The Purloined Letters

Viruses. Spyware. System failure. If not quite biological warfare, cyberterrorism, or weapons of mass destruction, nevertheless they are dangerous threats that recently affected three Poe scholars whose names you know. One found his files paralyzed and inaccessible (spyware). Another suffered a hard disk crash the night before the end of a major project (no backup). A third, whose name will be revealed at the end of this column, suffered a recurring laptop freeze (cause unknown). So while acquiring new Poe information on the internet - the usual theme of these Poe in Cyberspace columns - remains important, protecting the Poe work you already have on your computer can be even more important. The new hazards are more damaging than the well-known older dangers because they are all but unexpected.

Do computers really have malign artificial intelligence to betray us at the worst possible times by Murphy's Law -- or does it just seem that way? While Olympians may continue to believe that they are immune to computer data losses, mere mortals realize that it's not a case of whether but rather of when. According to a Sept. 2005 article in Consumer Reports, even though the public spent $2.9 billion in protection software in the last two years, the national cost of damages caused by software viruses and spyware was still $9 billion in repairs and replacements, suggesting the protection software was not doing it job or was rarely being used correctly. Although spam annoyances seem to be easing somewhat, now viruses are attacking more sensitive data, and spyware is increasing at an explosive rate and becoming more virulent. According to Microsoft, spyware is responsible for up to half of all PC crashes. Chances are that your computer has gone kaput already from one of these several causes -- or will do so in the near future. Realistically speaking, when your computer crashes or freezes, what advance arrangements will you have made to protect your Poe data? When disaster strikes you next - and it will - will your losses in be calamitous, substantial, or minor?

As computers improve and become more reliable, we have come to depend on them more and more, and AS we do so we use networks increasingly for communications and research. Unfortunately with greater network and online use come the greater dangers of contamination by virus, spyware, or spam agents, all of which enter through email attachments, web browsers, or software downloads - elements we have come to depend upon. We know when our computer has crashed, is stolen, or perishes in a flood or fire. We know it soon enough when human error results in deleting or overwriting a vital file. But often we don't know it when viruses, spyware, or Trojans enter our computer, not until they produce some major slowdown or utter catastrophe such as data loss, system collapse, or identity theft. In the meantime we may suspect that something is going wrong but as to what it may be we don't have a clue. In the worst-case scenario, we will have to redo or reconstruct years of Poe research and also buy a new computer and software. But this article is about avoiding the worst-case scenario. Twenty years ago, personal computers had a $5,000 price tag and seemed more valuable than our time, but today simple PC systems are advertised for as little as $300, reminding us that it is our Poe research and other work that is irreplaceable.

Although computer defenses are constantly improving, the public is nevertheless beginning to lose the battles against spam, viruses, and spyware. Spam is the commercial process of sending out tens of millions of email messages at relatively little cost to elicit a few positive responses. (When Congress finally passed the Can-Spam Act of 2003, despite the objections of 44 state attorneys, it required that spam include an opt-out address that actually benefits the spammer by verifying your address: hence the lesson is never to reply to spam.) Spyware is usually a commercial attempt to redirect web browsers to unintended destinations or to gather data on your computer usage, but lately spyware has become more destructive. Viruses are a malicious attempt to overwhelm or damage your computing processes, often producing results far in excess of the expectations of their makers, who may be teenage programmers living in the third world. Phishing, a growing danger, is the attempt to trick you into disclosing confidential financial or identity information. A favorite trap of malware is putting an innocent-looking address on your screen but programming it to a malicious address you probably won't see beneath: the lesson, if you suspect treachery, us to type in the address instead of clicking on it.

Many Poe scholars do little or nothing to defend their computers and data until they encounter a major difficulty, by which time recovery may be inconvenient, expensive, or even impossible. The defensive steps to keep your Poe (and other) data safe are not complicated but require constant vigilance (monthly or weekly) to keep up with the growing sophistication of the attacks. First of all, keep your operating system up to date. If you use Windows XP or another Microsoft operating system, regularly download and install the latest versions, service packs, and upgrades, each of which will contain improved protection features. If you get a security patch notice from Microsoft, install it before the hackers figure out how to exploit the weakness. If you don't get such notices, go to and subscribe. (This article will focus on Microsoft Windows because Macintosh users, being fewer, have been targeted less for these attacks.)

Second, install and maintain an anti-virus program from a reputable company such as Norton Symantec or McAfee. Be sure to configure your software to activate a virus scan for each incoming and outgoing file or email, to check your hard disk each week, and to download an upgrade each month or when notified. Keep anti-virus protection up to date: NO COLON because the most recent viruses are the most dangerous. Do not continue to rely on the 90-day trial of the anti-virus software that came with your computer. Do not use more than one anti-virus program at once. Renew the annual subscription of your anti-virus software or purchase updates to your software (with rebates, often free). Don't just own the software: update it regularly and use it thoroughly.

Third, use one or more anti-spyware programs. Again, take the time regularly to download protective software updates, to scan your hard disk, and to examine all incoming active files. Consumer Reports (Sept. 2005) recommends the free anti-spyware program that can be downloaded from the Microsoft web site (it requires a verification process). A second anti-spyware program can be added since no single anti-spyware program does it all.

Fourth, take measures against spam (which accounts for more than half of all email) by using the latest versions of Microsoft Outlook or Apple Email and by activating filters from your internet service or email provider. You may be able to delete suspected spam messages by inspecting message headings. Never reply to spam, especially not to request removal of your address (as mentioned above, it confirms you got the message), never buy or respond to unsolicited offers, and do not open file attachments you do not expect to receive. Beware of "phishing," attempts to elicit financial data and your digital identity - potentially a very costly blunder. And if you have a broadband or wireless connection, acquire and install the appropriate firewall, security, and password protections.

These outer perimeter defenses against damage through spam, viruses, spyware, and phishing are not sufficient without internal defenses against mechanical or software malfunctions (or plain old human error). The main defense against internal threats is the habitual backup made after each major save, session, or day. For serious projects, multiple backups, entailing more than one medium and more than one location, are strongly recommended. Evidently so few users took advantage of the traditional Backup and Restore functions in Microsoft Windows that they have been eliminated in Windows XP Home Edition (the fact that Professional edition still has them tells us something).

So how then do we actually make a backup? What sort of hardware is required? Do we need a special software package? How do we configure the data that needs to be protected? Can we handle the entire process ourselves? Ordinarily your operating system isn't a candidate for backup since to restore it from the system disks will remove all data from your hard disk. Software programs, similarly, aren't software candidates since they must be reinstalled from the original program disks. Keep operating system disks and software program disks in a secure place for use when needed.

First of all, you must understand how your data is structured on your hard disk and which documents and folders (I still call them files and directories) contain your Poe projects and other priorities. In an effort to make data access easier, Microsoft actually has made it much harder. In Windows XP, if you left-click on Start, you'll find My Documents, and links to media-centric places such as My Pictures, My Music, My Computer, My Network Places, etc. But if you right-click on Start to launch Windows Explorer, you'll find a entirely different list of locations, somewhat simplified here as Desktop | My Documents | My Computer | 3 1/2 Floppy A: | Local Disk C: | Documents and Settings | Program Files | D: | Recycle Bin. It's true that you more likely to use Desktop or My Documents than the Recycle Bin, but where in the world is your Poe project? By default Microsoft Word (and other Microsoft Office programs) puts all your files in the My Documents folder. After a while this becomes Fibber McGee's closet, your local junkyard, heaping up word processing, spreadsheet, database, presentation, download, and family picture and music files. If you wish to configure your own backups, you'll have to go beyond Microsoft's marketing to understand how your hard disk is actually structured.

In Microsoft Windows the top level or root of your main hard disk is called C: (because there were once A: and B: floppy disk drives). This is level 1 and you cannot alter it. Beneath it, Level 2 has a folder called Documents and Settings (what in the world do these have to do with each other?), and within this folder at level 3 there are folders for each user (I am "Heyward" on my own machine), as well as All Users, and Owner. Beneath my folder in level 4 there are folders called Desktop, Favorites, and My Documents; and finally in level 5 under My Documents there are sub-folders for My Pictures, My Music, etc. So Desktop, Favorites, and My Documents are four levels down from the top level of the C: Drive. You may be working forever in one document called poe.doc in the My Documents folder, but most of us have several files and more than one project. We may in fact have hundreds of files and dozens of projects. To assure that we backup frequently it is best to do it efficiently - selecting only the recent changes and additions to current projects that we need, assuming we already have backups o folder material. How can you gather all the files together for your current Poe project, and just those files alone, to make such an efficient backup? Few Poe scholars know where their working files are located on their hard disk. Since Microsoft Windows offers no help, we must take matters into our own hands.

The first principle is to separate data from programs and then to separate different projects from each other. If you like Microsoft's configuration with the My Documents at level 4, you can follow it by creating a general Poe folder at level 5 and then several specialized Poe project subfolders at level 6, one for each article, review, course, research interest, or other topic. Or if you find this inconvenient and confusing, as I do, you can make a general Poe folder as high as possible, level 2 (since you cannot alter level 1), and then make project folders in the level immediately below, level 3. Then you can point Windows Explorer or your file manager more readily to the appropriate folder and files to launch your backup procedure. But Microsoft Windows is further unhelpful by persistently showing by default each of your files or documents as visual icons that are ordered alphabetically. This is doubly useless: when you wish to backup only the most recent files you need to know full file information including full names, types, sizes, and dates. And if you suffer as I do from file name amnesia, you want see your files in reverse chronological order - the most recent files shown on top. You must change two things: first, in order to to replace wordless icons with real information: right-click on Start to open Windows Explorer, navigate to your folder and then click on View | Details to display the name, size, type or extension, and date for each file. Second, examine the triangle at "Date Modified" and click on it if necessary to make sure that it faces downward. Now you will see full file names with the most recent files at the top. Then use the Restore to shrink the Windows Explorer panel so that it occupies only a partial screen. Now launch Windows Explorer a second time, and similarly reduce this second iteration in size and then reposition it so that both of these Windows Explorer panels are visible at the same time. Direct one Windows Explorer panel to the folder with the working source files folder and the other to the destination medium drive and folder. Now you are ready to copy and thereby backup only the most recent files. If you find the procedure above complicated and Byzantine, give up on Windows Explorer that came with your computer and use a third party file manager such as Total Commander.

Do incremental backups: do them in small parts each day or session, in larger sections each week or month, and totally each semester or year. The period to be covered in the shortest of these backups is defined by the amount of work you are willing to lose: fifteen minutes, one hour, one session, one day, one week, one month, one year, longer. One further hint: if your project extends over time, don't keep saving your work under the same filename. That obliterates variations in earlier versions that might prove of value later. Instead, use "Save As" to introduce variant names to indicate the different file versions (e.g. review_22sept.doc, review_25sept.doc, review_28sept.doc). Incidentally, if you ever need to upload your files to the internet, don't use spaces in filenames: instead, use underlines or hyphens.

Once you have regrouped your files by project, you can turn to the question of which backup medium to use. The traditional media and methods for backups have changed greatly. The once-universal medium for backups, the floppy disk of 1.44 MB, is now obsolete: new PCs and laptops are delivered without floppy drives. Similarly, Zip disks of 100 MB or larger, once widespread in academic use, are now fading in general acceptance. Although both of these older media were convenient, they were also subject to data failure over time or the hazard of slightly incompatible source and destination drives. Similarly, compression into .zip files (no relation to Zip drives), once essential for large data projects, is limited today mainly to time-saving in file downloads. The two new media for backups that have become standard are small USB memory devices and CD writers, both being fast, cheap, and universal. The USB port on recent computers can accommodate keychain-sized memory devices that can be inserted or removed at any time, typically with capacities of 128 MB to 1 GB, large enough to handle a group of articles or an entire book. The CD drive writer or "burner" handles about 700 MB (DVD writers can manage 4 GB or even much more) and is useful for making unalterable records, doing general backups, and conquering space-hungry media. If you are tempted to install a second internal hard drive as an easy, cheap, and fast way to do backups, keep in mind that both hard disks will depend on the health of the same operating system. A far better solution is to use an external second hard drive with a USB or Firewire connection, which can also serve as a transfer device to share data with a second computer.

Many Poe scholars who synchronize data between their desktop and laptop computers at different locations have unwittingly created a desirable backup system safe from common destruction by flood, fire, or theft. In addition, if a transfer medium is used to synchronize them; an excellent multiple backup system will have been created. It is important, of course, to maintain accurate file dates and times so as never to overwrite newer work unintentionally with older work. If you have an account on a mainframe computer of the type maintained by universities, corporations, and internet providers, backup copies of files may be uploaded for storage and then downloaded from anywhere. I make heavy use of web pages in my teaching and other work, so I have on my hard disk at home a directory called Upload with sub-directories for each class or project. I then customize my upload program to save the configurations of recurring file transfer operations.

The restoration process, alas, can be more hazardous than the backup process, just as it may be trickier to receive a pint of blood than to donate one. File copying is easy - too easy. An older version of a Poe file can accidentally overwrite and thus destroy a newer version of the file. One added protection is to add a date or version code in the name of each important saved file. That will also preserve an archive of older versions that may prove unexpectedly useful. Never "save" files after only inspecting them: it records the last inspection date as though it were the last editing date. Keep an eye on file sizes: newer files usually are larger than older files.

Sadly, user error can be worse than any computer error. In Microsoft Windows programs hitting Ctrl-A by accident (when Shift-A is intended) defines the entire file and thus prepares to replace it with the next keystroke. If that happens to be the space character, as occurs in intending to type the capitalized word "A" in a title or new sentence, the entire file will disappear from the screen. To recover from this potentially destructive maneuver, immediately press Ctrl-Z to return to the previous data state. The Ctrl-Z recovery action can be repeated if needed, and should it be necessary Ctrl-Y can be used in reverse to unrecover any excessive recovery actions. Whatever you do, never save the truncated or obliterated file since to do so will overwrite your real data with nothing, in effect erasing the file. Generally, it's a good idea to set your software to automatically save working files at a fixed interval of about 15 minutes, whether or not power failure is a problem in your locality. In a public place, always save before that nonchalant visitor accidentally steps on your power cord, thereby disconnecting you. Always save before a phone call, before another chore interrupts you, and absolutely before any "print" command: if your printer should freeze up for any reason, you will not be able to get back to your file. When I start work for the day on a continuing project, I often bring up the file of the previous day and save it with a serially altered name, preserving yesterday's version as a fallback.

While we're on the subject of caring for your data, a few words about preventive maintenance are in order. Microsoft Windows has several free system utilities for your hard disk (under Start | All Programs | Accessories | System Tools | see Disk Cleanup, Disk Defragmenter, and System Restore). Supposedly "deleted" files actually stay on the hard disk in the Recycle Bin until you decide to get rid of them permanently. For fuller services, use third party software utilities such as those from Norton Symantec and McAfee. It is not enough to own suites of software utilities: they must be updated often and run regularly (mine are set for 5:00 p.m. Friday).

What can one do in advance to prepare for a data emergency? A bootable floppy disk may get the system started at a primitive DOS level, a rescue disk set can be made of a floppy disk to boot the system with essential drivers, and the Norton CD disk can be used to boot the system and provide some emergency treatment. As you may have suspected, I was the third Poe scholar mentioned at the beginning of this article who suffered a recent computer breakdown. For reasons still undetermined, while away from home my IBM laptop regularly froze a few minutes after bootup. (Heat? Could I work on dry ice?) Although I had copies of all my current data both on my primary desktop computer at home and also on the little USB stick in my pocket, still I lost a week during which I had hoped to work on this very article.

Admittedly, those who neglect maintenance and backup procedures are free to take their chances, waiting for a crisis to develop. If calling friends then fails, and your computer specialist at work cannot help you, it is time to face the commercial services that deal with PC crises - at a price, of course. Before you call for commercial service, try some common sense preliminaries: reboot the machine (if it won't reboot normally, hold down the power button until it does), check all the plugs and connectors, update the operating system, and run anti-virus and anti-spyware software if you can. If your computer is still under warranty, call the vendor - but be sure to make clear that the recovery of your data is an absolute priority. If that does not help, try either of two onlinetelephone services recommended in PC Magazine in August 2005, (877-717-7111) or (877-434-8697). Of course, if your system is not healthy enough for online or telephone help, you must bring your computer to or call in a computer guru. If possible, find one recommended by friends; that failing, consider names in the phonebook or on a local bulletin board. One service heavily advertised on television and widely available for repair services through local Best Buy stores is Geek Squad, (800-433-5778). If you are fortunate, all your computer may need is a corrective software scan or the replacement of an inexpensive part (plus labor), typically costing about $150. But in the dreaded worst-case scenario, if your computer cannot be repaired, first you must buy a new machine (typically $500 or more) and then reinstall (and perhaps reacquire) all your software. Next you must use a costly commercial data recovery service to extract the data from the dead computer by disassembling the hard disk, taking off the data, and sending it to back to you on some appropriate copy media, costing perhaps $1000. Finally you must put your software and data back on your new machine - assuming of course that your Poe data could be recovered.

For more information, see Consumer Reports, July and September 2005;; The New York Times, September 3, 2005, B5; and PC Magazine, August 31, 2005. Online links to all Poe in Cyberspace articles are at

Heyward Ehrlich
Rutgers University - Newark.