It turns out a Janet Jackson song had the power to crash some laptops back during the Windows XP era.
Microsoft software engineer Raymond Chen recounted the incident in a blog post(Opens in a new window) on Wednesday, saying he heard the story from a colleague in Windows XP product support. According to the blog post, Jackson’s 1989 hit song “Rhythm Nation” could disrupt a model 5400rpm laptop hard drive that was used across various notebooks.
Microsoft learned of the problem when a laptop manufacturer told the company’s Windows team about the mysterious flaw. Initially, the company thought it had something to do with the Rhythm Nation music video playing over the laptops.
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But what made the issue even stranger was how the Rhythm Nation music video would also crash Windows laptops belonging to the manufacturer’s competitors.
“And then they discovered something extremely weird: Playing the music video on one laptop caused a laptop sitting nearby to crash, even though that other laptop wasn’t playing the video!” Chen wrote in the blog post.
This discovery led Microsoft to determine the problem was with laptop hard drives and how they had a natural resonant frequency. This is the frequency where an object will naturally vibrate when exposed to a certain external force. For example, glass can vibrate and even shatter(Opens in a new window) when a soundwave bombards it with the glass’s natural frequency at high enough amplitude.
“This song (Rhythm Nation) contained a frequency that matches the natural resonant frequency of the hard drive that these laptops were using,” Chen said(Opens in a new window) in a video. As a result, playing the song would cause the hard drive’s moving disks to vibrate too much, resulting in a crash.
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To address the problem, Chen said the laptop manufacturer added a custom filter in the device’s audio system that could remove the resonant frequency during any audio playback. “And I’m sure they put a digital version of a ‘Do not remove’ sticker on that audio filter,” he wrote while adding: “Though I’m worried that in the many years since the workaround was added, nobody remembers why it’s there.”
The risk of sound vibrations disrupting a hard drive is certainly surprising. But the problem has actually been known in IT circles for years now. In his blog post, Chen linked to a 2008 video(Opens in a new window) of how shouting at a data center’s storage drives can cause latency to spike.
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