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June 28, 2008

Tech, G.P.: Doing things 'right' not always best

They say that sometimes bad things happen to good people. I can vouch for that.

Good, upright citizens, following all the rules, doing what they're supposed to do, and then... Wham! Through no fault of their own they get clobbered.

This is one of those stories. It's a true story, by the way, but I'll not use any real names and will try to avoid making the victim identifiable. I'm not like one of those websites that passes all your information along to advertisers. I really do value your privacy.

So let's call him Karl.

Karl is the kind of guy who runs a family business, stays out of trouble, spends time with his wife and kids, and has a hobby that's as American as apple pie.

At work, he has a computer that's less than a year old, runs the tried-and-true Windows XP, keeps his Internet security product updated, and doesn't "experiment" with his computer.

He's an intelligent guy and knows his trade very well, but it's not computers. If he has a computer question, he usually calls me about it instead of poking around by himself "trying stuff."

He pretty much just uses the PC on his desk at work for work. A little surfing about his hobby, maybe. His biggest computer vice would be that he listens to Internet radio during the day.

A nice guy.

Enter the next player: Microsoft.

One of the things Microsoft recommends is that you set your computer to automatically receive and implement Windows updates. The idea is that you will then get all the security and important bug fixes, and enjoy safer and more reliable computing.

This is a reasonable assumption. Lots of people do it. Karl did it, too.

Enter the third player: Symantec.

Symantec is probably the most well-known purveyor of security products for your PC. What started out as Norton Anti-Virus has evolved into a Symantec Internet security product that has myriad functions, not just simple anti-virus protection. Like they used to say of IBM, nobody ever got fired for specifying IBM. Nobody ever got fired for specifying Symantec security products, either.

Lots of people use Symantec. Karl did, too.

So, picture our nice-guy Karl in the office, hard at work. He's talking to employees, dealing with company problems, lining up new business, giving out raises willy-nilly ... um, well, let's not get too carried away here. You get the idea, anyway.

Windows XP is working away, doing all the computer things it does, including downloading updates automatically.

Symantec is working in the background, protecting all the critical parts of the computer's operating system, being the tough-guy protector.

One day, Microsoft comes out with a new, large, very comprehensive update for Windows. They call it "Service Pack 3." It's a major update, including mostly all the previous Windows updates in one big package, and a few new items as well.

So Karl's PC downloads it automatically, and at some point it installs it, also automatically. Now this update does a lot of "stuff" to the computer's operating system, including changing many files and settings that exist deep down in the basic system.

Symantec sees this activity and thinks to itself, "Hmmm... this looks like pretty hardcore activity. I think I should put a stop to it." And it does. So some parts of the update are caught by Symantec and never implemented.

Remember, all this happens automatically, without human intervention like disabling the anti-virus before starting the update.

Now, installing a major update without finishing it properly is not good. There are lots and lots of things in a computer operating system that depend on other parts to be exactly what they are expected to be. Not finishing an update properly can leave the operating system in an unstable state.

So now you have it. An unstable operating system. Karl did all the right things, but still wound up with the short end of the stick.

Certain things worked awfully slowly. Other things didn't work at all. Still others gave error messages. Programs worked correctly part of the time, but not all the time. New programs wouldn't install without error messages, and then wouldn't work.

Karl called me, and I went to work trying to track down the causes of the symptoms. I got some of the things to behave better, but at some point you just have to cut your losses, and in the end Karl had to pay the ultimate price: have the computer wiped clean and have the Windows operating system re-installed.

Now, this is not really that out-of-the ordinary for some people. Some people use their computers in ways that invite disaster, and a Windows re-install can be a regular thing for them.

But Karl, he did everything by the book and still took it on the chin. Being the geek that I am, he's the kind of guy I feel bad about.

Even in computing, just like other things in life, sometimes bad things happen to good people.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at