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VCR

Do Computers Get Tired?

A Silver Bullet?

Until recently, I would have dismissed the notion that electronic gunk can accumulate in a machine and cause it to act erratically. But a few months ago my high-speed Internet connection, which is normally rock solid, started getting flaky. I unplugged my cable modem, plugged it back in and voila… things were back to normal.

And since then I’ve repeated the procedure a few times with good results, whenever I noticed a slowdown in my Internet speed. So I started thinking… maybe electronic devices and appliances really do get tired, clogged with electrons, or whatever. It turns out that there is some good science to support this layman’s observation.

Jerrold Foutz is a Scientist with a capital S. There aren’t many people alive who know more about how electronic gadgets (especially power supplies) are supposed to work. So you might be surprised to hear that when your computer, microwave, VCR or high-tech coffee pot isn’t behaving, his best advice is “just unplug it.”

Totally Cosmic, Dude.In a fascinating article on electronics trouble shooting, Foutz talks about something called a Single Event Upset (SEU) that can cause electronic circuitry to malfunction. An SEU can be caused by a power glitch, or a cosmic ray passing through a integrated circuit, and can actually flip the logic state (from 1 to 0 or vice versa) of a circuit. A cascading effect may trigger a hardware lockup or an infinite loop in software.

For lots more technical details, and even some suggestions on how better design can help to prevent this problem, see the full article on Trouble Shooting Electronics.

Of course in the case of computers running complex operating system and application software, other factors may come into play. Sloppy coding practices can result in ‘memory leaks’ which over time will cause performance to degrade. But from the end user perspective, the problem looks no different than a hardware error caused by cosmic rays.

Fortunately, the solution is the same in both cases: shut it down, turn it back on, and things will be good again… for a while.