How was your Easter break? I spent a good portion of my four-day weekend fighting a ransomware attack.
My boss’s computer at the art gallery (not at my other job) is still running Windows XP while connected to the Internet. This is, no joke, a terrible idea. But they are a not-for-profit organization with very little money—she is finally getting a modern computer in May.
Not soon enough. Last week her computer was hit by CryptoWall 3.0, the beefier descendant of CryptoWall 2.0, which was hitting computers last April. Seems like this is going to be an annual event. This ransomware is so pernicious it has been hitting police departments in the United States, with some of them even paying the criminals because they had no other way to retrieve their files.
Ransomware is exactly what the name describes. It is a pernicious virus that infects your computer, disables as much security as possible, and then it encrypts your files so you can’t access them until you pay its masters for the decryption key. If you refuse to pay, then tough. It’s RSA encryption: you can’t just brute-force your way past it and get your files back. The only hope is if you have backups.
Of course my boss doesn’t have backups. Don’t be silly.
This is one (maybe the only) situation in which my boss’s technophobia and complete distrust of the computer worked in her favour. She lost her files, yes, but very little on her computer was mission-critical. Her paper-based filing is meticulous enough to reconstruct anything she lost. She mostly uses her computer for email and web browsing, and the occasional word processing that she then files in hard copy. None of this is an excuse for not having backups, mind you—it just means that damage of not having backups is slightly mitigated in her case.
For those of us who work at the front desk, the most mission critical file was a custom Access database I had built to manage our consignment artist inventory. (And my boss actually admitted that was probably the most important file, period.) Losing it would be a blow. While I had configured automated backups of the file on her computer, I had never set up remote backups. I was more interested in preserving the database in case we broke something (because it’s Access, so I don’t trust it) than in case the computer itself turned against us. That was a mistake. Then again, I am not the gallery’s IT guy; this was not my bailiwick.
There was one, tiny, infinitesimal sliver of hope left: file recovery.
I read on the Internet (that trustworthy source of all information) that CryptoWall doesn’t actually encrypt the original file; rather, it copies the file, encrypts the copy, and deletes the original. Ah-hah. So there is a possibility that a file recovery program might be able to recover the files. It seems that CryptoWall 3.0 might not work this way, but I had nothing to lose by giving it a try.
I also held out hope such a recovery program would turn up a deleted backup of the consignment database. (The backup script only kept the backups around for 90 days, and recovering a copy from January or February was a perfectly acceptable outcome for us. This is, in fact, what happened.)
First I tried Recuva. I swear by CCleaner, so I thought that Piriform would have my back. Unfortunately, despite its best efforts, it couldn’t turn up anything recoverable or useful.
Then I found PhotoRec/TestDisk, a pair of free and open-source programs maintained by Christophe Grenier. These did the trick. They recovered a lot of deleted files—few of them, unfortunately, relevant to us any more. But I did get back several deleted copies of the database, including a very recent backup. So there’s that.
My boss was good enough to offer to pay me for some of the time I put into this. (In addition to working on it while I worked on the weekend, I installed TeamViewer Host on her computer and worked on it remotely from home. I love TeamViewer. So much.) I wasn’t enthusiastic—after all, I didn’t do all that much—but she pointed out that it was pay me minimum wage or call their IT guy in for nearly ten times that amount. So … yeah. I’m going to donate some of that money to PhotoRec/TestDisk, however—people like Grenier who make such vital software and then release it for free deserve support.
In the end, I learned a lot about file recovery, ransomware, and the folly of running XP on the Internet. I really hope the gallery puts a backup strategy in place (they probably won’t), and I’m looking forward to my boss getting a new computer (even though it means I will have to teach her how to use it). Ransomware is a particularly troubling type of malware, because unlike a regular virus, it doesn’t just seize surreptitious control of your computer’s resources; it actually deprives you of access to your files. It hits like lightning and cannot be circumvented afterwards—if you don’t prevent it, backups are your only line of defence.
Yesterday my laptop power adapter died. It was fine all day at work, but when I plugged it in after coming home, there was no joy. My computer blithely informed me it was draining its battery, oblivious to the fact that, if I did nothing, it would only have a few hours of life left. I suspect that the adapter was miffed that I was making a big deal of my computer’s fourth anniversary and ignoring it, the real workhorse. No matter how much I wiggled the many and various connections on the adapter, there was no joy. While part of me was freaking out, the rest of me calmly formed a plan to go to Future Shop and spend ten minutes standing awkardly in front of the display of adapters until someone noticed I could use some help. And so, while my plans for a quiet evening reading outside were thrown into disarray, I managed to ensure my computer continues to receive an uninterrupted supply of yummy electricity. You’re welcome.
I‘m sorry, power adapter, for taking you for granted. You are a marvel of physics and engineering, converting day in and day out Tesla’s treacherous AC into Edison’s DC so I can continue downloading adorable captioned photos of cats. Nevertheless, you are really only a minor player in this game; and when you play the game, you win, or you die. Guess which one you chose?
When it comes down to the wire, you are expendable and somewhat easily replaced. My computer, not so much, but even then I can replace parts of it without shedding (many) tears. In the four years that I have owned it, I have had to replace the battery and the keyboard once. The former I bought from another vendor, because Dell charges egregiously for new batteries; the latter, however, came under warranty fewer than 24 hours after I called. That was years ago. Last week I bought a new OEM keyboard on eBay, because the labels on this one are slowly eroding, and one of the Shift keys clicks annoyingly when I press it. I‘m thinking about replacing the battery again too, but I haven’t decided.
Ideally, I want to keep this computer for another year, maybe two. It is starting to show its age, not only in its wear and tear but just in that general sense of impending dread one develops when working with technology: nothing catastrophic has happened yet, but every day brings me one day closer to the inevitable hard drive failure. And there comes a point in every computer owner’s life when he or she realizes it is time to upgrade and move on. We can still cherish and look back fondly on our older computers, but we must also reap the improvements of technology from today.
I admit, though, to being more sentimental about this computer than I ought to be. It’s a Dell Inspiron 6400, by the way, codenamed “serenity” for reasons that are best left between me, Joss Whedon, and everyone else who has watched Firefly. Compared to the fiasco that was my first laptop, a Toshiba Satellite, I cannot be more satisfied. My Toshiba was cranky, and although I had the motherboard replaced twice in under two years, it continued to overheat at the slightest provocation. Serenity runs a little warmer than I‘d like these days (I should probably open it up and clean the fan, but I’m a chicken when it comes to hardware), but never once has this computer overheated. I‘m sure there are plenty people who have had the reverse of my experience with Toshiba and Dell, and of course that is the subjectivity of customer loyalty right there. I’m not sure if I’ll buy another Dell when I finally decide to get a new computer, but I will strongly weigh the option—and likewise, I doubt I will buy a computer from Toshiba again.
So these four years have been plenty of good times with my computer, and I hope for a few years more. One day, I know I will have to let go. But not today. Today, we mourn the loss of my power adapter. It was the original, and it was reliable, and it was totally better than a computer. And no, it’s not reaching from the power adapter afterlife and putting these words in my hand, nor has it somehow managed to override the keys on my keyboard. Power adapters are just awesome, and you should swear your fealty to them before they rise up and take the world by force.
Long live the AC/DC conversion revolution!
My copy of Windows 7 Home Premium arrived on Friday. On Sunday night, I began doing some housekeeping on my computer to prepare for the upgrade: I uninstalled programs I was no longer using, cleaned up unnecessary files, defragmented, etc. To finish it all off, I decided to finally delete that 10 GB recovery partition Dell put on my computer when I bought it. I‘ve never used it and probably will never need it, so I got rid of it.
That was a mistake. Or rather, I didn’t anticipate the problems it would cause, which was my mistake. When I rebooted the computer, rather than faced with the choice of booting Windows Vista or Kubuntu 9.04, I saw “Grub Error 22,” and my heart skipped a beat. I had killed my boot record!
The good news in this situation, of course, was that my filesystem was intact. I cast about for the Kubuntu 9.04 Live CD from which I had installed Jaunty back in April … and couldn’t find it. Fortunately, I did find the CD for Kubuntu 7.10—old, but perfectly usable. I booted into Gutsy Gibbon and verified that yes, my Windows installation was intact. I just couldn’t boot it, and that was the problem I tried to resolve. Alas, I couldn’t get to Grub’s configuration file—I couldn’t access any of my Kubuntu installation. Nor were attempts to reinstall Grub successful. In fact, everything I did seemed to make the situation worse.
So I did what we all do when we hurt our computers: lowered my standards. No longer was “reinstall Grub” on the list; now I would be content to just restore the default Windows boot record. I planned to do a clean install of Kubuntu 9.10 anyway, so I decided that this was no large setback. The instructions for repairing the Windows boot record with my Kubuntu Live CD did not work. I tried the recovery CD I had received from Dell, but it only offered the option to re-install Vista from the factory defaults.
At this point, I remembered that I had a Windows 7 installation DVD sitting on top of my printer. If I had to do a clean install to fix the problem, I might as well install Windows 7. I had backed up all my important Windows data via Kubuntu already, so perhaps this would actually give me a “fresh start.” I booted from the Windows 7 DVD …
… and below the option to install was the option to “repair.” I was elated. Upon selecting this option, I sat back and watched as the DVD searched for a Windows installation, found Vista, detected that the boot record was bad, and asked if I wanted to fix it. After a frantic click of the “Yes!” button, I watched as Windows 7 saved me before I had even installed it.
So I might be a little biased when I agree with those who think Windows 7 is a great operating system.
I performed the actual upgrade on Tuesday night, and as soon as I had persuaded the DVD that my laptop was compatible (it kept on giving me silly error messages) the actual install was a snap. It took about four hours, and when it rebooted, all my data was intact (a plus) and everything worked like it should. So I delved into Windows 7 to discover what I liked and what I didn’t like.
I love the new Libraries feature. It’s a sensible way to collect disparate folders with similar roles. You can completely customize your libraries, and when you combine them with the “jump list” feature from the taskbar, you‘ve got near-instantaneous contextualized access to your files.
Speaking of which, I have mixed feelings about the taskbar. I’m not sure if I like the compacted icons for each active application (I am aware I can disable this layout and use the default, Vista-style one, but I haven’t done this yet). I do like that the Quick Launch bar is gone; you can just “pin” applications to the taskbar like you can do to the Start Menu. Windows 7 has done a lot to reduce redundancy.
I did end up disabling User Account Control. I know, I know, it’s not safe! But it annoyed me to no end only ten minutes into exploring Windows 7. I even tried turning it to the lowest notification setting, but all my attempts at diplomacy failed: UAC was out to get me. So I killed it. I confess. Take me away!
Some of the new icons are a bit ugly, but there’s probably a way to customize that if it’s a dealbreaker for you.
Recall that I actually liked Vista. If you didn’t like Vista, you might need to overcome that hurdle before you warm up to Windows 7, which is essentially Vista on steroids. Still, Windows 7 does address the major problems of Vista—it’s Vista without Vista’s annoying idiosyncrasies. It’s Vista after rehab.
I’m not even going to try to compare Windows 7 with other brands of operating systems. If you’re a steadfast Mac or Linux user, Windows 7 won’t make you change your tune, and I don’t mind. I still hold to the hope that one day I can use Kubuntu more than I use Windows, but until that day comes, it’s good to have a Windows installation that works with me more than it works against me.
Now if you excuse me, I need to go compulsively organize my documents into Libraries… .
Right, so, I have a confession to make. I am a left-shift-key discriminator (or a right-shift-key abuser, your choice).
What is an LSKD (or RSKA)? Simply put, it is someone who uses his or her right shift key almost exclusively when capitalizing letters. Just reverse the terms if you abuse your left shift key.
I learned how to “touch type” (or whatever you want to call it) in grade 4, and I‘m proud of my speed and accuracy on the QWERTY keyboard. I’ve pondered learning something like Colemak, but I don’t have the time to devote to retraining myself, unfortunately.1
Unfortunately, as with most abilities, I‘ve developed some bad habits with typing. The abuse of the right shift key is one that particularly annoys me now. I was taught that you hit the shift key with the opposite hand of the letter you’re capitalizing. So to capitalize “S”, I hit the right shift key; to capitalize “I”, I hit the left shift key—except not so much. I’ve developed this habit of using the right shift key, even on characters on the right side of the keyboard.
This habit has numerous disadvantages: it cramps up my right pinky, wears out my right shift key more, and makes my left hand feel even more dominated by my right hand (just not fair!). I am trying to train myself out of this behaviour, but I fear I am set in my ways.
- [ 1 ] Yes, that is a code phrase for “I’m lazy.” Good catch.
The long night has ended.
Two good events have occurred in the past week to counterbalance this annoying cough that’s plagued me. Firstly, my new computer arrived on the 21st! Secondly, I am now officially done with high school.
With university approaching, I wanted a new computer. My former one, a Toshiba Satellite A70, was … performance-challenged, to say it nicely. It was a nice computer in its own right, but clunky from the start and it did not improve. While it did what you asked, the battery life was poor, and it ran too hot. It would not make a good computer for commuting between university and home. Time to upgrade!
With Seth’s assistance I went through the customization process on Dell’s website and had soon ordered my own Inspiron 6400: Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 160 GB hard drive. Oh, and Windows Vista. It was a tense two and a half weeks waiting for it to arrive. No one was home when the courier came, though, so I had to go pick it up at the depot. Luckily I‘ve got a great boss who let me drop by the depot while I was working to pick up my computer before the depot closed.
So on Thursday night, my computer sat in a box on my bed. I opened it, and there it was. Shiny. It was up and running in a few minutes, although getting all of my programs installed took considerably longer. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay very much attention to the Stargate series finale.
On Friday I transferred my personal files over from the old computer, and then everything was set up how I liked it. So far I am uber-impressed by the hardware. My battery life is around 4 hours. The fan is silent, but the computer doesn’t burn my legs—it’s a little hot, but all things considered, this is more than acceptable. The software, however, is annoying. Vista’s interface is great, but its functions are less than robust. Just yesterday I had to boot into safe mode because in Vista Home Premium you cannot enable the Local Users & Groups snap-in for the management console. It doesn’t let you.
Little does Microsoft know, this only motivates me to get kozier with Kubuntu.
And now I’m done school. Today was my data management exam, which was very easy. It was my last exam, and my last time in Westgate as a student. Next year I’ll return as an annoying alumnus who bothers his former teachers.
My computer is starting to overheat and automatically shut down—again. I had this problem last year, and thought it was gone.
Recently I installed a temperature monitor as part of an attempt at undervolting my laptop. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the Intel Celeron is a gutted piece of hardware junk, that’s not possible. So my battery life remains short (which is fine, I can live with that), and my CPU continues to run hot. Apparently I can’t live with that.
The temperature monitor occasionally gets up to 42°C (it starts off around 30°C, and typically hovers around 35° to 40°). But for some strange reason, it will spontaneously shut down on me even though it is below 42°! (This is the part that bugs me—sometimes it won’t shutdown, but at other times it has apparently decided it has overheated and does. If a computer fails, it should at least fail consistently! <_< ). I’m not doing all that much when it overheats either—nothing at all resource-intensive. It’s annoying.
Alas, I don’t know what I‘m going to do. I cannot afford a better computer. I could take it in, but I’ve done that before and I foresee the unfortunate and harrying situation in which they send it in for “repairs”. This leaves me without a computer for two to three weeks, during which time they don’t find anything wrong with it and I have to pay (or worse, they do find something wrong with it, “fix” it under warranty, and then when I get it back it isn’t actually fixed). I’ve complained to CompuSmart about this before, and I feel bad complaining so much, even though I am the customer.
If the problem doesn’t go away after school is over, though, I think I might have no other recourse but to send it in. Right now I’ve got a fan running beside me to cool off the computer (did I mention that I have a cooling mat beneath it, but it still overheats?!), however, I consider this situation untenable (not to mention noisy).