Merry Christmas and would you please fix my computer?

Every family has a computer expert. His (or her) job is to help the rest of the family with all their computer problems. Everytime the family computer expert is visiting he (or she) needs to get through a list of things which need to be fixed.

You might have already guessed that I’m that expert in my family. When my wife and I visited our families in Germany for Christmas I had a considerable to-do list. Our first stop was at my parents -in-law’s house where my old Power Mac G4 required some upgrades:

  1. Install an external Firewire harddisk and backup the system.
  2. Update Mac OS X Tiger to version 10.4.8.
  3. Install new version of QuickTime and iTunes.
  4. Install the latest security patches.
  5. Install updates for iLife 06.
  6. Install the latest Xcode tools.
  7. Install up-to-date pkgsrc packages.
  8. Provide a GIMP icon to my father-in-law’s dock.
  9. Install new OpenOffice templates.
  10. Install Virtual PC and finally retire the old Windows 98 PC.

The preparations started at home:

  • I installed Virtual PC on my Power Mac G5, created and configured a virtual machine and installed Windows XP SP2 in it.
  • My wife updated all the OpenOffice templates and created a second set of templates for the new 19% VAT rate in Germany.
  • I found a somewhat outdated distribution of GIMP for Mac OS X on the web and combined the included Mac OS X application environment with the latest GIMP pkgsrc package.
  • Finally I copied all the necessary software and data on the external harddisk. Downloading all of it would have taken days because my parents-in-law don’t have broadband.

We arrived at the 23rd of December and I started the rollout on the next morning:

  1. I connected the external harddisk, installed Carbon Copy Cloner and cloned the internal disk before starting with the updates. You never know …
  2. Installing most of the updates worked without problems. Just double click on the disk image, launch the installer and reboot … quite frequently. Using the online update is much nicer because you get away with a single reboot.
  3. The updates for iLive 06 did not work. They are for newer versions of all the programs and unfortunately not cumulative. I tried the online update over the V.90 Internet connection which was a real pain. It took a few minutes just to figure out what updates were available. The online update offered patches for the old iLife 06 programs but it would have taken hours to download them. I therefore decided to give up on these updates. But the online update did at least confirm that all the security patches were installed.
  4. Installing most of the remaining software (e.g. GIMP) worked like a charm.
  5. Installing Virtual PC was all that still needed doing. Because Virtual PC 7 doesn’t work under Mac OS X Tiger properly until you apply the patch with the latest update. I already knew that from trying it out on my Mac and simply ignored the Restart your computer button, installed the patch immediatley and rebooted afterwards. Mac OS X complained about incorrect permission of /Library/StartupItems after the reboot because Microsoft’s installer screwed up (exactly like on my Mac). Mac OS X fixed the permissions and rebooted once more. I stopped the installer from creating a virtual machine using the bundled Windows XP Professional, installed the prepared virtual machine instead and fired up Virtual PC. I was relieved when Windows XP booted after a small change to Virtual PC’s configuration. Finally I taught my father-in-law how to start Windows XP now and he liked the new solution much more than accessing the old Windows 98 PC via TightVNC.

At the 25th we left my parents-in-law and drove to my older sister’s house. Much nastier problems were waiting for me there:

  1. Increase the size of drive C: because it is full and Windows complains about that fact all the time.
  2. Check that the all the several dozen Windows XP security patches are installed.
  3. Check that the virus scanner is working and up-to-date.
  4. Make sure that the friend who set up my sister’s A-DSL and WLAN did a proper job.
  5. Help my sister with her problems with iTunes.
  6. Try to get the game working that my nephew got as a christmas present.
  7. Check the harddisk of the old Windows 98 PC for data which needs to be preserved. Wipe the contents of the harddisk afterwards because the PC will be sold.

It took me most of the 26th to sort out all of these problems because Microsoft Windows was involved. I wish my sister would have listened to me when she bought a new computer and purchased an Apple PowerBook. But she could get a Windows notebook cheap via her job and took that offer. 🙁

  1. Resizing the harddisk partitions was easy. I booted the notebook of my Partition Magic 8.0 CD-ROM and it took only a few mouse clicks and a quarter of an hour before drive C: had 8GB of free diskspace.
  2. When I checked whether recent security patches were installed I was shocked to find out that no patches had been installed for several month. The reason was simple: the old Windows 98 PC had always reminded my sister to install patches when she connected to the Internet via ISDN. But Windows XP decided that automatic updates were good enough and scheduled them at a time when the notebook is never turned on. Thank you, Microsoft! Half an hour and several reboots later the system was somewhat safe again.
  3. The situation concerning the virus scanner was alarming, too. The expensive Enterprise virus scanner required a special update server to get new virus signatures. But that update server is only available at my sister’s workplace and she hadn’t taken the notebook there for half a year. Because my sister doesn’t use that notebook for work anyway I replaced the virus scanner with the free version of AVG 7.5. AVG only needs a plain Internet connection to get new virus signatures.
  4. The next thing I checked was the WLAN router’s setup. WLAN encryption was enabled fortunately but it only used the weak WEP algorithm. I tried to switch to WPA or WPA2 using the installed WLAN Quick Setup software. But despite mentioning that an insecure WLAN can cause legal trouble the software only offered WEP encryption. Using a browser to access the web interface of the router (a Zyxel product) I found out that it does support WPA. I connected our Apple PowerBook to the router via ethernet, enabled WPA, turned off WEP and tested the secure WLAN setup with the PowerBook. When I wanted to configure the Windows notebook to use WPA Windows XP’s Wireless Network manager was refusing to let me make any changes. It turned out that the WLAN Manager, another great piece of software distributed with the router, had taken control of the WLAN setup. And it did of course not support WPA. I removed all componets of that software and Windows XP’s Wireless Network manager worked again. After deleting the open WLAN network provided by a friendly neighbour from the list of preferred networks I could finally get the Windows notebook to connect to the WPA protected WLAN of my sister’s A-DSL router. It worked fine for five minutes until another friendly neighbour turned on his or her A-DSL router with another open WLAN using the same channel. After picking a (at that point of time) unoccupied channel the WLAN finally worked secure and stable.
  5. Looking at the information provided by Windows XP’s Device Manager we figured out why the game wouldn’t run. The chipset graphics had stolen 64MB of the main memory and the game wasn’t willing to start with the remaining 448MB. My wife switched off the notebook, opened it and found out that the second memory slot isn’t used at the moment. Upgrading the notebook to 1GB of main memory should therefore be straightforward.
  6. Dealing with the old Windows 98 PC wasn’t as easy as I had hoped, too. I wanted to copy my sister’s old e-mails to a USB stick but Windows 98 (Second Edition) doesn’t provide any drivers for such hardware. After getting the PC to use the DSL connection (the ethernet was connected to the router, but it still wanted to dial out via ISDN) I was able to find a driver via Google. The next problem was that Outlook Express refused to export the e-mails without a Microsoft Exchange Server. I therefore manually copied Outlook Express’ data directory to the USB stick.
    Now the fun began: I booted Linux using a Knoppix CD and ended the miserable existence of Windows 98 using the dd command. Because I definitely didn’t want to reinstall Windows 98 (my sister couldn’t find the CD anyway) and was too lazy to install NetBSD I tried out the Ubuntu DVD I received with the latest issue of the c’t and installed Linux on the machine. The Linux installation will probably be nuked by the future owner anyway but is good enough to prove that the machine is working.
    After importing the old e-mails on the Windows XP machine (which didn’t require an Microsoft Exchange server for a change) my work was finally finished.

That’s the end of my christmas family IT support story … for this year. What nice (or naughty) computer problems did Santa Claus bring you for christmas?