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A Janet Jackson song had an uncanny power to crash laptops

I never thought she'd see a resonance cascade, let alone create one

I have a new favourite bug: Janet Jackson's 1989 certified choon Rhythm Nation had an uncanny ability to crash certain old laptops. This was nothing to do with the file itself; even being near another laptop playing the song could cause a crash. According to Microsoft, one of the sonic frequencies in Rhythm Nation coincided with the natural resonant frequencies of a particular laptop hard drive, making it crash. Amazing. Perfect. A perfect bug.

In the days of Windows XP, Microsoft's Raymond Chen says, a manufacturer discovered that playing Rhythm Nation—and apparently only Rhythm Nation—could crash some of their laptops. It was able to crash some of their competitors laptops too. But this was nothing to do with a virus or corrupted file or anything, it was all about the music.

"The weirdest thing was if you played this song, it not only crashed the laptop playing it, it also crashed a laptop that was sitting next to it, that wasn't playing the song at all," Chen explained in a video. "The reason was that this song contained a frequency that matched the natural resonant frequency of the hard drive that these laptops were using."

Basically, different objects are more inclined to vibrate at different frequencies. With sound being vibrations, if you hit something with a noise at its natural resonant frequency, it'll vibrate more in response. That's the way you can shatter a wine glass by matching its resonant frequency (and the way urban legend says you can make people poo themselves by making their bowels resonate with the 'brown note'). In a delicately balanced mechanical hard drive, unexpected intense vibration is bad.

To fix it, Chen says, "the manufacturer had to write a special audio filter that detected these frequencies and filtered them out before they came out of the speaker and crashed the hard drive."

Perfect. Janet Jackson was too powerful. Just perfect. I choose to belief this story entirely.

Fun fact: Microsoft's blog post also points to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse of 1940 as a giant disastrous demonstration of resonant frequencies, but supposedly that's a common misconception.

About the Author
Alice O'Connor avatar

Alice O'Connor

Associate Editor

Alice is likely in the sea.

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