Silver Bullets, Cosmic Rays and Tired Computers
An inquisitive reader asks: “Sometimes my computer acts strangely when it has been running for several days without turning it off. I have heard about something called ‘electron buildup’ but I am not sure I should take it seriously. Can electronic devices really suffer from fatigue if they are on too long?” It’s actually a great question! Read on for my thoughts on contumacious computers, cosmic rays, and more...
Do Computers (and other gadgets) Ever Get Tired?
Until recently, I might have dismissed the notion that electronic "gunk" can accumulate in a computer or other electronic device, 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, counted to ten, 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 notice a slowdown in my Internet speed. Sometimes my Roku streaming box stops working and I have to restart it. Perhaps you've also found that a shutdown/restart cures a host of ills with your phone or computer. 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.
In 1999 I met Jerry Foutz in a networking group, and I can tell you he was a Scientist with a Capital S. There aren't many people 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 was "just unplug it."
Totally Cosmic, Dude.
In a fascinating article on electronics trouble shooting, Foutz talked 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, an error in calculation, or an infinite loop in software. Wow!
For lots more technical details, and even some suggestions on how better design can help to prevent this problem, see Jerry's full article on Trouble Shooting Electronics. (Sadly, Jerry has passed away, but his wisdom lives on in the Internet Archive.)
Of course in the case of computers running complex operating systems 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. Let me caution that whenever possible, you should try to use the shut down command (or power switch if that's not an option) for your electronic device (especially computers) before pulling the plug, to avoid the possibility of damage.
AskBob Readers Agree
I’ve heard from readers over the years who have come to similar conclusions. Here are snippets from some of those conversations:
"I've also noticed that after a few days, if I run "chkdsk /r", Windows always finds errors on at least one drive, and when it finishes, it runs faster and better than before. I've used it for recovering from errors resulting from a faulty keyboard and faulty mouse. When I had the mouse problem, I couldn't even get Windows running, but after running the Recovery Console, it completely recovered as if nothing had happened. An SEU seems like a good explanation." – Howie M.
"It may seem like a hassle but I also notice that when turning off the PC and Modem and printer I will wait about 2 minutes then take apart the tower and PROPERLY give it a cleaning. I can look over all the board items and make sure all is ok and viola. It really does seem to help." – RJ
"I feel validated finally. I've used this "unplug-replug and restart" method for several years and knew it worked, but didn't know why it worked. Now I know!" – Corley
"I have a Xerox DocumentCentre machine sitting here in my office. Whenever I have a problem with rollers or kicker motors not working right, or even just the machine not booting up right, the first thing the Xerox support people tell me to do it power the system down, unplug for 60 seconds, and then re-plug. Now it makes sense." – Chris
"You are spot-on with the 'unplug your modem' bit. As someone who works for a cable company, let me pass along this advice: Any time your cable modem seems slow, or you lose connection altogether, unplug all of your devices. Modem, router (and for the record, a 'wireless device' really is a router!), and computer. Disconnect all cables from the modem, and let things sit for five minutes. Plug things back to the modem, and wait for another five. Then, do the same for the router, if you have one. Once both of them are humming along, plug the computer back in and restart it. Eighty percent of the time, this routine will save you a call to tech support!" – Eric R.
"You really should clean out the dust bunnies and roach nests in your computer once a year (twice if you have a lot of pets). Unplug and reseat all the cables and cards while you are at it. This helps because the connections get a thin coat of oxides, and the friction from unplugging and plugging back scrapes off the gunk and makes a better connection. Be sure to discharge your own static buildup by touching the metal framework before you touch the circuits." – S.O.
"I too had problems with my cable modem, Bob. It's a long story but I found that my orignal modem had a known sync issue and my connection was dropping at least 3 or 4 times a day that I knew of. My ISP refused to adknowledge the issue. I wound up swapping out my modem and got a much older modem. During the first couple of weeks, my connection would drop once in a while. After a few calls to tech support they pushed another firmware. My connection has been solid ever since. It seems to get "bogged down" every once in a while I just unplug it and everything is back to normal. I have to do the same with my router once in a while." – Dan
Pardon me, while I reboot my computer, printer and modem. Do you have a similar anecdote to share? Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 5 Sep 2023
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Silver Bullets, Cosmic Rays and Tired Computers (Posted: 5 Sep 2023)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved