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What steps can I take to determine the cause of the failure?

It's a dual boot system. I can boot into windows fine. I can boot Xubuntu using the recovery image though it is very very slow and it gets to the lovely blue landscape login screen. Enter user name and password and then I get a mouse pointer and a fullscreen light blue background while the hard drive makes lots of noises but nothing ever happens.

Are there any tricks to help me figure out what is going on? Logs I can look at?

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Turned out to be a dying drive and forced fsck interaction. Live disk boot - copy data - order a new drive. – srboisvert Sep 4 '09 at 13:44
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Look at the output of the dmesg command and look at logs in /var/log/.

If you boot-up is as slow as you describe, errors will most likely show up in the dmesg command output. This command shows the kernel output from your current boot.

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It looks like something strange is going on with my linux partition. There is constant drive noise almost like a clock ticking even while doing nothing. There are DRDY timeout messages and iostat shows that my CPU is spending 68% of it's time waiting in iowait. fsck had a few errors but the problem is persisting even though they are now fixed. – srboisvert Aug 23 '09 at 19:38
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If your HDD has SMART capabilities, follow the instructions here to find out if your drive is inching towards failure: superuser.com/questions/23112/intermittent-hdd-problems/… . If I were in your position, I'd be backing up my data about now. There seem to be others with similar problems on the Ubuntu forum: ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=937872 – nagul Aug 23 '09 at 20:36
    
And then it just went away. I have no clue why. Odd. – srboisvert Aug 23 '09 at 22:40
    
smartmontools is reporting some UNC sectors and some googling is showing that the Toshiba drive MK8025GAS has some strange issues that match some errors that show up in the logs: [ 45.012000] ata1.00: exception Emask 0x0 SAct 0x0 SErr 0x0 action 0x2 frozen [ 45.012000] ata1.00: cmd c8/00:08:f0:a4:14/00:00:00:00:00/e7 tag 0 cdb 0x1e data 4096 in [ 45.012000] res 40/00:03:00:00:20/00:00:00:00:00/b0 Emask 0x4 (timeout) Not sure where to go from here. – srboisvert Aug 23 '09 at 23:00

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