My Blog

Stories from my career and educational tidbits

Computer Virus?

June 17, 2020

I was working for a bank in Boston in 1988 as a Systems Support Coordinator. Basically, I was the bank’s first level support for any computer issues people might have. I did computer upgrades, fixed the PCs or printers when they went down, instructed people on how to do things, etc.

It was a bit of a stressful time because the news of a computer worm (commonly referred to as a virus) had hit the mass media and all of a sudden, banks and may other companies were concerned about whether their computers and the information on them was at risk. The Robert Morris worm disabled nearly 6,000 computers. Fortunately, for banks and other commercial enterprises, it was 1988 and the ARPANET, as it was known was limited to the defense department, universities and scientific research organizations. This was prior to Al Gore “creating the internet.”

So, we were doing PC hardware upgrades one day in the bank’s collections department when the department’s administrative assistant said, “Norb, can I ask you a question?” I said, “Of course!” She said, “Is it true what I heard on the news last night? You can get sick from your computer? You can get a computer virus?”

Now, some of you might be chuckling about this, but keep this in mind. I had worked for a computer company and knew about viruses, but they were fairly new. I simply explained that virus was a term used to describe computer programs that can disable or destroy a computer and that you cannot get sick from your computer.

Of course, now it turns out that I am wrong. Because if you use a shared computer that someone else has touched, you could get a real human virus from the computer. Always wipe down the keyboard and mouse (and the screen on a mobile device) before you start using a shared computer. And always have anti-virus software installed on your computer with an active subscription. The subscription only costs around $30/year and protects your computer against new threats that come along.

Lights Out

June 12, 2020

In my first computer job, I worked as a Software Support Specialist for Leading Edge Computers. This was a telephone support job during a time of fierce competition in the IBM Compatible “clone” personal computer marketplace. Leading Edge offered tremendous value, including bundled software such as the Leading Edge Word Processor. We also offered free via a toll-free number and free lifetime technical support. This was back in the days when PCs had 2 floppy disk drives. One drive would hold your program disk the other would be used for your data disk. A small red light on the drive face would let you know if the disk was being read from or written to.

We took calls from customers, sometimes these were people with their first computer at home. Other times, they were employees of large corporations, so our customers had a very wide range of technical experience. I remember one call where the customer had experienced some corruption in a document she was working on. Document corruption was a frequent issue that came up during support calls. But of course, there were no bugs in the software! We had documentation that described the remedies for the corruption depending on the specific error code. Sometimes we were able to help the customer retrieve their data and sometimes we were not.

Sometimes the customers were just grateful to have their documents back. But, often the customer would ask, “How did this happen?” or “How can I protect myself from this in the future?” We’d rattle off a list of precautions including having a backup copy of the document, keeping the disk away from magnets, refraining from removing the data disk while the drive light was on (meaning the computer was actively accessing the disk). On one of these occasions, a lady asked me how to prevent this from happening. I explained that she should always make frequent backups, keep magnets away from the disks and never take the disk out of the drive while the light is on. In my haste, I may have omitted the word “drive”. She replied, “Do you mean to tell me that I have to operate this computer in a dark room?”

Words are important. Never assume that someone else has the same knowledge that you do.

Norb Callahan
Technology Consultant

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