Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 30 / APRIL 1989 / PAGE 97


The Disaster Magnet

by Maurice Molyneaux

ST-LOG invites all authors to submit essays for possible use in the Footnotes column. Submissions should be no longer than 1,500 words and may be on any aspect of Atari computing. Any style or type of essay is acceptable: opinion, humor, personal experience. Creativity is a plus. Submissions should be sent to: Footnotes, c/o ST-LOG, P.O. Box 1413-M.O., Manchester, CT 06040-1413.

Have you ever noticed that electronic devices seem to be more prone to weird failures, misalignments and outright disasters than just about anything this side of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet? For example, my faithful Technics cassette deck suddenly went on the fritz the other day. The sound just went flat. The night before, it worked fine. The next morning, it sounded like some deranged audio-phile had simultaneously activated Dol-by B and C (and maybe even D through Z from the sound of it), and also DBX noise reduction—as well as shoved pillows into my stereo's woofers. There was no gradual degradation of sound; no hint that this was going to happen. Bang! It was just there!

This sudden type of disaster recently happened to my friend's hard drives. He parked and shut off his hard disks (he has two mechanisms), and when he turned them back on the next day, the second drive wouldn't work. It turned out that the drive motor had burned out, and the drive couldn't get up to speed! One night, all is fine. The next day, it's pushing up daisies.

Then there are the cases of floppy disks that go bad, floppy drives that write disks that other drives of the same type can't read (and, eventually, neither can they!) and programs that suddenly begin bombing when they had behaved themselves for a year or more. Or how about those important data files that get jumbled, and you find that the only backup disks you have (if any) have gone dead too?

Sound familiar? If you've used a computer for any amount of time, you've probably run into these problems.

Just why do these things happen, so suddenly, like a disk write out of the blue? Are we slaves to the cruel whims of fate? Are we being punished by the gods above? Could there be scientific explanations? Are there reasons why electronic devices—computers in particular—seem to act like magnets for disaster?

Umm...we'll try the scientific explanations.

Let's look at those hardware failures. In the case of both my cassette deck and the freaked-out floppy drive, one explanation that comes to mind is that both began to act up a while ago, but the misadjustments were so slight as to not really affect the performance of the devices. But then, as they slid farther and farther from the "ideal" state, they eventually crossed the threshold from "stable" to "clinically dead." They became stiffs. The curtain came down, and they joined the bleeding choir invisible. Bereft of life, they now rest in peace (pieces?). Ahem. Because an electronic device generally either works or it doesn't, there aren't often any stages in between, sad to say.

As for the hard drive that kicked off, a power spike or voltage irregularity (otherwise known as an electron riot) during the drive's power-up could have done it in. Either way, the result is lost data, wasted time and most terrible and frightening of all...maybe even a repair bill!

How about those dying disks, strangled software and curious crashes? (Please absolve me of my abysmal attempts at alliteration.) Well, the explanations can be one (or more) of many, from the Earth's magnetic field playing tricks to cosmic rays clobbering a crucial bit on disk and/or in memory to the monitor's magnetic field (or Junior playing with the magnets from the refrigerator) mucking up your important data. And let's not forget the ever-popular "the dog chewed it up" excuse.

Personally, I think it's the cosmic rays playing pranks on the disk's electrons. Consequently, the angered electrons form a labor union and go on strike. But, because the cosmic rays never cease, neither does the strike—and your data is effectively lost. This is not mere conjecture. I have data to support this conclusion. Now where did that copy of the Enquirer go?

On a related track: It's obvious that your monitor's screen gets dusty due to the fact that static electricity (that's the scientific term for electrons scuffing their feet on the carpet) is a wonderful glue for all those sneaky dust particles that are itching to clog your computer's digital arteries. But, have you ever noticed how smoke seems to make a beeline for your computer? Although I don't allow smoking anywhere near my computer or anywhere in my home period, I've noticed this phenomenon elsewhere. Unlike the gradual adhering of dust, there seem to be currents that draw smoke toward your computer. Now, clearly, magnetic fields and static electricity alone cannot account for this, so what's the explanation?

Here's my guess. I call it the "Modified Bradshaw Smoke Convection Theory" (named for my friend, Mark Bradshaw, who came up with the premise as he tried to determine why cigarette smoke always gravitated towards nonsmokers). The theory works as follows: When a person smokes, his body's surface temperature decreases slightly, radiating less heat and thus warming the surrounding air less. This creates a high-pressure zone. The computer, meanwhile, with all its warm little electronic components, generates more heat, causing the surrounding air to warm, rise and expand. This creates a low-pressure zone. Follow me? Okay, so now we have a smoker with a high-pressure, smoke-filled zone around him and a nearby computer with a low-pressure zone around it. A little basic physics (or meteorology) will tell you what happens next. The smoke from the high-pressure zone moves into the low-pressure zone and bingo! Your computer smells like the winner of the Benson & Hedges Smoke and Choke Off.

Either that, or computers, like some people, just enjoy the smoke and suck it up of their own volition, not concerned about the danger to the health of their data. My suspicion is that most electrons are addicted to nicotine, and when they're all charged up by your computer, they start sucking really hard to get at that smoke.

Of course, one of the greatest mysteries of all is how something this absurd gets printed in an otherwise respectable computer magazine in the first place. There's an explanation for that too, known as "Einstein's Theory of Relative Humor," but I'll spare you the details.