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A little computer knowledge can be a dangerous thing


I was dicing carrots for dinner when Fred called -- long-distance.

As a rule, I don't talk to people who call with emergency computer problems when I have a knife in my hand because I tend to get homicidal. But it was getting late and the kids were hungry.

So I cradled the phone in my ear, listened to his tale of woe, and chopped.

"It's Microsoft Windows," he said. "I can't get it to work."

"You and 4 million other people," I said. "Tell me something I haven't heard."

"I mean I can't even get it onto on my hard disk. It just won't work."

I wasn't surprised, although I doubted this was a Windows problem.

Fred had just brought the computer home after weeks of reading magazine articles, comparison shopping and endless hours of late-night consultations with computer enthusiasts who were once his friends.

Of course, none of this meant that Fred had any idea how to use the thing once he'd unpacked it.

So I walked Fred through the Windows installation process, which involves putting Disk No. 1 in the floppy drive, typing the word "INSTALL" and hitting the ENTER key.

Unfortunately, even this process was rather awkward since Fred, like most of the people I talk to, had managed to set up the PC about three feet beyond the reach of his telephone cord.

So Fred had to relay all my instructions to his son Billy, who's 11. Billy is not very experienced at the keyboard, but after three or four tries he managed to type the word INSTALL without making any mistakes.

"Wait!" Fred shouted. "The computer did something. It says 'File Not Found.' What does that mean?"

I finished the carrots, started the potatoes and explained that this was the disk operating system (DOS) saying it couldn't find the installation program on the floppy. DOS is not very friendly that way.

Puzzled, I walked Fred through seven different variants of INSTALL, SETUP and DIRECTORY commands, which he dutifully relayed to Billy, who typed them with varying degrees of accuracy over a period of 15 minutes.

TC The result was always the same. The disk, it seems, was blank. We repeated the process with Disk 2, and Disk 3, and Disk 4 and Disk 5. All blanks.

"That's weird," I said.

"Microsoft's quality control is pretty good, at least in the manufacturing department. Are you sure you didn't do anything to the disks? Like tack them to the fridge with little magnets?"

"Absolutely not," Fred said. "You think I'm some kind of dummy? The only thing Billy did was take them out of the box so he could use the FORMAT command on them."

The knife nicked my finger but stopped before it got to the bone.

"Billy did WHAT?"

"He formatted the disks. He said he learned to do that in computer camp. He said they told him you have to format a disk before you can use it."

My grip on he knife tightened. I told Fred that FORMAT, the one command Billy remembered from camp, is the one command that can absolutely ruin your day. It's the one command that no one under the age of 21 should use without a license. Billy had erased $100 worth of software.

Formatting prepares a new floppy disk to store programs and data files by creating a series of circular magnetic tracks, which are divided into arcs called sectors. DOS uses these tracks and sectors to organize the information on the disk.

Billy was half right. Before you can use a new floppy disk out of the box, you have to format it.

By definition, any software you buy is already on a formatted disk. If you format it again, you erase everything.

As in bye-bye, gone, kaput.

That's the half they didn't teach Billy at computer camp.

When it formats a floppy disk, DOS doesn't give any warning. It just does its dirty work. I've never figured out why the geniuses at Microsoft, a multibillion-dollar corporation, haven't figured out that this isn't a good idea.

At Apple, they've done a much better job.

If you buy a Macintosh, you won't even find a format command. The Mac automatically senses whether a disk has been formatted. If it's unformatted, Mr. Mac displays a polite message that effect and asks if you'd like to format it. There's no way to accidentally trash something valuable.

There was one ray of hope. Fred's new computer came with Version 5 of DOS, the first release that recognizes the danger -- in a backhanded way.

DOS 5 has an UNFORMAT command, which takes advantage of the fact that reformatting a disk doesn't really destroy the data on it. It just makes the data invisible. As long as you haven't tried to write anything to the disk since it was reformatted, UNFORMAT can restore what was there before.

So I walked Fred and Billy through the unformatting process. Everything seemed to work, except that the disk was still blank.

"Is there anything else Billy wants to tell me?" I asked.

"Uh, he says that when formatting didn't work the first time, he did it it again."

"How many times?"

"He says four."

Billy had found a way to crash through DOS's skimpy safety net. When he formatted the disk the second time, it got rid of the original data and replaced it with the empty space from the first format.

"So what do I do now?" Fred asked.

"Well, you could go back to the store, throw yourself at their feet and grovel a little. They'll probably make a new copy for you. Or you can find someone who has Windows and borrow their disks. I think that's legal in your case, since you already paid for the software. And one more thing."

"What's that?" Fred asked.

"You're a lawyer," I said. "Sue the computer camp for malpractice."

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