Admittedly I had consumed a couple of glasses of the mulled medicine so popular at that time of year, so my memory of events isn't too clear, but I do remember helping one of our more vocal clients bob for apples in the punch bowl letting him up for air occasionally just before that tragic accident with the Christmas tree.
Who could have known the lights were mains voltage, apart from the installer from B-Electrix of course. Still, the burning smell, screaming and impromptu breakdance act that followed the fall of the tree into the punch bowl, just as the boss was serving up another bucket of non-alcoholic refresher, was a good finale to the day and cost substantially less than a real fireworks display.
And to think that things were going to be different for Christmas 1997. The directive had come from on-high that anyone caught with alcohol on the premises was up for a quick stroll down unemployment avenue, courtesy of personnel.
Some people just have no sense of humour, I remember musing as I stashed a couple of half-empty spirits bottles in the bottom drawer of a particularly annoying user's desk. Unfortunately duty called, and I was unable to be there 10 minutes later when security acted on their anonymous phone tip-off about sly boozing on work time. Still, you can't have everything can you?
The PFY and I, true to 'Secure' Christmas protocol, had our booze safely stashed in Mission Control inside a set of what to outward appearances appeared to be run-of-the-mill fire extinguishers a supply of which I keep on hand for special occasions.
Its amazing what money can buy. And if not money, certainly a couple of photos of an occupational safety consultant in full drag ensemble on stage at a progressive (and supposedly private) London club.
Sadly, after the tree incident, I have to defer to the PFY's reminiscences as I'd had an extinguisher-full and my memory was as clear as the terms of a typical software licence agreement.
Apparently, events unfolded in the following order:
At 4.15pm I helped the PFY make a replacement non-alcoholic punch after bringing a couple of extinguishers down from the office to replace the ones used to put the boss out.
At approximately 5pm the party was starting to get into full swing with people appreciating the 'non-alcoholic' punch so much that I had to go get another couple of extinguishers to protect the PFY from spontaneous orange juice combustion while he mixed another batch up.
At approximately 6.17pm (from CCTV timestamps) I mounted a table and launched into the old party favourite 'The boss is so dumb'.
"How dumb is he?" the well-oiled crowd demanded.
"He's so dumb he can't even spell IT."
"He's so dumb he broke his toe rebooting his desktop."
"He thought preventative maintenance meant locking the engineer out."
"He has to study for a urine test. He's also lazy."
"How lazy is he?"
"He just finished his autobiography Around the Cafeteria in 80 Days."
By 8.30pm the party was going downhill (or uphill, depending on your perspective) fast the mixers had run out and the punch was pretty much a combination of gin and cleaning alcohol. The PFY was demonstrating to anyone interested how to secure a Windows NT machine, using only a hammer and the boss's new laptop.
The end came at around 10.45pm, as it usually does, with the arrival of the boss back from the casualty department.
Already fuming from his facial burns, his temper wasn't improved any when he heard party music coming from every security guard's walkie-talkie, courtesy of Radio IT and its drunken DJs.
Not recognising him at first because of the bandages, the PFY apparently tried to sign him up for the spitting competition nearest to the boss's coffee mug wins, bonus prize for getting it in.
"Right!" the boss cried, upsetting the punch bowl as he barged over to the turntables to cut the lights and music. "That's bloody it, turn that bloody music off."
In retrospect, I'm sure the boss would have thought twice about walking past the candles on the Christmas cake with punch-soaked trousers but there you go. Even my patchy memory can recall the boss bouncing around in terror, pants on fire.
If only they hadn't used the nearest extinguisher I'm sure things would have ended differently. Still, two fireworks displays are better than one, and the troops really did enjoy taking turns on the fire hose an unexpected Christmas bonus, so to speak.
Following the coup d'etat at the end of last year, the PFY and I have got it all - the network, the machines, the head of department's password-changing methodology - use the same word year after year, but just increment the numeric suffix by one.
Mind you, it beats addingan 's' to the end of it, as was his original practice.
"New car please," I cry.
The PFY depresses a button, and down in a packed storeroom in the basement, a tape stacker unit whirs into life. However, instead of the DLT cartridges it's used to working with, it's current payload is seven slot cars. A robot arm grabs one and deposits it onto the track set out around the locked room. Checking its position on the CCTV, I turn to the PFY.
"Right, how about a 10 lap job? Loser has to reload the stacker and answer the phones for the rest of the day."
"You're on," says the PFY, lulled into a false sense of security by my previous effort which ended badly at a particularly sharp corner.
Just 15 minutes later the PFY's down in the basement reloading the stacker.
While he's gone. I return the acceleration settings on the PFY's slot car driver to normal - cheating on a game of skill, how can I stoop so low? Years of practise, that's how. It's been hard going but now I can stoop lower than a pygmy limbo dancer.
Upon his return the full weight of his loss descends upon the PFY's shoulders. Our increased role means increased responsibility, and worse still, increased user interaction. A newly arrived phone rings. I smile smugly at the PFY as he answers it.
"Hi, look I've forgotten my password on the human resources system and I need to get into the database this morning."
"OK," the PFY responds with uncharacteristic helpfulness. "Just bring your ID up here and we'll change it for you."
I'm just about to book in for a hearing check-up when I notice the PFY switching the lifts into weekend mode, effectively making them lockdown at the ground floor.
A couple of minutes later a chunky personnel type wheezes through the door after slogging the two flights of stairs to our office.
"I'm here to get my password changed."
"Oh, I'm sorry, the PFY has just gone down to your office to change it for you," I say, as the PFY plays dead under the desk.
"He told me to meet him up here," our visitor gasps.
"No, I'm sure he said he was going down to meet you."
"Oh. Well can you change it then?" the user pants.
"I could, but he's likely to change it and overwrite the change that I make."
"Oh," the user mutters and trundles back downstairs.
A couple of minutes later he's back on the phone.
"It's about my password," he says
"Ah yes," the PFY responds, "You weren't in your office when I came down. How about you wander up and I'll change it immediately for you?"
"But I was just up there and I talked to the other guy."
"Well, you're just going to have to come up here again aren't you?"
The phone slams down and the PFY goes back into the lift maintenance menu.
After the third time the wheezing's so bad I make the PFY come out of hiding and change the password before the poor user has a coronary. I know, I know, Mr Softy, that's me.
Of course, it would have caused the poor guy a lot less discomfort if the PFY hadn't replaced his asthma inhaler propellant with helium, causing him to panic that his vocal passage was prolapsing, and then faint. On the way down he takes my CD-ROM drive with him, which puts me in a foul mood.
I'm forced to get the next call while the PFY drags the unconscious body to the sick bay. Well, puts him in the freight elevator and presses the relevant floor anyway. Never let it be said that we don't care about our users.
"Hi, I've got to get some important sales data off a floppy which says it's in DOS format."
"That's easy. Go into DOS."
"Uh-Huh." >clickety click "And use the FORMAT command."
"Oh, of course."
Another barrel shoot successfully completed.
"It appears we have moved forward in time," the great man decides.
"But that's impossible Holmes," I cried incredulously.
"Not so Watson," he replied, reaching for his snuff container. "Why, on several occasions I myself have considered the possibility while partaking of this fine white powder. Mirror please, Watson. But what really concerns me is why we have been brought here."
"Let us have a brisk constitutional and see if we cannot discover something upon which to test our intellectual mettle."
And so it was that Holmes and I came upon a large building with doors that opened as if by magic. A moving staircase that Holmes surmised was driven by electricity drew us to a mezzanine area where a smoking box lay on the floor.
"I don't know what happened," a man nearby was explaining to a uniformed gentleman. "I'd called the helpdesk because the screen was shimmering, and they put me through to the systems and networks operator. I hadn't even finished telling them about it when it burst into flames."
"Did you hear a clicking sound, not altogether unlike that of a typewriter?" Holmes asked him.
"Why, yes I did," he replied.
"And did you hear a noise on the telephone that may have been chuckling?"
"Now you come to mention it..."
"And what about that?" Holmes asked, indicating a small projection device upon which little people were running in panic.
"That's the emergency response room - there's a panic on because the fire alarms have gone off and the halon activation delay switch isn't working."
As we watch, one of the figures trips over a length of cabling.
"Uh-oh, another one down."
"Would I be correct in assuming that this room isn't used very often?" Holmes asks. "Yeah, that's why the cabling's all over the show," the guard replies.
"And did they perchance call upon the networks and systems people to make the room available to them?"
"As a matter of fact they did."
"Just as I suspected."
"What?" the uniformed gentleman asked.
"I cannot be sure yet," Holmes replied inscrutably. "More investigation will be necessary. If you would be so kind as to direct me to the systems and networks people you were referring to."
"I can't direct you because you need swipe card access to get in and out of the lifts and rooms. I'll take you instead."
And so it was that we rose in a mechanical elevator to an upper floor of the building.
"Just knock on the door and you'll be let in," the guard murmured, almost as if he was afraid of the place.
Wanting to waste no more time, I did this while Holmes thanked the guard profusely and shook his hand. By the time he'd returned to the door, there was still no answer from the room within, although I could see people moving about behind the opaque glass.
"I don't think we're going to be let in, Holmes."
"Nonsense," he said as he slid a small card through a slot. With a beep the door opened.
"Good Lord!" I cried "Where on earth did you get that?"
"The guard's pocket."
"But doesn't he need that to exit the elevator?"
Holmes paused for a moment, listening carefully. A muffled thumping could be heard in the distance... "Apparently so."
Upon entering the room we found two men, a young one with facial eruptions, the other somewhat older, with a sense of power about him, somewhat similar to Holmes. A kind of unspoken recognition passed between them.
"I believe I can now solve this enigma," Holmes said.
"But first a couple of pints," the older stranger cried.
Barely ten minutes later, Holmes, myself, the two men and four women were enjoying a couple of lagers at a nearby tavern.
"Another case successfully concluded," Holmes murmured. "Care for some of my special snuff Watson?"
"Your special snuff Holmes?"
"Yes, the stuff I keep for guests."
"Rather... Bloody hell - that's talcum powder and cayenne pepper. I thought you said that was the stuff you kept for guests!"
"Well of course it is Watson, you don't think I'd take it myself do you?"
"You bastard Holmes!"
Through streaming eyes I saw the two strangers shake Holmes by the hand. Curiouser and curiouser...
And so it is that the head of IT, with designer-coloured cellphone and laptop and brand new convertible car, has appointed a flashy young smooth-talker to the position of executive liaison officer.
It's easy to see how her previous experience in the modelling industry is so close to information systems that a couple of days of reading glossy mags will have her up to speed...
"I can't see that she's such a problem," the boss cries.
"She can't even spell IT, let alone be in the position of making service delivery promises to all and sundry," I protest.
"She must know something about IT to get appointed," the boss responds, confirming my suspicion that he's a card-carrying member of NaivetΘ International.
"I see. And how long did it take her to get her desktop machine going again?"
"The power switch is quite difficult to find," he replies, as loyal as a terrier.
My worst fears are confirmed when she decides to buy up a whole swag of network computers, "Because we won't ever have to worry about upgrading." This poorly researched decision has obtained the official stamp of approval and a purchase order has appeared on my desk for a 'technical sign-off'. I stuff it into the shredder quicker than the average user could say "Where's my hard disk gone?"
The boss is on the job in record time.
"These network computers are great," he gasps, flashing a glossy brochure.
"And why is that?" I ask.
"Because they act just like PCs without disks," he cries. "They're good because everything they need to operate is loaded from the computer."
"Sort of like a dumb terminal, with graphic and sound capabilities."
"Uh... no, much faster, and in colour."
"So it's a bit like changing a black and white TV for a colour one."
"Uh... Not exactly."
"So we're going to move from independent computers to ones dependent on a server - like ASCII terminal days. So when the main machine is down, no work gets done. Isn't that why we got desktop machines?"
"Ahhhh... No, not really."
"Oh. So they're different from, say, an NCD in what way?"
"Because we'll never need to upgrade the equipment. It'll be like your colour TV set," the boss blurts triumphantly. "Once you've got one, it'll never need upgrading - just upgrade the server software."
"Not even when the software grows and needs more memory?"
"Not even when the software wants to make use of whizzy new features like Nicam stereo, Dolby surround, and wide screen?"
"Look, we're bloody buying some, so sign off on them," the boss shouts.
What the hell, I scrawl out a signature. Not mine of course, but who's to know? Except the boss, should someone check it against his.
"In fact," the boss continues, "I think you should be using the same technology as users, so order a couple for the control room as well."
A few days later they arrive and are dispatched to the test cases in various departments. The PFY and I get ours into gear - true, we did replace the motherboard with that of a small-footprint PC with high-speed laptop disk drives, but to all intents and purposes it looks like the real thing.
Let the carnage commence!
SNMP management is a damn fine tool for a machine, especially when it lets you reboot the thing remotely. I patch a game of Network DOOM with sprites of the NC users' faces and get the kills piped to the SNMP reboot command. Kill a user, their Network Computer goes down.
Of course, it's not very sporting, so I ring the users and tell them, to give them a fighting chance. Well, as much of a chance as you can get using the apps-server-based copy of the game which only lets you pick up a handgun. Still, it's amazing how good a beancounter can get at pistol shooting when two hours of spreadsheet work are at stake and you have to win a game to use the Save option.
Surprisingly enough, the NCs weren't a hit with the users and were decommissioned after only four days (and 327 kills).
"I was thinking about a PC version of that game," the PFY comments.
"You mean the same game, except that it causes the Pentium Hang bug on their desktop machine?"
"You mean you've thought of it?"
"Thought of it, installed it, and am waiting for new players with the chaingun."
"Who's this Charles Omputer?" He asks, eyeing a set of timesheets suspiciously.
"Never heard of him."
"You must have, you've signed his bloody timesheet."
"Charles Omputer?... Oh, you mean Chazzer. He's a part time cable monkey we got to replace the telephone cabling that got burnt out when some idiot had his PC jammed against the circuit breaker on his desk."
"You know very well the circuit breaker was faulty. Anyway, I don't know how my PC got pushed back that far."
The PFY couldn't look more innocent if he tried.
"And it shouldn't have affected the phone cabling," the boss continued.
"It wouldn't have if someone hadn't decided to 'cut costs' by running the extra office power through the data ducting..."
The boss shuffles his feet. "Anyway, Mr Omputer - he's been putting in the overtime, hasn't he?"
"Yes, although it's not really our fault because you made us let Frank Irmware go last week because he crashed the server."
"We can't allow mistakes," the boss says, taking the hard line. "We have to be vigilant. Can we get a replacement?"
"Well, we've got a CV for a Roger Amchip."
"What's he like?"
"He's been in computers for years," the PFY pipes up.
"We seem to be hiring a lot of foreigners," the boss comments, "and how come I never meet any of them?"
"Well, you know the sort, green and keen, can't wait to get into the thick of it."
"I see. Well, give this Amchip guy a call and organise a meeting with him tomorrow. Sort out any potential overtime disputes!"
"How's 'Omputer's cable replacement' going?" I ask the PFY.
"Should be done by tomorrow..."
"And we're still keeping up appearances?"
"Judging by the unhappiness in the tea-room, apparently so..."
If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times, it's the small things that count. You can't just unplug 50 telephone cables, super glue a circuit breaker shut then claim a cabling disaster has destroyed the telecommunications hub of the floor - requiring two weeks overtime to 'recable'. No, you have to give the appearance of work being done while you replug the cables back in at the comms room, five per night.
Which is why the PFY and I leave wire offcuts and insulation on office floors right next to a knocked-over plant, which is supposed to disguise a hammer hole in the wall. And there's nothing like the theft of small change from a user's desktop organiser and a cigarette butt in their coffee mug to allay any suspicion that there were was no cabling job and certainly no cabling professional.
With a little extra effort, all suspicions are avoided.
Which leaves us with the problem of Roger Amchip...
The boss trolls into work in time to find a set of legs sticking out from under his desk. Being a total wimp, he sends me in to take a look. I flip the boss's desktop circuit breaker to off and grope around a bit.
"No pulse," I cry.
The boss screams and then power-unloads last night's biriani.
"I'll get an ambulance."
"No point, he's stone cold - feel his leg."
The boss squeamishly touches the leg. "Oh God. Who?" he asks quietly.
"Amchip. He was keen to get to work last night. Must have been electrocuted from the mains in the phone and data ducting."
"We'll have to call the police."
"You're right, and if I may say so, it's very brave of you."
"To face the music like this. A lot of people would just pay Amchip's widow off to pretend he'd run off, rather than face a manslaughter by professional negligence charge."
"Well, it wasn't premeditated was it? Although you are known to have a problem with anyone claiming overtime... Poor Mrs Amchip."
"Do you think she'd accept money?"
"Well, these are tough times. I think she'd probably come up with a reasonable excuse for ten grand. They weren't that close apparently."
The boss whips out his cheque book in record time...
"Who should I make it out to?"
"Charlotte Amchip. No. That would look suspicious... Make it out to her non-profit business - Charlotte Amchip's Schizophrenics Hospice."
"How do you spell Schizophrenics?"
"Oh, just put the initials."
An hour later the boss is having a drink to calm his nerves, the PFY and I are having a drink to celebrate our recent bonus, and the head of safety is having a lie down after finding the lost CPR mannequin.
Amazing how things work out for the best isn't it?
Sensing tension in the air, I ask him what's up.
"A bloody user - he's been to the boss and complained about his network speed and got the OK to get it fixed..."
"And you don't fancy the overtime?"
"I'm sick of bloody overtime."
The poor blighter is getting stir-crazy from spending so much time in the office. I remember only too well the feeling of depression as I contemplated another day of calls from users whose passwords didn't work when their caps keys were pressed down. Until I discovered the wonders of electricity, contact adhesive and tinfoil. But that's another story.
"What you need," I reply, noticing a shadow behind the glass panel of our door, "is a break. A chance to re-establish yourself as a member of a team. If there's one thing that contributes to workplace harmony it's the feeling of belonging to a group with a common cause."
I interrupt the PFY as he reaches for the yellow pages - no doubt to look for psychiatric hospitals - and point to the Boss's blurred form outside the door.
"But, it's not a good idea."
"Why not?" The PFY is getting into the swing of things.
"Don't tell the Boss, but a company I used to work for had this team-building weekend and when they got back, performance was up to such a level that they laid off 30 per cent of the staff."
When I looked again the doorway was free of shadow.
Later that afternoon, the boss, looking benevolent, returns.
"I know it's short notice," he says, eyeing us intently, "but I've noticed that morale is down a little recently, so I thought maybe some of us should go for a team-building weekend. Apparently one of the hotels in Brighton has conference and relaxation facilities. I was thinking maybe this weekend?"
That 30 per cent must have really got to him because half the IT department is on his list. The PFY and I make a show of reluctantly accepting the offer.
Friday night arrives and the PFY and I find ourselves at the hotel along with the other IT sheep. By a strange twist of fate, our room access cards no longer access our allocated rooms, but the large staterooms at either end of the corridor.
"Who are we to argue with fate?" I ask the PFY as I place the magcard writer back in my luggage.
"See you in the morning."
Morning dawns and it's time to pay for our sins...
The head of IT has a trust exercise where the victim falls backwards off a table into the arms of his or her co-workers. But everyone was curiously reluctant to try it out after the PFY thought he saw Kevin Costner outside the window at a critical moment of the demonstration.
The boss, however, isn't dissuaded by the head's confinement to bed, and has a myriad geeky games to enthrall us with.
"I can't take much more of this!" the PFY gasps as we're finally allowed to go to the bar at eight o'clock.
"I know. It's a bloody nightmare."
"And he's going to try some 'trust' thing about one person leading another person in a blindfold around the building tomorrow."
"No, no, he's said he's not going to be in it. Besides, he knows where the stairwells and balconies are."
"Damn! Well, desperate times call for desperate measures."
"What are you going to do?"
"Buy the boss a drink or two."
A couple of hours later I've snaffled the boss's room card from his wallet and am making my way to his room while the PFY keeps him at the bar...
The next morning everyone's on deck, but there's no boss to be seen. I join the crowd of onlookers.
"All right, what did you do?" the PFY asks curiously.
"You watered his electric blanket?"
"Livened up his toilet seat?"
"No, but much warmer"
"How much warmer?"
"As warm as say, a Jalapeno pepper, coated in glycerine and placed strategically at the top of a jar of suppositories where it might be grabbed by a drunken sufferer of piles just before bedtime."
"You bastard. Will he turn up?"
"I don't know." I gave the issue some consideration. "What are the chances of the police releasing you when you're found stark naked in a hotel lobby beating the crap out of an ice machine?"
"About the same as the chances of a team-building exercise that can't be played in the bar today?"
"Exactly." I was proud of the PFY's perpicacity. "Make mine a lager!"
It would almost be inconvenient if we didn't have a complete list of the serial numbers and control of the program that randomly selects the equipment that's going to be spot-checked.
And let me tell you, if someone ever steals the full-height 5MB hard drive, the 600 BPI nine-track tape drive, or the ZX81 expansion memory card, there's going to be questions asked in accounts.
Our spot-check kit's all in perfect nick of course - only in service for a couple of hours every year - besides, should we require to change the inventory's selection, there's a huge space in one of our deserted warehouses in Peckham that's jam-packed with equipment that no-one's going to steal.
Not that it's necessary, given that with the frightening turnover of bean-counters the chances of running into the same inventory auditor two years in a row is about the same as someone discovering the boss has stashed three motor vehicles behind packing cases in the aforementioned warehouse.
That's the beauty of a good alarm system - it doesn't ring bells to scare intruders - it just dials up your Linux box and chucks a real-time movie onto your X-terminal.
And so it was that the PFY and I noticed the arrival of three spanking-new top-of-the-line vehicles in the long-term storage area of the warehouse.
The boss, only recently returned to us by the police, is of course to blame. Trying to brown-nose away his sins with the CEO by reorganising this year's executive vehicle replacement into a bulk purchase deal, he made one error.
It seems that somehow, unbeknownst to him, Mercedes got mixed up with Lada on the order form, and instead of it being faxed to the reputable luxury car dealer a SIMM's throw from our office doorstep, it somehow made it to a less-reputable economy car dealer quite some distance away. An economy car dealer who, by some quirk of fate had three, brand spanking new Ladas sitting at the back of his showroom for the last six years.
The boss took the delivery well though. Better than he took the playing of Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire on the cafeteria juke box over and over again after recovering from the unorthodox medication he received at the recent team-building weekend.
And so it was that I felt a modicum of animosity in the air when the boss deigned to join the inventory auditors on their rounds.
"A 600BPI, nine-track tape unit?" the auditor asks.
"Ah, that would be just over here," I respond, pointing.
"That wasn't there yesterday," the boss cries, smelling rodent.
"No, we had a reshuffle to make way for new cabling," I respond in a manner that would have got me the Baden-Powell award for preparedness.
"I see. A Seagate five-megabyte hard drive?"
"That will be on the e-mail list server."
"We don't use five-meg hard drives any more," the boss cries.
"Afraid so," I reply. "As the list server software runs on an old XT which only supports MFM hard drives."
"This is ridiculous," he cries, grabbing the auditor's sheaf of papers and fumbling into non spot-check territory.
"What about this 29-inch Sony TV?"
"Nicam Stereo, with text option?" I ask. "In the boardroom, not here"
"OK, well what about the Sega video game?"
"It's with personnel, they were going to use it for a creche for workers returning from maternity leave," I ad-lib, and far faster than the soundcard does.
"Right," he says, in a determined manner. "The brand-new heating and cooling system, supposed to be in this room - where is it?"
"In the delivery room downstairs isn't it?"
"No, I checked this morning. They said they delivered it here."
"Well perhaps it's outside the service elevator."
"No, but I have a fair idea of where it is. Warm at home is it?" he asks, flashing a photograph of the outside of my flat featuring a new air-conditioner.
"I just installed a new unit at home because I was so impressed with the spec of the system we bought."
"Bought and put where?" the boss asks nastily. "It was in the Peckham warehouse wasn't it?" the PFY chimes to the rescue. "Because of all the new heat-generating kit that was recently dumped there," he mentions, pointedly.
"Ah, yes," the boss responds, at 1,400 backpedals per second. "Of course, I should have known. Well, no problems here."
Quicker than you can say diminished responsibility he and the auditor are gone.
"He's got it in for us you know," the PFY murmurs.
"Yes, I know. And it's just not fair, and highly unjustified. Now, how do you spell Trabant again?"
"Hey, the Kill-9 command isn't working."
"Yeah, I rewrote it with better signals. Ones with more meaning than words like hang up."
"Well what are they?"
"They're a mixed bag - everything a discerning system administrator needs."
"And they are?"
"Let's see, there's Kill-Godfather, which is a quick shot to the back of the process's header in a quiet corner of process space, and also, while it's at it, leaves a GIF of a horse's head in their screen-saver bitmap."
"Lovely, I'm sure."
"Then there's Kill-CIA, which kills the process and makes it look like natural causes."
"Of course, further investigation of the core file reveals the words, 'grassy knoll,' which is sure to get the furry-toothed guys in research reaching for the dandelion tea."
"Ahhhhh, Kill-shotgun, for when you can't remember the whole of the process's PID - it just kills anything in that vicinity. Kill-driveby, which knocks off one process on either side of the specified one, and so on."
"It's a little overboard isn't it?" the PFY asks mildly.
"No, Kill-overboard kills all processes, e-mails a nasty message to Bill Gates about how badly we're abusing our Microsoft licenses, then writes garbage all over the kernel causing the system to crash. Oh, and tampers with a couple of things on your desktop machine."
"Hey, the system's just gone down."
"Yeah -overboard is the default if your username is helpdesk. Installed SUID too, so they have the power they've been bleating about needing all this time."
The phone rings and something tells me it's the helpdesk wanting to complain. There's no pleasing some people.
"But you know what that means don't you?" The PFY asks in horror.
"That the helpdesk is working? Yes, I know, I thought that new box of whiteboard markers would buy us a week or two in noughts and crosses games, but the boss took it out after the first couple of days."
"We can't have the helldesk trying to fix problems - it took two days to recover the database server last time."
"True - but I have a plan..."
The next day dawns and I await the fruition of my labours. Sure enough, the phone's on the job real early.
"Something's wrong with all the dictate systems," the helldesk droid says.
"And what exactly is the problem?" I ask.
"Well, the 'plain English' module's gone from every desktop, so the machines don't seem to be understanding the users any more. And the Voice Recalibration Application is missing too."
"I see," I answer thoughtfully, gesturing the PFY over. "So what you're saying is that somehow, probably due to the crash the helpdesk caused on the back-up server yesterday, all the voice-tailoring of the user's dictation systems have disappeared."
"And don't tell me, the install media is gone too?"
"Yes, how did you know?"
"A lucky guess," the PFY shouts.
"Now tell me," I say, "there must be another voice module apart from the 'plain English' one?"
"Well that's the funny thing."
"There's a module I've never seen before. It's called drunken Scotsman."
"Yes, but I don't know what it is."
"Well, there's only one way of finding out. Take a bottle of Scotch up to Don McCloud on the third floor, prime him up and let him have a go at it."
"You can't be serious."
"You're right. Tell the beancounters they'll be typing their reports."
"But they're due at the printers tomorrow night."
"Then whatever you do, don't forget Don's a single-malt man."
As soon as he's rung off I'm priming Don over the phone. Like a true professional, he leaps to the task and has no problems being understood by the peripherals. The rush to get temps with accents stops after I mention the discrimination angle and how badly it might look if the papers got hold of it.
The next day at the pub, the PFY and I hear all about it...
"Well a couple of them mastered the accent quite well," Don slurs, after two days solid scotch drinking. "Although I've heard that they won't need it for long as the original voice module is due to be reinstalled on Monday."
"Oh I shouldn't worry about that," I mutter. "It's only a matter of time before one of the helpdesk people dictates the words 'computer, kill minus overboard' into the documentation system."
A drunken beancounter, sounding like Sean Connery on a bad day, brings over the next round.
Another dirty job that someone's got to do...
I cannot allow my junket budget to be tampered with, especially not after the serious cuts I've had to make in recent months due to unnecessary auditor attention.
The PFY and I go for the divide and conquer method to meet the userbase. I step lively to complainant number one, a cost manager loosely attached to the beancounters.
"I've got some performance problems," he cries forlornly as I roll up. "Yes, I've heard the rumours," I respond, icing up what appears to be a budding relationship between him and his attractive young personal assistant.
"But never mind, it happens to the best of you what about your PC?"
"I was talking about my PC," he cries.
He leads me through to his office, at which time I realise that not even our beancounters like him, his PC's so old it still has the 'This Side Up' sticker in Noah's handwriting.
Feeling a smidgen of pity for the bloke, I say: "Looks like a Magnum job to me."
"Not the gun?" he asks fearfully.
"No, the ice-cream. Bung it down the back, switch her on, and bugger off to lunch. And take anything flammable off your desk just in case."
"But they'll blame me."
"Not if you leave the wrapper in your assistant's bin they won't."
"But she's..." "...expendable," I say.
Problem solved, I move on to my next victim. On the way I meet the PFY, who doesn't appear to be in a good mood.
"How was the design group manager?" I ask.
"Manager? He couldn't manage a good crap without written instructions."
"Annoying, he bloody wanted me to move one of those workstations with the twin 21-inch monitors downstairs."
"Ah yes," I cry, recalling loud noises from the recent past. "So best to avoid the south stairwell for a bit?"
"The bottom two floors and basement level anyway I got them down two flights without hitting the handrails."
"Bally good shot old man," I cry supportively, slapping him on the back. "We'll make a career administrator out of you yet. Right, I'm off to find out what the head of IT wants help with."
"You're seeing our boss, why?" the PFY cries.
"Apparently he's in need of some advice."
"Really?" the PFY smiles, eyes lighting up.
A few minutes later I'm in the office of our very own head of department, with a fair idea of what he has in mind.
"We're thinking of expanding our operation and moving into Asia," he mentions, confirming my suspicions. "We really need to get this videoconferencing thing off the ground."
It was always a matter of time, and that time appears to be at hand. Before the PFY and I know it we're going to have to release the bandwidth that we're using to receive cable TV from the States.
"Yes?" I murmur.
"I've been hearing good things about something called IP Tunnelling.
I'm not sure of the ins-and-outs of it, so what can you tell me?"
"Well, it's basically a way of directing Internet traffic from one site to another usually used to provide a virtual private network."
I switch to dummy mode.
"Is it fast?"
"How much will it cost?"
"Your cabling's probably going to be cheap because we already have all the fibre bearers and everything, so I guess the main expense is just going to be hiring the digging equipment."
"Yes, to make the tunnel to Asia."
"But we can't make a tunnel to Asia it would take years."
"No no," I laugh, "only joking."
"Oh thank goodness."
"No, we'll only have to dig the tunnel to the BT office switchroom about half a mile away. Should cost us about four or five grand in rental."
"Four or five grand."
"Well, they might do a cash job under the table for three if we provide our own project manager."
"Where will we get a project manager?"
"Well rumour has it there's a PA in cost management who's up for a new position. Of course I'd have to liaise fairly closely with her for the duration of the project."
"Make it so," the head cries, like a real Star Trek pro.
Beam me up Scotty, there's no intelligent life down here.
I notice that my overlay picture of a lavatory has been removed from the posters in the cafeteria. Perhaps that's why the PFY and I have the dubious honour of joining security in being the only staff not to get an invite.
It's surprising how bored an administrator can become without external distractions. The PFY seems particularly melancholy now that there are no users to bug him. A lesser man might be drawn to question his real feelings in the light of this knowledge. The PFY and I however have larger fish to grill - over the boss's under-desk heater as it happens.
Amazing what they'll do when you cover half the air inlet and disconnect the thermal cut-out.
In no time we're tucking into a tasty lunch - and crispy too, thanks to the PFY's discovery that by removing the safety cover you can place the food nearer to the bare heating wires.
"You know, it's funny," the PFY says as he gobbles the last of his fish buttie, "but in a way I miss the users."
"We should give Dr Robb a ring."
Dr Robb, is the company shrink. He used to come in once a week for huggy-feely sessions with the staff, but the presence of a video camera in the room seems to have had some effect on his popularity. I guess the deputy storeman never did get over his tape being played on the front-desk security monitor one Friday evening after drinks.
"Hi Doctor Robb."
"Ah... hello Simon."
"How's the PC?"
"I don't use computers any more," he says nervously. "In fact I don't use any electrical appliances."
"But what about the phone? That's an electrical appliance of sorts isn't...."
>CLICK "That's strange," the PFY comments. "He's hung up And what about that crap about not using electrical appliances?"
"I know - sounds like neurosis if you ask me. Sounds like he needs another dose of that shock treatment they go on about."
"What do you mean, another dose?"
"Oh, nothing. So it looks like we're going to have to deal with this problem on our own. I think the horrible truth is - we actually need our users."
"No!" the PFY is almost hysterical.
The rest of the afternoon is spent in sad contemplation.
Normality returns when the first W3 victim enters the workplace early to get some back-ups of his Linux box while the portable tape unit is free.
"Hello," I say, grabbing the phone.
"It's about my back-ups - they don't go through."
"That's because you back up all your applications instead of the data that is changing. You don't need to back up your applications because we keep copies of them all on the server."
"But I really do want to back up my applications," the user cries, not fooled for a second.
"Then you'll have to use the ultra-fast Non-Unwinding Longitudinal Length drive."
Dummy mode on.
"Duh... OK. What's that called?"
"OK. Hey, it is fast. How do you track it?"
"Uh, the command is 'cat /dev/null' piped to 'ls -alR /'."
"Don't mention it."
"What was all that about?" The PFY gasps. "I thought we'd realised that we needed the users?"
"Don't be stupid. I'll never need a user while I have the Doom and Quake boxed set and the Internet. And grilled fish for lunch of course. Speaking of which, did you put the safety..."
A scream from the boss's office answers my question before the PFY can respond.
"Whoops," says the PFY.
True, it's a hot, cramped and pointless job, but it does give him a broader view of the world of networking. And helps him remember that when I say "Don't play with my laptop," I mean it.
The calls are coming in thick and fast this morning and without the PFY I have to start screening them myself. The helpdesk has started giving out our number to anyone who seems important, and since the boss fixed them up with an exchange console, our usual ploy of changing numbers every day no longer seems to work.
After a few calls I can see that there's a trend towards one single complaint, so I 'screen' the rest of them by diverting the phone to an outside sex line, then fire off an e-mail memo to the beancounters saying there's been a lot of telephone abuse in that area recently, and perhaps they should investigate.
But unlike Wells Fargo, my mail does not get through. In fact it hardly ever gets through. Not since the Boss, off his own bat, got our Systems predecessors to 'Upgrade' the mail server with some 'fantastic' software which does everything but drop a lipsticked kiss on the bottom of your personal e-mail.
Everything but deliver the bloody message that is.
I corner the Boss once more about this by pointing out the software's many shortcomings. However, he gets evasive.
"Well, it did cost an awful lot of money - and besides, a lot of our Meeting Calendars are plugged into it too!"
So it is that a few days later the Boss is looking through the manual archive in the store for his mailer guide when the PFY interrupts my dedicated labour with a question.
"What're you doing?"
"Ensuring the return of my beloved sendmail," I reply.
"Ah, just helping the 'flash mailer' software 'deliver' the boss's e-mail. The 'Visible Queue' screen is actually quite good - it allows me to 'deliver' some messages personally."
"Well, you grab certain messages and drag them onto the Trash icon."
"Oh, just one part of any multi-part message."
I show him on the screen. "See the Mail-IN queue? The Subject contains the sequence number of the part. So you delete part 23 of 24 and let the other parts go through. It's driving him insane. And, of course, I'm 'delivering' all of his outgoing mail altogether, so he's having to send everything important by internal mail just to make sure it gets there, never really knowing what's getting there and what's not."
"Well, what he doesn't know won't hurt him," the PFY mutters.
"That statement has never proved accurate in my experience. For instance, I don't believe at this point in time the Boss knows that the top step of the storeroom stepladder is very loose..."
We both listen intently to the sound of an overweight manager plunging 5 feet into several large boxes of lineflow paper.
An hour later, as I'm reverting our mailserver to my first choice (I think it was the 10 e-mail messages that I'd claimed to have sent to Buildings Maintenance about stepladder problems that swung it), the PFY comes over looking perplexed.
"I don't understand why we installed it..." he says.
Sigh. Just when you think he understands, you realise that he's still out there somewhere, looking for answers.
"As your position in the company increases, your perceived responsibility increases, your actual responsibility decreases and your understanding of the issues decreases as well," I explain.
"So why did we buy it in the first place?"
"We bought it because someone thought it was a good idea, and no-one at managerial level knew it was crap."
"I think that's a little cynical..."
I interrupt with a hands-free phone call.
"Hello?" the boss answers.
"Hi, I was just wondering why you authorised the upgrade to the new Object Orientated Programming package."
"Well, it was your idea - you said we'd run out of objects."
"Of course. Thank you."
I ring off.
"Point made?" I ask.
"I still don't think..."
"Hello?" the Boss answers.
"That graphics accelerator I removed from your machine, why was that again?"
"Because it ... something about the graphics travelling too fast?"
"Of course, I remember now," I reply hanging up.
"But..." the PFY adds.
"No BUTs - it's them or us. You can lead a boss to a decision, but you can't make him think."
The font of all joy becomes apparent almost immediately. The company architect, usually only called in for "department refits" is on the premises. That in itself is a surprise, as I don't remember hearing of a wave of redundancies.
This time, however, my perusing indicates that there's been no departmental Axejob. (Sigh.) It must be something else. The Head of IT is sure to know.
The PFY, trained to respond to just this kind of situation, fires up the building 'topology monitor' and we home in on the 'Big Guy's' belt buckle - a chunky slab of metal that could stop a scud, complete with 'tasteful' picture of a rampant mermaid engraved into it - a gift from loyal staff.
And they say that quality never goes out of style. As luck would have it, the PFY and I gained access to it prior to presentation and loaded it with the sort of hardware that keeps civil liberties groups busy.
Some people just don't understand.
"Do you think the belt will work?" the PFY asks, just before activation.
"Of course it will," I remind him. "The bug is so sensitive it could pick up an ant farting at 10 paces. Which reminds me, make a mental note to deactivate it an hour after lunch - no point in overloading its circuits."
Meanwhile, the sub-miniature microphone in the mermaid's eye hears all...
"Gentlemen," our Head begins, in hushed tones to the assembled board. "As chairperson of the committee to investigate expansion solutions, I've the following to report: first, this building is expensive to rent; second, it's becoming too small for our purposes; and third, it doesn't have the networking infrastructure to allow us to expand into the 21st century. For these reasons, I have taken advice from certain quarters..." he pauses, indicating, no doubt, a couple of board members known for their property speculation, "and signed the company up for the occupation of a larger facility at a waterfront location at a far more reasonable rent which we could move into almost immediately."
"BULOOODY HELL!" the PFY cries, echoing my own thoughts to the letter. "He can't be serious!"
"Apparently so," I respond. "And using his lack of technical expertise as a selling point too."
"Lack?" the PFY blurts "He's not completely stupid; after all, he was on that TV programme - what was it, Beyond 2000?"
"Ah no, the TV programme he was on was Beyond Help, a completely different documentary altogether. Had a whole show on trainspotting apparently."
Within the hour, the Boss is upon us, breaking the news, A-Z in hand.
"We're moving," he cries annoyed, indicating a spot on the river.
"I only just bloody found out!"
"Best start packing," I shout.
"You mean... you're not going to oppose the move?" he asks.
"Why?" I ask incredulously. "I can't wait! The chance to design a new and futureproof network."
"But what about access to the city?" he sniffles.
"Highly overrated - smog, congestion. Give me river views anytime."
"Me too," the PFY concurs.
"But what about... all the work you've done here?"
"In the past. I'm looking forward to the challenge of the future."
"All right. Fifty quid and I'll put the kybosh on it. What about you?"
"Twenty pints," the PFY cries.
"You can't be serious!"
"All right then, we're not serious. Let's get packing."
"Uh... OK. But what are you going to do?"
"Well, I'd tell you, but then I'd have to strap a bulk eraser to your head and stick you to one of the metal floor tiles."
"You mean it's that secret?"
"Not really, I'm just curious to see what would happen."
Taking the hint, the boss takes his leave. I get on the phone to the company's head shark, a lawyer so dodgy his business card's got someone else's name on it. I invite him down for a little chat about that tenancy contract loophole we discovered ... in about 10 minutes.
Sure enough, the end of the day finds the Boss in a giving mood.
"I don't know how you did it," he cries cheerfully, "but it's money well spent. How'd you get the head lawyer to go for it - I thought he was one of the landlords?"
"Oh, he's quite reasonable when you get him down to ground level," I respond.
"Oh," The PFY blurts, "Speaking of which, should I turn off the eraser?"
"Hmmm. Maybe not just yet. Let's leave it a couple more hours."
It's true what they say, you've just got to know how to communicate with these people...
The BOFH and PFY are hurt when they're left out of the games day but it's nothing that a mallet and a spot of violence can't take care of...
So the PFY and I are deeply hurt when the CEO decides to ease the proles' building move disappointment by holding an IT and clients 'games' weekend - complete with Murder Mystery Saturday party - without the PFY and I.
Rumour has it our 'tame' lawyer spilt the beans about the whole tenancy contract loophole deal before departing to the relative safety of a rival company...
What hurts is that the head of IT used one of our very own excuses on us - that the network always needs someone on call because of the overseas offices, particularly now that IT will be absent for the whole weekend.
Which is bollocks, as half the offices couldn't call the International 24-hour helpdesk if it wasn't the top right-hand button on their phones.
It's almost as if they don't want the PFY and I socialising with people on a fun outing. As if they don't trust us. Apparently the interest dropped off exponentially when the Murder Party was announced.
Still, it's an ill wind - it'll give us a chance to perform some disk- warranty checks (a couple of whacks with a rubber panel-beating mallet that leaves no marks just before the end of the warranty period.) You'd be surprised how many disks fail the tests requiring a free replacement.
I'm checking we have all the kit on hand on Friday afternoon when the boss breezes in.
"Evening all," he cries cheerily, obviously gagging to break some news to us.
"Guess what I've managed to wangle?"
"Yes?" I respond, without enthusiasm.
"You've been okayed to come to the Sunday games - after you do some software installations in Personnel of course," he says, handing me a list longer than the 'known bugs' of Windows 95.
Saturday dawns and, never ones to turn down a challenge, the PFY and I pull out all stops to ensure that the upgrades get done on time. In fact, we even have a little spare, which we put to good use.
Monday comes, and I go to work knowing full well I'm going to be burdened by a conversation with the boss. Sure enough, he calls out to me before I can get to mission control and gestures to his office which, from my angle, appears to have more than its usual allocation of Personnel management in situ. The PFY is also on the scene, so it's very cramped in the boss's office.
"Simon," the boss starts, "I've just been going over a number of complaints that Justin here has raised about your conduct yesterday."
"Yesterday?" I ask, innocence my new middle name.
"At the games? At Balesworth Castle Grounds?" Justin snaps.
"Oh yes! And you say there were complaints?"
"Yes! You realise that this was supposed to be a 'fun' occasion, where members of the various departments could meet in a spirit of sportsmanship."
"Yes, I did realise that. In fact, I did my best to try every game even though some of them were quite new to me."
"So it would appear. Justin seems to believe that you may have been a little over-enthusiastic."
"Really? I can't think why. Can you?" I ask the PFY.
"What about the petanque game?"
"The petanque game?"
"Yes, where you played your ball from the rooftop?"
"Oh yes! Well I had to - I got a helpdesk call on the cellphone and the reception on the playing field was lousy. So, in the 'spirit of sportspersonship', I didn't want everyone waiting for me to have my turn. Anyway, I don't believe there's anything in the rules about what height you have to play the ball from."
"Perhaps not, but pretending to light a fuse on the castle's cannon before playing your ball didn't add to your competitors' sense of well-being..."
"It was only a bit of fun."
"Like the petanque ball that dented the bonnet of Justin's coupΘ?"
"Oh, I just needed a little fine-tuning on my aim," I cry, still going for the innocent look.
"And that would be the same excuse you'll be using for the 'Hacky Sack' game?" he continued.
"I admit I did get a little enthusiastic," I reply, "which, combined with the angle of the sun, may have led to some confusion."
"Confusion...yes," Justin hissed.
"Well at least I managed to kick the sack."
"You managed to kick a sack. Unfortunately for Justin, the sack concerned is more commonly known as a scrotum."
"As I said, the sun, me not being used to steel toe-capped shoes..."
"I might be able to accept these excuses except it appears that neither of you performed the software installs I asked..."
"Yes we did," the PFY cried.
"None of the machines are booting!" Justin shouted, unable to restrain himself any longer. "They're just sitting there."
"I told you," I said to the PFY "Those bloody hard disks were faulty."
"Which brings me to this," the Boss sighed, holding up a piece of disk-testing equipment. "Anyone care to tell me how this got into Justin's office?"
"He's fixed the coupΘ himself to save on insurance?" I offer helpfully.
The PFY and I settle ourselves comfortably for the wailing and gnashing of teeth to follow...
"I'd like you to rig up the video conference stuff up so that I can give a quick speech to the entire company" he requests.
"You're not retiring, are you?" the boss blurts, eyes on a prize WAAAAY above his station.
"An early Easter message to the troops, then?"
"No. The truth of the matter is that we've been bought out. Lock, stock and Barrel"
"THE BLOODY JAPS!" the boss cries.
"No, no!" the CEO sighs, "Anyway, with the world money situation, about the only other place it would come from would be Amsterdam."
"Oh thank goodness for that!" the boss blurts, "I don't know a word of Belgian!"
The things you hear when you haven't got your nailgun...
The day arrives and the CEO spells it out for the masses around the world. An American conglomerate looking for foreign investment stumbled across our well-doctored Annual Report and liked what they saw so much that they bought the company. The news that there are no plans for resizing is met with a collective sigh from the assembled proles. For now, it's business as usual...
"Simon," the CEO mumbles, away from the relative security of his executive en-suite for the second time this week (a new record). "Just need you and your Man Friday to pop over to the Mother company in the US for a week or so to see how they do their stuff. Smart cookies over there apparently, all state-of-the-art palaver. Anyway, the bosses there just want to go over and chin-wag with their techos. Hope you don't mind..."
An all-expenses paid junket to the US...Hmmm.
"Well, it would definitely be helpful, but it'd take ages to ship the equipment over."
"Oh, we'll fly you business class and you can take it as luggage!" he cries.
"I don't really think that will QUITE cover the network analyser hardware and the..."
"Well, I suppose we could squeeze you both into First Class" he cries magnamimously...
And so it was that two days and many, many first-class drinks later, the PFY and I are awaiting collection in a holding cell at the port of entry into the US. Apparently they don't take too kindly to heavy drinking at Customs, especially not when you use the "strange customs" joke too many times.
Luckily, our parent company actually does a bit of wheeling and dealing in the field and manages to spring us from custody. After a night's rest, we're met by our tour guide - the boss's equivalent in the mother company. He gives us a quick overview of their operation, introduces us to the systems and network blokes, then beats a hasty retreat. We're shown around the site and have to admit to being impressed with the equipment.
"It's certainly impressive," I mention to one of my counterparts as we're looking at their collection of brand-spanking new kit.
"Well, we like to keep up with the times. Besides, a lot of the older stuff was damaged when we relocated to the second floor."
"Damaged?" I ask, smelling professionalism lurking in the wings.
"Yeah, we're not exactly sure how, but the lift doors opened when the lift wasn't there..."
"Ah," I nod knowingly, "and a laden trolley of equipment plunged down the shaft?"
"THREE laden trolleys as it happened - unfortunately, I was wearing the ear muffs that the company makes you wear in the computer room and didn't hear the kit hit the bottom."
"How unfortunate," I sigh meaningfully.
"Not quite as unfortunate as the boss not trusting us with his bonsai plants and carrying them to the lift himself."
"Where he subsequently dropped them?" I ask, filling in the blanks as appropriate.
"Actually no, he held on to them all the way to the ground floor. Mind you, the paramedics did trample them in their hurry to rescue him."
A week later, the PFY and I are bailed out of a holding cell at Heathrow (what the hell, an opportunity missed is an opportunity gone forever) and the next day make our report to the boss and CEO.
"All their equipment is miles ahead of ours! We'll need an extensive systems and networks management upgrade! Worse still, our operations centre has a network latency problem because it's so far from the satellite dish on the roof. We'd need to move at least two floors up to cut the distance and reduce the delay. I'd suggest we move in after we organise the purchase of compatible equipment through the systems and networks guy over in the US head office once he's worked out what we need..."
...Meanwhile, on the other side of the water, my counterpart is presenting his compatibilty proposal...
"All their equipment is miles ahead of ours...etc."
A couple of days on, I get my cheque from the US office to buy some compatible gear...
My progress to Oddbins is delayed only momentarily by the sound of a trolleyful of kit hitting the bottom of a lift shaft. That's the PFY's dedication for you - it's all work, work, work.
Good of the boss to lend a hand moving his prized cactus plants...
The PFY wanders over after logging a hardware fault on an old RAID cabinet that's near the end of its serviceable life. Noticing my disdain, the PFY can't stop himself: "You don't like engineers very much do you?"
"Not particularly. It's such a crap paid job that all the good ones bugger off to private contracting while all the crap - or new - ones get sent out to look after our gear."
"It's not quite that bad," the PFY says, shaking his head. "They get the job done."
"Time will tell." I don't want to raise his hopes as I know that our maintenance contracting company tries to reduce costs by religiously claiming the fault is software, not hardware. When that fails, they'll attempt to 'repair' gear on-site using your tools to disguise the fact that they don't actually have a workshop. That is, they're operating from the back room of a minicab company.
As expected, the engineer arrives exactly at 11:53am, just in time to hook on to the crowd going out to lunch. He wants to blend in with the rest of the department so he can get some free food. Like company, like employee.
After lunch the PFY and I let him back into the computer room to see if he knows what he's doing. He flicks a couple of switches on the RAID unit to see if any of them will make the Disk-Fault light extinguish.
When that fails - maybe because the disk has a fault? - he comes up with his carefully considered diagnosis.
"Hmmm. That's interesting," he says. I direct the PFY's eyes to that phrase in the 'Engineer Speak' section of the Bastard Bible: "I have no idea what's wrong."
"So the disk is faulty?" I ask.
"Could be, but I'll need to get my service kit from the car."
The PFY reads the translation to himself: "I need to get XXX from the car/van/courier," equals, "I'm going to bugger off back to the office and hope the call gets re-assigned to another engineer."
"Oh, we've got one here!" I cry, knobbling him completely.
Now he's stuck. He's going to have to open the cabinet up and have a poke around. Otherwise we'll know he has no idea. I give him a clue by pointing at the dud disk in the unit.
"So I guess you'll replace that?"
"It's possible," he responds, still avoiding the commitment of having an opinion. "But I'd like to check it over first."
As I take my leave, he prepares the unit for the hotremoval with a hammer. A minute later he's back in our office.
"Have you got a bigger hammer?"
At this stage I feel compelled, if only for my personal sanity, to point out the quick release latches that are preventing the disk's removal. He yanks the drive from its bay and brings it into the control room for a once-over.
"Yeah, as I thought, it's a dry joint on the logic board. I'll just re-solder it."
"I'm about to ruin a piece of your hardware," the PFY reads aloud.
"Nothing." The PFY closes the translation chart before the engineer can peer over his shoulder. "Just talking to myself."
He plugs our soldering iron in, letting it melt the mouse pad he's laid it on.
"We'll have it back up in no time," he says happily.
"It's about to become a f***ing expensive paperweight," the PFY reads.
"Nothing - just my Tourette's Syndrome kicking in."
Before the soldering iron can work its way through the mouse pad to the table top, I decide to take steps.
"Shouldn't you work on that in the computer room to prevent possible thermal expansion /contraction problems?" I ask.
DUMMY MODE ON.
"Duh... yeah... I was just going to do that. Just making sure the soldering iron was working."
He wanders back into the computer room, then returns a minute later.
"You don't have any solder do you? I seem to have left mine in the car."
"Yeah, sure," the PFY replies, handing over some of our stash.
"Wait!" I cry. "You don't want that - you want the solder with the flux core to act as a catalyst to the soldering bond."
DUMMY MODE IRREVOCABLY ON.
I hand over some chunky stuff that's more suited to plumbing than electronics, and the engineer smiles.
"Cool, I was just going to ask for the catalystic stuff."
He wanders off happily.
"What did you give him that crap for?" the PFY asks. "It's horrible to use and always gives off tons of smo..."
His question is answered as the computer room fire alarm triggers.
We watch through the viewing window for a while as the engineer fumbles with the Halon Hold-Off switch, which some Bastard appears to have epoxy glued open.
Of course, we let him out before he passes out. Just...
Call me Mr Kind-hearted.
"I beg your pardon?" I ask, thinking for a moment that I am in some 'twilight zone' replica of my workplace.
"I read your FYI last night on TCP/IP latency. I think we should get the problem solved PQD!"
"I see," I reply, realising what has happened.
I break like the wind to the office and nudge the PFY awake.
"What is it?" he asks.
"It's bad!" I reply, deeply troubled, "I think the boss is suffering from acronym dependence...It's where a non-technical person over-compensates for the lack of intellect by..."
"...over-using acronyms in conversation...And it's most often seen in managers and salesdroids who believe that it gives the impression of computing competence," the PFY completes. "I read your article about it on a bulletin board yesterday at lunchtime."
"You read a bulletin board? In your own time?" I ask, worried.
"Well, yeah," the PFY responds guiltily, "but I was only browsing while waiting for a picture to download from Netscape."
"Smut?" I ask approvingly.
"Uh...no, it was a photo of the layout of the new laptop Pentium Pro motherboard...It's got this really small profile and..."
"Bloody hell! You're worse than the boss! You're computer dependent!"
"No I'm not!" he cries.
"You bloody are! You're reading computing mags at home, aren't you?"
"Don't lie to me!"
"Well, maybe a couple, but it's not like I'm addicted. I could give them up any time."
"Yeah, because you only read them socially, right?"
"It's just a couple of magazines! What's the harm in that?"
"So you wouldn't mind your name and photo being submitted to the Geek-Mag blacklist that gets distributed to newsagents?"
"Uh...no." he gulps.
"You've got a machine at home haven't you?"
"What if I have? It's just an old 486 that you told me to dump. It seemed like such a waste, so I..."
"So you took it home! I warned you about the dangers of working in computers! One minute, you're a highly-paid occupant of the planet earth, the next you're a mindless geek scouring ad pages for budget anorak sales. You've got to know when to switch off."
"When's that?" he asks.
"The best time is 10 minutes after you get into work, but in your case I think sterner measures are called for!"
"It's not that bad!" he cries defensively.
"Not that bad? I've seen it happen hundreds of times! One day you're working with a normal human being, the next you've got R2D2 sitting opposite you, talking about how neat it would be to port Linux to his car computer!"
"That's just silly. Linux would never fit into the memory. You'd have to retrofit some SIMMS and then find someone who'd been through the hoops to port the kernel to..."
"See what I mean?" I ask.
"What should I do?"
"Well, in situations like this I normally advise the workmate of the afflicted person to take them to Harley Street."
"Is there a specialist there?"
"No, but the traffic on Euston Road is murder. Literally. If they shunt the afflicted into it...It's the only way to be sure I'm afraid..."
"There must be some other way!!" he sniffles.
"Well, there is cold turkey."
"You mean, never touch a computer again?!?!?"
"No, I mean real cold turkey - they're serving it at the cafeteria today and I was tampering with the fridge controls again last night. By morning you'll be throwing up so much you won't want to risk going near anything electrical!"
"Can't I just... wean myself off?"
"You mean, like read a book that's almost as geeky - say a trainspotting journal - as a form of computing 'methadone'?"
"Well, it's worth a crack. But you'll have to get rid of the mags and machines."
"OK. But don't you have a machine at home?"
"You mean the one work got me for dial-in access?"
"The top-of-the-line Pentium Pro II with all the fruit?"
"Yeah!" the PFY cries, seeing a 'pot and kettle' scenario ahead.
"Swapped it for a stereo system."
"But what if you get called up in the middle of the night?"
"On the phone that I had disconnected?" I reply.
"Right, I think I made my point! Now, I think it's time you took a couple of weeks' holiday."
"How kind," the PFY sighs. "But where will I go?"
"Somewhere where they know nothing about computing...where they wouldn't know a RAM chip from a potato chip!"
"But I don't want to visit Microsoft!" he whines.
Our conversation is interrupted by the boss who wanders in with a bleeding finger.
"I've just cut my finger on the edge of that BT patch rack. Do you think I'll need a tetanus shot?"
"Hmmm..." I respond. "Why don't you let the PFY take you to a place I know near Harley Street. Be all over in no time..."
That's my problem, you know - always looking after people's welfare...
The PFY, too, is away ostensibly on holiday but really because he had a relapse into computer addiction. Apparently he'd barricaded himself inside an Internet cafe with 10 boxes of Mars bars, three cases of Coke and a copy of Steven's Unix Network Programming. By the time they'd cut their way through to him, he'd taken up wearing thick glasses and had the beginnings of a wispy beard.
The psychiatrist had prescribed complete computing-free bed-rest for a couple of days, complemented by dangerously high levels of ECT to snap him out of it.
And, wouldn't you know it, when you're understaffed the calls come through two the first day, and three the day after that. I assume that because the Boss isn't there to pour oil on troubled waters, the helpdesk are trying it on...
"Hi, Systems and Networks."
"My machine's making a sort of grinding noise. It seems to be coming from near where the power cord is."
Hmm, what would Lassie do now?
"Somewhere near the fan outlet?"
"Yeah, I suppose it's near there, but I don't know."
"OK, well, get a pencil and poke it in one of the fan holes."
>CATHUNK "Sure does!"
"Cool!...Hey, while I've got you on the line, sometimes my machine comes up with memory errors and the technician guy says that it's something about a seating problem with Simms. Does that sound right?"
"Yeah," I chuckle, "I'm sure he did. It's the oldest cop-out in the book. We've been having a couple of problems like that this week, due to..." >flipflip DUMMY MODE ON!
"Duh-huh. So what do I do?"
"Well, you should probably wait for the technician to come around, but if you're in a hurry, I can give you a temporary overnight solution."
"Uh. What's that?"
"You know what your memory chips look like?"
"The long thin things that plug into the board?"
"Yeah. Well take them out don't be too worried if you snap off the plastic clips they're only there for shipping purposes."
"Wrap them in tin foil to earth the capacitant charge...plug them back into the motherboard."
"Then switch it on and leave it in overnight!"
"Oh, and make sure the pencil's in place."
"Don't mention it."
First thing the next day, I get in and the phone is ringing.
The voice at the other end starts chirping on about fire, health and safety etc., but my attention is diverted by the reappearance of the PFY on deck. The treatment looks as if it was successful, judging by his general lack of interest in his surroundings.
Meantime, the voice on the phone stops, so I respond with,"I'll get right on to it," then hang up.
To get the PFY back into operations mode, I chuck five double-expressos his way, then whip him downstairs and prime him with a couple of pints and a kebab.
Sorted! I let him straight back into the hot seat by giving him the phone.
"Hello?" He responds to his first call.
Judging by the shouting at the other end, it's my first caller of the day annoyed at the four-hour morning teabreak.
"Yes," the PFY responds," we were out all morning dealing with the effects of..." >flipflip Sounds like a full recovery to me!
"We're having a lot of systems problems because of it printers not printing documents, files missing from hard disks...have you? Well, perhaps you've been affected too...Hmmm, I don't know whether I should tell you, it might be better to get the technician in...OK, well...shut down your machine and lift off the cover. See the big metal box at the back, or maybe along the side?...Right! See there's two holes, one with the letter 'V' beside it and one with the letter 'A' beside it?...well wind those clockwise as far as they go to allow for entropic interference. Right, now wait quarter of an hour for the system to reset itself, then turn it on...Don't mention it. Bye."
"Fancy a pint?" the PFY asks hopefully, grabbing his coat. "We've only got 15 minutes till the fire alarm..."
So, in true systems management form, we see a window of opportunity and double-click on it...
The room is silent while the boss and the rest of senior IT management await the answer to this weighty question.
"No one is being made redundant," I fume. "I'm talking about equipment here, routers and switches. I want to replace one router with two switches, which will give us redundancy at head office in that if one switch fails, the other one can take up the core functionality."
"Two switches, doing the same thing," the boss said.
"The same core tasks, yes."
"Like two light switches at either end of a hallway?"
"Sort of like that, yes."
"So if one's up, the other one has to be down for the light to go?"
Later, in Mission Control, I explain the rules of 'Management Stack Theory' to the PFY because he has no idea why the meeting deteriorated so quickly.
"Managers are stack-based," I explain. "Rule one is that they have, at most, a two-item stack limit. Mention a technical term and they'll push it onto their mental stack. Mention another, they push that up there as well. Mention yet another and they stack overload and reboot. That is, they think about what they're going to do after work, how sore their bum is, whether the marketing assistant knows her blouse is almost see-through, and so forth."
"But then they'd be rebooting all the time," the PFY says.
"Afraid not. Rule one, subsection B, deals with Stack Leakage. Technical terms leak from the stack at about one per sentence."
"Rule two of Management Stack Theory is that the frame size on their mental stack is pitifully small terms are compressed to fit into the available frame. I mention 'Disk seek latency', they hear 'Disky Latex', 'Seek Latex', 'Disk Lazy', or something similar."
"So they didn't get much out of your presentation, is what you're saying? But they can't be that stupid," the PFY comments.
Oh, such innocence...
"Which brings me to rule three of Manager Stack Theory," I cry. "After a manager reboots, Volatile Memory is not zeroed, meaning that the contents are indeterminant. What the manager is left with is a jumble of terms, which, after Manager Internal Logic has finished with it, might become: 'Seek a see-through Latex Blouse'."
"Ah," the PFY doesn't quite believe me.
I can see that some form of proof is required...
"Right, you apply my rules to the following sentences. Use the whiteboard as your Manager Stack."
"OK," the PFY accepts the challenge.
"I think we need some redundant switches."
The PFY dutifully writes redundant switches on the board.
"You forgot rule two," I point out.
The PFY amends it to randy swatches.
"Which we could dynamically route to..."
"Which would allow us to multi-home..."
My bum hurts, writes the PFY, erasing everything before it.
"Correct," I comment. "And what's left in memory after booting?"
"I need a new swatch for the randy man with the root password."
"Sounds reasonable to me."
"And a load of bollocks to me!" the PFY splutters, only to be interrupted midflow by the boss poking his head around the door.
"Yours too?" he asks, noticing the PFY's whiteboard scribbles. "Mine was aching all through that last meeting. Now, which one of you needed the new watch for rooting?"
Vindicated, I smile at the PFY.
"That'll be me," I say, grabbing hold of the tasteful new wrist accessory.
"What was it for again?"
"Oh, I'll be using it to benchmark the L2 cache performance of the new symmetric multiprocessor machines."
If the boss had a console screen option, I'd be watching a memory test at this point...
"I'm sorry, what was that again?" he asks.
"I just said I'll be needing a Dual-ported PC to run my Lempel Ziv compression apparently it's a new algorithm."
"Cyclic redundancy checking! Electrically erasable EPROM! File read lookahead!" I blurt it all out, before the boss has gathered his wits about him.
The boss has a faraway look in his eyes.
"What happened?" the PFY asks, waving his hand in front of the boss's face.
"I've heard of this. I think he's stuck in reboot mode. He needs a manual reset."
"How the hell do you do that?" The PFY is worried.
"Uh... The male non-maskable interrupt..."
"I couldn't!" The PFY cries.
"It's that or have him stand in front of your desk all day..."
Reluctantly, the PFY kicks the boss in the crotch, and he goes down.
"What happened?" he cries, getting painfully to his feet.
"You just fainted and fell on to the corner of the desk. And you missed the end of my idea about Level 5 RAIDing all our legacy data as a data warehouse repository for the canned queries in the database front-end."
"I think he needs rebooting again." And I take a couple of steps back for the run-up...
The culprit isn't hard to find, considering that I keep logs of the size of the colour raster files to determine which plotters will need filling with what toner (and definitely not because pink usage is a good indicator of a potential blackmail candidate.
Except for that sneaky bastard in design who was printing all those midget-fetish pictures, of course, but I tracked him down with the print-time statistics - anyone who uses a full-colour printer after 10:30pm and NEVER during the day is bound to be up to no good.
So the Mission Control Lager Fund, A.K.A RG9030-NSEXOP-002 ("Running Grant, Cost Centre 9030, Non-Standard Expenditure, Operations, Account 2" in beancounter lingo) is looking extra-specially healthy this week.
It's much easier to extort money through a cost-centre transfer - the victim doesn't put up quite the same kind of fight when it's their department's money they're spending and not their own.
In fact, the lager fund is looking so healthy that it's time to "purchase some equipment" for this coming Friday night in case the balance attracts unwanted beancounter attention...
An invoice arrives and I take it to the boss for a signature as the PFY's out on a job.
"What's this for, then?"
"Ah, that's for the purchase of a new...Licensing Attribute Geopositional Accounting Receipt System - LAGERS, for short."
>click "A new system. I see. Oh well, best get that, then! But hang on...are you sure this is correct? Only £270?"
A hundred-plus pints is a good shout for the Bastard Operator Club at the best of times, but to allay suspicion, I feel it necessary to ease the boss's mental pain.
"TWO hundred and seventy pounds!?!" I squeal. "My mistake - it was supposed to be FIVE hundred and seventy pounds."
I make a mental note to order myself a taxi home before I go to the pub as I'm unlikely to be able to find my mobile phone, let alone use the bloody thing by the time I've drunk my share of the "software".
I send the invoice to the beancounters and call up my fellow bastards.
They say the best laid plans of mice and men do something or the other, I'm not really sure as my attention span doesn't run that far, but I'm sure it means something relevant to someone. As far as bastards go, the best laid plans shouldn't be put through bloody beancounters.
It appears there's been a query on the invoice as some bright young beancounter has decided that the Blue Posts is not one of our approved software vendors. That in itself is a piece of the proverbial to cover up as years ago I got a lot of our legit software routed via the local boozer as a back-up plan. The real problem is that a mole inside Beancounter Central, who owes me a few favours (for losing the voice-tape evidence in a harrassment complaint), has indicated that the Lager Fund is going to be audited.
The disturbing news is that they've contracted in a consultant to do the computing audit...
I ring the PFY on his mobile and bring him up to speed. He ducks out to lunch and gets a mate to ring in a non-specific threatening phone call. While he's at it, he orders us a take-out pizza to relieve the boredom at afternoon tea.
Security, bored mindless through months of inactivity, rise to the threat. Doors that were wedged open for months are closed, security passes checked, and building searches activated. Nothing appears out of the ordinary.
I watch with interest as a suited geek-type bloke is met by the head beancounter. They take no chances and use the stairs to get to Beancounter Central...
Now it's a waiting game. The data storage facility van pulls up outside the building right on time, no doubt with a box of back-up tapes recalled by our computing professional to deal with the unfortunate head-crash on the finance database machine. What a coincidence that three disks in a RAID array all failed at the same time! The odds on that must be phenomenal - not that the local bookie's stupid enough to take that bet, of course.
The data tapes, written by some untrusting person in Beancounter Central (which was lucky, as ours appear to have been lost by our data storage facility), are passed through security and rushed up the stairwell.
Our pizza delivery causes a stir in security, but it scans clean so we ask for it to be delivered to Beancounter Central where we'll pay for it.
"Something's wrong," the turncoat geek is saying to the head beancounter as we roll up. "The tape seems to be stuck in the drive!"
"Try the other drive!" the head man cries, noticing us.
"I did - it's stuck, too!"
Vexed by the apparently temporary delay, his annoyance is directed at us.
"What're you doing here?"
"Just picking up a delivery," I respond, as our pizza turns up.
"BLOODY HELL!" the PFY cries convincingly, "It's scorching hot!!"
"Oh no!" I sigh. "Don't tell me the X-ray parcel scanner is on the blink again. Last time this happened we lost a whole box of...OH NO! DON'T TELL ME YOUR TAPES WENT THROUGH THE SCANNER!"
[Later that same week...]
"UURGGLE MURG HURGRLE," I gasp.
"Sure, that's just off Sloane Square, isn't it?" the cab driver asks, passing me a bucket through the window should I require it.
"Unnnn!" I respond, lapsing into a lager-induced semi-coma.
"And here's where you'll be situated," the boss burbles as he enters the office with a programming contractor, press-ganged in from an agency at short notice to write the program that the boss lied about already having. Feeling slightly magnanimous towards the poor blighter (after all, he has had a half-hour exposure to the boss's BO during his introduction to the wonders of the photocopying machine - a dose of which is usually fatal) the PFY and I don't put up the expected arguments to the boss's encroachment on our territory.
"Find him a machine to work on will you - something that he can use to finish the development of the Stores Project."
"The Stores Project?" I ask. "Could be tricky - might need a grunty machine for that one..."
"Well, order one then. Get the order to me ASAP!"
The PFY and I spend the next 10 minutes selecting a machine - preferably one that is fully equipped with every possible peripheral and enhancement.
The boss signs the order without a second thought and I fax it through to our local supplier, who rings back to indicate that they're rushing it over immediately.
As soon as it arrives, the PFY and I install some extra airware - in other words, steal all the guts out of it - and pass it on to the new guy in its newly customised state...
Meantime, he's busy partitioning his whiteboard.
"So what are the boxes for?" the PFY asks.
"Well, they represent the three phases of the software life cycle - development, implementation, and feedback," he responds happily.
He's so green he needs mowing...
"Don't tell me, fresh out of programming school?" I ask kindly.
"Well, I have had a bit of experience writing Web apps," he blushes.
"But no real life experience?"
The PFY and I sigh in unison as I rub out and draw some arrows.
"The real program life cycle is more like this" I say. "Design, implementation, feedback, implementation, feedback, implementation, feedback, implementation, and so on until you die. If you actually ever get out of the design phase of course."
"So what is your answer?"
"Simple, there's one phase, implementation."
"But there's bound to be feedback."
"Of course there is, which is why most offices come with at least one feedback receptacle per desk that gets filed for you by the cleaning staff every night."
"I don't know. I think I'll do it properly."
"Don't say we didn't warn you."
A day later, the poor bastard still has no idea of what's wanted, so the PFY and I force him to bypass design and lend him a hand to whack together a passable database query and mailing package from the guts of the HR-Web system. He then puts in long hours implementing some fancy utilities for stock control, and so on.
After some careful schooling in the art of software presentation, we release him into the boss's care.
He returns half an hour later with a sick look on his face.
"How did it go?" the PFY asks.
"He didn't even try it. He just wanted me to change the colours of the buttons, the font style and things."
"No surprises there," I comment. "So you changed them?"
"Yeah, but then he wanted to try some different colours."
"Of course he did. And different fonts?"
"What about the banner - did he want to change that as well?"
"Yeah, he wanted the company logo on the centre and not on the left of the page."
"Don't worry," the PFY responds. "He'll want it back on the left tomorrow. Then on the right the next day. Then the centre again..."
"What am I going to do?" he sniffles. "He didn't even want to see it in action."
"He just said it was fine as it was and signed off your contract?" I ask knowingly.
"Yeah, that's it. All I have to do is finish the aesthetics and my contract's over."
The demoralisation of having his skill and expertise reduced to colours and fonts is obviously taking a toll on the poor bloke.
"Yep, he doesn't care what it does, so long as it looks good. Now you did say what we told you?"
"Yeah. I said it was a test version and not ready for release yet."
"Good, which means he's probably given the URL to the head of IT already."
"And he will have passed it on to all the other heads of department," the PFY adds.
"But it's not even finished," he sobs, obviously upset at the thought of producing a buggy piece of code. "I'd really like to make it work properly."
I can see this is a job for a professional...
Two days (and 5,000 rolls of toilet paper delivered to the home of the boss and the head of IT) later, our green and keen contractor is back working on the project.
I'm more than pleased to see that his feedback basket is full of loads of design suggestions in the boss's handwriting.
He may well work out to be all right after all...
"Is that his name? He doesn't have a PA."
"He does now. He read how good they are at clarifying..."
I switch off while the benefits of PA-dom are explained in full. I'm a little concerned as this means the boss has been reading management periodicals during his recovery from non-specific stress disorders.
Surprising how some people react to a couple of hundred volts administered to the testicles through the seat of a wheelie chair...
Sadly, the appearance of a PA on the scene has put a rather large spanner in the works of the PFY and I, who were planning to use the boss's absence to steal a foot of his office to lengthen the computer room - a simple job when you have a team of builders that owe you a favour.
"How can I help you, uh..."
"Sonya," she snaps, a little miffed that her name has already slipped from my short-term memory. (Just using mental-cache wisely.)
"Of course. Now, how can I help you, uh..."
"SONYA!" She snaps again. "David wants me to audit the purchases he's signed off, to make sure they've all been delivered."
"That would have been done when the items were delivered," I've already sussed the boss's plan. Lacking the bottle to find out if the PFY and I have been stealing the equipment we've ordered, he's put some new blood on to it - someone who doesn't know what happened to those who've gone before. Mind you, she could probably visit a couple of them when she goes to see the boss.
"He thought it best to make sure, so if you could just run off a printout of the orders..."
"Well, I'd like to, but unfortunately the database had a major disk fault, and we lost everything."
"When was this?" She asks. "Because I was only on the database 10 minutes ago and it seemed all right - though I don't have access to the purchasing stuff."
"As a matter of fact it just happened," I say as I hand the PFY the rubber panel-beating hammer we keep especially for emergency disk failures.
"What about a previous printout from back-up?" She asks.
"All old printouts go to security shredding services once they've been used, and the back-up system has a tape jammed in its drive," I say, passing the PFY a suicide cartridge (full of epoxy resin) as well.
"So there are no records?"
"The boss - David - has printed records, and stores have an inwards goods printout. I'm sure you could match those up - it's a bit of a job, but it'd all work out in the end."
A sniffle sounds on the earpiece as she puts the phone down.
"Something terrible has happened!" the PFY cries, in mock horror, as he enters the room.
"I'm sure it has," I reply, as I plan the future. First things first, I dial in to the private institution that's looking after the boss and figure a way into their server. 'Freud', the third administrator password attempt I try, works...
I make a couple of modifications to the boss's patient record, changing 'history of violence' from 'nil' to 'extreme', and, the real killer, changing his 'charge to' field from 'medical insurance' to 'NHS' - guaranteeing that he'll be strapped into an iron bed in the budget basement wing in no time at all. Sure, he'll be released back into the community, 'cured', after three ECT sessions, but what the hell!
He misses out on the expensive NHS treatment when I find that it's not a quid per volt - NHS might have gone as high as 10K were that the case...
While I'm at it, I toggle the 'allow visitors' field - he'll probably need his rest.
"What's the problem?" the PFY asks curiously. "I thought we weren't nicking any kit this quarter?"
"We're not, but a careful perusal of the books might find that a lot of kit has been paid for twice - once by our department, and once by the department it was destined for. It was when they were changing cost centres around and no one knew who was supposed to be paying for things..."
"So you kept the dosh?"
"No, no - that would just draw attention to ourselves. No, I got two lots of kit and used the second lot to update all the machines in the data pool."
"The same all-women data pool that sent you the birthday card and cake?"
"With the invite to birthday drinkies?"
"Yes, that rings a bell for some reason."
"The day after which you arrived to work, late, in a cab with a couple of the aforementioned women?"
"Yes, yes, I suppose so! Was there a point to this?"
"Oh nothing," the PFY mutters, wandering off.
The next day, who should arrive at work but the boss. By his glazed expression I can tell he certainly got the NHS's money's worth of electricity, which just goes to show that the mental health situation isn't as bad as everyone says it is. As luck would have it, he's in a signing mood, too - if you hold his hand and arm for him and stop him dribbling on the ink before it's dry. So we write his PA a nice reference letter, give her two weeks' notice, and order the data pool a whole set of gas-operated chairs - what the hell, it's the PFY's birthday soon.
I just love happy endings.
So much so, I plug the boss's chair back into the 24 hour timer...
claim the peaceful spoils of war.
Until, that is, the head of IT, designer-coloured cellphone and laptop, brand-spanking-new company convertible car, appoints the boss's former PA to the position of "executive liaison officer".
I am sure that this has absolutely nothing to do with the long lunchtime rides she takes
with him in the aforementioned convertible. It is easy to see how her previous two
days' experience has her thoroughly versed in the ins and outs, so to speak, of IT.
"She's excellent!" the boss cries, defending his ex-assistant.
"Excellent?" I cry. "She couldn't count her bum cheeks and come up with the same
"She must know something about IT to get appointed!" the boss responds, ignoring
"Of course...And how long did it take her to get her desktop machine going again?"
"The power switch is quite difficult to find!" he replies defensively, loyal as a terrier.
"Yes - the switch on the front of the machine is deceptively prominent..."
The boss realises that this conversation is sinking faster than the Titanic and absents
himself. Issue unresolved, I expect bad things to follow...
My fears are confirmed when she buys a swag of cheap network computers at bargain
basement prices. This poorly researched decision has obtained the official stamp of
approval, followed by a purchase order on my desk for a 'technical sign-off'. I stuff it
into the shredder quicker than the average user can say "Where's my file gone?".
The boss is on the job even faster.
"These network computers are great!" he says."Sonya's just been proselytising us."
"Really? I can't say I approve, but hey, what's good for Amsterdam is good for
London!" I cry.
"No. I mean she's converted us."
"So you're all prostitutes? Wouldn't quit the day job if I were you!"
"I'm talking about network computers!" he snaps.
"Of course! And the prostitution?"
"There's no bloody prostitution!!"
"Of course there isn't! Walls have ears and all that," the PFY murmurs, winking.
The boss gives up and resumes his tack...
"Anyway, these NCs are great because they act just like PCs without disks!" he cries.
"They don't boot?" the PFY asks.
"No!" the boss responds, "They load everything from a server."
"Sort of like a dumb terminal we used to have 10 years ago, except with graphic and
"Uh...no, faster, and in colour!!"
"You mean like those X-terminals we threw out and replaced with PCs three years
ago?" I ask.
"So a desktop machine dependent on a server is better than an independent desktop
PC in what way again?"
"Um...because we'll never need to upgrade the equipment!"
"No, it'll be like a colour TV set!" the boss blurts triumphantly, "Once you've got one,
it'll never need upgrading - because everything comes from the station?"
"Not even when the software wants to make use of whizzy new features like Nicam
stereo, Dolby surround and wide screen?"
"What about when they bring out faster chips, better mice, tablets, scanners and
software that needs them?"
"Look, we're bloody buying some, so sign off on them!" the boss shouts. Cornered by
logic, he produces from nowhere a duplicate of the shredded purchase order, patience
at an end.
What the hell. I scrawl out a signature. Not mine, of course, but who's to know? Except
the boss, should someone check it against his...
"In fact," the boss continues, "you should be using the same technology as the users,
so I'll send a couple to the control room as well."
On arrival they are dispatched to the test cases in various departments. The PFY and I
get ours into gear as well and the carnage commences!
SNMP management is a damn fine tool for network computers, especially when it lets
you reboot them remotely. I patch a game of Network Doom with sprites of the users'
faces and get the kills piped to the SNMP reboot command...
I ring the users and tell them, to give them as much of a chance as you can get using
the server copy of the game which only lets you pick up a handgun with one round of
ammo. Still, a beancounter can get good at pistol shooting when two hours of
spreadsheet work is at stake and you have to win a game in order to ungrey the SAVE
button (another little patch).
By Friday, the results are in. Surprisingly enough, the NCs weren't a hit with the users
and were replaced with PCs after only four days.
Oh, and 327 kills...
The boss gets a slapped wrist for signing them off, the head of department's little
helper receives a pay rise regardless (salary really is performance-linked), and the PFY
and I get back to normal.
"I was thinking about a PC version of that game," the PFY comments later.
"You mean the same game, except that it causes the Pentium Hang bug on their
"You mean you've thought of it?"
"Thought of it, installed it, and am waiting for players with a chaingun!"
Sigh. Once more into the fray...
Now, far be it from me to come over all sanctimonious about someone seeing a chance of good old-fashioned graft and seizing it with both hands, but at least he could make the bloody talk entertaining. It's as interesting as watching nail polish dry - which is, in fact, what I'm doing - on the hands of an attractive young systems professional beside me.
Up until morning tea-time, when her common sense takes over and she does a runner. That's the trouble these days, no one has any commitment. Except the boss, of course, who catches me trying to sneak out to the pub we'd agreed to meet up in.
"Hurry up!" he cries "or you'll miss the bit on..." (scrabble scrabble) "...the necessity to re-engineer Cobol-based Database Query Forms."
Now as far as I'm concerned, there are only two ways we'll be re-engineering any of the crap written in Cobol, and they are:
A) With the "rm-rf" command, except that the operating system of the era (before RSI [or the fear of dying of old age before you'd got to the end of a command] was a worry) this translates to: "DELETE/ERASE/NO CONFIRM [...]*.*;*" or, my personal preference:
B) With an axe.
Anyway, seeing as how I've been busted, I figure I'm going to have to no-show at the boozer until the Boss drifts off to sleep.
Quarter of an hour later and I'm in the pub, chatting over the freshly polished nails of a systems safety engineer.
"So what does a systems safety engineer do?" I ask, engaging her immediately in geek-talk.
"Well, it involves all aspects of software and hardware safety. I deal with privacy and security as well as software design and testing with the aim being to ensure that no person of institution comes to harm - physically/mentally/ financially - from the operation of a computer or its software. It's a very interesting role, as you have to be constantly aware of."
My mind clicks off as I attempt to hide my distress from her - and not just because she feels users are worth saving. The worst has just occurred to me. SHE IS THE ANTI-BASTARD!
Immediately I start edging away from her to a point where I know we're not in any danger of accidentally touching. I remember my theoretical physics well enough to know what happens when matter and anti-matter collide...
"So what do you do?" she asks, "Well, I'm a systems and networks administrator."
"And what brought you to the Y2K presentation?" she asks, expecting a response laden with altruism and concern for users.
"Well, I'm just here to ensure that our users aren't affected by any potential problems that might occur before, during and after the turn of the century..." I respond, simultaneously hating myself for being such a brown-noser, while mentally congratulating myself on a first class piece of spadework.
I just can't help myself.
"Really?" she gushes, happy to find a kindred spirit among the masses of computing professionals she's undoubtedly met in the past. "Oh yes," I cry, "You have NO IDEA the lengths my assistant and I have to go to just to ensure that users get what they need." She's thinking systems handholding, and I'm thinking of a swift kick in the unmentionables, but as I said, it's unmentionable, so I let her keep thinking along those lines. What the hell, those physics geeks might be wrong... We chat for a bit, and then wouldn't you know it, like a bad smell on a northerly breeze, in blows the boss.
This can only mean one thing...
"There's no free lunch!" he cries, disheartened. "Yeah, I thought I'd pop down here for one," I answer, placating him with the offer of a lager, thus reinforcing the "bloody good bloke" theme while simultaneously bearing in mind the boss's rating as a "one lager to lift-off man".
I enhance the effect with a vodka top, which means he should be under the table inside 15 minutes. I get back from the bar and the boss is overflowing with bonhomie at my purchase of a beer.
About halfway through his pint I realise my fatal mistake.
"Let's get wassisname down here!" he cries, to no one in particular, rummaging around in his coat for his mobile phone. He dials up the PFY and extracts a promise of his attendance. BUGGER.
Having spoilt my chances of a quiet 57 G&Ts alone with my guest, he continues on his trail of destruction. "Great bastard this," he cries, bursting with affection for me. "Remember the time that user asked for a hot spare disk, so you heated one up in the furnace and dropped it in his lap?" I'm busy making lager-tipping motions in the background when the boss lurches once more down memory lane. "Or that time you told that accountant that his chair was picking up static so he'd have to earth it - AND GOT HIM TO PLUG HIS CHAIR INTO THE LIVE TERMINAL! HA HA HA!"
So it's just me and the boss by the time the PFY gets there. Mind you, the boss is only semi-conscious by now, so it only takes about 10 seconds to fill the PFY in. I buy the boss a parting drink then pour him, glass and all, into a taxi home.
"I have to say, you took that bloody well," the PFY says.
"Forgive and forget," I cry magnanimously. "Besides, just about now he's going to figure out that his drink isn't lager."
"Number ones?" the PFY asks
"Don't be disgusting!" I cry, offended. "It's a warm fish milkshake - just the thing for a queasy stomach..."
"My memory of events is...a little hazy," the boss burbles.
"Yes," I interrupt, "unfortunately it appears that he was set upon by an angry taxi driver after dropping two pints, a plate of chips and a fish milkshake on to the front seat of a cab after the event. By way of his stomach."
"Be that as it may," the boss cries, seizing back the mantle of the conversation. "Sharon here rang and offered to check out our systems for potential risks - you know, company liability, software and hardware oversights that may lead to injury or other accidents, overall security, and so on."
How bloody thoughtful of her.
"Anyway," the boss continues, "I'm sure you'll give her any help she requires. OK, time we were moving on to the next stop, which is the head of our department."
The boss and our new computing safety consultant wander off in the direction of the head's orifice while the PFY scurries over.
"What does it mean?" he asks, well aware of the part the boss played in alienating me from Sharon's good books at our last meeting. Thanks to him, getting back into Sharon's good books would require spadework of back-hoe proportions.
"I'm not sure," I respond, "but I think it means trouble."
The next day my words are proved true when Sharon's analysis of the site accident logs points one or two bloodstained fingers in the direction of Systems and Networks.
"These things are supposed to be fitted with earth leakage detectors," she cries, investigating the power points of the serviceman's workbench which have sent more than one unfortunate engineer off to the sick bay for some burns cream. (While the PFY and I rifle through his toolkit, of course.)
"Ah, no, we use a different leakage detector for this," I say, pointing at a faceplate on the bench. "Faeces and urine - cuts the power the moment someone loses control of their bodily functions."
"That's ridiculous," Sharon cries "And anyway, you can't test it."
"I test it every month," the PFY cries indignantly.
"He certainly does," I concur. "He downs a jar of pickled onions then tests the desk when his digestion says so."
Having no comeback for this one, Sharon moves on to investigate how the freight elevator came to be on the 6th floor when a trolley full of user equipment was pushed through the doors on the 5th floor by the PFY.
I could say it was standard procedure to stop the boss offering our services as porters, but instead murmur something unconvincing about PLU controllers being affected by spikes.
By the end of the day Sharon has reached the conclusion I desire - our kit needs a safety retrofit. That, combined with the glossy mags on 'Systems Safety' that the Boss discovered in his briefcase (outlining the benefits of the equipment produced by a corporation in the US), is more than enough to hint at junket time.
"I don't think that is at all necessary," Sharon responds, upon hearing the boss's plan. "Everything we need can be sourced locally."
"We should investigate all options," the boss cries, not inclined to miss out on a junket to the States.
According to plan the boss attempts to add credibility to his junket by suggesting that we all go "to cover all technical bases".
And the boss does know best.
The plane lifts off and the PFY and I get into the drinks ASAP while Sharon wanders up to business class to curry some more of the boss's favour.
"I don't get it," says the PFY.
"SOP for a boss," I respond. "If you want something, get it for someone else 'for technical reasons' then it looks that much more legitimate if you get yourself one. Cellphones, laptops, you name it!"
"What are we going to do when we get there?"
"I plan to drink tequila at a beachside bar."
"I don't think there are beaches in Ohio."
"Ohio?" I cry, "We're not going to Ohio. Not after the hijack anyway."
"You're going to hijack the plane?" the PFY hisses. "You're not serious?"
"Oh don't worry, there's no gunplay. Just track one of this CD," I murmur calmly, holding up my portable CD player.
"It's a CD player!"
"Ostensibly yes, but also... a mini GPS transmitter."
"You're screwing with the plane's guidance system?"
"I prefer the term 'having a meaningful encounter'. This little baby will shortly start pumping out some low-wattage GPS information - information the plane will use to get its flight path. And, over the course of the journey, the information will deviate slightly - because if I do it all at once the pilot might notice."
"You'll never get away with it," the PFY whispers discouragingly.
"Of course I will. Have I ever steered you wrong?"
"Uh, last week when you told me the power was off when I was replacing the fuse in that rack. The week before when you told me that all the ducting has door handles on the inside, so it would be all right to shut the door."
"I let you bloody out, didn't I?"
"After you'd drunk all the lager I'd found in the boss's locker."
And so it is that I'm sitting in a South American bar, drinking tequilas while the boss tries to get us a return flight to civilisation. Thanks to the super-spadework I put in when we almost ran out of fuel because of the extra miles, Sharon is my new best mate.
"Just want you to know that I sorted out that little Helpdesk roster mix-up," he mentions quietly.
"What little Helpdesk mix-up ?" I ask.
"Oh, some practical joker had written your name in the
roster to cover the Helpdesk during their team building week."
"Yes, that was me. Tomorrow from midday till five wasn't it? I'm quite looking forward to it."
"Ah!" the boss cries, no doubt ducking off to press the speed-dial button for the company's insurance broker.
The Pimply-Faced Youth is obviously confused about this - there's nothing in the Helldesk area left to steal because we did all that the last time security had its CCTV system repaired. The truth of the matter is that I'm bored. Bored, bored, bored.
Heeding the advice that a change is as good as a rest, I've signed up for a tour of duty at Idiot Central. Besides, I want to know if I still have what it takes to deal with users on a routine basis.
The next day dawns and after lunch I head directly to the Helldesk to do my best to, I mean for, the users. To be honest, it's not half as bad as I'd expected - things are pretty quiet.
In the end I put the phones back on the hook, and three lines light up immediately. I pick one at random and answer it.
"Hi, look, my machine's smoking a little, and there's a burning smell. It was really noisy this morning when I turned it on, so should I turn it off?"
"No. No need to worry - we had a little bit of equipment fail in the comms room this morning, so it's probably just the smoke and the smell coming down the lines."
"Is there anything I should do?"
"Not really, I'd just shut your office door and go to afternoon tea early until the smoke clears - it'll probably take an hour or so."
"Hey, hang on, why isn't it affecting the other machines?"
"Because you're on the hot back-up server for your department, the one that got too hot, as it happened."
"Oh, of course I am!" he gushes, gasping thanks and ducking off for an early break.
Now that I'm on limited time (till the fire alarm and sprinklers cut in) I take the last two calls as quick as I can).
"Hi," a secretary from PR chirps, "every time I try to send e-mail my program comes back and says something about a DNS thingy."
"Was it something like 'DNS look-up error'?"
"Yeah...I think so..." she mumbles.
"Oh dear." I sigh. "I'm really sorry."
"What is it?"
"You mean you don't know?"
"Well DNS stands for Database of Names and Salaries."
"I don't understand."
"Well, if it can't look you up to send your e-mail, it must mean you've...been fired. Or you're about to be."
"But I've only been here a couple of months!"
"Yes, and I bet you turned down your boss when he asked you out to lunch too, didn't you?" I ask, playing a hunch based solely on the fact that the guy concerned wears babe-magnet labelled clothes and drives a convertible. And he's a loud-mouthed flashy git at staff functions. Not that I'm jealous...
"But I couldn't make it because I had to arrange my bank payments!" she sniffles, falling for it hook, line and sinker.
"Well," I respond kindly, "for what it's worth it was good working with you...unless of course..."
"Unless what?" "Well, you could go and see the complaints officer in personnel and say that he threatened your job unless you...you know."
"Unless I what?"
"Checked out his firmware, so to speak."
"Well it's up to you. If you wait till you're fired they'll just think you're making excuses. But if you pre-empt it, and mention nothing about the DNS stuff they'll think your accusations are true."
"Do you think it would work?"
"I would think so. It's happened before. You were just one of the lucky ones..."
"I suppose you're right. OK, I'll do it. Thank you very much for your advice."
"Don't mention it." I respond, moving on to caller three while gesturing to the PFY so he can record the head of PR's "resignation" later in the afternoon.
"Hi, my Linux box won't seem to mount a CD in it. It says that it must be mounted read-only. What's the parameter to tell it to mount read-only?"
"Ah Linux relies on hardware write locking. You have to write lock the disk itself."
"Huh? I've never heard of that before!"
"Most operating systems do it in software. It's because Linux has cache-based hardware architecture open compliance," I say, calling up as many buzzwords as possible to foil the Unix geek.
*Dummy mode on.*
"So what do I do?"
"Just make a 3mm hole - no larger - in the CD, right in the middle of the label, that's where it expects write protect. And make sure it's 3mm and exactly in the middle, or you might hit the Read Protect hole too."
He rings off without asking why the hell anyone would have read-protected disks, obviating the need for me to explain WORN technology to him (Write Once, Read Never - just like the floppies).
As the fire alarm goes, I total up the day: off work early because of fire, one less git at social functions, and one foiled geek.
Yep, I've still got what it takes!
The Pimply-faced Youth and I are competing against Research and Development in an annual contest of skill and technology. The rules are simple: both teams enter one or more robots into the competition - robots which must find their way out of a fairly simple maze constructed of passages and rooms in the sub-basement of the building.
The PFY is particularly excited as this is his first time in the competition.
"So this is a yearly event?" he asks, helping me put together our mechanical entrant.
"Since last year, yes."
"I don't remember it."
"No, I think you were in Mr Happy mode at the time."
"On a jolly."
"Oh. How did we do?"
"Well, as far as I was concerned, we'd won fair and square - none of R&D's seven robots were left, however, there was a bit of a protest lodged about my robot."
"Aaaaahhhh, because it was basically the boss with a car aerial strapped to his back, blundering around in the basement trying to find his new laptop."
"And he won?"
"Yeah, there wasn't a laptop and when his enthusiasm waned I switched the lights off and the fire alarm on, and he picked up speed dramatically."
"And what was their protest?"
"Well, there were two actually - the first being that the boss running blindly around caused the destruction of most of the competition (which, incidentally, helped us win the demo-derby event by default) - and the second being that the boss wasn't a robot."
"So what happened?"
"Well, I showed them that, to all intents and purposes, he was a robot - he had a limited and very simple instruction set; you have to punch information into him and without it he can't think for himself..."
"I see. So why don't we enter him this year?"
"Ah. Well, the restrictions are somewhat tighter now. The robot has to be based on the processor board that R&D designed for those automatic floor polishers."
"The ones that are supposed to drift randomly around the building at night?"
"The very same."
"So what's all this crap for?" he asks, pointing at enough hardware to start my own hardware company.
"Well, part of the event is the demolition derby where the surviving robot takes line honours. My thinking is that the bigger the robot, the more chance it has of still being mobile at the end."
"So you're using a machine rack laid on wheels?"
"Yes: a) It won't attract much undue attention in the basement before the competition, and b) The rules say it has to be battery-powered, and I need quite a lot of power to keep the circular saw blades spinning, and c) It's a four foot-long steel chassis. It's going to make it through the demo-derby - especially considering the largest of the opposition robots comes to just over axle height on it."
"Where are you going to get all the batteries to run it?"
"Oh, I whipped those out of the UPS last night."
"Didn't anyone notice?"
"No, I chucked it into bypass mode - not even a glitch. Anyway, all that remains now is for me to install the polisher board with its bastardised maze-solving program, add the batteries and chuck in a little ballast..."
Three nights later, the R&D boys are down in the basement setting up their robots while the PFY and I sit around on ours. Smart money seems to be centred on a small robot nicknamed "Reggie" because of its rapid cornering ability.
"Actually, I think they've got a point," the PFY mumbles, seeing a warm-up demonstration. "It's much quicker to corner than this thing will be."
"Au contraire!" I respond. "You're forgetting two things I didn't tell you about; one: with the 20 UPS batteries and the four-wheel, rare-earth-element-magnet motors on this baby..."
"five..." the starter counts down.
"...it's got phenomenal acceleration itself..."
"But it's still going to be a pain to corner!"
"That was point two: with all the weight inside that solid steel chassis..."
"It would be a waste of time cornering in the first place..."
Ten minutes later the PFY and I are at the pub. Admittedly, the plan of driving straight through walls wasn't one of the more orthodox ways of solving mazes, but it proved successful nonetheless.
"Who'd have thought the robot would run amok in demo-derby mode and circular saw through the mains cable?" I ask the PFY.
"Who indeed?" the PFY asks, fingering the prize money that the R&D blokes were too busy to collect in their panic... "It could have chased R&D around the building..."
"Got to save some surprises for next year..."