Modern Myths: Computers vs. You

Confusion and misinformation are in abundant supply in the computer and information industries. Cheap and fast communication, which is such a boon to our society, has also allowed the generally inexperienced multitudes to spread bad information faster than ever before.

So, please indulge me while I dispel some myths which have haunted the computer markets, in some cases, since their creation.

Most people over the age of 35, and many younger than that, first experienced computers on TV or in a movie. In almost every movie or TV show where a computer was involved, it eventually exploded or caught fire. "Logan's Run", about the 'perfect' society of the future, has a critical scene where the main computer starts smoking, dropping rafters, and altering its voice-output in a spooky way.

It eventually catches fire, explodes, and just generally destroys everything, all in response to the good guy¹s statements, which the computer didn't like.

It's a fine scene, because a slave society becomes free, but it perpetuates a myth about computers which has done more to stifle experimentation and learning than any other single thing:

The Big Myth is that if you do the wrong thing, program it the wrong way, or press the wrong key, the computer can break, emit sparks, catch fire or explode.

There used to be a program, from the early 80's, but probably still available, which used the heads in a floppy drive to play songs.
The head mechanism moves across the disk to access different areas on the disk. If a file or files are on different parts of the disk, the stepping motor, which controls the heads, makes a humming sound. (Windows users usually hear this hum when they start their computers.)

The song-playing program just runs the heads back and forth at different speeds to get different tones.

I describe this because the song-playing program has been known to damage the motor in the floppy drive.

It is one of only two examples where data can damage equipment. The other is a virus which was able to damage CPUs by accessing the same register over and over - the newer CPUs are immune to it.

However, one should distinguish breaking a machine from destroying data.

Data is volatile, and can be lost with a single button press. For example, you can press 'erase' on your VCR, making the tape blank, but the unit (and the tape itself) will continue to operate just fine.

Similarly, you can format your hard disk, making the computer unbootable and useless (until the back up is restored), but the hardware will still operate just fine, including the hard disk.

Another popular myth;

Monitors (also known as VDT's, or Video Display Terminals) emit x-rays and can cause brain damage, birth defects, or cancer.

I researched this quite a while ago, because of fears expressed by several clients where I worked. Here is what I learned:

Lead crystal, which is used in the face of every CRT (picture tube) in every TV and monitor manufactured since the 50¹s, is highly effective at stopping radiation. In fact, most monitors emit about 2% of the x-ray radiation that you absorb from the sky at night - not very much.

If you have even once laid out in the sun, you've already received more x-rays than you will ever get from a lifetime in front of a monitor.

However, monitors do pose real health threats, all of which are preventable, and reversible.

Although it is not a problem with most new monitors, which have higher scan rates, the squeal emitted by older monitors (and TV¹s) has been linked to headaches and nausea.

Both can be prevented. Purchasing a new monitor, which uses an oscillator with such a high frequency that your nervous system isn't affected by the squeal, will usually solve it. If you can't afford a new one right now, taking frequent short breaks, to get away from it for a while, will help.

Even newer monitors can still cause headaches due to eyestrain, since our eyes can detect low-frequency flicker. If you can adjust the refresh rate of your monitor so that it is greater than 60Hz, you should be able to avoid that trouble.

Again, frequent short breaks will help prevent headaches from any flicker on the old monitors.

A laptop computer, or any computer with one of the newer flat screen displays, has none of these concerns, as they use LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) technology, rather than CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes).

However, regardless of your type of screen, make sure it's at least 24 inches (70cm) away from your face, or you'll have the same kinds of eye trouble as people who read books too closely.

There is very little information available on the types, strength, or effects of magnetic fields which CRT displays use to move the electron beam around the screen.

From my own measurements, I can tell you that the magnetic field around a 15-inch CRT is slightly stronger than your typical refrigerator magnet. MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology (the low-impact version of a cat-scan) will expose you to magnetic fields hundreds if not thousands of times stronger.

Besides, magnetic fields have very little effect on non-magnetic materials, like humans.

There are some very real dangers in the modern computer-based office environment

...but they aren't what you might expect.

A very common danger involving computers is carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive motion injury caused by typing or mouse-clicking, especially if strain is present in the tendons or muscles or the hands or arms.

This condition can be very debilitating, but is also highly preventable.

Proper positioning of the body is the most important preventative step.

  • Your wrists should be straight while typing
  • Your elbows should be at a 90 degree angle
  • Your posture should be upright
A plethora of products exist to help with these goals: Pillows, wrist-rests, keyboard drawers, foot pads, and wrist-braces are the most frequently seen.

Frequent short breaks are also important, and mild stretching or exercise of the hands and arms, to keep muscles loose and blood flowing, will serve you well.

Carpal Tunnel usually starts as bursitis (aches or burning in the joints), but the biggest problem is the swelling, caused by tendons in the wrist being rubbed against the bones, which tends to pinch the nerves which must share the same thin conduit into the hand (the carpal tunnel).

Should you experience numbness or tingling in the hands or arms, burning joints, or sore tendons, get off the keyboard and go see a doctor, as those are the first warning signs.

Advanced carpal tunnel can sometimes be corrected with surgery, but there are people who will suffer from it the rest of their lives. Don't let it happen to you.


We know it protects the earth from ultra violet radiation, but it is also one of the by-products of laser printer technology. It is also a poison to most life forms. Fortunately, the ozone layer around the Earth is several miles above the surface.

All laser printers comes standard with an ozone filter. However, it is still possible for such items to malfunction, releasing poisonous gas.

If your printer is displaying a code which means the ozone filter is malfunctioning, heed it! Change the filter!

The most dangerous single thing in computer technology is toner

...the (usually) black dust used in laser printers to form the print image.

Toner dust has been classified by the FDA a class-A carcinogen. Because of this, care should be taken in the installation, removal, and disposal of print toner cartridges:

  • Be careful not to get it on your hands or skin
  • Wash your hands when you are done
  • Take all possible steps to avoid breathing it
Toner is so fine that it easily becomes airborne. Before changing a toner cartridge, you may want to don a dust mask.

They only cost a few bucks, can be used over and over, and, gee-whiz, aren't your lungs worth it?

The dust mask might not be a bad idea, because toner is composed of extremely fine particles, and it's never good to inhale fine particulate matter. However, the health risk is not as great as sometimes imagined.

The Materials Safety Data Sheet from a typical laser printer cartridge (the Hewlett-Packard 4) includes the following:

Potential Health Effects:
  • Ingestion effects: Ingestion is not applicable route of entry for intended use.
  • Inhalation effects: Minimal respiratory tract irritation may occur with exposure to large amount of toner dust.
  • Eye Effects: May cause eye irritation.
  • Skin effects: Unlikely to cause skin irritation.

Other Toxicity Data:

Some toners do contain carbon black, which is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a class 2B carcinogen, but it is generally considered encapsulated by the polymers that make up 90% of the toner, therefore bio-inaccessible. At a 1998 Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute symposium, Joe L. Mauderly presented a paper discussing a recent research review:
Inhalation carcinogenicity bioassays of 32 nonfibrous particles using rats have been reported. The comparison of the results of these studies is compromised by the use of differing experimental designs and exposure levels. However, of these 32, only two (copying toner and petroleum coke) were negative at the maximum tested level according to current interpretation. All of the studies included exposure levels far above anticipated human exposures; it can only be speculated whether the negative particles might have been positive at even higher levels of exposure. The response to toner was not statistically significant at the highest level...
All that being said, toner remains a fine particle pollutant, and one that is so pervasive in almost all workplaces that some common-sense precautions should be taken. The most important of these is never use an ordinary vacuum cleaner on toner. It passes unimpeded through the filters on household vacuums, becoming a true airborne nuisance. If you have a toner spill that cannot be wiped up, call a service technician. They use vacuums with special filters that are designed to trap toner.

Static Electricity - Does it really hurt that bad?

Another computer myth is if you work inside of your computer you are bound to break something with static electricity. Static is less of a factor then people realize. Static electricity carries little actual charge and will barely even effect a computer. If you think about it what makes your computer run? Electricity! Electricity is flowing through your computer all the time. However if static does enter your computer it may cause some minor changes to things like your bios and RAM settings because both of these hold information all of the time from a constant source of electricity. That is why your computer has a battery. The only time when electricity really comes into play is when a person works on a computer while it is still on (not a good idea). Even tasks as simple as upgrading your computer's RAM are thought of as dangerous, and only to be accomplished by professionals charging outrageous rates to do simple work.

If a person is still worried about static electricity there are a few steps one can take to prevent it. First a person can ground all static on the case of the computer by touching any metal on the case. This works because the case is protected from the motherboard and all peripherals. In essence the motherboard and the case are two different pieces connected only by a fews screws in plastic holders. By grounding the static electricity you are removing it from your body and the computer case brings it to the ground. Think of yourself as a battery holding a small charge, when you touch the case your charge runs out and you're a dead battery cell. Hence the static will be discharged and you can work freely. A person can also go out and buy a cheap wrist band that connects to the person, and the computer to ground them. The wrist band works by allowing the static electricity to freely travel from your body into the computer case whenever you recieve a static charge, from wherever. Say you even rub your feet along the floor, it will transfer that static.

STATIC CAN BE DAGEROUS The one major component in your computer that can be screwed up with static is your bios. This can cause major problems. But as far as discharging onto the motherboard itself that usually won't happen. As long as you ground yourself on the case first.

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