Saturday, June 4 2005
I took breaks from PHP content management development several times today to have fresh air breaks out on the laboratory deck, which is nestling ever-closer to a youngish (but fairly tall) Shagbark Hickory. I say ever-closer not because the laboratory deck is moving (hopefully it isn't), but because the hickory is growing rapidly. This year its south-facing branches, the ones nearest the laboratory, have grown eighteen inches already. In a few years I'll have to prune them to avoid losing headroom over the deck. At that point it will be very much like a treehouse. That will be lovely.
At this time of the year the hickory foliage is still thick with catkins, the small male flowers that fill the air with light yellow-green pollen. Far more pollen is released than is ever realized as hickory nuts, the earliest stage at which a hickory tree's genome is complete. (Nuts, you see, are the things a pro-life hickory trees would fetishize.)
As a form of broadcast data transfer, there is very little in the technological world that is analogous to pollen. Radio wave broadcasts have much greater speed and lower latency than pollen, but the bandwidth and potential range (at least within Earth's atmosphere) will always be much lower. Perhaps the closest thing to a pollen analogy in human data dissemination is any voluminously printed and heavily promoted text (the Bible, the Book of Mormon, perhaps the Koran, and any text containing more than a dozen mentions of the phrase "Harry Potter"). An even better analogy, due to its compact size, is the ubiquitous free AOL installation CD.
But what if nanotechnology advances to the point where massive amounts of digital data can be encoded on tiny particles, which can be distributed inexpensively by being dusted into the air? In such a world you could encode, say, all your MP3s onto a prototype dataparticle, clone billions of them, and then deal a decisive fuck you to the RIAA in one anonymous cloud. Or you could anonymously broadcast a dissident multimedia newsletter, complete with a catalog of popular Hollywood movies tacked on the end to heighten interest by those with the equipment to sample the air in search of interesting dataparticle broadcasts.
If nanotechnology and biotechnology reaches that point and continue to advance, it might be possible for a nefarious or manipulative individual to crank out synthetic viruses with the capacity to insert data directly into our cells, which by then might be readable by bio-electronic gizmos implanted in or somehow biologically integrated with our brains. My hands would have to do some strangling if I was spammed for penis enlargements by unavoidable microparticles floating in the air, but let's pray that oil runs out before such a dystopian future can have a chance to evolve. In that vein, SETI's lack of progress so far offers a modicum of hope regarding the sustainability of technological societies.
Speaking of hope and dystopian futures, I felt like I was in one today as I deal with yet another client's malware-ridden computer. I mean, this computer was in terrible shape. I've written about this subject enough and everybody knows malware and extortionware are lame and companies that build business models on them should face corporate beheading. But I'd like to take a moment to drag George W. Bush into this subject if I may. The problem with malware has gotten much worse on his watch, yet he's never once addressed it as a matter of public policy. Supposedly he uses a Mac (or perhaps an Etch-a-Sketch) and is thus isolated from the world of pain that the other 95 percent of computer users face. But I have the feeling that if Clinton were in office, he would have felt our pain by now and mentioned the scourge of malware in a speech. He'd be spearheading a program to do something (probably something ineffective) about it. But where's George W. Bush? He doesn't care - it's not his problem. To him, issues of spyware and malware are consumer complaints, and he doesn't care a fig about consumers. Though his answer to the question "What should I do to help the Land of the Free in the war on terror?" is "Consume!" the word "consumer" makes Bush think of, well, Ralph Nader. Now don't get me wrong, Bush owes an awful lot to Ralph Nader. But he certain doesn't share his concerns.
Now, as for the specific case of this infected computer I was fixing, let me just give you a sense of my usual procedure in a situation like this, having had to deal with many many malware infections. I usually boot up, check out how slow the system is running, and look for suspicious things on the desktop. (The hot pink background with its still image of two movie stars kissing immediately told me that this computer belonged to a teenage girl and was thus carrying more diseases than a retiring Tijuana hooker.) Then I hit control-alt-delete to bring up the Task Manager. Usually at this point I'm greeted with many dozens of running processes, many of which immediately restart (sometimes with diffferent names) if they are killed. There's not much that can be done at this point, since even HijackThis is useless against a phalanx of self-propagating processes. Deleting line items from HijackThis usually results in their being restored only a few seconds later.
The key to fixing such a computer is to reboot into Safe Mode. I've not yet seen any malware that was capable of running on a computer in Safe Mode. Once there, make sure to go into Folder Options and make file extensions, hidden files, and system files all visible so nothing can hide from you (if the things you see under these settings bother you, perhaps you should upgrade to an Etch-a-Sketch.) Now go into the WINDOWS folder and sort the contents by date. Usually there will be a bunch of files dating from when the malware infection reached a critical mass (usually very recently). Delete all of those, particularly .exe files and .dlls. Do the same in WINDOWS/SYSTEM32 (or, on a Windows 98 machine, WINDOWS/SYSTEM). Don't be afraid to go on a full-blown jihad, killing a few innocent files along the way. This is particularly true in WindowsXP, which comes with built-in file protection for critical stuff. Now reboot again in non-Safe Mode. Check the Task Manager again. Are crazy files running? Check any suspicious processes in Google if you can. If bad things are still there, note them down, reboot into Safe Mode, and kill them. Sometimes savvy malware executables will change their modified dates to those from several years ago, and you will need to hunt them down by name.
After you're all done with these steps, do a full scan with an up-to-date anti-virus program (I find Norton useless and prefer the free AntiVir). Also scan it with AdAware or Spybot Search & Destroy. Never use anti-spyware programs that cost money or that you've learned about through advertising. It's all about word of mouth when it comes to these things, and I'm here to tell you what the good word says.
Whatever you do, don't uninstall suspicious software that appears in the Add/Remove Software control panel. This is particularly true if the software in question starts pleading with you to spare its life or if you are presented with a questionaire demanding to know why you're uninstalling a program. Hell, a quality program like Adobe Photoshop or Firefox doesn't complain when you give it the axe, so why should Weatherbug or CoolWebSearch? That whole Add/Remove process is an anachronism in today's dangerous world. Malware will frequently reinstall its missing pieces in new, more nefarious ways if you try to uninstall it in the Microsoft-approved manner.
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