A Classical Shaggy Dog with Computers

This was created by Phil Stracchino, aka Alaric, The Renaissance Man, and was posted in alt.callahans. All the punmasters fell to their knees when faced with this work, but like Arnold, they will be back (or was that MacArthur who was planning to return?).

“My Monday wasn’t great, either,” Alaric replies. “But take comfort – it could have been a LOT worse. I remember one truly, wretchedly, appallingly awful Monday morning beside which yours pales by comparison.”

He pauses, since his tale is lengthy, to peer disconsolately into his empty tankard.

“Out of cider,” he mutters sadly. “It’s going to be a thirsty tale…. Why, thank you, Long-Drink, don’t mind if I do.”

He wets his throat with the proffered replacement, and gazes toward a far corner of the ceiling.

“A few years before I left England,” he begins, fibbing outrageously, “I was working for a systems integrator named Ealium Computers, which produced some quite high-performance (for the time) systems at very moderate prices. However, the state of the British personal computer industry being at the time well behind the US, we wound up using many American-made components.

“The incident that particularly springs to mind concerns our early problems in obtaining adequate supplies of fast token-ring network interface cards (NIC’s). There were domestic-manufactured 4Mb/s NIC’s, but the 16Mb/s NIC’s had to come from the US, and not only were the offerings from the first-line vendors exorbitantly priced, but the Commerce Department considered the fast NIC’s to be advanced computer technology, and got rather hinky at times about export restrictions.

“This and other problems (including a couple of orders on which supplies of items we were promised by vendors dried up at the last minute, forcing us to substitute higher-cost parts at the original quoted price), actually led to Ealium finding itself in rather difficult straits, when a contract came in that had the potential to save the company on a single order. It was an order for a very large number of identically-configured computers, for a major semiconductor manufacturer that was taking the then-daring plunge of transferring its operations completely from mainframes to PC’s.

“I can’t name the customer, for reasons that will become apparent, but suffice it to say that the company was run at the time by one of the first female Fortune 500 CEO’s, and there was a strict deadline on the contract, since the switchover to PC’s was to be timed to coincide with the release of the company’s 1,000th product. That should be enough information for those of you in the trade to figure out who I’m talking about.

“Anyway, we had to practically hock our socks to get the credit we needed to buy the components to assemble such a large order, but finally we had everything in shipment to us and were ready to start assembling chassis. In all the frenzy of figuring out whether we could meet the order, coming up with a competitive quote, and then finding ways to actually get all the components we needed, one fatal error was made: We realized, almost too late, that the quote had specified 16Mb/s NIC’s, but we had budgeted for 4Mb/s parts.

“This sent us into a panic. We cancelled the order for the Signetics NIC’s we had originally ordered – fortunately, Signetics was scrambling to fill a large order from a US systems integrator at a considerably larger markup, and was only too happy to take them back – and set about finding a source of 16Mb/s NIC’s in a hurry. It wasn’t easy – IBM wouldn’t sell to us, Compaq cards were beyond what we could afford to spend, and no-one else had stock available. Finally, though, we found a defense electronics contractor who was producing NIC’s for the US military, who’d just lost a large contract and was glad to sell us some of their overstock at cost through their civilian-market subsidiary, Peripherals Unlimited – or PU, as we took to calling them for brevity’s sake.

“The NIC’s were already on the ship when the next shoe dropped. Because the boards were written for the US military, the drivers incorporated some fairly primitive packet-encryption code, and while the boards were unexceptional, the Defense Department told the Commerce Department that the drivers couldn’t be exported. So we had nearly twelve thousand NIC’s without drivers.

“Fortunately Troy, the guy who kept *our* computer system in line was a pretty good hacker. He’d written a driver in the past for an ArcNet NIC, and was pretty confident that he could write a driver for the PU token-ring NIC’s. He ran a couple of 4Mb/s NIC drivers through a disassembler and studied them, did some digging around on ArpaNET and managed to get his hands on some pirated code for beta versions of a 16Mb/s driver for a different board, and started delving into it.

“A month before we were due to deliver, Troy still didn’t have a working driver, but he’d figured out that the reason his code wasn’t working was because the PU NIC’s used some unconventional firmware with hooks in it for the encryption code. So it was off to scout the Net for more “warez”, to use his term, trying to find the code he needed to make his driver work with the PU hardware.

“Well, he found what he needed, and his next driver worked — sort of. At 4Mb/s. At 16Mb/s, it locked up the system. Back to the Net for more warez, more late nights, more rush, and as the deadline got closer, he got steadily more strung-out and more irritable.

“Troy was in the habit of taking tension breaks by working on little software toys – software cookies, little things that did weird stuff. He showed me one rather risque little piece he’d put together after a late night of getting nowhere interfacing to the NIC’s; it used under 10k of code and a series of highly compressed images to put an animated dancing girl in the corner of his screen. As she danced, she appeared to slowly drop a towel that she had wrapped around her. (Matter of fact, it was ALL that was wrapped around her.) He was quite proud that the whole thing was a single object module that could be linked into anything. He’d clearly put quite a bit of work into it, and I worried that his little projects would delay the driver – but, as he pointed out, if he didn’t let off steam somehow, he was going to bust.

“Three versions later, ten days before we had to ship, Troy had a driver that worked at 16Mb/s, but not reliably at 4Mb/s. We were getting closer, but so was the deadline. He ran into another major bug, and went off for more warez. The new code he found conflicted with some of his old code, and he had to hack both to get them to work together, but finally, his 17th version seemed stable, and we started duplicating diskettes.

“On the very eve of shipping day, Troy was playing around with the small test network we’d set up, and discovered an obscure, show-stopper bug. He was certain he knew the problem, though – it was a set of debugging asserts that he’d somehow left in place. At breakneck speed he pulled up his driver code, yanked out all the debug asserts, recompiled, relinked the driver, copied it onto the golden-master network diskette, and handed the new network diskette over for duplication.

“In our frantic haste, no-one – including Troy – noticed that the driver was now 219k bytes in size instead of 129k. Hell, all the same digits were there, they were just in a different order. We threw the diskette in the nearest disk duplicator, made nineteen copies for the other machines, and stayed up all night cranking them out and sealing boxes. The next day, we shipped all 11,860 machines, and congratulated ourselves as the heroes of the hour.

Alaric pauses, taking a long swallow that almost completely empties his by now much-depleted tankard, then proceeds to the denouement of his story.

“Everything was fine,” he continues, “until installation time. The customer held a big press conference on Thursday to announce and celebrate the thousandth-product release, then all the employees were sent home for a long weekend except for the MIS staff, who stayed to distribute and configure the new machines. They set them all up, attached network cables, plugged in the installation/configuration diskettes, switched on the power, and walked off to set up the next machine as the PC’s booted automatically into the installer. The installers worked perfectly, and the PC’s all happily booted, connected to the network, and set themselves up unattended from the ten pre-configured installation servers we’d provided, as the MIS staff went on to different departments leaving a growing trail of thousands of PC’s behind them.

“On Monday morning, the company’s employees came in to find a bright, shiny new PC humming on every desk; and there, on 11,860 brightly-glowing screens, twirled the gyrating figure of a naked dancing girl upon whom, in a moment of acute frustration a week earlier, Troy had pasted the face of the customer’s CEO – and, as if matters couldn’t be any worse, he had added black fishnet stockings and a garter belt.”

Alaric pauses for effect.

“The CEO was apoplectic with rage, and of course, Ealium was finished instantly. The corporation refused payment, retained the entire shipment as security against our returning their down-payment, and sued us for breach of contract. We were so bankrupt it wasn’t even funny. Never mind our shirts, we lost our toothbrushes and our back teeth. The CEO, completely humiliated, was forced out of the corporation, which foundered shortly after. She disappeared into obscurity, and we were all lucky to escape jail.

“The moral of the story, of course,” he continues, “is….

“When fighting the PU-NIC warez, beware of geeks baring GIFs, for the Trojan whores brought the downfall of Ealium, and the source of our ruin was the face that launched a thousand chips.”

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