Computer advice ignored, disaster strikes an 'idiot'

October 10, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

From time to time I begin a column with some tale of woe from a colleague or caller who, through sloth, ignorance or just plain stupidity, got himself into some kind of terrible bind with his computer.

I invariably use the poor slob's experience to illustrate a pitfall or teach a lesson about safe computing. Usually I change the name to protect the guilty. This time we'll just call the culprit The Computer Columnist.

It seems that The Columnist had a laptop computer that he used from time to time. He was running the machine under MS-DOS 6.0, and to make room for all his software, he had increased the hard drive's capacity with Microsoft's DoubleSpace utility.

The Columnist had written in some detail about DOS 6.0's problems with DoubleSpace; in fact, this very combination had trashed the drives on two other computers in his house. Having replaced the operating system on those machines with the safe and reliable DOS 6.2, he simply forgot about the laptop until he turned it on the night before he had to make a presentation to a group of nice folks who had asked him to talk about navigating the Internet.

When the computer booted up that evening, he noticed that it was running DOS 6.0. He thought briefly about upgrading to the newer DOS then and there.

"Nah," he said to himself. "It's getting late. Let's get this thing set up and I'll upgrade some other time."

So The Columnist spent the next three hours setting up his software, logging onto the Net, finding interesting Mosaic pages to show the audience, and writing a little speech for the crowd.

He finished at 11:30 p.m. and decided to call it a night. So he clicked on the Exit Windows button and waited for Windows to do its pre-shutdown routine. But instead of returning The Columnist to the DOS prompt, his machine gave him a message that said, "Bad or missing command interpreter."

Death sentence

This little message is the binary equivalent of "Would you like a last cigarette before the execution?"

Sure enough, the hard disk was gone -- trashed, bye-bye, in the can -- along with it all the software and files The Columnist had just prepared, not to mention every other program and file on the disk.

Not being without resources, The Columnist tried using Microsoft's Scandisk to repair the crippled drive. No luck. Same with the Norton Disk Doctor. And Central Point's vaunted DiskFix. It was really dead.

As it happened, this particular laptop had come with all the soft ware pre-installed, including Microsoft Windows, its collection of video and printer drivers, and all those special little files that laptops need to work properly. There were no original floppy disks. There was a little program buried somewhere in a menu that would have allowed The Columnist to make backups of all the software on the hard disk -- provided that he happened to have 47 floppies on hand and two or three hours of spare time. But that was gone, too.

No-backup blues

As it turns out, The Columnist had also written a piece about just this problem -- a common one today as manufacturers offer computers with huge libraries of pre-installed software. He had urged his readers to spend the time required to make a floppy backup, to call the manufacturer and demand original floppies, or to back up the entire hard disk to tape. Unfortunately, with this machine, the idiot had never taken his own advice.

So there he was at midnight on a Sunday, with a presentation due nine hours later and an empty computer. The next four hours were pure hell.

First, he realized, he did not have a copy of Windows on the 3 1/2 -inch disks that laptops use. One of his desktop computers had come with Windows pre-installed -- no original floppies, of course. The other was an older machine, with a 5 1/4 -inch primary drive, and the original copy of Windows that came with it was on the larger disks.

The only way to get a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk into a 3 1/2 -inch drive is to fold it in half. The Columnist had written a funny little piece about users who try that trick.

There was another laptop available, a cute little Gateway Handbook. Unfortunately, the Gateway didn't have an external video port, so he couldn't use it for his presentation. But The Columnist did have a portable, parallel port tape drive -- the one he hadn't used on the first laptop.

Desperate hours

So he reformatted the hard drive on the first laptop with DOS 6.2 while he used the tape drive to make copies of the Windows directories and other necessary files from the little Gateway. Then he hooked the tape drive up to the first laptop and copied the files from the tape to the hard disk, hoping the video drivers and other mysterious little Windows files from the Gateway would work on the other machine.

With only half an hour of tweaking, and another hour or so with as sorted floppies, plus another hour on the Net trying to reconstruct everything he'd done, The Columnist had his

presentation ready. It was 4 a.m., and he had to be up at 7 to get the kids off to school.

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