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. John 110

            Re: No quite wizadry but...

            I have a stick with a nail in it -- for fishing cables out from under desks, obviously...

        1. nijam

          Re: No quite wizadry but...

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

          Sadly true, even though that would often be the best fix.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

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

          You must be in the UK. It's allowed in the US - at least, HR hasn't hasn't bothered me about it. Of course, if they did....

      1. TheNeonSpirit

        Re: No quite wizadry but.../ Percussive Maintenance

        Probably apocryphal, but in my early days as a sysadmin I was chatting to an IBM CE who told me the tale of a known fault with some external hard drives.

        Apparently the fluid/lubricant that allowed the disk to spin would occasionally separate, causing the disk to show errors. The "fix" was to send 2 CE onsite, whilst the senior distracted the customer, the junior placed the manual on a desk, took the disk unit and dropped it on the manual from a few inches a number of times, the manual was to deaden the noise.. This caused the fluid to mix up to a standard constancy and work long enough to recover the data before a replacement was delivered.

        1. simon_c

          Re: No quite wizadry but.../ Percussive Maintenance

          Not apocryphal at all. There was a series of IBM disk drives (back around 1993-4 I think) where some of the internal rubber in the seals degraded. It was fine when the disk was spinning, but if the disk was powered off, the tiny fragments or rubber would land on the platter, and then get stuck in the heads leading to dead disks.

          We had a couple of servers where multiple disks in the RAID had failed, and the fix was to drop the disk (sideways, on it's long edge) against the disk from about 3" high, two or three times, before putting it back in the server and see if it span up. Following that, we had the IBM engineer on site for about 3 days swapping the disks out one at a time on the servers (IBM only replaced the disks, not the RAID mounting cage). An exceedingly dull job for him!

        2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: No quite wizadry but.../ Percussive Maintenance

          "the junior placed the manual on a desk, took the disk unit and dropped it on the manual from a few inches a number of times"

          And if this completely banjaxes the disk it's the junior who gets blamed.

        3. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

          Re: No quite wizadry but.../ Percussive Maintenance @TheNeonSpirit

          This was probably 5.25 half height 1GB 'Spitfire' disks.

          You are close, but the wrong lubricant was used during manufacture, and it vaporized when the disk was spinning, and condensed on the disk surface when the disk cooled down. When the disk was powered down, the head was parked in contact with the landing zone on the platter, and promptly stuck enough so that the motor could not get the disk to start spinning. A quick tap would free the head, and allow the disk to spin.

          The condition was termed 'Stiction' (portmanteau of Stick and Friction), and IBM had a recall on all of the disks, although they would only be replaced when they failed to spin up. The replacement had to come from a pool of disks specifically for warranty replacement of this problem, so when a CE came across such a disk, he generally 'fixed' the disk, and then ordered one of the replacements and arranged to come and fit it. In some customers, the disks were never replaced, because scheduled maintenance was difficult to arrange.

          1. jake Silver badge

            @ Peter Gathercole (was: Re: No quite wizadry but.../ Percussive

            Stiction is a portmanteau of Static & Friction.

            Happened with virtually all drives, on and off, unless measures were taken against it. Remember ST-506 drives? One of the setup parameters was the "Landing Zone". This was a special place for parking the heads to alleviate this problem. IDE and SCSI drives had enough smarts to park the heads themselves.

            Stiction was an issue for mag tape, too, but I'll leave the details as an exercise for the reader.

          2. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: No quite wizadry but.../ Percussive Maintenance @TheNeonSpirit

            "The condition was termed 'Stiction'"

            It wasn't just IBM with this problem. During the early-mid 1990s it occured on a variety of drives from a variety of manufacturers.

            The alternative to a tap - if you could remove the drive - was to twist it sharply around the platter spin axis and put it back in quickly. This usually worked without risking head damage.

        4. Tim99 Silver badge

          Re: No quite wizadry but.../ Percussive Maintenance


          When our IBM XT PCs played up, the standard first-line support "fix" was to turn them off (I miss the "Big Red Switch") lift them about 2cm off the desk, make sure they were level and then allow them to drop. It often worked, the theory was that it would reseat the chips and cards.

          It worked on IBM ATs too, but often didn't work on "lesser" machines. We speculated that they did not have the necessary gravitas.

        5. Brian Miller

          Re: No quite wizadry but.../ Percussive Maintenance

          A friend of mine related a story about percussive maintenance. When he was in the US Navy as an electronics tech, there was a certain terminal that would break once in a while, When said terminal was reassembled, it might need a whack on the side before the CRT scan would sync up. A young lieutenant was ushering a group of visitors on the bridge when my friend had finished maintenance. The display went on the fritz, and the lieutenant told his visitors, "Now see how this sailor uses his technical expertise to fix the problem." Since my friend was known to be religious, he said a prayer: "Heavenly Father, please show your mercy and blessings upon this terminal. Heal!" And "laid on hands" on both sides of the terminal, whereupon it commenced to work.

          He was told by the captain, "Never do that again, unless I'm there to laugh my ass off!"

          (Personally, I have had a "broken" printer that commenced to work immediately as I walked in the room.)

      2. The Count

        Re: No quite wizadry but...

        My parents used to make either me or my sister get up and slap the TV whenever the picture became unstable. I don't think that works so well with an HD flat screen.

    1. Jess--

      Re: No quite wizadry but...

      sounds like the dreaded microvitec cub monitors

      lost count of the number of those that I fitted an elastic band to inside (to pull the ht cable away from the case and stop it arcing across)

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You want an evil genius IT man.

    We used to take printers apart to fix them, making an pile of removed screws as we went, ready for reassembly.

    Evil genius engineer didn't fuck with us by removing screws - oh no. The bastard used to add a few... now thats evil.

    1. Blofeld's Cat

      Re: You want an evil genius IT man.

      "Evil genius engineer didn't fuck with us by removing screws - oh no. The bastard used to add a few... now thats evil."

      Wow that's evil, twisted and ... er ... adopted.

    2. matchbx

      Re: You want an evil genius IT man.

      years ago I was in the Navy with a guy who grew up on a farm working on old trucks..... he said he would constantly find extra nuts and bolts left over when he was finished putting everything back together.

      Finally he caught his dad adding extra ones to his pile....

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: You want an evil genius IT man.

        Broadcast video recorders use(d) a lot of infrared sensors to track the tape loading mechanism. Kindly Evil Genius engineers would 'help' their colleagues by making sure they had enough light in there to see properly...

      2. Adam 1 Silver badge

        Re: You want an evil genius IT man.

        > Finally he caught his dad adding extra ones to his pile....

        That's got me wondering. What does he do with IKEA furniture?

  2. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Same here.

    Lusr would complain, I would go and have a shufty and... all is fine.

    Except for two (or more) memorable ones.

    First one was a nameless user who used to complain about his printing not being aligned correctly on the paper, and he wanted me to replace his printer driver. That was not my problem, just shuffled the ticket towards the company that was responsible for the printers, and the problem went away :)

    Second one (most recent one) was a user who complained bitterly about his laptop - keyboard doing all sorts. Arrived on site, laptop keyboard was fine, but USB ports was all FUBAR. Arranged for another laptop, transferred data - and while the data was being transferred, the keyboard played merry hell with me. (For example, pressing windows key +R will bring up Explorer and the Run dialog. Conversely pressing other keys also trigger its neighbour. Truly a WTF to see). As I did not had a spare USB keyboard at hand, I used the on-screen keyboard. Slow, but it worked. Transferred data, set up replacement laptop, user is happy. Played around with laptop, all is fine. USB works, keyboard works. WTF.

    There's others, but these two will remain the most memorable for me.

  3. Diogenes

    I lay on hands

    "Sir, its not working!", "but I did type my password in properly", all cured by me taking the keyboard.

  4. Marc 25

    Proximal IT

    In a previous role, an end user used to regularly bring their laptop to my desk just to be "near me" so that their computer would work properly. I never had to lay a hand on the thing, but oddly, it ALWAYS seemed to work.

    All sysadmins obviously have an energy field of sorts!

    1. IsJustabloke Silver badge

      Re: Proximal IT

      "All sysadmins obviously have an energy field of sorts!"

      You're not so special.. we devs have our own brand, we use it when talking to testers AND users.

  5. Chris King Silver badge

    The Exorcist

    Similar story to GlenP's, and the user was in a pretty rotten mood when I turned up.

    I reckoned that the monitor needed a good, sharp knock to fix the wobbles, and the user was in need of a good laugh.

    "The Power of Chris compels you !" *light tap*

    "The Power of Chris compels you !!" *not-so-light tap*


    The picture's now steady as a rock, and the user's laughing like crazy.

    Sometimes, you have to fix the wetware as well as the hardware and software...

    1. EastFinchleyite

      Re: The Exorcist

      The correct engineering term for that technique is Percussive Maintenance.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: The Exorcist

        That'll be a quid for hitting it, sir, and forty-nine quid for knowing *where* to hit it...

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: The Exorcist

          On a more serious note, a lot of older monitors and TVs suffered not from dry joints but from joints which had never been soldered at all, or from oxidation(*) buildup on plugs/sockets.

          Whacking the thing usually worked. Taking it apart, replugging everything and looking for the inevitable missing solder usually(**) worked permanently.

          (*) Or worse if there were smokers around.

          (**) unless there were smokers around the equipment.

  6. wolfetone Silver badge

    "As someone who writes for a living, and dabbles in fiction, I also consider how hard it would be to write a decent fake On-Call."

    Challenge accepted!

    1. SkippyBing Silver badge

      It would probably help if you'd said that anonymously...

      1. wolfetone Silver badge

        I posted it using a VPN. What else do you want?

        1. Blofeld's Cat

          Have you tried routing your VPN through seven proxies?

        2. Adam 1 Silver badge

          You didn't use an android VPN I hope.

  7. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

    The real black magic

    Forget all this stuff of holy water and feathers - real hardware engineers don't lay on hands. They lay on feet - never underestimate the percussive maintenance technique of judicious application of a size 9 steel toe-capped boot...

    Of course the real skill is knowing quite where to apply it. But the look you get when you do and things spring into life is usually worth it.

    1. Swarthy Silver badge
      IT Angle

      Re: The real black magic

      Isn't that why it's called "re-booting" the machine?

  8. Black Rat


    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    Arthur C. Clarke

    Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.

    Barry Gehm

    Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don't understand it.

    Florence Ambrose

    1. Paul Kinsler

      Re: Technomagic

      Or, "any sufficiently primitive Magic is indistinguishable from Technology".

    2. Chris King Silver badge

      Re: Technomagic

    3. Clockworkseer

      Re: Technomagic

      "Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demonstration."

  9. fruitoftheloon

    I am not making this up...

    Fellow commentards,

    aeons ago my brother-in-law's PC was behaving in a most odd manner, crashing at odd times, in a most unpredictable fashion.

    His friend who 'new a lot about computers' convinced him that he had downloaded something dodgy (intentional or otherwise), hence he would need to re-install Windows and put everything back in....

    Well I ran a free AV/spyware thingy, 'nowt showed up.

    Nothing was obvious from log files, different programs would crash at different times, with no obvious cause/trigger.

    So I opened the lid, after removing a humungous pile of dust balls that were perched over the DIMMs (can't recall exactly what was in the PC) and those by the CPU, then funnily enough it worked absolutely fine.

    I do love 'amazing coincidences'!

    I was quite pleased about it all...



    1. David Shaw

      Re: I am not making this up...

      apocryphal story at one of my workplaces that a very annoying PHB had his Olivetti 386 similarly (deliberately) made unreliable, by rubbing two old brillo-pads together 5 inches above the mobo, allegedly . . . months of random BSOD

      1. Loud Speaker

        Re: I am not making this up...

        Olivetti 386's were naturally unreliable. Allegedly something to do with large numbers of defective National Semis I/O chips, and "non-standard" logic levels.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: I am not making this up...

      "So I opened the lid, after removing a humungous pile of dust balls that were perched over the DIMMs (can't recall exactly what was in the PC) and those by the CPU, then funnily enough it worked absolutely fine."


      Back in the days when TVs were not only rare but also magnificent pieces of floor standing furniture my aunt, one of the lucky few to own one, looked in the back of hers. She saw a lot of dust. As she liked things to be kept clean she attached it with the vacuum cleaner. Not a good idea.

  10. Ardvark Master

    What they pay me for

    They don't pay me for what I do, they pay me to know where to hit the dang thing to make it work.

    1. Nunyabiznes

      Re: What they pay me for

      This is an old joke among factory engineers over here:

      The factory engineer was nearing retirement age and the new factory manager wanted to push him out and hire a fresh graduate for the cost savings. Eventually the old engineer capitulated and retired. Some months later an intermittent fault developed with the production line and the shiny new engineer couldn't figure out what was going on.

      After losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in production the manager finally calls the old engineer and begs him to come look at the line.

      The experienced engineer looks the line over, takes a piece of chalk out of his pocket and marks a piece of the line. "Replace that." and hands the new engineer the piece of chalk.

      A week later the manager gets a bill for $100k in consulting services from the old engineer. He calls him and demands an itemized bill. A week later the itemized bill comes:

      $1 - piece of chalk

      $99,999 - knowing where to put the chalk mark

  11. Ebbe Kristensen

    Similar efforts do exist

    Take a look at:

    They've been at it for quite some time and they even send you a T-shirt if your story gets published. I have two :-)

  12. TRT Silver badge
  13. Blofeld's Cat

    Magic ...

    I have a couple of standard responses to technical questions asked by people who would need a lot of background explanation to understand the answer.

    • User: "When I tried to look at the [mumble] website this morning it didn't work, but it's working again now. Why was that?"
    • Me: "You must have woken up the dragon, but it's all right, he's gone back to sleep now."
    • User: "When I do a Google search, how does the Internet know to send the answer back to my computer?"
    • Me: "It's rather complicated, can we just treat it as magic?"

    These answers are usually accepted, but failing that they get the full, detailed explanation. Whereupon their "brain saver" usually cuts in after a few seconds.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Levi is delusional and Dwight should have taken the 5th

    The 'laying on of hands' is something that will be accepted by everybody as the proverbial 'knowing where to put the X' and making sure things are properly in place, and at first they will be busy catching up, and then at some later point they will ask, and at no time will they actually believe it was anything other than making sure the thing went 'click'. Everybody knows something clever just happened and as part of the game everyone plays along because it's a brief moment of fun in a shit day at the office.

    Dwight's story sounds like one that would only work in places where voodoo was a significant part of life and the victim would have to be sufficiently unaware of technology or having touched the on/off switch. And every workstation afterwards then had this 'kit' next to them? Really?

    This was a lot of theatrics to take the piss out of someone who was worried about her job, not some rightfully deserving persistent bad-mannered arsehole, for no reason other than to be mightily impressed with oneself and the expression on the doctor's face was actually one of fury before cancelling a service contract due to the engineer being a c**t.

    1. JimC Silver badge

      Re: sounds like one that would only work in places where voodoo was a significant part of life

      Really? Well, no voodoo round here to my knowledge, but I've come across plenty of users and even other IT folk who believe in astrology, acupuncture, ley lines, the magical goodness of natural ingredients, the healing power of crystals and goodness knows what else.

      That being the case I'm not sure, tempting as it is, indulging in this sort of game is really wise. Isn't there a possibility that it renders them even more vulnerable to every nonsense spouting trickster and fraudster ringing up from a malign call centre?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: sounds like one that would only work in places where voodoo was a significant part of life

        Same AC here, I half disagree with the first para since the story had the overboard theatricals, not just some pseudo techno mumbo jumbo talking about magnets which people will often take as being the simplified but no less baffling explanation. Not disagreeing with the statement that some people believe some really weird shit but are few and far between

        But agree with the second para because part of the job (even if not written) of a visiting engineer is to reduce the chances of a recurrence often simply by default by making a competent repair, sometimes by imparting some knowledge, and this stupid encouraging ignorance of the equipment or its operation is an immediate fail.

      2. joea

        Re: sounds like one that would only work in places where voodoo was a significant part of life

        Oh, you've heard about the US elections then?

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