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Last updated 2009.11.23

The World Wide Web, cyberspace and personal computing in general are wonderful things, but they are also big and nebulous and carry some risks. It pays to take some precautions to protect your time and your information investments. We have worked intensively with computers for over twenty years, from microcomputers to mainframes. We have learned a few things along the way, which can be of benefit to you.

Startup Media | Backups | Housekeeping | Viruses | Hoaxes | Netiquette | Broken Links | Web Ads

Startup/Recovery Media

Go find your startup diskette (or CD-ROM or Zip disk or whatever media it is on). Now!

Got it? Good. Make a point of starting your system from this media in the next while. Make sure it behaves as expected. If not, make or get a new one, and test the new one. Once you have a known good startup media, put it away again in a safe, easily accessible place. Test it occasionally.

Couldn't find it or don't have one? Go, make one as soon as you possibly can and test it to ensure it works correctly. In the event of a system failure or a severe virus attack, this may be your lifeline to recovering your computer and your data.


Thou shalt make copies of valued data.

If you are one of the few that actually make regular backups of your computer system, and test them, no need to spend your time reading the rest of this section. Unfortunately, those that need to read this the most will probably not do so.

Hardware fails. Viruses attack. Power fluctuates or fails. Files are deleted unintentionally, and occasionally, deliberately. Upgrades have unintended consequences. Those files you knew you would never need again, well, surprise, now you need them again. Spilled coffee does not enhance system performance. Whatever the cause, it is not a matter of "IF", it is a matter of "WHEN". Eventually, you will need to retrieve a file that is no longer on your system. And after many years of experience, the only reliable means I have found to accomplish a resurrection from the electronic hereafter is a backup. Simply put, it is a copy of the files on your system as of a specific point in time.

Computers have an annoying tendency to fail when you can least afford it. However, they will fail. Most learn this the hard way, just after they really needed to know. Occasionally you will get lucky. Perhaps there is a fix for the virus that attacked your system that will repair most or even all of the damage, and you will know enough to be find it and administer it in time. Perhaps someone you know has a copy of the file you need and can provide it to you in a timely manner. Perhaps you have an IT support group at your disposal with enough resources to respond to your crisis right when you need them, even at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning as you are working the weekend to meet a Monday morning submission deadline. Perhaps you have friends that just love to drop the rest of their life to come and rescue you from your "File not found" error. (If you have just found yourself in one of these situations, I am not your friend.) If you are the beneficiary of such good fortune, good for you. However, in my experience, depending on good luck is a poor long-term strategy.

There are those that believe in mirrored and RAID disk drive systems to protect their data. I have used both and think highly of them. But they are not backups. They simply provide some redundancy to protect you from a minor hardware failure. They cannot help you to retrieve a file that was intentionally deleted a couple of weeks ago, or damaged by a virus or lost in fire or flood. I have worked for many years as a computer systems professional, and I can assure you that every large system I ever worked on, including those with mirrored drives and RAID arrays, had a regular schedule of independent backups to a separate media, and those media were taken off-site for safe storage. It isn't just a matter of habit, it's simply good business. In any system I have ever worked with, the data stored on the system is far more valuable than the hardware, software or facilities housing them. If the computer room burns up, that is a major headache, and it will typically take days to get an equivalent facility back into operation. However, if you lose the company's data (customer contacts, customer history, inventory records, employee records, accounts receivable, accounts payable, taxes collected and remitted), well, then you're out of business. Count on it. You may think you can recover, but the first irate customer or lawyer that finds out your data is toast will finish you off. Guaranteed. And that applies to a one-person operation using a single small computer (even as small as a Blackberry or a Palm Pilot or other PDA or a laptop) just as surely as a Fortune 500 company with multiple mainframes. Don't just take my word for it.
[Link has bitrotted: http://www.soho.org/Technology_Articles/data_disaster.htm] SOHO on Data Disaster!! Consequences And Avoidance
[Link has bitrotted: http://www.bizjournals.com/extraedge/consultants/savvy_business_shopper/2002/09/09/column304.html] BizJournals.com on Backups
and there are lots of companies selling various products to help you protect your data with their own messages. (Which should tell you that there are not any one-size-fits-all solutions.)

The need for backups applies to personal computers as well as business machines. Perhaps your livelihood is not at stake, but consider how much effort it would take to recover the information on your computer if it were unexpectedly wiped clean. Are you prepared to pay a couple of hundred dollars to avoid that effort? If so, then you should be doing backups on your system. By way of illustration, we are familiar with the case of a gentleman that was doing research for a book using a personal computer. He had collected a couple of years worth of research notes, including interviews and transcriptions from rare documents while travelling. He had written about half the book as well. Then his hard drive failed. No backups - never saw the need. A disaster recovery firm attempted to recover some data from the hard drive, but with little success for significant expense. He recovered some material from handwritten notes, memory and renewed correspondence, but most of the material was gone forever. It's your computer and your information, so it's your decision. Take the risk, or take precautions?

Backups are not an expense. They are insurance. They need to be done regularly and consistently, just like paying premiums. You cannot recover what you have not backed up.

If you are a business in the Ottawa area, and you're currently playing computer roulette with your electronic data (not doing regular backups), please see a computer dealer or service centre about how to backup your system(s), or contact us so we can help you to protect your business. We'd rather see you as a client than as another bankruptcy statistic. If you have a personal or home-based system in the Ottawa area with more data to be backed up than fits comfortably onto a few diskettes, we are prepared to assist you as well. E-mail us with your contact information, and we will discuss how to protect your data. In general, we will recommend a backup strategy and installation of hardware and media that your or your staff will use that are appropriate to your needs. If appropriate, we can also provide a mobile backup service at your site on a scheduled basis, but this is usually not as cost-effective.

Once you have established a reliable means of backing up your files, test the backup on occasion. A backup you can't read is worse than useless. A quick and simple test involves renaming a file that resides on your hard drive, then restoring the file from the backup. Then compare the two versions of the file, either manually or using a utility program for this purpose (if your system has one). If the restore succeeds, you can delete the renamed version. If the restore fails, you can always rename the test file back to its original name. Then, find out why, and correct the problem, then do your backup again, and test it again (until it works).

There are several kinds of backup devices and procedures. Do yourself a favour, and get a backup facility that allows you to recover individual files, groups of files by directory name or wildcard, or the entire system. We also recommend the use of full backups where time and backup media make this practical, and keeping at least three generations of backups on various media. Finally, if it is convenient, keep your most recent backup in a place remote from your computer (preferably a different building) but accessible if you need to get it in a hurry. For a small business, this may be at the owner's or an employee's home. For a major business, another location in the same city may be appropriate, or there are companies that provide this service with periodic pick-up and drop-off services. For home users, perhaps the home of a relative or friend would work. Consider the potential of doing this on a reciprocal basis - you keep one of their backups on your premises, and they keep one of yours on theirs. Of course, don't do this with anyone who you don't want having access to your information.

Backups. Don't compute without them!


Computers work based on logic. They work better if you use them logically. That applies to how you organize your files. Most operating systems support folders or directories. This is simply a way to divide up your files into logical (to you) groups. For most people, it makes sense to keep their personal letters (e-mails) separately from their financial records. It also makes sense to keep program files (that will probably not change much over time) from data files (that may appear, disappear and be modified frequently). If you have files that pertain to chronological periods, it may make sense to organize them into folders by time periods, say a main folder for each year and sub-folders for each month (and sub-sub-folders for weeks or days if appropriate).

Give your files names that are meaningful to you. It is frustrating and time consuming to spend time looking for a file you know is on your computer, but you can't find because it was named "xz7ty4wv" and is lost amongst other files named in alphabet-soup mode.

Disk space is relatively cheap today compared to the past, so there is a tendency to keep files forever. However, the cost associated with this practice is not the additional disks, it is the time spent doing backups of that data and the time spent wading through endless lists of files when your want to open an existing file. Also, while you are required to keep up to seven years of financial records for tax purposes in many jurisdictions, if you keep more, they can also be used by tax auditors. Even if you have absolutely nothing to hide, why invite them to stay longer by giving them more to look at?


I am using the term "virus" here to cover a whole range of nasties which may be more properly called worms, trojans, viruses, etc.

If you have ever been up all night with a sick computer, you know the novelty wears off fast. You're tired, you're desperate, you're frustrated and angry, and clutching at straws, and that last time you just hit Enter or clicked on the mouse just did even more damage. Save yourself from this fate. Go and buy a known anti-virus package from a reputable computer dealer, in a sealed package. Then install it, and keep it up to date. Then, use your computer as if you did not have an anti-virus package on it. Remain vigilant. There are viruses that target anti-virus software first, so that the defence is rendered blind to the invader. Periodically, surf to the website for the vendor for your anti-virus product. If you cannot reach it, that could be a symptom of a virus attack.

We do not sell anti-virus software, or hold stock in companies that sell anti-virus software, or recommend one package over another. So, please believe that this plea is for your protect ion from software viruses, and not for our benefit. (Actually, we might be financially better off if people needed to hire us to try to salvage their computers after virus damage, but we'd prefer you not have to make that call.)

However, even having current anti-virus protection and practicing safe computing may not provide you with 100% protection, so you should still do your backups. The sad fact is that there are malicious people out there continuing to develop new types of destructive "bugs" and variants on existing ones to wreak havoc with your computer, your data and your life. And they are always searching for new ways to infiltrate your computer. They can arrive via e-mail attachments, in pirated software, in word-processing documents, and very occasionally, even in shrink-wrapped commercial software. Occasionally, the viruses proliferate faster than the anti-virus forces can develop and propagate protection against the bad stuff.

By all means, learn more about these horrible chunks of misbegotten code. The more you know, the better you will be able to protect yourself and slow their spread to others. Here are some sites worth checking (even before you think you have a virus on your system).

The Virus Bulletin Website, including their general virus information links page, their on-line virus databases links page, and their list of anti-virus products vendors links.

The Symantec (Norton Anti-Virus) Anti-Virus Center

For the more technically oriented.

[dead link: http://www.wildlist.org/">The Wildlist.Org Virus Site]


The real damage done by viruses has engendered another annoyance, the virus hoax. The hoax will not damage your system. Instead, it creates a level of anxiety in computer users that serves no purpose, and it clutters up the Internet with useless e-mail messages. So, the next time you get a well-meaning message about another virus that has not made the news yet but is destroying every computer on the planet, instead of forwarding it to everyone you know, please check to see if it is a hoax. If it is, just send an e-mail reply to the person that notified you, calmly explaining that the message is a hoax, and they too can check on such things in the future before forwarding such messages. How can you check? By surfing to one or more of the following websites that keep track of such hoaxes.

The Virus Bulletin Hoaxes page
The Virus Myths site
The Symantec Security Hoaxes page


In the wilds of cyberspace, where many surf behind the supposed veil of anonymity provided by aliases, avatars, remailers, nicknames and handles, civility is often an early victim. It is a sad commentary on us as a species, and provides ample justification for criminal punishment systems in our societies. The catch is, over time, most of our veils are ripped away if someone wants to work hard enough to uncover who is flaming or spamming them. ("Flaming" is the use of abusive or inflammatory language, primarily via e-mail and on discussion lists and forums. "Spamming" is the practice of using Internet tools for inappropriate commercial purposes.) Why take the risk?


Also known as "smilies", these are the cute little symbols built from standard characters to denote feelings or emotions like these:
:-) happy / joke / grin / smile
:-( unhappy
;-) wink
:-o surprised
:-/ . perplexed (there are many more)
There are times when humour and sarcasm are not obvious to all reading an e-mail. While they are intended to be fun, they can backfire if read the wrong way. If you won't avoid them, some times emoticons can help convey the meaning that might otherwise be lost. A simple "<grin>" can often prevent a lot of damage. And note that not all emoticons come across well in all fonts.


A marvelous innovation, e-mail has allowed business to move faster. Even more than on-line shopping websites, e-mail has been the tool that has allowed business to speed up its operations, both in-house and business-to-business. E-mail is the real underpinning for electronic workflow processing and distance collaboration and has freed business correspondence from the shackles of paper-handling, manual sorting and physical transport to lightspeed.

On the downside, e-mail has also shed the culture, formality and checks and balances of paper mail. As a result, things are said in e-mails that would never have been committed to paper. Part of that is the informality, part of it the psychological sense that e-mail is somehow not as "real" as paper correspondence, and part of that is the speed of e-mail that removes the opportunity for reflection that occurs in the paper world as a letter awaits transport to the mailbox.

In reality, e-mail is just as "real" as paper mail, and worse, the ease of "carbon-copying" an e-mail means that it will reach a wider distribution than its paper equivalent. Every time you write an e-mail, pause and consider the potential consequences of sending it. Assume that it will surface at the worst possible time in the hands of the worst possible person. If you are libeling someone, assume your e-mail will end up in their hands.

When replying to an e-mail, it is often helpful to intersperse your responses into the original text. When you do this, make sure there is a way to distinguish between the original text and your additions. In some packages, this can be done with different fonts or colours. However, the lowest common denominator (and safest) method, is to mark pre-existing text with a prefix character on each line. The ">" (right chevron) character is commonly used for this purpose. Multiple chevrons can be used to denote multiple generations of comments.

If you are replying to a long e-mail, but your response pertains to only a tiny portion of the original, it is good practice to "snip out" those portions of the original e-mail that are not relevant. This saves those reading your e-mail a lot of time.

Another hazard of e-mail is that it is the delivery mechanism of choice for many computer viruses. Several of the more common e-mail client products (that's the part that resides on your personal computer, and probably is "e-mail" to you), have known deficiencies related to security against viruses. Spend a few minutes surfing the web. If you have the choice of which e-mail client to use, look for a lesser known product that will be less attractive to virus-makers, and probably has a better security record. If you cannot choose your e-mail client (corporate decision), then find out what the security weaknesses of your e-mail client product are. Then, find any patches available for it to correct those issues, or learn to work around those security holes.

Finally, remember your last line of defence will usually be a known, good backup. Keep several versions of your backups. Some viruses take their time making their presence known. So if you only have one recent backup available when you find out about a virus on your computer, there is a reasonable chance that virus has also been stored on your backup.

But for the majority of Internet users, the greatest contribution of e-mail has to be that a good joke can now circle the globe in a matter of minutes.

Broken Links

You are happily surfing along the information superhighway, bouncing around from link to link discovering new information and delights, when you hit one of the potholes - a link that does not work. Such an annoyance. However, the reality is that websites disappear, move and get re-organized. If you discover a broken link, and there is a convenient way to contact the Webmaster for the site that has posted the link to the webpage that is now missing, please take a moment and send the e-mail. It is hard to keep up with all the moving webpages. Typically, the information needed by the Webmaster is the address of the page where the problem occurred, and the address of the link that is no longer working. On the other side of the coin, Webmasters, please make it easy for surfers to reach you with this kind of information (ours is at the bottom of the page). Working together, surfers and Webmasters can patch up the potholes, and make surfing better for all of us.

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