When you’re troubleshooting a problem and the answer remains elusive, don’t overlook anything as the culprit, even the most unlikely — or lame — possibility.


Over the years, I’ve been asked to solve any number of head-scratching problems, and oftentimes the way to solve them is through the process of elimination — something that could be rather time consuming. If a nagging problem persists and the solution remains elusive, I might do one of two things. If it’s a problem that affects the user’s or the company’s production, I’ll probably reformat and reinstall. Sometimes, that’s just faster and more effective. If it’s not an issue that would interfere with production or put data at risk, etc., I might tell the user to just live with it. I can’t spend a lot of time on an insignificant problem if there’s no downside to simply ignoring it. My Screen Saver doesn’t work is one such example.

However, one of my most important users was recently faced with that very problem — his screen saver didn’t work, and he really didn’t want to just live with it. He wanted it fixed, and he wanted to figure out why it didn’t work. It became more of a challenge to him than anything else, and he was very persistent in getting some ideas from me. In most cases, I would say that I just can’t spend a lot of time fixing a problem that has no effect on our production; there’s just no payback. However, this particular user was ….. no, it wasn’t my boss, it was my son.

Ever since I gave him his first computer, I’ve made it a point to encourage him to learn as much about it as possible. That’s never been much of a challenge, though, because he’s been extremely inquisitive when it comes to technology — not unlike many other teenagers, I suppose. In fact, I’ve even gone to him to ask about some things. For example, I’m just not into the digital music stuff, and he is, so he’s a great source of information when I do tread into it. But for the life of him, he just couldn’t figure out why his screen saver wasn’t working.

So last Saturday morning, after a lot of encouragement from him (parents of teenagers will know what I mean by encouragement), I sat down at his computer to fix his screen saver. After all, it couldn’t be that big a deal, could it? Well, after about a half hour of checking the settings, rechecking, changing, changing back, comparing to mine, and so on, I must admit that I, too, was stumped. At that point, I had no idea why his screen saver wasn’t working — and I admitted as much.

I sat back and just looked at his computer, thinking about all the things it could be. Make sure you’re not playing any music, I said; close any window that’s open; disconnect from MySpace; make sure you’re not logged in to anything; let’s look at the tasks that are running; and on it went. There was nothing running, everything was idle, everything was closed, and still, the screen saver just wouldn’t come on.

I started thinking out loud, telling him that I built both computers (his and mine) the same way, I installed the same version of Vista the same way, I configured them the same way, and so on. Why does mine work, but yours doesn’t? I then said, the only difference between your computer and mine is that you have a wireless keyboard and mouse, while mine are wired. Maybe there’s some kind of activity going on that Windows detects as being non-idle. “That’s the lamest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. Now some parents might be offended by having a suggestion called lame, but as a new Eagle Scout, I knew he meant it in the most respectful kind of way. “Well, it might be lame,” I said, “but it’s all I can think of right now.”

A few minutes later, my son came into my (home) office and said, “Good call, Dad. I unplugged the wireless receiver from its USB port, waited one minute, and the screen saver came on. I plugged the wireless receiver back in, and sure enough, the screen saver wouldn’t work”. (By the way, Good call, Dad outweighs lame by a lot!)

I must admit, I’ve never heard of such a thing. It was kind of a shot in the dark, simply considering one link in a long chain. If I was asked at work to solve this problem, I’m not so sure I would have taken it that far. Maybe I would have, I just don’t know. But this was different, and my son and I both learned something. When I finally found the culprit, finding the solution was easy. There’s actually a Microsoft fix for the problem.

By the way, the reference to my son making Eagle Scout was perhaps a thinly veiled opportunity to just be a proud parent. It’s not an easy thing for a teenager to achieve, and I’m very proud of him.