The Case Of The Unwelcome House Call

My House. TasmaniaMaking house calls is such a huge part of my job now that it’s hard to remember a time when I was hoping not to have to. The Huon Valley is a big place, and while my goal was always to be the go-to guy for tech support, I kind of preferred not to be tearing from Southport to Mountain River to Kettering every day. Petrol is so pricey down here that mortgage brokers have started opening pop-up shops in service stations to help people finance their Klugers. Surely I don’t want to be going too far?

It’s so long ago that I don’t recall the customer’s name, so I’m going to call her Claire. She had a cosy shack in Randalls Bay, which, as far as a recent mainlander like me knew, was slightly to the south of the far side of the moon. Her problem was one I’ve seen a few times since, and that even formed a key to the later tale of Dr Keith and the Horror Movie Cliché: her desktop PC was shutting itself down randomly. Remember, I hadn’t at this point experienced the strange cause of that problem as revealed by Dr Keith, but I still had a shortlist of potential problems: dodgy wiring inside the computer’s power supply, gunked-up fan grilles, maybe even something in software. The only problem was: I didn’t want to drive all the way out there to find out, especially if it was something dead simple.

I got her to try all the usual stuff: unplug and check all the power cables, “blow the dust off the connectors”, make sure your shack isn’t surviving on poorly-maintained 1930s electrical wiring that shorts out every time someone faces east. No dice. All that stuff, she assured me by crackly landline, was perfectly fine.

(There’s a clue in that preceding paragraph if you’re following along at home. It’s blindingly obvious to me, now. Can you see it?)

Luckily, Claire worked at one of the medical centres in Huonville, three days a week as a receptionist. She could bundle the whole desktop into a cardboard box and I agreed, magnanimously, to meet her in her lunch break to pick it up.

The PC was surprisingly new and powerful. Turns out her sister, who lived in Adelaide, was a developer for a software house whose name you would probably recognise, and gave family her cast-offs every time she upgraded, which was often. This one had been in Claire’s possession for all of three months, and was barely a year older than that. I took it home and ran a bunch of tests. It was well set up, with Windows XP because nobody used Vista, and loads of spare grunt. Could it be the internal power supply, I wondered? Nope: whoever put this box together knew their way around volts and amps better than I do. I plugged it in in the corner of my non-office, and left it running. It needed Windows Updates and a slightly less stupid anti-virus — to give you an idea of how long ago this was, AVG was still a good piece of software, though of course Norton’s was, then as now, awful — so I gave it the computer geek’s equivalent of a grease and oil change. I spent a couple of hours on it, trying various things to make it misbehave, playing hi-resolution videos and even running one of those programs that deliberately stresses out a processor to find flaws in the manufacture. Nothing. No problems. It cruised like a BMW on an autobahn. I was suffering serious hardware envy, but I wasn’t seeing mysterious cut-outs.

Cat by a CandleClaire’s next work day, I brought it back, in its box. I couldn’t find a problem, and I didn’t want to charge her for my failure, but she insisted on paying so I called it an hour.  Tune-up and once-over, that was a fair price I thought.

She called me that night. She’d plugged it all back in, switched it on, got half way through episode one of season one of this new show she’d got on Blu Ray called Game Of Thrones, and it cut out again.  I was deeply apologetic, and suggested that maybe I should come out and take a look in situ, but she was adamant that she couldn’t make me do that.  She boxed it up, and this time included all the cables, the screen, the printer, the mouse and keyboard, even the mouse pad.  I made a special trip to pick it up the next morning before she started work.

I was starting to think it might be an electrical fault, so this time used all her cables.  I plugged in everything exactly as she’d had it, turned it on and, because I have no interest in George R R Martin and his gore porn, played a DVD of Pixar’s Up instead.  It worked perfectly.  The sound was impeccable, the video flawless, the hardware envy growing steadily with every minute.  It did not cut out.

I even brought in a heater and turned it right up — did I mention this was January? It was already hot by Tasmanian standards, though a Canberran would call it “refreshingly mild for the time of year” — on the theory that maybe the box was cutting out due to overheating. It didn’t change a thing. Carl, Russell and Dug kept right on flying that house to Paradise Falls without a single skipped frame.

I’d had enough. Clearly the gods were punishing me. The only solution now was to bring the whole thing back, mouse pad and all, and set it up myself in Claire’s shack in distant Randles Bay, which seemed about as far away as Paradise Falls, though perhaps a little more accessible without the use of balloons.  Claire was there to apologise profusely and let me in.  She showed me to the spot where the computer usually sat: the living room, the desk, the chair, the power board.

The power board…

Power boards are funny things. Usually, you pick them up from Woolworths, but some people go to hardware stores or computer shops if they feel like spending an extra hundred bucks for some impressive red stickers. They all have the basic wiring, and some of the higher-end ones have a special kind of circuitry designed to protect against power surges. (Incidentally, I recommend those circuits if you live in Dover. The public power supply there is pitiful. Some day I’ll write about the windfall of “rebuild my computer” calls I get every time there’s a blackout. But I digress.) Over time, the clever circuits have migrated into even the cheapy Woolworths ones, so that there’s not a huge difference for all the price range.

Claire’s power board was one of the Woolies ones.  It even still had the sticker on it from when she bought it. Encouraging, right? Not exactly. The sticker said “Purity”.

For the benefit of any non-Tasmanians who may have wandered in, Purity was a chain of supermarkets all over the island state for many years. In 2000, they got bought out by Woolworths, and rebranded. This power board, then, was over a decade old.  To judge from the difference in colour between the top and the underside, it was probably blessed by Pope Pius XII before it was installed.

I was a good blacksmith. I kept my voice level. I asked if Claire had any other powerboards in the house. By chance, she’d picked up one for the TV and stereo, so she went and got that.  She plugged it in to the computer. I then asked if she had a pair of evil scissors.  (That’s the scissors you have that aren’t “the good scissors”, and so they can be used for any old job that the good scissors must never be used for.)  She did.  I very carefully took the old power board and chopped its cable; twice, once at the board end and once at the plug.  I placed all the pieces in the bin. Then I breathed.

I was kind of nervous that Claire would feel insulted, but she laughed. “Oh, is that all it was?” She swore musically. “I must have replaced the power cords three times with new ones from that shop in Huonville, but I never thought of the power board. Silly old me!”

Well, no. Silly old me for not thinking of it, since I asked about every other step in the sequence from electricity company to computer. And even sillier old me for not just coming out, seeing the problem and solving it a week and a half ago. Ah well. Claire was forgiving, and insisted on paying me for my time. Honestly, I should have paid it all right back and called it educational expenses. I’m not supposed to be the IT idiot. In theory, I’m supposed to be the IT blacksmith!

By Paul Sleigh | Tales From The Forge | Link