The Red Menace


 Red Menace –  An Exercise in Full Duplex Non-Communication

The story is true, only names and details have been changed
to protect the guilty and confuse the innocent.


Every so often you come across someone who fits a stereotype image so exactly, that you hardly dare mention it lest the politically correct descend on you in righteous wroth.Red was a case in point. He was the Ops Manager, his hair was flaming red, the colour of a coal fire at its hottest, and his temper was a perfect match.

I’d often heard about his temper, and often felt his barbed comments at the weekly Bug Committee meeting with the users, but I’d never seen him in full flow, at least not until the day of that special fault report.

It was in my intray when I arrived. It was only priority 4 (non-urgent, no user programs failed) and I felt tempted to put it onto the stack labelled pending-until-we-feel-bored-enough-to-fix-it. Then I thought again, perhaps I should really have a quick look first, just in case. After all every Monday morning I had to face Red and the rest of the Bug Committee, and present a list of faults new and faults fixed, for their approval. If I could get rid of this one within a day it would make our image look just a bit better.

I was glad I had. The “Fault Details” section reported, in Red’s rather pompous English, that an unknown message had been reported on the central console at 15:07 precisely. This was not satisfactory and must be corrected. I always got the feeling that if he had his way all bug reports would be priority 1 (system down – panic now), and I regularly gave thanks for my predecessor who had persuaded the users to agree to such an unambiguous set of priority criteria.

I looked at the rogue message more carefully, it seemed familiar. Then it dawned on me. It was the second half of a reply to a LISTQUEUES command. There might be a very simple answer. If a link to a remote console had gone down in the middle of replying to a LISTQUEUES, then presumably the system would try and send the rest of the message somewhere, and the central console seemed the most reasonable place to send it.

I waited until just before 3 o’clock, then ambled down to the ops room. The operators were looking happy. Red wasn’t there.

I strolled up to Tregorren, the shift leader.

“John, could you do us a favour? We’ve had a bit of a funny bug report. The second half of a reply to a LISTQUEUES came out unexpectedly here yesterday, about this time. Could you send a broadcast to the remote consoles, and ask them if anyone on the same shift yesterday remembers typing in a LISTQUEUES and only getting the first half of the reply?”

He started to nod, and say “OK”, then a blast from behind me interrupted him.

“What do you think you’re doing, Cowen?” It was Red. “I’m not having this. These are my staff, and if they are doing something they shouldn’t then you tell ME, not them.”

I tried to explain, “I’m not saying anyone’s done anything wrong. I’m looking at the bug report about the strange message, and I wanted to know if any remote console had entered a LISTQUEUES command about this time yesterday…”

He interrupted me, even louder, “Listen, if LISTQUEUES don’t work, then YOU don’t go round telling operators not to use the command, you come to ME.”

“I’m not saying LISTQUEUES don’t work, I’m just asking if…”

He interrupted again. And again. And again. By the fourth or fifth time round I was getting a little tired of the performance. He obviously wasn’t listening to anything I said. The bits of time when he stopped talking were just a chance for him to decide what to shout about next. The idea of trying to find out what the other bloke (me) was actually saying was obviously completely alien to him.

The next time he interrupted, I just carried on talking. Not shouting, just using a quiet reasonable voice. The effect was wonderful. It took a few seconds to sink in that I hadn’t humbly shut up for him, then he looked utterly dumbfounded.

It must have been the first time anyone had refused to be bullied by him. He wasn’t beaten though. He still had a lot of volume left, and he turned it up to maximum.

I carried on talking. I’d nothing to lose now, although I hadn’t honestly any idea what I was actually saying any more. It didn’t matter anyway, he wasn’t listening, and no-one else could hear anything for the noise he was producing. The ops certainly weren’t listening. They were too busy trying to control their laughter.

After what must have been about a half a minute or so of talking at each other in a futile demonstration of a full duplex protocol, he started to wave his arms about. So I waved mine a bit as well. Then he started to change colour until his face matched his hair. Behind him John was nearly collapsed over the console with suppressed hysterics, and even Prue Forrest, who normally never says anything, had got the giggles. I was beginning to worry about heart attacks when suddenly Red ran down into silence.

I had the problem now. I’d lost track of what I was actually saying several sentences ago, so I just finished up by saying, “…, don’t you agree?” and stood looking at him waiting for a answer.

He looked at me for a moment, his jaw working, then turned and left the room, banging the door. I actually forgot about the fault report after that, until John came round an hour later to inform me that a remote user had replied that her link had gone down yesterday, just after she had typed in a LISTQUEUES.

At the next Bug Committee I reported the Bug and added that it was solved. The operators treated me like a hero. Red never mentioned the incident again. He never tried to shout me down again either.

I learnt something from it though. Not the obvious thing about bullies being cowards. Red was a coward, but I wouldn’t care to generalize about other bullies. The lesson I learnt was that people who shout the quickest and loudest are usually the ones who don’t actually know what the situation is – the more you shout, the less you end up knowing.

 Posted by at 3:35 pm

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