"System Crash"-- Literally (9/24/04)

You know what the hardest part of Wildly Off-Topic Microsoft-Bashing Day is? It's figuring out which plotline to incorporate, because there's always a bucketful of Redmond-spawned nightmares from which to choose. Take today, for example; do we go with faithful viewer Frozen Tundra's suggestion, and discuss how Microsoft used its AutoUpdate program to fix-- what else?-- AutoUpdate itself? After all, there's something delightfully absurdist about an update that "fixes an error in the AutoUpdate download progress bar, which did not accurately display the progress of the download" and warns people that, "while this update is downloading, the progress bar might not accurately display the status." Shades of the old PC BIOS error "No keyboard detected; press ENTER to continue."

Or we could just take the ol' "less secure than a bank vault locked with a pancake" route and go with faithful viewer Fringe's note that, according to ComputerWorld, "nearly 5,000 new Windows viruses and worms were documented in the first half of 2004, up from about 1,000 in the same period a year earlier." Beyond simply representing a 400% increase, as Fringe so astutely points out, 5,000 viruses divided by 183 days (half a year) gives us 27.3224 new viruses per day, or more than one virus an hour every hour since your last New Year's hangover. Meaning that, if using Mac OS X is like, say, breathing through a mask in a sterile operating room of a top-rated internationally-known hospital, then Windows is roughly equivalent to licking every surface in a gas station bathroom and then kissing former Mötley Crüe drummer and BuyMusic.com spokesman Tommy Lee full on the mouth.

In the end, though, we think we're going to have to skip Goofy and drive right past Gross; we're taking the exit straight to the little town of Terrifying this week, because few things can drive home the point of just how bad an idea Windows can be like a tale of near-death from above. It was tough, but we actually managed to sit on the story that faithful viewer Andy Van Buren sent us ages ago, so here it is for WO-TM-BD: according to Techworld (which in turn cites an LA Times story from a week ago), the Windows-based radio system for an air traffic control center in Southern California took a three-hour coffee break recently, leaving "800 planes in the air without contact to air traffic control." But hey, how dangerous could that possibly be?

Well, luckily none of those 800 planes decided to get too friendly with each other, but reportedly there were "at least five cases" where incommunicado aircraft "came too close to one another" as air traffic controllers could only look on and do that body english thing where you try to get the ball to hook by sheer force of will after it's halfway down the lane. Apparently they used their own personal cell phones to alert controllers at other facilities, but basically, the radio system crash had left them with zero direct control over what planes went where-- which eventually led to three controllers filing "job injury claims as a result of the stress."

So what caused the outage? Technically it was "human error," in that some guy who's no doubt currently working on his résumé forgot to reboot the Windows servers. But the reason he was supposed to reboot them in the first place is because of "a 'design anomaly' in the way Microsoft Windows servers were integrated into the system" last year to replace the original UNIX servers. Okay, so now how stupid is this? Apparently "the servers are timed to shut down after 49.7 days of use in order to prevent a data overload," which is why personnel are supposed to restart the system manually once a month to prevent the forced shutdown from happening. There was a backup system in place, but that cratered, too, due to a (ahem) "software failure." Hence, no talkie with the big flying things.

Far be it from us to imply that the "design anomaly" was the fault of Windows itself; more likely it was the software running on top of it, though of course we can't say for sure. What we can say is that anyone who'd actually make the reckless choice to design a mission-critical, absolutely-can't-fail-or-people-could-die system around Windows instead of UNIX is probably going to be pretty prone to introducing "design anomalies" in the first place. And while we'd never wish a midair plane crash on anyone, part of us can't help but suspect that if anything can get the Windoid lemmings to consider that "hey, maybe this operating system kindasorta sucks rocks out loud," it would be a fiery hail of twisted, screaming metal and black and red body parts pummelling the tarmac at LAX. Will a near-miss or two be enough of a wake-up call? We sure hope so.

SceneLink (4944)
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The above scene was taken from the 9/24/04 episode:

September 24, 2004: Apple issues a repair extension program for PowerBooks afflicted with display leprosy. Meanwhile, a few hundred bucks more gets you an iPod mini covered in a thousand shiny crystals, and a "design anomaly" in a Windows-based radio system nearly causes an 800-plane midair collision...

Other scenes from that episode:

  • 4942: Go Forth And Be Spotless (9/24/04)   They say good things come to those who wait, but they never say you might be twiddling your thumbs until they just plumb fall off. Still, though, a good thing is a good thing, even if you wait the better part of a year to get it...

  • 4943: The Shiny Just Got Shinier (9/24/04)   Still jealous of Sean "I Actually Tell People To Call Me 'P.Diddy' Entirely of My Own Volition" Combs's diamond-encrusted iPod? Well, stop it, Junior, because now you can out-bling The Artist Formerly Known As "Puff-Daddy" and you don't even have to get Hewlett-Packard panting after you for an endorsement deal to do it...

Or view the entire episode as originally broadcast...

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