IT’S GEEK TO ME: Windows error messages are sometimes more annoying than helpful

Question: About two months ago I started getting this pop-up window when I start my HP laptop. (Geek Note: The image provided as an attachment is posted on my web site.) It just started one day for no apparent reason. Each time it happens, I just close it, but it is a bit annoying. I can find a couple of references online about it, but not how to keep it from recurring. Any ideas on this one? No other apparent problems associated with it.

– Curtis R.

Fort Walton Beach, Florida

Answer: I don’t think you can “keep it from recurring” in the classic sense, because it’s not really a correctable error. I think that requires some explanation, don’t you? Caution! This column contains some extreme Geekiness, and is not for the fainthearted!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Microsoft expects every one of its users to be a computer scientist when it comes to the way they present error messages. And make no mistake – even though this dialog says the program is HPSystemEventUtilityBackground.exe, this message is coming from Windows. I know this, because after having spent the last 37 years as a software engineer, I’ve picked up a few things, including the knowledge needed to interpret this message.

In the course of coding software, it is very common for programmers to access specific addresses in the computer’s memory. This can be for a variety of purposes, from storing or retrieving data values, to getting the address of the next program command to execute. These addresses are themselves stored in specialized memory addresses called pointers (because they point to another entity – get it?). When the program is done with a pointer, it is good engineering practice to clear it, which is usually done by setting its value to NULL, which is represented programmatically by the value zero. That long number that starts with 0x000… is a 64-bit hexadecimal representation of 0, in case you were wondering. The value of zero is an invalid address, and when a program tries to access it as if it is valid, the operating system will produce an error remarkably similar to the one in your question, Curtis.

Unfortunately, unless you are the program’s software engineer, and you are conducting debug work on the source code, there’s not really anything you can do to fix the problem. That’s one of the reasons why it really grates on me that Microsoft even displays such errors to the typical end-user. The error may as well say “A highly technical error has occurred that you can’t possibly hope to understand, much less do anything about. Click OK to continue, or click OK to cancel. You really don’t have a choice.”

Before I run out of column space for the week, let’s shift to some things that you can do to try and alleviate this annoying box. First off, understand that the referenced software is a legitimate program from HP, and not a virus or malware. It runs in the background, meaning that you don’t explicitly start it, or see it when it’s running. It handles things that happen on the system such as button presses, switching between battery and AC power, etc. That makes it a valuable commodity for helping streamline operation of your system, so simply eliminating the program, though a viable choice, should be a last resort.

Since the program had been running just fine, and this problem “just started one day for no apparent reason” it is reasonable to assume that something changed. The list of potential “somethings” is a rather long one, but the “likely somethings” are few, so your corrective measures are limited. The most likely something is that the software itself, or some data that it uses has somehow become corrupted. If the software is listed in the “Programs and Features” section of your Control Panel, you can try uninstalling it, and looking for a replacement on the HP website. Beyond that, you can run Windows’ System File Checker by entering the command “sfc /scannow” in a command window. This handy command verifies the integrity of all your system files, and restores them if they’ve become corrupt. You can learn more about this tool by visiting

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