Saturday, October 13, 2007

Floor Polisher Affects Computer

Karla Jennings, The Devouring Fungus: Tales of the Computer Age. NY & London: W. W. Norton, 1990, pp. 97-8.

Of course, sometimes glibness and a superficial understanding of CompuSpeak can be an advantage, as shown by a wily major at an Air Force base in the early seventies.

The command headquarters was replacing old mainframes with the latest electronics. The new system worked fine at first, then crashed. Engineers probed the new mainframes but couldn't find the problem's source. They restarted it, and it ran fine -- for a few days. Then it crashed again; they still couldn't find the bug. This expensive, exasperating, and mysterious glitch remained for months, ruining elaborate programs that had to be started all over again.

Major S., who headed computer operations, now found himself the center of unwanted attention. His boss, the colonel, attended all the staff meetings and whenever the system crashed (which happened every few days), the colonel's superiors made him painfully aware of the inconvenience the crashes were causing. After each staff meeting, the colonel always paid a call on Major S. to be sure Major S. appreciated the colonel's unhappiness.

Major S. told the computer operators to call him immediately when the system went down. A few days later, they called him, and he ran into the computer room. He heard an odd, oscillating hum at the end of the room and went to investigate, looking down a row of disk drives to see a technical sergeant buffing the floor with an electric floor polisher. The major's eyes followed the polisher's power cord across the floor to where it disappeared into the open cabinet of the one of the new disk drives, where it was plugged into one of the auxiliary power receptacles.

"How often do you buff this floor?" he asked.

"Every few days, sir," replied the sergeant.

"Do you always plug the machine into this receptacle?"

"Always have, sir."

They brought the system up and watched it crash again as soon as the sergeant squeezed the handle on the polisher. He'd found the problem, but the major still had the delicate task of telling the colonel that months of being in the hot seat and thousands of hours of lost work were due to a sergeant polishing floors. A friend of his watched in apprehension as the major left to tell his superior, and was surprised when he returned an hour later, smiling.

"Didn't you tell the colonel?" the friend asked.


"Wasn't he upset?"


"What did you tell him?"

"I told him it was a buffer problem."

Karla Jennings, The Devouring Fungus: Tales of the Computer Age. NY & London: W. W. Norton, 1990, p. 212.

The physics department at the University of California at Berkeley was the site for another ghostly glitch. Late at night experimentalists taking sensitive computer readings on continuous graph paper would see the recording pen go haywire, as if an earthquake were rattling the campus, though it was a bizarre earthquake, appearing at the same time each night and lasting for the same period. They traced it to the night custodian, who polished the linoleum on the ground floor during those hours. Vibrations from his floor polisher rattled the equipment two floors above.