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. Long John Brass Silver badge


    Once upon a time ago (1990's), A co-worker & I chopped a whole bunch of chips off some dead motherboards, placed them in a nice little velvet bag that some mouse came in.

    The shtick was we would huddle round a misbehaving machine & throw the "Bones". If the letter side on most were up the machine could be saved, if the "chips were down" then the PC was back to base for repair.

    What scared us was how many people (users) thought this was an acceptable way to diagnose a computer fault :(

    1. Sandtitz Silver badge

      Re: Voodoo

      Check This Out

      Poor quality and Finnish subtitles, but I guess Smith&Jones wanted to show how many people see computer repairs - black magic.

      1. Chemical Bob

        Re: @Sandtitz

        I have seriously considered doing shit like that. Closest I got was keeping an old bone my dog gnawed on in my toolbox.

    2. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Re: Voodoo

      I just fix the problem and tell the lusers that computers are afraid of me.

      1. Nunyabiznes

        Re: Voodoo

        Ah, the fine art of electronics intimidation. I know thee well.

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Voodoo

        It also convinces users by saying something along the lines (to the computer)... "Either work or you'll be a boat anchor". The look as I've walked away is priceless.

        Sidenote.. I had a poster in the lab/shop with a voodoo priest on it with the words: "Computer fixed. No chickens needed to be killed... this time". I retired, left the sign and from friends still there, the poster is still hanging in it's spot.

        1. oldcoder

          Re: Voodoo

          Did that once to a bill changer to get change for another soda.

          The bill was rejected, but after the "take it or else", it went through just fine...

          And the supervisors jaw dropped...

          "Whats the matter? It worked didn't it?"

      3. Stephen W Harris

        Re: Voodoo

        A few years back I was in a hotel 4,000 miles from home. I was about to go to the bar, so stopped off at my co-workers room to collect him. He was on the phone with his wife; the TiVo had got into a reboot loop and he'd spent the last 10 minutes trying to fix it remotely. But nothing. In desparation he said to his wife, "I'm going to pass you over to Stephen; he's good at this stuff" and then paused... "Oh, it's working now!"

        Sometimes just the treat of me is enough to scare devices into working, from a different continent :-)

    3. FuzzyWuzzys

      Still works for me albeit now much constrained

      As a young spotty herbert I learned the ways of the "force", a wee young lad of 7 I started playing with computers. As I reached my teenage years ( circa 1986) and with my 8bit micro and 16bit AtariST knowledge I easily gained knowledge of the PC and needed...

      a) alchohol for free/cheap

      b) to attract young women

      I was often times summoned to perform incantations on possessed machines, much laying of hands ( well, re-seating ISA cards and cables! ) and thus the machine was reborn as if by magic. Much rejoicing, gifts of cans of beer and gratitude of many people including some of the aforementioned young ladies.

      Sadly these days my skills while still in demand it's just the beer and gratitude of women as ever but now my wife keeps a close eye on those I impress to ensure they not too impressed!

  2. Filippo

    Users are already inclined to think that computers are magic, right now. Now, imagine adding a few tens of thousands more years of stratified software and hardware layers. I think computer engineers will be renamed Techpriests of the Machine God way before that.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      They'll all be robots.

    2. BongoJoe

      I make it just under a hundred years before the Priests of Syrinx assume control.

      1. The Count

        Naughty sysadmins use dark magic to fix PCs for clueless users

        Geddy Lee for high priest!

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        > Priests of Syrinx



    3. jake Silver badge

      Happened long ago, Filippo.

      We've been called monks, wizards, gurus, gods & godesses and many other similar "mystic" handles since the dawn of digital computing. So much so that it has become a major source of humo(u)r.

      See 1987's Tao of Programming:

      That is just one example. There are many more. The Jargon File can point you at other examples, if you are so inclined.

      1. I am the liquor

        Re: Happened long ago, Filippo.

        A personal favourite:

        A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.

        Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: “You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong.”

        Knight turned the machine off and on.

        The machine worked.

    4. Admiral Grace Hopper

      We are all servants of Landru

    5. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      Machine God

      Blood for the Blood God!

    6. Bob Dole (tm)

      So, by your estimation, this will be in full swing around 40,000 years from now?

  3. Rick Leeming

    Blessed Blake Protect Us

    It's all gets a little bit COMSTAR after a while.

  4. chivo243 Silver badge

    Cotton balls and alcohol

    My first IT manager used to keep a small bottle of holy water next to his workstation. He would trot it out when some of our more "well known" users had issues. It was always good for a laugh.

    It's Friday everybody! Let's have one!

  5. getHandle

    +1 for Charles Stross

    +several million, actually, IMHO! And not just the Laundry Files. Accelerando is another of my faves.

  6. Jeroen Braamhaar

    surprised ...

    ...because El Reg has its own resident fictional sysadmin in-house already!

    Fear the BOFH's wrath when he discovers he's been overlooked!

    1. Simon Sharwood, Reg APAC Editor (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: surprised ...

      Nah. Figured y'all knew about BOFH already. And besides, who says it is fiction?

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: surprised ...

        It was fiction on Usenet, and it's still fiction. Tired, derivative of itself fiction at that.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: surprised ...

        "And besides, who says it is fiction?"

        After all, no survivors have ever turned up to say otherwise.

  7. Norman Nescio Silver badge

    "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

    In some people's eyes, I am a 'tech magician' (admitting this will probably make my powers vanish through the mechanism of hubris, but we'll see) - many times I've heard swearing coming from a relative or colleague because they couldn't do something on their computer; they finally ask me to help, and I turn up, and just by standing there suddenly everything works. Sometimes I have to sit down and 'do exactly the same as they were doing'.

    My suspicion is that it has something to do with 'mechanical sympathy': my knowledge of the underlying technology and the way in which the user interface developer was thinking helps. People don't help themselves by double-clicking everything; leaving CAPS LOCK on, pressing '(Carriage)Return' to move between fields in a dialogue box instead of 'Tab' etc.

    In the same way that some people understand how cars work, so don't treat the accelerator as a binary control; brake smoothly and progressively and not jerkily at the last minute; turn the steering wheel while the road wheels are turning; and not relying on power-steering to scrub the wheels round when stationary etc I think some people have a knack for using IT well, and others do the equivalent of crashing the gears.

    So when I turn up, just the mere fact of me standing by them makes them take that little bit more care, and suddenly things work. It isn't magic: but some people prefer to think that than question their own competence at using their own computer.

    1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      Pretty much happens to me all the time. User: <something> is not working. I go over to watch the user demonstrate the problem. User: <something> is working now.

      1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        When talking someone through a problem and this happens, I just claim that it's "telepathic healing" and that it comes at no extra charge.

      2. Tikimon Silver badge

        I call it "Mechanic Effect"

        I used to do quite a bit of freelance auto repair, and still am asked for help with them. It's almost a script.

        "Hey, can you take a look at my car? It's been making this weird noise all week."

        "Sure! Fire it up." (crank up vehicle, listen attentively...)

        "That's funny. I swear, it was doing it earlier."

        Machines ARE afraid of the Skilled Fixer. They see that knowledgeable swagger in our walk and decide to straighten up before the tools come out.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: I call it "Mechanic Effect"

          "Machines ARE afraid of the Skilled Fixer. They see that knowledgeable swagger in our walk and decide to straighten up before the tools come out."

          But carry a large hammer, just in case they don't get the message.

    2. VinceH Silver badge

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      "So when I turn up, just the mere fact of me standing by them makes them take that little bit more care, and suddenly things work. It isn't magic: but some people prefer to think that than question their own competence at using their own computer."

      I get similar but had never thought about why - your analysis of what happens makes a lot of sense, though. I usually explain it away to the users as the computer being afraid of me.

      1. Dave Parry

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        I concur with the above. However, for user consumption, I referred to the effect as my 'Guru Field'

    3. nijam

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      All true enough, though I will point out that it was perfectly normal, and sensible, to use CR to move to the next text box down until Microsoft came along and screwed up window manager ergonomics. Just as it used to be sensible to use DEL to delete a character (hey, the clue's in the name), and now we have to use BS. Microsoft is likewise the origin of BS, as we all know.

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        Yes, most Microsoft references to BS don't mean backspace ;)

    4. Clockworkseer

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      I've actually used this for software fault diagnosis from time to time.

      They try it with me watching, it works. Turns out that when you're watching, they slow down a fair bit so you can see they aren't messing it up because they don't want to be the one at fault. The actual fault is that when they're doing it normally, they're typing and flipping between screens and fields so fast that the software can't entirely keep up and does untoward things. Useful to know sometimes.

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      "So when I turn up, just the mere fact of me standing by them makes them take that little bit more care, and suddenly things work."

      Another factor can be that simply explaining what they were doing to someone else makes them think about what they were doing & they spot what they were doing wrong. And I think we can all remember ourselves included in "they" at some time or other.

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        This is just one specialised example of Murphy's Law, called the Inverse Demo Effect (IDE). The Regular Demo Effect (RDE) states that the chances of a program being demoed crashing is a steeply increasing function of the number of people watching, potentially weighted by the Embarrassment Factor (EF) which increases the chance of a crash with the importance of the event, or pay check of those watching. Conversely, the IDE states that the chances of a bug or crash occurring is inversely proportional to the number of sys-admins or developers watching

    6. W4YBO

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      Well stated.

      Along the same line, part of one of my situation dependent email signatures...

      "I repair neither computers nor software. I repair users.”

      1. ma1010 Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        "I repair neither computers nor software. I repair users.”

        As does the BOFH. Often by use of a cattle prod.

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      "In the same way that some people understand how cars work, so don't treat the accelerator as a binary control"

      Oddly, I understood how the accelerator worked when I was learning to drive, but still had the bad habit- picked up on by my driving instructor- of doing this.

      I actually wondered at the time whether this was a symptom of having grown up playing racing video games with an old Atari-type digital (i.e. on/off) joystick where the accelerator *was* effectively binary. Or maybe I was just a crap driver, who knows...

      1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

        After playing Elite before learning to drive I would instinctively accelerate to the speed I wanted, then let go. After all, I'm at the right speed, I no longer need to accelerate, so I cease to instruct the vehicle to accelerate.

        Even the instructors baby-talk name of "the go faster pedal" reinforced that. I no longer need to go faster, so release the go-faster pedal.

    8. foxyshadis

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      Many years ago, Microsoft RDP and Citrix had an odd bug that sometimes caused a modifier key (shift, ctrl, etc) to stick despite being unpressed. Ever since then, I've always had a habit of running a finger across all the modifier keys just in case, when a password doesn't work the first time, to "remind" the system of the actual state of the keys. It seems to work! I rarely mistype my password twice in a row. ;)

    9. Simon 4

      Re: "Mechanical Sympathy" and magic

      I call it "Lucky Totem IT Support".

      And yes, as I explain to customers, it's still chargeable.

    10. AceRimmer1980

      Re: mechanism of hubris

      Ah, these hubris mechanisms, they're known to be unreliable. Regular applications of humble pie should keep them in balance.

  8. GlenP Silver badge

    No quite wizadry but...

    Back when monitors were often cased in large cuboid metal boxes I had a user who complained that the "picture" was unsteady. Anyone who was around at the time will know that a sharp knock on the case would often sort this particular problem.

    I told the user that the fix was very delicate and must only be performed by an IT professional with the proper training, then *Bang* as I hit both sides of the monitor (with my palms, didn't really want to leave a dent but makes more noise that way). She jumped about 2 feet out of her chair, but the monitor was fixed and worked perfectly thereafter until updated.


    1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      Re: No quite wizadry but...

      Good old percussive maintenance.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: No quite wizadry but...

        "Good old percussive maintenance."

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

        1. Admiral Grace Hopper

          Re: No quite wizadry but...

          Many years ago, in simpler, more direct times, we used to keep a cricket bat with "USER EDUCATION TOOL" magic markered on the back in large, angry letters.

          1. Christoph Silver badge

            Re: No quite wizadry but...

            Also known as the LART - Luser Attitude Readjustment Tool.

            Hopefully you won't need to resort to the OADS.

          2. John 110

            Re: No quite wizadry but...

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

        2. 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.

        3. 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....

      2. 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.)

      3. 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.

    2. 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)

  9. 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?

  10. 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.

  11. Diogenes

    I lay on hands

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

  12. 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

      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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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."

  17. 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.

  18. 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

  19. 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 :-)

  20. TRT Silver badge
  21. 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.

  22. 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?

  23. Naselus

    The more annoying bit...

    Is when the tech does the magician shit all by itself. I've lost count of the number of times that me simply walking over to a computer 'fixes' whatever problem the user is having; we even informally use the term 'IT Guys Present' as the 'solution' when this kind of thing happens.

    That adds a lot of techno-magi reputation even without casting the runes on the users desk and chanting the incantations or what have you. I generally try to be honest with my users, and try to explain what caused a problem in layman's terms, but that's kind of difficult when the only apparent explanation for a problem suddenly resolving itself is 'I guess the machine just wanted me to touch it today'.

    1. fruitoftheloon

      @Naselus: Re: The more annoying bit...


      quite, when a user would ask me why it worked if I [or a compatriot] were standing next to them, I picked one of two stock answers:

      - cloud formations

      - '42'

      Which they were usually absolutely fine with.

      Have one on me, it's Friday!



    2. Helldesk Dogsbody

      Re: The more annoying bit...

      I generally prefer the approach of "The computer is more scared of me than it is of you" as I too remember the joys of CRT monitors and TVs that required percussive persuasion applied in the correct location, aka "a damn good thumping", and I'm not afraid to use it today. While it may not do any good I usually feel better afterwards :)

      Management, however, remain unconvinced that this is the appropriate manner to deal with certain PICNIC situations...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The more annoying bit...

      I have a customer who thinks that her computer just works in front of me.

      Actually, she works slower when I'm watching and doesn't make the same mistakes. Confirmed by covert observation.

      1. JimC Silver badge

        Re: Actually, she works slower when I'm watching and doesn't make the same mistakes.

        I suspect this is a fairly common occurrence, and explains the vast majority of "fixed by engineer's magic fingers" faults. Just the presence of a cool calm and confident engineer may be enough to calm down the flustered and resume normal operation.

      2. Elsmarc

        Re: The more annoying bit...

        "I have a customer who thinks that her computer just works in front of me.

        Actually, she works slower when I'm watching and doesn't make the same mistakes. Confirmed by covert observation."

        This is also true in other areas. I'm closing in on 70 yrs and pretty much retired. I mostly worked as a consultant and "problem solver". Back in the late 1990's I was called to investigate a problem in an assembly area. I visited it twice and no problems. I came back for a 3rd visit, but "unannounced", and watched from a somewhat hidden location. Problem identified. When I was there the employees followed their work instructions to the letter knowing they were being watched. When I wasn't there they tended to do some steps out of order and other "little" things that they deemed unimportant or were simply inattentive about.

        I also have experienced the "retire the guy and get a cheaper replacement" story from the 1990's. Was doing some work at a place doing injection molding. They had a guy named Olly who they shoved towards retirement who had worked there for years and knew every machine and their quirks. He even had a personal note book for each machine in which he tracked "his machines". Within 6 months he was back as a "consultant" at about twice his old pay rate. The company did find out about his personal note books and made him start writing up everything and "share" with others in that department.

  24. Raphael

    This week's episode reminds my of the news story a couple of years back about the Nepalese (I think) Airways who sacrificed a goat to repair their avionics.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      So did the autopilot fly them to Capri safely?

      If they always relied on this method I imagine it would be very risky to prepare for a flight to Aswan.

  25. magickmark

    I have two tales of woe to add to the collection here!


    Many years ago I used to train people new to IT, someone has mentioned Olivetti 386's, those were the PC's I used to train people with at the time. There was one lady, Ginny. Every time she sat down at any computer it would go totally nuts, the poor woman was driven to distraction and being new to PC's she assumed it was her fault and she would never get the hang of using them.

    After a few weeks of this we sat down to talk about what she wanted to do next. As part of our talk she told me that she had been previously 'diagnosed' as having, or creating, a high level of static charge.

    So I got her to touch a radiator and sat her down at a PC and away she went, from that point on as long as she earthed herself before hand she had no further problems.


    This one is more recent.

    In my current role I was moved to a new desk with a new PC. So I packed up all my stuff and moved to my new deck and PC. Set up all my stuff at the new desk, all good so far.

    Over the next few days I noticed my typing seemed to be getting worse more spelling mistake than usual passwords not working etc. etc.

    I'm a competent touch typist and although we all make mistake at times this was getting silly. So I slowed down to see what was going on and that's when I noticed that certain keys when pressed would mistype ie I'd type a 'p' and get an 'h' and so on. Not every key just some of them.

    So anyway I dug out a new keyboard plugged it into its USB port.. Exactly the same issue, I tired different empty USB ports, still no joy.

    As a last resort I unplugged a USB powered Plasma Ball toy, a Christmas gift from my girl friend, and plugged the keyboard in there. JOY it worked!!!

    Plugged the toy in to another port, problem came back, it was now obvious what the problem was.

    Strange thing was it had worked perfectly on my old PC and works perfectly on my home PC when tried there as well. But obviously on my new work PC it must have been causing some kind of interference on the USB bus.

    OK, neither one is IT magic, although Ginny thought so in her case.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      USB is terrible for EMC

      And a plasma ball is basically impossible to make compliant with EU EMC.

      A lot of (cheaper and USian) kit is right on the borderline for immunity, so combining all three is really asking for trouble.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    At a previous employers I once watched as someone in a glass walled office connected their laptop to the docking station and then attempt to do some work. After a few minutes the battery warning indicator came on and arms are waved wildly in my general direction. I said politely when I walked into the office that she needed to connect the machine to a power supply. Protestations that she'd done so already (by docking it I presume) and would I please fix it were made repeatedly. I borrowed a colleague and he stood in front of the desk moving the plug with his feet to the socket so that it could be inserted with just a push.

    I was at this time doing my best American evangelical preacher routine (okay I only have one but it's pretty good) telling her that she had the power and all she had to do was believe. I told her I had to place my hand on her head and she should put hers on the keyboard so she would feel the power flowing through her. She agreed [to my utter amazement] I put my hand on her hair said "Now" loudly to cover the plug being pushed in by my the foot of my colleague. Then in my normal middle England accent said "Yeah that's fixed it" and to let us know if it happened again. I still don't understand how people get to be managers when they believe things like that.

    At lunch she come over to me in the cafeteria and says she's thought about the procedure that morning. "Will it work at home as well?" I came clean, told her how we'd really fixed it and she nearly hit me. I said as she was in charge it might be wise to instruct the cleaners to always replace any plugs they pull out to do the hoovering.

    1. tiggity Silver badge

      Cleaners should always have their own assigned sockets that are not to be used for anything else - never want cleaners unplugging anything!

  27. Alistair Silver badge

    Tech wizardry

    I'll be honest, I've done my fair share of baffle the end user.

    Its *far*far*far* more satisfying to be on that SEV1 conf call at 14:00 with 20 or 30 folks, and be able to say. Okay, fixed it. Especially when 3 previous techs *and* the vendor have all been recommending rebooting and restoring the backed up system image. If you can avoid explaining the finer details before everyone runs away, they assume you did something magical. Mind you, it does have a down side.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Antistatic mouse mats are still a thing to this day

    Whilst working for a large retailer's support centre, we were required to state that using a mouse built up static electricity that would disable the mouse over time.

    Simply by unplugging the mouse (ps2 not USB) and then plugging it back in again would remove the fault everytime and if they would care to purchase a antistatic mouse mat then the problem would go away for good.

    That the manufacturer supplied mouse and ps2 port connectors were copper and aluminium respectively had absolutely nothing to do with the problem. That removing and re-inserting the mouse removed offending oxide layer is purely coincidental, it was really static build up honest.

    That this problem existed with manufacturers products for so long that even today you can still buy antistatic mouse mats shows just how credulous their customers were and still are.

    1. Andytug

      Re: Antistatic mouse mats are still a thing to this day

      Maybe related to the old "IBM Mouse Balls" memo, allegedly genuine....

      If a mouse fails to operate or should it perform erratically, it may need a ball replacement. Mouse balls are now available as FRU (Field Replacement Units). Because of the delicate nature of this procedure, replacement of mouse balls should only be attempted by properly trained personnel.

      Before proceeding, determine the type of mouse balls by examining the underside of the mouse. Domestic balls will be larger and harder than foreign balls. Ball removal procedures differ depending upon the manufacturer of the mouse. Foreign balls can be replaced using the pop off method. Domestic balls are replaced by using the twist off method. Mouse balls are not usually static sensitive. However, excessive handling can result in sudden discharge. Upon completion of ball replacement, the mouse may be used immediately.

      It is recommended that each person have a pair of spare balls for maintaining optimum customer satisfaction. Any customer missing his balls should contact the local personnel in charge of removing and replacing these necessary items.

      Please keep in mind that a customer without properly working balls is an unhappy customer.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Antistatic mouse mats are still a thing to this day

        "Mouse Balls" was written as a joke field service memo by a FSE at IBM Boca in roughly 1988, soon after the release of the IBM PS/2. Seems manglement were going on and on about the importance of the mouse with OS/2, and he was in the mood to poke fun at them.

        The memo looked official, the original had the actual part number of the FRU mouse balls. It also had the tie-line number of the FSE who wrote the memo. It was never supposed to go outside his immediate office. He is embarrassed about it to this day.

        The last time I checked (10 years ago (??)), P/N 33F8462 - Domestic Mouse Balls and P/N 33F8461 - Foreign Mouse Balls were still valid part numbers at IBM, with inventory on hand. No doubt the Chump administration will be purging the foreign ones shortly, with great fanfare and a televised EO signing.

        Grounded anti-static mouse mats were an actual thing. They were to ground the user, not the mouse. Seems the average secretary can generate upwards of 85KV walking down the hall to get a cuppa ...

        1. Public Citizen

          Re: Antistatic mouse mats are still a thing to this day

          A lot of the blended fabrics with a high man made content or those made of man made fabrics, such as rayon, will generate a large static charge.

          Think of the amber rod rubbed by a cloth in a basic science demonstration.

          Have personally worked in conditions where 100% natural materials were a requirement for all clothing worn while working. This is over and above the usual grounding strap precautions.

  29. Spanners Silver badge

    It must be my aura or something?

    Sometimes, I just have to walk into the room and ask people to "try again" and the computer starts working properly. Sometimes, I can do it by phone. Sometimes it works when I remote to a PC. What I think gave it away was when someone said they just asked themselves "What would Spanners do?" and it all went right.

    As a group, IT support is often seen as pretty laid back. Perhaps many of us are. The rest of us are probably just calm. That is the magic. Even when we are not clear on what is happening, most of us tend not to get too stressed about it. "Stress is for managers and developers." Just an air of confindence and people try again and, this time, omit the tiny error that messes it all up.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not trying to fool people, but I know several hardware technicians who insist that blood sacrifice improves the chances of an upgrade working whenever they cut themselves on a computer case.

    1. WonkoTheSane Silver badge

      The god of engineering IS a blood god!

  31. Blitheringeejit

    It's all about "So how does that make you feel?"

    I've always found that most computer problems are usually best solved by the vigorous application of a copious amount of swearing.

    The shoutier the better ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------->

    1. Tikimon Silver badge

      Re: It's all about "So how does that make you feel?"

      "I've always found that most computer problems are usually best solved by the vigorous application of a copious amount of swearing."

      Oh I agree! Which is why I've learned to curse in several alternate languages. Hungarian and Russian are my favorites, and nobody here speaks those so SFW. So far, only one of my co-workers has asked me about it, and then she wanted me to write down some good ones for her to use.

      1. W4YBO

        Re: It's all about "So how does that make you feel?"

        "...curse in several alternate languages. Hungarian and Russian are my favorites..."

        It would be a great service to the Tech community if someone (ahem, el Reg, wink, wink, nudge, nudge) published a guide to creative cursing in other languages. The social acceptability of several techs I've known would've increased had no one known what they were saying.

        I recently rewatched Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark. There's some spectacular German cursing in that.

    2. fruitoftheloon
      Thumb Up

      @ Blitheringeejit: Re: It's all about "So how does that make you feel?"


      quite, I have oft thought that any keyboard connected to anything that runs Windows needs a:

      "Do it now you bar steward' button... above Return

      I have rarely felt the need for this on my Macintoshen.



    3. Andytug

      Re: It's all about "So how does that make you feel?"

      Absolutely, it's the difference between electronic stuff and mechanical stuff. Electronic stuff needs swearing at to make it work, whereas mechanical stuff needs to be spoken to nicely, and in extreme circumstances pleaded with.

      Computer that's gone BSOD and rebooted - "Work, you f******g piece of s**t!

      Car that's making a wierd grinding noise and struggling to get you home at 3 am "Please please please please please keep going. Oh please please keep going!"

  32. Richard Scratcher


    A senior manager once called me over to sort out a "virus" on his PC. Whatever he typed in his document immediately scrolled up and off the top the window. He was in a bit of a panic. There was an open ring binder folder on his desk and I slid it forward slightly, so that its corner was no longer pressing the space bar. "Should be okay now", I said.

    I tried to joke about the "magic touch" but had to tell him in the end.

  33. bill 27

    Once upon a time I got a phone call telling me their monitor was on fire. I figured it had gone up in smoke and said I'd get the hardware guys to look at it. He said "No, it's on fire. There's flames coming out the top."

  34. DougS Silver badge

    Laying on of hands

    I wonder if doing all those theatrics would make it more likely the user would remember the fix (when told what it really was) than just going up there, giving it a nudge to fix the loose connection, and telling him how to fix it.

  35. Andy Taylor
    Thumb Up

    Atari ST and dodgy phones

    Re. Percussive maintenance - the keyboard driver chip on the Atari ST was mounted upside down(?) under the keyboard. Over time the chip would slowly work itself loose due to thermal creep - picking up the front of the machine and dropping it back on the desk would reseat the chip.

    I recently replaced a laptop for a user that was complaining her trackpad wasn't working properly. She had mentioned that it seemed fine at home, but the PHB decided the laptop must be faulty.

    I plugged the new one in on her desk and found this too was misbehaving. It had been fine whilst I was configuring it. Eventually traced to her ancient VOIP phone, which the laptop's Ethernet port was plugged in to. Replaced the phone and the problem went away on both machines.

  36. John 104


    So there, Bitches!

  37. Alan W. Rateliff, II

    BOFH fan-fic?

    Who shall accept the challenge?

    Yeah, my schtick is to tell customers that technology fears me, as it is often the case the problem clears up within moments of placing the call to me. I explain that once the misbehaving piece of kit heard I was getting involved it knew time had come to straighten up and fly right. Much like how hearing "just you wait until I tell your father" could elicit angelic behavior in many demon children... myself included.

    1. John 104

      Re: BOFH fan-fic?

      Speaking of BOFH, its near February and we have yet to be blessed by another tale this year...

  38. J. Cook Silver badge

    At one point, I had a rubber chicken in my tool kit, just in case I needed to tap some of the deep magic for fixing the various and sundry issues I've run across. (this was back when you could reliably recover from a machine getting a virus by removing the damaged files and putting known good copies back in; no such luck now.)

    There was also the 'incident' with me performing a data recovery off a failing drive by wrapping it up in a towel and ice pack to keep the controller cool enough to perform an emergency disk clone to a known good drive- I managed that neat trick exactly twice.

  39. Hugh_Johnson

    ...snuck in over the network.

    I support about a dozen users who work with some stupid CRM app that keeps it's server address in a .cfg file in the install directory.

    The server is "in the cloud", and our DNS is a fucking joke. So...if the DNS fails or the ip changes, I have a dozen people all over the country calling me in a panic because they can't work.

    I figured out the issue and wrote a quicky script (actually a deploy job in LanSweeper) to copy out a new .cfg file with the correct settings.

    It's kinda fun to just respond with "Try it now." and it works.

    The user always says something like "My goodness you are magic."

  40. Herby Silver badge

    Amazing what small things do.....

    In my case it was cleaning CRTs. The office (answering services) had operators that smoked like chimneys and with the static build up on the CRT terminals (it was the early 1980s) they would get pretty dirty. We used to always have a nice bottle of Windex available with a bunch of paper towels and during a break in the action, would clean the screens. Then indicate to the operator that we had enhanced to operation to the latest version (or some such drivel). The result was the operators thanking us profusely that their terminals were working MUCH better and that they noticed that they were MUCH better.

    Sad part is that this could be repeated on a monthly basis, and achieve similar results. (*SIGH*)

  41. David Roberts Silver badge

    Percussive anti-maintenance

    A word of warning.

    Way back in the day we were fitting a replacement disc into an external drive for a Sparcstation IPX.

    The disc was hapilly formatting away and making the usual happy burbling chirpy noises.

    Old style engineer walks past, says "Fan's sticking." and gives the drive a good slap.

    This (presumably) caused the heads to bounce around on the platters which is not in the best interest of further use.

    Fortunately we were able to find another replacement drive.

    Engineer spent some time looking very sheepish.

  42. cosmogoblin

    I'm a school science teacher, and I've cultivated plenty of these. My favourites include hitting Ctrl+Shift+T when a student quickly closes a browser window while doing "research", and Ctrl+W if they're not fast enough to close it.

    I have what adults generally call "great mental arithmetic", but children perceive as "witchcraft"; and until presentation pointers became commonplace, I could wow students by progressing a presentation by clicking my fingers (my other hand, of course, being in my jacket pocket).

    And a few years ago, when Acer included a simple button (not a Fn+button) to turn off Wi-Fi, I received several phone calls from friends and relatives who couldn't connect to the Internet. They were pretty freaked out when the first thing I said was just "Press the button with the red light on the top-right of your laptop"...

    1. John PM Chappell

      Cheers mate!

      "My favourites include hitting Ctrl+Shift+T when a student quickly closes a browser window while doing "research", and Ctrl+W if they're not fast enough to close it."

      I've been using PCs since the year dot, and browsing since there was such a thing, but I'd totally forgotten about those two. I mean, I was vaguely aware of them but I'd forgotten how hand they are. Have a (virtual) pint on me, and a thumbs up. :)

  43. John F***ing Stepp

    The hard one

    Is to do this kind of nonsense over the phone.

    "My boss is watching"

    Never mind him, just lay your hand on the top of the case and repeat after me; loudly.

  44. Bill_Sticker

    I used to do a good evangelical. "Oh Lord, heal this computer! Heal I tell you!" For (Cough) Usererror.

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