October 12th, 2004

Wedding day

Operator error: Replace user and strike any key to continue

I love listening to people who don't know computers talk about the problems they're having with them (provided I'm not being asked to fix said problems).

Today somebody in my department got a blue screen of death. This is really weird because he's using Windows XP, and this almost never happens. It's not The Blue Screen of Death, just a blue screen in screen mode 12 (640x480x16 graphics, 80x60 text, in case you wanted to know) with white text displaying a physical memory location, the error message "Paging_File_Leak - Performing physical memory dump."

I've seen messages like this one before. Actually, I see them a lot because I run a lot of old DOS programs which tend to access the hardware directly. Newer operating systems prefer to allocate system resources based on demand, so when Windows encounters a low-level request, it does what it can to make the program happy without giving it direct control. Sometimes this isn't possible and a minor unrecoverable system error is generated. Windows forces your program to shut down, you get a nice little message box about it, and if your program was accessing certain VGA screen modes you have to refresh your display settings or reboot your PC to read anything. That's what usually happens. In some very rare instances, the operating system won't catch the request for resources until your DOS program is altering the memory set aside for some other process, and you get a blue screen like the one I described above.

Mac users who don't comprehend why anyone should go through this are reminded that Apple has a habit of declaring incompatibilities between their new hardware and their old software every few years. What I'm describing is probably akin to trying to run Hypercard on Jaguar. The difference is that Apple tells you not to do it. Microsoft doesn't because older software will usually run on a newer OS, though it might take a little patience to make the program think it's running on a 386. Besides, when was the last time you tried to play Commander Keen on a Pentium 4? My guess is never.

None of that is even marginally relevant to what I witnessed today. The guy in question only uses Lotus Notes, Internet Explorer, and the terminal emulator we use to access the company mainframe. He was typing away in Internet Explorer when his PC blue-screened. Nobody knows why, but I suspect it has something to do with his new scanner, because the computer wouldn't recognize it when it was installed last week. Our IT guy came over with two PCs and a cartload of components, gutted all three computers, and cobbled a new one together. The only new driver he installed was for the scanner. My guess is that there's a hardware incompatibility somewhere, but God knows.

Anyway, the whole point of the story is the conversation I had with the guy whose PC it is or rather, the conversation he had with nobody in particular while I was considering his predicament:

"Do you think it's the keyboard? This keyboard is grey, but the box is black. I had a black keyboard before. Is it some kind of color conflict? The headphone jack is purple, but my headphones are black too. It says there's a paging file leak and it's dumping the memory, but I don't see where it's going. Is it building up inside the box or is it an electronic thing on the Internet? Gee, do you think they mean the paging file for the intercom? Maybe my phone is too close to my computer. Do you think that might be the problem? I also sit pretty close sometimes... It says there's a leak. Maybe something in the box isn't big enough to hold the paging file. I wish this computer had a window on it like the new ones do, so I could see when it's getting too full...."

...and so on. The punchline? I'm paraphrasing from memory, but he voiced every one of those concerns. He called our IT guy and took his lunchbreak. The IT guy came upstairs and did what I would have done if it had been my computer: he took one look and rebooted the thing.
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    Harry Vander -- Magnetic Fields