System Error

I wasn’t expecting it at all. I guess none of us ever expects it to happen to them. I know, you read about it all the time, but hey, I take care of my stuff and I know what I’m doing. It’s not gonna happen to me…

It started out as just another Saturday morning. I’m used to getting up really early, so being up at 6:30 in the morning was no big deal. I got out of bed, showered, dressed, put up a pot of coffee, got the newspaper, had my coffee and ran out to the store early. When I got home, I started up my Mac (a Performa 637CD, 36 megs of RAM, 350 meg hard drive running Mac OS 8), went online and got my mail. Just another Saturday morning. Except it also was the day that I would finish up one of the final edits on the November issue and I was getting ready to send it on to Jim, our copy editor, for him to take his critical look of the issue and to make some suggestions and edits. Just another Saturday morning, end of the month. Or so I thought.

I had several other things I needed to get done before I sent out the issue, so I went ahead and did what I had to do. By 11 AM, I was ready to send the issue on to Jim. So after a final check of the issue, I “stuffed” it and prepared my e-mail message to Jim to let him know that the issue was ready for his review. Just as I finished up, and as I prepared to go online to send the issue on its way, it happened…

SYSTEM ERROR Divide by 0

Ok, no problem. Click on the restart button… Restart holding down the shift key! Oh great, an extension conflict, big time. No problem, hold down the shift key, click on restart and…

SYSTEM ERROR Divide by 0

Click on restart… Restart holding down the shift key! Must not have held down the shift key like I thought I did, no problem… hold down the shift key, click on restart and… yes, again – and again – and again – and again – and so on. Now this was really starting to get old, very old. I can deal with it. Get my Norton Utilities CD-ROM, insert it into the drive, hold down on the C key, hit restart and

SYSTEM ERROR Divide by 0

Now this is really beginning to bother me. Ok, hard restart… hold down the C key, and… Welcome to Mac OS… Norton Utilities…. that’s the way, Russ! Now, run Disk Doctor and… no problems found. Huh? That can’t be right, rerun it again and… no problems found. Must be something wrong with the Doctor! Not to worry, I have Disk First Aid (OS 8 companion) on a floppy; pop it in the drive, click on the icon, select my hard drive, run Verify and… no problems found. Try it again and the same thing happens. Alright, since the problem seems to be extensions conflicts, let me start by removing the last few items that I had added to the system, put them in the disabled folder, change the startup disk, restart and… yep, you guessed it.

So I continued to remove extensions, restarting and getting that lovely little box that I was growing to hate by the second with its lovely little “Divide by 0” message. I tried to rebuild the desktop, I zapped the PRAM, I disconnected everything and added peripherals one at a time, I trashed the Finder preferences, I tried and did everything that I could think of to find a way around this problem. I also saved the items that I needed to onto Zip disks, making sure I wasn’t about to lose everything, including the issue, saving it again to another Zip just in case.

This diagnosing went on for a little while longer until I figured it was time to end it all and do a clean reinstall of System 8 on my Mac. Now, I had already removed any third party extensions, control panels and other items that might cause a problem. I checked and verified that I was set, did my reinstall and restarted. No problem, no box, no Divide by 0. I’d won! That lasted 3 minutes until the system froze, I did a restart and the flashing question mark started to blink on the screen. No divide by 0, restart holding the shift key. Nope, just the lovely flashing question mark on the floppy icon.

Right about now, some of you are thinking, “Russ, flashing question mark and you’re running System 8. Why didn’t you update your hard disk driver with version 1.3.1?” Well, I had tried but it was a no-go, only option available was the reinitialization process and I really wanted to avoid that if possible. Except that wasn’t to be and I knew what had to be done. Besides, Apple had only “recommended” updating the driver for ‘040 Macs. I made sure that I left nothing on the hard drive that hadn’t already been saved, had all my software disks standing by, restarted holding down the C key with the Mac OS 8 CD-ROM in the drive, and when I was ready, popped in the floppy with the hard disk updater on it, clicked on Initialize, low level format and cleared the hard drive of every last bit of the system I had come to know and love. Gone!

If nothing else, reinitializing a hard drive is an easy way to get rid of all the trash and stuff that has accumulated on your hard drive. Nothing there at all. So, with fingers crossed I double clicked on the install button for OS 8 (custom install) and put back almost everything I had just taken off. When the install was done, I went into both the extensions and control panels folders, selected all and labeled them all as “essential” in color. This way everything I add afterwards, I’ll know and remember that it wasn’t part of the original install of the System software. I put back only the apps that I’ve been using for years and that I consider really necessary, and left everything else off. So far, in the time since reinitialization, so good. I continue to watch and worry if something else is going to happen, but as before, I continue to make sure that I backup the really important items every day, so that I won’t lose anything if it happens again and I can’t get to the hard drive and rescue them.

So, is there a lesson to be learned from this? The first thing is that if Apple says it “recommends” doing something for – with – or to the System that you’re using, DO IT! Don’t take chances just because nothing has happened yet. Secondly, make sure that you back up (see My Mac #30, October 1997- Brian Koponen’s article, The Importance of the Backup,

and that you have everything ready just in case it all goes bad. And last but not least, prepare yourself for the day that something may go wrong. Know your options, have the software and diagnostic tools available to you to help you through the worst of times.

Russ Walkowich (


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