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SapphireSteeel Software

 

 

February 2006

Locked in a darkened elevator, Huw muses upon crashed discs - of the both PC and Martian variety...

 

I was once trapped inside a lift stuck between floors in the offices of a London publishing house. From the other side of the firmly locked doors I could hear the sound of people running and screaming, “Emergency! Emergency! Evacuate the Building!”

  Isn't it amazing how some trivial little thing like a power cut or the Martian Invasion can cause such panic...

I assumed, naturally, that either there was a fire somewhere or that the Martians had finally landed. In either case, I decided that I would really rather not be stuck inside a darkened lift. Based on a lifelong study of Hollywood thrillers, I knew at once that there were two courses of action open to me. Either I could push open a trapdoor in the top of the lift, climb up the elevator shaft, kill the Martians, put out the fire, save Shelley Winters and get the girl or else I could bang on the door like a sissy screaming “Get me out! Get me out! For God’s sake, someone, get me out!”

I chose the second option.

You wouldn’t believe how sound-proof they make those lifts! For what seemed liked hours, I banged, screamed, blubbered, yelled and attracted not the slightest attention from anyone. Mind you, this was probably due to the noise of the assembled multitudes screaming “The Martians have wiped out Basingstoke! The Tripods are in Oxford Street! Where’s a policeman when you need one…?” and similarly cheerful exclamations guaranteed to raise the spirits of a hysterical computer journalist all alone in an elevator with nothing but a blood-crazed axe murderer for company (in retrospect, I suspect the axe-murderer may have been a figment of my fevered imagination, but, well, you get my drift).

Crash, Bang, Wallop!

People who live in big cities such as London regard power cuts as exotic and arcane events for which, like the Martian Invasion, they are ill prepared. People who live in the far wilds of the countryside, as I do now, regard power cuts as inevitable events which, like bee stings and cowpats, are an inescapable part of daily life.

Even so, sometimes they can take you unawares. Last week, for example. I was half way through typing this very column (well, actually, it was then a very different column for reasons which shall shortly become apparent) when, bam! the lights went out, the computer screen went black and the dog went woof! (this last circumstance was unconnected with the preceding two – she was going woof! anyway, but I thought I’d add it for atmospheric effect).

This, it turned out, was one of those all-too-frequent power cuts which last precisely three-seconds. Just long enough to reboot your PC. Except, on this occasion, the PC did not reboot. It chugged, it whirred and, eventually, it displayed a screenful of inscrutable options , suggesting that I try to run Windows in varying degrees of 'safe mode' - none of which, when attempted, succeeded. In the old days I would have stuck in a floppy disc at this point and booted to a command prompt. These days my PC has no floppy disc drive so I used the Windows Installation CD instead to run the Recovery Consol to let me get to a prompt. This didn’t get me as far as I’d hoped. When I tried to log onto the C:\ drive I discovered that all my files and directories had disappeared. Gone! Vanished! Kaput! Every last one of 'em! In desperation, I tried to run Chkdsk – the Microsoft tool which, since the glory days of MS DOS, has been the final hope of damaged disks. But Chkdsk just moaned that it couldn’t find something called Autochk.exe and, in its absence, it simply refused to play.

By this point I was getting ready to grit my teeth and reformat my hard disk. With no files, no directories and no Chkdsk – what else could I do? However, for someone who remembers to backup as infrequently as I do, reformatting a hard disk is not an operation to be undertaken lightly. Before finally throwing in the towel, I ransacked the heaps of Microsoft CDs and DVDs which are tucked into the pages of P G Wodehouse novels, used as nice shiny coasters under cups of cold coffee and generally scattered hither and thither around my office. I eventually tracked down that pesky Autochk.exe to a somewhat less than obvious location deep within the \english\winxp\dbg_chk\i386 directory on disk number 2428.8 of my collection of MSDN DVDs. Maybe there is some easier way to find it but, if so, I don’t know what it is…

Not feeling particularly optimistic, I nevertheless decided to let Chkdsk and Autochk have one last try at rescuing whatever scraps of data still might linger in some dark corner of my poor, sick hard disk. Chkdsk started whirring away and, three hours later, it was still whirring. It was well after midnight by this time so I let it carry on whirring throughout the night. By the breakfast time it had finished whirring. It had also restored my disk to its pre-crash state of smiling health. The directories were there, the files were there. As far as I can see, not a single piece of data was missing. Apart from this column (or, anyway, its late predecessor), which, foolishly, I had forgotten to save.

While I am pleasantly surprised (amazed, to be honest) that Chkdsk fixed the disk, I am left wondering why Chkdsk is not one of the standard options presented to the user when Windows fails to load. I imagine there must be many users who, having tried and failed to load Windows using the Safe Mode options which are suggested, end up needlessly reformatting their hard disk.

And Finally…

I made a very neat discovery this month. If you have a Blog, maybe you’d like to display the latest entries on some other page – say, an ordinary ‘static’ HTML page such as the front page of a web site. At first sight, there is no way of doing this. Blog entries are normally managed and displayed by a scripting language such as PHP which builds and displays web pages on the fly and will have nothing to do with ordinary HTML pages.


With RSS2HTML you can easily syndicate your Blog or anything else that has an RSS feed by putting the latest headlines (similar to the above) on static web pages.

In fact, just as long as your Blog produces an RSS feed (as most do) you can, with the help of a free PHP script called RSS2HTML from http://www.feedforall.com, extract the headlines or text of your Blog posts and display them on a regular web page. There are various ways of doing this. You can, for instance, host the script on your own site for optimum efficiency (assuming your web host provides PHP). Alternatively, you can run the script from the FeedForAll site. I’ve used this script on the feed from a 1980s music site which I run as a hobby. The RSS feed is generated automatically by a Pivot Blog and is then displayed on the front pages of two other sites. Great stuff!

The downside of this script is that its template system is a bit complicated to understand for complete web novices and hosting the script locally may require a bit of technical knowledge about things such as PHP, SSI and SHTML. For a simpler alterative, you could extract headlines from an RSS feed using the Feed2JS PHP JavaScript tool. This is very simple to use – it just takes a simple code cut-and-paste to get it working – but it can be quit slow to execute and display the list.

If you want to be the first to get out the news of the Martian Invasion, these are the tools for the job...


Copyright © 2009 Dark Neon Ltd. Not to be reproduced without permission.


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