“NTLDR is missing”

***WARNING: This blog entry is technical and has little to do with Ukraine. Read at your own risk.***

So, last Thursday, my computer got an “NTLDR is missing” error. It seemed bad, because it wouldn’t even try to start. I’d power up, and 2 seconds later, “NTLDR is missing” would appear on a black screen.

I feared my hard drive had died after serving for so long through thick and then.

On my other laptop (I bought a little $250 notebook for just such an occasion), I did the thing which has earned me a reputation as a computer genius among members of my family and their neighbors — I typed the error message into a Google search box.

So, it seemed this may or may not be a hardware issue.

I discovered that I could F12 it and boot off the Windows XP install disk which I had brought with me for just such an occasion. (XP FOREVER!!!!) I even edited the BIOS (holla!) so that it’d boot from the CD automatically.

It would only start correctly 1/2 the time. I read about the blue screen error I was getting the other half of the time — something about the system being shut down for my own good to prevent further damage. It sounded very motherly.

It also increased my concern that after 4 years of faithful service, including a stint in Afghanistan, at least five trips over the Atlantic Ocean, and an almost total disassembly/reassembly when I replaced the touch pad and keyboard, my laptop was finally on its way to the great technical support center in the sky.

Nevertheless, being able to boot off the CD made Operating System re-installation a possibility. However, first I wanted to recover some data.

My important stuff (writing, personal files) get backed up automatically with allwaysynch and offsitebox — both free.

My less important stuff (photos, music) are also backed up, mostly, but the back up is in Iowa, and I wanted to have them close to me. So I attempted file recovery.

Plan: put Dos-based partition/file recovery software on a flash drive and run it from Windows Recovery Console (which can be run from the XP install disk).
Problem: Can’t Recognize the USB drive.

New Plan: Boot off a Recovery Console USB Drive (which took a little trial and effort to make).
Problem: Okay, I can boot from a USB drive but the software won’t run. Recovery Console looks like DOS and tastes like DOS, but it’s not DOS. You can’t run ANY software, you can only use the Recovery Console commands.

New Plan: Use Recovery Console’s fixboot and fixmbr commands.
Problem: They seemed to have no effect. Still getting the “NTLDR is missing.” Later I discovered they created a new, very small partition on my hard disk. Strangeness.

New Plan: Install windows XP on the little partition and run more robust partition/data recovery tools.
Problem: Can’t access internet or do very much, and my USB removing/plugging-in muscles are getting tired.

New Plan: Install drivers.
Problem: They won’t all fit. Not enough disk space.

New Plan: Delete games, windows meeting, windows help, and a bunch of other useless windows stuff.
Problem: Windows gives me a serious sounding error about corrupted files and encourages me to do a repair installation. Like a sucker, I obey, and run out of disk space again.

New Plan: Same as the old plan, but ignore the serious sounding error. Also, only install the drivers for accessing the internet.

I make dinner.

New Plan: Okay. Now download and run free partition/file recovery tools. Because of disk space issues on the tiny partition, I had to try one, then uninstall it before downloading the next.
Problem: I see some of my files, which is hugely encouraging, but there’s no structure, and garbled filenames, and they’re not all there.

New Plan: Download the well-reviewed Virtual Lab Data Recovery Software, which doesn’t ask for payment until after you run it and see what it detects.
Problem: NONE! It sees my old file structure!

New Plan: Fork over $99.99 even though I probably could, with only a little difficulty, find some Ukrainian shop to do all this for much cheaper.
Problem: binarybiz.com keeps rejecting my card and asking me to contact their fraud department. Anti-slavic discrimination?

New Plan: Contact their fraud department and assure them that I am me.
Problem: No phone number, and my email inquiry receives an unhelpful, boilerplate response.

New Plan: Asks mom to purchase it and to read me the activation key over Skype.
Problem: Initially, mom’s mic won’t work, but we overcome. :)

I spent the next several days working out my USB plugging-in/removing muscles and pulled 20 Gigs of music and pictures off my corrupted drive, then I repartitioned and reformatted the drive, which always feels like a great cleansing to me. I reinstalled the OS, and downloaded and reinstalled the drivers, then the software.

I switched from Microsoft Office, whose re-installation disks I’ve lost long ago, to the free and open-source Open Office.

This mess was probably the result of a boot-sector virus.

Here’s a picture of what I stared at for much of this past weekend, also a refreshing box of 15% milk which sustained me through the ordeal.

computer rescue

And that’s how I spent my second weekend in Ukraine. :)

I’m almost certain I could have had all this done here in Ukraine for about $30. The biggest loss for me was not money but time. What kept me going was the feeling of being just minutes away from solving the problem myself, and by the time I faced with the decision of spending $100 it felt like the fastest way to wrap things up.

Like my grandma used to say, learning is painful, and expensive.