Computer Recovery Day

It started innocently enough – Internet Explorer 8 came out just the other day, so I figured I’d give it a try. Little did I know that this was to become the catalyst for a computer meltdown unlike any I’ve had in a long, long time.

Here’s the story, broken down into little snippets for easy consumption. Our story begins mid-morning on a Friday…

  • Hmmm, IE8 is getting a lot of press. I guess I should give it a try.
  • Downloaded & Installed IE8. It said “you need to reboot and install some more Windows updates.”
  • Ok, reboot. Wait forever for startup programs to finish.
  • Try to connect to VPN for work… Windows says “I couldn’t find any connections!” Huh?
  • Notice that the network connection icon has a red “X” on it. Hovering over it gives the message “Connection status: Unknown. Access is denied.” WTF?
  • Even more strangely, the Internet connection works just fine – I can get on-line. Curious.
  • Something fishy is going on with my user account and permissions & things… certain control panel applets won’t open, like the add/remove users applet. It normally would give a UAC prompt, but now it just opens a blank window which immediately closes. Huh?
  • Try to fire up VirtualBox to look at my virtual Vista machine for comparison, but VirtualBox won’t start: “E_ACCESSDENIED” it says, quoting error number “0x80070005.” Something about COM?
  • Spend some time looking up help (thank you, Google). Tried some solutions like adding the “LocalSystem” account to the “Administrators” group. Didn’t work. (Shouldn’t be needed, anyway.)
  • At this point I’m getting rather frustrated, so I enable the Administrator account and try logging in under it, just to see what’s up. To my surprise, everything works. Hmmm.
  • So, must be a problem with my user profile… not surprising, since it was sort of half-assed migrated from XP. Maybe it’s just time to bite the bullet and make a new profile and copy my relevant data and a few program settings over.
  • At this point, I’ve basically given up on getting any work done for the day, so I fire off an email summarizing my sad story thus far, and settle in for spending some quality time with Windows.
  • First step: dismount my user profile drive so nothing gets touched.
  • Delete old account.
  • Create new account.
  • Mount user profile drive.
  • Log in under new user account… d’oh! Windows goes and makes it’s own, new directory for the profile instead of using the one I mounted. (Now I have Users\Keith and Users\Keith.ELYSION).
  • Log back in under Administrator, move drive mounting to the new user profile folder that Windows created.
  • Try to log in under that account. Nope! Windows says “I couldn’t read the user profile, so have a temporary one!” Damn.
  • Obviously, I’ve got some files to delete, probably NTUSER.DAT.
  • Let’s see if I can start again and do this right – instead of mounting the volume as a directory, I’ll use a directory junction instead.
  • Log in as Administrator.
  • Delete user account.
  • Oops, Windows Vista doesn’t just leave the user profile directory where it is if you choose not to delete the files – it “helpfully” tries to copy the profile to your desktop.
  • My user profile is huge – the whole reason it’s on a second drive, after all – so this isn’t going to work. Rather than wait around, I try to cancel it.
  • Can’t cancel it – so I shut down instead.
  • After restart, made directory junction to a new folder on the 2nd hard drive.
  • Moved the new (empty) user profile over to this new folder.
  • Logged in under the new profile – now I’ve finally got a user profile that’s correctly running on the 2nd hard drive. Now I just need to move my user data over selectively.
  • Easy stuff first – Documents, Music, Videos, Pictures, etc.
  • Hard stuff second – specific folders from Application Data and Local Settings (Firefox/Thunderbird profiles mostly).
  • Finally got stuff moved around, but… why does my Documents folder only contain files starting with the letter P or later?
  • Horrible moment of realization: the “helpful” copy that took place when I deleted the profile a few steps (and by now, a few hours) ago wasn’t just a copy – it was a “move.” And apparently shutting down wasn’t the smartest thing to do.
  • Half of my “My Documents” folder is gone. Begin slight panic.
  • Calm down, remember that I’ve got Mozy. Backups are GOOD.
  • Begin trying to recover files from Mozy. Because only half of my stuff is gone, I have to go through and select what to restore manually, by hand. Mozy is not the fastest program in the world, so this takes some time.
  • Begin the arduous process of restoring files from Mozy.
  • [Many, many hours pass.]
  • Mozy’s not super-fast at restoring files (and it doesn’t help that I had it set to throttle back its bandwidth usage during the work day – oops!) but it gets the job done. Thank goodness for backups!
  • Files restored, but of course to totally wrong folders, since now everything’s “Vista-Style.” Why, oh why did Microsoft decide to re-arrange where user’s files go???
  • Spend some time copying/moving files around. OK, documents, music, videos, pictures, etc. Back where they belong, nothing seems to be missing. Cool.
  • Fire up a few programs (Winamp, iTunes, Quicken) to make sure they work – they do… sort of. iTunes says it can’t save the iTunes library file, and Quicken says I don’t have permission to open the file. Huh?
  • Winamp also won’t save any settings – it keeps resetting to the default style. Something is not right.
  • Find out that there’s a weird permissions problem on my new profile – the CREATOR OWNER doesn’t have ANY rights! Ah, the joys of NTFS file permissions.
  • Spend some time fiddling with the permissions – setting my new user account as the “Owner” of the files, giving myself full control, etc.
  • OK, permissions set – programs working. Excellent.
  • Fire up Firefox – and it starts walking me through the “new profile/new settings” wizard. Crap.
  • Try to figure out where my Firefox (and Thunderbird) profiles are.
  • Second horrible moment of realization: my Firefox and Thunderbird profiles weren’t backed up. Apparently, they both have a “Profiles” folder under Application Data, and another one under Local Settings\Application Data. One contains the real profile – the other contains some, I don’t know, extra .xul files or something. Guess which one was part of my backup set?
  • Manage to find an old copy of the “real” profiles folder in Mozy and restore from it.
  • Spend some time re-creating the “profiles.ini” file for Firefox and Thunderbird.
  • Open up Firefox – my profiles appear!
  • Try to start my default profile – and Firefox crashes. Ditto Thunderbird. Some problem with an add-in?
  • Start Firefox and Thunderbird in “safe mode” with no add-ins or extensions. Disable them all, restart.
  • Go through extensions one-by-one until I find the troublesome ones. (Enigmail and the Calendar plugin.) Ok, fine, they’re not that important, I can always re-install them later. Uninstall them for now.
  • Success! Firefox and Thunderbird open properly. Except…
  • For some reason, Firefox has lost all of its history, saved form data, and saved passwords. Fuck. I kind of depend on them.
  • At this point, it’s well past midnight for a process that started mid-morning. I’m tired, and aside from the saved passwords thing, my computer is mostly working. Well enough that I feel OK going to sleep and picking it up in the morning.
  • [All too-few hours of sleep pass.]
  • The next morning, I fire things up again, and it’s working as well as you could expect. Actually, it’s working just fine. I feel a lot better about the whole affair now that things are back together again!
  • After a good nights sleep, I hit upon a brain-wave. I occasionally use MozBackup (not Mozy) to do complete backups of my Thunderbird and Firefox profiles! I can use these backups to restore my passwords and other settings!
  • Looking through my files, I see I did a backup not long ago – less than a month, in fact. SWEET!
  • MozBackup, restore profiles, lather, rinse, repeat.
  • Ka-ching! Profiles restored. Bookmarks, saved passwords, cookies, history, the works.

So now I’m pretty much back up & running. I’ve still got a few niggling little things to work out (like my Outlook/Exchange email for work), but nothing terrible. I’ve also got to go through Mozy and make sure that I really did restore EVERYTHING I need before I let it start backing up the newly arranged profile – because Mozy doesn’t store differential backups; you’ve only got the most recent backup, and that’s it. So if I start backing up now, and I forgot to restore a file, it will assume I deleted the file and it’ll be removed from my backup. So I need to do some further checking, but I’m confident.

I also need to go through my backup sets and make absolutely sure that they include the entirety of my Firefox and Thunderbird profiles.

Although in the end I didn’t lose anything important (some virtual machines were lost, but they’re easy enough to re-create and I just use them for testing anyway), the whole experience was very frustrating.

When computers break down, when things go wrong like this, it totally destroys the metaphor of the computer. When you find out that your carefully arranged media libraries are gone now because you physically moved the files on disk, you really begin to curse and swear. I think Neal Stephenson described it as metaphor shear, and I think that’s a good description.

Suddenly, you’re not dealing with pictures and movies and documents anymore – you’re no longer working “in your terms.” Instead, you’re now working with the computer’s terms – folders and files and paths and ACLs and profiles and user accounts and permissions and so forth. Honestly, it’s terribly disheartening. It almost makes you want to give up on the whole “computer” thing, maybe go live “in the cloud” where you don’t have to worry about this sort of shit anymore.

But in the end, it’s all just fluff, all just levels and layers of metaphors piled on top of one another, abstractions built upon abstractions – and like any other work of man, eventually it all falls down and you’re left holding broken sticks and trying to figure out how they used to be put together to make the Internet.

It’s a humbling experience, in a way. And one I hope not to go through again for a long time!

For the future, though, I’ve learned (or re-learned) a few things:

  1. Check your backups carefully on some sort of regular schedule. Things change, and you don’t want to have something be left out!
  2. When deleting a user profile, if you want to keep the user’s data where it is, don’t use the Vista control panel applet to delete the account – use the “Computer Management” MMC console to do it instead.
  3. Hard drive space is cheap; although I used to turn off “System Restore” because I didn’t like the disk space it used, my disks are big enough these days that there’s no reason not to have it turned on now. If I had used it to create a restore point before installing IE8, I probably could have avoided this whole mess. And Vista has “Volume Shadow Copies,” too, so I probably could’ve recovered my missing files easier, too.

Ah well – always something new to learn! At least it’s over now, and I’ve learned my lessons. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle!