Monday, June 06, 2005

Fixing ancient computer systems is fun

Right, so what better way to bore you all then to share a computer horror tale of this last weekend? You see, I had to help my dad and a few other people move all their stuff for work to a new place, and the computers were coming along. That sounds pretty standard, doesn't it? Yeah, I thought so.
Anyway, whichever work my dad has been doing, he has been doing this for a long, long time. It's none of your business what exactly he does, but it's usually followed by a stay at the university of roughly seven years where he spends memorizing lating names for all the bones in your body, as well as a few other things. In latin. So back to computers - he has a few he has been using for AGES. I'm really not kidding, there was this dinosaur I used to play Zaxxon on back in 1987 that was still working as a router/gateway for our whole network until about 12 months ago until the motherboard died. The computer that kept me busy for the entirety of the last weekend was the second-oldest system.

Back when Pentiums were barely even heard of (and I mean the Pentium ONE (1)), my dad got one. 120 million mind-crushing cycles per second it did, and it's still working mostly as of today. So we had all the stuff moved from one place to another and I was called in to help move stuff around, unpack and set up computers. The friday before it seemed this ol' Pentium 1 had been the last computer that was setup (all the ones were purring along nicely), and it didn't 'see the network' (sic). This I heard when I was barely coming into the new place, and friendly me offered help to take a look. Behold my amazement when I walked into the room with said computer, which was crowded with SIX IT TECHNICIANS, all trying to get the damn thing to work. Most of what I saw on the screen was the Win98 dialog 'Windows is building a driver database, please wait...' and network cards were strung around the room, eager to prove themselves and get the behemoth on the network. Mind you, at about this time I heard things had to be up and running by MONDAY MORNING. Yikes.

With six people crowding around the system, I wasn't going to add to the crowding. Since, you know, there was enough of it going on already. So fast forward about 16 hours, to next day morning. Ish. I like to sleep in. Brought meself a bootdisk or two, since after the 'techs' were done 'fixing' the computer, the damn thing wouldn't boot at all. All the while I had been slugging around countless heavy boxes, throwing around looks that screamed 'why aren't you doing something??? look at me, I'm all different sorts of busy and you're eating donuts??'. Apparently only girls can do that in a way that is actually understood.
So I boot the damn system without the bootfloppy first, just to be sure. Lo' and behold, I am greeted with the feared 'Invalid system disk, replace and press any key to continue'. Yes, I checked. There was no floppy in any of the drives. Enter the bootdisk and reboot. Grind grind grind. DIR C:. Returns: nothing. Yes, the drive was empty. In less than 24 hours, either the techs had been so stupid as to erase the entire hard disk, or something seriously screwy was on with this computer.

So I stick my head out the door and yell 'dad! got a Win98 setup CD laying around somewhere?'. He has. Great, in half an hour I'll be up and running. So when he brings me the CD, he informs me that even though the system has no functioning network card, there's two gigabytes of data on the system that needs to be on the network by monday morning. Crap. The one good thing is that this 2 GB is not on the C: drive, so whatever I can throw at it won't affect this precious data.

So I slam in the Win98 CD and start copying the thing to the hard drive. (You know, of course, that I do this because a) Windows installs faster from HD than from CD, and 2) I don't need the CD all the time like this.) I run the Setup utility with a few switches to turn off the commercial bla-bla and start it. Just as I start to leave to get some caffeinated beverage, Setup throws an error in my face, that of all things, says 'An existing version of Windows has been detected that Setup cannot upgrade. Setup will close now'. OK. Seriously, what the hell? This drive was blank five minutes ago.

I reboot the system and do a DIR listing again. Whoa! That wasn't here before! Suddenly I see a whole system on the C: drive that looks ready to go. So this means, either I'm going crazy, or the FAT table on the drive is being a bitch. (The FAT table is like a table of contents for the drive. Without it, you don't know what's on the drive, but it's still there.) OK, cool. All the stuff is still there. So I think, all I need to do is load up Windows, figure out a way to connect it to the other computers and copy over the 2 GB of important stuff, right? Right. Right after I run ScanDisk a few times, since I trust the FAT table about as far as I can throw a fat table.

Right away, MS Scandisk panics and tells me the FAT table is icky. Yes, Sherlock Holmes, that I knew. Now fix it. This overly obvious disk error is then followed by roughly 4 hours of grinding, fixing, waiting, and shouting on my part of the general fucked-upness of the hard drive. Bad folders, bad files, lost chains, lost clusters, you name it. Come to think of it, most of it was probably my fault since I copied about 125 MB of data to the disk from the Win98 Setup CD, overwriting the existing data which was still present than but just not visible, due to the state of the FAT table. Curse that thing. So I spent about 4 hours of alternating between MS Scandisk and Norton Disk Doctor trying to fix the drive and clear it of errors. This was then followed by even more fixing, since a few system ini files were majorly borken and overwritten on random places with characters like þ and ý. So FINALLY... I boot up Windows 98. Fancy logo, lots of chugging, which is then followed by... a sort of green picket fence of Doom. It looks sorta like the video card took a dump onto itself and went insane. The system crashes. And turns itself off out of pure self-pity, and goes to quietly sob in the corner. When I turn it back on it seems I'm back to square one, because it seems the FAT table took shore leave again and I'm left with a blank disk again! By now I'm majorly pissed off, and my dad comes look what the hell is going on after hearing a mind-splitting roar of frustration from the room I'm in. We call it a day and go home.

Next day, next day, next day! Prepared for another round of nimble-footed boxing with ye olde com-poo-tor, I pulled out a few more tricks and took my serial null-modem cable, parallel cable and a few floppy disks full of utilities that claim to be able to transfer stuff over said cables in DOS. I'm determined to make this work. I'm such a masochist. Note that BOTH the cables I bring have been soldered together by my awesome dad, some 20 years ago. How I remember playing Quake 1 over the null-modem cable with my friend, ah... Those were the days. So now this is the day of data judgement: either I tranfer those 2 frigging jiggabytes of whatever-the-hell-it-may-be (work stuff son, you don't need to know), or I toss the damn system off the 15th floor. Yes, the building actually has that many floors.

First item on today's list is continue where I stopped the day before this - run ScanDisk until the drive is healthy again. No big deal I figure, the FAT table disappeared earlier, right? All I have to do is restore it and the system will be just the way I meant it to be. And indeed, right off the bat Scandisk detects and restores the FAT table. I think. However, the next thing it does is go into a flurry of dialogs saying, as I see it, the best error message Microsoft ever cooked up. It tells me, and I quote, that 'some clusters were found that used to be folders. These folders were restored, but since the contents of the hard disk changed, the scan has to restart'. Even better is, that in the language this Windows box is in, this message somehow expresses surprise. It sounds more like 'wtf? I found some clusters that, apparently, used to be folders!'. It then goes on to try and piss you off by saying 'since the contents of the drive have changed, the scan will have to start all over again! hah!'. Best error message ever. It had me in stitches.
So then this same error shows up about 40 more times, and I'm starting to get suspicious. Why are so many lost folders found when the FAT has been restored? Hm. When the scan finishes and the drive is all shiny and happy again, I drop back to DOS and do a DIR listing. Whoa! Holy crap! This is something I've never seen before: the *whole drive* now consists of files named 'file0001.chk', 'file0002.chk', etc, as well as folders named 'dir00001', 'dir00002', up to 'dir00047'. O_o;
Soooo... it seems the FAT table was not restored the way I wanted it to be. After some digging it turns out 'dir00035' used to be the Windows folder in a previous life, and 'dir00014' used to be the Adobe Acrobat folder. After doing a feeble attempt to rename all these folders back to whatever they used to be ('move c:\dir00035 c:\windows'), it occurs to me that I don't *need* Windows to boot on this thing. After all, the parallel cable and the file transfer utilities all work in DOS anyway. Cool.

So after a few minutes of messing with ancient system files you probably don't even remember (does the name HIMEM.SYS ring a bell?), I hook up the parallel cable to the borken system and another (working, networked) Win98 PC and start trying out the parallel-cable-file-transfer utilities. After a few tries, I actually find one that works! (>^_^)>
Such a miracle of technology, it transfers files across the cable at about 70 kilobytes per second. Don't laugh, that was fast as hell back in the days when I wasn't even born yet. So I steal my dad's PDA to calculate how long this is going to take. It spits out the numner 'About 7 or 8 hours'. Cool. Being a sunday evening, this means it'll be done at about 5 o'clock this night. Sweet! Mission: success. This is not mission: difficult man, that should be a walk in the park for you.

So once again, this proves that ancient computer technology can still whip your ass. Do not underestimate the power of a printer cable with plugs on both sides!
Next time I get the chance, I'm totally coaching my dad into upgrading all systems to something like Windows 2000. Aw yeah.

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