If it were just a random open/close but otherwise worked, I'd suspect a virus or something had snuck past my firewall, anti-virus and anti-adware setup. But with all that other weirdness, I'm stymied. Anyone else out there ever hear of this sort of thing?
It's a Philips DVD-+RW DVD8631, in a machine purchased in Dec. 2004. From Googling that data, I've discovered that many people who purchased a Dell around that time with that drive have had problems, but usually just with it not reading/writing discs. Running Dell's patch to flash the drive typically works in that case. People who bought a machine with a drive manufactured a year later generally haven't had those problems.
It's still under warranty, so I've been chatting with Dell (I'm on my third tech now; I've talked to Navneet, Gunjan, and Baninder so far, so I'm going out on a limb and guessing that they're all in the India call center). Flashed the drive, so now it can at least technically can read discs, if I can get one to stay in and be steated properly.
Thankfully, I can still read discs if I need to, as the machine has two drives, and the upper one works just fine. I just can't burn any on this machine.
Update: Tech #3 has just agreed to send me a replacement drive. Now I just have to convince him that my zip code really is my zip code and that I'm not a scammer, because the zip code changed July 1 and the new one still isn't yet recognized as a valid zip code by most systems. -sigh-
Update 2: Gave him the old zip code, and his system accepted that. Thankfully, the old one will still work for the rest of the year. Should have a new drive in 1-2 business days, and then I just have to install it. I'm not a "build your own machine from scratch" wiz like some of you are, but I've replaced a hard drive before, so this shouldn't be all that different.
Feudalism: Serf & Turf