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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Deciphering Ten Dumb PC Error Messages

If only computers had just ten dumb error messages. Back in the early days of DOS (in 1991), Microsoft maintained a list of all possible error messages in DOS Version 5 — all 20,000 of them. And that was only DOS! By now, that list has probably grown to several hundred thousand error messages. This article covers just the ones that are considered to be the most frequent, annoying, and frustrating dumb error messages.

The Program Has Performed an Illegal Operation and Will Be Shut Down; If the Problem Persists, Contact the Program Vendor

In our modern "What is legal?" society, this error message often induces uncalled-for terror in the bosom of its victims. What is legal, anyway?

Relax! In the computer world, the word illegal is used to describe a programming operation that isn't allowed. The computer programmers could have used the words prohibited or corrupt instead, but they didn't.

Another popular word to use is invalid, as demonstrated by the next several error messages. The word is pronounced "in-VALid," as in "not valid." It's not "IN-valid, as in "incapacitated by illness."

Anyway! The program has done something beyond your control. Too bad. Shut down the computer. Restart Windows. Start over.

Don't bother contacting the "program vendor." Odds are that the vendor doesn't want to hear from you, knows about the bug, and won't fix it. You can try if you want, but more often than not you'll find that they really, really don't care. And that's too bad.

Invalid Page Fault

This one has to do primarily with virtual memory, or disk storage that's used to bolster physical RAM. When a program attempts to access a chunk of virtual memory that doesn't exist, has been damaged, or is used by another program, you see the "Invalid Page Fault" gem of a message. There is nothing you can do about it.

Page is a term closely associated with virtual memory in Windows. Though virtual memory is one big, contiguous chunk of disk space, it's accessed through smaller chunks, called pages.

General Protection Fault

Who knows? Apparently, something is wrong, but Windows is unsure about the specifics; hence, the word General. From the word protection, you can assume that one program tried to stomp on some other program's turf. Windows responds by immediately killing the offending program and issuing this error message.

This is one instance where the Dr. Watson tool can be effective. Watson must be running in order to catch this one, and even if it is, good luck trying to find someone who can interpret Dr. Watson's results.

Don't get too excited about Dr. Watson. He first showed up in Windows Version 3 for DOS back in 1993. At first, he sounded like some miraculous tool for finding our what's wrong with Windows. But, no, Dr. Watson is merely a disaster-reporting tool. If you click the Dr. Watson icon, you'll generate a brief, potentially useful, report about your PC.

San Andreas Fault

No, not really. We're just checking to see whether you're paying attention.

Fatal Exception 0D

The first of the Fatal Exception brothers (theoretically, Fatal Exceptions 0A, 0B, and 0C also exist, but they've apparently passed on to a higher realm — possibly UNIX), Fatal Exception 0D occurs when a program does something unusual or unexpected. In this case, the problem can be local to the display, to multimedia, or to other device drivers being corrupt or evil.

The 0D in Fatal Exception 0D is a number, not a code. In this case, it's a hexadecimal number, which we humans would read as 13 — unlucky 13. Likewise, the 0E in Fatal Exception 0E is another number, 14.

Fatal Exception 0E

A variation on the Invalid Page Fault error, this one crops up (again) when the program does something unusual or unexpected or somehow touches invalid or forbidden data. This error and the Invalid Page Fault error have subtle differences between them — subtle enough not to care about.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this error and the Invalid Page Fault error is that your Fatal Exception 0E requires that the computer be restarted in order to recover. Nasty.

Windows Protection Error

Whereas the other faults and errors described here seem to be rather vague (or involve virtual memory), this error is straightforward: You have a problem with a VxD, or virtual device driver. The solution is to boot into Safe mode and reinstall the virtual device driver in question.

Numerous other problems can also induce a Windows protection error. The error message text states the specific source, such as memory, or a specific file or the Registry, for example.

Errors Involving KERNEL32.DLL

The kernel file gets blamed for lots of problems, but it causes relatively few of them. In fact, it's because the kernel file is so robust that many mishaps are caught and error messages displayed. In other words, KERNEL32.DLL is the messenger, and we don't kill the messenger, boys and girls.

Errors tossed back at the KERNEL32.DLL file include problems with the swap file, damaged files, injured-password lists, smashed Registry entries, microprocessor troubles, bad software programs, corrupted drivers, viruses, and even low disk space. In other words, the KERNEL32.DLL file catches lots of flack.

  • As usual, restarting Windows fixes this problem.
  • If you clock your CPU (run the microprocessor at a higher speed [MHz] than it's rated), you can get frequent KERNEL32.DLL errors.
  • Hardware trouble — such as a hot PC, a broken power supply, static, or radio frequency noise — can also produce KERNEL32.DLL errors.

Blue-Screen-of-Death Errors

When it's a big and important error, Windows doesn't mess around with a dialog box or cute graphics and icons. No, it goes straight back to its soul: DOS! And the error message is displayed on a text screen; white text on a blue background. It's called the Blue Screen of Death. Generally, these errors are either fatal or important enough that they require immediate attention.

  • If the error message says something along the lines of "Wait for window or press any key (or Ctrl+Alt+Delete) to reboot," then reboot. You can try waiting — especially if you feel that you can fix the problem or the problem will fix itself — but it's normally Ctrl+Alt+Delete+Pray.
  • Sometimes the error message is simply urgent and not life-threatening. For example, you may be asked to reinsert a disk the computer was using. If so, obey the instructions and the computer continues working as before.

Stack Overflow

Technically a programmer's error, a stack overflow happens when a program runs low on a specific type of memory. The memory is called the stack, and it's used to store information for the program — like a scratch pad.

The problem is that the stack has only so much room and a sloppy or damaged program can use up that room quickly. When that happens, the microprocessor must take over and rescue the program, lest it bring down the entire computer system. The microprocessor steps in by halting the program and issuing a "stack overflow" error message.

No, there is nothing you can do about this other than complain to the program developer.

Divide By Zero

Another error caught by the microprocessor is the divide by zero error. When you try to divide something by zero on your pocket calculator, you get an E to indicate an error. The computer equivalent of the E is that the microprocessor steps in, stops the program, and issues a divide-by-zero error message.

No, there is nothing you can do about this error message either. You can try complaining to the software developer, but they usually blame you for it.

Bad or Missing Command Interpreter

This error is more of a DOS issue, but because the command prompt is still a part of Windows, you may see it from time to time.

The command prompt itself is a program named COMMAND.COM or CMD.COM (same thing). It's the program that displays the command prompt and runs other DOS programs and commands. Nerds would call it "the shell" program, for some obscure beach reference. Anyway.

When a DOS program closes, it's supposed to return control to COMMAND.COM. If memory space is tight or the program that was just run is corrupted, COMMAND.COM often can't be found. In that case, the DOS session hangs up and issues a "Bad or missing command interpreter" message.

Fortunately, this message doesn't mean disaster or instill the terror that it once did with DOS users. When you see the message, simply close off the DOS window and get on with your life.

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