Heal Thyself

Wow. I’d been meaning to post about other things, but now my main computer has died. Fascinating problem. Main problem being I’d rather not have to deal with it, and I can’t afford the cost of any replacement parts, or any parts or software required as a cascade effect.

The machine is a P4 3.2 GHz, 2 GB RAM, Intel D945GPM motherboard, running Windows Vista Ultimate. Yeah, I know. The last Windows I paid retail for before Vista was Windows Me. Guess you should all hope I don’t decide to buy a retail copy of Windows 8. Which is allegedly great, but looks silly to me. I built it, well, when Vista was the current release. Missed 7 by a couple years. Heck, has it really been that long? This would be like buying Windows 95 in 1996 and still running it in 2000. But seriously, never any problems with Vista, and that is not the issue here, apart from the inevitable requirement that it be “activated” or replaced.

The problem was the machine turned itself off, then would not turn on for more than a blip. Almost like an overheating problem. Or a power supply problem.

Fast forward to having troubleshot everything. I have a perfectly good power supply. I sure hope I have good hard drives, RAM and CPU. Looks like it’s the motherboard, but in a weird way.

The machine powers on if the 2×2 power cable is left unplugged. If it’s plugged in, over by the CPU where it’s supposed to go or the machine won’t turn on, the machine acts like it’s not plugged in. The power supply works correctly in an alternate environment. Resetting the CMOS and all that did no good.

It’s bizarre.

My preference would be for a direct, exact replacement, but D945GPM boards are unavailable. So at a minimum I need a board that will fit my CPU and RAM, will support SATA, and maybe all would go fine bringing it back up. I suspect I may really need a new hard drive, so the OS can start from scratch and all files on both existing drives will be accessible. Many but not all important ones are duplicated between the two drives in that machine, or are only on the secondary drive, added specifically to have room for files. Particularly pictures of the kids. Still, I’d rather not have to wipe the boot drive to get it back to reality.

The really unfortunate part is it’s the only computer in the house, or computer carcass, as most of them are, that uses SATA drives. I’d not thought of that as a problem with my backing up photos between drives on the same machine…. needing THAT MACHINE to read one of the drives. All our pictures before the last few months are also on another computer’s secondary drive. And that’s the other dead computer of the moment, with a bad boot drive that’s currently undergoing the most dire-looking chkdsk I have ever seen, while attached as a slave to a spare computer. That spare also has a backup of some of the pictures. What I really need is to make systematic use of a file server in the house, with appropriate redundancy/backup systems, and topped off with more systematic copying of selected pictures (and other important files, like taxes, which are on the motherboard-free computer and could be needed as we thrash out some issues) to cloud storage. Hey, I’d been thinking about it and tentatively planning! One of those things for when I had the money.

I am typing this on an old laptop someone gave me. It has XP Home and is functional. Or it was once I disabled as much as I could of Norton Security Suite. It’s one of those ones that came with no disks and if you need to restore, the OEM put all that in a special partition you can access at boot. Except… not. When I tried to do that, it prompted for the CD that came with the computer. Not. So it either stays the same, or it gets a new OS. If the latter, then it may become a Linux machine. Between that and a spare 1.6 GHz XP Pro machine that has almost no drive space (the one doing chkdsk on the rogue drive for hour after hour today), I kinda sorta can muddle through. It’s not fun, though. You get comfortable with the way things are. Indeed, the Vista box didn’t become my primary until my old Windows 2000 machine had problems I didn’t take the time to diagnose fully, but which probably meant hard drive failure.

In all this, I am paying for being a leading and ongoing economic indicator. I ran out of money in 2007, and some of it was smoke and mirrors before that. It’s gotten too little better, too slowly. What should be avocation to the point of vocation, spending on technology, is a huge luxury. It needs to change Real Soon Now. That I could believe in.

Computer Show Shock

I went to my first computer show in 1992, almost 19 years ago. I used to go regularly, buying parts to build or fix my own machines, or ones for other people. It was the place to go. It was routinely mobbed.

With my own business, parts vendors, and limited need, I stopped going very often, and haven’t been to one… probably since 2003, come to think of it, maybe 2002. If they weren’t exactly the same then, they were still of interest.

I went to one today, since the local one, formerly one of the largest the show company held, was local. I was mainly curious to see what was new, what prices there were, and how it had changed.

It was sad to see what it has ground down to with time and internet. It took maybe a third the former space. There were as few as half a dozen actual vendors. Most of it was computers, mostly laptops, heavily Dells, at what generally seemed to be great prices for used/refurbished machines. If I’d had the kind of stray money I’ve had now and then, I might have come home with a machine or three. There was one that essentially matched or beat a machine I recently helped people with, similar to one of the two on my desk now, eighty bucks. I feel like I can toss most of the old machines that might have maybe been used by kids, or been parts for same, or for anyone who wanted to play legacy DOS games natively, because I can replace them and better for nothing.

Bottom line: If I decide I need a laptop but don’t care if it’s brand new, I’d go there and know I could get a buy on one. Ditto if I wanted a slightly (or much) older Apple machine, just to have used one and become more familiar.

It took me maybe 15 minutes to walk through and give it a good look. Since I was out of the house, alone – free!!! – I didn’t want simply to buzz home. Heck, I could have gone to a movie, come to think of it. I went to the supermarket I seldom visit because it’s not local. Got enough good buys to be happy.

Not sure what I’d do if I were running the show. Probably keep it going, if there were any money in it. Sounds familiar. It’d depress me, though. Sounds familiar.

First Real Vista Complaint

I have a history of paying retail for versions of Windows that are later considered duds, whether I have issues with them or not. Well, if two in all can be called “a history.” I bought WinMe when it was current, and when I built this machine, I bought Windows Vista Ultimate. The machine with Me had no issues… until it died, no fault of Windows. Hardware.

This machine has also had no real problems. I could see room for improving the OS, but maybe not the excoriation of it that happened. But if that led the what seems to be an amazing outome in Windows 7, all to the good.

Anyway, I have twice recently needed to boot into safe mode.

Both of those times have left me in the Windows Classic appearance. Not that I’d modified things before the first time it happened. After the first time, my six year old daughter art-directed me to her liking. New wallpaper. New colors. Not bad, but wallpaper made seeing the desktop items harder.

It did it again. How hard is it to retain changes to the appearance of Windows? And not merely betweem version upgrades, but between boot variants on the same install!

Also, I have noticed that when you first bring up Personalization, the “window color and appearance” option takes you into an entirely different set of options that it does later, once it saves your initialy changes as a “modified theme.” Then to get back to some if not all of what you’d played with before requires choosing “Themes” instead.

Now I need to go change my changes, since I seem to have made text in BlogDesk harder to read…

Intentional… Or Malware?

I have run into the scenario of checking an end user’s computer for signs of p0rn, or surfing p0rn sites, and seen ambiguity introduced by popups from sites that are not p0rn per se, or clicks that were unintended and aborted. Obviously, malware can not only cause popups, but also download files nefariously.

This is an extreme cautionary case, in which a worker was fired for child p0rn, had his reputation ruined, faced criminal charges, and was found to be innocent. Tech support completely failed and even helped persecute him. That’s bad.

Brother MFC-240C

I hooked our new scanner/printer/copier/fax up today. It was delightful to be able to locate the fact that installation files were available for Windows Vista and download them from the company painlessly. The CD said everything through XP, so I was mildly concerned, but they’re working through their product line and released this one way back in March.

Apart from the fact that we have kids and limited space, it was pretty smooth. I hooked it to the Vista machine because that was where the device would fit in the room. I still haven’t setup the fax part, or programmed the date, but I’ve done so on similar machines for other people and it should be no big deal.

I made a color photocopy of Sadie’s drawing that included an apparent intentional stegasaurus in one corner, and Deb didn’t realize I was showing her the copy when I took the two of them to her with the copy on top.

This should be handy. I can start scanning in old photos I don’t want to lose, for instance. I can make printouts, even if low quality, of pictures of the kids to give the relative heathens who aren’t online.

I also have projects in mind like scanning in old handouts and training materials some of us created for VB support way back when.

Back Into Vista – Video Conversion Anyone?

I fired up the Vista machine again, after a couple days off from it. My plan was to see how well it did playing a DVD out of the box. The answer: Excellent. I played a couple segments from Serenity. It would be perfectly viable, if I wanted to watch something nobody else did, for me to watch it at the computer, with a headset or in a closed room to avoid sound overlap. Since the sound quality of the machine is amazing for having $5 cheapo speakers, all the better.

It finally prompted me to activate, then disappeared the prompt. In XP you could easily locate a shortcut to bring up the activation screen. In Vista, as far as I could tell there was none. I typed “activate” and searched in the help center, and the third item listed in the results was that activation link. Had I not gone looking, apparently I would have had to wait another week for it to prompt me again, and would have had to try not to let it get away. Beyond that, it was completely uneventful.

I had realized I could now create DVD collections of pictures and, aha!, all the movie clips I’ve taken, from the 30 second ones with no sound on the original camera, to the ones that can be hundreds of megabytes on the new camera. Even better if I could edit them as needed. But wait!

The new camera make Quicktime movie files. I would have to get those out of that format.

Any opinions on video converters? Or editors for that matter? I can try this or that, but thought I’d see if anyone who has used any might have opinions.

I also had to install Quicktime even to play the videos on the Vista machine. When I double-clicked and there was no association, I used the “look on the internet” option for the first time ever and was impressed that it came right up to a screen for downoading either Quicktime or the Quicktime and iTunes combo. Since I’d planned to install iTunes, I went with the latter. Which went fine, but what a pain, all the screens you have to answer to install and then run it the first time.

Anywho, I came back to the old computer to post this, emphasis on the video conversion question, and to check the settings for newsgroups from Verizon, so I can add that in Windows Mail.

DOS Games on Vista

I finally tried some of the old DOS games on Vista.

Most of them demand to be in full screen mode.

Vista doesn’t support full screen mode for DOS, which I already had found but forgotten. I am used to clicking Start, Run, typing CMD and then if it’s a window, pressing Alt-Enter to make the DOS window full screen. I’d tried that and gotten the message.

I was able to use my first DOS game ever, Tetris. I first had to delete the PIF associated with it that had copied along from the other machine, as that specified full screen. Made sure I deleted those for all the others as I tried them, but for those apparently full screen is native.

The Tetris game is so old that it assumes you won’t have arrow keys on your keyboard, and makes it possible to play on the old 84 key keyboards by using J and L as left and right, K as rotate, and M as drop. I originally played this on my 286, with an EGA monitor and MS-DOS 3.3, in 1990.

It will run in a window on Vista, but it’s very slow. Slower and jerkier than it ever dreamed of being on the 286. Freaky.

A couple pinball games, Wolfenstein, Commander Keen 4, Doom… none of them are capable of running on Vista, period, because they all want to go full screen when they launch. Keen at least brings up the intro screen, but “press a key” makes it launch for real and go full screen.

The good thing is I wasn’t expecting much, and I could easily have a dozen other machines for DOS games if I wanted. There are some on the computer in Sadie and Valerie’s bedroom, though we were using it mainly for a keybanger for them. It’s been off a long while because it got noisy; maybe a dying CPU fan, or even just a wire hitting. I’ll have to remember to look at it. Meanwhile they’ve been using the AMD 400 and banging on a word processor instead, having a blast, and getting annoyed when I hook the Vista machine to their monitor. Cute.

On another note, I installed Gimp. It tells you right up front that using it may lock up your computer so you should disable hyperthreading. How nice of it. It feels too complicated, and in at least some case is, compared to PSP 5, but it can do what I need to do readily enough, and I might even get used to it. I suppose if I were to have a look at what Corel has done to Paint Shop Pro, I’d find that overcomplicated too. Meanwhile, Paint appears to have been improved. At the very least it supports more file types. I’ll have to make a point of using it enough to see if the features have expanded otherwise.

Vista the Fourth

Not much more to report. A lot of my dabbling the past day or so involved the old machine. I did install on the new machine, and I let it install updates and the lame Ultimate Extras that were available. I’ve backed up craploads of stuff from the 2000 machine.

One of the things I wanted to back up was my “cleanup” folder on the desktop. Long story…

I use my Windows desktop heavily for staging stuff. It’s where things download to by default. I’ll often put files I am working with there. And when installing things, they often create shortcuts on the desktop, wanted or not in the end.

Periodically, with the desktop completely covered in icons, I copy it all to a folder on the desktop named “Cleanup m-d-yy,” where m, d and yy are the numbers for the month, day, and two digit year. At one point I named the folders “stuff” rather than “cleanup.” When I do this, I will move the previous cleanup folder into the new one. Thus I end up with a directory structure that looks something like:

C:\documents and settings\jay\desktop\cleanup 7-5-07\cleanup 2-28-07\cleanup 10-6-06\cleanup 4-3-06\cleanup 12-26-05\stuff 9-29-05\stuff 6-28-05\cleanup 2-21-05\cleanup 8-14-04\…

To add insult to injury, then put long names of some of the files, especially rampant from saved web pages, but not limited to those. Can you guess what’s coming?

For some reason it lets you create that mess… then when you want to copy, delete, move or open certain files you can’t; path and file name have exceeded the system limit.

To back it all up, I couldn’t simply copy and paste the one on the desktop, because that would fail. On the new machine, I had a backup folder off the root and in it created a folder named cleanups. I had to create each folder, flattened to the same level, and carefully copy the contents of each folder, less anything in or under it that would be too long, all or most of which was expendable enough (as is much of the rest, but some isn’t and it’s a delightful archeology). That left me wanting to kill the monstrosity and being unable to delete it. I figured I might have to find a utility, else it would wait until the drive ever gets wiped. However, sometimes what won’t work on the machine will work connected from another across the network.

Sure enough, Vista allowed me to delete it. Then I copied back the flattened version… and Vista warned me when it detected one file to be copied that would be too long in combined path and file name on the target, allowing me to skip that file without aborting the whole operation. I’ve always thought Windows was kind of mindless in little things like that.

I didn’t run the rest of OpenOffice. I’ve used it before, and thought it was okay, but never warmed to it or used it enough to feel comfortable. The word processor is so much like Word, intentionally, and yet it always feels clunkier to me. I think some of the ways it defaults or tries to be not just like Word contribute to that feeling. It probably doesn’t help that I am so outrageously used to Word, having used every version and supported the product so extensively. At some point I will want to get Office 2007 for the same reason I got Vista, with that being its logical home. I downloaded Gimp but didn’t install it yet. I believe I only ever tried it, rather minimally, on Linux, and that was a few years back. I’m used to Paint Shop Pro 5, but I’ve used a lot of other graphics software and am not quite as stuck on one as I am with Word versus other products. And even with Word, there were other things I liked as much or better along the line. Before I went into Word support for Microsoft, I had used Word 2.0 and decided it was ugly and clunky compared to Ami Pro 3.0, in which I wrote the resume that got me the job supporting primarily Word 6.0, which in turn compared favorably to Ami Pro. WordStar 2000 was also a perfectly acceptable word processor. At any rate, I want to get used to it enough that I can help people with it if needed, as it’s a good alternative to bankrupting yourself buying the Microsoft equivalent.

One of the few games I ever got really good at was Monster Truck Madness. My CD long ago was lost (I still have the box, amazingly), but I had copied or installed it onto my old P200 such that I could play it without needing the CD in the drive. I copied that over to the Vista machine and to my amazement it ran beautifully and without question; far more smoothly than it ever did on older machines. I still need to try some of the old DOS games.

Let’s see…

The only other thing I can think of is that I noticed there’s a hidden ‘documents and settings” folder off the root, much as there is a hidden “My Documents” off the user profile. I assume both are legacy support, mapping anything that uses those paths by name to the current versions, named “users” and “documents” respectively.

I also noticed there’s an autoexec.bat and a config.sys, but no msdos.sys. Autoexec contains only a REM line saying something about it being there for legacy support. Weirdly, config.sys contains a single line:

That’s an odd thing to be there, and come to think of it, that may have been after the OpenOffice install and put there by it, rather than being a default.

Okay, back to work. I’m trying to do a combined cleanup prior to company and packup of things in the office to make it easier to move furniture and rearrange things.