The disinformation center

Copyright Dr Alan Solomon, 1986-1995

Those people who sit up at the data centre in front of their terminals
don't know how lucky they are.  Down at the sharp end is where the
information centre works - no nice clean system designs, well laid-out
flowcharts and fully thought-through specifications.  What we have is
Users.  They call us the "Information Centre", but that is a bit
optimistic.  The world of the IBM PC moves so fast, the best we can
hope for is to be about a year behind.  We call ourselves the
Disinformation Centre, because a lot of what we do is the opposite is
informing.

Here we go - a user has just phoned up with the usual user error
message "It doesn't work".  No clue about whether it's hardware,
software, network or what, just "it doesn't work".  So I grab the
diskette box containing the software tools, and the tool roll
containing the magic toolkit, and off I go into the unknown.  Come
with me and see what happens, you can always see what else happens in
the Disinformation Centre later.

I got the user's name and location, the one thing you can rely on him
to know.  First thing before we go, I go into the database and print o
ut what he's got (or at least what he's supposed to have).  When we
get there, we see a very angry User - he's obviously been wrestling
with this problem for ages before he called us.  "What's the problem,
John?" "It doesn't work - I think it's broken", says John, pointing at
the laser printer.  I guess nobody told him that the triangle of dots
means it wants more toner.  But first I use a little subterfuge - lets
see what he's got on his disk.  A quick tour round his subdirectories
reveals an illicit copy of Norton, so I wipe that out;  a User with
Norton is like a bull in a china shop.  But he's watching us like a
hawk, and I don't want him to see me doing it, so I use the standard
trick.  Create a subdirectory below Norton called \Norton\1, go into
it, type DEL ..  to wipe out the subdirectory above, and he'll never
know what I did.

OK, now check out the disk with ATTRIB to see when he last backed up -
ooh nasty, it looks like John is a finger-crosser.  "John, are you OK
for diskettes?  I see you're running out and you're having trouble
doing backups." Tact, always tact.  Any other little problems?  Off
with the back (we only ever leave one screw in place, so it's quick)
and a fast look inside.  Press home all the chips with the thumb -
some of them move quite a lot, and would be giving him PARITY CHECK 2
before too long.  Make sure the boards are still in firmly, blow out
the dust, and back on with the case.  John thinks I'm looking for the
problem, but I'm actually giving him a preventative once-over.

"Computer's OK, must be the printer." Now I pretend to notice the
triangle of dots.  "Ah there it is - that means it wants toner." Teach
him, so he can do it himself next time;  even John can refill a laser
with toner.  I keep a little cache of consumables in every location;
a few boxes of diskettes, ribbons and suchlike.  I pop off and get the
toner - have you never seen computer supplies kept in a cleaning
cupboard before?  Picking the lock was dead easy, and it means I've
always got stuff on hand.  John's quite surprised and pleased with how
fast I get back to him, and in goes the toner.  First give an extra
cartridge to John so he understands that he does the next one himself,
and then as I do it, I do a running commentary, so he can understand
how to do it.  Consult the diagram even though I can do it blindfold,
so John knows there's a diagram he can follow.

"OK, lets try it." It works, smiles all round.  It'll be ages before
John notices that Norton's gone, and that's one user who won't be
screwing up his own hard disk.

Back to the Disinformation Centre, just in time for coffee - drink it
quickly, because it's user-of-the-day time.  Every day, one of us
homes in on some poor unfortunate user, and gives him the treatment.
Today it's Ian - OK Ian, here we come.

Ian's mostly doing spreadsheets, and I've picked up a nice little
Lotus utility for him.  "Let me show you this, Ian." In with the
diskette, gee whiz, isn't that nice.  I pull out the diskette and put
it on the desk.  Then, ever so casually, while explaining what else it
can do, I put my coffee cup down on it.

Ian looks horrified, and I look surprised.  Then I look at what I've
done.  "Oh no!  Oh no!  That was my only copy!  What have I done!  Oh
no, I should have taken a backup - what an idiot I am.  Now I'll have
to go back to the user group and get another copy." Ian consoles me -
it could have been worse.  At least I can get another copy.  "Shows
you the importance of backups, doesn't it", I say, ruefully.  "Are all
the guys round here doing backups properly?  You might have a word
with them."

He will.  He'll tell the story with great relish, how the great
Disinformation Centre doesn't do backups properly, and for a few
months, everyone will take backups, and feel a glow of sanctity as
they do it.  Maybe one day someone will see what we're up to - it
doesn't really matter;  it's a nice little ploy.

Ian shows me a little something he's acquired;  piracy rears it's ugly
head again.  In a big company like ours, it's absurd to pirate
software - the software house is bound to hear about it when someone
phones for support.  So we stamp on it hard whenever we see it.  Ian
really doesn't believe he's done anything wrong, so I sit down and
explain it to him.  I'm not condemning him, I'm educating him.  "It
could land me in a lot of hot water" (make it personal, and make it me
that gets into trouble).  "What should I do?" says Ian.  "I know", I
say, "there's a public domain equivalent to this - I'll get that for
you, and meanwhile you delete that one." A nice compromise - Ian gets
the functional equivalent, and we're clean again.  The user group will
be able to advise on what disk we should use.  We buy all the user
group disks as a matter of course;  a few hundred pounds gets us 300
megabytes of software, and it fixes up all sorts of problems.

Time for lunch.  Or rather, no time for lunch.  Grab a bite at the
cafeteria with me, but don't expect anything special.  Oh look,
there's Freda - she's our WP expert.  She's not part of the Disinfo
Centre, but she knows more about Displaywrite 4 than the lot of us put
together.  And she's helpful, too - when we get a user with a DW4
problem that we can't handle, we ask Freda to call him up.  "Hello,
Freda.  Mind if we join you?"

Freda says she's fed up with the way people keep borrowing her
calculator, and never giving it back.  And she's getting really
interested in what the other people in her department are doing.  "Any
chance of a copy of 123?" she asks, casually.  That's no casual
request - she really wants it.  Freda's a Real Hacker, and wants to
know more about her computer.  But there isn't an earthly that her
boss would approve of spending hundreds of pounds, just so that Freda
can learn more.  I've got an illicit copy of 123;  I stole it from a
user who didn't seem to be using it, but I need it.  When someone
phones up and wants a copy of 123 "Right Now", he doesn't want to hear
about how we aren't allowed to keep stock.  So he gets my copy, and I
keep the one he orders.

So I don't want to give my copy to Freda.  On the other hand, I do
want to encourage her - she's got the right attitude.  "I'll get you
something Freda, that's a promise", and I write it down in my Filofax.
Actually, I have a plan.

Come back to the Disinfo Centre, and come and see what I've been
working on.  The network gives us more hassles than anything else, yet
we don't actually know what it's doing.  There's no way to snoop
around inside the wretched thing, or at least so I thought.  Then I
found out about Network Analysers, and I've got one running here.
Once per day, I take it offline, and copy the data onto diskettes, so
I can analyse it.  I'm still trying to understand what it's telling
me, but at least I've got some information about what's going on it
there.

This heap here is "evaluation" software I've been sent, unsolicited.
I don't even look at it;  there's no point.  Can you imagine the chaos
I'd cause if I tried to get the company to change spreadsheets or word
processors?  Can you imagine the support problems I'd have if there
were half a dozen different data bases in use?  It's hard enough for
me to know enough about the things that people are using now.  The
thought of OS/2 just makes me feel ill.  Just when I'd begun to get on
top of the nasty little ways of DOS, you want me to start again?
What's the payoff?  What's in it for us?  It isn't that I'm against
innovation, it's just that something has to be ten times better to
make it worth changing over;  twice as good isn't enough.

Notice that while we're chatting, Disinfo people are giving phone
support, and sometimes going out to hold users hands.  You're probably
wondering why I'm not helping them - that's because it's Friday.

Friday's the time people do their weekly backups, and would you
believe that backup is the most hazardous thing that our users do?
The reason is, that normally they are working on one file in one
subdirectory, so the scope for damage is limited.  But with backups,
they're handling their entire disk.  There are about ten different
traps, and we can't protect people from all of them.  But what we have
done, is impressed them that when they have a data disaster, they
should call us, and we won't mind at all.  Look, Jill's waving at me.
I do the disk quacking, you see - come on, off we go.

Haven't you ever seen a grown man in tears before?  Let's ask Jim what
happened.  The last one I did, the user said "I was just getting ready
to do a backup, and I was tidying up first.  I did a DIR, and saw this
file called ..  so I deleted it.  Where have all the files in my root
directory gone?"

Jim's problem is different.  He knew he had to do a backup *before*
doing his housekeeping.  So he typed BACKUP A:  C:  and BACKUP happily
wiped his hard disk.  Don't look so surprised - DOS is full of little
traps like that.  "When's your last backup, Jim?" "Last week, with
incrementals every day" "So really, you've only lost one days work?"
"Yes, but I rang you in case you could fix it, and anyway, I'd like
you to make sure I do the RESTORE correctly, and don't mess up my only
backup." Good man, Jim.  "You did the right thing calling me out, Jim.
I could get your data back, but it would take me about a day, and then
you'd have some tidying up to do.  Lets restore your backups."

So I write-protect his backup disks (whoever invented write protect
tabs has my blessing) and in we go with the restore - Jim, you write
down notes on what you did today while it's fresh in your mind, so
that on Monday, you can recreate it;  it'll probably take you an hour
or so.

Hey, look, it's six o'clock - you go home.  Jim and I will be another
hour or two, and it's all going to be tedious floppy-swapping.  What
do you think of our Disinformation Centre?  You can see what we're
trying to do - help people to help themselves, while holding back the
forces of chaos.  You seem to get on OK with the users - if you're
still interested in the vacancy, you're hired.