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Computer Stupidities


If computers alone don't throw the average user into fits of paranoia, computer viruses will. But as with other aspects of computing, this deep concern fails to prompt any attempt on the user's part to learn the facts.

About two years ago, I was asked to run a virus scan on one company's network of computers. I did and I found a simple harmless virus on each computer in the network. After I reported that to the company's officials, they gasped (literally), then thanked me, then asked me to leave despite my offers to remove the virus with the anti-virus program. The next day, I found out that they formatted every single hard drive of every computer, backing up only the most important data.

A user called to inform us that his laptop had a virus. When we asked why he thought he had a virus, he promptly explained that he must have a virus as his system would no longer fit in the docking station. It was later determined that it had a faulty port on the back of the system.

One day at school, I was lending a friend a couple of my CD games. Then a girl came up and said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you. You might get it back with a virus on it."

Sometime later I dutifully ran the checker.

I thought perhaps he had seen someone use a can of compressed air to clean out a machine and mistook it for some sort of spray.

This sounds ridiculous, but it actually happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I work as a computer tech in a chain computer store.

A mailing list that dispenses computer-related tips and tricks each day once sent out the following dubious virus prevention tip:

Virus Information of the Day: Lock your floppies

If you're using a diskette only to read information, why not lock it first? Just flip the "switch" up on the top-left corner on the back of the diskette. That way, you can prevent diskette-transferred viruses from being loaded onto your PC. If you need to access a diskette that you'll need to write to, scan it with your antivirus software.

A friend of mine came around in a bit of a panic, saying that his dad's machine looked like it had a virus. He asked if I had any anti-virus software I could lend him. I gave him a self-extracting archive of a virus detection program on a floppy disk. Foolishly, this archive was named antvirus.exe. A week later he came back, saying that his dad had looked at the disk and assumed that this was a virus, so he'd formatted the disk.

As a hobby, I run old computer viruses on a standalone PC and record the effects, which I then put on YouTube. One user, who decided that I needed some help, offered me the following foolproof advice for removing viruses without expensive antivirus software:

A guy came into my office, in a real panic. He kept saying something about how his computer screen was shaking violently, and he thought it had a virus! Going down to the computer, I found that the picture on the screen was indeed shaking a lot, but I also noticed something else...a desk fan was placed right next to the monitor, which was plugged into the same power strip. I switched the fan off, and the picture stopped shaking. I told him to move the fan away from the monitor in future, to avoid that problem.

Later on I heard him telling a colleague that his desk fan had a virus, and he had to keep it away from the screen to stop it from infecting his computer.

I overheard two men talking in a restaurant.

Hmm. I didn't know that either.

One day a girl at school told me that her father's laptop had a virus.

One day a customer brought his computer in, complaining about a problem.

Puzzled, I looked at the back of his computer and discovered he had a video capture card.

I checked his computer out, fixed his problem, and he left. Needless to say the other techs and I had a good laugh about that new NBC virus that was being broadcast to people with video capture cards.

Back in the early 90s the programming staff in our office were still using dumb terminals to do mainframe programming. The department installed a dedicated PC to share files over a modem with other departments off site. People in the office began to use the machine for 'unofficial' purposes such as playing games after hours. Management saw this and, afraid of someone introducing a virus, installed password protection software on the machine (which also prevented the machine from being booted from a floppy disk to bypass the security). Shortly afterwards the machine began performing erratically and occasionally lost files. Our technical support group examined the machine and found a virus. Puzzled as to how a virus could have been introduced into a protected machine, they examined the various pieces of software in the office. It was found that the virus had come from the disk that had been used to install the password protection software onto the machine (in an attempt to protect the machine from viruses). Unfortunately, the anti-virus software they had on hand needed to be loaded from a bootable floppy disk to prevent infection of the diskette. However, as previously mentioned, the security software had disabled the boot function of the floppy disk drive. They finally ended up reformatting the entire drive to get rid of the virus.

While working on the helpdesk of a local community college, I came across a message on one of our tech support forums. The author of this message was convinced that there was a virus in his BIOS, and he later started accusing us of sending him it. He was convinced that our computers were sending the virus straight to his hard drive through the "modem subcarrier" (his words) between keystrokes while he was dialed in to his shell account.

Before the days when email viruses actually became possible, the computer security people at one large organization warned everyone of the dreaded "RedTeam" email virus, including a printout of the dire warning they had been sent concerning it. All attempts to let them know that (1) viruses couldn't be sent by email (outside of an attachment, anyway), and (2) the innoculation software provided for it is allegedly a very real virus, were merrily ignored.

Before the days when email viruses actually became possible, I checked my email one morning when getting into work and read a message from our Human Resources department warning us about the latest dreaded email virus. After laughing myself silly, I decided to reply, just to have some fun with them. I asked them for more information on the "virus" so I could protect my system.

They told me what to look for by forwarding me a copy of the email message that was supposedly a virus.

When the infamous "ILOVEYOU" email virus hit, I saw TV news coverage that included an interview with some bubblebrained company secretary. At one point she said, "Oh, I saw we had dozens of these emails coming in, and of course I was suspicious, but I had to open just one of them because, you know, 'I Love You!' *giggle* I had to just see what it was about, you know?"

My mother overheard a conversation I was having about email viruses. She said that people at work were telling everybody not to open any email messages with a certain subject line, because those were viruses. As the conversation progressed, she started complaining about how it was a frustrating day, because her computer didn't work except in the morning.

(The common "stoned" virus displays this message on infected computers.)

I work for a large university in New England where we have a number of public computer labs that we must maintain. Every summer we do a number of upgrades to keep the machines somewhat current. Last summer, we added a number of zip drives to the forty or so Macs and PCs we had in a couple of our labs. Shortly after the installation was complete, we realized the problem we had just opened up for ourselves -- many users had never seen a zip drive before, and, of course, floppies fit quite well in that opening. Literally within hours, we had our first test case.

Apparently the user's diskette had gotten caught on the loading arm unit within the drive and was hopelessly stuck. By the time the call got to my level in the chain of command, two of our student techs had already been forced not only to dismantle the machine but also the zip drive to extract the ornery media.

As I walked in, one of our rather computer savvy student techs was handing the disk (without the metal slider -- it had been wrenched from the disk in the removal process) back to the user. He suggested to the user that he make a second copy of his disk. I agreed, assuming his logic was to salvage what data the user had on the disk. But our student tech said, matter-of-factly, "...because there's no metal protector anymore, your disk is more susceptible to viruses."

I almost died. He honestly thought they were airborne.

Once in school I was bringing some document on a diskette to our principal. She was on the phone. While waiting I began playing with the sliding metal shutter on the diskette. She looked at me sternly and told me to stop it or viruses would get in.

Once, in the computer cluster, a student asked me to move my disks because they were close to her own, and she didn't want them to catch a virus.

I received a call from the PA to the Finance Director, (the owner of 28% of our tech support calls for that year). She reported that one of her floppy disks had caused our virus checker to flash a very alarming message. I asked her to put the disk to one side until I arrived. When I made it to her office, I was directed to a corner desk where a disk box had been set up with a yellow post-it note reading "Quarantine." She explained she had put the disk in this separate disk box so it wouldn't infect the other floppies.

A customer came in to the store one day with a Macintosh. I had just replaced a bad drive in the thing a few days previously. She complained that it wasn't working again, implying that I didn't fix it right the first time. So, I get out the diagnotic tools, but can't find a thing wrong with it. I then checked some of the diskettes she brought in with it and find that they are loaded with viruses. After cleaning up the diskettes, I explained to her that her computer probably got the virus by trading diskettes with someone whose computer was also infected. She then got a very sullen expression on her face and asked me, "Can a person catch this virus from their computer?"

A teenage lad and his mother called in to our shop and approached me. The mother announced her son needed a virus killer for his computer. The Atari ST had been out a year or two, and Amiga computers were rapidly gaining popularity at the time, and both machines had viruses being passed around on floppy disks. So we asked the son which of those computers he had. He muttered to his mother again, and she announced her son had an Amstrad 464 -- which only had a built-in cassette deck and no floppy drive whatsoever. After we explained that it was the more modern computers which had floppy disk drives that got viruses, the mother calmly stated that the virus had been on his friend's new ST computer and that her son and his friend had played a few games on it. The virus had passed from the friend's computer directly to her son, and thence, later that evening, from her son to his aforementioned Amstrad 464!

Boggling, but still polite, we patiently explained that although computer viruses existed, they could not be "caught" by human beings and passed on to other computers by physical contact. The word "virus" was, we told her, slang that referred to hostile code that replicated itself when a disk was inserted into a computer, not an actual biological virus. Her son's computer probably had just gone faulty and needed a repair. Smiling smugly, and after informing us her son knew about computers (and that we didn't), they left the store to search for more computer-savvy tech support.

The computer service tech where I work told me he got a call from a secretary complaining that the floppy drive in her computer wouldn't work. He went down to check it out and found that she was putting the discs in with the plastic dust sleeves still on them. He asked her why on earth she was doing that and she said, "Well, I didn't want my computer to get a virus."

Once a customer asked me if there could be virus attached to a printed file that would infect his computer if he scanned it back in.

I work for the internal tech support of a company. One day I received an amusing call.

This was definitely worth a trip to his office. When I got there, I saw an anti-virus warning, which included a graphic of a hand holding a bug. I explained that the anti-virus software had discovered a virus on his system.

I cleaned the virus off his system and told him his computer was feeling better now.

I received a call from a woman. She had been told in a previous call that her computer was infected by a trojan virus and wanted to know where to begin disinfecting the computer. I asked her what software she was using, but she sounded a little confused. After a few minutes, I learned that she had dismantled her computer and was preparing to wipe everything down with Lysol, a disinfecting cleaner.

It took me another minute to compose myself and try to tell her to stop before she ruined her computer. I don't know if she did, as I never heard from her again -- and it took me ten minutes to stop laughing.

I walked into the English department's computer lab one day and saw two English teachers staring blankly at a computer screen that contained the message, "Non-system disk error; Remove and press any key." One of them confidently said, "It's got to be a virus -- those damn kids are always putting those things on our network."

A friend of mine once found a boot sector virus in one of his computers and had tried to repair it by changing the motherboard. He was getting frustrated because the virus kept reappearing.

Several years ago my job at the time was to support testing of a group of custom microelectronics products. This involved working with several of the customer's programmers, one of whom obviously knew everything (just ask him) and was a gift to the programming world (ask him again). Naturally, he wasn't very popular.

One day while this fellow was at lunch another programmer modified the prompt command in his AUTOEXEC.BAT file. (This was during the DOS days.) The modification changed the default setting to one that showed a Bart Simpson face, complete with flashing eyes.

The "gift to programming" returned from lunch. After a few minutes of quiet mutterings, he jumped up and ran around warning everyone at the top of his lungs that there was a virus in the system.

I worked for a health insurer that was making the big move from PCs to networked PCs. They hired a network administrator whose mindset was security above all -- he was somewhere far to the right of General Patton. One facet of the conversion was the changeover from Okidata dot matrix printers to HP Laserjets. We were using DisplayWrite, which stores the printer information with the document file.

Inevitably, a nurse tried to print an Okidata-formatted document on a Laserjet, producing pages of gibberish. Panicking, she called the network administrator.

He took one look at what was printing, bellowed "We've got a virus!" and, before anyone could figure out what was happening, had reformatted her hard drive.

It's a sad commentary on the state of my college's computer science program when the most qualified instructor doesn't know much about what he's attempting to teach. While the coding methods he taught were correct, other things (such as commenting) were not. His preferred method of commenting code was verbose and wound up confusing even the writer if the program was longer than 10 lines. He insisted, for example, on a minimum of three lines of comments per single line of code.

Our textbook had numerous glaring errors, many of which I could demonstrate irrefutably, but he insisted that the text was the final arbiter on exam questions, so my correct answers were viewed as wrong and since "the textbook authors must know what they're talking about!"

Our IT department, in their infinite wisdom, decided one day to lock everyone out of a certain program through the GUI; they neglected to lock the DOS prompt, so if one knew how to access it thorugh the command line, it could still be used. I tried doing that, and he saw me and accused me of "hacking the network."

But the most ridiculous story was when I was playing around with a Knoppix CD during a break. Knoppix is a Linux distribution designed to be booted directly from a CD rather than installed on a hard drive. It allows you to use Linux without disrupting the operating system that's been installed on the machine.

My instructor saw me and said, "What are you doing? That's not Windows! That's a VIRUS, isn't it? I'm going to report you for malicious use of school computers!" My advisor, who is a Linux proponent and also the sysadmin at the time, apparently laughed him out of his office when he went to complain.

I was in the local Circuit City store, when I saw a demo Sony Playstation game unit, and I went over to try it out. The controller would not work -- it had apparently been disconnected to the game unit. I told this to a passing salesman, and he said, "Oh no sir, it doesn't work because the controller has a virus."

I asked him how he thought the controller contracted the virus. He said it was because the display used to be near the computer section of the store, and they had moved it away from the computers "to see if it would get better."