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Chapter 4. System Errors: Living with the Bomb > The Mac's Worst-Kept Secret

The Mac's Worst-Kept Secret

If you are new to the world of computers, you may think that a system crash is the sound your computer makes after you throw it to the floor in frustration. No, that's not it exactly—though a series of system crashes can certainly get you thinking about sending your Macintosh into free fall. Actually, a system crash refers to any time your computer's processing gets so messed up that it stops whatever it was doing and no longer responds to further user input.

What to do when you have this type of system crash, or any other of several related system errors, is the subject of this chapter. System errors are the Macintosh's worst-kept secret. Many software manuals barely mention the possibility that system errors can occur. Yet they do occur, all too frequently.

If (or, more realistically, when) you get any sort of system error, it is the equivalent of seeing a "Road Closed" sign at the end of a long stretch of highway. There's no going forward, and you have to spend some time heading back before you can make progress again.

I am not going to delve much into what causes these system errors. My goal is simply to explain how to rid yourself of them. Still, it may make you feel better to know that system crashes are not the result of some mistake on your part. It is either the result of faulty hardware or (much more likely) damaged or less-than-perfectly designed software. Your freedom from guilt is at best only small consolation when a system error does occur. This knowledge doesn't save any of your data or eliminate any of the frustration.

Helpful hint: No software is perfectly designed. Therefore, all software is potentially a source of a system error. Trust no one. But wait! Don't get overly alarmed by this warning. Programming for the Macintosh is not the easiest thing in the world to do, and it is almost impossible to anticipate every potential circumstance that might lead to a system crash—especially when programmers have to contend with the ever-growing number of Macintosh models, a dizzying assortment of potential peripherals, and a seemingly endless variety of software, all of which may be combined in a nearly infinite number of permutations. The real surprise is that things work just as expected most of the time.

Your immediate concerns probably are the following:

  • What permanent damage has been done to the machine, if any?

  • What data have I lost, if any?

  • How do I get the Macintosh working again?

  • How do I prevent the system error from occurring again?

The answer to the first question is good news. System errors never cause any permanent damage to your hardware. A system crash can result from damaged hardware, but it never causes it. And although a system crash may damage (or, as it is sometimes called, corrupt) your software—particularly anything you were using at the time of the crash—it is much more likely that everything on your disks is still OK. In general, you should be able to get your Macintosh up and running again in a matter of minutes.

The answer to the second question is potentially bad news. Barring a few exceptions (to be discussed shortly), everything you were working on at the time of the crash that you did not save to disk is forever lost in space, never to be seen again. If you spent the past hour writing the opening chapter of your next novel and never saved it, it is probably gone forever. Actually, any file that's open at the time of the crash, saved or unsaved, is at some risk of damage.

Helpful hint: save frequently. Saving is your greatest protection against the worst-case scenario of a system crash. So if you plan to spend the day working on your Great American Novel, don't forget to use the Save command every few minutes.

The answers to the remaining two questions depend on the cause of the system error. The main thing you do after most system crashes is restart the Macintosh. Happily, in many cases after you restart, the system error does not recur, because the specific combination of events that led to the system error are not repeated. Even if you think you are repeating what you did before the system error, the Macintosh may see matters differently. Sometimes, however, a system error occurs repeatedly. In such cases, you must track down the cause of the error so that you can find a way to prevent its recurrence.

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