12 June 2007

No Deus Ex Machina

When I wrote recently about the importance of technical knowledge, given the world in which we live, I was thinking in particular about a few people I know who often have complicated, hard-to-resolve computer problems that often seem self-created. But I was also thinking about myself – reminding myself to stay on top of my technical game. It’s been a long, long time since my first Commodore and my first Apple, but the perspective I formed then, as a kid – that we should probably make people pass a test before they can use a personal computer – has never left. It is, in a sense, like driving: if you don’t know how the machine operates on the inside, then what you do with it on the outside will always derive from a limited perspective.

Which is all well and good to say. How about when your computer just stops doing something it was doing perfectly well the day before?

That is what has been happening to me. My reasonably new Dell XPS 400 – running Windows XP, with a 3 Ghz processor, a full gigabyte of RAM, and a 150 GB hard drive – decided randomly three weeks ago that it wouldn’t recognize my camera. Nothing had changed since the last time that I’d used the camera: same computer, same software, no updates or installations, same cable and USB connection...

So I moved the cable from the USB hub into a different USB socket, and then the camera worked. Odd.

Then my printer stopped working, too. Similar situation: nothing had changed, and the computer even said the printer was installed properly – but it wouldn’t do a test print, and wouldn’t print my document.

I changed the USB port, reinstalled the printer, and then it worked. Frustrating, and odd.

The one commonality – I thought – was the USB hub: both the camera and the computer were plugged into the same one. Maybe the hub was broken? I unplugged the hub and tested it in a different USB port; it works fine. Well, if the obvious pattern no longer fits, one has to start looking for some hidden pattern: what could I have done that, ever so inadvertently, caused something to stop working? Nothing, I was sure of it.

Except use Window’s “Standby” mode to cool down the computer when I was away for long periods.

As a PC user who ditched Apple more than 20 years ago in frustration, let me say: I also hate Windows. I left Apple because, back in the era of the early Mac, I found the system inscrutable when problems occurred: with a PC, I could always tinker, get inside its guts and fix the problem; with the evolving Mac, I got only a cute little system bomb icon, followed by the dulcet tones of a hard reboot, and no chance to see what was going wrong. The beauty of Apple’s system for the computer-illiterate was a red flag of frustration for the tinkerer. Still, I hate Windows, too, precisely for problems like the one I’m experiencing, the seemingly-arbitrary, difficult to resolve issues caused by the entirely inadvertent user action. If I’d known about the “Standby” problems, I might not use it. (The knowledge that the new Mac operating systems run on user-accessible code might some day lure me back.)

And so, to my problem... It looks like the issue may be a quirk in how Windows uses the “Standby” mode: in cutting power to the USB hub, it may no longer recognize the hub when the computer wakes up. I have two external USB hubs and, indeed, one does not have a separate power supply; it draws power from the computer. I made the tweaks recommended, but to no avail thus far. Now I’m testing my own resolution to this ridiculous problem: activating one of the devices connected to the hub, like my printer, before bringing the machine out of “Standby” mode. Thus far the results remain, in a word, frustrating.


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