It’s a Mystery!

The following was originally posted on the Shoreline Area News, March 23, 2014 as part of the Tech Talk series

Brian! Glad I was able to reach you. I have a Mystery.”

“Hi, Dad. What’s the problem?”

“I was typing a letter and, suddenly everything disappeared!”

“Okay, I assume you were typing in Word then, right?”

“That’s right!”

“What were you typing when everything disappeared?”

“It was name of a airport. I am traveling again.”

“Let me guess…you were actually typing the word “Airport” at the time, the screen flashed and you were left with part of the word.”

“I don’t know about the flash, I was looking at the keyboard, but you are right about the rest. I only have the “ir” left. That’s when I noticed the rest missing.”

“I think we can get it back, Dad. Hold down the Cntrl key and tap “Z” a few times while watching the screen. Once the “ir” disappears, your text should reappear. You are reversing your keystrokes.”

“Its back! You are a miracle worker. I see everything back, highlighted.”

“Good. Make sure you click outside the highlighted selection before you type again.

Otherwise you might lose it again.”

“Great! Thanks son.”

“Happy to help, Dad.”

Mysteries are a Gift
I love mysteries. Whether it’s technical troubleshooting or a TV murder to solve, I enjoy the process of un-wrapping the situation and working back from an event to find the cause, and, hopefully, a solution.

My Dad’s mystery was actually one we have been through a few times before, though he usually didn’t remember the detail. It also helped that I had experienced the same situation and had the benefit of seeing the “flash” I mentioned. Lastly, I had the benefit of knowing what likely was happening behind the scenes.

His problem was rooted is the position of the Ctrl key just below the Shift key on PC keyboards. It’s very easy to hit Ctrl instead of Shift when you intend to capitalize a letter, like that “A” in Airport.

What’s Going on?
The result of the Ctrl+A keyboard combination on the Mac would be to move the typing cursor to the beginning of the line. Ctrl key combinations on the Mac center around moving the cursor; the same the convention used by UNIX, the operating system on which the Mac operating system, OSX, was based.

While moving the cursor suddenly can provide some confusion if unintended, the result of Ctrl+A on Windows PC’s is a bit more dramatic. The key combination generates a “Select-All” option. For most Windows applications including Microsoft Word, this selects all text and other objects (pictures, charts, shapes). It’s a great alternative to dragging your mouse down a page or multiple pages to highlight everything.

The “OOPs” Sequence
Unfortunately, if you haven’t intended to Select All, it can cause your text to disappear with the next keystroke. Here’s the sequence:

  1. You are typing madly away without a care in the world
  2. You hold down the Ctrl key and tap “A” instead of the Shift key to capitalize the letter. All document contents are now selected. You continue to type the word “Airport.”
  3. All selected items disappear, replaced by by “I” or “irport,” depending on how long you type before looking up and notice everything else is gone.

Oops!

The Solution to the OOPs Sequence
Ctrl keys on the Windows’ Keyboards are focused on text formatting, document retrieval and storage. Fortunately one of those keys lets you undo a previous operation. Ctrl+Z is known as the “Undo Key.”

How far back you can “undo” actions depends entirely on the program and memory it has allocated for undo operations. Fortunately Word has multiple undo levels. Unless you save the file (removing the undo levels), rolling back is pretty straight-forward. Word also has undo and redo options on which you can click in the document’s title bar.

Mac’s have an Undo key as well, Command+Z. You will find many of the Windows Ctrl key combinations become Command key combinations on on the Mac. Fortunately, The Mac Ctrl key is farther away from the Shift key than the PC Ctrl key so our problem is less likely to occur.

Mystery Solved!
All is well. Time to reflect and…Excuse me, I should be probably take this call.

“Hi, Dad, What’s the problem?…”

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“It was working fine until I installed/updated/changed that @%$^$@%^ thing!”

In the years supporting computer software, this is probably the most common phrase I have heard and continue to hear. For most regular folk, computers straddle that chasm between a modern convenience and an infernal contraption….and it seems like it only takes one thing to topple it the wrong way. It could be a new tool, a security update or even removing something that you didn’t need any more that could balance. Often, it not clear what is updated or changed, especially with all the automatic updates that software programs make to correct bugs or stay ahead of bad guys wishing to exploit their code

When I hear about the situations, the system has been often troubles for days and often weeks. So, “it was working fine until..” is usually follow by “I just want it work like was “before.”

You can never go back…well, maybe you can
A decade ago, this was a tough thing to do and often required a new installation of the system and applications to take the machine back to a state before the problem occurred. For Windows, this pattern changed, starting with Windows XP and the ability to “roll back” a driver for the device having trouble. By saving the old driver and its configuration information, you could restore it easily in case there were problems with the new driver. This was great for situations where you knew that new driver was the culprit. If it wasn’t clear who the culprit is, never fear! There was another option: System Restore.

System Restore periodically stores a snapshot or “restore point” of the current system, applications, and settings, and allow you undo changes made since that restore point was established. While System Restore is a reasonable name, it doesn’t begin to describe its capabilities to people who have had to use it. Macintosh OS X has a version of this feature with more exciting name (Time Machine) and while there are differences between the two tools, they both let you roll back the system to an earlier time…hopefully a time before your problem started.

A good idea with mixed reviews
System Restore made its first appearance in Windows ME before finding itself in Windows XP and future versions. While the idea was laudable, the initial reaction to the utility was mixed, largely because of the amounts of disk space the feature used. Back then, average hard sizes were much smaller. At the release of the Windows XP, 300 gigabytes (GB) drives were just hitting the market and people were more likely to have a drive in the 40-80 GB range. Since System Restore could take over 10% of that drive, people were often advised to lower the maximum space it could use or turn off the feature all together.

Fortunately, space is less of a problem these days with terabyte-sized drives costing the same as those old 80 GB drive. Yes, System Restore takes space… and that space is good insurance against trouble. Just how much size depends on your version of Windows:

Windows XP Drives over 4 Gig Drives 4 Gig and under
  12% of total disk space 400 megabytes (MB)
Windows Vista All Drives  
  15% of drive size or 30% of free disk space
Windows 7 Drives over 64 gig Drives 64 gig or under
  5% of drive or 10 GB Max 3% of drive max

It’s all about timing
Of course, the concern about disk space was also fueled by how often the system automatically sets restore points. In the opinion of many, Windows XP created restore points too often:

Windows XP Restore point is created every 24 hours of operation..
Windows Vista A restore point is created every 24 hour period if no other restore points were created that day.
Windows 7 Restore points every 7 days unless other restore points are created during that period.

With a 24 hour interval, people weren’t terribly happy with how System Restore worked in Windows XP. Also, since the time period not a 24 hour time period but 24 hours of system operation, the interval timer would pause and resume as people shut down or suspended their computers. This made the actual timing of the next restore point difficult to predict.

While the user interface does not provide a way to change this interval setting, you can adjust it by changing a setting directly in the System Registry, something I usually only recommend for knowledgeable people used to working in the Registry (if you are…see Resources for how). Joli Ballew wrote a great article on using System Restore in Windows XP that will help you better use the tool and adjusts many of its settings.

In Windows Vista and Windows 7, the system shifted further away from a rigid schedule, depending more on the actual system changes to determine when to set a restore point. Since most of issues that System Restore can address are related to these system changes, setting a restore point prior to these changes is the most effective and efficient approach. Here are some of the activities that will set a restore point:

· Application installations that work with System Restore. For example, if the application uses the Windows Installer or to add itself to the system, it will set a restore point before any changes are made.

· If an item is automatically downloaded through Windows AutoUpdate, restore point is set prior to installation.

· When you begin a System Restore operation, a restore point is set just in case you need to return to the current system. This is helpful if System Restore fails or the roll-back results in missing applications or settings you had not anticipated.

Understanding what you can lose in a System Restore
While knowing some of the mechanics around restore points is helpful, probably the most important thing to understand is what is saved when a restore point is set and what is not saved. System Restore does not change your documents or saved data at all, only the files and settings used to maintain the system and its applications.

The positive side of this is that system rollback won’t impact your documents when you restore to an earlier time. The downside is if the application you used to create the documents was installed or modified after the restore point used, you will likely have to reinstall or reconfigure the application to return it to the same state it was before the restore.

I recently had to use System Restore on a client’s machine to take the system back a month in time. While this resolved her problem, it also meant that the system needed nearly an hour of security updates to the system, anti-virus software, and other normally automatic updates to other applications. It was as if she had shut the computer down for the month and then had to catch up all at once.

The other point to remember is that System Restore is not a substitute for backup. It only stores executable files, the system registry and other files important to system operation. Windows XP uses the file extensions listed in Filelist.xml (found in the windows\system32\restore folder) as its guide for the files to save. For Windows Vista and Windows 7, that file is not used. You can find the listing of extensions on the Microsoft Developer Network website.

You should make sure that your documents and other hard-to-replace data are separately backed up and protected. If you have downloaded executable files that you need to keep, even if they are in the My Documents folder, I recommend you rename them prior to a system restore. If the restore point is before the file was downloaded, it will be removed unless you do this.

Going back with System Restore can help
As long as you take these precautions, System Restore can be a valuable tool to take your system back before the problem started…providing that the problem is due to a system change. While uninstalling or correcting the offending application are good first and second steps, System Restore is a solid third step to consider.

Resources
All Windows versions
eHow:
How to Set a Restore Point
Microsoft Knowledge Base:The Registry Keys and Values for the System Restore Utility

Windows XP
Joli Ballow:
Windows XP System Restore Is Easy to Use
Kelly’s Korner: System Restore for Windows XP
Microsoft Storage Team: Understanding how System Restore in Windows Vista treats executable files
Microsoft Knowledge Base: How to set a system restore point in Windows XP
Windows BBS: How to schedule creation of restore points

Windows Vista/7
How-To-Geek:
Create a Restore Point for Windows 7 or Vista’s System Restore
Microsoft Developer Network: Restore Points


Multiple Certificate Errors Can Simply Mean a Date Mismatch

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The Signs: Secured web sites that use “https:” as part of their address appear to get some sort of certificate error, an issue with invalid certificate or a failure of the secure connection. Usually this will happen on multiple sites you access.

The Reason: It’s likely that your system date does not match the current date.

The Story:  The solution sounds pretty weird and disconnected, doesn’t it? How could all these website errors actually be just because the date of the machine is wrong? It’s also be embarrassing for those of us to who are tech-wise and likely to dig deep into the system. There we are, looking for data corruption or other sophisticated sources of trouble before checking the computer’s notion of the today’s date.

So, what is the connection between the system date and these problems? It’s the classic case of your computer responding to specific symptoms without understanding the central cause.

What are Security Certificates?
For all of its greatness, the Internet is still a frontier populated by anonymous web sites and users looking to connect.

In the real world, it is the same when you first arrive in town. You have to learn who to trust, who will hire you, where you can put your money, as well as where good places to shop and eat are. It all comes down to building “trust relationships.”

Most of these relationships start with recommendation from friends or friends of friends. You know where your bank branch is and often the people who work there.

Building Trust through Association

Web sites, especially ones where you want to share personal information, buy, sell, or move money need a way to prove they are really who they say they are. The lack of personal connection or physical location means there has to be a different way to prove their identity and a security certificate is a way to do that. So, sites register for these certificates like applying for a business license.

Instead of registering with local government, they register with companies like Verisign, Thawte, or Entrust. These companies provide what is known as “authentication services” and certify that the web site is registered with them. Their whole reputation is built around being a trusted source, not only with the companies that register sites with them but also with Microsoft, Mozilla, and Google, and others who build the web browsers we use to explore these web sites.

Each time you access a web site over a secure “https:” (also known as SSL) connection, that web site shares its security certificate with your web browser. As your web browser also has certificates from the authentication service companies, it can compare information and, if everything checks out, authenticates the web site. Since the web site is trusted by the authentication service and your browser also trusts than same service, you have that “friend of a friend” trust relationship.

How your system date fits into the picture.
One of the many items checked in the authentication process is the valid date range of the certificates.  If the system’s date is within the valid dates on any of the certificates involved. I say “any certificates” because there can be multiple  certifications the browser need to review in order to complete its checks. The date range supplied with each certificate can vary quite a bit. I have seen ranges from a year to nearly a decade. If your computer’s date is outside the date on any certificate, the following errors will display when you try to reach that web site:

Internet Explorer:

There is a problem with this website’s security certificate

Firefox:

Secure Connection Failed

Chrome:

The server’s security certificate is not yet valid!or
The site’s security certificate has expired!

Chrome’s message seems to be the clearest. The body of the Chrome’s error message actually suggests you check the system date! However, this hasn’t stopped people discussing this problem over and over again on the Google forums and elsewhere. For the current versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer, it is easier to understand the confusion.

To be fair, there can be other causes for this error on a specific website. Malware, settings corruption, or simply an out-of-date certificate from the web site could be a cause. However, my experience is that when you get these errors on multiple secure web sites, the culprit is  is an incorrect system date.

What can cause your system date to change?
This may be the biggest mystery for many people. While programs and users are capable of changing system dates, Windows has been become more restrictive in how this is done in recent versions. The reports I get around this problem usually occur in Windows XP.

XP makes it really easy to double-click on the date on the right side of the Task Bar to look up a calendar. It’s also very easy to click on “OK” and press “Enter” and actually save that date you looked up as your system time…and never notice that a change was made. In Windows Vista and Windows 7, it’s easier to look up the calendar (single-click versus double-click) but you have to go through a few more steps to actually change the date.

Another possibility might be the CMOS battery that helps hold the system date while your computer is off. If you don’t turn the computer on much, this battery gets more of a workout and might fail over time, the causing the system to revert to an earlier date. If your computer loses its date frequently, the battery is probably the culprit. These batteries are often removable and replaceable. You can either do this yourself, or have a professional do it for you.

Resources:

Troubleshooting Certificate Errors

 

Microsoft:

About certificate errors

 

TroubleFixers:

Security Certificate Error While Opening Web-sites

 

Google:

Are you seeing red?
 

Lockergnome:

How Do I Fix “Invalid Or Expired Security Certificate” Errors?

Learning More about Certificates

 

Microsoft:

Using certificates for privacy and security

 

Mozilla:

Using Certificates

Changing the Date

 

eHow:

How to Change Time and Date on Windows XP
 

Microsoft:

Set the clock (Windows Vista)
 

SevenForums:

How to Change the Date and Time in Windows 7