Hey Doc, What's Wrong With My Computer?
Article by Rick Leinecker, June 1, 2006

It never fails. I field a lot of computer-related questions while at public gatherings. One of my friends is a physician and he gets a lot of medical questions, too. And while we don't mind questions, it's sometimes hard for us to glean what's really going on from the questions that we're asked. In this column I'm going to give you some tips to help you formulate better questions. That way you'll get better answers and ultimately get the solutions you need.

Even some computer professionals are challenged when it comes to asking the right questions. I worked at a fortune 500 company as a software engineer. Toward the end of development projects, the software under development was tested by a staff whose only job was to test software. One project in particular sticks in my mind because of the initial reports I got from the tester assigned to the project. Her comment was almost always the same: "It doesn't work." Unfortunately that doesn't help. I need to know what it is that doesn't work before I can understand the problem and fix it. It's kind of like bringing your car to the mechanic, telling him it doesn't work, and expecting the right thing to get fixed. After the initial report that this tester gave me, I would then have to play twenty questions and identify the issue. As you can imagine, this is a frustrating way to polish software into a final product, especially when I was almost always under demanding deadlines.

There's one more thing I'd like to point out. If you take the time to formulate your questions, you'll get an answer ninety percent of the time on your own without any help. That's because the very process of formulating the question brings you through the sequential process necessary to solve problems. Einstein said that if he had an hour to spend solving a problem to save his life, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes thinking of the right questions and then spend five minutes answering them.

The first step is to identify the symptoms. Does it make a bad noise? Does the monitor go blank? Does the mouse cursor skip around on the screen? The second step is noting when the symptoms occur. Knowing what symptoms happen and when they occur is a large part of the diagnosis process.

Symptoms can be systematic meaning that they happen anytime your computer is turned on. They can also be specific to certain operations. For instance, if your screen turns green only when you run Microsoft Word, then it's probably related to Microsoft Word. And knowing that will save you from going down rabbit trails that don't lead to solutions.

It's also important to know when the symptoms first showed up. Did it show up when you installed the newest game? Was it when you dropped your mouse? When was it? Knowing this helps a lot because there is often a link between software installation and things going awry. (For you logic purists, I realize that it's only a circumstantial and not a solid causal relationship.)

Now, instead of asking me why your screen goes green, you might ask me why your screen turns green when you run Microsoft Word ever since you installed game X. That gives me so much more information with which I can answer your question. In fact, you might even figure it out yourself before you ask me.

If you still don't have a smoking gun, think about your Internet usage next. You may have visited rogue sites that altered your computer. Now bear in mind that rogue sites can't do anything to your computer without your permission. Several months ago I talked about web sites that install ActiveX controls. In order for a web site to install these controls, however, they have to ask your permission. If you're having trouble with your computer and it started at approximately the same time as an Internet experience similar to what I'm describing, the web site may be a factor. Now you might ask me "Why does my screen turn green when I run Microsoft Word ever since I allowed that web site to install software to my computer?" Here again, that information makes it much easier to figure out what's wrong.

Your hardware can affect your computer's behavior, both when it's first installed and when it's starting to get old. Installing new hardware components such as a new CD burner can in rare cases cause problems. Sometimes no-name add-ons aren't engineered well and conflict with some systems. (I always recommend name-brand add-ons.) Sometimes your system itself is non-standard in ways that haven't previously surfaced, but when new hardware is installed things go south. Older hardware can start acting flaky in advance of its failure. I've had modems and network cards fail intermittently for months, and then later totally fail. Intermittent hardware is very hard to diagnose, kind of like the rattle in your car that never rattles when you take it to a mechanic. Make sure you think about newly-installed hardware or older hardware when formulating your questions.

Those are the basics of knowing what to do if your computer misbehaves.