Archive for November, 2010


November 21, 2010

I am not dead, yet.  I know it’s been three months since I posted, but I’ve been overly busy.

This last week, my laptop “died.”  This is the story of my own “phoenix rising.”

There is some technical detail here, so I’ll give the short story first: my work laptop started having problems a little over a week ago, so I had to (a) send it in to try and recover some data, and (b) find a replacement — I built a Linux box on my old iBook, and installed open software to connect to my (virtual) work machine; then I had wireless networking problems, after I solved one issue.  Now I have my computer back, and most of my data and software restored.

Friday last my work laptop asked in install an update for some software — I won’t name it, and thus blame that, because it may not be directly related, or some interaction, I’m not sure.

After reboot, just at the point you’d normally get the Windows (XP) login dialog box, I got a Blue Screen Of Death.  I was only able to boot in to “Safe Mode” — not even Safe Mode with Networking or Safe Mode with Command Prompt.  Lesson learned too late: at that point, back up whatever isn’t already saved, because you’re in trouble.  But I didn’t do that.  Instead, I fiddled around until I broke it completely:  running msconfig allows you to change certain startup parameters, which didn’t help, but I was able to alter the default safe mode settings to automatically start safe mode with command prompt — with the inevitable result that now I couldn’t even start up in Safe Mode.

Drat.  So I had to ship my computer out to tech. support.  On a conference call on Friday, I mentioned, “if I have to, I’ll drive ‘downtown’ [so they can work on it],” but someone else mentioned that “downtown,” for my work technical support, is Rochester…  So I went in to Fed Ex Kinkos and just said, I’d like to send this [my laptop] to here [I got the address to send it to].  The reason being I had hopes they could recover some (all?) of my data — there are two levels of encryption, so I couldn’t just boot from CD and read the harddrive myself…

In the meantime, I had to have a computer to use; I borrowed my wife’s laptop for part of a day — since my current assignment is a position where all I really need is a virtual desktop interface to my virtual computer.  There’s something to be said for a virtual computer.  Not much, mind you, since I have limited memory, and CPU speed, but that aside, I was able to work “without difficulty” from a different computer, as long as I had a browser to use which could access the “computer” with my work saved on it.

The truth is there is/was not all that much that actually resides on my laptop itself that I couldn’t live without — which is good, because it turns out nothing could be recovered.  More on that later.

Well, under duress, I was able to build/install Linux on my old Macintosh iBook — very old.  Truth be told, I’d installed Linux previously, twice, but I never did get wireless networking operational.  But with the pressure of ‘I have to get work done,’ I succeeded where I failed before.  I connected directly to the Internet with wires — sometimes there is no substitute for a Cat 5 Ethernet cable.  This is actually the 2nd time that I needed to directly connect: a few weeks back, my laptop had trouble with all wireless networks, and tech. support then suggested that I need to un-install two applications (a connector program and the hardware drivers themselves; in order to accomplish this I had to direct connect then, also.  First (two) times I had to use a cable in a few years.

But I did it: within a matter of hours, I had a functional, operational replacement laptop, running Linux on a old iBook — a computer I could actually get work done.  I’m rather proud of that (which is silly, I know, but it felt kind of nice; especially the fact that I really had to dig to find the solution for wireless — I ought to post the link(s) that helped me do that…).

Then I needed a VDI client — did you know that VMWare has an open source ?  It took a small effort to get it to build.  The biggest problem was having the Boost libraries available (even w/ the –include-boost=no flag??).  I needed to alter a couple of environment variables before running the configure script (CPPFLAGS.  The LDDFLAGS when set, caused other problems, so I altered the Makefile directly — something I don’t like to do.  I would always prefer to follow the standard procedure to do things, but I also had to manually move the boost library in order to get things done.  And the LDDFLAGS required were to make missing symbols only warnings and not (fata) link errors..)

Then on Monday night I ran into another goofy problem: when putting the computer to “sleep,” if I did that manually (not by closing the lid, but from the menu option), then it effectively turned off the wireless network card and re-starting did not re-enable it.  It almost seems that there is a hardware-software switch.  Even re-starting the entire system did not work.  It took me quite a bit of finagling to get that worked out.

Finally, I heard on Wednesday late that nothing could be recovered, so my work laptop was being rebuilt from scratch and sent back to me.

Fortunately, when I did this two years ago, and, to a lesser degree, when I re-installed all the software on a new laptop this Spring, I started a tiddlywiki page of links to the programs I like.  I’d tried to keep these notes up to date, but unfortunately, hadn’t yet backup up the latest version (my online backup choice is DropBox), but I had and have a fairly recent version — and you can bet that as I go, now, I’ll keep the latest version online.

So I was off to the races — I spent a fair bit of time on Friday, and more on Saturday restoring what was lost.  What I’m missing is a Java utility program that I wrote for work, any admin notes that I had stored on my laptop, and my most recent Haskell work.

But what I kept was anything and everything that already lived “in the cloud” — or at least in non-local, internetized storage.  All my e-mail is basically web-based only (my work e-mail was safe — all in a Lotus Notes server out there); any interesting links to web pages were saved in, and most of what I want to remember is there, or starred Google Reader stories, or Read It Later.

I still have work to do restoring my sanity, but I’m almost completely back up to speed, and I have a clean machine to boot.

Note: I’ll add links later, but I wanted to get this posted.

One brag: my wife asked — Wednesday or Thursday — if people at work realized I was working without my laptop (I described it as “programming left-handed”); I told her I considered a mark of my professionalism that they did not know most of the difficulty that I encountered — I just continued working.

But I’m curious: I don’t want any sympathy, but I what have you done to protect yourself from computer problems?  Backup regularly?  If not, you can share your story when it happens.  What else?  Any ideas?