The Alabama Tick

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Eli has a video on his site telling us that we should charge family the going rate for any tech support and I’d agree with his reasons because you do tend to be drawn into corners at family gatherings and asked questions which then mean that you end up spending the day messing with a computer instead of drinking beer but I did smile when I watched it, thinking about the expression on my nephew’s face when I gave him the bill.

‘You want my pocket money for how long?’

My brother had recently bought a laptop and was thinking about selling his old desktop because it took up so much room. It was a dual core Pentium so it was still useful and I suggested he gave it to his oldest boy, thirteen, for doing his homework. My only criteria for a computer being useful is that it play full screen Flash video because that is the most resource intensive thing that most people use their computer for.

If it can do that it can easily run anything else they’re likely to want.

I’d upgraded whatever PC’s I could upgrade to Windows 8 when it came out because they had a cheap upgrade offer and I suggested transferring a license across so he’d have something a bit more modern on there. I liked Vista less than Windows 8 when it came out though it did improve a little with age. I’m not a hundred percent sure if this was legal but I installed it, telephoned the automated validation thingy and swore on the good book (The C Programming Language by Kernighan and Ritchie) that I only had this license on one machine, which I did. I left it switched on and rebooted as required until it was up to date and then took a Clonezilla image of the disk.

My nephew had expressed an interest in generating game environments and although I’d never been that interested in games myself I knew that Blender had some kind of 3D game environment included with it so I installed that, Gimp, LibreOffice and a few other odds and ends he might need and passed it back. He now had an outlook email account so I told him to email me if he had any problems.

I got an email a couple of months later: His computer was running slow and he thought he might have a virus.

My brother dropped it off a few days later and my nephew was with him.

We switched it on and it was unusable. I tried creating a directory with the intention of moving whatever files he’d created and putting them on a USB drive. It wouldn’t let me type more than two characters before crapping out but it didn’t look like he’d done anything much on there anyway so I decided that taking anything off it was a bad idea and switched it off.

‘Extreme prejudice is called for,’ I said. ‘We’ve got to take off and nuke the site from orbit.’

My brother looked at him and said, ‘It’s the only way to be sure.’

I don’t know what my nephew thinks of my sense of humor but if he’s getting free tech support he can put up with my jokes. I did ask him where he’d been though and he wasn’t sure where he’d picked it up from.

‘Leave it with me,’ I said and showed them to the door.

I booted with my trusty Clonezilla CD and put the image I’d taken back on. Once this was done I put my wireless password in, re-installed Start Menu 8, rebooted and then I got a bit of shock. The screen had gone bright red and it had the Liverpool FC logo on there. I remembered then that he’d had that on when he brought it back and that now that it was connected to the internet the settings had synced.

Then an advert popped up in the bottom right hand corner. I caught the words Iobit and upgrade before it disappeared and at that time had forgotten that Iobit produced Start Menu 8. To me an advert was a problem…

All my computers were safely switched off so I had a look at the processes in the start up list and there was one that I hadn’t seen before. I Googled it and low and behold it was suspected malware.

It did occur to me later that I hadn’t checked the provenance of sites that came up in my Google search and that it could be that every program included with Windows or that might be installed on Windows is flagged as malware somewhere on the internet in order to make money out of poor paranoid Windows users but I didn’t do anything different had I thought of this at the time because my answer to anything suspicious on a computer is always wipe it and re-install.

I switched the system off and considered my options. As far as I could see there were three places it could have come from: Start Menu 8, the Microsoft synced settings or something in the firmware, “Dug in deeper than an Alabama tick.”

I’d read about malware using the bios to spread but I thought that was unlikely and there was bugger all I could do about it if it was that (Jesse Ventura probably wouldn’t lend me his grenade launcher and it might damage the motherboard if he did) so I thought about the first two options. If I wanted to prove the point I’d need to re-install the image and check the list before and after the sync process and the start button install. I did remove Start Menu 8 and the process I was worried about didn’t go with it but to be honest I didn’t really care at that point and was more interested in putting together a working system so I decided to put his version of Vista back on. It didn’t have any settings in the cloud and it already had a start button.

It was a fairly old disk so it took a couple of days to do all the updates but I got there in the end and there was no more suspicious activity. I took a Clonezilla image so that I wouldn’t have to do the updates again and installed all the software I’d put on there before. I was left with a working computer that would do the job but having gone through all that I wasn’t happy with it. If he really didn’t know where he’d picked it up what was to stop him doing the same thing again?

I split the hard disk in half and installed Manjaro Linux on it and that took a couple of attempts. Gparted on the Manjaro Linux disk doesn’t seem to work very well and I’m not sure if it’s something to do with my computers or what but I’d had the problem before so I took a SolydXK disk and used the version on there to set up the partitions before returning to Manjaro and doing a trouble free install.

Most of the software I’d installed on Vista was cross platform so I created a dock on the Manjaro system, installed all the same applications, opened a Gmail account in his name and used Thunderbird on both OSs for his email. The systems look and function a little differently but he’s got basically the same set of icons on there and the dock slides out of sight when he hasn’t got his mouse pointer at the top of the screen.

I did another Clonezilla image, just in case it came back in the next couple of months, and called my brother to come and fetch it. I showed my nephew how to update the system and told him to stick to Linux if he was happy with it. One thing I hadn’t done previously was tell him not to use Internet Explorer so I did that and now I’ve got my fingers crossed that it won’t come back for a while.

Having given all this some thought, mostly while I was writing this, I think I probably overreacted a little. I think the thing I was worried about was installed with Start Menu 8 and it wasn’t removed when I uninstalled it but I would still have got rid of it. I don’t like stray bits of code I’m not sure about being left on my computers so I wouldn’t give my nephew his computer back unless I was happy to use it myself and I did wonder exactly what Microsoft do sync in the way of settings. I have two Windows 8.1 computers I use a lot and I switched the syncing off on both off them. I’m of the opinion that if you don’t need something it’s better left off.

As far as I know, I’ve never had a serious problem with malware but I do tend to mess about with OSs so I rarely have any one system running for more than about six months but I’m getting more and more paranoid about Microsoft software. Any serious internet work I do is on Linux because I feel safer. I still use Windows because it’s familiar, I paid good money for it and it has tools I’ve been using for years but I can’t see me moving to Windows 9 and if I ever do have a problem like the one my nephew had, which was definitely a problem, I don’t think I’d bother re-installing Windows at all, especially if I wasn’t sure where the weakness was or what I’d done to cause it.

On the plus side, my nephew now knows that there are alternatives to Windows and who knows, after his traumatic experience, maybe he’ll get to like Open Source software, turn into a real geek and like a modern day Genghis Kahn unite all the squabbling Open Source tribes to lead a full frontal attack on the decadent and complacent empire that is Microsoft. And, maybe I should have ended this post on the previous paragraph like I intended.

Author

Justin Collier

Programmer, mostly self taught, for various companies for about twenty years: Assembly language 6800, 6809,Z80, 6502,8086,TMS9900 (Old stuff) C Basic I got fed up with programming and changed to electronics. Would I go back to programming? As Eli says, “Please Momma, don’t make me!”

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2 Comments

  1. Phil Tower March 3, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Just a thought, but I think that people should stop referring to Eli (The computer guy) so casually on this website. Of course, he owns this website and almost all of its traffic originates from his YouTube channel (I would guess) so most people know who he is, however the aim of the website is to have content that is not associated with the “Eli The Computer Guy” image.

    Again, I’m not really complaining, it’s just a thought 🙂

  2. Steve C. March 30, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Windows 8.1 + Classic Shell = happy life.

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