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When lapping the computer room in F1 chairs goes bad • The Register


Who, Me? Welcome to an episode of Who, Me? where a race between office chairs results in an unexpected rise rather than lifting a trophy.

Our story takes place in the 1990s and our hero, whom we’ll call “Ben” (because that’s not his name) is one of a group tasked with tending to the needs of a VAX 11/785 hiding in inside a bunker. .

The VAX 11/780 range returned in 1977, and the 11/785 was introduced in 1984. Hot stuff for its time, but now quite old and in need of round-the-clock pampering by teams of sysops. “Its only job,” Ben told us, “is to run a program related to national defense.”

“Many a sysop had burn marks from a saturated core main PSU loading 8″ floppies into a PDP 11 boot computer,” he continued. “So many collapsed. [so many] incantations on the console teletype with most of the letters no longer visible.”

The pay is good, but the work (primarily cleaning tape drives, running backups and performing system integrity checks) is deadly boring. Off-site materials were not allowed in the computer room, meaning the team had to entertain themselves with whatever was in it. “A lot of Minesweeper and Patience were played,” Ben admitted.

And then there are the chairs. Chairs on wheels. So a chair racing league was started. Such things are obligatory, aren’t they?

“Naturally,” said Ben, “the path went through the clean air-conditioned computer room because the hard floor allowed for a high-speed section of the course.”

All is well, and the long shifts spent by the VAX company are broken into high-speed circuits as the technicians try to climb the league ranks.

Until the inevitable happened.

“One night,” Ben said, “in a desperate attempt to make the last lap, one of the sysops tried to do a catapult maneuver using a support pillar in the computer room.”

“The pillar has a unique feature. The room’s emergency stop button.”

Almost immediately there was silence. Everything changed in a five second period. No air-conditioning whir, no fans, nothing. “You can almost hear 11/785 sigh in relief,” Ben said.

“Then the red phones started ringing…”

“And the defcon light pole clicked a level.”

Concerned readers should be reassured that this happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Peace reigns and, Ben tells us, the changing color of the defcon pole means just that one thing occurred and is being investigated.

The stop itself was recorded as an accident, but not as the result of a cunning chair racing maneuver. “Some vague details about leaning to fill out a checklist were entered in the incident log.”

Bosses admonish the sysops with a warning that extra care is needed, before offering praise for getting everyone back online.

A cover was added to the stop button a week later. And the chair racing league? Scrapped – suddenly twiddling one’s thumbs between tape changes doesn’t seem so bad.

There is anyone not Tempted to do some sneaky scooting when presented with a wheelchair? What is the result? A sudden silence or catastrophic crash? Confide all via email to Who, Me? ®



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