Hardware, Technology

It always feels good to solve a mystery

January 15th, 2007 by Jeff | Dump Core

A couple years ago we replaced our old laptop, Zeus (a ThinkPad A21m), with a newer one, Apollo (a ThinkPad R51). Shortly after we purchased Apollo, Zeus started acting very strangely. While the LCD was definitely beginning to fail (it would occasionally suddenly lose luminance, which would come back intermittently), there was something else that was causing the system to mysteriously crash. The screen would go blank, the system fan (or so I thought) seemed to start making weird pulsating noises, and the keyboard and TrackPoint would go unresponsive. The only way to recover from this crash was to remove all sources of power, including the battery. It seemed to happen predictably after the system had been on for a period of time; the first time after a cold boot it would take about a half-hour to an hour, and on subsequent reboots it would occur within minutes. If I let the system sit overnight and cool down, it would seem to be okay again for an hour, and then the process would restart.

I naturally assumed because of the apparent “warm up” and “cool down” nature of the problem that it may have been something causing the system to overheat. I had encountered a similar (or maybe opposite) problem with my old college desktop, Pandora, where she wouldn’t boot until her main hard drive had warmed up enough for an apparently broken contact to heat up and expand until it connected. Unfortunately, since Zeus had already been replaced, we weren’t exactly in any hurry to repair him. My original plan for Zeus was to turn him into a Linux machine simply to toy around with, but I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to spend a truckload of money to ship him back to IBM and have him repaired out of warranty. So Zeus has spent the last year or two gathering dust on various shelves in various closets. Occasionally I would take him down and boot him up for a while to see if the symptoms persisted, and every now and then even gather the courage to pry open his case (he was, after all, out of warranty) to see if I could identify the problem. However, this became a rarer and rarer occurrence until Zeus was practically all but forgotten.

When we started making the move to West Virginia, we began to clean house on some of our old hardware. Pandora and Minerva, the two oldest desktops, eventually made there way to the Guilford County hazardous waste facility to be recycled. (Old computer hardware should never be simply tossed into the garbage, as it contains numerous toxic and precious materials that should either be safely disposed of or recycled.) This occurred, of course, after both hard drives were securely wiped to prevent the recovery of any personal data. IBM has a very nice “secure data disposal” utility available to its customers that performs up to the DoD recommended seven-pass overwrite to clear the disk. Since Zeus was apparently in no condition to perform this task (which could theoretically take hours), we decided to take him to WV with us until we could safely wipe or dispose of his hard drive. The only way I could think of to accomplish the wipe would be to put Zeus’ hard drive into Apollo, boot using the secure data disposal CD, and let Apollo do the hard part of overwriting the disk. Since this would mean Apollo, my primary Internet lifeline and comic-making workhorse, would be unavailable for potentially up to a full day, it’s obvious to say that finding the time to perform this task has been… difficult.

Well, this weekend was my monthly computer maintenance weekend, where I run the usual gauntlet of tasks to keep all our systems up-to-date: downloading and installing security and software patches, scanning for spyware and viruses, and doing hard drive error checking and optimization. (Some of these tasks, of course, are done more frequently, but they also tend to occur during the monthly batch.) The usual disk maintenance includes running Disk Cleanup, CHKDSK, and Defrag. I run this batch of jobs on all our Windows machines, including my wife’s work laptop, to try and keep everything in tip-top shape.

Saturday morning, I was just finishing up a few maintenance tasks that I had let run overnight. Ben and my wife had both already been up, eaten breakfast, and gone back to bed, so I effectively had the morning to myself. Zeus had drifted back into my consciousness again for some unknown reason and, since it looked like it wouldn’t be a busy day, I decided sacrifice having Apollo for the day to finally take care of wiping that disk. I swapped out Apollo’s drive (something I got rather good at after last year’s crash) and popped in Zeus’. As I started to boot, I immediately noticed that the weird, pulsating “fan noise” I remembered from before was now coming from Apollo. I proceeded with the disk wipe–cringing each time I heard the “click of death” coming from my “good” laptop–and began to wonder if Zeus’ problems were really hard drive related and not heat related.

I rummaged around the office, found my old KNOPPIX CD, and threw it into Zeus’ drive to see what would happen. I immediately found one distinction between these two machines. While I was able to successfully run Apollo last January entirely off the KNOPPIX CD with no hard drive installed, Zeus absolutely refused to boot. There must be something about that particular model (or series of models) where it doesn’t like operating without a hard drive. Curiosity overcame caution as I inserted Apollo’s good drive–with all my mail, Palm backups, comics, GPF-related notes, etc.–into Zeus’ chassis. It took a minute to convince Zeus to boot from the CD instead of the hard drive (which, of course, was filled with Apollo’s drivers that subsequently made Windows XP screech to a halt), but it wasn’t long before the old machine had a new lease on life. He remained up, active, and connected to the wireless network all day; in fact, portions of this blog post were actually typed in from Zeus via a rather old copy of Firefox. Fancy that.

It took Apollo an estimated 15 hours or so to completely wipe that drive, so I checked in on his progress Sunday morning. I swapped the drives back and was quite relieved to see Apollo boot as normal with his old drive returned. Zeus, unfortunately, did not fare as well. Even though his hard drive was returned and the KNOPPIX disc was still in the optical drive, the absence of a formatted hard drive with a valid operating system completely threw him for a loop. The boot order specifically said to look at the CD-ROM before the hard disk, but he wouldn’t go any further than to print a warning that the drive had been successfully wiped with the secure data disposal utility.

Zeus now sits back on his closet shelf, ready to gather dust again. If he won’t boot even from a CD without an OS on the hard drive, it’s unlikely he could be resurrected for anything useful. So now I come to the task of finding somewhere in this area where a computer can be properly disposed of. I really didn’t expect any miracles from this little bit of tinkering, but it’s always good to solve a little mystery every now and then.

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