back to article Haunted disk-drive? This story will give you the chills...

Welcome once more to On Call, The Register’s regular foray into the freaky world of tech support. This time, we meet “Alexis”, who was called upon to help solve a mystery for a legal publishing company during a boozy lunch with its boss – something we can all get behind on a Friday. “During the early 1980s, I was dabbling in …


    1. Morrie Wyatt

      Re: ED-209

      "A few years back I was working for Scotrail, well not them, but as a sub contractor to the contractor contracted to the contractor with the contract for Scotrail."

      Lone Star, is that you?

      The Schwartz be with you.

      Dark Helmet: I am your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate.

  1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Quite believeable

    A similar problem was discovered with older VCRs, which were then fitted with a dew lamp. This was part of a system that stopped you using the machine and gave a condensation warning. Trying to drag a tape around a damp drum would have been a recipe for disaster!

    1. Emjay111

      Re: Quite believeable

      Well yes, and no.

      The dew sensor was a flat resistive element that did change it's value with moisture present. The lamp to which you refer was used to detect start and end of the tape. Subsequent end of tape detection was done with infra red LEDs - which were much more reliable.

      A nice little earner was to be made in the 80's replacing those filament lamps though. I've still got some in storage ! :-)

      In a former life, I was a production engineer for a major Japanese VCR manufacturer, and as part of finished goods QA, we used to remove the top cover and blast in some moisture from a modified humidifier, just to check that the dew detection circuitry was functioning correctly.

      1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Quite believeable

        I stand sit corrected. Must be the approach of late middle age (I refuse to ever be old)

      2. MJI Silver badge

        Re: Quite believeable

        My old VCRs have magnetic end of tape sensors, and they still work.

        Yes a working 1982 portable still works.

  2. DropBear Silver badge

    Ghost in the machine

    If you're looking for spooky computer-related stuff, there's no need to go any further than a certain fairly popular upload sharing site that uses an old-school text-based orange captcha box instead of the ubiquitous "you shall train our AI" Google ones: I swear almost all of the text it throws at you has a distinctly whimsical / spooky quality - it is very, very obviously _not_ random text, to the point where you fact-of-the-matter start expecting one of the texts to say either "I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that", "take me to your leader" or just "doooooo eeeeeet!" any moment now. Laugh all you want, but I swear the choice of those 2-3 words it throws at you each time... is genuinely unsettling.

    1. ArrZarr Silver badge

      Re: Ghost in the machine

      Whenever I'm answering those, I always end up putting a story together in my head about the "Happily street" or "Quickly Rainbow", usually focused on setting up some contrived situation in which it becomes grammatical English.

      1. HelpfulJohn

        Re: Ghost in the machine

        "If one dislikes one's roommate, one can happily street the nuisance. "

        "When bored with the commonly disliked Windows Blue backgrounds, one can hack the Registry to quickly rainbow them."

        In English almost any noun can be verbed.

    2. swm Bronze badge

      Re: Ghost in the machine

      In the middle 1960's we had a GE card reader that refused to read green cards. We warned people about this but they wouldn't listen. The cards would feed 9-edge first and make a right angled turn and then eject through a photo reader 1st column first. This reader would sometimes tear the webbing between the 7 row near column 56 (or something like that).

      It was always fun to tell people that the reader wouldn't read green cards when they came in with their multi-colored card decks. They would look at us like we were crazy but when the reader would get to the green cards in their deck it would jam. After flattening out the damaged card and rereading it the card reader would jam on the next green card.

      Apparently the green ink made the cards less rigid than the other colors.

  3. wyatt

    A story I was told on a course was of a Ptarmigan Switch in Bosnia. During a power change, AC was cut and the Switch ran on DC (2 or 4 batteries) until the AC was moved to a new generator. As part of the procedure, you had to manually power back on the ACU.

    The story goes that the power change was done and the equipment was back on AC but with no ACU. Someone went into the box body to find it dripping with water, having had no dehumidifying for some time. Not great for electronics. They started the ACU and left it for a few days and it dried out, never stopping working once.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Don't you just lovePtarmigan...

      Yup, they were cold and damp, SAS/MC was even worse as it was only 28V and the heater felt like the aforementioned Glaswegian breathing on you.

  4. steviebuk Silver badge

    Not me

    "something we can all get behind on a Friday."

    I don't drink.

    1. deive

      Re: Not me

      Good for you...assume that you do eat though, so a long lunch is still something you can get behind, right?

      1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge

        Re: Not me

        He does, but only condescendingly.

      2. steviebuk Silver badge

        Re: Not me

        Yeah, didn't think of that :)

  5. ukgnome Silver badge

    Defo Spooky

    Condensation is ghost water

  6. Stevie Silver badge


    Never disabuse friends of their ghost.

    I once went to a friend's house which was an old brick house with heating made by black iron pipes hanging in mid-air through which hot air was ducted. The kitchen, they said, had a ghost that would rap on the table when they were cooking.

    I looked at the large, heavily varnished, butcher-block table against the wall. I took a gander under it.

    "Would I be right in saying the ghost knocks again about an hour or so after you are done with dinner?" I asked. They were stunned and said it did.

    So I told them that I thought it was more likely that the pine table, which was varnished only on the top, was expanding as the steam from the cooking made the air moist. The table was bolted by a large steel bracket to the wall which would grip and grip and grip and then let go, rather like a tectonic slip-strike fault, making a sharp noise. When the air dried out again after dinner, the table would shrink with the same effect. I said they could exorcise the ghost with a wrench by loosening the nuts on the securing bolts a turn.

    Never saw people I cared about look so sad so quickly before. Lesson learned. Now I reckon I would say "Wow!" and shut the fuck up.

    1. -tim

      Re: Bah!

      I had a house that had a number of hanging plastic dome lights. When they cooled after being turned off, I would hear a pop and see a flash. A friend was convinced she would see ghosts. I decided to record the noise and the flash but it wasn't there. What was there was piezoelectric generator. I've found it interesting that many places with high ghost siting areas have piezoelectric geological effects and different cultural areas seem to have different results such as ghosts, UFOs or saints.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Smoker's Condensation on the heads...

    Had a client once, a small finance department which consisted of 3 bookkeepers crammed into a shoebox of a room. They were fierce smokers. Tobacco smoke condensation covered everything, but especially inside of the PC where the fans constantly brought smoke-laden air through. When I had to use the floppy drive to transfer data, it didn't read. To fix it, I had to clean it with a cleaning floppy, one of the type with the white fabric disk. There was a long brown smear where the heads gave up their years'-worth of smoke condensation. That was nasty, all right!

    1. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

      Re: Smoker's Condensation on the heads...

      Skid marks in the loo...

  8. Arachnoid

    One from DARPA

    "AI cannibalism

    In the early 2000s, Mike Sellers was working on social AI agents for DARPA. During one simulation, two AI agents named Adam and Eve were given a few basic skills. They knew how to eat, but not what to eat. When they tried to eat apples from a tree, they felt happy. When they tried to eat wood from the same tree they didn't get any reward.

    So far so good, right? Things started going haywire when another AI agent, Stan, was introduced. Adam and Eve learned associatively. Because Stan was hanging around when they were eating apples, the agents learned to associate Stan with both eating and the feeling of happiness.

    Guess what happened next?

    "At the time it was pretty horrifying as we realized what had happened," writes Sellers. "In this AI architecture, we tried to put as few constraints on behaviors as possible... but we did put in a firm no cannibalism restriction after that: no matter how hungry they got, they would never eat each other again."

  9. NorthIowan

    Condensation is not good for disks.

    Had someone who wanted to restart writing his book. He had stopped working on it several years before and left the Mac and a few floppies with backups in the garage. His kid had long ago reformatted the Mac hard drive to use on his computer. So the floppies were all that was left.

    This being Iowa the temperature and humidity vary all over. I couldn't read the floppies reliably at first. This after I put a floppy drive in a Linux PC with the correct Linux drivers/software to read Mac formatted disks. Slid the cover over and saw that all the disks had spots of mildew on them. Spent a hour or so washing them all through the little slot with a bunch of Q-tips. Then I could read them pretty good.

    1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

      Re: Condensation is not good for disks.

      It's not good for paper either....

      Printer constantly jamming in one area, ham-fisted (Ironic as we daily turned cows into something delicious) night shift users constantly ripping the paper trying to extract from the fuser, resulting in numerous service calls.

      Cause of the jams - Damp paper.

      Why was the paper damp - Old wooden table removed (before I started) & that used to soak up all the moisture in the air.

      Solution - Department collected a fresh ream of paper at the start of every shift.

  10. Colintd

    Sticky disc

    In the early 90's we had a Compaq 33MHz 386 as a main build server, with a hard disc (can't remember the vendor or size) where they had made a bad choice of spindle lubricant. It would run indefinitely if left on, but if you turned it off overnight, the next day the disc wouldn't spin up when you turned it back on. The "trick" was to turn on the power, then lift up the whole case and give it a sharp twist. The inertia of the disc meant you overcame the static friction and the disc would then startup. Over time the twist required became larger/more sudden, but it lasted until we upgraded to a shiny new 486.

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: Sticky disc

      Quantum 105MB drive? They used to do the same in SPARCstations, solution was much the same, although lifting the front of the pizza box up an inch or two and letting it slam back to the table worked too.

      1. SImon Hobson Silver badge

        Re: Sticky disc

        I vaguely recall a batch of Rodime 40M disks with the same problem.

      2. Colintd

        Re: Sticky disc

        I'm sure you're right, and it was a Quantum drive. I'd forgotten all about them.

  11. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

    The Other Extreme

    Went to site on a Friday Afternoon to investigate discover why the network was slow on Monday mornings & a bit better each other morning of the week at a Doctors surgery.

    The answer was evident in about 30 seconds, the router, switches, VPN box & access points were all kept in a kitchen wall cabinet full of medical items, left open during the day.

    "Do you close this at night?"


    "I know what your problem is""

    "What?" (Disbelieving tone)

    "You're cooking your kit, overnight & the weekends, when you open the door each morning it gives the equipment chance to cool down!"

  12. ROC

    Green screens going snap, crackle, pop!

    Reminds me of when I was managing the setup of a small college computing center in central Virginia. This was in the mid-80's, and the IT director had gone the "safe" route with an IBM 4341 "mainframe" running VM/SP to host a DOS/VSE CICS/ICCF Virtual Machine for admin "apps", and a MUSIC/SP VM (if anyone knows what that is, you get a Big Iron Trivia - "BIT" prize) for academic use.

    I was officially the systems programmer, but did a lot of ancillary support, including various hardware support including setting up the student lab with Telex (or maybe Memorex?) green screen IBM 3278 CRT clones in a room built into a corner of the old gym. This "phase" was done in the middle of a typical steamy Virginian summer. The lab was set up pretty much like a standard classroom with the CRT's on individual computer workstation desks of the era in neat rows/columns.

    We had also installed some high capacity window-mounted air conditioners (no central air in old small state college secondary gyms then), but in his typical ham-handed fashion, the IT director, doing a bit of token hands-on "leadership" decided the AC would be set to maximum coldness to offset the outside steaminess. Although I could not quite articulate a concrete objection, aside from the ergonomic issue of fingers getting too cold to type on the 3270-style keyboards, my mental alarms were clanging ....

    After an hour or 2 of the big chill settling in, we saw the real issue when the room's door was opened long enough for the outside humidity to surge into the room: The condensation on the non-heated, plastic parts of the CRT's dripped into the electronics, and shorted out several of the units closest to the door - they were "sweating" like a cold glass of water. I immediately powered off all the units, and unplugged them, then set the AC to minimal coolness in hopes that would be a more reasonable balance of comfort for humans, and equipment. I believe I needed the Telex tech who came out with replacements to explain very clearly to the director why this happened to back me up in keeping it that way before turning the CRT's back on.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Our ghost used to turn Pcs on.

    I got a call from some medical but non technical people.

    We asked users to log out of computers at night but not turn them off so that we could scan, update etc all of them. Thery had discussed it amongst themselves and concluded that we couldn't possibly mean that and carefully turned off the computer and left the screen on. This was in the days before "magic packets" so i set the BIOS to turn it on at 06.00 on weekdays.

    We got a call that a "ghost hacker" was using their computer every night. When the story got out, some of our consultants took to unplugging their computers at night and calling us up in the mornings because they were slow!

  14. capcomms


    I had a similar experience back in the 90's which involved a bloody big safe and a bunch of floppy discs.

    Along with the bloody great magnet the woman used to secure said floppies to the side of the safe...

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  15. Strebortrebor

    Early, full-height 8 inch floppy drives had synchronous spindle motors. We added CP/M systems at field sites that had 10KVA UPSes to support a redundant minicomputer system. Some of the backup disks from field sites were unreadable at the home office. Turns out that these 1970s-vintage UPSes had free-running oscillators and were not crystal-controlled or phase-locked to the mains. The frequency could be off by a couple of hertz, changing the spindle speed proportionately.

    We set up an audio oscillator, a 100-watt public-address amplifier, and a transformer to power one of the system's 2 drives, tweaked the frequency until the drive could read reliably, and PIPed the data to a fresh disk in the other drive, which remained powered by the utility.

    The later, half-height drives ran on DC and did not have the issue.

  16. This post has been deleted by its author

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ghost destroyed my system

    Its name was Norton. Ha!

  18. enigma-it

    Seen a different but related issue

    Back in the days of Netware, diskless workstations and 10Base2 coax networking, I was a similar situation. Computers wouldn't boot up early in the morning, but by the time I in to take a look, everything was fine.

    The end result was that there was a long coax under the building eaves, and the cabler hadn't vrimped the center pin properly. Overnight, the temperature dropped and the metal contracted enough to break the connection. Once the sun came up and warmed the cable, everything worked.

  19. Andy3

    Not wanting to brag, but as a video engineer I would have been on this in a flash. It's a commom problem when a customer transports a tape in their car on a Winter's night and gets back to base and the tape is taken indoors, where moisture quickly forms on the cold surface. This can be disastrous for both the tape and the spinning head drum as the tape sticks to the drum and snatches at the tape. Usually this strips off some of the tape's oxide coating and in extreme cases will also crack the fragile ferrite heads.

  20. Choch

    what's a floppy disk

    This is something from the last century. Didn't say size of disks, 18 inch, 12 inch, or 8 inch. Most newbies not sure what a floppy is. Maybe something in newer news.

  21. Glenturret Single Malt

    Anyone who has ever taken a bottle of cold liquid out of the fridge at breakfast time will know that the condensation forms when it is brought out into the room and not overnight in the fridge.


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