This is the year of unintended side effects. Let me tell four stories from the last two weeks. The common theme is that in each story, nothing is broken and nothing is at fault. It’s simply more likely than ever that hardware and software will not work together.

  • A PC would not start – the manufacturer’s logo appeared when the system was powered up, but the screen stayed black with a blinking cursor instead of loading Windows. Much troubleshooting ensued. Out of instinct, I unplugged a simple USB memory card reader – nothing more, just unplugged it. We all gathered in amazement as the computer started normally. We repeated it a few times, just for grins. (Technical types: the bios was up to date. There were no controls exposed in the bios for booting from a USB device, and in any case there was no indication that it was trying to boot – just system death when it was connected.)
  • A client was trying to use a third-party program that lightly integrates with Word – a front-end for opening documents and a Word toolbar for some special tricks. The program stopped allowing more than one document to be edited at a time; attempting to open a second document generated an error message and Word crashed. From cryptic clues in the error message, I eventually puzzled out that Word was choking on Microsoft’s tool for redacting text, described here. Why? Who knows. We removed the redaction tool and everything went back to normal.
  • A client uses a case management program to run a law firm. He routinely has to run a utility in the morning to re-index the database, an operation that takes half an hour or so. He has a USB flash drive that works normally – plug it in, unplug it, no problem. But he has discovered – painfully – that if he plugs in the USB flash drive while the database utility is running, BANG! the computer blue-screens, completely dead and crashed to the ground. Why? Good god, I can’t even begin to come up with a plausible explanation.
  • I bought a PC running Windows Media Center, with a remote control for using it across the room to watch TV and DVDs. After the first couple of days, several of the buttons on the remote control stopped working – Stop, Replay, Skip seemed to have gone dead. By the time I finished, I had reformatted and reinstalled the entire OS three times and spent hours researching online, trying to figure out where the conflict was. The answer was right under my nose; I prefer to use J River Media Center for music so I tended to have it running in the background so I could switch to it. When it was running, the buttons didn’t work, even though J River’s built-in support for remote controls was turned off. If there’s a culprit, I think it’s the way Windows Media Center handles the assignment of functions to the remote control.

The lesson to be learned isn’t about the specifics of any of these incidents. It is that our computers are becoming more fragile and we can no longer count on everything working at once. Be conservative about what you install, choose hardware and software carefully, and be nostalgic for simpler times!

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