I first wrote this just under a year ago, but have brought it back from the grave because I’m having trouble again. Somebody else’s computer fortunately.


We’ve all had that terrible moment when we’ve updated, or more dangerously upgraded, a piece of software and it completely buggers up your computer. Don’t say you haven’t or your nose will grow. You have had this happen.

It can result in the Blue Screen Of Death. This seems to be rare now, but I had it happen this week. Or it may result in the whole shooting match slowing down to speeds that were megaquick back in 1990, or everything simply freezing on you. The mouse won’t move the cursor, nor will the cursor arrows, the keyboard is dead.

hit any key

In those last circumstances, a well tried and tested method is to turn the power off and start again. You’ve done that too. When the switch on your box of tricks failed to do the job, you switched off at the socket and pulled the plug didn’t you? Go on, we’re all friends here. Fess up.

Technically this is known as a ‘forced shutdown.’ It’s easy enough when all you have to do is pull the plug, but what if your computer is about 50M miles away?


Not so easy then, is it? The following is extracted from a NASA press release dated November 10.

‘NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project received confirmation from Mars Sunday (Nov. 10) that the Curiosity rover has successfully transitioned back into nominal surface operations mode.  Curiosity had been in safe mode since Nov. 7, when an unexpected software reboot (also known as a warm reset) occurred during a communications pass with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Mission science planning will resume tomorrow, and Curiosity science operations will recommence on Thursday… the Curiosity operations team was able to determine the root cause. An error in existing onboard software resulted in an error in a catalog file.  This caused an unexpected reset when the catalog was processed by a new version of flight software which had been installed on Thursday.’

The plug is very tricky to pull in those circumstances, because there is no plug. You have to rely on the computer to obey you, and allow you to sort it out remotely, no easy feat when your commands take about five minutes to get there, then it takes another five minutes for the message to come back ‘Do you want to navigate away from this page? All changes will be lost if you do so.’

You’ll note with some pleasure that the failure was caused by some egghead dickering about with some software that was already adequate for the job, but oh no! Good enough isn’t good enough for the geeks. ‘Let’s upgrade! Yay!’ And the inevitable happened. Even better from the technodunce POV was that it wasn’t a dicker about with software on the Rover that caused the hassle. It was a change on board the Orbiter by means of which the Rover stays in contact with the Earth. They made a change and one of the peripherals was made incompatible. It’s just like you and me mucking things up, but in the Curiosity case it was squillions of dollars worth of peripheral that went AWOL, not 30 quid’s worth of printer. It made me feel better about myself, if I’m honest.

Incidentally, some years back, when the British Mars mission Beagle had floundered, they set about a painstaking schedule of different tactics to rouse the (they hoped) slumbering robot. Do you know what the last strategy was? To stop talking to it. It seems the little guy might just be fed up with being shouted at, and had gone into a microchip sulk, so now the idea was to simply ignore it until it wiped its robotic eyes and sniffed ‘Mum? Dad? I’m sorry.’ Brilliant. And what a wonderfully human approach.

Sadly Beagle pancaked, as this picture from Mars shows.beagleIt never did come back to life, but Curiosity is now up and running again. But let that be a lesson to them. Microsoft should have stuck with XP. The Curiosity mission controllers should have left well alone too.