Back Home Again

To borrow from an old jazz standard dating to 1917, I was recently Back home again in Indiana as I  began writing this.  While this post is perhaps seemingly self-indulgent, it’s also for Denise, our good-humored IT Project Manager, and the rest of my peers at the office.

Travel
Just after noon a week ago Thursday, I arrived at the Indianapolis International Airport, having changed planes an hour earlier in Detroit.  I quickly picked up my checked bag, which, incidentally, I’d checked for free thanks to my American Express Delta SkyMiles card.  Up one escalator and down another, I was at National Car Rental, where I picked up a silver Chevy Malibu with only 185 miles on the odometer.  Within twenty minutes of deplaning, I was on the road.  I’m going to have to fly on Thursdays more often.

I drove east from the airport through Indianapolis and beyond via I70, which bisects the state horizontally.  Seventy miles after leaving the airport, I arrived at what remains of the family farm.  For the next 72 hours, I was back home.

Old Farmhouse

The core of the original farmhouse at the left above was built around the time of America’s Civil War.  There’s a framed photo on the wall of my great-great-grandparents with a date on the back, though I don’t recall the exact year from memory now.  This is the first time that I recall seeing only one grain silo instead of the usual three at the right, though I feel like one was added during my childhood.  The last remaining silo will be taken down before I’m likely to return again.

Newer House

Situated diagonally across the road from the old farmhouse is the newer house where my sister and I grew up.  It was here that I stayed while visiting.  I noticed several times throughout the stay that the only sound I could hear was birds chirping.  The grass was just beginning to grow for the Spring, and my mom mowed it for the second time while I was there.

Out back

Both houses are surrounded by farmland as is typical of the area.  While this setting might look unusual to those who have spent their life in urban congestion, it’s important to remember that an acre of land out here typically sells for less than you’d rent an apartment for just one month in Manhattan.  This is a world away from the East Coast.

Getting Down to Business
Now this is a tech blog of course, and the purpose of my trip was actually technical in nature.  My dad uses two computers in his combined business / hobby of ham radio.  The first is a Lenovo ThinkCentre PC running Ubuntu Linux, which he uses for e-mail, web surfing, and most other activities related to his business.  This system is about as stable and impervious to viruses and other support issues as he’s likely to find.  Dad’s second PC is a diminutive Mini-ITX sized, Intel Atom-based PC that he and I put together from components and which runs Windows XP.  He uses this system to perform the computing aspects of software-defined ham radio.  And as is often the case with Windows machines after awhile, this one needed help.

The little Mini-ITX PC had issues both hardware and software related.  The CPU fan had died, and the system was going into a thermal shutdown mode with extended use.  Dad had resorted to firing it up when he needed it, and shutting it down immediately afterward.  The system also had a Windows virus that I was unable to clean reliably in the limited time available on my last visit, but which dad was willing to live with for awhile.  So I’d come prepared to deal with both issues.

Hardware
Dad and I began by swapping out both the CPU and case fans in a matter of minutes using new Scythe 40x40x10mm fans that were a direct replacement for the originals.  In the days that followed, this proved to completely resolve the thermal shutdown problems and the hardware has been solid since while running around the clock.  After replacing the fans, I got started on the slightly more complicated software side of things.

Software Work Begins With Backup
Knowing that dad relies on this Windows machine extensively to test and validate new ham radio kits that he’s assembled for customers, I wanted to guarantee that I could get back to a working configuration regardless of what I encountered in the next two days.  I’d make two different types of backups before doing anything else.

I began by creating an image of the PC’s internal hard drive as-is by booting from a Clonezilla CD and writing an image copy to a portable USB external hard drive.  If need be, I could always return to exactly where I started by restoring this image.  This is a technique that I use frequently at work, though less so recently with virtualization.

Next, I wanted a copy of the individual files so that I could later scan for viruses and selectively restore data independent of any executables.  For this, I simply booted the PC from a Linux live CD, connected my USB hard drive again, and copied the entire contents of the internal hard drive to a directory on the external one.  Now I was ready to begin cleaning up the machine.

Software Reloaded
Before I re-installed Windows XP from scratch, I wanted to be certain that there was no boot sector virus in place that would survive a regular re-format.  Typically I use DBAN to wipe a disk clean before re-installing an operating system.  Dad’s machine wouldn’t play well with DBAN, so I resorted to clearing the existing partitions and partition table using the Linux utility GParted from the same Linux live CD that I’d used to copy files earlier.

Installing Windows XP was a breeze, as I’d done it roughly 100 times previously.  Immediately following the basic installation, I took these additional steps:

  • Copied the i386 directory from the source CD to the hard drive and adjusted the SourcePath variables in the registry as appropriate.
  • Downloaded and installed the various system drivers from Intel’s web site.
  • Installed all available Windows Critical Updates.
  • Installed antivirus software, in this case Microsoft’s free Security Essentials.
  • Turned on the Windows Firewall.
  • Unbound File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks from the network adapter.
  • Removed well-known, default Windows accounts such as Administrator and Guest.
  • Scanned the backed-up data files for viruses, and then copied them back to the system.
  • Re-installed dad’s software, which in this case included circuit board layout software, ham radio software and related drivers.

While it sounds simple enough, I spent a portion of Thursday afternoon, the majority of Friday, and a portion of Saturday ensuring that everything was configured properly and working to dad’s satisfaction.  As I post this summary a week later, he hasn’t reported any problems with the PC, nor any missing applications or files.  I count that a success.

Back to Reality
I returned to my apartment in southwestern Connecticut on Sunday night at 10:15 PM, just in time to turn on the TV and discover that President Obama would be making an announcement shortly regarding an operation in the Middle East.  I’d soon learn with the rest of the world that Osama bin Laden was no longer with us.