During Ulrich’s days as an undergraduate, he landed a part-time gig at a nuclear power plant. It was an anxious time to be on board at the nuke plant- the late 1990s. The dreaded Y2K loomed over all of their aging systems. One decimal point in the wrong spot at midnight on January 1st, 2000 and… well, nothing good would come of it.

Ulrich’s job for the big conversion was more benign though. He needed to update the simple graphics on the monitoring program the nuclear technicians used to keep tabs on the reactor. The very basic macro language generated Commodore 64-quality graphics; it displayed the position of the control rods, neutron flux, water temperatures & pressure, turbine and generator stats, and how many three-eyed fish were caught in the neighboring lake. All of this was then shown on 10 massive CRT monitors mounted around the main control room.

Ulrich worked diligently to get his screens prepared, and the day came for him to roll out the changes. They didn’t have a “test control room”, so the demo needed to be run live. He invited the engineers to gather ’round the monitors to see his spectacular new designs. When the program booted and Ulrich went to pull up the control rod screen, all 10 monitors went as black as the cloak on a member of the Night’s Watch. As the engineers chuckled, Ulrich turned bright red and ran back to the server room to see what happened. It didn’t take him long to realize that whatever he screwed up caused the entire mainframe to go down.

Thus began a two-week battle to troubleshoot the mainframe issue, during which time the computer monitoring was completely unavailable. This caused the nuclear technicians to have to leave their air conditioned control room so they could use primitive analog monitoring tools from the 1970’s to check on the reactor. Every time Ulrich walked past one of them, he could sense them glaring and thinking “There’s that little pipsqueak that killed the monitors!”

The tools Ulrich had to debug the program weren’t merely useless to him. They went beyond uselessness into outright opposition. The custom macro-language had no debugger or real documentation. The mainframe was purchased from the Czech Republic and one would have to know Czech in order to read the error logs. He was able to locate a sticker on top of the server with the phone number of the vendor. He was able to reach one of their ‘experts’ named Miklos, who asked him for the serial number of the product. Ulrich provided it but the expert retorted “That is not full number! This is too short. What you need help with? Toaster? Coffee maker?”

Confused, Ulrich replied, “Ummm, a mainframe?” Had the nuclear plant bought their server from some sort of Czech Coffee, Toaster, and Mainframe Corp.? Miklos said “Oh no, Miklos can not help you. I give you number for Blazej. He does help with mainframe.” Blazej was an engineer at another nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic, who also had the same mainframe. Ulrich called there, not expecting much.

Through a series of conversations with Blazej, Ulrich was able to finally narrow down the problem to the presence of circles in the screen outputs. Apparently drawing fancy circles was far too much for the monitoring program to handle. He removed all the circles from his screens, uploaded the changes to the mainframe and finally the engineers could see the reactor statistics on the bright, beautiful monitors; without any circles. The result was ugly, boxy, and barely readable, but it worked. Ulrich breathed a sigh of relief then decided to call Czech Coffee, Toaster, and Mainframe Corp. back to notify them of the horrible bug in their program.

Ulrich once again got connected to his buddy Miklos. “Hi Miklos, this is Ulrich. I called a while back concerning our power plant monitoring program crashing the mainframe. You’ll be glad to know that Blazej and I were able to determine the problem. It all had to do with circles being drawn on the screen. I know it sounds silly, but that causes the whole mainframe to come down.”

Miklos seemed to be offended by such an accusation. “You do a circle and server come down? You want Miklos to fix this? You stupid? If you know circle cause trouble, then DO NOT USE CIRCLE!” Miklos abruptly hung up. Ulrich shrugged it off since his job was done. He eventually finished his undergrad program before Y2K and moved on from the nuclear power plant. When New Years 2000 rolled around, he made sure he was far, far away at a ski resort just in case anyone else slipped a circle into the graphics and the plant melted down as a result.

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