A Register reader turns the computer room into a socialist paradise

Terminate and do what?

Communist fist, photo via Shutterstock

Who, me? Monday is here, and with it comes another tale of student hijinks in the computer room courtesy of our not-feeling-that-guilty Register readers in our weekly Who, Me? feature.

Today's trip down memory lane comes from a reader we shall call "John", and is set in a 1980s educational establishment.

Computer gear was not quite as ubiquitous as it is now, and John observed "We had one mainframe terminal room and one room of PCs for the entire college."

Demand for the machines was pretty high and students had devised a novel way of keeping their seat reserved while they wandered off to do whatever students did in the '80s.

John explained: "The rule in both rooms was if someone is logged in and they have left their 'towel on the chair' then you could not log them out. Logged in on the PC meant running a program."

Unfortunately, unlike the mainframe terminals, there was no time-out on the PCs. So the workstations would stay logged in until the user logged them out.

John explained "So our media and journo colleagues would start Wordstar or PCwrite early and never log out leaving the machines blocked."

We can only imagine how late the programmers slept in such that media students were able to turn up first. Journalists, of course, are never, ever tardy.

Nevertheless, while a chum was playing with password traps to snag better access to the Vax and Unix terminals, John "decided to tackle the problem of the programmers never getting access to the PCs."

John's solution was "a neat little Terminate and Stay Resident (TSR) program on DOS".

With an apparently blank filename, thanks to the use of the Alt 255 character, it was difficult to delete and was loaded as part of the autoexec.bat file during boot.

The nefarious bit of code was self-replicating and doubtless caused more than a few howls of anguish, as John explained:

It intercepted Interrupt 21h for disk access (file save) and when triggered it checked the hard disk and floppy drives to see if it could find itself on them. If not it copied itself over and modified the autoexec.bat on the disk to run itself at start-up. It started a timer on int 8 (reset after every disk access) and after 15 mins of no file saves it rebooted the machine with an int 19h.

But hey, at least those PCs were logged off and "towels" removed, right?

John later updated the app, changing the name to a random number (1 – 8) of Alt 255 characters. It also checked autoexec.bat even if the file was on the disk "as some wily users had spotted it in there and removed it."

"The result," said John, was that student dream: "a socialist PC lab."

"Machines were no longer hogged by writers. It had a Pavlovian side effect of training everybody to save their work more frequently. It remained untamed at the college for years and I was never caught."

A cynic might suspect Microsoft had deployed similar tech in its occasionally wobbly products to train users to hit that Save button more often.

As for what happened since, John told us he "left for a cryptography startup in California. By that time the reboot TSR had become a copy protection mechanism for floppy disks and moved to the boot sector - it helped me land the job."

By the end of the 1980s "I became the in-house virus expert at a large US PC software maker - disassembling the early viruses to understand what they did and write antidotes. Before Norton and the others arrived. The little TSR was the start of a career!"

Virus writing, it seems, does pay.

And as for John's Unix-tinkering friend? He "got caught with a file full of 4th year passwords and was made Unix sysadmin helper for his probation - what could possibly go wrong!"

What indeed.

Ever tried creating your own socialist utopia with a few lines of virus-like code? Of course you have. Drop Who, Me? an email and tell us all about it. ®

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