JM and Clair's visit last Thursday evening came up with one conclusion regarding my hard drive: It's been screwed up, and it's been screwed up bad. Needless to say, a Linux Live CD didn't help much, although it confirmed the negative state of the drive.
My next step was to try PC Inspector File Recovery, a piece of free software that's supposed to help recover any lost files in any problematic drive, even ones that have been deleted or formatted completely. Seeing as it was a 20 GB hard drive that we were talking about, PC Inspector asked for a ten-hour analysis, which I duly granted. The next morning, all that the program had to show for its efforts was a 1.5 MB block of illegible data, and I immediately wrote it off as untranslatable.
At that point, I figured that perhaps the best thing to do was to look around the Net in case anyone had run into the problem in the past. (JM had suggested this last Thursday evening, and in hindsight, this should have been the first thing I did. Panic does strange things to people sometimes.)
After about a couple of hours of Googling, I figured that the problem lay in the File Allocation Table (FAT) designation. You see, whenever you save a file, your computer splits it up into a lot of different pieces and places those shards around its storage system. The FAT is technically the one that keeps track of exactly where all these bits and pieces are. (Yes, this explanation is in layman's terms. Bear with me, people.) Now, there are various FAT versions, and my hard drive was presumably using a 32-bit one, which is common for most hard drives nowadays.
Last Thursday evening, both utilities detected my hard drive's FAT as being 12-bit, which was definitely not good. A FAT-12, you see, is the usual version for diskettes.
Most solutions I found involved booting up the lost drive via MS-DOS or a Windows installer CD, then correcting the specific file containing the FAT designation. The trouble was that I couldn't access any of the files in the hard drive to begin with, which implied that there was another complication to the problem.
Finally I brought my unfortunate PC to the shop, where they set up and ran everything that they could. The Windows Recovery Utility did nothing -- it couldn't even detect the drive itself. PowerQuest Partition Magic performed a lot better, as it was able to detect the drive and provide an accurate summary of its size and expected FAT.
Some hours later, however, even Partition Magic was forced to give up when it encountered nothing but errors and more errors in its bid to save my files. The truth of the situation eventually dawned on all of us when the software finally slapped the most appropriate of all labels on its analysis: BAD DRIVE.
At that point, seeing that there was most likely nothing else that could be done, I made the decision to reformat. The thoroughbred had broken both legs coming down the home stretch, and all that we could do was get the shotgun.
So now I'm writing this on a brand-new 20 GB hard drive, and my old drive is now sitting pretty in its secondary position. Ironically, we're planning to use it purely for data storage from this point onwards, although we're probably not going to be stingy about the backups this time.
Interestingly enough, that means that I've got a total of 40 GB of pristine, unused free space around here. I suppose that, in a sense, my computer's gotten the chance to start over. No excess programs, no nested viruses, no adware. Pure tabula rasa.
Now, what to do with all this space...