back to article Computer sprinkled with exotic chemicals produced super-problems, not super-powers

The Register knows that tech support people are heroes. That's why each Friday we offer a new installment of On Call, our weekly reader-contributed column featuring your stories of dutifully and selflessly taking on the endless and thankless challenge that is tech support. This week, meet a reader we'll Regomize as "Adam," who …

  1. Korev Silver badge

    The JANET Point of Presence for the east of England used to be protected by a shed as the computer room was built beneath a roof garden!

    1. John Riddoch

      Mentioning JANET reminds me of my days working as IT support at a university. I did support for one department's IT (as it was computing, we had some extra requirements), so wasn't hit directly by the fallout, but the science department had a very large microscope which has some kind of water cooling. Which leaked. Right above the computer room for the rest of the university. This being the 90s, disaster recovery and resilience didn't really figure highly in people's minds nearly as much as "how cheaply can we build this, given we have a uni budget".

      Most of the IT for the rest of the uni was out for about a week, really glad I didn't have to do anything with the recovery to be honest...

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        "Most of the IT for the rest of the uni was out for about a week, really glad I didn't have to do anything with the recovery to be honest..."

        If I were a student, I would trust nobody with my data 100%. I'd have my own backups as the price of Uni these days is so expensive, I'd hate to have to repeat a class or semester because "the computer ate my homework". Even if the teacher was well aware of the issue, it's not going to excuse work not getting handed in. For a dissertation, I'd also suggest going all the way to paper copies. I had an accounting computer melt down once and it was a huge chore to input everything that had been done since the last backup from paper reports/copies, it could be done. It made me rethink my backup strategy too. I still keep paper copies of session reports, invoices and so forth. Knock on wood I've haven't needed them, but if the tax man comes calling for an audit of things 5 years past, I'll dig out the box(es) and provide them with copies. Never given them electronic files. If they want it, they have to work for it.

    2. spacecadet66 Bronze badge

      Best part? "The Arup building dates from about 1970 and won an award, so you can understand that it is rather peculiar". Story entirely checks out. I don't know what 1960s and 70s architects were smoking, but I'll take some, that's some powerful stuff.

      1. VicMortimer Silver badge

        Makes perfect sense. Architects are some of the most useless people on the planet if you want a usable building.

        1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

          To the Tune Of A Song By Madness

          It's been raining in my server room

          The roofs leaking much too far

          I bought a bucket in to fill

          From the facilities guy from Brazil

          The roof was old in '89

          This facility is past it's prime

          Then there was the time GSK Dartford IT Build Room was moved into a tin roofed extension at the end of building 225 that they moved us into.

        2. DanceMan


          Architect designs theatre, visual masterpiece. Stage crew arrives. "Where''s the loading dock?"

          Architect -- "Loading dock?"

          Story is made up but close to thr truth.

          1. Noram

            Re: Architects

            A friend worked in a uni.

            His opinion of the "wonderful new buildings" would probably put the reg at odds with the obscene publications act.

            IIRC it won an award or something for design, but basically none of the special features ever worked properly (many were custom parts so once something died it couldn't be repaired or replaced), and it was actually worse than the "outdated" building it replaced that didn't look pretty and wasn't "green"*, and had actually been designed by people who talked to the departments who were going to be using it, and listened to them!

            IIRC one of the features was that it was meant to regulate it's own temperature automatically with minimal energy input, but the system never quite worked.

            1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

              Re: Architects

              I've been working with computers since you plugged them into a domestic television and tape player but... when, let's say in 2010 very roughly, I started in a new workplace, a 1960s building that had a staff restaurant with a -conveyor belt- to carry your dinner tray through to the kitchen for washing up, I felt that I finally was living in The Future. It even turned a corner.

              Unfortunately the restaurant doesn't have the conveyor belt any more - and it was tending to break down.

              There also are wonderful Machines to store paper files, and to transport documents and medium-sized parcels between floors. These are to be used only by trained personnel.

              The elevators for humans are more-or-less "you should know how these work".

          2. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: Architects

            hehehehe. As a roadie in years past, I can relate fully to that! Old theaters were production nightmares. Not enough power, no load bearing points in the ceiling capable enough to winch up the sound system or lighting truss, etc. A concert hall that's primarily a concert hall can be much better, but getting a semi to the downtown venue is a chore and, yep, no loading dock so everything is going up and down ramps. It's at least better than a hotel where the stage is miles away from parking and everything has to be rolled to and from without injuring people staying at the hotel that always want to get in the way. I remember one where it took two hours each way to move the sound gear. That was the last one of those I'd ever work as pay is usually flat rate so an extra 4 hours of work just eats into an already poor hourly.

          3. Scott 26

            Re: Architects

            "loading dock"

            had a similar thing with a new PURPOSE BUILT Salvationary Army Family Store my wife was earmarked to manage - "oh the boys on the donations collection truck can just lift sofas and beds etc down from the truck".... she walked away at that point if that was their attitude to staff

          4. Shalghar Bronze badge

            Re: Architects

            Funnily enough, though i do not know wether an architect is involved in this, there is something called "Schlosstheater Celle", a theatre for performing actors located in some old castle like building.

            As bureocridiocy goes, there are strict rules in germany concerning so called "Denkmalschutz", some kind of regulations to "protect" old buildings from looking too new or getting "improperly" maintained and/or repurposed or renovated. While the intent may be somewhat culturally appropriate, this leads to things like prohibition for "wrong" looking windows to replace the old and crumbling ones.

            In case of the aforementioned "Schlosstheater" the issue is within the buildings structure, with the cafeteria and toilets in the basement (no plumbing through or on the old walls allowed) and the stage somewhat in the middle as well as narrow access routes and really old stone stairs that effectively prohibit or severely limit the transport of any stage material.

            So they installed a lifting table on the outside in the late 1990ies since strangely the access to the stage is blessed with much wider staircases and general accessibility from the attic to the stage. Height difference from loading area to the fake window that doubles as a loading door is around 18 meters. The old lifting table was scrapped, as it had a guidance rail attached to the building, which not only corroded over time but also collided with the new rules and regulations from the messy murky and ever mutating depths of the "Denkmalschutz".

            The new scissor lifting table is a work of hampered art and compromise. Four scissors on to of each other, able to lift up to 1,5 tons but prohibited to operate on windspeeds above 6 km/h, extending guard rails, lifting up to truck level, lowering the guard rail on one side (the only side where a truck can somewhat fit), extend the guard rail, lift up, extend a guidance pole towards the building, shove the whole platform and load towards the building as long as the guidance hole and the pole are aligned. The error handling and movement calculation is quite demanding in the upper region as the swaying and moving of the platform in four directions (plus a bit of movement due to the hydraulics and the scissors) must be controlled precisely enough to avoid a collision with the building, yet fast enough that all the actors stuff can be transported down to stage. Once securely in the end position and slightly toughing the contact point oin the building, the appropriate guard rail is lowered and the security door can be opened.

            All this adventure keeps happening several times per performance, which means up to 40 times a day. The long dead original architects cant be blamed and the current ones - if involved - have to abide by the silly restrictions made up from reality averse paper vomiters. Looking at real failed from start projects like the subterranean death trap/pseudo railway station "Stuttgart 21" it seems that its not primarily the architects to blame but some kind of graftitechs.

            1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

              Re: Architects

              some kind of regulations to "protect" old buildings from looking too new

              In the UK (or at least England) the rules are "if you add something to a listed building, it has to be easily distinguishable from the old". So you end up with an old brick listed building with a steel and glass-clad extension.

              I can understand the reasons [1] but it sometimes does give someone bizarre looking buildings. On the other hand, if you are replacing/repairing existing stuff, it has to be the same as the old stuff (for good reasons - a lime-wash plaster wall, if replastered with modern cement plaster, will cause huge damp problems since the old lime plaster is permeable and the new stuff isn't so it doesn't 'breathe'.).

              [1] The history of the building should be clear and also to stop unscrupulous people trying to pass off a modern extension as part of the original building..

          5. Potty Professor

            Re: Architects

            The school I attended was built in the early 60s. The stage in the main auditorium had no wings, so putting on any kind of production involved maneuvering the scenery flats and props through a narrow doorway and out into the adjacent gymnasium. When we put on The Gondoliers, it was necessary for a full sized gondola to appear from one side of the stage, disembark several actors, and then disappear off to the other side of the stage. This was achieved by building the gondola in three sections, a main chassis on which the actors stood, and two trucks which ran on rails on the chassis and which carried removable flats representing the bow and stern of the gondola. This was repeated in the opposite direction when the actors had to exit stage right. Many hours were spent designing and building the gondola in the Woodwork department.

            Unfortunately, the whole school was demolished shortly after I left in 1968 as it was discovered that all of the exterior cladding, the ceilings, and most of the insulation were asbestos. I can remember sitting in the Lower Sixth Common Room participating in competitions to see who could make a dart stick into the lagging of the overhead pipework. I am surprised that I and many others in my year did not succumb to asbestosis.

          6. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

            Re: Architects

            Story is made up but close to thr truth

            And demonstrates an utter failure by the *client* in providing a spec for the required features..

            (Old friend was an architect. According to him, 80% of the design process was actually talking the clients through what they already had (for a redesign) or what was legally/functionally required for the building to function. As with IT, architecture clients often don't have a clue and automagically assume that the architect will know what they want/need. Been there, done that - early on, built a system and was told "that's not what we wanted!" despite that it matched the spec that they gave me. I'm a lot more painstaking now about going through what they *actually* need/want)

        3. spacecadet66 Bronze badge

          I live close to a Frank Gehry building. It may look like a heap of random crap, but at least the roof started leaking almost immediately.

          1. MachDiamond Silver badge

            "I live close to a Frank Gehry building. It may look like a heap of random crap, but at least the roof started leaking almost immediately"

            Frank's designs are often "unique". The problem is that the builder that wins the contract isn't up to the challenge of making it real so yes, the roof isn't joined up properly and will always leak. Once they've paid Frank for the design, there isn't the money to hire a good builder.

        4. Bebu Silver badge

          Grand Designs

          Architects are some of the most useless people on the planet if you want a usable building.

          Universities seem to employ some the very special members of this calling.

          When you inspect any facility intended for wet science they vary between impractical and totally unusable.

          Practical, fit for purpose buildings tend to be ugly as sin and only a civil engineer could love. Running services down the outside of a building ain't pretty but a whole lot more sensible than running them in walls etc. Running stormwater pipes through the middle of a multistorey building is pretty clever - lost four large alpha servers to that inspired gem of design.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Grand Designs

            "Running stormwater pipes through the middle of a multistorey building is pretty clever"

            I spent time in an open plan office that had that "water feature". When it rained it was like working in the toilets with a never-ending flush. It didn't leak, at least while I was there, but not the brightest of ideas for a building in the North West of the UK where rain is a given.

          2. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: Grand Designs

            " Running services down the outside of a building ain't pretty but a whole lot more sensible than running them in walls etc."

            On some older buildings, they didn't try to camouflage those pipes and took the opposite approach and made them visual elements. Modern tech devices nearly always have hidden screws and one time internal clips that annoy the F out of me. When I design something, I don't do that. I will try to either make the fasteners unobtrusive (back or bottom) or I'll make them part of the aesthetics. It's not just for repairability by the end user, but by me as well if something doesn't pass QC. I don't want to create a pile of expensive scrap to open something up to make a repair and external casing can often be rather expensive.

          3. TheWeetabix Bronze badge

            Re: Grand Designs

            Locally, we had a library that wasn’t actually rated for it to be filled with (tons of) books. It had been specced out to be mostly empty, like an office.

        5. jake Silver badge

          "Architects are some of the most useless people on the planet if you want a usable building."

          I had a friend, now sadly passed away, who was an architect. He drew houses for a living. Not just any houses, but houses that were, and are, a joy to live in. I realize this is peculiar, but he had an excuse.

          You see, he grew up in an original Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built abomination. He wanted to make sure nobody else had to grow up in such a cold, uncomfortable, useless excuse for a shelter ever again. His words, not mine.

          I'm happy to report that I can see his work every time I stroll through this rebuilt Californian Victorian farmhouse ... RIP, Jim. Cheers, and thank you.

        6. MachDiamond Silver badge

          "Architects are some of the most useless people on the planet if you want a usable building."

          That really depends on who you engage and what you give the architect as a brief. In my area, the new homes are very generic. The requirement is that they are as big as what's allowed on the parcel (small) and need to be as cubical as possible since the workers don't speak, read or write English and may have not made it past primary school. Something that's just a collection of boxes is dead simple. Paint the whole thing beige and flog it off for as much as they can get for it. Up the hill where there are some really nice homes, architects were able to design something that looks much nicer and the builders were more craftsmen than guy-with-hammer. Of course, you get the far end of the scale where it's all form and little function. We call those "public" buildings.

        7. TheWeetabix Bronze badge


          A building that was being built in a nearby city violated a zoning ordinance for casting shadows across a river, and the architects response was “well, move the river!”

      2. David 132 Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        An opportunity for a Pratchett quote:

        “It was still so new that the modern flat-roofed buildings, winners of several awards from the Guild of Architects, hadn’t even begun to let in water and shed window-panes in a breeze.”

        1. spacecadet66 Bronze badge

          I thought the latter bit about flying windowpanes might have been a reference to the John Hancock Tower in Boston, for which I. M. Pei is to blame, so I looked it up (, and I was right that the Hancock did shed windowpanes, but that's actually not the most alarming thing about the design:

          > The building is widely known for its prominent structural flaws, including an analysis that the entire building could overturn under certain wind loads

          Modern architecture is a scam.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            "Modern architecture is a scam."

            Yes. And no. The structural engineers and actual designers and planners who have to build from what the architect drew with his/her crayons have a responsibility to point out flaws, especially when structural integrity might be involved. Likewise the local officials responsible for signing off on building safety etc. But Architects can be demanding, as can politicians and/or "suits" who have their minds set on the exact realisation of the architects original concept. And maybe the construction companies, contractors and sub-contractors cutting corners on materials and fastenings, using cheaper than specced parts and materials.

            On the other hand, you can do a lot with an "off the peg" building by just spending extra to put pretty decorative features on the outside if you want to be different, while keeping the internal functionality of the building intact.

          2. Ignazio

            "Flipping houses" just got a new meaning.

        2. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

          Shedding Window-panes ... from a Skyscraper

          A mechanical engineering friend told me about a then-new skyscraper in Detroit, Michigan, USA, which shed window-panes from the upper floors when the wind blew just so. The retro-fit solution involved a system of cables and weights to counteract the gust-induced torque on the framework.

        3. Bebu Silver badge

          And not even one of Boris'

          “It was still so new that the modern flat-roofed buildings, winners of several awards from the Guild of Architects, hadn’t even begun to let in water and shed window-panes in a breeze.”

          I don't think this was even one of Bloody Stupid Johnson's masterworks.

          A flat roof is already a bad enough idea but then the buggers put gratuitous penetrations through it which, apart from completely fornicating any pretence of weather proofing, converts the whole sorry affair into a fair approximation of a decent sieve.

      3. PB90210 Bronze badge

        Arup... famously engineering designers of London's Millennium Bridge...

        aka The Wobbly Bridge

        1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

          It was fine until people walked on it...

          ...and it was more or less a new problem: not that people made the bridge sway sideways, but that the bridge made people sway sideways. Which made the bridge sway sideways.

          And mostly when it was full.

  2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    The upcoming court case ?

    Why ? The hospital goofed, the machine died. Did they think that they would sue to get a new one for free ?

    I doubt they could blame the contractor in any way. The glass doors were added for silence, so hospital management knew where it was going. If they knew that, they should have also been aware that there were drains with various liquids coming down there. The contractor hardly could.

    I think this is all the hospital's fault. They didn't give all the specifics, or they moved the chemistry lab after the computer was installed, or they just didn't think the problem through.

    I don't see how it could be the contractor's fault.

    1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge

      Re: The upcoming court case ?

      Where did you get the notion that it was the contractor being sued?

      It may well be the plumber who installed that drain. Or a chemist disposing of hazardous waste incorrectly (more likely to be a disciplinary than court, but...)

      1. hedgie Bronze badge

        Re: The upcoming court case ?

        As someone who spent years doing traditional darkroom photography, I read a lot of chemical safety sheets and part of the education involved what can and cannot safely go down drains. The bits that could be done at home meant that I had several plastic jugs full of used chemistry that I'd have to haul down to either the college or the local community darkroom when filled, and yes, they contained various metals. Silver salts were the most common, naturally, but also those used in gold toners, selenium toners and the like. Stop bath is just an acetic acid solution, so that could go down the drain, same with the weak potassium ferrjicyanide used for touch-up work (not enough silver got bleached out for the solution to be a problem) as well. So just the fixer bottle would have silver, then another bottle for gold toners, another for selenium, another for Rodinal, another for Pyro.

        I wonder which ones would leave pretty results on a hot circuit board, but that's not exactly something I'd necessarily want to experiment with.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The upcoming court case ?

          Maybe something to suggest to a chemistry-oriented Youtube channels*?

          I'm sure they'd be happy to oblige!

          * styropyro, NileBlue, ...

          1. hedgie Bronze badge

            Re: The upcoming court case ?

            That is one thing that I always loved about traditional photography. Although I did encounter from time to time snobs who said that it wasn't a "real"[1] art, they've clearly never spent time in a darkroom where it isn't just art, but mad science. And the mad science has included making terrible mistakes and some interesting discoveries when trying to "fix" them. In one case, the "fix" didn't work remotely as intended, but produced a result that was brilliant in its own right so was a technique that I'd be willing to reproduce.[2]

            [1] Nevermind that I had a collection of very fine paint brushes, the sort TT game lovers use to paint minis for very fine selective bleaching/toning/tinting. My best prints involved quite a bit of "painting" with chemicals.

            [2] Digression for the photo buffs. I had an assignment due that night, woke up after a long night at a bar, and really should have tried waking up and at least hydrating before I even tried working on it. I mistakenly poured fixer into an undeveloped film canister, immediately realised my mistake, dumped it and even with over-development, the film was almost a loss. There was just enough density in parts that I could use a chromium intensifier to get some high contrast prints with tons of "artistic" grain.

        2. jake Silver badge

          Re: The upcoming court case ?

          "I wonder which ones would leave pretty results on a hot circuit board"

          None of them would be my guess. Unless the circuit board had been dipped in something highly unusual ...

        3. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

          Re: The upcoming court case ?

          As someone who spent years doing traditional darkroom photography

          As someone who has a grade 1 CSE in photography (for the yoofs or unfortunate foreigners who were never exposed to 1970/80's British schools, CSEs were the lower level exams for people not clever enough to do O levels). As it happens, my school only did a CSE in Photography.. We were mostly out during the lessons with our East German Praktica cameras - built (seemingly) to survive nuclear war. With Zeiss lenses.. But nothing effete like built-in light meters so we carried one of those too.

          Then, when we'd got our 24 photos we'd go back to the darkroom, develop the film (and wind new canisters - towards the end of term we'd do 12-shot film canisters because we were running out of film stock) and then make the positives from the negatives that the teacher thought were good. It was black and white film only, partly because that's the only film the school would by, partly because the school wouldn't pay for the extra stuff needed to do colour film and partly because the school didn't trust that any of us could grasp the complexities of colour film (see CSE explanation above)

          If we got caught pouring *anything* down the darkroom sink we'd get a severe telling off. Largely because the pipes were iron and the teachers were worried about them getting corroded - so all the used chemicals had to be taken to the science block to be disposed of by the chemistry lab techs.

    2. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: The upcoming court case ?

      I thought the same , then considered perhaps our hero was asking the computer vendor's visiting Support Team for the souvenir , and it was them who were saying "Nope we're keeping this chemical rain encrusted board as evidence for when your hospital tries to sue us for downtime claiming the computer we supplied mysteriously broke"

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: The upcoming court case ?

        I was thinking maybe the computer was leased and the lessor was claiming "user damage" while the hospital was expecting a fixed or replacement system "in contract".

    3. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: The upcoming court case ?

      "so hospital management knew where it was going."

      At the point it was shoehorned in they knew where it was going unless the whole building was new and then it would have been poor design review. Many hospitals are old buildings that went up before computers were a thing. A server room could have replaced a records store, but that would mean there was an alternate for the records store before it could be removed and a server room substituted. The space that winds up being allocated is likely the least desirable for much of anything and that's way it's the easiest to clear out and make available without creating a major disruption. A new build might benefit from a dedicated and centrally located server room and IT center rather than relegating it to the basement. Where the servers are located should be a room within a room not only so it doesn't get rained on, but can be temperature controlled much better as well.

  3. Korev Silver badge

    Clean up

    As it was a DEC machine, did they use a VAX hoover to clean up the mess?

    1. wolfetone Silver badge

      Re: Clean up

      That joke sucks.

      1. Korev Silver badge

        Re: Clean up

        At least it was a clean one...

      2. chivo243 Silver badge

        Re: Clean up

        A physicist friend says that nothing can suck(some physics law?)... I guess that means it blows?

        1. Joe W Silver badge

          Re: Clean up

          My usual joke when dropping things is:

          Gravity sucks. Well, actually it doesn't. It pulls

          1. BenDwire Silver badge

            Re: Clean up

            Gravity is a myth. The Earth sucks.

        2. Bebu Silver badge

          Re: Clean up

          A physicist friend says that nothing can suck(some physics law?)... I guess that means it blows?

          Irritating but probably right. Think: can you suck in a vacuum (space)?

          Even at home I imagine most particles of dust are drawn up the vac's tube is by the moving air stream rather than any pressure differential although the Bornouilli effect probably blurs this difference.

          But we all know from experience that most things can still suck even though nothing can suck.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: Clean up

            A vacuum cleaner creates a low pressure zone within it. Outside air under relative higher pressure rushes through the hose to try to fill this low pressure zone. Friction from this moving air is what picks up dust, hair, spilled dry goods, confetti and whathaveyou. The various bits are trapped by a filter of one kind or another, and the (hopefully) now filtered air is pulled back out by the same vacuum pump that created the low pressure zone in the first place. The higher the pressure differential, the heavier a particle of a given size can be. (Ever try to vacuum up BBs? How about lead shot?). The surface area of the object also makes a difference (do you know how to sail?),

            Bernoulli's principle has nothing to do with it, advertising from charlatans notwithstanding.

            One can demonstrate Bernoulli's principle by making a cut halfway through a drinking straw, bend it about 90 degrees at the cut, setting one end of the straw in a liquid (I suggest water for ease of cleanup), and blowing through the other end. The airflow will create a low pressure zone in the straw above the liquid, and suck the liquid up. You might have to move the "wet" end down a little. This should blow an atomized mist of water out at the cut. It's easier to do than describe, try it. This is a handy party trick for five year olds ... I've also used it as a cheep and cheerful airbrush occasionally..

        3. jake Silver badge

          Re: Clean up

          "A physicist friend says that nothing can suck(some physics law?)"

          Nothing is, by definition, a vacuum.

          Yes, I know, explaining the joke is usually contraindicated ...

  4. oknop

    Reminded me of this:

  5. b0llchit Silver badge

    DEC,... VAX,... but not immune.

  6. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

    On call?

    I can't help but think that there's a "Who, me?" story waiting to be told from the floor above.

    1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      Re: On call?

      I can't help but think that there's a "Who, me?" story waiting to be told from the floor above.

      There probably is, but as that floor above was a chemical section and not IT, I doubt we will find it here.

      1. David 132 Silver badge

        Re: On call?

        …although it might pop up as a future Derek Lowe ”Things I won’t work with” column!

  7. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    Reminds me of the time ...

    when I was working as a scientific programmer at the Department of Medical Microbiology, and a PhD student decided to dispose of forms filled out by volunteers in an experiment by dousing them (the paperwork, not the volunteers) with alcohol and burning them in a steel container (dustbin) in the lab, rather than just using the shredder. This would have been OK if it had been done under a fume hood, but wasn't really ideal when carried out right underneath one of the sensors of the fire alarm.

    No computers were harmed in this experiment. Some red faces were observed, however.

    1. Bebu Silver badge

      Re: Reminds me of the time ...OK if it had been done under a fume hood,

      "OK if it had been done under a fume hood,"

      Fires in fume hoods not good either.

      The exhaust fans turn off and you are supposed to pull the hood down to reduce the supply of atmospheric oxygen.

      (From memory. Fires in Chemistry buildings aren't occasions for much levity.)

      I understand that naked flames have mostly been banished from labs - Bunsen has been retired.

      I guess grateful he used ethanol and not (diethyl)ether. As an undergrad I was next to another student setting up a Bunsen burner, tripod and some flasks. Fortunately I asked what he was about to do. He was about to (attempt to) distill some ether. I implored him to consult his supervisor first while I eyed the quickest exit from the building. (Residual peroxides were the least of my concerns.)

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Reminds me of the time ...OK if it had been done under a fume hood,

        "Bunsen has been retired."

        Sad, that. Possibly partially my fault ...

        At Berkeley, I had a 8" cast iron skillet[0] that I used to do bacon, egg & sausage over a bunsen in the chem lab turned computer lab (late 1970s). I even rigged up a wire frame to do toast. Fresh ground Peet's Coffee in the percolator[1], also over a bunsen. Was my way of protesting 6AM labs ... One of the profs put a stop to the still after a small handful of test runs, alas ... I tried to convince him that I was just making cleaning fluid for the monitors, but he didn't buy it.

        [0] Lodge, of course. Yes, I still have it. Why do you ask?

        [1] Yes, it was awful, even with a couple eggshells thrown in to settle the grounds. Drank it anyway. It was a protest, not gourmet dining.

      2. Evil Scot Bronze badge

        Poor Beaker


  8. GlenP Silver badge


    We had a similar incident at a previous employer, although not as serious.

    Having moved buildings the space allocated to be the computer room was actually the former gents' toilet, with all the plumbing removed of course. They also removed a wall which was a bit of a problem since it supported the main water tank* for the offices, but that's a different story!

    What we didn't know about was that the "north light" type roof had a gulley drain that also passed over the computer room, and that maintenance of this drain wasn't being carried out. Inevitably the drain eventually became blocked and overflowed, right above our comms/server cabinet and just missing the AS/400. Fortunately we discovered this before damage was done, and as above large sheets of polythene (not from a morgue, thankfully) were deployed. Disaster was narrowly averted but maintenance of the drain was considerably improved.

    *We wanted the tank moved well away but budgets didn't allow, so we simply told management we would not be responsible for any damage or downtime caused by it leaking or failing.

    1. chivo243 Silver badge

      Re: Drains...

      Oh, so similar, but different. I worked in a place where the new addition to the building had the data cabinet(only switches some with PoE) located in the basement directly under the rainwater drain duct that came from the roof 3 stories up. It reminded me of a buddy's halloween costume, he had binoculars and a toilet seat around his neck, I asked him WTF are you supposed to be... Without missing a beat, he said "I'm a bad accident looking for a place to happen!" Sure enough a few years passed, and a torrential rain hit, and the drainage system was no match. All the switches took it on the chin, and that building was IT dead for a week or so. The facilities manager had to make a few calls to the insurance company that day! In the end, all cables were tested, cabinet replaced and of course the switches.

      I wish I could post pix here, this is the 21century right? The solution to keep the water off the cabinet is so Rube Goldberg...

  9. Tony Gathercole ...

    Or contrawise

    I'm sure that I've posted this before on here but that was likely many years ago.

    When working on a major industrial site in North East England I was introduced to the PDP-11/34 running employee medical records under Digital Standard Mumps (DSM) based in the site medical centre. Physically located above the blood drainage channel in the (decommissioned!) site morgue.

    [1] It was explained to me that when the site was buuld in the 1950/60s, it was too far away from the local hospitals' A&E (Emergency Room) locations and so major accident casualties needed to be immediately treated on site - not everybody made it unfortunately. By the time of my visit in the mid-1980s road improvements meant that hospitals could be reached much more quickly and so the trauma unit on site was closed and the need for a mortuary removed.

    [2] I also understand that at one time the company's site across the river used to have a "KPI" based on the number of deaths/month due to onsite industrial accidents. (I'm sure that wasn't the term for it at the time but it fits with more recent terminology.) Now how do you feel about the efforts of your local 'elf and satefy team?

  10. Caver_Dave Silver badge


    I used to use 'ovens' to test rugged boards, that could swing the board under test between -45C and +85C at high speed, involving a lot of liquid nitrogen and heating elements respectively. (The same computing board could be used in a tank left off overnight in a North Norway winter, or be used in a helicopter in a Gulf State in summer, and often with what was considered to be only one step behind the leading edge desk-top or server processor and without fans!)

    One of the ovens' nitrogen feed would cause a lot of condensation, even though it was, at least superficially, covered in the same thick lagging as the others.

    The solution was to fit a length of gutter under that feed running down to a bucket, from where it evaporated before the bucket ever filled.

    Simple and effective is often right.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Gutter

      Around here, that bucket would undoubtedly attract mosquitos ...

  11. Kubla Cant

    Hybrid organism

    an eldritch spark that fused his consciousness with the computer's newly sentient circuitry

    DEC made wonderful computers, but this sounds like a grim fate. Best case the computer might be an Alpha or a VAX, but the environment sounds more like a PDP/11. Imagine spending the rest of your life running RSTS/E, unable to understand anything but the word "PIP".

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Hybrid organism

      Might not be all that bad ... I have a PDP11 that has been running UNIX (BSD, Ultrix, etc., depending on need/whim) since the year dot.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Customer with machine room including large air duct routed through. Said duct superseded when building renovations carried out, contractor removed sections of the duct on the roof and didn't bother to properly seal it off (duct not removed internally 'cos too much hassle).

    Some months later, following plenty of rain etc. internal duct gets fed up holding lots of water and gives way. 617 squadron "Après moi, le déluge" scenario...

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    worked in a lab for 20 years, the server room was on the 2nd floor and the 3rd floor were mainly labs. One was a wet lab that had a still for making distilled water, which was all good apart from the waste water output from the still went in to the sink and the lab being tight and half assed kind of place didn't plumb the output in to the sinks waste it just went directly in to the sink. Shouldn't have been a major issue until one of the boffins put the plug in to the sink and forgot to take it out! The still happily went about its job of making water overnight the sink filled, overflowed and the water landed up down in the server room!

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      "half assed kind of place didn't plumb the output in to the sinks waste"

      I think the error here was managing to install sinks without an overflow port in the first place

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Sometimes it's better and cheaper to have the chemicals overflow and damage the server room than end up in the public sewer.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          A lesson unlearned in most parts of the UK now...

  14. RosslynDad

    Be Prepared

    In my first proper job I was given the task of looking afer the departmental VAX11/750. Clearly my talents were recognised. First task was to go to stores and get a large plastic sheet (nothing dribbling onto MY computer from the kitchen above) and a pick-axe handle ("To quell civil unrest" - seriously!)

    1. Bebu Silver badge

      Re: Be Prepared

      "Clearly my talents were recognised. First task was to go to stores and get a large plastic sheet (nothing dribbling onto MY computer from the kitchen above) and a pick-axe handle ("To quell civil unrest" - seriously!)"

      Sound like you might have been working for the BOFH?

      If I actually required the pick-axe handle I would have kept the pick-axe attached - if you are going to do something do it properly and the plastic sheeting makes a decent improvised body bag when carpet isn't available.

      On second thoughts I would follow my grandpa's advice from his service in the trenches in France and acquire a sharpened spade.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Be Prepared

        In close quarters work, the handle works far better without the pick. If you have time, forge cast iron caps for each end, and a few bands around each end a couple inches apart ... you don't want it splitting and wearing out prematurely.

  15. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

    Adam should have entered the room and been struck by an eldritch spark that fused his consciousness with the computer's newly sentient circuitry, raised to miraculous life by the drip of chemicals.

    "They did it in Superman 3"


  16. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

    I'm glad the days are gone where we had armies of printers churning out "Dead-tree edition" documents night and day , its like a nightmare from a Gilliam film.

    We probly have even more beurocracy these days , but at least its confined to the hard drives.

    1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

      Literally two months ago I had some discussions with our training department (who I'd done some work for on a customer site, giving a week-long course) about distribution of the course material as the customer had requested copies of it.

      Their solution was to print off the material (mostly slide decks), bind it and deliver it to the customer as hard-copy. In total it would have been somewhere north of 500 pages, and they'd probably either want multiple copies, or the first thing they would do would be unbind the copy and scan it in again.

      The irony was their email telling me this literally had "Don't print this email unless you need to - think of the environment" as a tagline in the signature.

      I raised this point back at them (along with our corporate environmental policy), and finally the penny dropped and the files were distributed via pdf.

    2. GlenP Silver badge

      I'm also glad that computer reference material is available online.

      In my first role in the Civil Service I was the poor sod who had to update all the VAX and PDP-11* manuals every month**. I can't remember just how many manuals there were, 20 or 30 for each IIRC, usually with updates to every one.

      *Which was a waste of time for the latter as it was never turned on but had to be retained and maintained as they'd only managed to push the requisition for the VAX through based on it being compatible, otherwise they'd have been forced to have an ICL machine.

      **The manuals were A5 ring binders and the updates came as polythene wrapped packets of changes and additions,

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        "**The manuals were A5 ring binders and the updates came as polythene wrapped packets of changes and additions,"

        That is common in aerospace to have updates, addons and errata delivered as replacement pages to go in a binder. PDF is very handy, but I'm old enough to still like dead trees on a shelf.

        Nearly everything I design starts on paper and I have two sorts of CAD. Solidworks is one and cardboard the other (cardboard aided design). A bit of cereal box, some tape and glue and I have a physical model to twiddle around in realspace. I also have stuff done on the computer printed out. The old products from my former company never made it into electronic format and some of the later designs were done on applications that don't exist anymore or the format isn't supported, nevermind that files are on a floppy. I can still go back, put out the drawings and redo the products or manually copy/paste elements.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          The nursing home staff will be along shortly to give you your meds, gramps.

          On a more serious note, the way things have always been done in aerospace is clearly no longer working. It was fine for the older stuff, but let's see what's going on at Boeing, shall we? It's an absolute disaster. Quit screwing around with bits of paper, and let's get this stuff fixed, it's literally killing people.

          1. uccsoundman

            But they aren't doing things the old way anymore. If they were, the planes would not be falling out of the sky or explosively disassembling. It doesn't matter if they are using PDF or dead-tree or even hieroglyphics. If they are ignoring the instructions and falsifying the reports (which they are) then who cares how it is documented?

          2. Grinning Bandicoot

            Boeing was lucky in timing but was not so innovative. The present miseries arose after it administrative center moved from its core production area and as a result gave power to the MBA. Good engineering goes against many principles taught in MBA programs. Innovative and good engineering are anathema to the MBA type or the accounting mindset that follows.

          3. jake Silver badge

            Boeing's problem is manglement, not documentation.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          I wish we had paper for some old designs.

          At $dayjob[$cur-1] we supported a product that was designed and built at $dayjob[$cur-2] which has gone bankrupt/been borged into a larger company. Sone of the prints we inherited with the project appear to have gone through the following process:

          1) engineer releases print.

          2) engineer faxes released print to end customer (with doc # stamp on the drawing).

          3) end customer signs their approval and faxes it back.

          4) documentation prints the fax, stamps it with a new doc control # (for the signed version) and files it.

          5) (some time later) in an effort to reduce paper, doc control scans in the signed/stamped doc at about 12 dpi. Paper copies get lost or destroyed. Original CAD file gets lost when company goes under.

          6) years later: AC fumes at the poorly scanned drawing, wishing he had copied the entire product directory to a personal archive back in the day. Becomes a data hoarder.

          1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

            what a shitshow!

        3. jake Silver badge

          "I'm old enough to still like dead trees on a shelf."

          Indeed. Sometimes I'll have eight or ten manuals (more occasionally) open on my desk/table/bench at any given time. It's far, far faster and easier than swapping back and forth between tabs in a browser (or flipping through virtual terminals, or whathaveyou.) Plus, you can scribble in the margins[0] to help the next poor sap who has to undo the mistakes of the clueless ... Remember, that next poor sap might be yourself.

          About a year ago I was called in to help with memory timing issues on a DEC PDP restoration (was an early DEC installed core-to-DRAM conversion), so to refresh my wetware I cracked into the dusty, not opened in probably decades, manuals that came with the kit ... and found the answer immediately. In my own handwriting. I have no idea when I wrote it, but it was before I started dating such scribbling, in 1983 ...

          [0] And/or the "THIS PAGE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK" pages, of course.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Water, water everywhere

    Worked for a fruity based retailer in a large mall, and in the back of the store there were tonnes of servers and lovely cisco routers, etc....

    One day, the mains water pipe that led across the ceiling directly above said IT equipment decided that it's battle with gravity was ust a bit too tiresome, and gave up. Water cascaded straihgt into the top of the racks

    As we were mere sales staff, we weren't allowed to touch it. Just watch in admiration of just how much a rack can take before things that sizzling....

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A few years ago heavy rain caused a major flood alert for the Thames and it caused a lot of flooding in places like Staines (so good for washing off a few stains, I'll get me coat), well upstream of London

    Although the foot of the building was quarter mile from the Thames and slightly uphill, that was not our problem... we had water coming through the roof and threatening lots of shiny new Cisco kit!

    Facilities Management sent out their finest, who arrived with plastic sheeting and 'flood diverters', ie large bins (they were certainly not bins, it said so on the label)

    The reason for the leakage was down to it being the tallest building, so dozens of aerials had been erected over the years and that mean hundreds of plugged holes in the waterproof membrane

  19. I could be a dog really Bronze badge

    Ah, takes me back a bit.

    Did a business continuity course maaany years ago. One of the comments was that computers tended to get stuffed down in the basement "out of the way", and water (including "brown water") flows downhill ...

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      "One of the comments was that computers tended to get stuffed down in the basement "out of the way""

      That's also odd in that information has become a central component to many business (a hospital is a giant data gathering machine) and instead of thinking about where it might be best to put a data center, it's automatically relegated to the dungeon where water, rodents, insects and other hazards can be much more prevalent.

  20. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    A passing note

    Plating tank... laptop

    Laptop -- plating tank

    Shazam. ah hah hah

    Although this does not happen anymore luckily, ever since the boss put up a plywood partion between the last lathe and plating tanks (also adorned with a sign saying "Anyone who drops the laptop in the plating tank will be held under until the bubbles stop" )

  21. Bebu Silver badge

    "good engineering are anathema to the MBA type"

    good engineering are anathema to the MBA type

    Like safety margins or safety factors.

    The MBA (mindlessly bloody arrogant) sees a cost reduction/profit maximization opportunity or a potential efficiency bonus where as the competent engineer just sees open graves.

    Quoting from Wiki with abridgment the word Anathema in this context seem most apt but with:

    "The MBA type is an anathema to good engineering"

    Anathema ... referred to those [things] dedicated to destruction in the Lord's name, such as enemies and their weapons during religious wars. Since weapons of the enemy were considered unholy, the meaning became "anything dedicated to evil" or "a curse."

  22. Giles C Silver badge

    Hmm I have encountered several of these

    The comms cabinet under the toilets on the floor above - yes and it did spring a leak

    The water pipe going through the comms room - yep the kitchenette next door was made smaller to accommodate the cabinet and the waste pipe for the sink went down the side of the new room.

    And the star show the heavy duty partition walls which were found to have a 1000 litre water tank resting on them, the walls can down and the tank was hanging by the pipework just under the rafters of the building, the pipes were quite large, and a quickly located roof jack stopped things crashing down and an emergency call to the local plumbers to isolate the supply and get the thing down.

  23. Luiz Abdala

    Actual Lab.

    My sister finished her college handling actual mice, and testing chemicals on them. (Thankfully no mice were harmed by the story, only the actual testing).

    There were some renovations on the campus, as they expanded to the neighbouring houses. So, they broke off the rear backyard fencing and connected the vintage buildings to the campus. Well, the home's mains could not handle all the lab gear, so they had to expand the 220V setup on all of them.

    Yeah, the local sparky managed to mix the parallel light switches to 2x 110V phases, so with the lights turned off, every socked was converted to 220V. Lights on, 110V.

    All the lab gear without auto-switching power supplies disliked that. They literally blew 10 thousand dollars worth of gear, because fuses that don't melt at the rated 10A are a thing.

    PCs, monitors, modern fridges were all unharmed, because they either run on 220V anyway, or had modern PSUs.

    It took yours truly watching the sparks on sockets as the lights were turned on and off to connect the dots.

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