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Reliable Technology

One of the important parts of my job – at least in my opinion because I’m not sure what the management think (and I don’t really care) – is testing new programs so I can solve problems and make recommendations relating to these. An unfortunate side effect of this is that sometimes I install something which messes up my computer pretty badly and that is what happened recently.

Yes, even Macs can sometimes get messed up by incompatible and badly written software or even just by damaged preference files and other components. I would have to say that even though my machine got terribly confused I didn’t have to clear the hard disk, or reinstall the operating system, or even reinstall any software.

But I did have to disable all of my preference files (several thousand of them) and move them back individually until I discovered where the problem was coming from. Its not as bad as it sounds because I use a “binary chop” method where I move half and see if the problem occurs then move half of the remainder in or out until the problem is isolated. That means it takes a manageable amount of time, for example to positively identify one from 1000 entries takes 10 iterations. This is a classic computer science approach in action!

As a side effect of this process I also threw away some stuff I wasn’t using any more. This has resulted in my machine running more quickly. A good indication of the efficiency of a laptop like mine is the temperature it runs at when the fans are off (which is almost all the time). Before the tidy up mine ran at about 52 degrees but now its at 46. This means the machine is faster (because some background tasks must have been using up some of the CPU’s cycles, but they now run at about 2% each when “idle”) and cooler (better when it sits on my knee so much) and the battery lasts longer (that heat has to come from somewhere).

It took a few hours to sort through the problems and figure out the best way to fix things but at least I think I know what went wrong. I think the wireless settings got corrupted which meant the internet connection was in a half-working state leading to the synchronisation process of one of my extra programs getting stuck which in turn lead to a rapidly escalating demand for memory which swamped the paged memory management and made the machine decreasingly responsive until it was almost impossible to do anything.

When I get problems on a client’s computer I would prefer to use similar diagnostic techniques but because I have to charge for my time that’s usually not possible because the client would complain about the charge for the extra time. That means that after 30 minutes of diagnosis I often just have to admit defeat and re-install the operating system. Luckily Macs can have a fresh OS installed (in about an hour) while maintaining the programs and user data, but its still a bit of a waste of time and the next time the same fault happens I still don’t know what caused it.

Because the computer was partly disabled, with no wireless internet access and some other services I commonly use were not working I did get surprisingly behind in my usual IT tasks. Emails piled up, news web sites remained unvisited, and podcasts didn’t get downloaded for almost two days. I guess you really don’t realise how much you depend on technology working reliably until it doesn’t!

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