COMPUTEREASE: Why Does Your Computer Get Sick?
Dr. Thomas W. Shinder

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Anyone who's used a Windows operating system-based computer has come up against a wall at some time or another. Your programs have been working well, doing what they're supposed to be doing, and then one day, BANG, suddenly they don't work anymore. What do you do?

Most novice computer users think it's perhaps just a fluke or freak occurrence, and that simply rebooting should fix things. And often it will. Many of us have grown accustomed to Windows' ability to diagnose and fix itself. But suppose you reboot and try to start your program again, and it still doesn't work. Uh-oh. Now what?

Or perhaps you've experienced that most harrowing of computer glitches: Windows95 refuses to load, and you get a cryptic message stating that you're missing some vital "device driver" or ".dll". Restarting the computer a thousand times still won't fix your problem. In this case, your computer has lost its ability to heal itself.

Why do these things happen? Are they attributable to the same "gremlins" which afflicted the Air Force's bombers during World War II? Did somebody come in, unbeknownst to you, and selectively destroy key components of your computer in order to prevent you from meeting that important deadline? Is it black magic? Sun spots? El Niño?

Probably not.

What are some of the major causes of critical illness in your computer? Understanding the origins of the trouble will point you in the right direction in attempting to repair it. Otherwise, your attempts to make things better may only result in additional problems.

Just as our personal health problems are often caused by failure to take care of our bodies as we should, our computers' "health" problems are often symptoms of our careless treatment or unwitting neglect.

For example, turning off your Windows95 computer improperly can wreak havoc on your operating system. Unlike DOS-based computer systems, Windows95 stays very busy behind the scenes. Even when you aren't doing anything with the computer, the program is still busy keeping track of all sorts of things in its memory. If you don't shut down the computer "gracefully" (the term Microsoft uses to describe the "shut down" command process), you may lose data, and even important operating system files.

People often ask why the "graceful" shutdown is so important. And it is true that most of the time people seem to get away with just turning off the computer and having nothing bad happen. But think of it this way: compare turning off your computer properly to putting someone to sleep properly. There are several ways people can go to sleep. You can go to sleep "properly", snug in your bed, lights off, with your eyes closed, or you can go to sleep by having someone knock you in the head with a brick. Most of the time you'll wake up in one piece after going to sleep that way, but if you keep using that method, I can almost promise you, one morning you'll wake up "not quite right."

So go ahead and save yourself some trouble down the road. Turn off the computer the "graceful" way: click the start button, trace to "shut down", and click OK. Then when it says, "it is now safe to turn off your computer", do so. Both of you will wake up feeling better.

And what if you've been a good "mom," and shut down your computer correctly all along? What else might lead to dreadful critical computer illness?

If you have installed any new programs since you purchased your computer, there's one likely suspect. When you first got your neat Windows95 computer, chances are everything worked like a charm. The vendor you purchased the machine from was careful to make sure the programs which came with it were all compatible and did not interfere with each other. But suppose you just had to have Corel Photopaint 7.0. The price of the program was irresistible, so you bought it and installed it yourself. The program seemed to install without a hitch, and you prepared yourself to create true works of art with your digital mind meld. However, after you started the program, you noticed that the icons on the toolbar didn't look quite right, and all the screen fonts looked as if they were in a foreign language -- and you noticed this not only in Photopaint, but in all your other programs as well!

The problem is that, like children, some programs are not well behaved. Many have the tendency to "overwrite" or copy over important system files (most of which live in your c:\windows or c:\windows\system folders). When these programs perform such dastardly deeds, they hobble and potentially disable many of your most productive programs. The disastrous end result is that nothing works right anymore.

How do you prevent this sort of disaster? Research the programs you want to buy. And then before spending your money, make sure they are compatible with the programs you use most often. Consult with someone who has experience with the program you want to buy and ask if that person has had any problems. Consult a professional if you depend on your computer for mission-critical work (i.e., your computer must work correctly or it will have a significant negative impact on your social/moral/financial existence).

The worst kind of misadventure often takes place when you try to put in new hardware. Tired of that pokey old 28.8k modem? Ramp up to one of those 56k speedsters. Want to clear the endless clutter of papers strewn all over your office? Buy a scanner and aspire to the "paperless" office. You're collecting all sorts of information and programs and "stuff" from the Internet which you want to save, but your hard drive is starting to choke, and you need more storage space for your stuff? Buy a Zip drive.

OK. But now that you have your new stuff in, the computer doesn't start, and it "locks up" out of nowhere, or your new toy works sometimes and doesn't work at other times, without discernible rhyme or reason. What's the problem? It could be any number of things when you're talking about hardware. From something as simple as a loose cable connection to something as complex as incorrect IRQ/DMA/COM settings (yikes!) to poorly written drivers (pieces of software written to allow a hardware device like a modem or zip drive or scanner to communicate with the rest of your computer).

The first thing you might try is to go to the manufacturer's website and see if there are any updated drivers for your device. If there are, download them and install them onto your computer. Restart, cross your fingers, and hope that things will work right again. If not, it may be time to seek professional help.

There are a virtually infinite number of things that can go wrong with your computer, and these are just a few of the most common - and true to Murphy's Law, you can be assured that whatever can go wrong, probably will at some point or another. However, if you apply some preventative medicine, you may just be able to better your odds of avoiding the common pitfalls, and help you reduce some stress and strain in the bargain. Maintain your computer's health, and I promise, you'll be improving your own mental health as well.

Thomas W. Shinder, M.D., M.C.P. is a neurologist-turned-computer systems engineer who practiced medicine in Texas, Oregon and Arkansas before moving to his present home in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas metropolitan area.

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