Computer Recovery Day

An agonizing tale of computer malfunction, data recovery, and pain.
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!

They Still Don’t Make ’em Like They Used To

Long-time readers will recall that slightly less than a year ago I finally replaced my venerable old Netgear RT314 router with a newer Netgear WGR614 v7 router.

Ever since then, I’ve been battling with an intermittent problem – the worst kind to debug. At seemingly random intervals, the router would reset itself – dropping my LAN connection (and of course any wireless connections) for a few seconds until it finished rebooting.

For a while, I thought it was my Internet connection dropping (and the router was just resetting to reconnect). There wasn’t much I could do about intermittent Internet connection problems (short of going with a different ISP)… but something didn’t seem right.

I wondered why the router would be resetting when the Internet connection was dropped. It seemed a little… unusual.

Since it was an intermittent problem, it was terribly difficult to diagnose. (When you can’t make a problem reoccur, it’s really hard to debug.) But eventually I realized it wasn’t the Internet – it was the router itself. (Coincidentally, it just reset while I was writing this post!)

I had heard horror stories from people that they had to reset their routers frequently, after a certain number of packets had been sent. But that didn’t seem to be the case here – sometimes, it would reset twice in a short period of time (less than an hour), and I knew I wasn’t sending that much data (I monitor my network usage).

It wasn’t terribly catastrophic in the grand scheme of things – it did, after all, work normally after a few seconds of disconnection. But it WAS annoying – and worse, it seemed to be interrupting my on-line backups with Mozy. Although Mozy can recover from Internet connection problems, when the router resets it literally powers off the LAN ports for a moment – causing Windows to react as if the network cable has been unplugged (and producing a message to that effect). This would wreak havoc with any long-term network connection, as you would imagine!

So finally I decided I had sufficient evidence to go to Netgear’s tech support with the problem. After the usual run-around from tech support (upgrade your firmware, reset all your settings back to the default, lather, rinse, repeat, etc.), they told me it must be a hardware problem.

So, now I’m facing returning my router – not a pleasant thought, as the usual routine is to return the defective device (at your own cost) and then wait a week or more while a replacement in shipped. In the meantime, you have nothing.

Although I could always fall back on my venerable old RT314, I now have a Nintendo Wii, which connects wirelessly, not to mention Amanda who works from home at times with her (obviously) wireless-connecting laptop. So no wireless in the house for a week or more was no good.

Fortunately, Netgear does offer a pre-ship option, where they’ll ship you the new unit first, and then you can return the broken one. You pay for it (for the shipping both ways), but it’s not too bad. And it prevents me from having to be without a (wireless) router for a week or more.

So that’s where we are today – the new router is on its way, and when it gets here I’ll return the one I have now. Then, we’ll see if this was just a fluke (a.k.a. bad quality control) or whether the overall quality of Netgear products has decreased from when I bought my old RT314.

I guess we’ll see…

Internet connection icon courtesy of the Crystal Icon Set.

UPDATE: The Saga Continues yet again…

Windows Still Works for Me

I ran across this story from Ernie the Attorney today about a lawyer who was having trouble with Windows and got some rather strange advice from a “Windows zealot” in a discussion group:

The Windows zealot tells him that if he switches to a Mac just to avoid those problems he’s basically ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water.’ Then, after carefully considering the best way to solve all of the guy’s supposed problems, he offers this amazing solution:

“Do a fresh install of Windows XP. This will ultimately be quicker than trying to figure out what is going on exactly. Once installed update Windows until it will update no more.” (emphasis added)

Between that story and things like “How to install Windows XP in 5 hours or less,” it sort of got me thinking – what is wrong with this picture?

Let me just say from the start: I use Windows. I like Linux (both for its principles and for its intrinsic qualities) and I appreciate Mac OS X (being itself based on Unix), but I use Windows. That said, I do not recommend any one OS over another – it all depends on what you’re looking for. So let’s just say that I’m neither a zealot of any particular OS, nor a “basher” or “hater” of any particular OS, either.

When I hear stuff about the “Windows half-life” and the idea that having to completely re-install the OS on a regular basis is a “normal” thing, I just can’t understand it – because, frankly, my experiences have been totally different.

Let me explain:

The copy of Windows that is running on my current computer is the same one that was installed when it came from Dell’s factory – it has never been re-installed, ever. And I’ve owned it for almost 3 and a half years. My previous computer ran for nearly 6 years without an OS re-install.

Let’s also remember that I only own one computer, and I use it every day – and I do mean “use.” I do software development on my computer, I install beta versions of programs, I install games (admittedly not many, but still), I do some video editing, I do a little bit of music editing, I use bluetooth headsets and IP telephony, I use the Windows Media Center application… I mean, well, just look at a few of my start menu branches:

Get the picture?

Oh, and I should mention – my computer is running just fine after 3 and a half years, thank you.

In my experience, all that it takes to keep Windows in good running order is some common sense – don’t install junk, and just… use your brain (especially when it comes to email and some types of web sites), and you should be OK.

But… maybe I’m the exception to the rule? I am a software developer, after all – if I see trouble with a program, I’m liable to just fire up a debugger and dive right in and figure out exactly what’s gone wrong.

To me, when someone suggests re-installing the operating system as a “fix,” it’s like being slapped in the face with a dead herring – I mean, seriously, WTF? Oh, sure, it’s possible for malware and viruses to get their little tentacles deep down in your system so that the only reasonable way to get rid of them is to format & re-install, but if you use common sense, you wouldn’t have malware and viruses to begin with! (And I submit that if there was the same malware and viruses for Linux or Mac OS, you’d end up having to do formats & re-installs for those systems as well.)

Are people just getting lazy when it comes to taking care of their Windows PCs? Or am I the only one who has gotten long life from a Windows installation?

Breaking the Web

Recently I’ve found more than a few websites using a very annoying pop-up preview thing – you’ve probably seen it yourself, popping up when you mouse over a link on a web page. It’s from some place called “Snap,” and it shows you a preview of the page the link leads to – I guess so you can… see it before you see it?

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see the point. In this day and age – with tabbed browsing available from all the major web browsers, there’s just no need for a “preview” of a link. Just open the link in a new tab! Seriously!

Considering how much people hate other kinds of “pop-ups,” it’s surprising that they’d put up with these kind. And even more confusing is why website authors themselves would include the functionality in the first place. Maybe they just think it looks “cool?”

Personally, I find it terribly distracting at best, and at worst I find that it totally breaks the web – it stops you from reading the content behind it, it causes random asynchronous requests from your browser (using AJAX no doubt), and it just slows down the whole experience. If you’ve got a page with more than a few links on it, and you move your mouse over the page, you might be in for quite a surprise as dozens of these little pop-ups try and spring to life, like monsters born from the dust of some evil pixie or something. Never mind that the preview is too small to really make a difference anyway. The most you can hope for is to see whether the linked page uses a particular color scheme. It’s like trying to preview a page by looking at your monitor while seated 20 feet away.

In short, utterly useless.

Really Annoying Flaw in NTFS Mount Points

UPDATE: As some people have noted, this problem was fixed in Windows Vista, so “it’s not really a problem anymore.” And with Windows 7 out now, and Windows XP slowly dying, there’s no real reason to worry about this anymore. But I’m leaving this article here, just for the sake of posterity.

I found out (the hard way) about this particular problem with NTFS Mount points today:

When you try to delete folders that are stored on a mounted drive and to send them to the Recycle Bin, you may receive the following error message:

Cannot delete Foldername: Access is denied. The source file may be in use.

This behavior occurs because the Recycle Bin does not understand mounted volumes.

This was really freaking annoying. What makes it even worse is that there is no “fix” for the problem; only a workaround is available. And the workaround?

When you delete the files or folders by using Windows Explorer, use the SHIFT+DELETE key combination. This bypasses the Recycle Bin.

Riiiiiiiiight. Because bypassing the Recycle Bin is exactly what I want to do WHEN IT’S MY ENTIRE USER PROFILE FOLDER THAT IS ON A MOUNTED DRIVE!

Now I’m really pissed off, because I no longer have the capability to try and go back to the configuration I originally planned to use with the new drive (copy partition & resize to new drive) – this is because I’ve already mounted the new drive and formatted it. Changing this now would involve a lot of copying data around and resizing of partitions, without being able to have a “backup” in place as before – a risk I’m not willing to take.

I may have to put on my Windows Hacker Hat for this one and figure out how to either:

  1. Make the Windows Recycle Bin understand Mounted drives, or;
  2. Make Windows automatically bypass the Recycle Bin for Mounted drives.

Because remembering to SHIFT+DEL every time I want to delete a folder from anywhere in my user profile directory (including but not limited to: My Documents, My Music, My Videos, My Pictures, etc.) is just not OK. Never mind what it’s going to do to programs that try to delete things – I can just see all the error messages now!

If anyone from Microsoft is reading this – especially anyone from the shell/explorer team – please, please, please bump this bug up in priority – I’m begging you!!