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first I confirmed the usr and group accounts for mysql... all was well
then I downloaded the mysql standard 4.0.13 and ran the installer...
then at terminal
sudo ./scripts/mysql_install_db... this looked like it worked...plenty of information came by, including an admonishment to change password for root...then some more commands at the terminal
sudo chown -R mysql:mysql data....
sudo ./bin/safe_mysqld --user=mysqld &
it reports back
Starting mysqld daemon with databases from /usr/local/mysql/data
030716 16:10:49 mysqld ended
something sure doesn't seem right
I am guessing that what went wrong was that I attempted to install mySql on top of a version of mySql which was running and that none of the recovery steps posted could save the mess.
Unless someone pipes in with a better suggestion, my reaction to this problem in the future will be the clean install.... it takes less than an hour and so compares very favorably with the day and a half I spent trying to recover.
Marc Liyanage's "Cleanup Instructions for old MySQL versions" fixed the trouble. He's got a little shell script that deletes all the old MySQL files that might mess things up.
Glad I didn't have to do a system reinstall...