ok, reporting back...
-> booted from the NEW CD (verified iso)
-> got to Ubuntu Splash Screen
-> selected the English language
-> hit enter on "Try Ubuntu without any changes to your computer"
I held my breath as nothing appeared to have happened...
then a few seconds later I got the white-on-black loading screen for 9.10 !
The live boot seemed to work fine and I was able to start GParted (so far) w/o any issues. That box doesn't have any net atm so i'm posting back from the windows box.
Anyway... The moral of the story /style='rnbw' (Rocky and Bullwinkle style) is:
"Always check your checksum" or "Just because nothing blows up doesn't mean it's ok" (no obvious errors != your .iso works)