Friday, December 26, 2008

Repair Your Gifts Before They Break

When Microsoft rolled automatic updating functionality into its operating systems so the system could download and install blessed patches and security fixes from Microsoft automatically, a lot of computer people were very worried that this could be used by bad people for bad ends. If the computer could be tricked into thinking that some other site was Microsoft, the computer would happily install bad code in the bowels of the operating system where nobody could find it, change it, or remove it.

Of course, it turns out now for me, the baddies I should have worried about was Microsoft itself. Recently my subnotebook updated itself to SP3, and then refused to start up. It would find the boot block, start loading up, and then bluescreen, and immediately reset and try to boot again. The blue screen would come and go so fast I couldn't read what the actual problem was. I actually had to photograph it with the camphone to get to read the error, trying repeatedly as the computer went through failed boot cycles so I could get a snap at just the right moment that the error was on screen. Which is why commuters on the train into London could watch this guy repeatedly take pictures of the screen of his laptop with his phone; fortunately for my ego they pretended not to notice. When I zoomed in on the picture on my phone, I could read the error was UNMOUNTABLE_BOOT_VOLUME . Somehow Microsoft sent me an update that rendered its own operating system unreadable to itself. Meanwhile Microsoft auto-update seems to not have made a dent in the swarms of compromised Microsoft-running machines that have been taken over to clog the Internet with spam. Things aren't working as planned.

The fix for this is to pop in the XP disk and run the repair console to start fdisk, a program that repairs the hard disk files. Alas, in the last move I lost my XP restore disks, and, well, I wouldn't be able to use them anyway. This is a subnotebook: no floppy, no CD-ROM. Just like so many netbooks that have been unwrapped under Christmas trees this season.

Well, I could boot from a USB stick, but all I had was a 1st gen iPod shuffle, the white one that looks like a pack of gum, and a Windows 2000 laptop in the corner. I now know how to make this stick bootable in Linux -- but that is no help to repair an NTFS system -- and then at last I found a program to format memory cards, floppy disks, and USB pendrives to bootable DOS systems with chkdsk on it. With this I managed to make the subnotebook boot off the iPod, run chkdsk a few times, and then restore my OS. I just condensed 4 hours of trying and Googling on Christmas Eve into a paragraph.

So, dear readers who ended up with a netbook, do yourselves a favor now that Giftmas is an extra long weekend: go rummage for one of those USB pendrives you have left over, and read up on your netbook's operating system how to make a rescue or boot disk on your USB stick. Then label the stick clearly and do not throw it in some drawer, but put it where you will look when problems arise, like the shelf with the manuals and warranty. You'll thank me when a hard knock or unknown update kills your operating system or drive, and you want to just rescue files or do a disk check. It's no fun to be unprepared for these, and finally all those extra USB stiks become handy.