Einstein was famous for saying that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Einstein never worked in IT of course. And sometimes being a little crazy helps get things done.


One of Albert Einstein’s more famous quotes, especially around election time when candidates are talking change, is his definition of insanity. He said insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Although he was a great physicist, Einstein never had the chance to work in IT. Even though users are enough to drive you crazy somedays, computers themselves can display an annoying propensity to give differing outcomes when doing the same thing.

A recent example

I was recently reminded of the fact when TechRepublic’s Jason Hiner gave me his old MacBook Pro. He had attempted to reinstall OS X 10.4 on it, but for some reason Disk 2 of the Setup CDs wouldn’t work. Having moved on to another computer, he didn’t give it much thought and gave me the machine and the disks.

I was initially merely irked when the disk wouldn’t work. Twenty years of IT experience kicked in and I wasn’t going to let a simple Mac beat me. I noticed some scratches on Disk 2 and tried to fix them, but to no avail. I also tried disks from several other machines, but they were all different versions of the Mac and didn’t want to work.

Naturally, CBSi doesn’t give original disks out, and their solution was for me to send the system back to San Francisco. That was not only an inconvenient solution, but it also wouldn’t work because the Mac is a test machine purchased by TR and not under CBSi support. Foiled again.

Finally, I decided to try the Leopard upgrade DVD we had for the unit. Jason had mentioned we had it, but you had to have a working version of OS X on the system to make it run. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. The Installer would indeed allow a fresh installation.

So, I tried.  The first time it got about one-third of the way through and just hung. No error messages of course. The DVD drive just stopped turning, and the estimated completion time got longer and longer. I got the disk out, cleaned it, and put it back in. Now it wouldn’t boot at all. Wonderful.

Having set the machine aside for a few days, I tried again later. This time the install completed about 80% before hanging again. When I restarted the installation, again it wouldn’t boot from the drive. A solution was at hand.

The drive itself isn’t bad. It installs other software, and Disk 1 of the original software works fine. But I noticed that the machine was getting pretty hot during the install, so I decided there was a heat issue causing the drive to flake out.

Fortunately, today it was a cool 40 degrees here in Louisville. Yup. You guessed it. I worked from home today and took the Mac out on the back porch. The install completed without a single hitch.

Although the drive hadn’t failed completely, clearly it was getting flakey. Running in the cold weather kept the drive cool enough to complete the installation. So even though it wasn’t a case of doing exactly the same thing over and over again, retrying the same thing eventually worked.

There were probably a bunch of other solutions that weren’t quite as crazy. But in this case I was just being single-minded enough that I knew it was going to work eventually.

Other IT insanity

An example of IT insanity that Linux folk would point to is the fact that people keep using Microsoft products and are constantly surprised when things don’t work or a new exploit comes out. Microsoft adherents would point out the insanity of constantly having to chase the latest RPM to get things working in the first place.

There are probably lots of examples you could come up with where you’ve done the same thing with a computer multiple times and gotten different results. Computers are supposed to be logical machines where certain inputs create defined outputs. It doesn’t always seem to work that way though.

It’s just enough to drive you crazy some days.