Computer bugs have been the bane of computer users since the advent of computers. It sometimes seems that there’s always a problem, some little or big glitch in how your software or hardware is supposed to work.
Fortunately, there are often “workarounds” you can employ to get things functioning again.
A recent experience of mine provides an example. On one of my laptops I’m running Windows 7. After it automatically installed one of the Microsoft updates through Windows Update, the copy function in Windows Explorer stopped working. Every time I tried to copy a file, I would get an error message and Windows Explorer would shut down.
In perusing Microsoft Knowledge Base and other online sources, I came across various suggested solutions. Various things were blamed, including a bad video driver. Nothing helped. What got Windows Explorer working for me again was rolling back Microsoft’s update through System Restore.
But I felt I needed the security fixes Microsoft periodically rolls out, and the next time Windows Update ran, I was faced with the same problem. Windows Explorer can carry out other file management tasks, just not copying files from one directory to another, from one disk to another, or from my laptop to the cloud.
The workaround I’m employing is using another program, 7-Zip, to do my copying. Its main purpose is to archive files, but it can copy too. Using 7-Zip, I can even copy files from it to Windows Explorer but not from Windows Explorer to it without Windows Explorer crashing. Still, my workaround works.
Typically you just need to try various things to work around computer bugs. Sometimes it’s simply trial and error.
The bug I faced is mind-bogglingly trivial compared to some out there, and there have been some doozies. The most publicized have involved space flight.
NASA’s Mars orbiter crashed into the red planet in 1999 because Lockheed Martin programmers used English units of measurement while NASA programmers used the metric system—and nobody checked.
A software bug in 1995 caused the European Space Agency rocket Ariane 5 to blow up less than a minute in flight. It was caused by the rocket being faster than previous rockets that used the same software, with the programmers not anticipating the consequences.
In 1962, the Mariner 1 exploded five minutes into flight. This was caused by a programmer who omitted a hyphen, one hyphen. The satellite veered off course, and to avoid a potentially deadly crash into the earth, engineers destroyed it instead.
Some computer bugs are more duds than bugs. The Millennium Bug, also called the Year 2000 or Y2K problem, didn’t cause the worldwide disruptions in the electric power, financial, transportation, and other industries that some had feared. It was caused by programmers not factoring in that programs they wrote in the 1980s and early 1990s would still be used in the year 2000.
More recently, in 2014, the Heartbleed Bug got a lot of attention, but it also didn’t cause a lot of problems. It came about through a programmer-caused defect in a web infrastructure program called OpenSSL that could have made it easier for bad guys to steal people’s web logins and passwords. As with the Millennium Bug, programmers worked diligently to fix the problem as soon as it was discovered.
That doesn’t always happen in time. Other computer bugs have led to the death of hospital patients.
The term “computer bug” came about, according to popular mythology, when a moth flew into a U.S. Navy computer in 1945. But “bug” was used back in Thomas Edison’s day to signify a glitch in a mechanical system.
Most run-of-the-mill computer bugs are caused by insufficient product development cycles. Companies feel compelled to introduce new features and release new versions quickly to maximize earnings. Product testing is sometimes sacrificed.
To be fair, many “bugs” aren’t software or hardware glitches at all but instead are malfunctions caused by users failing to follow directions.
Nonetheless, the computer industry could be doing better. Microsoft gets a lot of blame because it is such a big target. And produces its fair share of bugs. But Apple, Google, Facebook, Samsung, and quite possibly everyone who has ever put out a piece of even slightly sophisticated software or hardware puts bugs out there too.
Software can have many millions of lines of code. Making a program bug-free is a Sisyphean task. Add to this all the other software and hardware that have to work together, and there are billions of opportunities for mistakes.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.