Ain't technology wonderful?

Well, yes and no

My laptop started to act flaky late last week — it began to shut itself off for absolutely no apparent reason. It didn't shut down, it simply stopped, as if the power had been cut off, but with a laptop that makes no sense at all, since when the power fails the battery simply takes over. The first couple of times it happened I shrugged and restarted the machine and went on. Then late Friday morning while I was working on the patio, it shut off again, several times in just a few minutes. Hmmmm.

Although the laptop had just passed its monthly diagnostic checkup, I ran all the tests again. Passed.

I wonder if a virus has gotten past Norton Internet Security? It has been acting sluggish from time to time. I ran the Spyware Doctor. Aha! There were multiple infections of two different pieces of mal-ware, both of them key-loggers and both of them opening up backdoor ports exposing the computer to malicious intruders. Could that explain the recent surge of a new cycle of spam? I disinfected and inoculated the system, believing the problem had been solved.

Wrong! It stopped several more times. Now I'm wondering if, in all the outages, something about Windows got corrupted. I dug out the Windows XP CD and invited Windows to repair itself, which it happily did. This is always a last resort, because the repair undoes all the updates that have been so conscientiously applied over many months. I expected to have to download all the updates again, but surely the stopping problem would be eliminated.

Wrong again! The laptop wouldn't even stay on long enough to download the 79 updates Windows said it needed. By this time it was getting quite uncomfortable on the patio due to the heat and very high humidity (45%, yikes!). I picked up the machine to go inside and found the bottom of it almost too hot to handle. Sheesh! Maybe it's just overheated!

Once inside I turned on the air conditioning and propped the laptop up on some low boxes to create an air passageway underneath. That seemed to do the trick. Now I could get on with the updates.

Wrong one more time! After the download and the interminable wait for "Initializing installation..." a window popped up to inform me that "The following updates were not installed:" What followed was the entire list of updates. Damn! After consulting the Microsoft Knowlege Base I checked the logs for a couple of the failed updates. Each reported the failure because file ABC.EXE or DEF.DLL or whatever was missing. Now what?

By this time that little yellow shield was back in the system tray, telling me that automatic update was ready to install more downloaded updates. OK, go for it! Same thing: long wait, then "the following updates were not installed." After this went on a couple of times I started copying the list of failed updates, at which point it became clear that Windows was downloading and failing to install the same 79 updates over and over and over again! Why me?

After more Googling, I found an article on the Microsoft newsgroups entitled "Update won't install after running XP 'repair' in Windows Update." Aha! Totally by coincidence, the article — 11 printed pages — was in response to a question by "Paul W" who described exactly the problem I was having! The article included suggestions from several of Microsoft's MVPs for possible solutions to try. Paul W was advised to download a program called "Dial-A-Fix" and perform certain sections of it, taking care to make careful backups before launching this beta version software tool. Yikes!

Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound. I downloaded. I ran. After the obligatory reboot, Microsoft Update once again reported that it was ready to install 79 new updates. I clicked OK and went for a walk. When I came back, the installations were done, but that damnable yellow shield was there again, this time saying it had two more updates to install. OK, go! Again the shield appeared, reporting one more update to install. This had better be the end of it! It was.

All was right with the world.

Not quite. I wanted to go back to the Microsoft Update site to look at my history of updates. But every time I clicked the link, I was booted from Microsoft's Internet Explorer into Fire Fox, which, of course, Microsoft Update won't accept! That's when I noticed that my IE had reverted from version 7 back to version 6. But now I couldn't download version 7 because the Microsoft Update site insists on verifying that you have a genuine copy of Windows before it lets you download, and that requires an Active-X control in Internet Explorer, which could no longer access the download site! Catch-22.

Eventually I found a way to convince Microsoft's website that I had a real, genuine, not bootlegged copy of Windows and it finally allowed me to download an install package for IE7.

Cost: 3 days of frustration.

Moral: Before you fix something, make sure it's the thing that's broken.

Moral II: Computers don't seem to care if it is a "dry heat."

About the "yes" part

zenith system invoice

In a recent archaeological dig through boxes of "stuff" I've been schlepping around for years, I came across the invoice for the first computer that I ever bought for myself, in 1985. For the princely sum of $1014 — after an education discount — I got a system with dual floppy disk drives (the 360Kb size), a whopping 256K of memory, and what I considered a 'color' monitor: amber. There was no hard drive, of course, for in those days, the entire operating system was on a single 360K diskette. After loading it you put in your application disk, like Lotus 1-2-3 or WordStar (also on a single diskette). With two drives, I could put a blank diskette into the B: drive to store whatever files I produced.

By contrast, the laptop I have now has 1Gb of memory, a 76Gb hard drive, and an LCD display capable of 32-bit color. It cost about the same as the machine I bought in 1985 with a tiny fraction of the capability. It has many times more computing power than the mainframe in the University computing center that I used to analyze the data for my doctoral dissertation. So, yes, I do think technology's a grand thing.

But whenever something like this happens, I always come back to the question, What do regular people do when stuff happens to their computers? I have the benefit of some computer training (I once could program in FORTRAN!) and spent a whole career working around computers of various kinds. If I have this much trouble, what does Aunt Martha in Topeka do when her system goes haywire?

Of course we know the answer to that question: she calls the neighbor's 5-year old to fix it for her!