Sunday, October 16, 2005

How Not to Clean a Hard Drive (or, the final antivirus solution)

I must confess, I learned a lot over the weekend.

A little background.

I chase tornadoes. For fun. I have a gi-normous Ford Excursion, equipped with all sorts of gadgets that help my chasing experience, including my laptop (for GPS, etc., saving up for a MobileThreatNet system).

No, I didn't get it wet. Well, not exactly.

My wife and I took the kids to the State Fair Thursday night. Before the trip, I took my laptop off its perch between the driver's and passenger's seat, and carefully placed it in the back of the Excursion, face-down to protect the screen. Done it before. No problem.

Friday night, enjoying a rare string of three nights that my wife didn't have to work, she and I went out to eat, then made a quick stop by Wal-Mart. I probably should mention that we had originally intended to take her car, but my 16-year-old son managed to beg her out of the keys so he could go to Homecoming "in style." Anyway, as we left the store with our purchases, everything seemed quite normal. Indeed, disaster was looming large, albeit just beyond our limited scope of vision.

We loaded our packages, and set off towards home. The time was about 11:00 p.m. We were an hour from home.

Among our parcels was a couple of car-deodorizer canisters, the kind with the gel in the bottom that smells really good when the car's nice and hot, so that you feel like you're in a magically scented oven, rather than a conventional oven when you climb in. About ten minutes into our trip, I noticed a scent that I presumed may have eminated from one of the supposedly sealed canisters. My wife put my concerns to rest, as the canisters were both sealed, in small bags we had arranged on the back seat.

Riding home, the scent persisted, and I was sure something had come open, but I couldn't discern the particular aroma as belonging to anything we had purchased. I contemplated stopping and checking everything, but figured it wasn't really worth the time, trouble, and risk involved in stopping on the side of interstate at nearly midnight.

When we got home, we unlocked the house and I reached into the back to start retrieving our bags. The scent was particularly strong, and I readily discovered that it eminated from a bottle of ultra-super-mega-concentrated Dawn dishwashing liquid (Apple scent, no less) whose top had lodged in a fold of the bag just enough to partially open the top. No problem--I had, after all, bought a deodorizer for my truck, so this would let me delay the deployment of the brave little canister.

My first inkling that not all was well came when I moved the bag that contained the leaking bottle and revealed my laptop, still attached to the jotto-desk top, still upside-down, with some of the green soapy goo on the jotto desk. I actually didn't panic, but rather thought it good that the jotto desk was there, so the soap didn't get into my laptop, but probably just ran over the back, where its effects on the various ports and such would be limited. A quick wipe-off with first a dry paper towel or two, then a couple damp ones and a drying pass would make it all good as new, with a shiny spot on the laptop to boot. I picked up the laptop, observed that quite a lot of the stuff had run down the back and sat it on my kitchen counter with some concern, but honestly not that much.

After completing the unloading task, I attended my laptop. I looked again at the jotto desk, and realized that the actual area where the dishwashing liquid had dripped was between a couple channels in the bottom of the jotto desk in which were slots for some unpurchased and therefore unattached accessories. These slots, as the sharp mind would have deduced by now, allowed said dishwashing detergent to readily penetrate the cooling ports on the bottom of my upside-down-for-protection's-sake laptop.

Surely, I mused, not enough actually got into the thing to severely damage anything, did it? As I opened the laptop and observed the puddle of detergent on the screen, I had my answer. I immediately seized my precision screwdriver set and removed the battery pack. Continuing, I went through, carefully wiping off the green goo from the removable drives and the outer case. I pulled the keyboard off and pulled out the backup lithium button battery. Moving to the bar, I started disassembling in earnest. Pulling the fan/heat sink assembly, processor, memory, and other various components, I got down to opening the case for access to the bottom side of the motherboard. There was a curious foam eminating from some of the power-supply circuitry.

I feared the worst, but not to be dissuaded, I continued disassembling and wiping. When I had it down to the smallest parts not attached with solder, I pondered the possibilities, then decided water, whilst not particularly friendly to energized circuitry, it was probably better than trying to power-up the system with so much detergent still in all the nooks and crannies of the board. So I began washing each item, trying to get every bit of soap off of every piece.

I'll hearken back to my original description of the detergent. This wasn't a bargain-store bottle of "Dishwashing Liquid" brand detergent--it was the extra-super-mega-ultra-any-other-superlative-adjetive-concentrated Dawn. The stuff is formulated such that oh, about two drops is sufficient to completely and thoroughly clean a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

About three hours and more bubbles than Lawrence Welk saw in his entire career later, I had all the pieces laid out to dry.

The next morning, I was quite pleased that there was no water nor detergent left on any of the components, and I reassembled the computer. Every screw went in the right place, no spare parts--a good sign.

I tenatively plugged the adapter in. No smoke or sparks--a very good sign. Then came the moment of truth. I pushed the power button.




Not even a faint flicker of life. No fan spin, no light flickering.

My laptop was dead.

Well, after a few more hours (and a significant unplanned expenditure), I was the proud owner of a brand-new Sony Vaio laptop. It's so much better in so many ways than my old one, that it's hard to be awfully upset, but it was a major setback to some of my other financial goals.

I began this post by saying that I learned a lot this weekend, and the most significant thing I learned is that I can suffer an absurdly bizarre turn of events that cost me a large sum of money and not lose my cool. My wife even remarked that she was amazed at my demeanor. I suppose it struck me as so outlandish that I found it nearly humorous. I've also learned a particularly devious means to sabotage a laptop, if ever the necessity arises.

Lastly, I've learned that when the Dawn commercials claim that "a capful cleans a sinkful," they ain't bullshittin'.

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