back to article User lubed PC with butter, because pressing a button didn't work

Welcome again to On-Call, The Register's Friday foray into a mailbag stuffed full of readers' recollections of being asked to fix things that should never have broken. This week, meet “Bill” who can't forget the time, about a decade ago, when someone from the marketing department “couldn't figure out how to eject a floppy disk …


    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: abuse Excel especially creatively

      In Samsung they use Excel for code diffs... link

      Which explains a lot.

      1. GrumpenKraut Silver badge

        Re: abuse Excel especially creatively

        > ...Excel for code diffs...

        O.M.F.G. This is fucked on so many levels.

        Brain bleach -------->

    2. Inventor of the Marmite Laser Silver badge

      Re: abuse Excel especially creatively

      Back in the late '80s I was working at a place which had embraced IT in the form of an Alphamicro mainframe with a bunch of dumb terminals (big diskpacks stuff - all of 30meg a time).

      One of the sales guys was regularly producing ALL his stuff using the spreadsheet tool:letters, quotes, the lot. Was most surprised when I showed him the text editor.

  1. Binky Hetherington that she could continue designing marketing materials in Excel

    I remember a new starter who was of the same mind. I wonder if it was the same woman? No matter how hard I tried to persuade her to use something more relevant, she persisted in creating working instructions in Excel because "it was the best tool for the job". There are some women that I quickly lose the urge to argue with and she was definitely one of them.

    The company has long since closed, but I suspect that out there somewhere is a USB external drive with several hundred working instructions documents on it which are a) really difficult to navigate and b) several times larger than they really should be...

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Lube isn't going to help if it's floppy. I thought everyone knew that?

    1. Dwarf Silver badge

      Lube isn't going to help if it's floppy. I thought everyone knew that?

      The article says about an eject button, these only came on the 3.5 drives, hence the disk was a stiffie.

      In this case, clearly the user was inexperienced and didn't know the required amount of force or technique to get it in and out of the slot properly.

      The 5.25 drives had flaps covering the slot but later ones used knobs to lock the slot closed. Luckily neither suffered with the head-slap problem that was common on their former 8 inch counterparts. This fact alone made it difficult to use them in quiet office environments.

      1. Hey Nonny Nonny Mouse

        Umm, no, there were definitely 5.25" drives that had pushbutton eject, one of the plasma display Compaq portables had one for instance.

        1. jcitron

          That's right I still have an antique with those drives.

          My Visual V1083, aka Commuter Computer, has those push-button floppy drives. It's been sometimes since I repaired those systems, like 32 years, so I can't remember the manufacturer. I think they were Teac floppy drives, but I might be confusing them with the ones in the Visual V1050 CP/M Plus machines which were built a bit earlier.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    When I worked on a helpdesk, it used to be a regular thing for users in India to report problems to us via email. Any screenshots were attached to the email.

    As an embedded image.

    In an Excel spreadsheet.

    1. Andytug

      Sounds like they were trying to avoid email scanning?

      Image attachments blocked, so embed in Excel file to get it through?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Sounds like they were trying to avoid email scanning?

        Nope. This was internal mail with no restrictions.

        It was just their way of doing it. Haven't got a clue why.

  4. David Nash Silver badge

    Seen it loads of times

    Excel is a kind of universal container. You can paste screenshots, text, even columns of numbers!

    1. Simon Harris Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Seen it loads of times

      "even columns of numbers!"

      That's crazy, who'd ever want to do that?

      Because, who knows what Paris would try to paste into Excel ------->

  5. wollo

    Firstly, Larry in IT saved my arse this week, persisting through a long, poor quality phone call to fix a remote login issue,. All hail Larry.

    Secondly, I've been in tech comms a long time, rising to consulting writer and info architect. I use Excel all the time for documentation. We write using XML and methodologies such as topic-based authoring for content reuse and re-purposing. I have not found a better tool for doing the initial architecture design and for creating topic lists and outlines. Best of all, under the covers the content is all tagged in XML so I can export and filter it for import to other XML authoring tools.

    I also export content from other sources (even code dumps) to sort and organize in Excel - such as all the error message strings.

    And, yes, Ive done entire documents in excel because it can handle dynamic content that works on virtually any windows box - I don't have to worry whether the user has that tool.

  6. albegadeep

    I'm an Excel abuser

    Definitely, hands-down. Though as much in the drug sense as in using it in unintended ways. Right now I have a macro-based timer running. I once wrote a sudoku-solving spreadsheet - without macros. (Tricky, that. Hint: use iterative calculation and circular references.) Also a Mastermind clone, with variants from the original 4-wide, 6-color to 40-wide, 20-color, also macro-free.

    In more mundane usage, I keep a running list of all my current and previous (complex) tasks, complete with job numbers and current status. Coworkers are always amazed when I can pull up a job number from 5 years ago, on a project I didn't even remember doing, in less than 30 seconds.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm an Excel abuser

      At a previous job one of my coworkers was teaching himself advanced excel. He created a monsterously huge spreadsheet with cells barely large enough to see, then did some macro/math wizardry to make all the cells change colours at random. Not the whole sheet a single colour mind, but each individual cell it's own colour. It was a squirrely rainbow mind bending acid trip & he routed it to display on the general office displays normaly reserved for network maps.

      It was a blast watching my coworkers stare like a bunch of trippin' hippies at the wall during their lunch breaks.

      It surprised nobody when he got transfered to Accounting because he could make excel sit up, beg, & dance at his whim. =-J

    2. Herby Silver badge

      Re: I'm an Excel abuser

      "...sudoku-solving spreadsheet..."

      This I want to see. It ought to be VERY interesting. I wonder if it works in LibreOffice Calc as well.

      1. albegadeep

        Re: I'm an Excel abuser

        "I wonder if it works in LibreOffice Calc as well."

        Seems like it did. It just used basic worksheet functions. (I use LO at home, Microsloth at work.) It used blocks of data - one line of 9 columns per sudoku cell - to essentially do the "dot method", where a 0 is "not possible", 1 is "possible", and 2 is "this is the right value". One block checked for a 2 (known value) in that cell, setting the rest to zeros. Another checked to see if it was the only 1 left for that cell. Repeat for row, column, and 3x3 grid. Results of the last check were part of the input for the first one (circular reference, illegal unless running in iterative calculation mode). You entered the starting conditions into a standard-looking sudoku grid, which was used as the other possible input to the first check, and read the results from another standard-looking grid which monitored the last check. The hardest part was writing a reset function - change the N in one cell to a Y, and watch it reinitialize itself.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm an Excel abuser

      A long time ago I used the tax lookup table capability in Lotus to assign refrigeration units based on the load. Anonymous cuz I'm not proud of it.

  7. DerekCurrie Bronze badge
    IT Angle

    The Classic Personality Clash + The LUSER Effect

    There are certain computer users who cannot help but inflict chaos upon themselves. They download trash and crash software onto their computers for unreasonable reasons. They must be protected from themselves as if they were children, naive of the big bad world.

    But then there is the classic, historic personality clash that I was taught to describe as the natural repulsion between the Productive personality and the Relater personality. This is very much the collision in companies between R&D and IT versus Marketing. It's the reason that Marketing-As-Management (as I call it) is one of the best ways to destroy a company.

    Productive personalities find the Relater personalities to be strange and annoying. But they tolerate them as best they can, rarely holding a grudge. However, the Relater personality considers the unrelating Productive personality to be something along the lines of an abomination. Relaters not only hold a grudge, they are the masters of undermining and destroying Productive personalities. I think of Relaters as something akin to psychopathic murderers of the Productive psyche. They destroy what is not them. And they call themselves 'people persons'. *ironic*laugh*

    If one thinks about this situation, there are countless examples throughout our personal lives as well as this history of mankind. If you'd like to study an excellent modern example of how this personality clash can take down a company, study the tale of the decline and fall of Eastman Kodak. I was there to watch. (O_o)

    [BTW: I learned about this personality clash as part of what was called 'Beyond Gold' training. The concept has now evolved into 'Platinum Rule' training: "Treat others the way they want to be treated." The hard work is figuring out what that way would be. It can be mind bending.]

  8. Naselus

    Excel art done right

    Before we laugh at Excel artists, consider the stuff this dude produces via Excel. They're hardly photoshop, but you can get pretty cool results if you know what you're doing.

    Not sure if this means we should also be less hasty in our condemnation of buttered floppy disks.

    1. Esme

      Re: Excel art done right

      @Naselus - thank you so much for bringing Tatsuo Horiuchi's work to my attention, I love it! Irrespective of how it was created, he's a good artist, but to think he created such beauty with a piece of software I swear at nearly every working day - that makes my heart sing.

      Oh, and I foudn Libre Office renders his pictures perfectly welll, even on my rather old desktop PC.


  9. TWB

    Another Excel abuser

    Years ago when I used to train broadcast engineers in analogue TV, I needed a way to show how RGB gets changed to YUV - loses or gains levels and then gets changed back again to RGB in TVs - I could not afford signal generators, coders, processing and waveform monitors, but excel was great as a way to show multiple waveforms and with slider controls I could vary levels.

    1. Palpy

      Re: Another Excel abuser, me too...

      Not nearly as clever as you, TWB, but way back in the day I had a spreadsheet that graphed complex squiggles based on a set of random variables and various math functions. Oh, the happy hours minutes seconds I spent clicking just to see the pattern jump.

      Pretty soon, though, the squiggle-formulas migrated to POV-ray. Back in the days when computers were fun.

      Oh, wait, they still are.

  10. FlamingDeath Bronze badge

    Bill Hicks suggestion

  11. Stevie Silver badge


    I might have been tempted to replace the drive but send the original machine back with a small piece of meat dropped into the casing.

  12. beeza

    Saudi fun

    About 15 years ago I worked in Saudi Arabia for their Air Force at a training facility. One of the staff rocked up with some dodgy pirate software CD he wanted to use but his CD ROM drive wouldn't open. We eventually forced the draw out and removed the 3 1/2 inch disk (that must have taken some serious force to jam in there), replaced the drive and returned the machine. He was back the next day in a bit of a hump carrying the "still broken" computer except this time it off...oh yes...he'd slid a couple of CDs over the top of the drive and into the box.

    I think a Saudi colleague finally showed him how to infect his machine with viruses from the CD ROM in the end.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Once upon a time in a former life I had the delight of dealing with a particular sub species of people who I won't name so, for the purposes of this tale (which is related to another that has been published here) I shall call them Those Workers At That Site, or, for brevity, Twats.

    There were high points, I won't deny it but some people just aren't intelligent enough to deserve shoes for fear of hurting themselves when allowed out of the house, let alone a computer.

    One particular young lady, let's call her Laura (because that was her name), was particularly 'IT Phobic' and regularly called me with odd problems like her monitor crackling and going off when she put her handbag on the cable for instance.

    Laura called me one day, with a request that I investigate her computer as it had 'crashed' and displayed an error message.

    Apparently it had bluescreened, she'd turned it off and on again and it was all working just fine now but she wanted to know if I could prevent it happening again so I asked what applications she had open when it crashed (dunno, the usual stuff), if it'd displayed anything when it restarted (Dell apparently) and the clincher, 'Do you know what the error message said or did you write it down?'

    To which I got the immortal anwer 'Dunno, some computery shit so I just switched it off and back on'.

  14. Chris Dugan

    Word's broken...

    I once had a user phone me up complaining that her Word was not working properly and kept on displaying rubbish on her screen.

    As this was back before we had any sort of remote access to users pc's so a desk visit was in order and a short walk to think over the possibilities.

    I arrived, borrowed the mouse, found a Word document on the network drive and opened it with no problems.

    Then I asked the user to show me exactly what she was doing: she went to the file menu, chose open and selected the Word document she wanted to edit which then opened displaying all of the internal document formatting and the plain text of the document..... all in Acrobat Reader! :D

    I then spent about 30 minutes training her in how to use Explorer/My Computer icon to find and open files in the correct program and what the file type filter was for in the Open dialogue box. Quite how she had worked for about 5 years in the office using computers without a similar issue cropping up was beyond me.

    When I left the place last year, she had still barely improved her computer skills and still insisted on following along "monkey see, monkey do" style without giving a thought as to what and why she was doing something :)

    Another anecdote from the same user was that she created a letter template in Excel and had terrible trouble with the layout changing each time she updated the text in the letter, the crazy thing was that she used Excel rather than Word because she had no idea how to use tables in Word and didn't want to ask anyone in her department for fear of being seen as IT illiterate... as she said she was IT trained during her interview. Quite how she managed to retain her job I have no idea; she must have had something over the company or just managed to retain a very low profile.

    It still makes me chuckle even now 10 years on from that initial incident and the company still hires people of similar IT skill calibre today :)

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How to upset the Marketing department

    Just refer to them wherever and whenever you can as the colouring-in department.

    Works even better if email signatures are generated from AD!

  16. Gobhicks

    Excel abuse?

    Excel is useful for all sorts of things other than its intended purposes. Don't knock a user for finding a tool that works for them.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Excel abuse?

      "Excel is useful for all sorts of things other than its intended purposes. Don't knock a user for finding a tool that works for them."

      Depends. I can put a screw into wood with a hammer, but if there's a screwdriver handy I'd be an idiot not to use it. Choose the best tool available and learn to use it, not the only one you happen to know about. If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Excel abuse?

      "Excel is useful for all sorts of things other than its intended purposes."

      Sort of. But it the task it's bent to can rapidly grow to a point where it doesn't really work. Your single table database may be fine. Try to add what should be a second table and you have to denormalise it. The point where a real RDBMS would be the better tool is reached quite quickly.

      OTOH I still haven't found a better tool than LibreOffice Calc for sorting out genealogical data, even if I keep threatening to write one myself.

  17. Snapper

    Excel can be used to calculate things?

    A few days ago I was at a client's site early and got chatting to one of the guys there, and I told a couple of 'in the early days' tales. He liked the one where I told a young lady to highlight the text on the screen.


    Yellow highlighter applied to screen!

    Then I told him I once saw another young lady type a column of numbers into Excel, then reach across her desk to grab a calculator, tap the numbers in and then type the total into the spreadsheet.

    At this point he stared past me at yet another young lady who was standing behind me and who usually sat next to him. Her face was bright red.........

    1. Esme

      Re: Excel can be used to calculate things?

      All entirely credible from my own experience, but guys can be just as dim too., like not knowing how to convert from .xls to .csv, or how to sum a column of number, or even how to change the date format in a column of dates. Also, not realising that in an application with a really long list of choice in a drop-down box that if you typed the first 2-3 characters it would be selected (he was scrolling down to the desired one every time), not realising the difference between an application installed on the PC and one they accessed via a browser, the classic cup-holder stuff, ignorance of what the other mouse button does, power-cycling PCs rather than shutting them down nicely back when power-cycling was a Not Good thing to do. And guys are less likely to listen properly to what you;re telling them, in my experience, and more likely to be overconfident in their abailities.

      BUT - the big question is this - why, by all that's holy, are companies NOT ensuring that staff (including Directors) have basic IT literacy skills before letting them loose on IT equipment? Hmmn? Bear in mind, when you consider this, that for most of my working life men have bene far more common in the boardroom than women, so who's been making the bad decisions with regard to IT, eh? (And, yes, I've come across some women that are just as bad, but plenty of blokes are IT numbskulls too!)

      I have a lot of sympathy with users that don't understand IT well or at all, provided they're willing to learn, and it's my experience that the majority are quite happy to learn, provided the instruction is in small does and clearly relevant to them getting their job done, or experiencing less hassle in future. The dangerous ones are the ones that won't listen, the more so the higher up the chain they are, because they will not only suffer stupid problems themselves, they will be the cause of stupid problems for others by not understaning that basic IT literacy is a productivity issue, and lack thereof costs companies millions.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Excel can be used to calculate things?

        "BUT - the big question is this - why, by all that's holy, are companies NOT ensuring that staff (including Directors) have basic IT literacy skills before letting them loose on IT equipment? Hmmn?"

        Incorrect assumptions on the part of HR and line managers.

        1) Young people "know all about computers" and learned how to use them at school.

        2) Older people working in an office already know because they must have got training at their last job.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Excel can be used to calculate things?

        "The dangerous ones are the ones that won't listen, the more so the higher up the chain they are"

        The higher up the chain they are the more they're paid than you. And because they're paid more they must know better than you. Life is much simpler when you take this approach.

  18. gryphon

    Technical ignorance is fine, willful ignorance and an unwillingness to learn for the next time is not fine.

    1. Hey Nonny Nonny Mouse

      Yes. That.

      MD of a company once told me he didn't want to pay for his staff to learn to use computers, the computers should work the way he wanted them to.

      That's the same company MD who was persuaded by two people on staff that their job was to be on facebook managing the company social media presence.

      Quite how they did that from their personal accounts while posting pictures of holidays, children and tennis club escaped me but I'm sure he felt he got value for money.

  19. ChrisBedford

    It's hard to believe that a clear-cut case of user vandalism as described could not be unequivocally proved to have been exactly that - (a) the drive was full of butter and (b) it worked when the button was pressed properly - so if that's all there was to it, the techie in question should have been able to prove his innocence beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt. If not, I have to question either the truthfulness of the story or the competence of the techie - sure, I know there are dumb-ass companies that will allow (or attempt to allow) marketing drones to get away with s#!t like that, but, seriously now...

  20. Howard Winter





    Amateurs - EDLIN for the win!

  21. GrapeBunch Bronze badge

    Both Sides Then

    I was on the other side of this fun once. Cast your minds back to the pre-internet days of monochrome displays. I bought an application which was written in 16-colors, but I ran it on a four shades of green monitor. Up to then, and afterwards, every 16-color pay-for or free or shareware app I had encountered, rendered OK on a 4-shade of monochrome monitor. Except this one. He had managed to burn-in (no user color settings) two display colors that mapped to the same shade, meaning that much of the information was illegible, encrypted if you like. I pointed this out to the author. He didn't fix the app, but he did diss one of his customers on a discussion group. This was pre-internet, so it might have been Leisure Linc. Something like: "You think you have stupid customers. I got one who complained about the colors of my app, but it turned out he was trying to run it in monochrome. What an idiot !" Endearing, to the hilt.

  22. jcitron


    This is one of the best I've read yet and must pass this article on to some tech friends. :-)


POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019