently to the provider that we had a useless showroom if it had no means of selling anything using a card when it opened. They promised me that they'd have it sorted and not to worry. Turns out someone digging in the road had cut through a cable duct because they had the plans upside down. Then the comms provider called me back and said that they'd hopefully have Openreach round to the road by the end of the next day. So we had a day of virtually no sales* whilst they fixed all the lines. *One bloke came in and paid cash, lots of cash which needed to be counted. We took the opportunity to have an impromptu session on correct cash handling and checking procedures.

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Re: buttons

I don't believe a BT engineer would put a cable in trunking. I have, however, seen them use a tacker to staple _to_ trunking...

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Shome mishtake surely?

You mean 1980s rather than 1990s don’t you?

500MB Pr1me would have been state of the ark in the nineties. Nice mini though - for its decade.

/pedantmode

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Coat

Re: Shome mishtake surely?

We're talking about the military here !

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Re: Shome mishtake surely?

Heh. I was going to ask about that.

My recollection of Prime comes from the mid 1980s. Though to be fair, even at the beginning of the '90s, a half a gig would have been a d*** big disc.

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Re: Shome mishtake surely?

Hmmm, we bought a Mac Centris 650 (the Centris line was the last one before the Power PC chips and architecture came in) in 1993 and it came with a 500MB HD, in a standard beige box configuration. It has only recently died.

I would replace it except I have no means to bless the startup volume or make a startup disc (Zip or CD, I don't mind) with the system install software on it. The floppy drive died decades ago.

A nice Catch 22 which I will solve. The youngest and her beau are into old tech so they might be able to help.

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Re: Shome mishtake surely?

You can get a Quadra/Centris 650 on ebay for less than $100.

Loved the Quadra line. Was a great computer when I was growing up.

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Coat

Re: Shome mishtake surely?

You might find some help here: https://www.reddit.com/r/VintageApple/

...and there's quite a bit of software (including old OS images) here: http://macintoshgarden.org/

(icon is the closest thing to a Mac)

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Re: Shome mishtake surely?

I recall working with some video companies who had 4Gb 7200 external SCSI drives around 1992. The drives had to be practically bolted down due to the noise and torque.

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Re: Shome mishtake surely?

Fujitsu "Eagle" circa 1988, about 474M and 1/3 of the British Standard Washing Machine.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Shome mishtake surely?

@45RPM you are absolutely correct. From the details of the story, it occurred either at the Army Officer Cadet establishment in Portsea, Victoria, or at the RAAF Academy in Point Cook, Victoria - which is more of a suburb of Melbourne.

In any case, both establishments essentially moved to Cuntberra as part of ADFA (The Australian Defence Force Academy) in 1986 - which fits with the observation about the hardware.

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The box

Funny how something so basic can save so much bacon. Sometimes the old hacks are the best hacks.

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The mainframe room had a big red emergency power button on the outside wall in the open office, so you could hit it after abandoning the room for instance for a halon dump. So normal blank office wall with prominent protruding red button in the middle.

Not just "I wonder what this does?" but possible to bump into it by accident.

Later they fitted a box over it.

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Anonymous Coward

This is "one I made earlier".

Mainframe evening shift - all the cabinet surfaces piled high with card boxes for the overnight runs. A system programmer is waiting for his dedicated hands-on slot. He leans back against the cabinets - and that pushes the boxes back against the unprotected Red Button.

The next week he is there again. This time he avoids that previous mistake. He finds a nice body-sized gap in the row of cabinets and leans against the solid wall.

The gap hadn't been there the previous week - it was created to prevent the card trays piling up in front of the Red Button....

After that a plastic core from a papertape reel was taped over the switch - so it could only be pressed by a finger.

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Tape Reel Core

Yet another reason paper tape was and always will be superior to punched cards.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Tape Reel Core

"Yet another reason paper tape was and always will be superior to punched cards."

Large quantities of cardboard card boxes were exchanged overnight via internal courier vans between two major mainframe sites. When lychees appeared in a shop in Queensway - for a very brief season - a few of the boxes were useful for fulfilling orders taken during the daily support staff phone calls.

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In a briefing to some very senior officers...

Acronym FFF should have been explained as "Fast Fault Finder". I briefed it as "Final Fsckup Finder" My boss looked like he was going to shoot me until a flag officer laughed himself silly and shouted, "Fsck yeah! That's what I need.". Suddenly my boss looks real friendly. How odd.

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"500MB hard drives the size of a clothes dryer, but much louder."

My only experience with Prime was at the end of a few hundred miles of telecoms cable. At that distance they were inaudible.

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they had some Pr1me computers for CAD software at Leeds University. I think I might even have the little "getting started" booklet they issued of common commands.

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Was one of them MACHINE DUCT PICTURE?

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I once had a sparky fit an emergency power off button for the bank of UPSs in our computer room. It needed to be somewhere near the door.

So this is where he fitted it:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/12629882@N05/2984032016/in/album-72157626308470071/

And if anybody banged the door open too quickly...

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Anonymous Coward

Color blind

In one of our switch sites we used to have 3 break glass panels,

Red for fire,

Green for emergency door release,

Yellow to dump the FM200 fire suppressant.

Every Tuesday was a fire alarm test, the security guard would go to one of the fire alarm points and insert a little 'key' in the side of the panel which tested the button, (see where I'm going here)

Well this Tuesday was a guard who was new to the site, and it turns out the yellow break glass panels have the same test key hole!

It also turns out that hitting the break glass FM200 dump, doesn't give the normal 10sec warning bell it just dumps instantly, cue some very shaken up contractors who got a lung full of FM200 and one security guard who was hastily re-assigned to less technical buildings.

I'm told it was about 60 grand to get the FM200 refilled as well, lucky this was one of the smaller sites.

Plastic lift up covers appeared over the yellow panels not long after that.

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Re: Color blind

Oh yes! I'm red/green colour blind and it was a long time (several years!) before I knew that Microsoft Word had different coloured underlining to distinguish between grammatical and spelling errors. I was a programmer for a large Civil Service department based in Cheltenham and there was a rule that colour should never be used to distinguish between items/icons on a computer screen

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Anonymous Coward

I work on a floor with 3 big red STOP buttons. When they were first installed we pointed out the hazard of unprotected buttons but were fobbed off with 'as planned' and 'lives could be put at stake'. After a couple of very expensive accidental STOPs someone found some suitable angle brackets and over a weekend these miraculously screwed themselves to the wall to form a protective 'box' round each of the buttons. That was 20+ years ago. No further STOPS, no lives lost and H&S and electrical checks regularly pass

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For some reason mainframe machine rooms seem to be filled with devices that cause mayhem to many people.

In my first week as an op. I managed to power down one of ours twice.

That thing that looked like a desk with the monitor on it? The desk was the console, not the monitor. If *desk* is powered off, the whole thing goes down. And the designers put a power switch under the desk, exactly where you would rest your feet...

The designers also thought our mainframe would look good if it had some nice solid worktops. Solid enough for temporarily putting stacks of mag tapes on, great for preparing your work for the evening. However, they didn't think it would be a good idea to put a cover on the little control panel on the side. You know, the control panel that you could accidentally press with your thigh while temporarily piling mag tapes onto the worktop.

Remarkably I never hit the unprotected "emergency off" button by the door, but I know a couple of people who did.

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The console on our IBM mainframe S/380 (?) looked just like a 3270 terminal except for big green and red buttons at the top right of the keyboard. Red was the off switch. It soon gained a metal cover after one of the operators accidentely hit it whilst going for one of the top right keys.

Phil.

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Anonymous Coward

The System 4-70 mainframe had two small buttons on the console desk's panel - in a recess so they couldn't be accidentally pressed. They were identical white buttons which could also light up.

One was engraved with "COIN" for the operator's console interrupt to provoke command prompts on the operator's teletype. The "POWER" one toggled the automatic power up/down sequence for the mainframe and its peripherals. Once started it went on resolutely until it was finished.

One or two of the Operating System programmers were allowed some hands on use of the prototype machine - so they could test their mods for the new processor. Then came the day when the first production machine arrived. The prototype now went offline to be upgraded to a prototype 4-75.

The systems programmer arrived for his slot - and sat down at the new machine's console. On pressing his first "console interrupt" - he quickly discovered that the two buttons' positions had now been exchanged by some designer's whim. It took a while for everyone to unlearn the reflex action - and there was always a risk for anyone who used both machines.

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Flame

Hard stop

Back when I was a tike, I worked on an IBM 360 - an E30, if I remember right. It had an emergency power cutoff button on the front of the console, close to all the blinkenlights.

Nobody ever tried it, but the word was that the button would trigger a guillotine blade with a heavy weight, physically severing the power connection to the machine.

And of course requiring a visit from the friendly (and expensive) IBM service tech to repair.

Icon for the only job-sustaining reason for hitting the button ==>>

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Simply Baffling

I could not fathom why anyone would *ever* install a BRS without immediately following up with a Molly Guard

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Re: Simply Baffling

I can see the reasoning... In a panic people can forget to undo the guards. But that assumes one practices and drills enough to get muscle memory in the first place.

War story - when I had periodic, all-expense-paid travel to a very sandy, hot locale in '04 through '06 I saw two very different approaches to handling sidearms on base. Unless the nitrogenous waste is actively hitting the rotating aspirator, we (Marines) keep our pistols on base in condition 4 - magazine well empty, no round in chamber, weapon safe. So does the Army. Sand and crap gets in your weapon, and you are constantly cleaning it. That's life. Unless you're Army, in which case you put a piece of foam in place of the magazine to keep the weapon clean.

Guess what happens when it hits the fan? Army will shove the mag right into the foam and get a free paperweight. I don't know if anyone died due to that particular bit of stupidity but I can easily see it happening.

Guarantee someone somewhere died because in their stress they couldn't get the guard off a BRS

Mines the one with lots of lube. See ya.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Simply Baffling

We did an office fire fighting course - mostly to gain familiarity with small pure C02 extinguishers. It was stressed that it was very important to remember to remove the safety pin from the trigger. Otherwise you would probably bend the pin when you squeezed the trigger - and then it would be difficult to remove.

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Facepalm

Re: Simply Baffling

& don't hold the nozzle.

Frozen nozzle to hands will be.

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Anonymous Coward

Grab a shovel.

Did I just hear three distinct clicks?

an initial erroneous flipping of the switch on the right, followed by a hasty corrective flipping of the requested switch. Then, during the resultant darkness and silence, a third, shameful unflipping of the initial switch. Is my assessment accurate?

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Silver badge

Another war story....

...if you're gonna build something with a BRS, make sure it can be TESTED without causing all hell break loose. If it's not tested, it doesn't work. Guaranteed.

Working around a big, hairy power supply. 40kV @5A is memory serves. Insulation breakdown, arc to ground. Not a happy little arc, a pucker up and make a diamond ... mean ... freakin' bright and scary arc. Overcurrent protection? Crowbar? Nope!! Senior tech, an older gentleman, does a highly athletic vault over workbench - must've cleared it by half a meter - pirouettes, hits BRS. Nothing happens. That's when it got real. Post mortem? BRS was never connected. Never tested, either.

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I D I O T S to blame.

How the hell is it not obvious who is NOT to blame in this case?

If I had been the one who turned out the light, and someone with sub-human intelligence had wired the shutdown together with the bank of light-switches, id Fucking DIE before i would take even a tiny bit of that guys blame.

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Bronze badge

I worked for a large Aerospace company in Britain for many years, they decided to do a data centre consolidation to reduce costs.

On the Friday night they took the systems offline, backed them up and on Saturday shipped all of the tapes by road to the new site some 150 miles away. By 7pm on the Saturday they had failed on a critical milestone so the person in charge of overseeing the migration called for it to be reversed.

The driver of the truck after dumping his load of tapes at the new site had driven the 150 miles home and was busying himself in the pub. The area where the new site was was pretty sparse in trucking companies and as it was pre internet no online resource to find any. They ended up hiring a fleet of taxis to bring the thousands of tapes back in their boots, back seats, passenger footwells and probably ashtrays as well.

By Sunday evening the systems had been restored. As the doors to the server room had been wide open since Friday things were getting a little warm in there. They called maintenance to have a look at the chillers to make sure everything was OK. The maintenance guy walked over to the main chiller \ power distribution wall and pulled the server room master power switch and not just the chiller power.

All of the old IBM DASD disk packs powered down, she swore and pushed the power back on spinning the disks back up part way through their spin down cycle.

12 hours later, 5 minutes before the Monday morning shift were due to come in, we managed to get the factory systems online. I had been on overtime since 5pm Friday all the way through.

Next week we tried again, all sorted by 7pm Sat so not so good an earner

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