User interrupted: PC plagued by mysterious reboots

A techie gets drawn into a power play of sorts with an intermittent yet persistent computer issue that keeps hitting the help desk

Back in the Pleistocene, when "PC" was not only a new term but also referred to a species of the genus IBM, I worked at a science museum just getting into the business of computerizing its data and operations.

There was no budget, so each department found a willing donor and went off to buy a computer or three of their own. In addition, there was no central IT or support staff, and every department was left to fend for itself.

I worked for one of the departments lucky enough to buy computers and, in the process, added "database developer" to my list of "other duties as described." We did well enough that I wound up developing databases for a couple of other departments and became the unofficial help desk.

Restart rigmarole

One day, an administrative assistant called me in to repair a problem. She was frazzled and upset because her computer kept restarting, usually in the middle of creating a report or some other project, and she lost a lot of work with each event.

She blurted out the barest details, told me to "fix it," and went off for tea and to calm down. Did I mention this was before things like event logs became common?

I went over her machine with the limited diagnostics we had available, and even picked up the unit and shook it, trying to make it crash. No dice.

I crawled underneath the desk and checked that all the plugs were firmly seated in the power strip and on the back of the units. Everything was fine.

Of course, the computer behaved perfectly through the whole process. Sometimes you have the gift, and systems straighten up and fly right as long as your hands are on the keyboard -- which is a curse when you all you want to do is replicate the problem.

I tidied the system, cleaned the screen, and blew dust out of the keyboard. I told the administrative assistant to watch for trouble and call me if the problem happened again.

Hanging on the telephone

The very next morning my phone rang. But when I got to her office, the computer had booted up again and was apparently fine ... until an hour later, when it did it again. I put a thermometer on her desk, behind the system fan, but it wasn't any hotter than the other units in the office.

Running out of ideas, I was standing in her office thinking through other options, when she leaned over to get the phone book and the screen went black. I asked if there was any way her motions might be related to the crashing computer. "Hmm, maybe," she offered. "This morning it crashed right when I picked up the phone."

Back onto the floor I went and asked her to place a call. As she leaned over to the telephone, her toe went in the other direction, right toward the power strip. All the plugs were tight, but the circuit breaker on this strip was one of the round plunger types mounted on the side. She missed the strip this time, but when I pressed on the circuit breaker, it all went down again.

Don't you hate it when the devices intended to protect your gear themselves cause you problems? Pressing the circuit breaker didn't cause it to trip, but it momentarily interrupted the current -- enough to force the computer to restart.

We mounted the strip on the back side of her desk, out of direct reach, and her computer stabilized.

Now it's the 21st century, and computers are much smarter -- even if their operators are not.