Which part of Murphy's Law did you think they repealed?

Flashback to the mid-1980s, when this IT pilot fish is just a year out of college -- he knows programming, but he's still learning to be a sysadmin.

And that's the job he's been hired for, at an office that runs on an Alpha Micro minicomputer. "The Alpha Micro was distinctive in that the primary external media was VHS videotape, both for backups and software distribution," says fish. "And we normally didn't maintain any external bootable media.

"So one of the standard procedural rules was that if you were making changes to the initialization file, you always edited a copy and booted the system off the copy before committing the copy to be the new operational file and then booting again."

And that's a rule fish sticks to -- along with scrupulously documenting what happens in the initialization file with comments, in lines that begin with a semicolon.

But one day he's in a hurry. He edits the primary copy, saves it and reboots the machine.

Naturally, it won't boot. And fish now has no way to fix the initialization file, and no alternate media to boot from.

"It took me two days-plus, working with a friend from a companion service organization, to locate an 8-inch floppy drive and build bootable media," fish groans. "While that was happening, the entire office of 20-plus users was totally down."

When the new drive is finally attached and can reboot the machine, fish soon finds the problem in the initialization file: Turns out his only mistake was accidentally deleting the semicolon at the beginning of the file.

As a result, the boot loader was trying to read fish's comments as if they were valid commands.

And because they're not -- and the error is at the beginning of the file -- the boot process couldn't get far enough to have any capacity for recovery.

"After we got the machine up and running again, I updated the initialization file by adding several full rows of nothing but semicolons to the beginning of the file," says fish. "The first several lines of comments also got multiple semicolons added at the beginnings of the lines.

"And never again did I stray from the standard of not directly editing the working initialization file."

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