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Fred's Views


Computer Foibles

Something went wrong with our "shared/server" computer (affectionately known as "Tiger") a couple of days ago. Tiger was running Windows XP Professional and had two hard drives. I wasn't using the computer when it bombed, so I don't know exactly what happened. Also, "S.M.A.R.T." monitoring the hard drives was turned off, so that didn't provide any help (I don't really know what it does, anyway). My son, who was using the machine either just before, while or just after the event, is pretty computer illiterate, so he was no help. In short, I was on my own in trying to determine what happened and what to do about it.

At first glance, it looked like a hard drive failure. The one thing I don't think I tried to do, but probably should have, is to attempt to boot using the "XP" CD. Then I could have tried reinstalling "XP". Instead, I used my tried and true "Win 98SE/ME" start up diskette. It booted into DOS, but didn't recognize the offending hard drive. I now know (remembered) that the main partition on that drive was converted to "NTFS" which is incompatible with DOS partitions. It seemed the offending drive was dead.

I eventually removed that drive, booted up with the "XP" CD and decided to install "XP" on the second drive. (First making it the "master" drive.) "XP" said it needed to reformat the partition which would, of course, erase all the files there. Although I didn't think there were any essential files on the partition, I decided to try and copy/move them to another partition, just in case. Back to the start-up diskette and rudimentary DOS commands. Sometimes we forget how much computing has changed in twenty years (and sometimes we are painfully reminded at how much it has remained the same). I was never a fan of DOS and only used it when no other solution was available. (I only moved to the "PC" platform ten years ago when Windows finally made it a practical - if not reliable - system.)

It turns out that, in order to copy the contents of one partition to another, using only the DOS available on the start-up diskette requires at least the following:

It didn't take long for me to decide that there would need to be some really important data on that partition before I would go through all that back-breaking, finger-numbing nonsense. It turns out that essentially all of the data was just programs that could be reloaded (installed) again much more easily.

Reformatted the drive. Reinstalled "XP". The machine works again. Of course I now have to re-install all of the programs that were on that machine, but only a relatively little bit of data (which was foolishly stored where Windows wants to store things) was lost. O, and I haven't yet "activated" "XP". So, I still don't know what hoops Microsoft will put me through when the thirty days are up. It's too much to face just now.

I decided to hook up the questionable drive as a slave to see if it functioned at all. It had been divided into two partitions. One for Windows, and the other for data. In this case, the data was my collection of pic365 pictures of the day for the last three years. While, I hope, they are all stored on a CD somewhere, I'd just as soon not lose them from the hard drive. Well, the "Windows" partition seemed to have been cleaned out, but the data partition was intact. I don't know which of the many hoops I went through was responsible for clearing out all of those 2 gigabytes or so of Windows XP files, but they seemed to be gone. And, of course, I still don't know why it crashed in the first place. (Actually, the "blue screen of death" that came up when trying to boot said something about an "unmountable disk volume". While I have some idea what it is talking about, I have no idea how to fix it.) Fortunately, the data partition seemed to all there.

I go through these kinds of hoops quite often. My son had two old Pentium 133 systems (about six years old). One had an "on board" video card with only 1 megabyte of video memory and a 1 gigabyte hard drive. The other only had 16 megabytes of main memory. Neither was very reliable. I hoped the memory was compatible and took the memory from one and added to the other. Eventually, I got it to work, almost. It wasn't quite recognizing all of the memory. So I decided to re-insert the memory cards. Then it wouldn't boot up at all. No matter what I did - nothing. So I decided to try to revive the other machine - put back the memory and exchanged hard drives (one 4 gigabyte, one 6 gigabyte). It wouldn't boot up. I finally determined that one of the hard drives had somehow gone bad. Removed it, and everything worked just fine. It's now computer five on our home network, although it really hasn't been used much yet (and has no additional software installed yet).

My point to all this is, what if my son, (the almost computer illiterate) had been on his own, somewhere, when this happened. What would he do? Well, unless he had a friend who was more computer savvy, he'd have to take it in for service. That's an automatic $50 charge just to look at it. Then he'd still have to re-install all the programs - which he is just learning to do.

There must be millions of people out there who encounter computer problems at least once a year and who have little choice but to seek "professional" help. Wouldn't it be nice if there were some kind of diagnostic tool to give us a clue as to what is really wrong with our machines and provide useful information on what we can - or can not do - to fix the problem. It only took Microsoft 15 years to get a reasonably stable operating system (and then blew the whole thing with a new, ghastly, interface). Maybe in another fifteen years our computers will be able to tell us what's wrong with them and how to fix them - or maybe they'll really fix themselves. You never know.

I decided I'd better back up the data from the questionable drive, so I used "XP"'s built-in CD-burning feature to back up the data on a CD-R. Tried the CD in another machine - nothing was there. Tried again, still nothing. I installed Burn & Go a relatively inexpensive alternative CD-burning application. Same results. Looks like my CD-RW drive has gone now! When will it ever end?

Copyright © 2003 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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