Die Hard 4

The depiction of computers in movies seems to irritate a lot of people. I’ve never understood why. Yes, computers don’t have fancy graphics, large-text access denied messages, mouse-less operation, and you can’t magically hack into anything at will – especially with a gun to your head and, um, other distractions – but it’s not real. It’s a film. Using a computer is not inherently dramatic – filmmakers have to do something.

That said, I was smiling throughout Die Hard 4: it was clearly written sans geek. My favourite part was “he could download the entire financial data of the US onto a portable hard drive”, when the average portable hard drive would barely hold my photo collection. Incidentally, said financial data could then be taken anywhere and used to move money in an untraceable manner…somehow…

Of course, Die Hard made up for it when Bruce Willis jumped onto an airborne F35. Give and take. And it’s not as bad as the CIA using Norton Antivirus in The Bourne ThirdOne. That was offensive.

The usual culprit

I chased down an odd problem this morning. The client was unable to download attachments from webmail: the download hung at ‘getfile.asp’, never translating this into a filename. My first thought was Norton Internet Security – if it’s there, it’s causing problems – but disabling it made no difference. So I played with IE’s security settings, as well as other browsers. Firefox sent me down the wrong path by – unrelatedly – having issues downloading files with spaces in their name. Chrome worked fine, but didn’t render the page properly, so I couldn’t recommend a last ditch browser switch.

Next stop: IE’s add-ons. I disabled AOL toolbar: nothing. I disabled something with no description other than ‘Research’: nothing. I disabled Norton: success! I hate that program.

The “Norton Confidential” add-on was the problem. The moment I disabled it NIS squawked about incomplete protection, so I went in to see which part had broken. Apparently it was the phishing protection module, so I disabled that (and turned off the monitoring so it wouldn’t shout at me), re-enabled the add-on, restarted IE and…no difference. The same was true no matter how much of NIS I turned off. So I ended up disabling the add-on permanently. Norton being Norton, it’ll undoubtedly launch a fascist takeover and re-enable everything at some point, but at least the disabling procedure is easy.

Vista has no repair-install option

For the last couple of days I’ve been working on a broken laptop, which gets halfway into Vista before blue-screening. Usually this is a hard drive problem, but that checked out fine. So I analysed the logs for odd drivers, and nothing was amiss there either. Then I googled the BSOD error codes, which suggested Windows was fundamentally broken – my best guess is it lost power while installing SP1. Fine.

This kind of thing isn’t a problem. I’ve had plenty of XP machines break in similar ways: the solution is to run a repair install from the XP disc. Repair installs are magic: they replace all the important system files, and usually fix everything outright. If not they almost always get you into the operating system, which is usually a good start.

Except, unbelievably, Vista doesn’t do repair installs. I’d forgotten this. Apparently you can emulate the process by installing an upgrade over the top, but only from within Vista itself. Essentially, if Vista doesn’t boot, you’re screwed.

System Restore is unfortunately not working either, so I’ve had no choice but to run ‘Restore to factory condition’ – a process which formats the drive in its first step. I’ve backed up all the data elsewhere, and I’ll have to restore it manually.  

This is completely stupid. Maybe there are good reasons for removing the repair install, but I can’t think of any, and it feels like an enormous step backwards. 

Windows 7 is getting some good press, along the lines of ‘Vista, but faster, sleeker, and without all the annoying crap’. I really hope so.

Awkward conversations after a computer repair fails

Last month I had a three-day battle with a broken RAID setup. I eventually brought it back to life, returned it to the client and, after a few days, sent an invoice. Then, a couple of days ago, it broke again. They called me in.

It’s a tough one. It could be the power supply throwing the occasional wobbly. It could Random Motherboard Kak with the RAID chip. It could be user error. It could be something totally unrelated. Most of which are difficult to diagnose, and would involve trial and error see-if-it-lasts-this-time. They’ve decided to get a new computer instead. They also said they’d pay for my previous work, but made it clear they aren’t happy about doing so, as it “wasn’t repaired”. I think it unlikely they’d use me again.

Ugh. I hate these situations. I can see their point. But I did, in fact, get it working, and there was nothing to suggest the problem would recur. I didn’t charge anything extortionate, either. I’ll talk about it with a more knowledgeable friend to see whether there’s anything technical I should done differently, but that’s kinda irrelevant – there are certainly situations where this could happen through no fault of my own.

I suppose from my perspective they’re paying me to attempt a repair, but to them they’re paying for a repair. I tend to assume people are aware of the former, and although I try to explain what I’m doing, maybe I need to be much more explicit about it. 95% of the time they amount to the same thing, and of the remainder it’s usually something I can tell them about pretty quickly, and charge a nominal fee. But in this kind of situation, the difference becomes important. Maybe I need to get a properly-written contract, so I’m covered. I’m probably leaving myself wide open without one, to be honest.

In the end I caved and offered to fit a couple of components into a separate machine for no extra charge, which mollified them somewhat. But I still feel like I’ve messed up, one way or another.

Breaking 1TB

I remember getting my first hard drive that was bigger than 1GB, and thinking this was amazing. Today it takes half an hour to take 1GB of photos, so I obviously need much more space. Before this morning, my setup had one “500GB” and two “250GB” drives, but this actually added up to 927GB. This is because the manufacturers’ definition of a gigabyte differs from a computer’s definition of a gigabyte. Today I added a second “500GB” backup drive (I saw far too much data loss this week, and it scared me) and passed 1TB1 for the first time. Meaningless, but a little milestone nonetheless.

I’m trying to work out if I’ll ever hit the next milestone: 1024 terabytes = a petabyte. Let’s say I become a professional sports photographer, or something, and take 8GB of photos per day. Even with that, it’d still take 342 years to hit a petabyte. I’d need 55GB of photos per day to hit a petabyte within 50 years. For my camera that would be 6875 photos/day, while the most expensive Canon SLR, at 22MB/photo, would need 2500 shots. Nah, I can’t see individual photographers needing that much space for a long, long time.

  1. and 1 tebibyte []

Desperate solutions for dead hard drives

I’m trying to rescue a dying hard drive today. It’s suffering from the Click of Death, which means it’s going down no matter what, but it’d be really, really nice if I could get at its data.

I regularly deal with laptop hard drives. 95% of the time they’re slowly dying, and once a Windows system file conks out, I get called. This almost always turns out fine: I quickly copy the still-intact data, slap it all onto a new hard drive, and run a repair install / restore disk. But just occasionally the drives go downhill fast. In today’s case Windows broke at the weekend, and by the time I got there on Tuesday the drive was clicking. Clicking is not good – it means the drive is physically failing to read the data. If it won’t spin up, I can’t do anything.

There’s a solution, but it’s not cheap: you can send the disk to a data recovery centre. They’ll open the drive in their cleanroom and (I assume) transfer the data platters to something which reads them directly. Assuming the platters aren’t physically damaged, this will probably work well. But it’s very expensive – quotes this morning suggested ~£300 for a 40gb drive – and I don’t know anybody who’s actually done it. Because, with laptops, the lost data are usually sentimental rather than critical. It’s not worth that expense, but people are still sad to lose it. This sucks.

I hate it when I can’t recover data. Obviously, everyone should have backups etc., but saying so is all well and good – in practice, most people don’t1. And it’s still heartbreaking to lose, say, years of photographs. But there is one last, desperate trick you can try before paying a fortune / giving up. Put the drive in the freezer.

Honest. It contracts the metal, and has been known to bring drives back from the dead. Until they warm back up…but I only need 15mins for a drive image. I’m trying this today.

The drive in question refused to stop clicking, so I shoved it in the freezer for an hour. I then quickly slapped it into an external usb caddy, hit the power and…I’m pretty sure it span up. Laptop drives are very quiet, but if I tilted it there was a definite force, so something was happening. Windows said “I’ve found a drive!”. And then sat there. And sat there. I reset the enclosure to try and kick things back into life, and this set it clicking again. Damn.

As I said, this is a last-ditch strategy. I’m really hoping that a bit longer in the freezer will do the trick – some say they’ve had drives fail after 4h but work after 24h. I’ll give it another few hours and try again. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try it overnight. I’d really like to get this one.

Update after another 2hrs: still nothing. It spins up, then starts clicking. Can’t think there’s much hope, to be honest, except there was that all-too-brief ‘disk drive found’ message from Windows…

Update 2: Sadly, this didn’t work. After an overnight freeze it refused to do anything for a minute, then just clicked as ever. I guess this type of click wasn’t the freezer-solvable one. Damn.

  1. backing up is still far too irritating for the average user, if you ask me. Norton Ghost is the most user-friendly system I know, but it’s confusing to set up. This should hopefully change as broadband speeds increase, as far simpler online backups will be able to handle music / photos []

Not my finest hour

I totally messed up this weekend. I spent the whole time on my own, trying to fix that RAID array, and pissed off at least two groups of people I was supposed to meet up with. The computer’s finally all working as of 0130, but I can’t possibly charge for all the time I spent. I hate being beaten by problems, is the thing, and I have a bad habit of taking it personally when I can’t figure things out. But this was just silly, and I crafted a situation with no upside. Damn it.

Trying to recover deleted RAID partitions

I’ve been grappling with a broken RAID setup this weekend. I was given the computer with little more than “it’s broken”, and it’s taken a while to diagnose.

It wasn’t booting. It got so far as ‘listing pci devices’ and conked out. Usually you’ll see an error in such situations, but this one, helpfully, just hung. This was when I discovered the RAID0 setup. As far as I can tell, it came from the store with this configuration, which is stupid. RAID0 sucks. It lets you link multiple drives into one big space, and I think there are speed benefits, but this is all outweighed by the data being dependent on all the drives staying healthy. If any drives fail, you lose everything. Not good.

But the drives were fine: both passed a sector scan without issue. The RAM checked out too. For a while I thought it might be a boot sector thing, then eventually I slipstreamed an xp disc with the required RAID drivers, and the initial install process reported no partitions. Ok – maybe they got deleted somehow. But how best to investigate? Usually this is easy – just whack the drive into another computer, and run whatever data recovery is appropriate. But RAID is finicky, and I was wary. One wrong move and you’ve broken the array and made data recovery infinitely more difficult. I really wanted to leave the drives alone as much as possible.

Eventually I shoved in another drive, installed XP onto it (which wasn’t without evil BSOD complications), hooked up the RAID and ran Active@ Partition Recovery. This took an hour to find two deleted partitions, one of which contained all the user data – perfect! I hit the ‘Recover’ button and Active@ said ‘Please pay for the full version’. Now, I’m sure there’s freeware that can undelete partitions. I’m sure I could even do it manually, if I did the research. But the hell with it – the ‘recover’ button was right there, so I paid the £27 for the full version. This fixed the mbr and boot sectors, and mounted the drive in Windows.

Windows said ‘wtf something is b0rked here’. The partition was back, and Active@ could list its files, but Windows couldn’t quite figure it out. This is the kind of thing which at which Scandisk excels. It usually works very well. But occasionally it’ll break things beyond belief, and a backup is advisable. So I switched to my favourite data recovery program: Restorer 2000 Pro. This little utility has saved me many, many times over the years. It scanned the major partition, and has spent the last six hours transferring all the data to yet another drive.

I’m currently waiting for scandisk to complete. I think it’s adding index entries to every file on the disk. Either that or it’s stuck in an infinite loop. Time will tell.

Charging for this kind of work is always difficult. Half the time is spent waiting for scans to complete or data to transfer – I’ve got through half of The Diamond Age this weekend – but it’s not like you just leave it running, either: there’s always some query that means you have to check it every five minutes (Restorer 2000, for example, has a strop if you try to recover too many directories from the root at once, so you have to be on hand to manually start the process every quarter of an hour). Charging a full hourly rate would obviously be hideously expensive and morally wrong, but you obviously don’t want to feel like you’re wasting your time. You also can’t always predict how long something will take, so you can’t say to the client “I’ll do £x amount of work then give you a call”. It just doesn’t work that way – oftentimes stopping halfway through would mean leaving the computer in an even worse state. I tend to add it up and see what feels reasonable. I’m not going to charge more than the computer’s worth, even if the job has taken that long. I know people who tell me I’m wrong, but most of my work is for individuals with their home computers, and I don’t think it’s fair to charge silly money.

Ho hum. Scandisk is still indexing, and the drive’s chugging. Man, I really hope it’s doing something useful.

eee: eee!

Yesterday’s post brought me two toys:


The ‘brella is mine. The laptop I’m setting up for a friend. But this is no ordinary laptop, this is an eee pc. Alice of the wonderful Wonderland got one a while back, and her initial possible-typo thought has been ringing around my head for 48hrs, because it sums the thing up perfectly: IT TITCHY! Here’s a better picture, actual size1:


See? It titchy! I’m in love. It’s 23 x 17cm and in its case weighs 976g, which isn’t much more than a large book, or my camera. It has wifi, 512mb RAM, three USB slots, a 3hr battery, a VGA port, an SD-card slot, two speakers and a webcam. It runs linux, boots in 15 seconds, shuts down in 5 and comes with OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Skype. Best of all, it only cost a shade over £220 – brand new.

Clearly there’s a compromise somewhere, and it’s mainly in power and disk space. It’s not at all fast – 630Mhz – and the hard drive is only 4gb2. Plus, the screen resolution is only 800×480, being as how it’s only 7″ on the diagonal. But if all you want to do is surf, type and chat, you don’t need any more than that. Couple this thing with an apparently-compatible Huawei PAYG Mobile Broadband stick and you’ve got 1mbps internet access you can throw into your bag just in case. Is brilliant.

The keyboard is obviously tiny tiny tiny, and takes some getting used to. But it’s at least a standard layout, and I adapted pretty quickly. The mouse ‘buttons’, it has to be said, are godawful, but thankfully the trackpad supports tapping. The machine recognised my USB drive straight away and I was able to transfer files from my XP machine without issue3. The screen is just large enough that text is readable without straining, but it’s close.

The menu system is fairly unexceptional, and buries the good stuff in with a load of less-than-useful programs, but does the job. It’s not officially editable, but activate the ‘advanced mode’ and you’ve got the full configurability4 of linux. About which I know nothing, but I had a crack anyway. The machine is popular enough that the eee wiki has many, many guides on unlocking advanced features without screwing everything up, and I went through a few step-by-step. The instructions suffer from the usual crowd-sourced documentation problems in that they can veer from incredibly useful to ‘oh, and before you do the next step you’ll need to rebuild the kernel – once you’ve done that…’, but are on the whole good. It has a problem out-of-the-box that prevents it from connecting to wireless networks that have WPA keys containing spaces; I was able to fix this by overwriting a couple of system files. I also tidied up the default layout, upgraded to OpenOffice.org 2.3, and enabled the option to boot into KDE. You can do much more – and for £40 you can upgrade it to a touchscreen(!) – but as it’s not mine I stopped there.

I’d be saving up for one, but it’s no use at all for anything photographic. Sure I could probably shove the GIMP on there, or even try XP and Photoshop if I thought I could handle the speed, but the 4gb drive is just too small. My camera’s memory card is twice that, so it’d be no use for backing up ‘in the field’, and I can’t imagine that editing a 3888×2592 file on that screen would be much fun. The eee has inspired a whole host of other micro-laptops, but they all seem to be coming in far more expensive, sadly.

My friend spends 4hrs on a wifi-enabled bus every day, but gets fed up of lugging a full-size laptop around. This should be a perfect solution, and I have to hand it over tomorrow. I am sad. I’ve named it and everything. Still, at least I have a ‘brella.

  1. not true []
  2. although it’s a blindingly-quick solid-state drive []
  3. although god only knows how you find the drive in the xandros open/save menus if you don’t click ‘open in file manager’ immediately []
  4. is this a word? []

A weekend of playing with Cisco

I’ve been exhausted today, after a heavy weekend. A friend invited me to help install and configure a startup’s network, and both nights neither of us got to sleep until 0300.

The company had quite the setup: 24″ monitors, VoIP phones, a beautifully-sunlit open-plan office, Aeron chairs, the lot. Their building had network wiring already, and it was our job to get everything connected and talking to each other (or not, if you’re a VoIP phone and a PC). I’ve never configured anything quite so high-end before. We had Sawyer the 24-port gigabit ethernet switch (brawn, didn’t need to do anything fancy), Jack the 24-port fast-ethernet switch (less powerful, but needed to do clever routings) and Hurley the wireless router (wireless = the cool bit) all connecting to Kate the ultra-configurable mega-secure Cisco router (ultimately in charge, and physically under both the switches). Everyone needed internet access, and it all had to work via DHCP – all settings being supplied automatically once connected to the wall / wireless. Each component threw up problems at times, and it was quite the challenge.

As ever, the toughest problems were sometimes the fastest – denying intra-subnet communication took five minutes, despite being a major worry – while the insignificant things ate up time – the network printer Just Didn’t Respond, and took two hours to fix. At times we delved into Cisco’s formidable command-line-interface, and discovered various deficiencies in their generally ultra-swish GUI. We also ate a lot of muffins. And bon-bons.

By 0130 on Monday morning everything was wired up and talking to each other. It was quite the relief! Today we heard nothing until this evening, when a call said everything had run fine. This is pretty rare – there’s always something broken – and we’re concerned they’re using next door’s wireless.

There was a hell of a learning curve and the pressure got to us both at times, but it was great fun nevertheless. I’ve also grown quite fond of Cisco routers. You might need a degree in jargon to configure the things, but they’re seriously powerful toys.