Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stories: A Brain Dump from a Derailed Book Idea

A while back I was going to publish a book (e-book) on stories from my years in IT work.  Not the techy, geeky, nerdy crap.  Just the funny, stupid, ironic stuff, memorable moments that have stuck with me for a long time.  Rather than expound upon them into excrutiating detail, I'm just going to post the summaries on this blog.  They're all one hundred percent factual and true.  Names are replaced or omitted to avoid law suits.

Blackberry Sauce

I came home from a busy Friday at the office and my wife called out from the kitchen.  I walked in with my backpack and lunch box to see a bowl of peeled and de-veined Shrimp relaxing on a bowl of ice and big cup of cocktail sauce.  As I gazed up there was a frosty glass and a cold bottle of some unpronouncable Belgian Ale sitting next to it.  I could hear angels singing and playing harps on the clouds.  I dropped my stuff, kissed my wife, and charged over to the table.  As I rounded the end of the table, my Blackberry belt-clip caught on the top of a chair and forced the Blackberry to pop out, do a few flips in the air, and land squarely in the cocktail sauce.  I froze for a full second, and then panicked and fetched it out.  No more than two seconds elapsed at most.  It was too late.  The combination of vinegar, sugar and horse radish effectively anihilated the circuitry.  The LCD display (2003 we're talking) started devolving the characters within another five seconds until it just shut down and would never again power up.

$80,000 Plotter and a Red Marker

While working [insert U.S. Navy Shipyard] in the data center room, I was assigned to finish up some "Damage Control placard" drawings on a mainframe/workstation Intergraph system (talk about duck hunting with a f-ing EMP ray gun).  The workstation was attached directly to a [insert big corporate brand name] pen plotter that, according to the printed purchase order taped on the side, cost the U.S. Navy $80,000 and change.  It was as big as a hot tub.  Huge!  I went to print the drawings, which were in four colors: cyan, green, black and magenta.  Only problem was that no matter what we tried, it would not print magenta (or red, for that matter).  The vendor rep, assigned to do NOTHING else but watch over this beast, sat in the corner, reading a newspaper.  He did that EVERY day of the entire three months I spent there.  He was paid to sit and read (and actually more time for sleeping, no kidding).

We woke him up and brought him up to speed on our issues.  He made a few suggestions.  None of them worked.  He called corporate.  Corporate pointed him to the engineering office (the folks that designed that contraption).  We put them on speaker phone and spent an hour trying diagnostics, test modes, back-door tricks and everything.  In the end, the engineer on the phone said (and I quote): "I'm sorry, but you'll just have to print it out and trace over it with a red marker."


In 1988, I was working with a four-man team, three shifts per day, to finish up a 3D model project of certain "spaces" on a naval warship.  This was on a Computervision CADDS CV-4X workstation terminal (state of the art at that time, at $30,000 per workstation (roughly) and we had three going around the clock).  One day our supervisor walked up looking very anxious and worried.  He said "We're expecting a visit from [insert scarry government agency name here] on Monday. They want to see the models."  He had us scared shitless.

Mind you, at this time (1988), those "3D models" were entirely wireframe.  There was no Goraud or Phong shading on that platform. Not even flat shading.  Nothing but wireframe.  You really had to use your imagination when rotating the views around at non orthogonal angles.  We weren't sure what to expect.  Nothing but a mash-up of lines, circles, arcs and text, all in different colors.  The best of what the 1980's had to offer.

Monday came.  I wore a pressed shirt and a tie.  I hadn't worn a tie since the last wedding or funeral some months before.  The moment came.  Four suit-and-tie guys were escorted over by our boss.  They looked serious.  Brief introductions and then I sat back down and started diving into the model.  They said nothing.  Total silence.  My boss issued quiet directions like "zoom up on that" or "rotate around to this".  I navigated.  They breathed.  It was tense.  After a good five minutes of apprehensive silence, one of them finally spoke up:

"Man.  Would you look at all them colors."

Three for Three in Three

Back in 1995, at Christopher Newport University, we had three computer labs: CS, Math and English.  The CS lab was all Sun OS or Solaris, with a small Linux lab running Slackware or Red Hat; The Math lab ran Macintosh computers with Mac OS 8.5; and the English lab ran white-box x86 PC's with Windows 95.  State-of-the-Art at the time.  I was a Freshman that year and still finding my way around the campus, the labs and the social idioms that existed at the time.

At the end of the Fall semester, it was crunch time, when students were cramming into every corner trying desperately to finish up projects before looming deadlines.  I squeaked into the CS lab and had just finished my Oracle SQL-Plus project and submitted my files, then I ran a system check command and the screen blew up.  I waited for the system to reset itself, which it did.  Then I logged back in and ran the command again, and again it blew up.  I called the lab monitor over and he called over three more geeks and they were astounded.  They were pretty sharp guys and couldn't figure it out.  I had to leave, while they kept on troubleshooting, since I had a Maple project to finish in the Math lab.

Over in the Math lab, I logged onto the Mac OS 8.5 desktop and finished up my Maple project and filed it on the disk.  Then I went to drag a file from the desktop into the trash can, but instead I mistakenly dragged the shortcut for the CD-ROM drive into the trash can.  The screen and the system locked up hard.  No response at all.  We had to unplug the computer and plug it back in to do a reset.  After getting the Math lab monitor to stand behind me, I repeated the process and it again locked up and died.  That's two down.

Then I went to the English lab and logged onto one of the Windows 95 computers.  I don't need to tell you how this went.  I'm sure you can guess.  But in the end, I managed to crash a UNIX workstation, a  Mac OS desktop, and a Windows 95 desktop within three hours.  The good news is that I successfully finished my projects and filed or saved them before the crashes occurred.  I was a legend in the labs for about a week.  Good times.

Server Panic

While working on a high-visibility project once, in the IT department of a big corporate behemoth, one of the PM's said "I have friends at [big-computer-vendor].  The server will arrive tomorrow at 7:00 AM sharp.  I want it online before lunchtime."  We clicked our heals and responded "Ya vole! Herr commandant!" and bolted for the door.  The server indeed arrived at 7:00 the next morning.  We unpacked it, and set it in the rack and powered it on.  It wouldn't power on.  We checked all the connections, but nothing seemed to work.  We called the commandant.  He was not happy.  After a gruff bark he hung up, called the vendor, who flew a technician down from D.C. on a private jet.  He arrived an hour or two later.  Five of us stood around the server as it lay open on a table, as if surrounding the remains at a casket viewing.

The technician looked at it for a second.  Dropped his backback.  Reached out with both hands and placed his fingers on the face of the motherboard.  He pushed it gently to one side and it fell into place with a loud "snap!" sound.  We plugged in the cables and it worked.  We were dumbfounded.  He smiled and said "Sometimes you just gotta kick those things to make em work"

Shorter Stories:


A monsterously huge U.S. corporation (no names, of course) was about to test a major data center power failover circuit.  Preparations were made.  Contingencies were discussed.  Documents were overflowing in folders and e-mail inboxes.  IT staff were scheduled for an entire weekend.  When the moment came to kill the primary circuit, the secondary never came online.  Dead.  Only after lengthy investigation was it revealed that the secondary circuit had a fat power cable running into the back of the data center building.  Squirrels had chewed through the cable.  Millions of dollars in disaster protection efforts felled by a small rodent.

Salvadore Dali-top

We had a shipboard technician take a brand new Dell Latitude laptop to the ship for calibration work.  He sat it on top of a steam boiler vessel. When he returned a few hours later, it had melted.  It looked like the clocks in a Dali painting.  I wish I had a picture of that.

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