Wednesday, March 5, 2014

War Stories- Episode 11: "Print job - all, all, all. Uh, oh."

Remember "Wayne's Law" from Episode 9?

"Life is hard.  Life is harder if you're stupid."

This is a short story of stupid.

Fall 1978.  Still a trainee.  Still at Buckeye Diesel Shop.  Still stupid.

This time, I'm in the office at the fuel pad where they fuel, service and put together locomotives for outbound trains. "Building consists" is the vernacular.  In the office they had a computer terminal and printer for the new Locomotive Information System, or "LIS".  It tracked all the repairs made to locomotives.

Fuel pad at Selkirk, NY

It was a gadget.  I liked gadgets.   Still do.  So, I spent some time on it trying to see what it could do and what it could tell me.

There were several parameterized reports.  The most interesting to me was one that let you pull the history for a locomotive for a specific time period.  Or, several locomotives.  Or groups of locomotives.  You just filled out the parameters on the screen and hit enter and your report would pop out on the printer.  The more information you asked for, the longer the print job took to respond.

Conrail had about 5000 locomotives at the time.  I looked at all sorts of data.  One particular locomotive, all defects, for a month.  One for a year.  A group of locomotives for a month.  One kind of defect on a group of locomotives for a week. One particular locomotive as far back as the data existed (about a year, at the time, but they were growing the database).

All the reports came back nice and fast.  Some were as long as 20 pages, but most were a few pages at most.

Then, the "stupid" kicked in.

One of the values you could enter in the parameters was "all".  So, I started messing around with it.  "All" locomotives with "replace turbocharger" for a day.  No problem.  One locomotive for "all" dates.  No problem.  Then, trouble.  I while editing the screen for my next report, entered "all" everywhere and hit enter.  There was no "oops" button.  No, "escape" key.  No, "Alt-Cntl-Del."

The query hit the mainframe and in a couple minutes, the printer sprang to life, dutifully beginning the process of printing the entire contents of the database in report form!

Uh, oh.

After what seemed like a half a box of paper, I tried everything I could think of to get it to stop.  Turned off the printer, and back on.  No.  Bzzz, bzzzz, bzzz, more pages printed, line by line.  Unpluged the print and plugged it back in.  Nope.  Turn of the terminal and turn in back on.  Nope, again.  Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz...  Finally, I did everything at once.

And it stopped.  Phew!

Or, maybe some smart system operator back in 32nd St. Philadelphia saw what a dopey query I'd submitted and killed the job.

Either way, I didn't care.  The buzzing printer was silent!

Less than an hour later, it was time to go home.  So I did....

...only to come back to work the next day to find out the job lived!  The supervisor at the fuel pad told me that the printer had fired back up, and, after a whole box of paper, they figured out who to call in Philadelphia to get the print job killed.  Did I know anything about this?

I had to confess...  "stupid college boy"...  They weren't really as bent out of shape as I thought they might be - thankfully.

Ultimately, LIS and I would become great friends.  In later jobs at Conrail, I used to to study locomotive reliability and track "in service" component testing.  It was a very useful tool.

You'd think smart software would be "stupid proof".  We all remember when Microsoft  Office software was full of "are you sure?" pop-up boxes.  Perhaps, I wasn't the only stupid person.  Perhaps, I was a trend setter?  An inovator?  Perhaps I should have reasonably expected it to responded to my query with, "Are you SERIOUS!?!"

Nope.  I was just stupid.

Perhaps, if this career didn't work out, I could get a job as a "software tester."  What do you think?

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