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The Foolish Things We Do With Our Computers

By Ben Okopnik

"Foolish Things" is a now-and-again compilation we run based on our readers' input; once we have several of these stories assembled in one place, we get to share them with all of you. If you enjoy reading these cautionary tales of woe, proud stories of triumph, and just plain weird and fun things that happen between humans and silicon, that's great; if you have some to share so that others may enjoy them, even better. Please send them to email address.

[ You can even tell us that it happened to A Friend of Yours, and we'll believe you. ]

-- Ben

"Measure Seven Times, Cut Once"

Marcello Romani

I had a horror story similar to Ben's, about two years ago. I backed up a PC and reinstalled the OS with the backup usb disk still attached. The OS I was reinstalling was a version of Windows (2000 or XP, I don't remember right now). When the partition creation screen appeared, the list items looked a bit different from what I was expecting, but as soon as I realized why, my fingers had already pressed the keys, deleting the existing partitions and creating a new ntfs one. Luckily, I stopped just before the "quick format" command...

Searching the 'net for data recovery software, I came across TestDisk, which is targeted at partition table recovery. I was lucky enough to have wiped out only that portion of the usb disk, so in less than an hour I was able to regain access to the all of my data.

Since then I always "safely remove" usb disks from the machine before doing anything potentially dangerous, and check "fdisk -l" at least three times before deciding that the arguments to "dd" are written correctly...

*Snap*, and Your Data is Gone

Derek Robertson

I'd just started as a trainee computer operator in a datacentre which housed an IBM 370/158 mainframe. It was a weekday with lots of users grabbing a piece of the 1 megabyte of main memory our state of the art machine had installed. The shift leader was showing me the basics and had the panels open on the mainframe. He was telling me what would happen if the CPU overheated. Pointing to one of the switches he said "Yeah - the switch will move over like so..." making a swift lateral movement of his hand - neatly hitting the switch so flicking it over. It went awfully quiet and seconds later the helpdesk switchboard lit up like a christmas tree...."Ah for pete's sake" was his approximate response.

NOT an Apocryphal Story

Derek Robertson

Another tale came from one of our programmers who was in the business at the time PC's ran off floppies - a 5 meg winchester costing the earth. He had installed some financial package onto the PC of a clerk who was instructed to take a copy of the data floppy every week, keeping 4 weeks worth of data. One day the main floppy went belly up and our programmer went to the clerk to ask for the backup floppies to do a restore with. She pulled open her drawer and handed him a neatly clipped sheaf of 4 pages of A4 paper. It turned out that "taking a copy of a floppy" can have a different meaning to some people when you have a photocopier handy!

[ Just to back up Derek's story, I've seen this happen - in no less than three different places. Working tech support and field service back in the late 80s, before computers became common home furnishings, certainly had its moments... -- Ben ]

Last but not least this was a joke, that who knows, has probably happened. A user rings the helpdesk to complain that the system he is attempting to log onto won't accept his password.

Helpdesk: "Are you sure you're putting in the right password?"
User: "Yeah - of course!"
Helpdesk: "You are making sure the case is right, you know, by typing in lower and uppercase where necessary?"
User: "Yes its a simple straightforward password."
Helpdesk: "And it is the current password?"
User: "Yeah, I watched my manager typing it in this morning!"
Helpdesk: "Ok, what is the password you've got?"
User: "Eight stars!"


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Ben is the Editor-in-Chief for Linux Gazette and a member of The Answer Gang.

Ben was born in Moscow, Russia in 1962. He became interested in electricity at the tender age of six, promptly demonstrated it by sticking a fork into a socket and starting a fire, and has been falling down technological mineshafts ever since. He has been working with computers since the Elder Days, when they had to be built by soldering parts onto printed circuit boards and programs had to fit into 4k of memory (the recurring nightmares have almost faded, actually.)

His subsequent experiences include creating software in more than two dozen languages, network and database maintenance during the approach of a hurricane, writing articles for publications ranging from sailing magazines to technological journals, and teaching on a variety of topics ranging from Soviet weaponry and IBM hardware repair to Solaris and Linux administration, engineering, and programming. He also has the distinction of setting up the first Linux-based public access network in St. Georges, Bermuda as well as one of the first large-scale Linux-based mail servers in St. Thomas, USVI.

After a seven-year Atlantic/Caribbean cruise under sail and passages up and down the East coast of the US, he is currently anchored in northern Florida. His consulting business presents him with a variety of challenges, and his second brain Palm Pilot is crammed full of alarms, many of which contain exclamation points.

He has been working with Linux since 1997, and credits it with his complete loss of interest in waging nuclear warfare on parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Copyright © 2011, Ben Okopnik. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article.

Published in Issue 184 of Linux Gazette, March 2011