Abracadabra! Harry Potter, ghosts, and magic at the help desk

Skills or sorcery? When you're working tech support, sometimes you need a little of both to get to the bottom of the issue

During my years working at a locally owned PC repair shop and at a company that provided tech support for thousands of computers, I learned the essentials of troubleshooting basic computer problems -- namely, don't be afraid to ask questions. It's your best bet to identify the crucial detail that helps you get to the root of the issue. Even then, finding the solution sometimes comes down to a bit of intuition -- and maybe a touch of magic even a boy wizard might appreciate.

The ghostlike sounds in the machine

One item high on IT's list of Most Irritating Things to Troubleshoot has to be the phantom noises users report that happen "every now and then" but are "really annoying." Nothing quite beats spending an hour with a system and not being able to reproduce the problem.

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I figured that's exactly how I'd be spending my time when a customer brought in a personal computer that was making "strange noises" while in use. When asked to explain the mysterious tones coming from the system, the user narrowed it down to "whoosh," "creaking," and "ghostlike."

I thought that those descriptions made this problem particularly peculiar -- not exactly the normal grinding sound you get from a failing system fan or, heaven forbid, a faulty hard drive.

Once the customer left and I had the system in the back, I ran through the typical process of elimination, first checking the fans and running tests on the hardware. Everything came back fine.

Once in the operating system, I started going through various power settings and running a stress test, but I was still unable to reproduce the noises. Then I noticed something: The mouse pointer had been changed into what appeared to be a wand. I immediately checked the preferences and found a "Harry Potter" desktop theme installed.

At this point I was grinning, relieved to have ended the goose chase much earlier than I had originally feared. I grabbed some speakers, hooked them up to the system, and went to the sound profile on the computer. One by one, I went down the system sounds and confirmed that this theme included WAV files such as "whoosh," "creaking," and even "ghostlike sounds."

After letting the customer know the system was fixed, I waited until they came back in to go into detail as to what I'd discovered. It was much easier to show them what the source of the strange sounds was versus explaining it over the phone. Plus, it was good for another round of laughs.

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