5 Dumb Glitches That Hilariously Kneecapped Computers
Based on tracking data, for which we paid good money, over 3 percent of people reading this have used a computer before. What’s more, over 6 percent of you are using some sort of electronic device this very second. They really are marvelous inventions. Especially when they marvelously fail.
Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” Crashed Hard Drives
Around 2005, Microsoft received an error report: When someone played the music video “Rhythm Nation” by Janet Jackson, their Windows XP laptop crashed. Though that sounded weirdly specific, Microsoft might not have found anything weird about the bug. The user was flagging that one music video, but the problem presumably covered something broader—say, it crashed whenever it streamed video, or whenever it played audio loud. The user surely just blamed “Rhythm Nation” because they personally played nothing but “Rhythm Nation,” all day every day.
In their lab (the very lab where they brought Clippy to life, and where they finally had to kill him), experiments confirmed that “Rhythm Nation” did crash laptops. Not music in general, or media in general, just that one song. The really crazy part, though, was that the song didn’t just crash the laptop that played it. It also crashed neighboring laptops. The laptop didn’t crash from processing the song but from hearing the song ... and that even happened when the laptop had no mic or other way of sensing sound.
The song seemed like some kind of virus that leapt from machine to machine. The culprit, however, turned out not to be anything digital but rather the analog sound waves. The waves got the laptop’s hard drive oscillating. This turned it into an out-of-control vibrator, and not the kind associated with grievous crotch injuries.
It all came down to a concept called mechanical resonance. Substances, and systems, each have a natural frequency, which refers to the way they vibrate when everything’s normal. If a wave hits with that exact same frequency, it taps the objects or particles in perfect time with the natural vibrations. The vibrations continue, but much harder now, going further with each tap. Science teachers illustrate this by using the example of someone on a swing set. If you give a push at the exact same point in each cycle (when they swing closest to you), they will swing farther. Try the same thing when the swing’s only part way through its cycle, and you won’t increase the swing’s amplitude the same way.
“Rhythm Nation” contained the natural frequency of those 5400 RPM hard drives. Hard drives in PC towers were safe from this onslaught, secure in their steel cages some distance from the speakers, but laptop drives were not, not until Microsoft responded by adding some shielding. Desktop PCs avoid many of the issues you get with laptops. For example, they don’t force you to place hot metal on your lap, which could lead to grievous crotch injuries.
The Apple III Computer Had To Be Fixed By Lifting It Up And Dropping It
Let’s talk some more about computers overheating. No, really, it’s an interesting topic (according to people interested in computers overheating). Vast communities of enthusiasts spend their time debating the best way to keep their computers cool. Should your CPU radiator fans be configured for intake or exhaust? People have very strong feelings about this, and they will get violent if you disagree.
In the 1980s, the Apple III computer had a heating problem. The company really should have foreseen this, since the computer didn’t contain a fan of any kind. Some guy named Steve Jobs came up with the no-fan design because he wanted to keep computers as quiet as possible (if you’ve heard any story tagged “crazy Steve Jobs fans,” it probably referred to this). When this computer got too hot, it didn’t trigger any fail safe that switched the system off. Instead, the heat got so bad that internal chips popped right out of their sockets.
“So,” say those PC enthusiasts from a couple paragraphs ago, the ones who open their computers up regularly and poke around just for fun. “You had to open the Apple III and push the chips back into place manually?” Not exactly. Letting people open their computers and fiddle around is not the Apple way. Instead, they instructed customers to lift the machine six inches above the desk and then drop it, to jostle the wayward parts back into place.
The Apple III was a true failure, and the product line cost the company $60 million. Still, we imagine some customers felt visceral satisfaction in percussive maintenance. They’d had long experience with this, already used to banging TVs of the era to get clearer pictures. And the vertical troubleshooting served as one more story for the history of science, in which an Apple falling proves the power of gravity.
For A While, You Could Access Any Hotmail Account By Typing “Eh” As The Password
Allow us to sell you on a new type of email. Unlike mail you get through America Online, email you can only access from your home, you access this new type of mail from anywhere! That’s because you can log in using the world wide web. Not only that, but this new service is absolutely free.
A few different generations will read the above with nothing but confusion, thinking that everything we just described is intrinsic to email itself. But Hotmail, the first widely used webmail client, was revolutionary when it first came out in 1996. Some people, used to checking their email from a private location, protected by guard dogs, must have distrusted this new type of mail as insecure. Microsoft assured them they were delusional, and people spent the next few years happily making full use of their 2-megabyte Hotmail inboxes.
Then, in 1999, a hacker group came up with a trick. They grabbed a login system that Microsoft was trying to use to apply accounts to multiple pages, and when they ran this normally hidden script, the hackers entered “eh” as the password. This logged them into any of the 50 million Hotmail accounts then in use.
Clearly, this was some sort of backdoor that Microsoft themselves had created to access accounts, right? “No!” said Microsoft. We’d never do anything unethical!”
Well, said people puzzling over the exploit, it wouldn’t be unethical exactly. Of course you need access to every Hotmail account, you administer them. It would just be very incompetent. To which we guess Microsoft said, “Oh. Well in that case, uh, no we still aren’t responsible. We’d never do anything incompetent!”
The hacker group—Hackers Unite, who vanished back into the darkness as soon as they’d publicized their discovery—thought they’d changed the way everyone would think of Microsoft, or even about email in general. Instead, people didn’t really care. Most of the time, tech companies are a lot more concerned about keeping your accounts secure than you are, which explains why they’re the ones contacting you about adding Cyrillic characters and wingdings to each of your passwords.
Nowadays, you’re more likely to have a horror story about your provider locking you out of your email account than of a hacker getting into it. Partly, it’s because everyone’s forgotten they’re even supposed to care about privacy, but also, it’s because when someone does hack into your account, they take what they want and leave, and you don’t even notice.
Dell Sold A Laptop That Stank Of Cat Piss
Laptops, say experts, should not smell of cat piss. Whatever complaints you have about your new device, at least it’s clean. It’s spotless. It’s shiny. The only smell of any kind comes from the protective plastic you peel away.
Still, in 2013, buyers of a particularly expensive Dell business laptop noticed the aroma of cat urine wafting out of their notebooks. Those who owned cats assumed it was cat urine—their cat who loved sitting on warm keyboards had gotten a little too comfortable with its new metal bed. Those who didn’t own cats feared that maybe they had pissed on the laptop themselves, either when in a fugue state of when possessed. Either way, they blamed Dell, which is their right as a consumer.
Seriously though, any buyer who escalated the complaint to Dell knew they hadn’t spilled anything on their laptop, out of their bodily orifices or from anyone else's. Dell advised the buyers to clean out the vents, but the buyers knew something else had to be at fault.
In time, Dell accepted the blame. A manufacturing defect caused the smell, they said. They insisted urine was not the source, nor was it anything biological, and they refused to elaborate further. Amateur techies/urine afficionados speculate that some polymer used in the plastic casing created the smell, but Dell has kept mum because the formula for artificial cat pee scent is now a valuable trade secret.
A Video Poker Machine Kept Spitting Out Jackpots
John Kane was a gambling addict. That does not sound like the beginning of a story that later has John Kane winning a ton of money in Vegas, but this is not a normal story.
For a while, Kane’s tale went exactly as you’d expect for a gambling addict: He lost money, year after year, throwing away all the savings he’d gained as a professional musician. One losing streak in 2006 earned him enough loyalty points to get his own personal video poker machine, the same kind that casinos use.
The casino saw no threat in their compulsive customer getting his own private machine. The machine wouldn’t scratch his gambling itch, since it paid out no money. And the machine gave him no chance of honing his skills because there is no way to beat the house long-term at video poker—the house advantage is built into the programming.
But they were wrong about that last part. After countless hours of private experimenting, Kane discovered a bug that gave the gambler a huge edge. It was possible to bet with low stakes, wait for a big win, then go through a series of menus and raise your stake on that bet retroactively.
One reason no one had noticed this before was the bug only kicked in during a special game mode that doubles the players’ risk and reward. Casinos lock this mode off by default—not because it favors the player (it doesn’t) but because it’s so intimidating that it scares too many players away from playing at all. Kane and a partner, Andre Nestor, now hit Vegas, asked one casino after another to enable the mode, then rode the bug to hundreds of thousands in winnings.
Finally, a casino noticed someone was winning way too much money and led Kane away in handcuffs. Many stories you hear of casino “cheaters” (card counters, etc.) involve players doing nothing illegal, so the casino has no recourse other than expelling them, but the casino believed Kane had to have hacked the machine, so the federal government booked him under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Kane had not hacked the machine. In fact, the feds’ case against him or Nestor depended entirely on one of them testifying against the other. We don’t know exactly what they wanted either of them to say, and we’re not going to rule out “blatant lies, scripted by the prosecution.” Kane and Nestor both refused to cooperate, and this gamble paid off. In time, the feds dropped all charges.
Victory! Except, the district attorney did seize all their winnings and returned the haul to the casino. No trial, no conviction—the office just took the money, and the guys had no recourse. Hey, this might sound paranoid, but we’re starting to suspect this Vegas place is rigged.