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J.R. Buchanan


Too loud, too bad

July 2007

When we entered the user's cubicle, we smelled that odor that one never forgets -overheated, even burnt, electronics.

We were showed to the user's workstation, an HP 715 Unix machine, what was a high end computer in its day, but which was showing its age by the late 20th century. Today palmtop machines have more processor and RAM than it did.

Nonetheless, we were there to repair it.

When we opened the clamshell case, the odor of burnt electronics knocked us back on our feet.

It was pretty obvious from the symptoms that the power supply was gone, but what could have led to this strong a burnt odor, orders of magnitude beyond anything we had ever smelled from a component or two getting cooked in the power supply?

In any case, we replaced the power supply with a good one salvaged from a dead machine of similar lineage.

We powered it on, and it came up, fully functional. But it still smelled like electronic barbecue.

All the while, the user's cube mate was leaning back in his chair grinning. I felt that it would be impolitic to ask what was so funny about the situation, so I didn't even go there.

While we were talking about what possible failure mode we had discovered, and whether our repair was likely to last, the cube mate said, "Just hypothetically, what would happen if you completely wrapped this machine in insulation so that there was no way for heat to escape, or air to flow in and out?".

I said, "You used what seems to be an extraneous word there, 'hypothetically', I sense that it really isn't that abstract a question, is it?".

My partner took the question straight, and said that the machine would overheat and then die. Comprehension dawned at that point. I don't blame him for being a little slow on the uptake, after all, who would do such a stupid thing?

The cube mate got up and casually walked over to a filing cabinet, and from behind it, he pulled out several slabs of Styrofoam (OK, "expanded polystyrene") insulation, then opened a cabinet drawer and pulled out a heavy comforter. Like one would use on a bed in the winter.

Almost in unison, we said, "Why'd you do that?". "But-t-t it was so loud. I couldn't work with all that air flow noise coming from it.", was the answer.

It was not an answer we liked to hear, we explained in as forceful a sounding manner as we could, while trying to hold back both laughter and anger at the same time.

We explained that this was never to happen again, on threat of having his machine pulled from his cubicle and his Unix account deleted, while we confiscated the insulation.

We monitored the machine for some time after this, and learned that his hard drive failed a few weeks later. Nothing else seemed to have been permanently damaged.

Eventually, the machine would have been replaced with something newer, but not too new, as the older machines trickled down hill to the less demanding users when the heavy heads-down CAD users got the newest fastest machines. It's probably in some landfill in a third world country by now, as the scrap buyer we sold all our old equipment to was not likely to have found a buyer for it.

I bet it still smells worse than the trash around it.