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BOFH: The London Underground vending machine conspiracy

No crisps for you

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Security for virtualized datacentres

Episode 12

>crash!< >stomp< >stomp< >stomp< >stomp< >clump<

"Nice trip in then?" I ask the PFY as the Boss looks on warily. "Straight through was it, no stopping every ten seconds then?"

"The tube was fine," the PFY snaps back.

"Something else the matter then?" I ask. "Did someone get up on the wrong side of the traffic island?"

"I had a fine sleep, thanks."

"So it was after you got up, before you got to work and wasn't anything to do with the tube problems we're trying to perfect before the Olympics?"

"It's that BLOODY VENDING MACHINE again."

"Oooh, is it misbehaving?" I ask, even though I know the answer.

"Yes. I put the coins in, selected the number for salt and vinegar crisps and a bloody Turkish bloody Delight bloody chocolate bar came out!"

"Are you sure you pressed the right number?" I ask – knowing full well that after the PFY's history with this particular machine he's especially careful.

"Course I did. D4. It's always D4. The tab says D4, if you look up the row and column and work your way across it's D4 – IT SHOULD BE D4!"

"But D4 was a Turkish Delight chocolate bar."

"NO, the Turkish Delight chocolate bar is F5 – miles away. Not even a bad keypad matrix should do that!""

"What about," I suggest, "if there's a strip connector in the back which was put on upside down?"

"D and 4 aren't mirror images of F and 7."

"What about if they put it on badly registered?"

"What, both of them?"

"Yes."

"It's not likely – and besides the matrix calculation's all done on the keypad board."

"So the machine's busted then?" the Boss asks, unfortunately.

"Oh, it's not busted," the PFY says, nodding his head slightly in thought. "It knows EXACTLY what it's doing."

"Are you suggesting the machine is somehow sentient?" I ask.

"No," the PFY says, to my internal sigh of relief given his propensity for conspiracy theories. "No, it's the Underground that's doing it."

Bugger.

"They make deals with the consumables companies you see – they get all their expired and almost expired stock and load them into their vending machines. Then, as the expiry date comes closer the probability of you 'miskeying' your choice increases, till it gets to 1. I think they even track the stuff you hate the most and weight that higher – just to annoy you."

"Yes, I suppose it's something to think about," I say, not wanting to argue. "Still, aren't the machines independently operated?"

"So they say. But there's always an Underground person watching on the cameras."

"So it's all a conspiracy run by the Underground."

"Yep," the PFY says, rifling through his drawers and pulling out a set of door keys.

"So why don't you ring the number on the machine and get your money back?"

"A. They never give your money back, and B. The moment is gone – I needed crisps and they robbed me of that."

"Did you give the machine a little shake?" the Boss asks helpfully. "Bang it a couple of times?"

"No, that money''s gone," the PFY sulks. "The only thing I can get now is revenge..."

Uh-oh...

"...I'll be in the lab."

. . .

"What lab?" the Boss asks once the PFY's stormed downstairs. "We don't have a lab."

"No," I agree. "We don't. But we do have a storeroom with all the kit we've not got rid of over the years – which we sometimes dip into on occasion for parts to make useful workplace items."

"So what's he making?"

"It's a large storeroom with several huge decommissioned UPS units, piles of old server gear, photocopiers, a couple of line printers, miscellaneous other building machinery – he could be making anything down there.""

"Should we stop him?"

"Yes, good plan. You go down, I'll wait here."

"I... think I'll just see if he calms down a bit," the Boss says, smelling the fear in my tone.

Three hours later the PFY's back, wheeling an all-too-familiar chunk of large luggage.

"Is it in there?" the Boss asks, not knowing whether to expect an atomic bomb or a chemical weapon.

"It is," the PFY says ominously.

"So you're using my pinch then?" I enquire.

"It's not a pinch and it's not yours," the PFY snaps back.

"I made it."

"You made part of it," the PFY responds.

"Now, now," the Boss says, trying to defuse the situation. "I'm sure you can both claim credit for it – whatever it is."

"A pinch," I say.

"Not a pinch," the PFY argues.

"Okay, so it's just a ginormous momentary effect electromagnet."

"That's what it was – but I've modified it."

"How?" I asked, interested.

"Since you originally made this we've scrapped two UPS units – so I paralleled up the capacitors from them with the existing ones in your device. I also converted your 240v trickle charge to a 415V trickle because the caps are rated at 450V, and I changed the direction and speed of the coil triggering."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning it's far more powerful, optimised for discharge and much better focussed."

"And you're sure whatever it is safe?"

"Not entirely," the PFY says. "Which is why I tested it in the basement."

"And?" the Boss asks.

"There's a reasonable chance no one parked along the north wall will be driving home tonight."

"And you intend to use this on the vending machine?" I ask, horrified.

"Well if I used a hammer I'd probably have the life expectancy of a Brazilian electrician!"

"And what do you think your chances are if you're caught wheeling a bunch of electronic equipment around after a chunk of your tube station suddenly goes haywire?" I ask.

"I... didn't think of that," the PFY mumbles.

"Of course you didn't!" I snap back. "You just don't think things through. However, were there a history of... power anomalies... in London, people would be far less suspicious."

"What are you suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting that we go and visit one or two of our hardware vendors, then maybe the electronics shop that refused to repair my amplifier under warranty, the bank on the high street that wouldn't extend my overdraft, the..."

"...RESTAURANT THAT CUT UP MY CREDIT CARD LAST YEAR!" the Boss adds.

"Only if we can stop off at the beancounters before we leave," the PFY agrees.

"Course we can!"

Well, it's God's work, isn't it?

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