Dr Keith wasn’t all about the ransomware and the dangerous headgear. He also taught me an important lesson about horror films, and their applicability to daily life.
The first time I dealt with him, he was having trouble with his laptop. It was, he told me over the phone, switching itself off at random. He’d be in the middle of watching David & Margaret on iView and it would just switch off. No warning, no reprieve. He’d switch it back on and it would be fine, but then it would happen again ten minutes later. If he left it for a while it might last longer before the next cut-out, but that was pretty random too.
As soon as I heard this story, I guessed at the problem. Laptops are a hothouse of complicated electronics, all crammed together with no room to breathe. To keep themselves cool, they have fans. But those fans suck in air through grilles on the side and underneath, and those can get gunked up, especially in houses with wood heating or occupants who smoke inside. The random cutouts sounded like overheating due to the fan being unable to take in enough air. Simple! Open and shut, no problem. I was sure this was going to be an easy case.
My confidence in my pre-diagnosis lasted until I walked into the house. Keith, even at sixty something, was clearly a health nut, complete with tracksuit, well-worn running shoes and a rowing machine in the corner of the living room. So when he told me he’d been an oncologist as a young doctor, I figured the chance of him or anyone in the house being a smoker was pretty much zero. He confirmed this. He also confirmed that he didn’t have a wood fire; this involved him going on a bit about the benefits of heat pumps in the Tasmanian climate, but chatty customers are part of the job. Looking at his living room, I saw that it was immaculate: no dust anywhere to find its way into the grilles of the laptop.
I picked up the laptop and sniffed it. It’s amazing how many problems you can diagnose with a nose. In this case, I diagnosed that the machine was new (“new laptop smell” is a thing, just like new cars but less upholteryish) and very clean. Dr Keith assured me he only ever used it on the spotlessly clean coffee table and never on his lap; at any rate, he had so little fat on his body that the usual problem of a laptop being half-smothered did not apply. This was the cleanest piece of computer hardware I had ever seen, in a room so spotless that I could have eaten my dinner off any surface (though Keith would prefer that I use the dining table instead, to save on Mr Sheen).
So. Initial diagnosis was a bust. Never mind: no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, as old uncle Helmuth used to say. I switched the laptop on, and it was here that I noticed something new. It was, as he had told me on the phone, generally very well behaved, and very, very quiet.
Too quiet. Like the scene in a horror movie just before everything goes horribly wrong.
I carry a set of precision screwdrivers in my bag. I unplugged the lappie, took out the battery and took the back cover off. It was a Toshiba, so this was not too painful; god help me if I need to do the same for some other brands, which have a million screws in multiple incompatible sizes. As I did this, I marvelled at how tidy it all was. Keith really did keep it in tip-top condition. No dust anywhere. Of course, by this point I’d mostly guessed the terrible secret. The fan wasn’t sucking in any dust, and indeed wasn’t doing anything at all, specifically making any noise at all, because… it was an undead zombie!
Or rather, because it was stuck and wasn’t moving.
A pair of tweezers retrieved the culprit. One of those little stickers that modern computers are infested with, advertising the killer features that supposedly make each new piece of hardware the shiniest and featuriest gadget ever, had come off the bottom of the laptop’s case and made its way through one of the perfectly clean grilles all the way into the inner workings of the fan. As a result, the fan didn’t move, meaning not only that it made zero noise and sucked in zero dust, but also that it let the laptop heat up without interruption. Over time, the heat would reach a level where the internal thermostats would register an emergency, and the laptop would power down to prevent damage.
Part of my initial diagnosis was correct. The randomness of the powering-down was tied to the temperature in the room. Hot days meant a shorter time between shutdowns. But generally it’s the effort a computer is putting in that causes the heat, so rendering the video of David and Margaret arguing over which Adam Wingard flick was the least abysmal was usually enough to send everything to hell.
Sticker removed, I reassembled the laptop, commended Dr Keith on his dedication to cleanliness, and apologised that henceforth his machine might be a little noisier, now that it had a working fan again. He agreed that this was an entirely acceptable situation.
I left him to his iView, and did not kill him and feast on his brains. I am, after all, not an IT undead creature of darkness wandering the night in unearthly torment. I’m just an IT blacksmith.