back to article Abracadabra! Tales of unexpected sysadmagic and dabbling in dark arts

Congratulations, Reg readers – you've made it through the week, and those of you in England and Wales are now headed into a three-day weekend. To celebrate, we've got a bumper edition of our weekly On-Call column of tech support crises. This time, it's a selection of tales from sysadmins who looked to the "dark arts" to fix …

    1. JimboSmith Silver badge

      Re: Couldn't close filing cabinet.

      That's the way they're supposed to work but it's possible to defeat the mechanism quite easily. You could open one drawer a centimetre and then open another one. Also possible to do it permanently which is what we did for a couple that were secured to the floor with heavy duty bolts. The reason for doing this was because the cabinets were older and didn't shut properly meaning one drawer would stay open and the other two were stuck shut.

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    religious co workers

    Can be a problem

    Back in the day of the "I love you" virus I was working as a software developer.

    For those unaware, one delivery vector for the virus was an infected email with the subject "I love you" - an infected person would (via the infection) mail these to all their contacts.

    .. cue the inevitable deluge of "I love you" emails

    All the devs obviously treated these emails as dubious and terminated them with extreme prejudice (this was in time window when it was rapidly spreading & signature not yet in AV software so mails got through).

    .. all the devs bar the religious one, who was of the "happy clappy" type and saw no reason to be suspicious of such a subject line sent from a fellow believer

    Did we ever let him forget it?

    Obviously not (he also missed out on a pay bonus as allowing machine to get infected in such a "user fault" way was treated as a severe lack of due diligence from an IT professional & so disqualified for that yearly bonus due to lower than expected professional skills demonstrated that year)

    1. trevorde

      Re: religious co workers

      Heard a similar story, told to me as a true story...

      It was a company employing *lots* of PhD level maths geeks, who all got an 'I love you' email from the rather attractive receptionist. In spite of their collective genius, they *all* fell for it; each thinking their ship had finally come in!

    2. ma1010 Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: religious co workers

      I well remember the "I love you" virus. We had a salesman who had been trying to get this one client signed up with our company, to no avail. Then one day he got an email from them - with the subject line "I love you."

      Fortunately, our antivirus software flashed up a warning, so he came and got me before he opened it. I looked at it and quickly deleted it. He proceeded to have a fit because he thought that client had FINALLY replied to his attempts to contact them. I explained how that virus worked and eventually got him calmed down, but part of him kept thinking he'd missed some kind of sales opportunity there.

      Paris because he was about that bright.

    3. JimboSmith Silver badge

      Re: religious co workers

      Oh the "I love you" virus had that at a previous employer. We had IT support all over our computers cleaning them when we had an infection.. The cleaning took a long while and no one was allowed to touch their pc so we went to the pub en masse. They also beefed up our incoming mail filter to prevent it getting in again. However one day it reappeared because despite cleaning all the physical computers they didn't clean all the mailboxes. The intern one which was only used in the summer months had not been cleaned. So on the first day on the job for the new intern we suddenly had an influx of I love you emails. Sadly IT were a lot quicker at clearing up the infection and no pub time was permissable. One bloke did make it to the pub having left as soon as he saw the first email. He was called back before he could enjoy a pint.

  2. Lee D Silver badge

    People in work swear that there is a Sphere of Influence around me.

    Everything starts working once I'm within 12 feet, no matter how many times they tried all the same things. Literally, as I appear, their long-running "never works", "tried that" problem evaporates before I even see their screen or what they are typing/clicking.

    One of the best feelings, closing a ticket with "Could not reproduce, user confirmed."

    1. Jack of Shadows Silver badge

      They (the devices) know that we know how best to torture them, thus their terrified cooperation.

      1. Andrew Newstead

        I don't know, I've had a few willing to go the 12 rounds with me.

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        They (the devices) know that we know how best to torture them, thus their terrified cooperation.

        I find that a mild threat like "I'll turn you into a boat anchor" usually does the trick. Seems the "Rise of the Machines" has a fatal flaw... fear of water.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Everything starts working once I'm within 12 feet

      We had a user who was just the opposite - anything that they went near would break.

      In a hotdesk environment she'd work on a PC for a while, it would develop some weird-but-terminal fault, and she'd just move to another desk. Lather, rinse, repeat. Over the course of a working week she just went around the office leaving a trail of destruction.

      1. Jack of Shadows Silver badge

        That'd happen at the university, when I went back after the military, whenever I'd use one of the Macs in the computer labs. Within five minutes of starting a lab, the machines would "cherry bomb." Only thing I could figure is that some sequence of operations, in working with those physics packages, would freak when I'd be clicking along. I suppose it didn't help, for whatever reason you might ascribe, that my machines at home were Amigas. On them, it didn't matter which OS I was running, including Mac BTW, I could rapid fire away no problem.

        Thinking about it, maybe I overly terrified those poor Macs, facing someone used to a "real computer."

        {Dodging slings & arrows!}

      2. Andy A

        Physics has the celebrated Pauli effect, where equipment suffers failures when a certain person is present, even if they don't actually touch anything.

        The story is that some complex equipment at Gottingen unusually suffered a failure when Wolfgang Pauli was NOT present, and this unusual state of affairs was commented on. It turned out that Pauli happened to be changing trains at Gottingen at the time.

    3. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      It's your magnetic personality

    4. Andrew Newstead

      I had one like that when I was techying at a teacher training college. An arts lecturer (8-D) was always having problems with his machine that never seemed to manifest themselves when I got there. He was convinced it my "Aura" that fixed the fault, we put it down to "finger trouble".

    5. Tikimon Silver badge

      That's Mechanic Effect at work

      When the balky machine realizes that One Who Is Not To Be Messed With has arrived bearing tools, they think better of it an decide to behave.

      I've wondered if users could proactively trigger this effect. I suggest they fix the machine with an angry stare and say "Don't make me call the IT department!" Worth a try.

    6. T-Bo

      Same for me - used to work at a Kodak Rapid Turnaround repair depot back in the 90's, repairing TI laptops and Laser Printers ... techs would often ask me to come over and touch a recalcitrant piece of gear so that it would start working and they could button it up and send it back to burn in ...

  3. GlenP Silver badge

    Everything starts working once I'm within 12 feet

    Only 12 feet? I managed over 100 miles yesterday! Call from user at a remote plant, the moment I picked the phone up at my end her problem went away.

    1. Alien8n Silver badge

      I've done that with a call to China once :)

      At work they dread whenever I go on holiday, I've suggested a cardboard cut-out to be placed next to offending machines but so far the solution seems to be "work on another machine till he's back". Invariably whatever the issue is fixes itself the moment I'm looking at it.

      1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

        I've suggested a cardboard cut-out to be placed next to offending machines

        I wouldnt do that, the cardboard cutout would probably work for less wage.

        1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

          More productive as well.

          1. Alien8n Silver badge

            That is a good point, especially on a Friday afternoon

  4. Spanners Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Keyboard Overflow Buffer

    The sound made by a PC when you hold a key down long enough is recognisable.

    I had several people sure I had CCTV cameras pointed at them after telling them to take things of their keyboard before they told me the problem!

  5. DJV Silver badge

    Isn't that dangerous?

    Back in the last century while working in IT Support for a local Training & Enterprise quango, I'd been called to the marketing department to fix a "problem" wheref one of the girls had dropped a paperclip onto her large clunky-keyed keyboard and said paperclip had found itself trapped underneath a few of the keys. I started using a small screwdriver to negotiate the paperclip towards the edge in order to extract it when she said, "Isn't that dangerous with all that electricity in there?" (Remember, this WAS the marketing dept).

    "No," I said, "it's perfectly saf--"

    And then did a damn good impersonation of someone being severely electrocuted. The look of horror didn't leave her face until both I and several of the other less clueless marketeers were laughing ourselves silly.

    1. Dagg

      Re: Isn't that dangerous?

      "No," I said, "it's perfectly saf--"

      I remember something similar, work colleague was attempting to change a light bulb in a desk lamp that was still one and was asked a similar question, he started to give a similar answer. Another colleague behind him clapped his hands very loudly.

      Result was brilliant, light bulb flew across the room colleague jumped the other way and the rest of us were just pissing ourselves.

  6. David Neil

    The buzzing noise

    Many moons ago I was doing desktop support at a large insurance co. and a call came in from a rather irate PM who was insistent her Hard Drive was on the way out.

    Off I went, ran the full set of checks, no issue - she was not convinced, said it was making a buzzing noise and she'd had that before when a HDD died.

    I stood in utter silence as she tried to replicate the fault, nothing, not a peep.

    Happened a few more times over the next day or so, and on at least two occasions the helpdesk did report hearing a buzzing noise while she was on the phone to them.

    Off I went again, by this time fully expecting to be told how I was useless etc. and again, tested everything, and was out of options. Suggested we swap the base unit, after much huffing she agreed and as I dialled up the lads in stores there it was!

    Buzz buzz

    "See I told you it was making a buzzing noise"

    Bit of poking and there it was, a pager down behind the CRT .

    Not even so much as an acknowledgement...

    1. Giovani Tapini

      Re: The buzzing noise

      Also last century...

      I was standing the checkout queue at the local supermarket when my pager started to go off. I stood there nonchalantly while the checkout assistant stopped work and started meticulously checking the till, and every other piece or equipment for faults as the beeping was very similar to the devices.

      I remain highly amused by this incident as no one had a clue or looked round to see the pager on my belt...

    2. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: The buzzing noise

      I take it you've since learned to speak "user".

      I wouldnt even trust a user to know what a hard drive was, never mind diagnose one by sound alone with sufficient conviction to ring I.T

      I'd be all like: "Yeah? well when it goes give me a ring and we'll replace it , and I dont want to hear that all your documents were stored on your desktop , when you have a centralised , secure , and most importantly -backed up , Home drive.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: The buzzing noise

        "I wouldnt even trust a user to know what a hard drive was"

        Most users are convinced that the "Hard Drive" is the big bulky thing with all the cables attached to it and the thing with the images on it is the "computer"

    3. swm Bronze badge

      Re: The buzzing noise

      Back in the days of teletypes connecting to computers our "help desk" (one knowledgeable woman) got a call and told the caller to push the buzzer release button (indicating "low paper") so she could hear better. That was the problem the sheepish caller admitted.

  7. Pat 9

    I had the mallet..

    I was the one with the mallet. Knowing the hardware we had would occasionally not boot due to a bios issue (updating would fix). I knew pulling the power for a few seconds and then booting would remedy the issue, but I decided to make it a little more elaborate and funny by using the mallet then making 'Timmy' put it back and get it back up and running.

  8. Flere-Imsaho

    The Doctor is in...

    I didn't try the 'magic' act, but I used to carry a sonic screwdriver, 10th Doctor version. I would use it when I saw an easy fix and wanted a bit of a laugh.

    1. Pat 9

      Re: The Doctor is in...

      I may have to copy that...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The Doctor is in...

      Ditto. Only brought out in serious emergencies to threaten the tech, or better still in front of an audience seconds after you've already fixed the issue on the quiet....

  9. Stevie Silver badge


    I noticed that in our new building lobby the fluorescent light panel above each elevator door would brighten slightly when that car was about to arrive.

    I would use this to grandiosly command the elevator to appear (loud voice, arms spread, the Full Gandalf) and, when it had, step in, turn round, and say quietly to the nearest smiling person "Pray that I don't turn to the Dark Side and use my elevator-summoning piwers for the forces of evil".

    One morning I began the performance but when I turned there was a Spanish lady standing there crossing herself at me.

    Not sure whether that counts as a double win.

    1. Stevie Silver badge

      Thank You Mr Fat Finger

      "Piwers". Perfect.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Bah!

      "I noticed that in our new building lobby the fluorescent light panel above each elevator door would brighten slightly when that car was about to arrive."

      back in analog mobile phone days my phone used to emit a couple of quiet but distinctive clicks when it was being polled for an incoming call - time enough to be ready when it started ringing.

      After switching to GSM there was a ringtone that buzzed for 5 seconds before the audio tone started.

      My employees eventually told me that some customers had commented that they were disturbed by the fact that I'd take my phone out of my pocket and stare at it BEFORE it started ringing.

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: Bah!

        After switching to GSM there was a ringtone that buzzed for 5 seconds before the audio tone started.

        Next to not-brilliantly-shielded audio equipment, GSM phones can often induce a bzz-dt-bzzzt, bzz-dt-bzzzt rhythm for a second or so before the call comes in. Just as the ringtone is about to start it goes constant bzzzzzzzzz.

        I'm not so surrounded by dodgy audio equipment these days but I'm convinced that over the years my body has learned somehow to sense the EM - the number of times I've instinctively picked up the phone to read a message, only to have the alert tone play *as* I pick it up (i.e. it hadn't played when I made the "decision" to pick the phone up) is unnerving, and seems more common the closer I am physically to the phone.

        Amazes the children :-)


        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Ah, the distinctive sound of GSM

          I have on a couple of occasions announced to a cast "Don't answer that phone", a moment before one rings.

          Sadly it doesn't work with the newer kit.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Basic PFY duties

    Back in the day I was the non-existent head of the non-existent IT department at a local university. A lot of researchers got some (rather old by the time they arrived) Gateway workstations, equipped with all the non-standard-in-a-third-world-country bells & whistles, such as tape readers and SCSI disks. I'm talking '94-'95 here, and those darn SCSI disks and controller cards were darn expensive and hard to source down here. As the non-existent head of the non-existent IT department, I was granted possession of two PFYs a year, who would be rewarded with an internship pay, reduced working hours, and a crash course on everything from Linux server administration to spam filtering, proxy filtering, web/mail server administration and so on. One of my main selection criteria was they should be more adept to chatting nonsense to people than me, in order to distract the researchers when I applied percussive maintenance to the workstation cabinets to get those fricking Gateway branded SCSIS disks spinning.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Threaten it until it works.

    Back in the mid 90's I was an independent computer consultant and a friend of mine was working for a local gun shop with a shooting range.

    One weekend me and some friends went in to so some shooting and my friend pulled me to the side and asked if I could look at the office computer as it was acting up. Typically the computer wasn't acting up that day so I told him that the next time it acted up to "threaten it" until it started working again.

    About 15 minutes later we heard some yelling from the office and walked in to find my friend with his pistol out pointed at the computer threatening to "take it out on the range and put it out of his misery".

    The machine never acted up again, EVER.

    1. swm Bronze badge

      Re: Threaten it until it works.

      There was a story about an IBM repairman summoned to fix a 1401. An initial analysis showed that someone had put a bullet through the machine. Investigation revealed that a second shift programmer couldn't find a bug in his program and shot the machine to show who was boss.

  12. antman

    Percussive maintenance

    In the days when computers were huge and lived in air-conditioned rooms we had a machine with an array processor. I guess this was the math-coprocessor of its day. It had two metal handles and could be slid out for inpection and maitenance. Sometimes it would cause the CPU to hang and the fix was to slide it out and gently tap the chips and circuitry with a stick. I suppose the problem could have been a dry joint but whatever, it was eventually fixed by the engineers.

  13. Borg.King

    Needed a jolly

    In a former life, many a time bringing an ailing PC or printer back to base would remove all trace of the reported issue. The thing just needed a day out of the office.

    Similarly, temporary HD fixes for worn out bearings could be achieved by putting the HD in the freezer for a few hours. They'd run long enough afterwards to copy off the data to a new HD.

    1. Soruk

      Re: Needed a jolly

      I did similar just last weekend. Hard disc in a ziplock bag, with USB adapter and power connector, in a chest freezer with the cables coming out. I was able to 'dd' the entire disc without any errors, suitable for writing out to a SD card, which via a suitable IDE adapter, became the machine's replacement hard disc. The machine in question is an Acorn StrongARM RISC PC, and in all other respects it is working perfectly despite its age.

  14. Unicornpiss Silver badge

    Percussive maintenance

    A couple of years ago we went through the Surface Pro fad, with a lot of our users going "Shiny! I want one!" As a result, we had dozens of these non-repairable turds. Many were subsequently returned as they were flaky and users learned their limitations.

    One of our vice presidents had a ton of not backed up data on one that had died. After trying every little trick I knew to try and get it to power up, I was preparing to destroy it to extract the hard drive when the idea came up: "Why not beat it on the desk a few times to see what happens? What do we have to lose?" With the VP looking on, and cringing, I gave it 3 stout whacks on the desk, attracting the attention of our whole department. Sure enough, it powered right up and I began retrieving his data. It died near the end of the process and a few more whacks revived it again long enough to get the rest of the data off it.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dodgy HDDs

    Once having exhausted all (and I mean all) other possibilities for recovery I saw red and launched the horrible 6GB drive into orbit (56 foot lob)..

    Plugged it in having retrieved it from the mat and THE "(*(!&! THING WORKED!!!!


  16. StuntMisanthrope Bronze badge

    ln -s /prestige /payrise

    Misdirection and listen to what I'm saying. #keepaneyeonmyhands

    1. StuntMisanthrope Bronze badge

      Re: ln -s /prestige /payrise


  17. Guus Leeuw

    Fan problems

    Dear Sir,

    back in the early days, I was tasked with rewriting the runtime library of a computer language from K&R C into ANSI C. This was on Slackware Linux using the appropriate GNU toolset.

    I was stunned to find that the assembly code written by the C compiler did, in fact, not compile into object format... And the behaviour was eratic as well, in that sometimes this file and sometimes that file would produce weird error message from gcc. We were all stunned, as the PC in question was brand new and bought only a couple of days before the problem started showing up... The odd thing was, though, once the assembly code failed somewhere specific, rerunning the toolset would make it fail there again and again until the next day, when a new problem would arise that I could not find a solution for.

    Having asked all the compiler people in the office, I was left to my own devices, and after another couple of days, I decided that the problem must be inside the PC's casing. So I removed the casing, and lo and behold, the CPU Fan wasn't spinning... A quick nudge with the top of my pencil sorted it out.

    The office manager made sure that the manufacturer (a local PC guy) came by to fix the CPU Fan... This was rather a quick job that only meant I had to go for an early lunch downstairs at the Pizza Hut (I think it was, could have been a Domino's) and wait for your man to come and tell he had replaced the Fan.

    It still spooks me when one part of a compiler toolchain cannot understand what another part of that same toolchain generates...

    Best regards,


  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    heh reminds me of a time.....

    When our manufacturing dept insisted on retaining a steam powered plate reader connected to a MS-Dos PC, disk had bad blocks but there was no budging the stubborn department to replace the old pos (they could fudge results)

    big sticker applied to PC with DO NOT SWITCH OFF (IT)

    clearly some tard switched it off (clearly blind and/or illiterate)

    fix was power pile of crap on and lift base unit 1.5" above desk, then promptly perform an engineers "release" bouncing it off the desk, bingo! it would POST until next time....

    eventually went above the dept manager to Ops director to tell them what they were putting up with, 3 weeks later plate reader was replaced at a cost of £8k........throughput doubled as did quality of finished product.

    Its true what they say, I have a building full of PhD boffins, with barely enough common sense between them to break wind in unison.

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