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June 2015

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Heads Up! - Five Things to Beware of


It’s that season again. Lightning storms and the related potential power problems can do real damage to your computer. Power spikes and surges can kill computer power supplies as well as motherboards and RAM. A sudden loss of power can damage hard drives (i.e. your data). This alone is every bit as damaging as pulling the plug on a running computer. Furthermore, equipment can be lightly damaged to the extent where intermittent problems start to appear. This can be much more frustrating and troublesome than a total failure.

Always plug your computer into a surge protector or UPS. Not all power strips include surge protection. It’s best to turn off your computer and unplug it if you hear thunder or if the power company is working on lines, lights are flickering, etc. If you leave your house for an extended time, then it’s always a good idea to unplug your computer, as well as any other expensive and delicate electronic devices (e.g. televisions, stereos, etc.)


An email tells you that you need to update something on your bank’s website. You click on the provided link to the bank’s login page and type your username and password. A message appears thanking you for logging in, but that the reason for the email has already been addressed. Then mysterious withdrawals in your bank account start to occur. What happened?

The email was a scam. The link brought you to a fake web site specifically made to appear identical to your bank’s. Then the username and password you typed in was forwarded to somebody very interested in the funds in your account.  They make a grab for as much as they can. Or they may take a little at a time, hoping that nobody will notice. They may wait several months before taking any action at all. They have access; they hold the cards.

Be leery of any emails asking you to login – especially if they say that it’s a security measure for your protection. Be leery of any website links in any email. Most browsers allow you to hover your mouse over the link to see where it would take you. I still wouldn’t click, even if the site looked OK. Would you click on www.citihank.com? Always pull up the site yourself through a bookmark or a Google search. Know that no company will ever ask you for your password. The only ones who might are (1) your boss or higher-ups in a company you work for, (2) your spouse, (3) your computer consultant.


Will dust kill your computer? Probably not; but, it may well reduce it’s useful lifetime.  Heat is the enemy of computers. Excess heat makes fans work harder and spin faster. Excess heat can damage the electronics in your CPU, RAM, and hard drive.  Dust itself can cause hard drives to crash and mess up CD/DVD optical drives. Cleaning out your computer should be on your list of household chores.

Turn your computer off and unplug it before cleaning. Never use a household vacuum cleaner on your computer. Use compressed air instead. Never shoot compressed air at fans; excessive spinning can damage them. I hold the fans still with my hand when cleaning computer cases. Be careful not to discharge static electricity inside the case. A shock that’s so small that you can’t feel, hear, or see it can still damage sensitive parts. Always touch the metal frame before touching any internal components.


Your data has been encrypted. Not only that – the data on your connected external drive has been encrypted too. Not only that – your cloud backup has also been encrypted.  Sound farfetched? It’s not so farfetched; do the research. Depending on your backup solution, the ransomware software may have direct access to your backup data. Even if not, once your primary data is encrypted and the backup runs: bam!, your backup is encrypted too. Then “they” offer to help you decrypt your data - for a price. Whether they will help once you pay ... is anybody’s guess.

Always keep a backup which is physically detached from your computer. Also, if you use cloud storage, be sure that past versions are kept. This will help in this situation, as well as in others. Make sure that you have antivirus software running on any computer with any information that you are likely to need or want to hold on to. That includes pictures and music.

Keep in mind that paying these crooks will only make them want to continue, give them the means to do so, and make them more greedy! What’s to prevent it from happening to you again in a week or in a month. Don’t pay; protect yourself and put these crooks out of business.


Ah summer - here’s another message for the season. Liquids and electronics don’t mix. Don’t drink while working on a laptop. Don’t put a drink down next to your laptop. Coffee, at 40%, leads the list of liquids spilled on laptops. The top brand: Starbucks. Any liquid with salt or sugar will short out electronics. Even tap water contains enough minerals to do damage. Don’t bring your laptop to the pool or to the beach. Even if you don’t plan to take it swimming, it may get splashed. Don’t vomit on your laptop. Don’t let your children or pets vomit on your laptop. Don’t take your laptop fishing. Don’t wear flippers while using a laptop.

Transferring Programs

I get asked all the time to please transfer a program (or all their programs) from one computer to another. I always need to explain that documents, music, photos, etc. (i.e. data files) can be transferred, but not programs. I need to explain that programs need to be “installed” on the target computer. Why is this? Why can’t a program just be plopped down onto a new computer and just run?

One of the fascinating things about technology is that so many types of information can be represented by just zeros and ones. Sound, photos, videos, books, websites, etc. can all be represented, stored, moved, and processed as sets of zeros and ones. Software is also represented thusly (e.g. C++ source code). Programs are also represented thusly as compilations of CPU operations that can be executed by a CPU. So what stands in our way of moving an executable (.EXE) file from one computer to another and have it run there properly?


The first answer is hinted to by the paragraph above.  Different CPUs may include different instruction sets. On one CPU, the instruction “46” may mean “INC A”, meaning add one to the value in memory register ‘A’. On the target CPU, “46” might mean “DEC A”, meaning do just the opposite. We can imagine that the same .EXE file (if allowed to run) on another CPU might do unpredictable things. But what if we know that the CPUs are compatible? Then what’s the problem?


Seldom are .EXE files self-complete. Many pieces of software, especially larger software packages and those built by Microsoft, rely on general-purpose “libraries” (or DLLs - Dynamic Link Libraries), supplementary functionality not included in the .EXE file itself, but referenced from it. Now you’ll need, not only the .EXE file, but all the DLL files that it depends on. What are they? Where are they? But that’s not all.


Programs often include data not included in the .EXE file that describes how the program is to run. Each time you change a program option setting (e.g. how big to make the Chrome window, recently opened documents in MS Word, default font size in MS Excel), this information is stored somewhere other than the .EXE file. It might be in the Microsoft registry; it might be in some data file, maybe in an AppData folder. Where is all this data? Where will it belong on the new computer?


Most programs, especially larger, more powerful programs require some sort of configuration when they’re installed. Think of a washing machine. It’s not enough just to plop it down in the living room. It needs to be placed in a particular location. It needs a certain kind of power and power lines plugged in. It needs a water supply and hoses connected. Think about the dialog when a new program is installed. Do you want a desktop icon? Do you want automatic updates? Again, this information, not stored inside the .EXE file, still needs to be available for access by the program.


Imagine that you could move any program to any computer. What would stop you from putting a copy of MS Word on every computer in the world. Microsoft wouldn't like that. Therefore, part of the installation process involves entering a platform license and/or some kind of online activation. This ensures that software vendors get paid for the software they create.


Yes, Virginia, you can move a program from computer to computer, assuming:
(1) the CPUs execute the same instruction sets
(2) it’s not dependent on any dynamic libraries
(3) it doesn’t depend on application configuration and data
(4) there are no licensing restrictions.
Most programs - certainly any that you'd need to pay for - simply won't fit that bill.

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