i certainly appreciate your grasping at straws. the answer is yes, i am using a good copy of XP Pro (enterprise). i have used NLite to slipstream SP3 into the mix, so that isnt the issue (although i didnt think about it before). i hope microsoft doesnt kill me, but just as a test i used the same USB stick to install XP on a friends box and it worked just fine. i had no problems with hal.dll files or anything. he wants to dual-boot XP and ubuntu (yes he has his own copy of windows). i took SPECIFIC care to make sure i followed the rule of 3 firsts for windows; first drive, first primary partition, first OS. it worked for him with ubuntu and XP, so i am confident in the installability of this version.
now here is an update:
ERD Commander on USB works like a briliiant charm. it installs very nicely and runs perfectly.
i was able to find my /dev/sda on my mini with ERD commander, and when i opened disk manager it told me that my partitions were unhealthy. so i formatted the linux partitions off of the drive and set it up with NTFS. and just to make sure, i deleted that partition and formatted to NTFS again. when i tried to reinstall XP on the drive.
it gives me a better error this time though. there error is the please replace hal.dll. better than not being able to read from the drive.
the next step is to copy all of the files inside the system32 folder of an operational machine and put them on my drive. i know that this is not a viable method to get an OS to work, but maybe the hal.dll file for the copy of windows that i am using actually is messed up. im sure it isnt because it worked fine before, but just in case. i have hacked it up with NLite so maybe it did something that the OS didnt like.
i dont know anything for sure. i just know that this problem is quite complex and i hope i solve it.