Sunday, November 30, 2008

Geek Squad: Airborne Division

Maybe you've seen one of them: a black & white Volkswagen Beetle often being driven by nerdish looking fellow, with a 'Geek Squad' logo plastered onto each side of the car. They look like a mutated cross between Deputy Barney Fife's squad car and a low-budget Nascar team.

My impression is that they provide on-site PC support for home users. That a company like Geek Squad exists at all is tangible evidence that day to day life, at least as it pertains to the care and feeding of the amazing electronic devices that simultaneously make our lives vastly easier and vastly more complex, has become very difficult. The worst offender of all is arguably the PC. Even for those people that just want to be able to send and receive emails, and periodically consult The Great Google Oracle on the topic of whatever triviality of the day is nagging at their minds, owning a PC can be a mind boggling, frustrating, and enraging experience. But when the PC is broken? It. Needs. Fixed. Now. Speaking solely for myself, I can't stand to be without the computer and internet.

The range of problems that can crop up in even the most mundane of PC configurations can run from a plethora of problems related to the hardware itself to another obscure host of problems having to do with the operating system software. And if that's not enough, there is an entirely separate set of issues that can arise from a combination of the two. When you consider that today's most prominent operating system, Microsoft Windows, is difficult for many people to comprehend when it is operating correctly, you can see the scope of the problem when things don't work properly. Buttons mysteriously move to new locations or disappear entirely, programs crash and burn, and performance mysteriously drags to a crawl. What's a person to do?? Call the Geek Squad! Or... get one of your kids to fix it.

Each generation, it seems, has a unique skill or ability that they can use to aid the generations that preceded them. Co-pilot Egg, for example, helps me figure out the mysteries of my cell phone and, of course, is always there should I need a kidney donation, bone marrow transplant, or a replacement liver. ("Hey, wait a minute... I only have one liver Dad!!" I'm aware of that, little girl.) Eventually she will expand her inherited ability to discern the ills of electronic devices into the home computer realm, but for now that is still my function. I provide computer support for the generation that preceded me, and just as often for my own generation.

Which brings us to Friday the last. "Black Friday" it's called; the day after Thanksgiving. Normally a day of rest for me and the fifteen other people in the US that refuse to brave the madding crowds of the annual retail tsunami. This year, though, a restful day simply wasn't in the cards. I had a PC to fix.

As anyone who has had to buy a new PC in the last couple of years can attest, it is no longer possible to buy a new Windows computer that doesn't come with some flavor of Windows Vista. And as they will also be able to tell you, that is not a good thing. The reliability of Microsoft's flagship operating system has gained such a negative reputation that Microsoft has taken to running ads showing Vista being demonstrated under a bogus name to people that must be escapees from the local Gullibility Clinic. "Wow! Looks great!" Yeah, just wait until you get it home, buster. It's no coincidence that Apple is concurrently running ads that mock Microsoft's "It Ain't Vista If We Change the Name" commercials.

The PC in question had gotten itself stuck in an infinite update loop. Microsoft, knowing that their product was a buggy miasma of poor design and egregiously bad quality control, built in the ability for updates (aka fixes that they finally got around to, long after the horse had left the barn) to be applied to a home PC over the internet. And, knowing that most people would answer 'No' out of a fear of unknown consequences when prompted by the PC for permission to install an update, they made it totally automatic. All of which works just fine, except when it doesn't. In this case, Windows would start up by saying that it was applying update 3 of 3, and that it was 0% done with that. And 0% was all you got, no matter how long you waited. It would eventually restart itself, only for the cycle to repeat.

I had hoped that it would be an easy fix. Microsoft, in one of their rare nods to the fact that things aren't always as they should be in the reboot process, provides a thing called "Safe Boot" that ostensibly bypasses all of the things that could be causing the start process to fail, resulting in a 'clean' windows boot up. I use Safe Boot a lot when PCs have picked up obnoxious, performance-degrading viruses that can only be removed before they get a chance to start. I thought that it might be as simple as booting into Safe Mode, finding the command that was instructing the 3 of 3 update to apply itself, and disabling that command. No such luck, however: the update tried to run even in a Safe Boot. I suspect that they're doing something nefarious like creating a new boot sector on the hard drive, but I have no evidence of that. [embellishment]And given that the last person to investigate it was founding floating in Lake Sammamish just a few miles from Microsoft's corporate HQ in Redmond, WA well....[/embellishment] I'm just going to let it go.

The remainder of the day was spent using a combination of Google quests, repeated reboots, creative swearing, and the sacrifice of what turned out to be a non-virginal chicken. That last thing would have worked if it hadn't been for that SOB rooster....

Eventually the problem was solved via the brute force method of completely reinstalling Vista. 'Twas not easy; no install disk was provided. More Googling, a BitTorrent (whatever that is) download of a .iso image (huh??), and a DVD burned with the downloaded .iso got the ball rolling, though. At the tail end of all that is the actual installation. The install is followed with a couple of hours of setting various configurations to turn off the annoying and intrusive nag screens that are the most readily obvious Blight 'O Vista, find and enter the ever elusive email password that Outlook normally remembers for you (so you don't have to, and don't), and most importantly, the disabling of automatic Windows updates. Sorry, Mr. Gates, but you aren't to be trusted with automatic updates again. Ever.

The upshot of all of this is that the newly repaired PC was 70-some miles from home. And how on Earth was I going to deliver the better-than-new PC to its owner without spending 3 1/2 hours on the road? Need you ask???

Consider the Weather-out-the-Window(tm) forecast for Saturday morning:

Winds calm, sky clear, and 34 degrees F (238 degrees Sled Dog) forecast to reach the mid-40s. Yes, the falling barometer indicated both rain and a sinus headache in the near future, but I still thought that it was time for the Geek Squad to have its own Air Force! I thought the temps would warm up a little bit around 10:00, so there was no morning rush to get to the airport. Dressed in the same layers of clothes as last week, it was actually almost pleasant to be outside doing the preflight after the sun had had some time to warm things up. The 'almost' qualifier refers to the fact that my hands were still pretty cold. I wear a set of thin harness racers gloves:

The gloves are about the weight of golf gloves. I like them for their thinness because there are a lot of small knobs, buttons, and switches to deal with in the airplane. That same thinness makes them a bit less useful outside in the cold, though. I made a mental note that it's time to start bringing two sets of gloves with me. I would have been OK if I had just been doing a routine pre-flight, but I also spent a few minutes getting the video camera mounted. I tried a new way of securing the tripod today to see if it would reduce some of the vibration that I got the last time I flew with the mounted camera. There's only so much shaking that I'm going to be able to insulate the camera from, though. I guess that's just the cost of the vibration inherent in a conical mount Lycoming.

Papa was already nice and warm in the hangar since he was still on the oil pre-heater from the last time we flew, so once the pre-flight was out of the way I saddled up and put the key to him. I used three shots of prime and that resulted in a three blade start. A fourth shot would more than likely resulted in the half blade start that is more typical of him. Still, he was in a perky and ready-to-go mood. The colder air seems to give him a few more horsepower and we were soon seeing a 1,500 fpm climb at an indicated 120 mph.

Papa and I had a beautiful flight out to KVES where we delivered and set up the repaired PC (which, of course, didn't work at first and needed another 10 minutes of swearing to fix), went out to a huge lunch at the Fairlawn, and let Faygo take us for a walk to work off some of the excess calories from the huge plate of food at the Fairlawn.

The Fairlawn is a pretty interesting place. It is essentially a steak house that was frozen in time sometime around the Rat Pack era. Just compare these signs:

Photo Copyright this dude who does some very good work.

The interior too reflects an earlier time. Deep red leather booths, comfortable, heavy wood chairs surrounding Formica covered tables, deep carpet, faded pictures hanging on the walls, and a menu with a long list of hearty American foods served in huge, very reasonably priced portions.

And good, too!

The flight back to Bolton was every bit as smooth and enjoyable as the flight out. I took some video over Piqua; I wonder how many people that have only seen it from the ground know how scenic their waterfront is. With the plane light and me flying solo, I even took the opportunity for a little air work.

Just before calling the tower to report over Lilly Chapel (obligatory "No, I don't think I will ever get over Lilly Chapel"), I heard another plane report in at five miles west of the airport. That put him three miles ahead of me, right at my twelve o'clock. Since chances are usually pretty good that I'm flying the faster of the two planes, I went ahead and throttled Papa back to a more sedate (and typical of other airplanes) speed of 120 mph. The tower (and I gotta tell you, I appreciated this) called the other plane to tell him that I was also incoming, three miles behind him.

He replied, "Ok, we should be well ahead of him."

Well then. It only took a little restraint, but note that it did require some restraint, to keep my right hand from reaching back up to the throttle to resume our 145 knot approach just so I could reach the downwind right behind him. I mean after all, who in their right mind insults the speed capabilities of a Van's RV?? As it turned out, 120 mph was just right and we were abeam the numbers on right base as he turned a short final.

The landing should have been a greaser, but was rather pretty sloppy. The flare and touchdown were fine, but I must have carried too much speed into it; as I started to apply the brakes, the nose dipped. Releasing the brakes and putting a little more back pressure on the stick immediately resolved it, so quickly that you might not even be able to see it on the video. That would be been fine, but I also managed to get a pretty healthy swerve to the right into the mix as well. I think a score of '6' would be generous, but it was better than a '5'. Either way, it was nothing to be proud of.



  1. Looks like you had a good one! I ended up having a dead battery in MFD which delayed my departure about 2.5 hours. I was hoping to see Papa Golf with the Geek Squad logo prominently displayed on the side. (Time to exercise GIMP!) Also, instead of horse gloves, you should get some of these babies...

  2. Great trip and computer report Dave. As always I appreciate the excellent photos. In a moment of internet Karma the mighty Gods of internetedness (right click add to dictionary )deemed that my word verification would be "inteldi "...thus the Gods have spoken!

  3. Dave,
    Are you practicing to be a controller? Man you talk fast! :)
    Just kidding, great video, thanks for sharing!

  4. Josh -

    LOL, I noticed that too. It doesn't sound that fast in my head, though. I think it's a carry over from IFR training. Now that I've noticed it, though, I'm going to concentrate on slowing it down a bit.

  5. I enjoyed the video and the trip, but I kept wondering who was filming. Then I saw the dog and thought, "Aha!"