Friday, October 24, 2014

The Case of the Haunted Computer

Back when I had a life, at least a part-time life, I fixed computers. I was also a college history instructor, but I took little joy from that job. Why? Two examples will suffice. A student disliked a grade I gave her. She complained to someone, we actually had a hearing, at which I was exonerated after many wild accusations were hurled at me. Second example: at most of my teaching gigs, I had upwards of nine bosses - supervisors on top of supervisors on top of supervisors. What the fuck?

Though it paid less, and I only worked for Gary of Gary's Computer Repair part-time - full-time during the summer - it was much more rewarding. People were actually grateful that I was able to fix their machines, retrieve files from crashed hard drives, and otherwise cure their computer ills. So I look upon my repairs with pride...unlike my other career. Even a letter of apology from the young woman who tried to get me fired didn't help. She graduated from community college and started at a big four-year university, and almost sank without a trace. Only the skills I tried to impart to her saved her. It was an awakening. That's when she sent me the note.

Long-way round to the central topic of this essay, fixing computers. One of my more memorable fixes involved sound.

This was during the summer, when Gary and his henchman were off laying CAT5 cable for a company and I was mostly alone in the shop except for another part-timer, a kid who showed up every now and again. A man brought in his PC.

    "It's making a funny noise, moaning sounds. I think the power supply is failing."
    "I'll check it out," I replied.

After he left, I took it in the back and hooked it up. There really was an odd throbbing sound coming from the thing. It was hard to locate, somewhat generalized around the case. It diminished a bit when I took the side of the case off, but it didn't go away. I started with the cheapest fix first, disconnecting the cooling fan. That stopped the noise. Not the PS after all.

Quick aside: "power supply" is a misnomer, it's just a transformer to turn alternating current from a wall socket into the direct current the computer components need. I didn't invent the term, that's what it's called...even though it's just a fucking transformer. Please don't poke screwdrivers into them, you'll get electrocuted. It's the only dangerous component inside a computer case.

I inspected the fan. After years of DIY, of part-time repair work, I could tell when a fan has gone. One sure sign: it stops spinning. Just kidding. Nope, it spun fine, no hesitation at all when reconnected. Next, the feel of the fan blades when turned off, moving them with a finger. There was none of the gritty hesitation normally apparent in a failing case fan. Good case fans "bounce back" when moved slightly with a finger. I was puzzled. I blew the thing out with compressed air, cleaned the entire case out, in fact. I even used the little homemade cleaner attachment for the shopvac on it. Dust bunnies be gone!

Another aside: fortune smiles on you if you've never had to clean out and repair computers owned by heavy smokers. Holy shit, it's disgusting. Black tarry crap over everything, gummy stuff...and it stinks. Literally stinks.

The sound was still there, especially loud when the case was put back together. I was leaning over looking inside the case when the moment of enlightenment came. My hand was inadvertently covering some of the back ventilation holes. The noise stopped. I removed my hand, the noise started. I then began to experiment with the placement of my hand. Noise starts, noise stops. It was as if I were working a flute. Which is exactly what was going on. For some reason, air flowing out the side of the ventilation grid at the back had started to make noise. By experimentation, I discovered just a few holes along the edge of the grid of vent holes were responsible for the sound. I went into Gary's office, got some scotch tape, and taped those holes along the edge closed. It wouldn't affect cooling, since only one short line was involved - like 95% of the vent holes were still open. Sound stopped for good. When the man came back for his machine, he was astounded by the fix. I showed him which holes were involved, just in case the tape needed replacement in the future. I charged him the base fee for any repair, $25, nothing more. He was so happy at the absence of that sad moan, he didn't care.