The Norman Transcript

July 13, 2013

What can you do when good computers suddenly go bad?


The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — What happened to my computer? What made it stop working?”

I hear this sort of question all the time. Sometimes, I have a logical, easy-to-understand answer. Other times, my answer sounds something like this: “I know it sounds crazy, but, sometimes, Microsoft Windows just falls apart. It just does.”

I often wonder if my customers believe this type of explanation, but it is, nonetheless, true. Hardware failures are easy to explain.

“See that burned spot on that circuit board? Do you smell the odor of melting plastic? There’s your problem, right there.”

Brownouts, power surges, cheaply manufactured parts and the law of entropy can all lead to easy-to-understand hardware failures. But an operating system “falling apart?” Really?

“My computer was working just fine and then, suddenly …” Yes, computers are a lot like cars: they run fine until they don’t run fine any more. Replace the broken or worn-out part, and you’re back on the road. Problem solved.

It’s when your Windows operating system starts acting up that things become a bit difficult to explain. Suddenly, without any visible explanation, your computer starts crashing, freezing, locking up, restarting or mysteriously turning itself off. Some programs work fine, while others exhibit bizarre behavior. Confusing and frustrating error messages and “blue screens of death” start popping up.

Sometimes, the solutions are simple. Other times, the solutions are very difficult to discover and time-consuming to implement. The reason for these nonsensical computer problems boils down to one thing: machine language.

Also known as “machine code,” machine language is the language that computers speak. In its most basic form, machine language is nothing more than complex combinations of zeroes and ones. Every bit of information in your computer, every file, every program, every email, every picture, every document, every song and every video is made up thousands, millions, billions and even trillions of zeroes and ones that your computer understands and turns into things that you can use.

For example, when I type the letter “Z” on my keyboard, boatloads of zeroes and ones start scrambling around inside my computer at an extremely high rate of speed, with the end result being that I see the letter “Z” on my computer’s screen.

It’s when these zeroes and ones go missing that computers start acting crazy. When a computer file somehow loses some zeroes or ones, that file is said to have become “corrupted.” Computer files become corrupted all the time.

More often than not, built-in error correction repairs the file without you even knowing that anything happened. When a file becomes so corrupted that the built-in error correction fails, then, like a car, your computer “crashes.” At that point, someone like me has to try to figure out what went wrong and make it right.

Where do these missing zeroes and ones go? Nobody really knows for sure; they simply vanish into the quantum theory black hole of zeroes and ones. At least we know how some files can become corrupted.

Conflicting programs can be a major source of corrupted files. I have repaired numerous computers that had multiple installations of various antivirus programs. This is a no-no on Windows computers. The general rule is no more than one antivirus program installed and running at a time; otherwise, your computer can sort of go insane.

Poor programming techniques also can contribute to file corruption. Shocking as it may be, not everyone that can write a computer program is a genius. There are many badly written computer programs out there, crashing computers around the world.

Power surges and failures also can cause file corruption. Hard disk drives can become “fragmented” (look it up), corrupting files, or drives can fail physically at the hardware level, yielding the same effect.

Many computer viruses are designed to cause file corruption, turning otherwise good computers into worthless boxes of junk.

The moral of this story is that computers are terribly imperfect devices; they’re not even as reliable as our automobiles. That’s understandable, though, since the world has been building cars for more than 100 years. In contrast, the home computer industry is barely a generation old, so give it time; things have to get better.

Dave Moore has been performing computer consulting, repairs, security and networking in Oklahoma since 1984. He also teaches computer safety workshops for public and private organizations. He can be reached at 919-9901 or davemoorecomputers.com.