It's Broken Doctor

Do you remember the film Independence Day? In case you do not the basic plot was a bunch of aliens come to Earth and start blowing up cities. We can't fight back because the bad guys have force fields. Our hero then flies up to the alien mothership in a captured alien fighter, access their main computer and inserts a virus. This virus shuts down the force fields on all the alien ships and we destroy them. Well apart from the mothership which our hero destroys.

Independence Day

A pretty silly plot when put like that. Mind you the film was well done and enjoyable and the explosions were truly wonderful. I was particularly impressed by the woman who managed to escape an explosion which wiped out a complete city just by hiding in a maintenance cupboard. The other thing I like was the ease with which the hero logged into the alien computer and zapped it with a virus. Not only did he manage to take out a computer which was, presumably, considerably more advanced that anything we have but also the computers in all the other alien spacecraft at the same time. This, I thought at the time, was totally unbelievable. Mind you I have since realised that a minor change to what a couple of the character say would make it very believable. [The scientist who was studying the captured ship says something like "40 years we have had this and all we can do is crash the computers. Every time." then the hero, when he thinks of a virus says something like "A Virus, well it's not really a virus but never mind."]

I also realised that crashing computers is very easy. A 'simple' change can often bring the system to its knees, and if that system is on a network, it can bring the whole network down. Just like in ID4 [By the way why is abbreviated to ID 4 ?]

Of course in real life when the system goes done you just call up the help desk, right? I can just imagine the conversation in alien ship,

"Hey Zzzzyyyygph what has happened to the force field"
"I don't know Commander. It looks like a computer fault"
"So phone the help desk then"
"Alien Mothership, Computer Help Line, how can I help you?"
"The force field has gone down"
"We have a minor problem with the computer network. It will be fixed shortly"
"But what do we do in the meantime? The earthlings are shooting rockets at us and it's ruining the paintwork"
"Why don't you try the Big Laser Thingy"
"Will that restore the force field?"
"No. But blasting a load of Earthlings into a million bits will give you something to do while you're waiting"
"Oh. Thank you. Commander the Help Desk suggests using the Big Laser Thingy we have"
"Will it help?"
"Don't know sir"
"Well, we've got nothing else to do so fire it up"
"Engaging Big Laser Thingy now, sir"
"Here, what's that silly bugger up to"
"Looks like he flying right up our Big Laser Thingy, Sir"
"What ever for he can't do any dam..... Oh Sh*t - pass me a fire extinguisher someone"

Mind you if the aliens were like us and able to fix computers quickly and efficiently the film might have had a different ending. :-)

"Hold it. Finding out what is wrong with a computer is a nightmare."

Well, yes it can be. But it does not have to be, if you do things the right way.

And the first thing to learn is that when something goes wrong put the kettle on and make a cup of tea.

I told that to one of my colleagues recently and his response was "If I do that I get a reputation for not caring or wanting to fix about the problem." To which I replied "Well then go and get the manual, or say "I'll get on it as soon as I have talked to Sue or Harry or Jane" or something, anything, but don't rush into fixing the problem." The point is to think about what you are going to do before you do it. It is amazing how often thinking about the problem for a few minutes helps. :-)

The next thing to do is to think about the problem and ask yourself some questions

"What have I changed recently?"
"Have I installed any new software, demos, patches, printer drivers, in fact anything?"
"Have I reinstalled anything recently?"
"Have I removed anything?"
"What, exactly, was the error message?"

This last question is possibly the most important since that should give you an idea of where the problem lies. Unfortunately, unless you are fairly experienced it may be pretty meaningless, if not downright daft. I remember one application that occasionally crashed with the error message "ERROR: There is no error." Very useful.

On the other hand you often get some idea of where the problem might be. For example if the message says something like File xxxxxxxx.yyy is incorrect version then it is reasonable to assume that some component needs upgrading. So the first thing you should do is look in the manual and see if you can find the error message. If it is not in the manual that came with your new software/hardware try looking in the Dos and Windows manuals, if you have any.

"But what if the error message is not listed or I don't have a manual?"

Well in that case things are a little more difficult. However most problems are caused either by making a change to the system or by a software bug. Now strange as it may seem, bugs in new software are not actually that common, although I do have to admit that games seem to have more than their fair share.

It is also possible that you have a hardware problem, but again this is unusual, epically in a machine that has been running for well for a few weeks. Thus the most likely cause of the problem is a change you have made.

So the first thing to look at is what has changed.

Often this will be obvious. You will have installed a new piece of software or a demo or a new printer or a graphics card or something. Unfortunately it is also possible that you have installed something without realising it. For example, if you are running Windows XP then you may have automatic updates switched on and that might have installed a patch. And you might not realise it. Also remember that removing something is also a change. So deleting the folder containing that game you never play is a change and it might just be the cause of your problem.

So you will need to think very carefully about what has changed.

Once you have worked out what has changed, try removing it, or replacing it, as the case may be.

If that works then you know the area to look at. If it does not then you have to move onto the next step - looking at the symptoms.

This is where experience comes in. And, unfortunately, I can't cover every possible, symptom in this column, but here are some common ones.

The computer makes a number of beeps but does not start up.
This is almost certainly a hardware problem. The beeps are part of the start up testing, known as the POST, and indicate a specific problem. Note that a number of PC's will beep on start up to say everything is OK, what you are looking for here is a different set of beeps. I'm not going to go into hardware in this column, but I will in another one soon.

The computer starts up, but a number of programs crash when you start them.
This one is a worry. There are two likely causes, a corrupt DLL or a problem with the hard disk. A DLL is a file which is used by lots of different programs which is very useful, but if it gets changed or damaged, then lots of programs fail. The problem here is to find out which DLL has failed since most PC's will have a rather a lot of them, 4,169 on the machine I'm typing this on. If you have recently installed a new program, or a new version of an existing one, then removing it may restore the DLL. On the other hand it may not. But if written correctly the at least the uninstall routine should tell you which files it has not removed.

The second possible cause, a hard disk problem, is a real worry. You could lose all your data, if you are not careful. The first thing to do BEFORE trying to fix the problem is to take a full back up. In fact take two backups. At least. And when you have done that take a backup. :-)

OK I'm being a bit silly, but you can't have too many backups. And you would be amazed at how many times I seen a backup that could not be read and thus you could not restore from. Which basically makes it useless.

Once you have you back up run a disk checker. If you are running Windows the boot up into safe mode [press f8 when starting up and select safe mode] and start Windows explorer. The right click on the drive letter, usually C: and select properties/tools. Make sure the automatically fix the file system errors box and the Scan for bad sectors one are both ticked. Then click start. This can take some time so go and have a cup of coffee or tea.

Hopefully when you have finished your coffee the hard disk will be working wonderfully. And your pigs will be happily flying around the garden at a height of 10 feet. :-)

Actually if that was the problem you hard disk will almost certainly be working fine now, unfortunately your programs might not be. Depending upon the actual problem it is possible for the disk checking software to left files in a damaged state. Unfortunately, there is very little than can be done to prevent this. Even a very good disk recovery tool in the hands of an expert user can give the same result. The only solution is to reinstall the software.

The computer starts up fine but as soon as you start a program it crashes, possibly giving a strange error message followed by a lot of strange numbers scrolling up the screen. In some cases it can even reboot your machine for you!
This is probably the most common symptom of all. And unfortunately the most unhelpful. There are a number of possible causes for this sort of behaviour, ranging from the program not being designed to work with that operating system, for example a Windows 2000 program may not work well on a Windows 95 machine, to the program not liking the graphics or sound card.

So how do you find out what the problem is?

Well the first thing is to look at the box the software came in and the manuals. Somewhere should be a list of the minimum requirements, make sure you system meets it. The look on your hard disk and/or the disk the software came on. Hopefully you will find a file called something like READ.ME - read it and see if there is any mention of problems with your particular hardware.

The next thing is look at the error message, if there is one. Hopefully you will be able to look that up the manual that came with the machine, but my experience is that such error messages are only useful to experts.

At this point you probably need to get another cup of coffee so that you can take a step back from the problem and have a think about it.

A lot now depends upon weather the program has ever worked. If it has not then it's reasonable to assume that there is something on your machine the program does not like. If the program is a game, then check which version of the drivers for your graphics and sound card's you are running. If it is not the latest, then go to the appropriate web site and download the latest versions. Then take a full backup and install them. This is unlikely to fix the problem, but when you talk to Technical Support they will tell you to install the latest drivers, so you have saved yourself a phone call. :-)

If the program did work and now does not it starts to get tricky. At this point you have tried the obvious things, checked the hard disk, removed, or reinstalled, any programs, drivers etc. Installing the latest drivers etc are unlikely to fix the problem. Which only leaves re-installing the offending program.

At this point you have tried just about all the general things you can. The one exception is to check the hardware. In Windows you can do this by right clicking on My Computer and selecting properties and then Device Manager. Have a look for an Exclamation Mark, !, in a yellow circle. If you find one then you have a problem with that device.

In order to try and solve these types of problems you need to understand things like Interrupts, Memory address and so on. I'm running out of space so I'll leave talking about them until another time.

In the meantime Live Long and Prosper. And remember if you want to play havoc with any passing UFO's just point your portable PC at it and send it a virus :-)