Bad Trip - Embedded.com

Bad Trip

A move gone awry adds names to the list of Good Guys and Bad Guys. You might be surprised to see who ends up where.

Call this the column that would not be written. Regular readers, or those thorough readers who follow the changes in authors' biographies, know that I've changed venues slightly, moving some 2,200 miles from the Tampa Bay area of Florida, to the desert of Arizona. The last column you saw from me was in the November 2001 issue, which I was still composing as the movers worked around me. To pack my computer, they had to wrest the keyboard from my hot, stiff fingers.

What followed was one of those adventures of the African Queen genre, where everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. Murphy's law on steroids.

It takes a lot of logistics to transport a house full of furniture, complete with computer systems, office shelving, file cabinets, and so on across the country. It takes even more when you're moving an entire farm, complete with livestock-six horses, one bull, five goats, two sheep, 56 ducks (!), about an equal number of chickens, four geese, nine guineas, two turkeys, five peacocks, nine cockatiels, seven dogs, two parrots, and a 'possum in a pear tree.

It took the movers three days just to box up all our gear. It filled one huge Allied van and overflowed into a second. Figure four more days to drive the vans, two cars, a pickup, a boat on trailer, another truck for the feathered friends, and a stock trailer for the hooved ones, across country. At one time, we had vehicles spread across seven southern states, with drivers all frantically trying to reach each other by cellphone.

In such a complex move, you expect the unexpected. You expect to have problems, and you deal with them. But this was ridiculous. Throw 9/11 and a war into the mix, and I guess you get the picture that this move did not go smoothly (I know 9/11 was more than a mere inconvenience to some 3,000 souls and their families. I don't mean to trivialize it. In my last column, I said what I felt needed saying about that tragedy, so I won't repeat myself.)

I think my wife and I both lapsed into hysteria around the time that the moving van got held up at the Arizona border, thanks to a stowaway Florida fire ant. The entire load was held up while the ant was captured and transported to Tucson for “analysis.” When his undocumented status was confirmed, the state made the driver unpack the entire contents of the van. Every piece had to be separately fumigated, and loaded back onto a different trailer.

Some day, I'm going to write a book about the adventure, beginning with the cold shower my wife had to take because the rented RV's hot water heater didn't work (almost got divorced over that one), and continuing when it dealt us its final insult: the air conditioner failed in 102 desert heat.

None of that is pertinent to this column, but it will give you the general feel of where I've gotten off to, and what I've been doing. What's more pertinent is the condition of my computer.

Years ago, I moved from Virginia to Florida, with my precious Kaypro IV (one of my favorites, and still precious to this day). I pestered the van driver half to death, pleading with him to make sure it survived the trip. He told me, “Don't worry. I'll double-box it and save it for last. It'll be the last thing onto the van, and the first thing off. I'll put it on the very top of the load, where it'll be safe. You can meet me at the destination and take it right from the van.” He was true to his word, and the Kaypro arrived in fine condition.

What happened to my Dell computer in my most recent move? In a word, everything. As I said, Murphy's law gone berserk.

Was it my fault? Had I gotten lax over the years? I don't know. After a full week of solid packing and loading, I think I had developed shell shock. By the time they pried the keyboard from my hands, I must have been near catatonic. I remember telling the movers to pack the Dell carefully. Either I said it without the passion of the previous move or they weren't listening.

Whatever the reason, the Dell that I've cursed and whined about for the last two years did not exactly arrive in pristine condition. In fact, for quite awhile, it didn't arrive at all. It was on the second van. You know, the one that was supposed to have all the stuff we needed right away? Last on, first off? After the fire ant fiasco at the border, that second van was held up in Florida for two full weeks.

When I finally got around to hooking up the Dell and writing this column, I found that Microsoft Word wouldn't even open. What's this? Something about a corrupted DLL file. Sure enough, sfc showed that riched20.dll was corrupt. With luck, all I had to do was reload the file from the Office 97 disk. Except that the disk was in one of 400 boxes, and I didn't know which. (By the way, sfc is a Microsoft diagnostic program. It checks all the critical Windows files and reports any that are damaged. I learned about it from the Microsoft tech support people. More on them later.)

That issue turned out to be moot. I called Microsoft, and they told me that I had the Nimbda virus. Bah!

Things went downhill quickly from there. Despite my best efforts and those of a helpful local company, Data Doctors, I could only sit and watch as my precious data files began to disappear, one by one.

“But,” you ask, “Surely you had backups, right?” Yes, I did. On a removable hard drive, in the same computer. Also corrupted.

My previous computer had both a Zip drive and a Colorado tape drive, which I used religiously for backup. Those were reasonable choices when hard drive capacities were measured in megabytes, but not so good when you've got 60 gigs. For the mathematically challenged, that's 600 Zip disks.

A colleague suggested that I try a removable hard drive, and I did. He also admonished me to leave the drive out of the system, and use it only for backing up. That's the part I ignored. Now I'm paying the price.

What followed was a marathon session of trying to recover my data. At one time, I had it so close, I could almost reach out and touch it. Someone suggested that I go get a CD-R drive, and write the data to CD-ROM before I did anything else. This certainly seemed good advice, and I did so. I saved the data twice; once with a backup utility, and once with copy/paste. With my data safely squirreled away, and funky things still happening despite anti-virus measures, I ended up wiping both drives and re-installing new software.

That's when I discovered that no data ever got written to the CD-ROMs. At least, that's what the computers tell me. Looking at the surface of the disks, I can see strings of 1's and 0's (you have to squint a bit). But the computers insist there's nothing there. Double bah!

Lately, the Dell has been displaying a message during power-on self-test, something about an error log. The message flashes on the screen for milliseconds before being replaced by that silly Windows splash screen. I hunted around on the C: drive for a file called error.log, but didn't find one.

A few nights ago, my overheated brain finally grasped what the Dell was trying to tell me. The virus wasn't my only problem. It's got memory errors. Triple bah!

Things have improved somewhat recently, though odd things continue to happen. A couple of days ago, I went back to CompUSA and bought a brand new Sony VAIO computer. It seems nice, though I'm still adapting to Windows XP, which I swore would never darken my desktop.

The strangeness continues to this very day. This morning, I woke up early to finish up this column. I came into the computer room (I finally have my eight-foot custom desk back in place), only to discover that my pet opossum had managed to climb onto the desk during the night (they're nocturnal, after all). He seemed to have danced a jig on the Sony keyboard, launching 27 processes and logging in as several users (wonder what names he gave?).

For reasons that completely escape me, he seems to have developed an affinity for the palm rest that attached to my new keyboard. It's not there anymore, and I have no idea where he took it. I got to use it all of one day.

Along about now, I have formulated a working theory as to what's going on. Somebody up there-or to be more directionally precise, somebody down below-doesn't want me to write this column.

Which, of course, makes me all the more determined to write it.

Okay, I'll give you that with all the Murphy's law, African Queen roadblocks that have popped up, I've had my setbacks. But the adventure has sure given me some new fodder for a Good Guys/Bad Guys section!

Good Guys, Bad Guys

First on my list of bad guys are all the cyberterrorists who write viruses in the first place. What goes through the head of someone who would do such a thing? What pleasure do they get from it? And, most importantly, why would they expend such precious non-renewable resources as time and energy, seeking only to do harm? I don't get it.

Despite recent events, I tend to have a Pollyannaish outlook on life. I think most people are decent human beings, and will do the right thing, given the opportunity and the right environment. I tend to assume that everyone is a friend, until I'm given reason to think otherwise. Does this approach leave me vulnerable to evil people? Yes, it does, but I still think it's better than a cynical, don't-trust-anyone approach.

Many years ago, when I first moved to the Tampa Bay area, my company put me up in a motel on the beach while I searched for a more permanent place to live. I put the environment to good use, going for a run down the beach every evening after work.

Someone warned me that I should stay away from that particular beach after dark. He said that people congregated there to party, and some of them were not very nice.

One evening, I had to work later than usual and the sun was already near the western horizon when I set out to run. I thought about what my friend had said, but thought that I could get the run in before sundown. Anyhow, I reasoned, surely the crazies would not be crazy yet, at only 7:00 PM.

Silly me. As I ran past one of those pavillions put there by the city for picnickers, I heard a thud behind me. I turned to see that it was a beer bottle. A total stranger had thrown it at me! He hadn't missed by much, either.

At first, I slowed down, trying to understand what was happening. Then I saw a fusillade of other bottles, apparently flung by his pals, arcing through the air. I sped up and got out of there, to the sound of many more thuds and gleeful laughter.

I've thought about this incident many times since. It was a turning point in my life, really. Despite my belief that most people are inherently decent, I had to admit to myself that some people just like to hurt others, and with no reason, except that they enjoy it. These are the same people, I guess, that used to torture kittens and puppies as children.

I put terrorists in this group, of course. Osama bin Laden and his pals. And cyberterrorists who write viruses.

There's a name for people like that. It's called “Evil.” For a good perspective on such people, read Scott Peck's People of the Lie (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983). Without giving away the punch line, Peck says that, as a practicing psychologist, he's trained to believe that all people are basically the same, and that no matter how bad their neuroses or psychoses, all can be helped to be normal, productive, and decent people, in time.

But, Peck says, every once in awhile he gets a patient who is just plain bad. Peck says he knows he should be trying to help them, but all he can think is, “Get this person out of my office!” Those are the evil ones.

I don't talk about my personal life much in this column, but a few of you know that I'm a religious person. I offer no apologies or explanations for it. If you don't share my views, sorry, but there you have it.

As a religious person, I know-have known for decades-that both good and evil exist in the world. You don't have to read very far in your local newspaper to see evidence of the latter. If you're lucky, you might also find, on page D-27, evidence of the former.

Until the beer-bottle incident, though, I had not yet accepted the fact that there are also evil people, irredeemable, totally evil people. The Taliban, al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden are such people. And virus authors. And people who throw beer bottles at strangers.

By coincidence, I saw last night on TV that two football games were shut down for quite some time, by more beer-bottle-throwers. Some things don't change.

I'm hearing that word, “evil,” a lot lately, coming from the mouths of such folks as George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney. I'm gratified to hear them telling it like it is. It's a word we should get used to using more. Even before 9/11, during crises such as the Columbine shooting, I'd hear people asking, “Why?” There was much talk about teasing and parental neglect and psychological counseling.

I'm with Scott Peck: some people are just plain bad. Shooting school mates is an act of evil, nothing more. So is flying 747s into buildings. You can't erase evil with all the counseling in the world. You can only contain it, and counter it with “random acts of kindness.” The sooner we recognize that, the better.

More of the same

Sigh. Sorry about the soapbox. I'll climb down now, and move on to items more pertinent.

Computer-wise, I guess I have to keep Dell on my bad guys list. After going through four video cards, Dell had one final insult left for me: RAM failure. I suppose I can blame it on rough handling by the movers. Heck, for all I know, one of the RAM sticks got jiggled loose in transit. I'll be calling Dell to report the problem, and I'll keep you posted as to the outcome. But I can tell you this: the Dell will never sit back on my desk again, in a position where I must depend on it. I'm writing it off as a bad shopping decision.

Anyone want to buy a nice, slightly used computer?

When I found that I had a virus, I went to CompUSA and bought Norton SystemWorks 2002, Professional Edition. The suite includes the highly touted Norton AntiVirus program. First I used it from the CD-ROM, to clean off the virus, but unfortunately (though not surprisingly), the Nimbda virus was too new. It wasn't in the database. AntiVirus wanted to dial up the Internet to update its database, but by that time Nimbda had eaten my DUN dialer. So I took the Dell to a shop to get a dose of penicillin.

Not having much else to do, I browsed the rest of the Norton disk, and installed both CleanSweep and GoBack. I'd had a bad experience with CleanSweep years ago. It cleaned my registry out of existence. But, I reasoned, that was five years ago. Surely Symantec, Norton's parent company, have fixed it by now.

Wrong. CleanSweep zapped my directory again, making several of my installed apps invisible.

But the worst was yet to come. I should explain, before I begin, that until now I've always stuck to FAT16 for my disk formats. The reason is simple: I have been maintaining a multi-boot system, with both DOS 6.22 and Linux co-existing with Windows 98SE. DOS can only read FAT16, which is also better for Linux. I figured that sticking to FAT16 was my best bet in terms of sharing data between OSes. But that decision caused me to limit partitions to two gigabytes each. With two drives in the 20GB to 30GB range, that's a lot of partitions. As you probably know, the usual approach is to create one extended partition on each drive, then break it up into as many virtual partitions as needed.

When I went to pick up my computer at Data Doctors, after Nimba was exorcised, everything looked fine at first. The Data Doctor tech had even gotten Boot Magic back up, and tested all three boot options. He did point out, though, that a lot of my apps seemed to be missing.

Going into Partition Magic quickly showed why: the extended partitions, on both drives (main, plus removable backup), were now showing as some mysterious Type 44. The virtual partitions inside were completely gone. And my data files, like this column and all its predecessors, were lost somewhere in there.

I went to both Symantec's and PowerQuest's web sites for an explanation. I found none on the first, but an explanation on the second. It seems that Symantec/Norton's GoBack is the culprit.

I gather that GoBack is like WinFix: a master undelete/uninstall program that monitors activity on the system so that it can restore everything if asked to do so.

The way it does this, though, is more than a little bit intrusive: it actually overwrites the partition table, changing the extended partitions to a type-Type 44-that only GoBack can read. Unfortunately, either RAM errors or the virus or both kept GoBack from finishing its job, and apparently the uninstall failed as well. This left my partitions permanently stuck at Type 44 and, therefore, inaccessible.

I called Symantec's support line. The tech that I talked to seemed completely unaware of the “Type 44” issue. I mentioned that I'd used Partition Magic to discover the problem. I gave him the URL to PowerQuest's page, which described the problem. He put me on hold while he went to read the page, and ask someone about Type 44.

Eventually, he came back. “That's right,” he proclaimed. “GoBack and Partition Magic are incompatible.”

“Um,” I mused, “Don't you think you could have told me that before I installed GoBack? Shouldn't there be some prominent warning in the manual?”

“Oh, it's in the manual, all right,” he replied. (It's not. At least, I've not found any such mention, and certainly not prominently. Partition Magic does not appear in the index of the SystemWorks manual.)

“Let me see if I've got this straight,” I said. “Your product has changed my disks' partition table, and rendered my data inaccessible, and I can't get them back because I'm using Partitition Magic?”

“That's right,” he replied.

“So what's my solution?” I asked. “How do I recover from this situation?”

“You can't,” he said. “There is no fix. Sorry.”

Argh!

To be thorough, I called PowerQuest and told them my situation. I said to their tech, “Symantec says that I'm out of business, that there's no recovery. Can that be true?”

“Nah,” said the PowerQuest tech. “It's easy.” She then walked me through a very simple process, which involves a lovely little PowerQuest utility called “ptedit.”

Following her instructions from memory, I brought up ptedit from a floppy disk. Sure enough, there sits the structure of the partition tables, laid out before me, including Symantec's accursed “Type 44.” At the bottom of the ptedit screen was this lovely little button marked “Change Type.” I pressed it, and changed the type to Type 05 (extended partition). A tour back into Partition Magic showed just what the PowerQuest tech had described: there were all my virtual partitions, complete and intact, with all my data. I would have it still, if the Sony CD-R drive had written properly.

I'm pleased with this outcome. For years, I've been listing PowerQuest as one of the very definitely good guys. More than once, I've been able to get advice from them as to how to deal with someone else's problem or, at the very least, an interaction between Partition Magic and some other app. For example, Dell was no help at all in terms of setting up a multi-boot system. A PowerQuest tech helped me do it, even to the extent of telling me how to deal with the Red Hat Linux installation program. Tech support from most other companies like, say, Symantec, would be much more likely to tell me, “We don't support that product. You'll have to call the other vendor.” Tech support at PowerQuest could choose to do that, too, but they typically don't. I've learned to consider them a resource to handle problems beyond what they can legitimately be held responsible for.

Partition Magic is one of my favorite programs, mainly because it is, as far as I can tell, the only Windows program that has never once failed to perform as I expected. Oh, I've heard rumors from others about a crash three years ago on someone else's computer, but my personal experience is 100% reliability. That would put PowerQuest on my “Good Guys” list all by itself. The helpfulness and depth of understanding of its tech support people are icing on the cake, and moves PowerQuest to the very top of my list, just above Mathworks.

To PowerQuest, I say, “Nice going, guys, and thanks for the help.” To Symantec, I say, “Phfft. You're on my Bad Guys list.”

And to you, dear readers, I say, whatever you do, do not install Norton GoBack. It's a virus masquerading as a utility. Ditto for CleanSweep.

Can Microsoft be good?

Regular readers of this column have seen me rail, before, about Microsoft, whom I usually pick on unmercifully, and, in my opinion, for good reason. It's gotten to the point where my editors cut out most of what I write about them, seeing me as not being entirely unbiased when it comes to the Evil Empire. That being the case, it will probably astonish both you and them to see me praise Microsoft. But I must.

Regardless of my feelings about Microsoft Windows and Office, which I tend to harangue daily, I have to give the Devil his due. Microsoft Tech Support has really made a huge change lately.

Time was, this tech support ranged from unhelpful to nonexistent. Three of my favorite quotes came from Microsoft tech support people:

“Hm. It shouldn't do that.”

“It works fine on my computer.”

“We no longer accept bug reports.”

Considering my strongly anti-Microsoft tendencies, it might carry even more weight with you to hear that I currently rate their tech support right up there with PowerQuest's. I don't really know, but I suspect that Microsoft made a conscious decision to improve their tech support. This paragraph is to tell them that it's working.

I've called their tech support four or five times over the last year or so. Each time, I've gotten someone who was professional, knowledgable, and patient. Not long ago, I had a problem with an app that crashed on startup. The Microsoft tech spent no less than two hours on the phone with me, helping isolate the problem. As it turns out, the problem was with neither Windows nor the app; it was a bad video driver (supplied by Dell, who else?). Downloading a new driver fixed the problem.

Two hours is a long time to spend on line with tech support. Fortunately for me, I wasn't paying for it; the OS was still under warranty. But trust me on this: I could have spent two years and not found the problem. That help from Microsoft saved my buns, big time.

So thanks, Microsoft. Really. Your tech support is first-rate.

That's it for this month's column. Next month, I plan to talk about a root-finder for nonlinear equations. I mentioned it during the minimization series, but didn't show it to you. I'll be doing that next month. See you then.

Jack W. Crenshaw is a senior software engineer at Spectrum-Astro in Gilbert, AZ, and a specialist in the application of advanced methods to the solution of real-world, embedded-systems problems. He is the author of Math Toolkit for Real-Time Programming, from CMP Books. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from Auburn University. Jack enjoys contact and can be reached via e-mail at .

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