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Computer Stupidities


Most people understand that electrical appliances require electrical power to work. But computers, with their surprisingly effective ability to eliminate rational thought within a given radius, cause many people to forget completely that computers are ordinary electrical appliances that require ordinary electrical power.

I worked with an individual who plugged his power strip back into itself and for the life of him could not understand why his system would not turn on.

At my high school, a computer science class student was having trouble getting his computer to work. The computer was one of those where the monitor could plug into it for power instead of having the monitor plug directly into the wall. Well, this student's computer had the monitor plugged into the wall, and the computer plugged into itself.

I work in the IT department of a local hospital. One night at 3am, I got a call that one of the PCs in reception had been shut down, and they couldn't switch it back on. I described how to power it up over the phone, but it was no use. So I drove in, walked up to the PC, and pressed the little gray button on the front.

I worked as a technician for a company that sold computers. One time a woman was having trouble turning on her computer. I stopped by her house and quickly discovered the problem. She had gotten into the habit of turning the computer on by first pressing the power switch on the computer, then the power switch on the monitor. But somehow, they had gotten out of sync, so when the computer was on, the monitor was off, or vice versa. So no matter how many times she flipped both switches, the computer just wouldn't seem to work.

I work in tech support for an ISP. I got a call from one of our more troublesome users. Her computer was having some difficulty connecting, so, since it was a Windows machine, I suggested the most common fix-it, rebooting.

So I plugged the computer in and turned it on. I showed him that it was working, then I turned it off.

He reached over and pressed the reset button repeatedly.

There was a fresh influx of new employees at my place of work, which used Sun workstations. These particular workstations had extremely well hidden power switches, so I was fielding questions about turning on the computers for a few weeks. Most were simply "Where's the stupid power switch?" but one was unique. A new employee came around and said she had a problem turning on her computer. I started to tell her where to find the power switch, but she interrupted me.

"Oh no," she said. "I found the switch, but I don't know which way to flip it."

A lady in our department bought a new computer but coudn't get it to work. I told her to bring it in, and I'd take a look at it. Next day she dropped it off, and I checked it out. All was fine. She took it home. Next day, she came in and said it still didn't work. I told her to bring the monitor in, thinking maybe it was dead. Next day, same story, no problem with the monitor. When I saw her later, I told her this and that she should take the monitor home and, if it still didn't work, bring everything in. Next day, she dropped by my office with all she had. I set it on the table, plugged everything in, flipped the CPU power switch, and she leaned in real close, wide-eyed. "Wait!!" she exclaimed. "What was that you just did?!?!?"

A user once called me and asked me how to shut down her computer. I told her, "Click on start, then shutdown, then select shutdown from the list, and click on OK."

About thirty minutes later I got a call back from her. "I did what you said, and now my screen is all black and I can't do anything on my computer!"

I'm on a team of students who go around the high school and fix computer problems on campus. It's an old high school with old teachers (one refused to give up his PC-DOS 3.30 manual and disks because he thought he might need it again someday). Anyway, while working on one of the computer labs, which was run by one of the dumber teachers, I discovered a sign on one of the keyboards: "Computer died today - RIP." I pressed the power button, and, sure enough, nothing happened. On a whim, I reached behind the computer and pushed in the power cord. Sure enough, it sprang to life.

The amazing part is what happened next. The login screen showed that the last student to use the computer had graduated two years before.

I do tech support at a computer parts vendor and system builder. I take calls from dealers and other technical professionals. Last week I had a call from a woman who began her call by giving me a long listing of her credentials, beginning with her four years at MIT, covering her ten plus years of service in the tech support departments of various technology corporations, and ending with her forming a successful computer consulting and repair service. Then she asked her question:

This poor woman. She called our help desk in the middle of installing a new PCI card. She asked if she could cut the "ropes" because they were in her way. She had actually gotten scissors out. I explained that the ropes were power cables, and cutting them would cause her computer to stop functioning. Then I started to explain how to install the PCI card, when I heard her say, "Ouch!" as there was a grinding noise. She said her hand had accidentally touched the fan. The computer was still on!

Working as a service technician for a large telecommunications equipment manufacturer, I was forwarded a call from the helpdesk concerning a woman whose Macintosh IIfx had what appeared to be a bad power supply. I went out and replaced it.

Several hours later, I was again forwarded a call from the same woman asking for me by name. She stated that the power supply had not fixed the problem and that her machine kept shutting itself off. It figured, while improbable, the new power supply might have been bad, so I grabbed another one and went to check the system out.

When I got there, she was typing away, saying it had come back on just after we had hung up. I told her that I had brought a new power supply with me and, to play it safe, it might be wise if I replaced it anyway.

So I replaced the power supply and fired the machine up. While it was booting, she fidgeted with the lampshade on a small desk lamp. Making idle conversation, she explained that she had just bought the lamp for extra light but that it usually caused bad glare on her screen.

She demonstrated by reaching down and turning off the little red switch on her power strip.

I visited a customer site. The problem was that the computer wasn't powering up.

I crawled under her desk. No power cord. I sat and turned around, and there she was holding the cord.

Duh! I plugged it in, powered it up, and spent a few minutes setting her computer up for our network and explaining how it works (not surprisingly, this took more time than the actual install). Then she informed me about another problem she was having.

And there she was, holding the power cord for the printer.

I worked in technical support at Silicon Graphics about a year ago, and I was part of the group that was first in line to handle problem calls. Oh, joy. Being only eighteen at the time, my experience in the field of technical support was somewhat limited, but I could still handle my own.

Now, as you may or may not know, SGI sells top of the line computers used in many different industries. On average, they're about three times as expensive as personal PCs and are meant to be used by professionals in the industries they're used in.

Anyway, the following call came in:

I roll my eyes as I continue to type.

At this point, I thought I should inquire a little more...but use a bit of tact to do so.

I heard a few muffled grunts as he crawled over his desk to see the back of the computer. He repeated the serial number from the sticker. I didn't bother to verify it.

Dead silence. I could just picture the man's face when he realized that the computer was never plugged in in the first place and that the "extra" power cord he was holding in his hand was for the computer. I didn't wait for a response from him. I thanked him for calling, hung up, and closed the case.

A long time ago, I worked as a helper in a college computer facility. On the first day of a class, the instructor told the students to turn on their machines. He dutifully explained that not only do you have to flip the big switch located at the rear right (these were old XT and AT machines) but also to turn the switch on the monitor. One intelligent-looking fellow followed the instructions to the letter. He flipped both switches but did not see the screen light up. He tried both switches again but still no luck. He tried this for 20 minutes to no avail. You're probably guessing the plug was out, or the contrast knob was turned all the way down. Nope. The computer was already on when he got there, but the monitor was off. He never managed to get both turned on at the same time.

We had just purchased a new Power Mac after having used a Performa series Mac for some time. We had been taking turns using the new computer all evening; around 10pm everyone started turning in -- everyone except for mom. She used the computer for a couple more hours and just before going to bed, a problem arose. She kept trying to solve it but to no avail -- so she called tech support for help.

Mom feels very embarrassed. In fact, if she needs any assistance from Apple any more, she has ME call them because she thinks that when she gives them her name they will see the word "idiot" next to her name on the screen. I try to tell her it's not as bad as she thinks, but she thinks it is the stupidest thing anyone has ever done.

I used to work at an engineering firm that manufactured network cards and as such had a clean room in the area. In order to support someone in the clean room, we needed to drive to the building and get into sterile outfits. This process took approximately 20 minutes.

I received a call from an irate woman in her 50s who worked in the clean room. She was yelling in broken English that the computer had not worked for three days. The mouse was broken, the keyboard was broken, and she couldn't do anything with it. She demanded that someone come fix it.

So I drove over there, got into a sterile outfit, and when I got to the machine, I saw the caller standing at the keyboard, pounding on it as hard as she could.

"See--" WHAM! WHAM! "--it doesn't work."

I took one look at the monitor and figured the problem out. It read, "It is now safe to shut off the computer."

Luckily for me I was in the clean room outfit which included a full mask, because I was laughing hysterically.

One day, our Society Editor was typing away at her terminal. As I passed her desk, she asked me to turn up the brightness on the monitor, because it was too dark. As I leaned over to twist the brightness knob, I noticed that the power switch was in the off position. She had been typing her story on a deactivated computer and didn't even notice.

I installed a simple peer to peer network for a client with 2 PC's, and a printer. Everything was fine for a while until I got a panic call:

I work on the helpdesk for a very large hotel chain. One day, one of our hotels called in reporting that the system wouldn't power on. After going through the usual -- making sure that the correct power button is being pressed, checking to see that it's plugged in, checking the outlet, etc -- I had determined that the power supply had probably failed and needed to be replaced. Just as I was about to end the call and dispatch a technician, the desk clerk stated very matter-of-factly, "Oh, by the way, lightning hit our hotel last night. Do you think that might have something to do with it?"

A customer telephoned us. His PC had been struck by a power surge caused by lightning. We asked him why he didn't switch off the computer when the storm started. He replied, "I was going to, but it said, 'Please wait while Windows shuts down.'"

I am a computer teacher for our elementary school. I recently had a workshop where I was showing the teachers some educational uses for the Internet. Teachers are often the worst students, so I asked them to turn off their monitors so they would listen instead of playing on the computer. I showed them where the monitor button was located. However, when I asked them to turn the monitors back on to use the computer, at least half of them pushed the power button on the actual computer. I sometimes have this problem with my primary students (kindergarten through third grade) if they have never used a computer before. Just like their teachers I guess.

A customer walked in to the store and said that his radio was broken. So of course I ask if he's checked the batteries. "Yes," he replied, "I'm positive they are fine!"

As part of what I was trained to do, I had to check the batteries anyway. This made the customer rather irate, but I simply informed him that it was procedure to check the batteries. And guess what? The batteries were deader than a door. I politely pointed this out. He replied, "But the package says they are good until January 1998!"

I am a process consultant, but a client asked us to help them on a serious IT issue that no specialist could deal with (the freshman look). For weeks, their whole network crashed around 10am almost every day. The server and the PCs were connected to a secure power supply network which was relying on a big set of batteries. (It was a private bank.)

Electricians were unable to find out where the problem was. The PCs and the server were all fine, and no special device like a defective backup system was run at 10am.

I quickly found the source of the problem. Somewhere, the electicians messed up the installation, and a power socket in the private closet of one of the senior executives was mistakely connected to the secure network. Every day, the new secretary (a real beauty, by the way) went to the closet and refreshed her hairstyle with a 1200 watt heated curling brush...with a defective grounding.

The device acted as a short circuit, re-routing the power supply to the ground, causing the standard power supply safety to switch off, then empty the batteries so fast you could see the needles plummeting to empty.

The bank fixed the problem by giving the secretary a bonus for her to buy a new heated curling device. She was so pretty and so sad that nobody had the heart to fire her.

PC monitors used to all plug into the back of the tower for power. Most of them now plug into the outlet. I wanted to save and outlet and purchase an adapter so I could plug my new monitor into my tower.

So I went to a small computer store and described what I wanted. The clerk pointed me to some ordinary wall cords -- I told him what I actually wanted was right next to those, then went and got one and brought it back up to the counter.

The clerk protested, saying that particular cord would cause my power supply to "burn out faster." Dumbfounded, I just stared at him and bought it anyway.

A friend of mine, who had been using for four years, would still switch the computer off by yanking out the power cord (without shutting down Windows first). Perhaps her professor was at fault. His idea of an exam was to draw, from memory, the appearance of Microsoft Word -- all toolbars, all icons, and so forth.

A laptop user complained that, while hooked up to a docking station in the office, his laptop worked flawlessly, but when he used it at home, it only worked for an hour or so and then died.

An office technician got a call from a user. The user told the tech that her computer was not working. She described the problem and the tech concluded that the computer needed to be brought in and serviced. He told her, "Unplug the power cord and bring it up here and I will fix it." About fifteen minutes later, she showed up at his door with the power cord.

I once instructed a user to power cycle his external modem. What he ended up doing was power cycling the UPS, which happened to have his computer and every terminal in the area plugged into it.

One time a guy phoned me to complain that Norton Utilities failed to recover his data after he had switched off the computer without saving his work.

A man came in in a panic. He had typed a document the day before and now it was all gone. After some investigation, it turned out that he had saved the document before he had started typing it and, when finished, simply switched the computer off.

This started one Sunday afternoon when I was reading the paper. My pager went off, with my boss' home number. I called the boss back, and he told me that the server for a major client site in Dallas (I'm in Chicago) is down.

This server handles the database for a distributed security system for a data center. While the security was not comprised, since the equipment runs independent of the server, the client couldn't grant new access, or, more important, couldn't revoke access either. The boss told me he'd tried EVERYTHING. He said to call the site and see what I could do. So I got the head of security on the phone and had him check the basics:

At this point I tried to dial into the system. The modem answered, but after connecting there was no response from TTA1. Not good.

So I called the boss and told him what went on. He said to bring a change of clothes to work the next day, as I might be taking a trip.

Later, at 7:30pm CST, I was standing in front of the site. I walked in and went to the OPA0 terminal. It was on, but there was no response from the server. I wasn't expecting there to be one, but I had to check. So I walked around to the back of the console to hit the HALT switch. Hmm...wait...something missing...ah...why isn't the power supply fan running? Why isn't the green light on?

I checked the power switch, and that was ok. The cable was plugged into the power strip. The power strip was plugged into...nothing. One inch from the outlet! Gah!

I plugged the strip back in...AH HA! And we have LIFE in that old MicroVAX! I filled out my paper work and stated to the Head of Security that the call would indeed be billable, plane fare and all. But they had an emergency service contract, he said! Yes, but it doesn't cover user error.

When I got back, my boss told me the boss of the Head of Security wanted to speak with me.

Two months later, I found out that the company that supplied the security personnel was let go. It seemed the security server had been down for twelve hours before anyone noticed that a janitor had unplugged the power strip to allow his vacuum to run in the next room.

I was working on with my friends late into the afternoon when the phone rang. It was a friend of mine. Her computer froze, and she was calling for help.

While in college I worked part time as a student tutor in the computer lab. I had a number of odd situations in there, including seeing a student with the floppy disk in backwards and hitting it with an open palm to force it in. I also saw someone upset that she could not find the data on her floppy while it was sitting on the desk. But my best was when I was working on my own machine for a while, next to someone at the machine next to me. She was typing in some paper. About half way through it, she turned to me and asked, "Is this thing on?"

The following happened to me when I was with DEC Field Service, around 1987 or 1988.

A customer logged a call that he occasionally finds his VAX 11/725 (one of the few of that model in The Netherlands) powered down when he comes in in the morning. As I was the site responsible engineer for that customer, I went over to investigate the problem. Didn't seem to be one of the usual: of course I'd read about janitors and cleaners unplugging power cords to run their vacuum cleaners or floor mops or what not. But in this case the machine was in a recess, side by side with a printer, and there was a perfectly good, unused wall socket in plain view, in the wall to the left of the recess. They'd have to stoop over the machine and unplug its power cord from the barely visible wall socket behind it to do that trick, and also plug it back in afterwards. Also, the power cord was snug; you couldn't trip the machine just by bumping into it.

But the machine did just power down occasionally, as evidenced by the console printout. No bug check or machine check, just opcom messages being printed, followed straight by the power up sequence the next morning when the customer came in and powered it up again. Timestamps showed the machine quitting early evening, between 18:00 and 19:00. If it did, that is; it didn't do it every day. And every hardware engineer can tell you that intermittent problems like that are hard to troubleshoot.


Ok, it's flaky somehow. But why that particular time? I put in a new power supply, as that'd be the most probable cause. Nope, that's not it. A couple of days later, the customer logged a repeat call, with the exact same symptom. I went on site again, exercised the machine, measured supply voltages. It ran without any sign of any problem. Looking over the possibilities, I wondered if it was an overheating or airflow condition. There's more than one sensor that can trip the machine the way it is tripped, and we hooked up a small logic probe that would show which one it actually was. And sure enough, a few days later it got tripped with an airflow problem. Now, I had already cleaned out the filters and the fans when I replaced the PSU -- pretty standard procedure to do whatever preventive maintenance you can when you go on site for a hardware call. So I couldn't imagine there would be a real airflow condition. But the sensor might have been woky, so I checked it. It was a pair of thermal sensors, one exposed to the airflow, the other not. Pretty simple. No mechanical parts that might have binded or gotten stuck. So no problem there. For good measure I replaced a power harness that showed vague signs of chafing, and I also replaced the monitoring logic.

Didn't help. The customer called once more, and sure enough the probe showed an airflow condition. Support is still on the case, and they authorize a swap unit to be brought on site, so that I can take the ailing 725 to our product repair center and go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Which I did. Stripped it down to the bare chassis, cleaned every sensor, every connector, every slot, every everything. It was the squeaky-cleanest 11/725 in the Western hemisphere that wasn't fresh out of the factory. I inspected every wire, checked every fan, and replaced anything that wasn't to my liking. It was arranged that it could sit in the PRC for a few weeks, running, with power monitoring probes hooked up. It passed without a hitch. In the meantime the replacement unit is humming along nicely too, without any problems whatsoever. Quite a bit of head-scratching happens. The temporary replacement was an 11/730, basically the same hardware in a different cabinet, so maybe that was a clue. In the meantime, a power logger had been running at the customer site, to check whether the flakiness is coming in from the main power supply. It wasn't. So, we handed back the 11/725 to its rightful owner.

And sure enough, it tripped a few days later. Yes, early evening yet again.

Running out of ideas, one of us decided to go on site every day at closing time and just sit there to see it go. And sure enough, he observed the problem right the first evening.

The cleaning crew came in. The vacuum cleaner was not the problem. The floor mop was not the problem. One of them took the waste bag from the paper shredder, tied it closed, and set it aside -- right in front of the air intake of the 11/725.

Floooomph. TRIP.