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08/27/05
Computers: Victory and Defeat
Filed under: Ramblings, Computers & Internet
Posted by: site admin @ 1:14 pm

The Agony of Defeat

Back in November 2004, I got a new notebook PC for work.  It’s a 1.8 GHz HP/Compaq nc6000 with 1 GB RAM, a DVD/CD-RW and docking station.  It’s pretty slick.  However, trouble started brewing in about May 2005 when the driver for the video card (an ATi Radeon 9600) driver corrupted itself.  I tried several times to re-install or repair it, to no avail.  It would not be fixed.  Since the video still worked, I said “screw it” and just OK’d the error message every time I booted.  But I couldn’t install any graphics-intensive applications that required over 2 MB of video RAM.

Flash-forward to July.  All of a sudden, certain applications seemed to get corrupted and would not run or would crash.  Then, the “checkdisk” began to run during every other boot-up.  And it would sometimes find lots of errors of various sorts.  At least once, the PC just re-booted without warning and ran the checkdisk routine, finding errors of course.  All the while, I would routinely backup my drive to an external hard drive like a good little boy.

After a few weeks of this (why I waited so long, I don’t know), I finally called my IT help desk.  We got the video driver fixed after an hour or two of multiple re-installs.  Then they told me my hard drive was probably about to fail. So soon?  The darned thing is only a few months old!

So, they re-imaged me a new hard drive and sent it to me so I could replace the dying one.  It was then that I discovered backup software sees file corruption as a change to a file…and therefore copies the “updated” corrupt file over the already-backed-up good version of the file.  Thank God only a few non-vital files were affected (as far as I can tell yet, anyway).

Two weeks later…the same damn thing starts happening: checkdisk on boot-up.  Not every time, but sometimes…with errors.  At this point, I’m thinking that the computer itself - not just the hard drive - is the problem.  I’ve talked to a number of other people on my team who have the same or similar model PC and several of them have already replaced their hard drives 2 or 3 times!  Same story for people outside my group.  So did hard drive reliability just take a plunge, or is there an inherent design flaw with the new HP/Compaq notebook PCs?  What the hell?  The odd thing is that the IT help desk didn’t seem to know anything about all these hardware failures so many people are having.  When every other person using this hardware has had at least one major problem, you’d think the pattern would be obvious to IT.  Whatever.

Anyway, this time I had IT send me a whole new computer with a new drive.  What a fiasco this turned out to be.  They have a data migration utility that supposedly migrates your data from your old PC to the new one.  Well, it failed to copy my most important data files!  Fortunately, I didn’t trust it and copied everything over again manually.  Of course this all takes a while when you have a 60 GB hard drive that’s half-full of data.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot.  They do send a very nifty little external hard drive chassis that connects to your PC through USB so you can do your data migration.  You just pop your old drive into this chassis and connect it to your PC.  Well, in theory, based on their instructions anyway.  They fail to mention in their nice, detailed documentation with photos and everything that you need to remove the jumper between some of the connector pins before you put the drive into the chassis!  After about an hour of frustration, I noticed that there was no jumper on the drive in their documentation photos, so I figured “what the hell?”  Windows recognized the drive much better without the jumper.

Next, I figured I’d use the hard drive wipe utility that IT sends to securely erase all data from my old drive before sending it back.  Well, they don’t tell you in the instructions that it takes about 20 hours to re-write your drive seven times!

Needless to say, this past week was not very productive.  But, at least my notebook is finally back up and operational.  If it pulls any of this crap again, I think I’m going to throw it in the street and run it over with my truck about 8 times, then cover it with gasoline and ignite it.  Then maybe I’ll piss on on for good measure.

Data Dump

Like many pack-rat geeks, I’ve got several old computers, monitors, and assorted components taking up too much space in my basement.  So today, I figured I’d finally get rid of one particularly clunky (and heavy) computer and monitor by taking it to the town dump (actually, it’s a transfer station, but whatever). 

I was going to bring some cash with me in case they charge for disposal, but of course, I forgot to do that.  Good thing, too, ‘cuz after I unloaded the equipment (did I mention it’s really heavy stuff?), one of the guys that works at the transfer station tells me it’ll be $15 for the monitor and $20 for the computer for disposal.  Crap!  Sonofabitch!

After loading the ship-anchors back into the truck, I went back home and grabbed cash and a checkbook.  Then I went back to the transfer station and wrote a check for $35 and did some more weight-lifting.  So much for the free computer equipment that never got used.

A Personal Victory

Despite all the computer-induced pain these past weeks, I did achieve a personal victory last night.  I decided this week that I wanted to finally get into Linux.  Of course there are a number of different Linux “distributions”, but from what I have heard, the Debian “distro” seemed like a great choice.  It’s not as easy as Red Hat to install, but it is very stable and is apparently a good development platform with a wide user base.  And it’s free.  Throughout the week, I spent several hours reading documentation (including the entire Debian installation manual), gathering information about the target PC hardware and downloading the first installation CD image.

The goal was to create a dual-boot system (Linux and Windows) that I could use to learn Linux and experiment on.  I have minimal UNIX experience, so I knew it would be a challenge, especially if things didn’t go smoothly.

Well…it didn’t exactly go off smoothly, but at least it was not as bad as it could have been.  It actually took about three or four attempts, the first starting at about 5 PM.  The first time through took a while to figure out the partitioning, since the automatic partition sizes were sub-optimal.  Then after install, the system would not boot into Linux, only into Windows.  So, I went into the BIOS and re-arranged the disk boot order.  Then it wouldn’t boot into Debian, so I put the install disk back in (I had used the minimal-size CD image for network installation) and re-booted with the CD.  It made me start the installation process over again.  Whatever.  After re-booting again, and running the rest of the initial setup, the system could not connect to the Internet to download the rest of the installation.  At some point, it found something corrupted in the filesystem and told me to run a check utility.  Well, apparently that really screwed things up.

At that point, I said “screw the net install.”  So, I downloaded the full first installation disk and burned another CD.  I re-booted with that CD and ran the installation once again.  After re-booting, the first-time configuration went perfectly!  It connected to the Debian mirror on the Internet and downloaded all the files it needed (which took quite a while).  Actually, I was quite impressed by the Internet installation - very cool!  I was not sure that the system would properly set up the video and monitor drivers to work with “X-Windows”, but it did.  So, at about 2 AM, I was finally finished with my first successful Linux installation. 

Hopefully this will get me prepared for some cool new projects like creating a MythTV system.  If I can learn enough about Linux, I can actually do a customized MythTV install.  Though I might just stick with the KnoppMyth version to start with…

 –Tim

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