You’ve all heard the computer-idiot stories about the executive who complained that his computer’s coffee cupholder no longer retracted, right? I have a true-to-life one.
Before I was a computer shaman, before I was an assistant MIT at an investment company that managed ten-figure sums, I was a computer salesman about five miles from the Micro$oft campus. I worked for a very wise entrepreneur from Taiwan, Mr. TeLung Chang. Mr. Chang (who had literally been an American longer than I had) gave me opportunity, guidance and consideration. I returned his kindness by being contrary, troublesome and having the highest profit margins in the company, so I was a mixed blessing for him. He passed on in 2008, and the world was the poorer for it.
This was from 1988-1990, and the main computer sold was the AT (80286) clone in some form or other, gradually giving way to 80386-based machines. IBM was trying to make the world want MicroChannel PS/2 machines. The world was laughing at IBM’s doddering distance from reality. A woman named Nancy bought an Acer 900 from me, a great big can of an AT clone. She ordered it with the standard 1.2MB 5.25″ floppy, a standard 40MB hard drive, and the usual 640K of RAM. It was for her plastics company in south Seattle. She had bought it over the phone, and picked it up while I was at lunch, so I never met her in person.
That afternoon, I get a call. It’s Nancy. “Jonathan, Jonathan! My computer’s no good!”
“It doesn’t work?”
“No, it doesn’t. The disk is broken.”
“Your hard drive won’t start up at all?”
“No, I don’t have the hard disk, the little one. I have the big kind, the floppy kind.”
I then had to explain to her the the hard disk was inside the case, and that the 3.5″ disk was actually a floppy, just with a firmer case, so yes, she did in fact have a hard disk. Then: “So what exactly is the problem?”
“Well, my disk is broken.”
Clearly we weren’t communicating. “You must mean that the floppy drive is broken, then?”
“Yeah. It’s stuck.”
I brightened. “Oh. So there’s a floppy stuck in the drive and it’s not working?”
“Just out of curiosity, Nancy, what’s on this floppy? Is it important data?”
“No, it’s my dose disk.” At this point, I admit, I put the conversation on speaker so my colleagues could hear the rest of it. Mr. Chang would most definitely not have approved, so I’m glad he didn’t come upstairs right about then.
“It should boot up to a C: prompt. How come you put a DOS disk in?”
“Well,” she snipped, as if explaining the obvious to an imbecile, “I opened the manual that came with it and it said to insert your MS-dose diskette in drive A. So I did.”
I then had to explain to Nancy that we had actually loaded DOS on her hard drive when we assembled the machine, and that while we included the DOS manuals and floppies because she’d paid for them by buying DOS, she did not need to do anything with them but hang onto them. Might be useful to look up some DOS commands, if need be. Then back to the problem-solving: “So this is your DOS floppy and it’s stuck in the drive. Is the arm broken?”
“There is no arm!”
“Then there must be a little spindle where it used to be. Perhaps somehow it came off. That could explain this. Is there?”
“No, there’s just a slot. There’s no arm and no spindle.” The 5.25″ floppies of the day always came with a closure arm that engaged the drive and locked the floppy in place. It could be removed, or could slip off or break, but never without a trace. What she was saying was absolutely impossible. Unless…no, surely not…
“Nancy, where exactly is this slot? On the right side of the case are three rectangular bays, one with a floppy drive and two covered with faceplates, all the same size. Is it over there?”
“Yes.” Oh, no…
“Let’s narrow this down very precisely. Where exactly is the ‘slot’ in that area? How high up is it, and how much room does it have?”
Her frustration with my stupidity or obtuseness grew worse. “It’s right about a third of the way from the top! It’s the width and height of a disk!”
She had. She had actually managed to stick a floppy into the small, 1/8″ high space between drive bays, failing to notice the authentic floppy drive immediately above it. I had a sudden burst of hilarity, which I had to strangle. The effort broke my voice. “So, what you are saying is that you stuck your DOS disk in the small space between the faceplates, and therefore, you think your computer’s broken?” I am lucky my colleagues didn’t have worse control; I was beginning to tear up with suppressed laughter.
“Yes! This is a design flaw! This shouldn’t be possible!” Now she was angry. And I was about ready not to care.
“Well, Nancy,” I croaked, “most people do not traditionally do this.”
“Well, I want it fixed!” Raising her voice. I didn’t care. I summoned my composure.
“No problem. I can give you two options. The warranty is not on-site, so for $75 an hour I’ll send a tech out. He will fish the floppy out of there, then put scotch tape over those gaps so that this ‘design flaw’ will be remedied. Or, if you feel technically competent to do so, you may open the machine and push it out, then apply the tape yourself. If none of that is satisfactory to you, you can bring it here, and I’ll fish it out and put the tape on it for you for free. How’s that?”
“Fine!” she snapped. “I’ll be there in about an hour!” I’m not sure now if she hung up on me, but the conversation was at an end. As soon as I buttoned the phone off, my fellow sharks howled with laughter. At least someone could benefit from this. But it wasn’t quite over. About fifteen minutes later, Nancy called back.
“What’s up, Nancy?”
She sounded miffed. “I don’t need to bring it in. The disk slid out while I was loading it in my trunk.”
“Great! All’s well that ends well, then?”
“Yes,” she growled, her tone making clear that it hadn’t ended well, that she was very dissatisfied with my equipment and me. Thank the gods. I hoped she never called us again, or if she did, that she got another salesperson. It was the last I heard from her. But here’s to Nancy, who brightened a few days by giving me a funny story to tell.