The Channel

The 'blem wit' error messages

Things get terse


When I was young I built up a collection of system error messages. Ok, look, it's not as sad as collecting stamps! It is? Really? Oh well, never mind. Anyway, my recent piece about Borland putting rude words in Quattro Pro got me thinking it was time to revisit that collection.

Some of them date back to the days of the mainframe, such as:

"Fatal error in crawl out - system halted"

This I collected from a Prime.

Most of them were verified in one way or another; however I once collected the delightful but unverified "Shut her down, Clancy, she's a-pumping mud." Whatever its original provenance, within six months, it had moved into reality - a friend saw it on the list and actually added it to a real hole in the wall system. As far as I know it's still in there. A case of art imitating life, or the other way around...or science, or whatever.

In those days, though, most error message were a little less creative. The reason? Memory was expensive. So some of them were terse. I mean rlly trs - to th pnt of bng compltly uslss. Take, for example, the execrable:

"Cannot find DLL"

Yes, yes, but in order to fix the problem I need to know which DLL you can't find. There are hundreds of the wretched things; at least give me a clue. What letter does it start with? That would narrow it down. And Microsoft wonders why people end up shouting at Windows.

But this was nothing. My personal favorite is still one from the early 90s. And it was about as trs as they get:

"blem wit"

Those simple characters proved that the god of error messages not only has a sense of humor but also an understanding of recursion.

There was a bug in some versions of the Novell redirector shell (NET5.COM) that was a TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) program that ran under DOS. The Novell TSR had, of course, a set of error messages that it could use. One was:

"There is a problem with the Memory Control Block for the shell"

Unfortunately, the very problem that triggered the error message had the unfortunate side effect of screwing up the ability of DOS to write to the screen. So only a part of the error message was actually written to the screen. What was that error message?

"There is a problem with the Memory Control Block for the shell"

So, whenever "blem wit" appeared, you had two reasons to be sure that there was, indeed, a problem with writing to the screen.

"Blem wit" was such an odd string to suddenly appear on a screen, and so widespread at the time, that it was often reported as a virus. But it wasn't, it was just a trs TSR.®

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