System Failure

It seems to me…

Never trust a computer you can’t throw out a window.”  ~ Steve Wozniak.

Computers are fantastic devices – when they work.  When they (them, not us…) have problems, they become a source of stress, aggregation, and frustration.  Much of our lives are now dependent upon technology: communicating, finances, recreation…; we must accept that things will go wrong.  Studies have shown that the average computer user experiences some type of difficulty about four times every year requiring approximately 12 hours to resolve.

It is obvious that we always should anticipate problems.  Murphy’s Law states that whatever can go wrong: will (and at the worst possible time).  Our unrealistic expectations assume this technology upon which we have become so dependent always will work – it won’t.  The fault isn’t always with the technology.  Frequently we inadvertently are responsible for whatever problem has occurred.  For all their amazing speed, computers always are slower than we would like.

Having spent considerably more than 50 years working with computers, I should know all of this.  After all, I’ve experienced these types of problems considerably more than most other people.  It doesn’t help; it should not come as any surprise that I too have problems.  My most frequent initial approach in dealing with a non-cooperating computer is to “talk” to it in a manner such that my wife leaves the room.  While it never actually seems to solve the problem, it does make me feel somewhat better.

For example, my most recent experience began early one morning (around 06:00am) when I turned on my 2-year old notebook…and nothing.  Bad motherboard.  Forty years ago, I would simply have replaced the motherboard with a new one but this no longer is practical.  Regrettably, a new computer was the only solution.  The disk drive still was working so saved it so my data would not be lost though applications and links to Internet sites were not recoverable.

The following day, while I was trying to set up my new computer, my wife’s 7-year old computer displayed a message guaranteed to incite fear and loathing in any user:  System disk not found.  The computer’s hard disk drive had crashed and all its contents lost.

Normally when more than one system has these type of problems within such a short amount of time, an electrical power glitch is the suspected culprit.  As my notebook was connected through a UPS (uninterruptable power supply), the two device failures more likely were an unfortunate coincidence.

I planned to replace her now ancient computer last Christmas but, regrettably, had delayed.  Having just replaced one computer, hers would have to last a bit longer with a new disk drive though all the data it contained no longer was accessible.

While frustrating, I have a Microsoft Home Server (one of Microsoft’s very good, though not extremely successful, products) so all our data from both computers was backed up and still available.  The server also is an older system but very little speed is necessary since its primary function is as a storage device.  It has repaid its initial cost many times over not only as an automatic backup device but also as a convenient way to share files between computers and for personal remote system access from the Web.

Now, several weeks after this started, it would be nice to say everything was fully recovered.  It would be nice to make that claim but it would not be totally true.  Subsequent ancillary problems – mostly involving e-mail – developed that resulted in total loss of all working documents for a second time.  Time always is a problem and none of us have excess amounts of it available to concentrate on any single problem; especially after spending twelve-hour days working in a Red Cross disaster evacuation shelter (now closed).  Consequently, it still will take some time prior to being able to fully return to what passes for the normal chaos in our lives.

As I already stated, I know these types of problems will occur – not only with technology but with everything in life.  All I can recommend is to assume something is not going to work and have a plan on how to recover.  While frustrating, my wife and I were fortunate in that we lost only time and not any of our data.

I always preached the importance of data backups to students in my classes but, in truth, did not always practice my own advice.  Inevitably, a student, frequently a computing major, would come into my office toward the end of a semester stating he/she had lost all their work.  They obviously had failed to learn one of the most important lessons in working with computing technology.  (Yes, I usually gave them extra time to complete the project.)

There are several additional ways to prepare for those problems we know will happen when least anticipated.

Education always is the key.  Know as much about your system as possible.  No, being knowledgeable about computing was not a solution to my most recent problems, but I did know what to do and how to recover.  Just as it is not necessary to be an auto mechanic in order to drive a car, everyone still should be familiar with their system’s basic operation.

Have dependable equipment: dependability does not mean expensive.  I knew our 7-year old computer was past its normal lifetime and anticipated problems but tried to make it last just a bit longer.  In hindsight, it was a mistake.

When problems arise, know where to find dependable assistance.  All too frequently, many people depend on someone they know or the person down the street.  As someone frequently called on for assistance, I usually am happy to help but must, to be totally honest, admit those desperate calls usually come while attempting to drain my own swamp.  I too need someone to turn to; sometimes we can be too close to the problem to actually see it.

And, finally, when all else fails, practice stress management: take a break, get some fresh air, take deep breaths, go for a walk…

That’s what I think, what about you?


About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Backup, Companies, Computer, Data, Hard Drive, Hardware, Home Server, Microsoft, Motherboard, Server and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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