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Hard Disk Crash!

by Ben Sherman


My hard disk crashed recently. I want to tell you what happened and what I learned that can benefit you.

At home I have a Pentium 90 MHz IBM-compatible computer that I use for much of my work. In December I started getting 'lost cluster' messages every time I'd boot up the computer. Norton Utilities would automatically scan my hard disk for viruses and other unwanted problems. One of the problems it would detect was lost clusters. I would opt to fix them, then I would start running Windows and Word, and all the other stuff I use on a regular basis. A month later I started to get other error messages. Some of them I could understand, some of them meant nothing to me. I received "Failure on INT 24" several times, "expanded memory not present or not usable" once or twice, and then more ominous messages like "This application has violated system integrity due to an invalid page fault and will be terminated. Quit all applications, quit Windows, and then restart your computer." At least the last one I could read. I didn't know what an invalid page fault was, but I did know how to follow the advice and restart the computer.

Okay, so something was up. I thought about viruses. I rarely received diskettes from anywhere, or anyone. I had not installed any new software, except for a game or two from the TPC BBS, so I was pretty certain it wasn't a virus. Nonetheless, I used the MS-AntiVirus software that comes in DOS, the McAfee Scandisk software, and some software from IBM. All of it came up blank. "No virus detected."

I suddenly had this strange feeling, like, "better back up all your papers NOW Ben". I have learned to follow gut feelings, especially with illogical things like my computer. So I formatted a few floppy disks and started to use Pkzip to zip up all the files I wrote that I did not want to lose. This meant going into File Manager and then into Word and going through all my directories one at a time, zipping the files up and transferring them to floppies. This took about an hour. This was added insurance to supplement the files I already had backed up the previous week on my Colorado Travan tape drive. I thought to myself "what happens if the tape drive doesn't work? I can always reinstall the software, but if I lose all my letters, research papers, student grades, artwork, scanned newspaper articles, etc. I will really be in trouble." Sure enough, just as I finished zipping the last of the irreplaceable files onto the fifth floppy, my hard disk crashed.

First I tried the Norton Utilities Rescue disk, and received the following message:

"Sector not found reading drive C:
Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?"

I chose "Fail" which then brought me out of Windows to DOS and to the following message:

"error estOO10: physical EOF before logical EOF on . RTL.
Invalid command.com
Cannot load command.co
system halted."

Uh oh. I was never into est myself, but I could understand "invalid command.com." That last one meant that when I tried to restart my computer, it wasn't going to. Which it didn't. I pulled out my emergency DOS boot disk, inserted it into drive A:, and booted up. This worked, but when I tried to get to drive C: I received the following message:

"invalid media type reading drive C: abort, retry, fail?"

Big time uh-oh. Back to Norton Utilities. I booted up again with their Rescue Utilities and started using their various rescue programs. Unerase found lots of gobbledygook, all of it looking like extended ASCII characters. Unformat was able to rescue 2 clusters out of 1.2 gigabytes. So much for "rescuing my programs." I called around to a few computer genius-types who I considered higher up the ladder of enlightenment than myself. People listened and gave their advice. Kevin Ryan said that the FAT errors I had gotten earlier indicated that I would have to repartition my hard disk.

I have had enough experience with computers to realize that I had two choices: either agonize over all the various ways to get my computer up and running, try all my friends' computer folk remedies, and spend days or weeks in the process, or I could do a surgical strike. This is often the quickest and easiest thing to do. It involved reformatting my hard disk and losing what data was not backed up. I opted for the strike. I reformatted the disk, reinstalled Windows, and then restored my backed up programs using the Colorado tape drive. This took about four hours. Everything seemed to work.

I got back on the BBS downloaded my e-mail, wrote some replies, and then the computer crashed again. Okay, repeat virus checks. Repeat DOS Scandisk. Ah-ha! Something new here. My newly reformatted hard disk seems to have more than 730 megabytes of bad sectors. Now why did MS-DOS knowingly format bad sectors? Beats me. But this means that much of the information that resides on those bad sectors is probably corrupted. I need to change the hard disk. But I also need the computer.

Actually this happened the week before final exams at my school, meaning that I really, really needed the computer. So, what the heck, another surgical strike. But this time I had learned something: DOS does not recognize bad sectors during the format process. The labeling of bad sectors during the formatting process seems like common sense to a lay user like myself. Why should an operating system be able to format bad sectors? I had believed that the formatting process fixed bad sectors. I guess not.

Norton Utilities has a program called Disk Doctor that will check the surface of the hard disk and diagnose bad sectors. Microsoft Scandisk seems to be the same kind of program. The reason I prefer the Norton is because it has an "automatic mark bad sector" option. With my hard disk of 1.2 gigabytes, this means that I don't have to sit in front of the computer and continually press the Enter key for every one of the bad sectors that comprise the more than 730 megabytes of bad sector space on my hard disk. That's a useful option.

Okay, reformat, part two. This time I did it differently. I used MS-DOS to reformat the hard disk. Then I installed the Norton Utilities and used the above-mentioned Disk Doctor to check the surface of the disk. Whammo! It marked the same 730 megabytes of hard disk as bad sectors. With the bad sectors marked so that data could not be written to them, I installed Windows, Office, and my other software. Then I restored what I wanted from my tape drive. Next, I set up all the directories the way I wanted them to be. This entire process took the better part of a Sunday, but by evening I was up and running again.

What I learned that you can do:

1. Back everything up

Get into the habit of backing everything up religiously. This involves two actions on your part. One, buying a tape or MO back-up device, and two, actually using it on a scheduled basis. I have a Colorado Travan tape drive. I purchased it at a computer store in the United States and brought it back with me last summer. It can store 400 megabytes of uncompressed data or almost 800 megabytes compressed. It cost under $200. It is an internal device. I had to install it myself, and I am not joking when I say that it came with the best instructions I have ever seen. Installation was painless. I would buy another one in a minute. You should buy one that can hold at least 500 megabytes compressed. It came with its own software which was also very self-explanatory.

The problem is using it regularly. Because there is no immediate gratification, I suspect I am like many other people who make a few backups, and then quickly fall out of the habit. You have to view it as life insurance you can use. You buy life insurance because you have to protect your family. You know you need to buy the best, but you also know that you yourself will never benefit. A back-up device is much the same. You buy it because you have to protect your data. However, when your hard disk crashes, you yourself will benefit. Therefore, you have to push yourself to use the back-up device, if not every day, then at least once a week.

Remember that when you begin to see frequent error messages, or when the Norton Utilities begins to report "lost clusters" you should get the hint that something is wrong somewhere and that your chances of computer failure are increasing. This is the time that you want to make a special backup of all very important files on floppy disks, just in case your tape drive fails.

2. Make a soft box.

This is what I call the box where I store my original installation diskettes. This box also holds the corresponding installation manuals and other odds-and-ends. Mine has the following essential diskettes and manuals: DOS, Windows, my CD-ROM driver diskette, my mouse driver diskette, my video card diskettes, my Norton Utilities diskettes, the Colorado tape drive software and my communications software. It also contains my motherboard manual, and receipt for my computer. The rest of the software diskettes lie in computer diskette boxes under one of my tables. Most of the manuals lie on a bookshelf.

Print out all important files, meaning your autoexec.bat, config.sys, win.ini, and sys.ini files. Put the date on the printout and put it into the soft box.

3. Use Print Screen

Record some information about how your desktop is set up in case you have to reinstall. For example, suppose I want to record all the names of all the directories on my hard disk. An easy way to do this is to open File Manager and then press the "Print Screen" button on your keyboard. Next, open the Paintbrush program. Under Edit, select "Paste" and then under File, select "Print." This will print a picture of your screen showing your File Manager with all of its directories. Do the same with Program Manager. Put these two papers into your soft box.

4. Buy original software.

There are several reasons I mention this. Unless you have money to spare, you probably have several pirated programs residing on your hard disk. You got them from a friend, from the office, or from Hong Kong or Thailand. You probably don't have the manuals. The quality of original diskettes is usually superior to that of copied ones. When you use originals, you know that all the files exist on the disk, and if they don't, you can easily receive replacements. With pirated copies, you never know if you have all the files you need. When your hard disk fails, you want your software to install painlessly. Copied installation diskettes often fail for reasons I won't discuss here.

One of the other nice advantages of original software is that you get the manuals. Space consuming as they are, a manual will tell you how to do things that might not be intuitive just from looking at the screen. Often a program will have short-cut keys that will be described in the manual. A manual is a reference book. It may not be terribly lucid sometimes, but it is all written down on paper. It doesn't crash, nor does it require electricity to read.

By far the best reason for buying original software are the help-lines maintained by the software companies. In the past, you could call up a company, tell them you were using their software and ask for help. Now, companies are cutting costs and technical support. They expect you to have proof of ownership, as in a registration number on hand when you call them. I advise copying the registration number onto the front of your first installation diskette, and onto the front cover of your manuals. You don't want to be fumbling in the bottom of your closet or through the mess in your desk drawers for a number on a card that you are not even sure you still have. Without that number, they will refuse to speak to you.

5. Use a highlighter pen

I also advise you to make liberal use of a highlighter marking pen. Mark up your manuals. Use a marker to highlight the special options you will need to use should you have to reinstall your software.

This came in handy for me last week when I had to reinstall my communications software. There were settings that I couldn't easily remember without laboriously looking them up. These included the exact type of modem I have, the technical name for it, and the COM Port it was set to. There were also help-line numbers, product registration numbers, and other small details that once high-lighted greatly increased their accessibility.

6. Install several virus checkers

Because you usually do not know what the real cause of your problem is, software or hardware failure, a virus, or simply your own mistake, the best solution is to address all four systematically, one at a time. I use the virus checker that came with MS-DOS, and McAfee VirusScan, and a Japanese program that someone gave me. I use several because no virus checker can cover everything. I hope that they complement each other. However, as prepared as I advise you to be, I think that much of the hysteria over viruses is overblown in the media because it makes such interesting news stories. With that said, I would like to note that in the last two years I have caught and eradicated two viruses, FORM and AntiCMOS, twice each. Only in a single instance was a virus on my computer, and that time it came on a diskette that my wife had used at Temple University.

Computer code and viruses are involved in a symbiotic struggle: What one man can invent, another man can break... which another man can then fix. You and I are the users of the first and third party's products, and indirectly of the second man's products, in the form of improved software.

7. Join a computer club

You need a network of knowledgeable people to access in times of trouble. A club is a bank of knowledge. Sometimes you deposit information, sometimes you withdraw. You cannot learn everything there is to know about computers, but by becoming involved in a club, you gain access to a large number of people who together have experienced most of the problems you will ever face. A club has other obvious benefits including ongoing educational, social, and recreational activities. And as time goes on you too will be consulted by less-experienced members.

8. Buy a fast machine

Buy as fast a machine as you can afford. At school I have a 386 computer on my desk with 6 megabytes of RAM. It runs all my Windows applications slowly, but just fine. I have no problems using Word, Excel, Paintbrush, or any educational software. For my everyday purposes, the processor speed is not very important... how fast can I really type? The problem comes when I want to install software on the 386 or on its sister machines that I have set up for students in a self-access lab. The installation time of DOS and Windows on a 386 is slightly over thirty minutes. Multiply that by thirty machines and you start to have a major headache, even without the inevitable installation problems that always crop up. I am impatient about my time. I don't want to wait while the machine installs software, spell-checks a document, saves to the hard disk, adds some numbers, backs up my data, or performs a myriad of other functions. A fast machine with ample RAM reduces the amount of time I spend waiting for the hourglass to go away.

I cannot control the speed of the machines at my school. I can only use them as a benchmark for comparison with my home Pentium (i.e., 586) computer which has 12 megabytes of RAM. Installation of the same software takes less than ten minutes. Printing is a breeze. There is never any hourglass telling me to wait for access to the CPU. A fast machine will reduce the waiting time you spend in front of the computer, and will give you more time to do the things you really want to do.

9. Reinstall everything once a year

I try to clean my real desk several times a year; my wife wishes that I would clean it every day, or even dispense with it entirely. A computer is a virtual desk. It gets cluttered and disorganized just as your real desk does. As a computer is a thinking tool, clutter reduces its efficiency to help you think. Do you really need that 1,000-font package you bought on the trip home? Isn't it time you finally deleted Doom?

Maybe now is the time to start the final migration away from those old DOS programs. Are you ever going to use those three word processors? I recommend backing up all important files, reformatting the hard disk, then using a program like Norton Utilities Disk Doctor to mark any bad sectors of the disk, and finally reinstalling all your software once a year. It'll take a day to complete. The free time around New Year's or Golden Week might be a good time for this as everybody is cleaning everything anyway. Why not clean the computer once a year?


© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

May, 1996

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor


Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN