Today is the 4th of July, which is a holiday with historical significance in the US. Twenty years ago, Jeff Goldblum and the Fresh Prince defeated an alien invasion using a PowerBook and a hastily written computer virus. It’s such a big holiday, they’ve just released a mediocre and forgettable film about it.

This scene has spawned many a flamewar. Anyone with a vague idea of how computers work may note that hardware architectures are complicated, and even with access to alien hardware and software, designing a virus capable of disabling all of the alien spacecraft in one fell swoop strains credulity. Some people point to a deleted scene which explains that computers are based on alien technology captured in Roswell, and thus, our computers are already compatible. Others mutter something about, “It’s just a movie, what the hell is wrong with you?” while rolling their eyes.

Here at TDWTF, we know that no competently run IT organization is going to let its entire shielding system across an entire battlefleet be vulnerable to a single virus delivered to a single node on the network. We know the real story must be quite the WTF.

Lisa graduated from the Aldebaran Institute of Technology in 1996, expecting the “rising tide” of the late 90s tech boom to carry her to wealth and riches. She went to a college job fair shortly before graduating, handed out some resumes, and tried to resist senioritis long enough to make it to the end of the semester.

An alien from ID4:ResurgenceThis is Lisa

A week later, she got a comm from a recruiter. “Hey, Lisa, I just saw your resume, and have I got an opportunity for you! An established invasion fleet with a proven track record of subjugating alien planets needs some junior engineers to provide tier–1 technical support. This is a great entry-level job, with 100% travel, which is such an amazing opportunity for a young Sectoid such as yourself- you really get to experience the whole galaxy. Now, the salary might not look like much, but you’ll also receive equity in the invasion, and you are absolutely going to make out extremely well- they’ve identified a planetary sector that’s completely unexploited.”

Lisa was young, inexperienced, and the recruiter was very good at his job. She went in for an interview, chatted with Al (the head of IT), met a few of the other techs, and even got to meet one of the fighter pilots, who cut quite the dashing figure. Star struck and seduced by the promises of fantastic wealth (once they handle that minor, piddling problem of conquering the Earth and blowing up a few easily recognizable landmarks), Lisa signed on and boarded the mothership just a few days after graduation.

Wil Smith punches an alien and says, 'welcome to earf'Spoilers: that dashing pilot doesn’t look as dashing by the end of the movie

On her first day, Lisa was invited into Al’s office for some orientation. The office was little more than a closet, just off the main hangar bay. It was made even more cramped by Al’s insistence on covering the walls with the various certifications he’d earned in his career- A+, Net+, and in the fanciest frame, MCSE.

“Now, I know you’re a college-educated wunderkind,” Al said, “but I got here through old-fashioned knowhow. The first and most important thing you need to understand is that we deliver IT services, and we’re not happy unless our users are happy.”

A few days into the voyage to Earth, one of their users wasn’t happy- the Hangar Operations Officer was having issues with spacemail. Lisa went to his workstation to try and help.

“My broodmate sent me pictures of our newly hatched clutch, but Outlook won’t let me open the attachement!”

It was instantly obvious to Lisa what was going on, since the file was “”. “This is almost certainly not pictures of your clutch, but is probably a virus.”

“That’s absurd,” the hangar operations officer said, his tentacles waving angrily. “My mate wouldn’t send me a virus!”

“Well, it might not have come from your mate,” Lisa explained. “See, spacemail lets you claim the email comes from any-”

“Look, are you going to let me get these photos or not?”

“I can’t,” Lisa said. “They’re not photos.”

“We’ll see about that!” the officer said. He commed Al directly. “I want you to know that your new tech is refusing to let me see my pictures.”

“They’re quarantined as a virus,” Lisa said.

“Oh, well,” Al said, “we can fix that. Let me just disable the quarantine.”

What?” Lisa cried.

“Remember,” Al warned her over the comm, “we’re not happy unless our users are happy.”

Cringing, Lisa watched the hangar operations officer open the virus. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, it did open a window with a picture in it- a lewd picture of a Muton’s posterior- and flashed a message that “you have been pranked!”. For a finale, it inverted the mouse pointer.

“I told you,” Lisa said, “that probably wasn’t from your mate. You’re just lucky it was a piece of joke software and not a dangerous virus.” A quick reboot set the mouse back to normal, and Lisa made sure the dangerous email was deleted before she handed the mouse back to the Ops Officer. “Please don’t open strange attachments in the future,” she warned.

The next few weeks were mostly routine support, until that dashing pilot- Lieutenant Bradford- submitted a ticket about his fighter craft. It was stuck in a reboot loop- the main computer would turn on, print out an error message, and then reboot. Obviously, this needed to be fixed before the invasion started. Lisa fired up Gopher to try and find out what was going on.

As it turned out, this was a bug in the v8.0.2 firmware running on the entire fleet of fighters. When the system clock’s battery started running low and the clock started to drift, the firmware had a bug that would trap it in this reboot cycle. This particular bug had been fixed in v8.0.5, which was released six years prior. The manufacturer had actually cut support for the entire v8.x.x series and was up to v11.x.x.

You could fix it by replacing the battery and resetting the BIOS, which Lisa did, but she approached Al about these dangerously out of date software versions. “There’s been a LOT of bugfixes that our ships don’t have.”

Al shook his head and laughed at Lisa. “See, you don’t get it. These software vendors, they just want to sell you new things. Trust me, the last time we tried to do an upgrade to the latest patches, they sent a tech onsite who kept trying to get us to buy new versions of all of their software. It’s a scam, Lisa, just a scam. Our users are happy, so why should we spend money with the vendor when we can just keep using firmware that works perfectly fine?”

Two days before they arrived at Earth, a new ticket came in, this time from the invasion fleet’s Supreme Commander. It was a bit of a cluttered mess of a ticket, in that it didn’t represent one single issue, but instead the Supreme Commander wanted to vent about all of the problems she had with IT. Lisa interpreted the ticket as a series of bullet points:

  • The Supreme Commander’s desktop made too much noise (Lisa diagnosed this as a sign that there was too much dust clogging the fans, and fixed it with some canned atmosphere)
  • The network was slow
  • The Supreme Commander’s computer was slow (Lisa diagnosed this as an overfilled hard drive and the Supreme Commander running an Active Desktop)
  • The network was slow
  • Assault Ship ZX–80 had shared a folder with the Supreme Commander- but the Supreme Commander couldn’t access the shared folder

A slow network was difficult to diagnose, but an inability to access a shared folder was easier to explain: the mothership’s firewall blocked that port. Unfortunately, the firewall software wasn’t one she’d ever seen before, and the configuration Al had built for it was pretty much an incomprehensible mess of exceptions and whitelists and blacklists and more exceptions. Lisa needed to get Al to fix it.

“Oh, a slow network, eh,” Al said.

“Well, I’m less worried about that, and more worried about the shared folder…”

“Enh,” Al said, waving a tentacle dismissively, “we can probably fix both at once.” He turned off the firewall. “I mean,” he explained, “this is just a barrier between the ships in our invasion fleet. It doesn’t really make sense to put security software between the ships that we control, right? Right.”

Things got really busy during the invasion. There was a lot of coordination that needed to happen. Several squadrons of fighters- including Lt. Bradford’s- got transfered to the Assault Ships. Lisa barely had time to notice. As it turned out, no one had run a test on the landmark-destroying superlasers since the last invasion, and Al- in a fit of cost-saving- had installed 15 amp breakers in the power supply, which were entirely insufficient to the task. Lisa had to walk the Assault Ship techs through the process of identifying which circuit had the necessary 40 amp breaker on it, and then how to find the superlaser’s power cable to connect it to the right circuit. That’s if there was a 40 amp breaker available- Lisa had to coordinate an on-site electrician for Assault Ship ZX–80 (which hovered over the White House), and it was a near thing to get the circuit re-wired in time to fire as part of the coordinated attack.

After a few days of eighteen hour shifts, Lisa finally got a bit of a break. All the easily recognizable landmarks had been blown up, and the Supreme Commander was confident that the humans would surrender any second. And that’s when she noticed a new fighter joining the network. This one was running an ancient version of the firmware- v4.1.2, which was supposed to be removed from service fifty years ago.

Lisa grumbled and tried to identify the asset tag for that fighter craft. By the time she found it, the craft had docked just several meters from her workstation. She could see into the cockpit… and that’s when the two humans inside waved at her…

For the next few days, we'll be running some classic WTFs as we have a small summer break. We'll be back on Friday with a fresh Error'd.

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