On the Care and Feeding of Digital Devices

A woman came into the shop the other day, obviously frustrated, even upset. She had two laptop computers that weren’t working. Both were older machines. One simply would not start, and the other had, apparently, a broken DC connector (the device that carries power into the laptop from an AC adapter.) One computer appeared to have a failed mainboard, making it non-repairable at a reasonable price. The other computer was marginal because of the likely hefty labor cost to fix. I agreed to keep both machines and use them as a credit for a replacement laptop. The lady was complaining bitterly about the computer with the failed mainboard, claiming that it had been trouble from the very beginning. I was a little surprised, being familiar with that particular model and knowing that it had a pretty good reputation for reliability. Well, I thought, these things happen.

The customer settled on a newer refurbished Dell model, paid and left. The following day she called me and said that the computer would not start. The lights were on but the screen was dark. Plus it would not shut down. Oh great–just what I want to hear.

But through a series of questions I determined that the actual situation was this: She had been using the computer at a public wireless access point, and had then put the computer away in its bag without first shutting it down. She had just closed the lid. Meanwhile, the laptop kept running, got hot in the enclosed space of the bag and locked up due to overheating. It had not been set to go into standby mode when its lid was closed. (Standby is a special low-power state).

This explains things, I thought. That’s most likely why her one laptop was a source of so much trouble for her. She probably never, ever actually shut it down. She just closed the lid and forgot about it. Meanwhile the laptop was running the whole time and she didn’t even know it.

I am perhaps a tad unreasonable on this subject, but my opinion is this: If you aren’t going to use an appliance (like a computer) for a while, SHUT IT OFF. At the end of every day, I power off all my computers, printers, monitors, test equipment, anything that draws power. Not only that, I turn off the surge protectors they are plugged into so that the devices receive no current whatsoever. The reasoning is this:  less energy wasted, less chance of damage due to a power surge, less heat that has to be removed by the AC system–a major consideration what with our lengthy warm season here in central Texas. The only downside is that I have to wait maybe 60 seconds for the systems to power on in the morning. Even on the busiest day, I can spare 60 seconds.

Somehow the idea has gotten entrenched in the public mind that it is damaging to computers and other electronic devices to turn them off and on. At some level this is potentially true, because there is an initial thermal shock as power floods through the cold circuits when you hit the start button. But it’s OK, they can take it. Modern electronic devices are designed to handle thousands of startup/shutdown cycles. Look at it this way: If you follow the conventional reasoning, then you should never turn off the lights, never turn off your television or stereo, never turn off your car’s engine (90% of engine wear takes place in the first half-second of operation). Obviously that would be just silly. By not turning off unused electronic devices, you trade the small possibility of a slightly shortened lifespan for the device for the certainty that a lot of energy will be wasted. And that’s not a very good bargain. So if you aren’t going to use that computer for a while, go ahead–turn it off.

Security 2010 Continues to Wreak Havoc

Since January, the Internet has been bombarded with the latest iteration of the Security 2010 scareware, with fresh outbreaks coming every few days. This blog has written previously about  it.

This malware is the latest generation of a family of rogue software known by many names going back to at least 2006. The basic MO remains the same: On startup an infected computer’s desktop is taken over by a legitimate-looking program that seems to be finding all manner of malware. As this is unfolding, the software also declares that the computer has been hacked and that the user’s identity is at risk of being stolen, among other messages. The software almost completely monopolizes the system, essentially making it unusable. The hook comes when the program informs you that to get rid of the problem, all you have to do is to register this trial version. Simply click on this link (and pay $49.99) . . .

The perpetrators of this scam have so far kept things fresh by releasing new variants every few days to stay ahead of traditional, database-based antiviral programs. These variants continue to add charming new features, such as routines that block or hide all other executables, layered service protocols that block network activity (except a connection to their server to process payment), and the ability to run in safe mode. Some variants apparently block safe-mode operation altogether. New Vista-specific versions are beginning to gain traction as well. Up to now, primarily machines running Windows XP have been affected.

The infection usually occurs when the user interacts with a bogus (but official-looking) security alert claiming to have found malware. These messages may appear when the user visits a compromised website. ANY interaction with this message typically triggers a surreptitious download of the infectious software. The only safe way to close such a message is to use the task manager (ctrl-alt-delete). Internet connections not filtered through a router are especially at risk.

The reach and sophistication of this scam are surprising and disturbing. Millions of users have been infected, many more than once, and the end is nowhere in sight.

Missed Callings

The phone message, left by by an obviously irritated male caller, was brief and to the point: “The only way to get through to you is to send a (bleeping) message because you’re never around to answer the (bleeping) phone. Well forget it–I’m going to take my business somewhere else.” The tone of voice was borderline hostile with hints of insulting.

I had heard the call when it came in, on a Saturday about lunchtime, but had chosen not to answer because the special ring identified it as anonymous. It was an easy call (no pun intended). At Computer Medic we generally don’t answer unknown or anonymous calls for all the usual reasons. It’s policy. We are hardly alone in this.  It is, in fact,  a very common (and common-sense) policy.

Apparently, this fellow had called previously, although he had never bothered to leave a message or a callback number.  This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened to us. Over the years this scenario has been repeated often enough for us to recognize it as a syndrome. The callers are almost always male, young to early middle age. The messages usually include a profanity or two, and never, ever include a callback number. Most of the time, the caller clearly intends to be insulting.  Based on what they say and how they say it,  I can only surmise that these people are expecting special treatment, and are annoyed at not getting it. Unfortunately, we’ve learned the hard way that people who expect special treatment tend to be difficult customers.

Then of course there is always the odd case. Once, an anonymous caller left a message saying, “I realize you’re probably not answering because of the blocked number. I’m sorry, but I just got this phone and somehow turned on that feature by accident and can’t figure out how to turn it off.  I’ll call you back in five minutes.” I answered the second call, we had a good conversation, and he turned out to be a pretty good customer. And we figured out how to turn off the number block.

So if you call from an anonymous number and we don’t answer, please don’t take it personally. It’s just policy. Just leave us a callback number and we’ll get back to y0u.