Tuesday, April 12, 2005

To A Crawl...

Less than a week ago, I opined that using P2P (aka file-sharing) clients would eventually slow our collective systems down so thoroughly that the advantages, ie being able to download any song, video/movie or file/application at a moment's notice was not worth the benefit. In case you don't happen to see a link to the left of this post for "We're Living In A Virtual World And I Am A Virtual Girl," click here.

So in my quest to get a DVD -- a UK pressing of the film "Who Dares Wins" -- compressed, converted (from PAL to NTSC) and stuffed into a recordable format, I downloaded a program called TMPGEnc, which is a -- temporarily -- freeware program which would allow the user to pipe two files -- a video file and an audio file -- into a format which could subsequently be burned onto a blank DVD.

I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that the majority of people trying to convert a variety of VOB (DVD format) files into burnable packages are doing so in connection with pornographic movies. Doesn't matter if it's "Saving Ryan's Privates," "Midget Bondage In Heat" or "The Rabbi's in Love," the short n' long of it is that this realm is dominated by porn. In fact, if you visit any site that's of indeterminable legitimacy -- that is to say, a site which offers up high-end programs (Adobe, Microsoft, etc.) there's a large likelihood that you'll see all sorts of porn-related pop-ups, banners and a lot of other unsavory advertising. Hence why Microsoft integrated a pop-up blocker into its second service pack for Windows XP; many of the sites that feature freebie software is run, and many times overpopulated, with people who (are able to) hack into Internet Explorer and other Microsoft offerings and exploit all sorts of holes that Microsoft didn't bother to plug prior to releasing its software.

What's more worrisome than the ads, the pop-ups and the barrage of porn that these sites ante up is the things that aren't seen; when you browse to a questionable site as described above, the site, as many legitimate sites do, passes to your computer "cookies" -- little documents which let the site know who you are and your site-related info, like your login name and other specific info. For example, when you return to hotmail, gmail or yahoo mail, it "knows" your e-mail address and requires you only type in your password. It knows these things because it stores a bunch of data on your PC in the form of a cookie. Essentially, cookies are what make Amazon.com know who you are when you return to the site.

However, the cookies that come from the non-legit sites aren't merely collections of site-specific data; sometimes they are designed to track and report back to the site where you're going. Other times they're outright malicious, hijacking your browser and filling your favorites list with porn and other garbage that simply appears, as if by magic. However, just like the magician doing half-hour shows at the local Howard Johnson "sawing" a lady in half, things aren't nearly as simple as they appear.

With all this in mind, I downloaded a program by Pegasys Software called TMPG Encoder, which is designed, essentially, to take the by-product of a DVD (the video and audio tracks, respectively) and combine them into a "usable" file. Being that it's a long, convoluted process (much like reading the HoB), the abbreviated, need-to-know summary is that it's a long, arduous process but the final product looks a lot like a film on DVD.

Except when I downloaded the program from a DVD Burning Guide Site, I hit the install button and, within thirty seconds, I experienced total system meltdown. The other system processes halted like a nun seeing Jesus at the 7-11. My browser crapped out, my e-mail program got trounced, and before I knew it, the system was hanging out to dry, with me powerless and observing the virtual carnage.

Keep in mind, by the way, that all of this happened because I wanted to watch a DVD that I OWN on my OWN DAMN TV. WTF...

Now, the fact that "I'm" still here gives away the happy ending to this traumatic episode; and despite the possibility that I ran right out to an Internet Cafe or CompUSA, Best Buy or Radio Shack and quickly purchased a new machine, I did no such thing. Essentially, I rebooted into Safe Mode (I'll 'splain in a sec), ran an anti-spyware program, cleaned out my computer, then did a System Restore. Good as new. Sort of.


The geek portion of this post is brought to you, incidentally, by Quaker Oats and Hallmark's new Martha Stewart Greeting Cards Collection, for when you care enough to send the very best, but can't get the very best past those damn guards.

Anytime your machine is going south, quickly, it's best to first stop the bleeding and then repair the wound(s). Had my machine not been totally beyond my control I wouldn't have rebooted, but neither here nor there. I'll say this: anyone who goes online with any regularity needs to get a copy of Ad-Aware by Lavasoft (Lavasoft). It's free, it's easily updated and it roots out the accumulation of crap you acquire by surfing even a half hour a day as efficiently as an angioplasty cleans out cholesterol and plaque. You fire it up, check for updates and then let it scan your entire machine; pretty soon it gives you a list of the bad stuff on your machine and with two clicks it can be easily and permanently removed.

Another program you're going to need in your online travels is a reputable, self-updating anti-virus program. I use Symantec, but offerings by McAfee are as good. Reputable implies a program that will be able to check e-mail as well as incoming cookies on the fly, not merely during your monthly system virus check-up. You need to have the PC self-diagnose every night or every morning, preferably when you're not busy online and/or working. A good time to scan is 3 or 4 in the morning, as most people -- aside from morgue employees -- are sleeping. "Self-updating," incidentally, means the program -- at a time and frequency you dictate -- goes to a specific site and downloads the list of newly-created virii and integrates them into the program, along with all the old ones. That means if some kid in Russia is writing a program which could take down NATO's Cray Supercomputers, so be it; but you'll still be able to go online and play backgammon with LadyVixen337 from Wappinger Falls at 10 tonight.

The final thing with which you need to equip your machine is a good amount of common sense. Too often I've been faced with something while online that just doesn't seem to be right. If it doesn't seem like it makes sense, odds are something bad is happening. Keeping your eyes open and being aware of what's happening is paramount to avoiding stepping in virtual doggie souvenirs on the oft-traveled information superhighway. And it's really not any harder to accomplish than just staying out of harm's way, not downloading any too-good-to-be-true programs, and not signing up for every mailing list relating to your lovely Coca-Cola bottle collection.


So why the excessive mini-treatise pertaining to PC security? Well, for one thing, since I handle my company's IT stuff (networks, upgrades, hardware, software and e-mail), I get a lot of calls from friends and neighbors needing help with their PC's, and 99% of the time it's through no fault of their own that the machine stops working as designed. Boogie's Third Law of Computers: any time you make a simple change to a computer's settings, it's almost always guaranteed to come back to bite you in the ass. It doesn't matter if you're changing the resolution, installing a new program or opting to replace something major, like a hard drive, a video card or the PC itself. Something always goes wrong, it's never like it is on TV, and no one ever -- EVER -- lives happily after; they just go to sleep and assume it'll fix itself. Incidentally, Ad-Aware is one of the exceptions to this rule; otherwise, I wouldn't 'zactly tell you to go download it, if only because I don't want to deal with the e-mails, calls and fruit baskets I'll receive once it's clear that the flyer for your "An Evening of Chess and Dancing" for your local chess club is infected with the virtual equivalent of the ebola virus, and something is now eating away (literally) at your keyboard, your mouse and your genitalia.

All in all, instead of observing my own rules and finishing up some basic work I needed to complete tonight, I spent an hour sifting through the wreckage, cleaning it out, and restoring the PC to its former glory that I could have saved had I just been a little slower in downloading one lil' program. It's common sense, and we all (fail to) do it, but if I fuck up, I have the wherewithall (and the lack of sleep) to make sure the problem is solved ASAP. If you've fucked up, you'd better pray that my girlfriend and I aren't somewhere downtown behaving in a lewd manner in the "P" aisle at Tower Records.

But if all these things do come to pass, and you need to get in touch, remember Boogie's final rule: a friend calling with bail money is a better friend than one without.

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