back to article The engineer lurking behind the curtain: Musical monitors on a meagre IT budget

One of the hardest tasks in IT is giving a user what they need, while also persuading them it's what they want. Join us for another tale from our weekly On Call column where a Register reader achieved the seemingly impossible. Our tale takes place in the time of Windows 3.x, where the lucky among us ran 386s and the downright …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Alessandro Is now running large contracts

    Alessandro has been applying his acquired skills over the decades in all manor of large contracts. Under supplying and over promising. The customers managers are still as clueless. He’s only found out once the minions try and use the things and find the requirements as specced by their managers are all wrong but by that time all the project managers have moved on.

    1. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

      Re: Alessandro Is now running large contracts

      All Hail the Mighty BOFH!!!

  2. Eaten Trifles

    I am in awe

    True genius. And completely believable.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I am in awe


      The exchange parts, I could see them coming, but the screensaver, gosh, really clever trick !

    2. anothercynic Silver badge

      Re: I am in awe

      Chapeau, Alessandro, chapeau. Well played, my good man. :-)

      *chuckles for the next hour*

  3. Chris Miller

    Flying Windows screensaver

    Wot, no flying toasters?

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Flying Windows screensaver

      Berkeley Systems After Dark screensavers cost money. It was not in the budget.

      1. GlenP Silver badge

        Re: Flying Windows screensaver

        Berkeley Systems After Dark screensavers cost money

        I suppose one person somewhere must have paid for them. No dodgy download sites in those days, pirate copies were floppy disks surreptitiously handed over at user group meetings!

    2. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip

      Re: Flying Windows screensaver

      Dunno about the US, but in the UK most corporate desktops I saw ran stock screensavers because what's the business rationale for anything else?

      Only one customer stood out with a desktop running Johnny Castaway

      1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

        Re: Flying Windows screensaver - Strange Tales From A National Railway Enquiry Service.

        Y2K came & went (As did my job) so I started contracting at the time everybody stopped.

        One contract I was on involved the replacement of machines at NRES in Plymouth (It was a nice gig despite the distance 80 mile round trip). After the initial rollout I was asked to babysit the users for teething issues etc, the project manager was happy to sign off my time sheets & all was well issues included.

        Someone maliciously deleting the application folder in program files, replaced the missing folders a few times by dragging a copy across the network.

        Machines freezing in use\unattended, this was a little harder & to see which workstations were freezing I started looking for machines by running & looking for those with frozen screensavers & the issue was mainly on the second & third floors, not the first floor. Thu it was found that the bright young things on the upper floors were using the mouse wheel, the older users were not as adept, removing the supplied Logitech mouse driver restored normal operation.

        I in the meantime started expanding my range of support duties as I had been there for about 6 weeks in total & quite fancied the idea of making this a permanent gig. When this happened….

        The supervisors were monitoring recorded calls, the incoming calls were running through the PC sound card & headphones & one such conversation went like this….

        “Once you get to Holyhead, you need to take the ferry I can’t look that up on the system, I am just going to check the ferry timetabling information I will be back in a few minutes…”

        “OK Thank you”

        Silence then “Gloop!” More silence “Gloop gloop” Silence again “Gloop….Gloop gloop………..Gloop”.

        Those of a certain age will recall the aquarium screensaver that someone had decided would be nice to install on their shared work machine, thus I was tasked with locking down the build (Windows 95 build IIRC possibly due to the desk hot* swapping nature of the operators & Plug n Play support for the sound cards). Alas that was the day the agency & client awoke to the fact I was still on-site & terminated me at end of day & so the problem remained (Hence Icon).

        *Including one rather hot operator, that liked to amuse herself while giving out time table information, would tuck one foot up & vigorously rubbing her heel\foot against her crotch & slightly bouncing in her seat.

    3. Zarno Bronze badge

      Re: Flying Windows screensaver

      I had that for a little bit on Linux.

      I now run Electric Sheep.

      Bought the lifetime license, and it's been fractal chugging for years.

      1. Forum McForumface

        Re: Flying Windows screensaver

        Please tell me there’s an Android variant.

        1. Zarno Bronze badge

          Re: Flying Windows screensaver

          I took a look to see, and there appears to be a live wallpaper now!

          Oh joy!

  4. El blissett

    I definitely used the screensaver speed trick once.

    1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge

      And in later years (Win95/98) reducing the start menu flyout delay, among many other tricks.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        I had a college many years ago who's PC died and he got a new one and was soooo proud of the fact that it was one of those new fangled Pentium thingies that he used the flying text screensaver to brag to everyone within sight. The text was simple enough, "Pentium 60!!!".

        Shortly after getting this new behemoth, he took a day off. He came back to a room full of displays, except his, showing "Pentium 75!!!" and was told he wasn't getting a new PC because his had only recently been replaced. There was two whole days of sulking before he found out the awful truth that screensavers can lie :-)

        1. Lord Kipper III

          Ah yes, a text based upgrade. In the dark and distant past my employer started issuing iPhones to the selected senior types instead of the corporate standard Blackberry and the standard signature 'Sent from my iPhone' marked someone out as very special. One of my team suffered from a need to have status bestowed upon him and craved, more than anything to be able to have 'Sent from my iPhone' at the bottom of his emails. My group of engineers, not important enough to have even a Blackberry (Basic Nokia for you sunshine) exacerbated the situation by changing the standard Outlook signature to 'Sent from my iPhone' and awaited the fall out from our colleague.

          Our IT director, always one to play along with a prank from the tame engineers simply told our colleague that they had five spare iPhones in the test programme and we five engineers had asked him nicely.

        2. Pangasinan Philippines

          flying text screensaver

          Yes I remember the text one.

          Type in volcano and get a geography lesson!

        3. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

          Reminds me of David Gunson in his after-dinner act making the uncorroborated claim that supersonic Concorde does (did) have a speed display in the passenger cabin so passengers can see it go up to Mach 2, but it is worked from behind by a stewardess. It goes up to Mach 8 if they want it to. :-)

          1. Ian 70

            Do like me some What goes up might come down.

      2. logicalextreme Silver badge

        It's got me wondering whether MS added all that stupid animated crap into Office for precisely this purpose — a "go faster" button for the beleaguered sysadmin.

  5. Chris G Silver badge

    Sales wonks

    Live by bullshitting and die by bullshit.

  6. Joe W Silver badge


    The first thing that came to my mind when reading the phrase "giving the user what they need" was "a dang good kicking", as per the Manual detailing the SOP of Sir Simon and Sir Stephen (knights of the bofhknighthood, of the Kerberos Realm)....

    1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

      Re: BOFH-flashbacks

      the "damn good kicking" does have follow up steps

      Quick lime

      Car boot


      Or if you're lazy like me, the open lift shaft....

      Which reminds me, must throw another 100lbs of earth down ours.... makes excellent compost after 9 months down there.....

      1. SuperGeek

        Re: BOFH-flashbacks

        I wondered why the tomatoes at your place were extra juicy! ;)

    2. Imhotep Silver badge

      Re: BOFH-flashbacks

      Or to paraphrase Mencken: "The people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."

  7. Maximus Decimus Meridius

    Server Screensavers

    Does removing the OpenGL screensavers from servers count? I have done that a few times.

    1. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

      Re: Server Screensavers

      Does removing the OpenGL screensavers from servers count? I have done that a few times.

      Any aspiring BOFH would enable the openGl screensaver on a new server, but with minimal settings, so performance is not degraded, then gradually crank it up over the course of several months until server performance is down there with Bestesbulzibar in the nether regions of Hell.

      Then procure a new server, copy *.* over, set it up, and start from the beginning again, gradually increasing the openGL settings again until performance is so slow a new server is required... Muhuhaha. Erm. Ok. I'll see myself out in a while. Muhuhahaha.

      And using that still-new server for some nefarious BOFH purposes. Muhuhaha.

    2. Strahd Ivarius Silver badge

      Re: Server Screensavers

      I did it once from our new WinNT 3.51 server since it was really degrading the performances of the MS SQL database we were trying to access from attached workstations.

      Took a while to understand why everything looked fine when we were running the application on the server, and started to crawl to a stop after a few minutes when doing the same operations from another computer, especially since they were not located in the same room...

  8. BebopWeBop Silver badge

    Excellent. Real people skills

  9. Dabooka Silver badge

    Tulip Computers

    There's a blast from the past.

    I think they sponsored one of the first Premiership team in the early '90s, QPR maybe? In fact it wouldn't surprise me that we had Tulip and Commodore as logos on the same pitch back then.

    Halcyon days...

    1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds Silver badge

      Re: Tulip Computers

      Crystal Palace - you got me wondering so i googled. Also a cycling team.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. Dave Pickles

      Re: Tulip Computers

      Tulip, ah yes, little pizza-box computers.

      I had a 16MHz 386sx on my desk which got upgraded to 25MHz. I had to ask for the old one back; with the slower machine I could read a text file or directory listing as it scrolled up the screen, the new one was too fast even with ctrl-Q to freeze the display.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Tulip Computers

        never heard of "blah blah | more" ?

        1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

          Re: Tulip Computers

          DIR /P but perhaps that switch didn't exist then.

  10. jake Silver badge

    Free hint for all consultants:

    ALWAYS ask the secretary about the Boss's computer knowledge. You can save a lot of time and trouble for a lot of people over the long haul.

    I know of several CEO-types of Fortune-500s who make a big show of "checking the computer", even though their network cable was "accidentally" never installed.

    I can't count the number of times I've swapped the Boss's top of the line CPU, gathering dust and spiderwebs under his credenza/return, artfully changing screensavers every couple minutes, for his secretary's underpowered kit ... without the Boss noticing.

    After one consulting job, I didn't give a Sr. VP of a Fortune 150 the password to his brand new, triple-headed, US$7,500 desktop PC. This was back in 2007. He never even tried to log into it for the four years that it sat on his credenza, artfully cycling through screensavers. How do I know? Because I'm the only person who ever had the password. He never asked me for it, and his secretary refused when I offered it to her ... Over that four years, about once a quarter he called me up to take a look at it under warranty because "it did something funny". When I checked the logs, the last person to login was myself ... three months earlier. So I closed it down, opened it up, vacuumed it out, buttoned it back up, turned it on, cleared the logs and proclaimed it "fixed", The Boss thanked me every time. The secretary & IT staff also thanked me every time I came out, for keeping him out of their hair. I almost wish that I allowed them to renew the contract after the four years ...

    1. ColinPa

      Re: Free hint for all consultants: Dont give out the password

      Reminds me of a "rush job" one Friday lunch time. "We need this software installed on the mainframe by Monday". We had to send a courier to get the tapes, etc. I spent the weekend working on it and had it working by Monday.

      I sent the email to the requesting team saying I had installed it over the weekend etc.

      I had a gushing email back saying "great thank you". I wandered round a week later (when their manager happened to be there) and said "let me know when you want the userid and password to logon". They admitted they had fixed their problem after lunch, and didn't need the rush job after all - sorry. Still, I got paid for it.

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

        Re: Free hint for all consultants: Dont give out the password

        It was probably the best lesson I ever learned at university.

        Always (and I mean always) befriend and get on the right side of the secretaries, storesmen and technicians.

        Over my career I've worked in several institutions (and not all of them mental ones), and that trick has worked wonders in actually getting things done. The professors and lecturers may think they're important, but it's the holy trio above who actually do run the places and can grease all sorts of wheels if treated right (or throw up all sorts of roadblocks if not).

        1. Mark 85 Silver badge

          Re: Free hint for all consultants: Dont give out the password

          Always (and I mean always) befriend and get on the right side of the secretaries, storesmen and technicians.

          Exactly. The place I worked for 20 years worked the same way. My bosses over the years (some were fired, some moved up higher in the company) would seldom talk to manglement at raise time. Yes, they sent manglement a review form and then ignored it. The real reviewers were the workers (we were a call center). Keep them happy and raises were assured.

        2. Giles C Silver badge

          Re: Free hint for all consultants: Dont give out the password

          Due to often doing out of hours work, receptionists, security guards and maintenance staff are the people to make friends with.

          Treat them well, and when you need to a favour or help it won’t be a problem. I have worked with some engineers who did the opposite and it won’t help you with a locked door at 2AM that you need a certain key to get through....

    2. anothercynic Silver badge

      Re: Free hint for all consultants:

      There's an XKCD comic about perceived company management structure vs real company management structure. Granted, in theirs the *cleaner* rules the company, but the same can be said for secretaries/executive assistants. Upset one of them and your life can be made a living hell. Keep them sweet and your life will be a lot easier.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Free hint for all consultants:

      And this is why I always buy second-hand "business" ultraportables that were the mutt's nuts of their day. Because they've been sitting in the CEO's desk drawer for three years.

  11. OGShakes

    Did this a few times my self!

    I worked for a small repair company that would 'service' peoples computers and regularly did a number of tweaks like that when an otherwise clean PC came in for a look. On one occasion we had someone bring back a machine that had been riddled with nasty malware before its first visit, saying they did not see any improvement, so the second visit consisted of these tweaks and another quick sweep to be sure something had not got back on. After that they sung our praises and recommended us to several other people.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There was a company based in this area that offered pc repairs.

    I was shown a pc "written off" by them "too many faults to fix" .... it worked ok but appanently had a hard drive fault.

    Didn't work when it came back because of a couple of large cut/scratch marks accross the motherboard.

    Hummm...... they arn't trading any more.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Screen trick

    Back in the late 90s I was running a small support desk for a rapidly expanding organisation. Salespeople were given not very powerful, but adequate, laptops. One member of the team would never visit customers so her laptop was permanently plugged in to the monitor, keyboard etc. She constantly complained about it's poor performance; we did all we could but had no remit or reason to replace said laptop.

    Coincidentallly, we were replacing CRT monitors with 15" flat screens. One evening, while she was at home, I replaced her monitor - cue the gushing emails of gratitude for the upgrade! This new "computer" was so much faster!

    Perception is everything - at least she was grateful for what she perceived to be the improvements. I did wonder if she cottoned on later but was then to embarassed to resume the complaints.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Screen trick

      Too many users think the screen is the computer and box is just the hard drive. I had to learn that very quickly just to talk to them about issues.

      1. Dog11

        Re: Screen trick

        Ah yes. I once had an obnoxious regular (HR mgr for a client) who instructed for a particular computer 'leave the hard drive on my desk'. So I maliciously did just that. She was even more pissed off, but the business manager thought it was funny. OTOH, I didn't work there much longer.

        1. Aussie Doc Bronze badge

          Re: Screen trick

          Not just for that prank, I hope. Would be more appropriate ---->

  14. This post has been deleted by its author

  15. JeffB

    Screen upgrades

    One of our tutors is infamous for having huge stack of paperwork bot on and surrounding her desk, one day she called the helldesk to say that her monitor wouldn't work and that she had checked all of the cabling. I knew she only had a 15" monitor and as a CAD tutor she would appreciate a larger screen, so I took a 17" one along with me.

    I got to her desk and eventually found the root cause of the problem, the power was turned off at the socket, but said socket was hidden by all of her paperwork... As I'd taken a 17" monitor along with me I swapped it in anyway, but it would no longer fit into the recess between all of her stack of paperwork. When she came back into the staffroom she said 'Thanks for the monitor, I can tell it's a bigger one, because it doesn't fit into my slot any more...'

    1. SuperGeek

      Re: Screen upgrades

      "I can tell it's a bigger one, because it doesn't fit into my slot any more...' Haha, that's what she said!

      1. JeffB

        Re: Screen upgrades

        Yep, the rest of the staffroom were in uproar, but she was like 'What have I said??'

  16. bofh1961

    A shining example to us all

    I take my hat off to you Sir.

  17. C R Mudgeon

    "One of the hardest tasks in IT is giving a user what they need, while also persuading them it's what they want."

    Because humans. Compared to those, computers are straightforward.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "Compared to those, computers are straightforward."

      Clearly you have never met the misbehaving computer that works perfectly when the expensive to call out nasty man with the screw driver and hammer turns up.

      1. C R Mudgeon

        I've met at least my share of such machines -- despite which, my opinion stands...

      2. iainr

        met that one, also met the sun workstation that suddenly started working when I threatened to throw it out the second floor office window if it didn't boot.....buggers are listening all the time.

        1. Coastal cutie

          Works on printers too

          In those far off days when we went into offices, a colleague regularly had to threaten our temperamental printer with ejection from a 6th floor window to get it to work properly

  18. tweell

    Sound also works

    I've had to move PC's around for productivity reasons and found that sound can make an impression. You have to know your users, because perceptions differ.

    To move a PC from sales to a struggling CAD engineer, I tweaked the fan settings on the sales PC to always run at high speed. This made the sales manager unhappy with his PC and open to changing it out. I had a bit of a budget, and bought a used sound card and speakers. After cleaning the speakers and installing the sound card in the 486SX-25 trying and failing to be a CAD PC, I swapped devices.

    The sales manager was happy. He had a quiet PC that could play music! The engineer was happy. He had a 486DX2-66 that could actually run AutoCAD! I suggested that I change the fan settings back to normal, but my engineer asked me to leave them alone. The scream of fans suggested to all that he was hard at work, and his boss was impressed.

    1. Giles C Silver badge

      Re: Sound also works

      I was on an inadvertent case of the opposite. Doing cad work on a 486dx2, which developed a fault, the manufacturer came out and swapped the motherboard for a 486sx which didn’t have a maths coprocessor,

      Autocad refuses to start, we had to get the engineer back to put the correct board back in so I could do my job.

      I have never been fussed about the latest and greatest kit as in my current network engineer role laptops don’t tend to last long, they get propped up at the back of cabinets or have usb console lines yanked out of them. As long as it runs and has a reasonable display I don’t care what spec the thing is.

  19. lybad

    Other counters

    When I was an undergrad in the late 80's/early 90s, I had a lecturer who was a director of the company that made the First Word (and Plus) wor processor for Gem. He told us that there were random counters in the code that were designed to slow the application down, and they just reduced the count on subsequent releases to improve performance.

    1. G.Y.

      360/40 Re: Other counters

      The 360/40 had no-ops in the microcode, to slow it down &not dislocate IBM's price/performance curve

  20. I Am Spartacus

    Fudging the CPU upgrade

    I do recall working on mainframes in the mid 80's. We did a memory and processor upgrade to one of the Sperry Univac 1100's. Before we had field service put the new cards, actually I think it was whole racks) in, we wrote a job that would sit there and do nothing useful except gobble up all the memory and the new processor. When the new system was turned on, we told everyone to expect a performance boots, and so it was perceived for a couple of weeks.

    Then, of course, people started to notice it was actually just as slow as before and issued complaints. So we tweaked the system to get more power, meaning we just started to ratchet down the amount of resources our cpu hog was taking. Happy users.

    We kept this game going until well after bonus day, with praise coming in that whenever some user notices poor performance the system engineering team could magically get it fixed!

  21. Daedalus Silver badge

    Amortization Hell

    A long long time ago, the rather poorly funded project I worked on, at a company now much reduced after the abandonment of film photography, was "gifted" a set of unwanted Big Blue machines of the x86 variety. The catch was, we had to assume their amortization costs. Standard amortization for all hardware was 10 or 15 years at the time, so we found ourselves looking at: 286 machines carrying 10K smackeroos (no thanks), 386 machines at more recent (and therefore reasonable) prices, and one screamer of a 486, almost fresh out of the box, at around 12K.

    We also had many "interdisciplinary" meetings with personnel from other projects, which tended to go "Them: We heard you had money, Us: Oh, we heard YOU had money". And so on. Then there was the smooth operator from Boston MA who relieved us of a million or so we thought was coming to us. Looking back, he was just playing the game. But, I suppose it was all part of the foreshadowing of eventual doom for the company.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Here I was expecting that Alessandro swapped the 386 and 486 labels.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Remember when some PCs had 2-digit 7 segment LED displays to show the clock speed? I'm sure most of us, at some point, spotted all the jumpers and had some fun changing them for unsuspecting users or colleagues.

      1. C R Mudgeon

        I liked to make invalid (in English) but funky-looking combinations. The only one I remember had just the three horizontal segments lit.

        1. Down not across Silver badge

          On few occasions I converted (not that much additional chippery needed reading and decoding port 0x80 on ISA bus) them to show POST codes.

      2. Rich 11 Silver badge

        Or just press the Turbo button.

        (Edit: Damn! Beaten to it.)

  23. SuperGeek

    All Hail.....

    The mighty TURBO button!! That actually turned it from turbocharged to naturally aspirated, making it slower!

    1. Giles C Silver badge

      Re: All Hail.....

      I’m convinced that they didn’t actually do anything apart from turn a light on.

      Why did people want a switch to make the machine slower...

      1. TSM

        Re: All Hail.....

        For games.

        Depending on how the game was programmed, it might run properly in Turbo mode (if it used timer interrupts) or it might run in "everything happens blazingly fast and you have no time to react before you get killed" mode (if it used CPU timing loops). The Turbo button allowed you to play the latter sort of games by reducing the clock to the speed the game was designed for.

        Obviously, using CPU timing loops fell out of favour as higher speed CPUs proliferated, but for a while there the Turbo button really did have a useful purpose.

        1. Dave 126 Silver badge

          Re: All Hail.....

          Thank you for the explanation - I must have been playing the later type of games, because I could never determine the purpose of the Turbo button through trial and error. It might have been the likes of Jill of the Jungle on the 286 and NASCAR on the 386 - it was so long ago, I can't remember which machines had the Turbo button.

      2. Donn Bly

        Re: All Hail.....

        Because some applications were timing dependent on the 4.77 Mhz and literally ran too fast to function properly on the faster machines, especially a lot of early games.

        1. Wellyboot Silver badge

          Re: All Hail.....

          The original Elite game was like that, written with software loops for the XT, I tried it once on an AT286-12Mhz and it was only just playable, approaching the space stations on manual was diabolical and combat mainly consisted of 1-2 seconds of watching your basic ship being torn apart.

          Just realized all of that was 30+ years ago and now I need a -->

  24. RobLang

    I've heard of a similar ruse...

    With swapping stickers before the PCs were setup on desks.

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