Back to blogging — finally

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything on this site (or even looked at it, for that matter). Well, I’m back, hopefully on a more-or-less regular basis.

I spent much of 2011 in Home Improvement Hell as a project I naively thought would take a month stretched into six. From there, I went on the injured list for a while, and then spent a good chunk of 2012 in Computer Hell.

My original intention was to paint the interior of my house from top to bottom, and install a couple of ceiling fans along the way. But drywall had to be repaired, electrical circuits had to be rerouted, electrical fixtures had to be replaced, floors had to be refinished, and brickwork had to be repaired. Furniture had to be moved from room to room, and eventually all of it had to be moved to the basement and then back again. A lot of it (including a convertible couch that must have weighed a ton) just went to the recycling center or The Salvation Army, since I wanted to downsize anyway.

In the process of renovating my house I tore the meniscus in my left knee. That was the situation the last time I wrote about this almost a year ago. To make a long story short, I had to get, not one, but two surgical procedures done. The first one (which I won’t go into here) was the more serious one, and I had to have it done to make it possible to knock me out to do the actual meniscus trim.

While recovering from the first surgery, I had to take care of another house problem. Someone put a hole in my (brand new) office window and in the vinyl siding next to it. It looked like a drive-by shooting with a pellet gun. It happened right after Christmas, so I suspect some kid was trying out his new Christmas present by driving around the neighborhood and taking pot shots at houses. That cost me $500 and the insurance company $700 — plus, the premium on my homeowner policy went up as a result.

Then, just before reporting to the hospital for my knee surgery, I was on the computer one day when all of a sudden I started getting messages telling me all sorts of things were wrong with my computer. The program that was giving me these messages was a rogue application called “System Check”, which was merely the latest incarnation of a program variously called “Data Repair”, “System Fix”, etc. They all claim to find all sorts of problems with your computer, then pretend to fix most of them, but tell you that in order to fix them all, you have to “upgrade” to the full version for $39.99.

All of this is bogus. The only problems with your computer are the ones caused by “System Check”. But these problems can be serious. These programs modify your computer’s registry, hide your files, and generally create havoc with your operating system. They block attempts to download repair software, or even to visit websites that instruct you on how to get rid of them. And you can’t seem to permanently uninstall them.

My usual solution to this kind of problem is to wipe my C: drive and reinstall Windows, but I didn’t want to do that this time. It had been a long time since I had backed everything up, and a system restore might just reinstall the malware anyway. So I called one of those geeks-on-call outfits. You might wonder why someone who has made his living as a programmer for the best part of the past 20 years would have to do this, but the explanation is really quite simple. It’s the old case of the cobbler’s children going barefoot: after writing and debugging computer programs all week, the last thing I want to do is mess with my computer.

To make another long story short, the geeks-on-call guy didn’t know what to do, either. The virus was too new. (My anti-virus program had failed to detect it). So he wiped the C: drive and reinstalled Windows. Fortunately, I keep my critical data on a separate physical drive, so all was not lost. The bill for all this came to over $500. But that’s not the end of the story.

I had my knee surgery and was recovering nicely from it, riding my bike again and even going for short runs. Around the end of April I discovered a loose end left over from the Windows reinstallation. A website told me how to fix it: just modify the boot.ini file. Now I’m no dummy. I made a backup copy of the original boot.ini file before I did the modification. And then I rebooted and…

The computer wouldn’t reboot. Not even into Safe Mode. No problem, me thinks. I’ll just get out a repair diskette, boot into DOS, and change the boot.ini file back to the original. Except DOS can’t read my hard drives. They are all NTFS, and DOS can only read FAT and FAT32.

Time for Plan B. I get out the original Windows XP SP1 installation CD with the intention of booting into the repair utility. The trouble is, it can’t find my hard drives. Then I remembered: I have to insert a diskette containing the hard disk drivers. Unfortunately, I grabbed the wrong diskette, one that told Windows my hard drives were configured as RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks). They weren’t. They were configured as independent disk drives. The result was that I lost all the data on, not just one drive, but on two. And the second was where I had backed up data from the first drive.

Time to get the geeks-on-call guy again. This time the bill came to $1,500. No, that is not a misprint. Data recovery is expensive. (Just go to the Best Buy website and look at what Geek Squad charges).

Lesson learned. I spent most of my summer on a crusade to bullet-proof my computer. One of the reasons I didn’t perform regular backups before was that backups were so time-consuming. So I spent a lot of time writing an application that does incremental backups and allows me to schedule them for times when I’m not using he computer. You can download it here. I also slipstreamed Service Pack 3 into my Windows XP installation CD’s install files and made an updated installation CD. Finally, I made a pre-installed environment (PE) CD based on the Ultimate Boot CD (UBCD) for Windows and loaded it up with anti-virus, disk and registry utilities. This allows me to boot from a CD directly into a machine without a Windows installation, but still have access to the most important Windows functions and utilities. It’s safer than “safe” mode.

You ought to download and install Simple Directory Backup, if only for historical reasons. Writing it was an ordeal, what with wrestling with a lot of poorly documented Windows functions, and I never did like writing systems software or utilities anyway. If I have my druthers, I’ll never have to write another line of code, so this is probably the last program I’ll write.