What does the "AA" part stand for? "Adiposity Anonymous" - The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines "adiposity" as being fat or heavy, from the Latin adiposus and the French poids. It's time to admit that your PC is suffering from computer bloat - it has become fat and lazy! It's time now for your PC to confess that it has forsaken its former sleekness and leanness of its youth, and it has accumulated loads of big programs and files that you don't need and are holding it back from running efficiently. It's time to "cast off every weight and the sins that so easily beset it, and run the race!" So we've developed the following AA 12-Step Plan to rehabilitate your PC:

  1. Take Out The Garbage
  2. Remove Old Checkpoints
  3. Defragment Your Hard Disk(s)
  4. Increase Available RAM
  5. Acknowledge a Higher Power
  6. Secure Your Data
  7. Use PortableApps
  8. Backup Your Files Locally
  9. Backup Your Files Remotely
10. Keep Your Programs Up-To-Date
11. Install Internet Security
12. Protect Against "Zero-Day" and "Drive-By" attacks

(Disclaimer: the author receives no financial or other material benefit from recommending the free programs he mentions on this page. They have been carefully selected over several years, and are listed here solely for your benefit. May God bless you!)

 
1. Take Out The Garbage
Now it's time to "cast off every weight" and clean out those unneccessary programs and files. Go into Control Panel → Add and Remove Programs, and uninstall the old version numbers of the programs you may have updated. Then scan down the list in Add and Remove Programs for programs you haven't used in several months, and uninstall them too. This can free up several Gigabytes of disk space. Next, open the Start menu → Accessories → System Tools, then run Disk Cleanup. (Or you can download the free CCleaner program from
http://www.ccleaner.com/, install it in the "PortableApps" folder mentioned in Steps 6 and 7, and run it to clean out dead temporary files in various locations and orphaned entries in your Windows Registry.) This will speed up your boot time as well as free up much disk space.

 
2. Remove Old Checkpoints
Each time Windows Automatic Update installs new or updated Windows software, it keeps a copy of the old software and the downloaded update files in your Windows folder, and creates a System Restore checkpoint file. Some software updates from other vendors also create a System Restore checkpoint file. So open the Start menu → Accessories → System Tools, then run Disk Cleanup for [drive letter], and click on "Clean up system files." Then click the More Options tab, under System Restore and Shadow Copies, and click Clean up. In the Disk Cleanup dialog box, click Delete. Click Delete Files, and then click OK, to delete these old Windows Update and Checkpoint files up to the last System Checkpoint, thus freeing up even more disk space. This will take several minutes.

 
3. Defragment Your Hard Disk(s)
Now that you've cleaned out the dead wood, you can reorganize the remaining files by defragmenting your hard disk(s). open the Start menu → Accessories → System Tools, then run Disk Defragmenter. This may take over an hour, so let it run undisturbed while you're having lunch. Defragging can significantly speed up your computer by moving your files around so that each file is located in the right place on the disk and thus can be accessed faster.

 
4. Increase Available RAM
Is your PC still running too slow, after all we've done so far? It ran faster when you first got it, but today's programs have grown larger and many of these modern programs have "little" (from a few megabytes to ten, twenty or more megabytes each) modules loaded in memory at all times. Right-click on the Task Bar (or you can press Ctrl+Alt+Del), then select Task Manager and click on the "Processes" tab - you'll see that 50-75 modules are always loaded in memory. If you click on the CPU column heading to sort the processes by CPU cycles used, and you see there's one process (program) running that's gobbling up 80%, 90% or more of your computer processor's cycles, that program may be the problem. You should modify its settings so that it doesn't load into RAM every time Windows starts up, or uninstall it.

Otherwise, if you have lots of "little" processes that all together add up to a huge amount of memory, there may not be enough RAM (Random Access Memory) for all of your active programs and modules, so the operating system swaps some of them out to a "page file" on your hard disk. But the hard disk access time is 100 to 1000 times slower than the PC's electronic RAM. When you have too much paging going on, the operating system is "thrashing" around, spending most of its time moving modules between the RAM and the page file, which really slows down your ability to get any real work done. The solution is to add higher-capacity RAM chips. Download CrucialRAMChipScan from http://www.crucial.com/systemscanner/index.aspx, run it, and it will tell you how much and what kind of RAM chips your computer should have for today's programs, and help you order them.

 
5. Acknowledge a Higher Power
It's most important to acknowledge a Higher Power, and that you're not it. Many people are using their computers day-to-day as if they're the Higher Power: they login as administrator and work all day and night in the admin account. Often, when they bought their PCs (especially with Windows XP), the salesperson set up just one account - it had to be an admin account - and often without a password. That was a huge mistake, but understandable because people were just migrating from Win 98 that didn't have any logins or passwords at all. Also, in 2001 when XP was introduced, not very many PCs were connected to the Internet all day and night, not very many programs were written to automatically "call home" to update themselves... and not very many viruses, trojans, etc., were written to "call home" and steal your personal info. The sad fact, however, is that when you use the admin account regularly, it gives administrator privileges to viruses and other malware to install themselves and infect your Windows Operating System, Program Files folders and/or other hard-to-detect places.

So you need to acknowledge that there must be a Higher Account that you don't use for your day-to-day work. If you don't have a separate admin account and you're running Win-7 or Win-8, go to Control Panel → User Accounts, set up a new admin account, and change your old account to "standard user." If you already have a separate admin account, check to be sure that the admin account is protected with a strong password using a mnemonic device, such as taking the first letters in a phrase and including a special character or a number or two, for example: “WdutSR,f,fa!1” is the first letters of “Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away!” +1. (without the quotes, and don't use this one because hackers probably have visited this web page!). Why is "I graduated from University of Minnesota in 85!" that becomes "IgfUoMi85!" a bad idea? Because of “social engineering” - a scheme hackers use to find out basic info about you in order to guess your password and access your online accounts. That's why you shouldn't use the same password for all your accounts on the Internet – what if someone guesses it? Also, never use your nickname, birthdate, your spouse's or child's name, “123456” or “password”.

 
6. Secure Your Data
You need secure places where you can keep your data. The first place is a password vault where you can store all of your logins and passwords for computer accounts, email accounts, online banking, bill paying and shopping accounts, etc. Using the same password for all accounts means that if a hacker or spyware gets that password, he has access to all your accounts. With a password vault all you need to remember is one master password that uses a mnemonic device, similar to your "administrator" and "standard user" passwords. After that, use the password vault to generate passwords that are virtually impossible-to-guess random strings of capital and small letters, numbers (and special characters if a website allows them).

So go to http://lastpass.com/, create a LastPass account and download their LastPass program to install it on your PC... and destroy that piece of paper! Passwords written on paper are a great gift to snoopy "friends", pickpockets and burglars. Lastpass is a Web-based app, especially good for people who might not have their own PC, or when you're on a public PC and need to access a password-protected website (but be careful to logout from a public PC!).

Along with a password vault, you need a secure place outside of your PC where you can store your other data files. Download SafeHouse Explorer from http://www.safehousesoftware.com/SafeHouseExplorer.aspx, install it, and copy the SafeHouseExplorer.exe and SafeHouseExplorer.chm files from their Program Files folder to a new flash drive. If you don't have a flash drive, plan on buying one with at least 8-Gigabyte capacity, and in the meantime you could use a DVD. Run SafeHouseExplorer and click on "New Volume" to create a password-protected encrypted volume on your flash drive or DVD. (Don't re-use your LastPass password! Use a different password for this encrypted volume, and enter it in your LastPass password vault.) You can use the SafeHouse Explorer file manager on any Windows PC such as at an Internet cafe to open files with your regular programs, or drag-and-drop files to and from the encrypted volume. You have the option, however, of installing some drivers on your own computer (this requires entering an admin password), which will make a new drive letter visible on your computer. This encrypted volume is where you'll store the backups of your documents, other files and portable programs (see Step 7).

 
7. Use PortableApps
I strongly recommend PortableApps - see our
29 Aug 2009 issue of CN.Net-News about the PortableApps and other programs that I recommend. This way, you can have your most important programs, settings, email messages, documents and your password vault at your fingertips, even if you're away from your computer, or if it breaks or gets stolen. You can use these programs and your documents on any Windows PC, and without knowing that computer's admin password. Go to http://portableapps.com/download, download and install it to the "PortableApps" folder that you created in Step 6, and decide which apps you want to add. They have lots of free PortableApps programs, such as Skype, LibreOffice, Thunderbird email, Firefox and Google Chrome browsers, all made portable - take a look at their website!

 
8. Backup Your Files Locally
Fourthly, you need to acknowledge that "most computer problems stem from a loose nut located between the keyboard and the chair" - the majority of messed-up programs or missing information arises because of user error, ignorance or negligence: most computer users don't regularly back up their files. Then the computer malfunctions or files are accidentally erased, and they have nowhere to turn. Your computer is replacable, but the information stored on it is irreplacable! The single greatest cause of data loss is user error and the failure to do daily backups, not hard disk failure or viruses. You should store a backup of your personal documents, web browser profile settings and email program profile (messages and settings) somewhere separate from your computer, in case your PC crashes, is damaged or stolen. Having a local backup means you can recover your information quickly, even if Internet access is unavailable. The reason most people don't do backups, however, is because they don't know how, or even if theoretically they know how, it takes a real effort to get started, or they just never "get around to it." But well begun is half done, so let's begin...

Here's what to do: First, keep your documents, web browser and email files and settings, etc., in sync between your C: drive and flash drive by downloading the FreeFileSync program from http://sourceforge.net/projects/freefilesync/ that can copy new or changed files to another location. Install it in a "C:Users\[your login name]\PortableApps" folder. Now you need to start with an identical set of files on both drives. Go to the new folder above, copy that folder to the encrypted volume on your flash drive, along with any other folders on your hard drive that you want to keep in sync with your flash drive.

Next, start FreeFileSync, and on the left side of its window just under the words "Drag & Drop", enter the folders on your C: drive such as "My Documents" that you want to keep in sync with the corresponding folders on your flash drive, then just opposite this field on the right side of the window, enter the corresponding folder name on your flash drive. To add a second set of folders, click the little green circle with a "+" in it on the left side of the window. Click on the "gear" icon in the upper-right and select "mirror." To actually synchronize your drives, first click the "Compare" button on the left, then click the "Synchronize..." button on the right. If you need help setting it up, please contact us at www.ComputerNerds.Net.

On a daily basis (it takes under 1 minute/day), or at least just before you go on a trip without your PC, or just before it crashes or gets stolen ;-), use the FreeFileSync program to mirror-sync your new and changed data from your C: drive to the flash drive. Keep your flash drive on your person, not in your desk next to your computer! Now you have your programs and personal files with you wherever you go! When you return from your trip, or when you repair or recover your PC, simply click the double-ended arrow in the middle of the window to reverse the direction, and mirror-sync your new and changed data from your flash drive to the C: drive. Synchronizing your files on the C: drive with your flash drive, however, is not a complete backup system, because you really should keep incremental backups, as explained in Step 9.

 
9. Backup Your Files Remotely
I've been raised in the "old school" that believes my information belongs to me, it defines my identity, and I don't want to give away my identity or have it stolen - we've experienced identity theft once and it hurts! - so I'm the person primarily responsible for keeping it safe and secure. I've done my own backups for over 20 years and I have identity theft insurance.

A complete backup system should provide a version history: let's say today is Saturday and you remember that you added some information to a file on Tuesday, but then you changed it again on Thursday. Now you need to recover Tuesday's info... but your C: drive and your flash drive only contain Thursday's info. Or the file somehow got corrupted, so your sync copy is corrupt too. Or you were cutting-and-pasting some text when the phone rang and it was an emergency, so you left your desk and your computer evetually turned itself off. "Stuff happens!" This is why you need a version history for at least the previous seven days, or the past 30 versions is even better. Google Drive and Microsoft's OneDrive both offer incremental backups.

If you've set up your offsite backups, you can skip down to Point 10. But if you decide to do your own backups, the "File History" program in Win-7 or Win-8 can make incremental backups, which is what you want. If you want to do a complete system backup, you can use the free Easus ToDo Backup program (http://todo-backup.com). You should at least make System Recovery disks of your Operating System from the hidden Recovery Partition, in case your hard drive crashes and your Recovery Partiton is irrecoverable! Test those disks so that you know they are good copies, and also keep the registration keys for your OS and other programs on your flash drive and on your backup disks. Store these backup disks somewhere safe, away from your PC, where they won't get stolen or damaged in a fire, etc.

 
10. Keep Your Programs Up-To-Date
Perhaps you've occasionally seen a little window pop up saying "an update is available" when you run a program, and you're busy so you decide to "do it later" - but "later" never comes. Those program updates, however, very likely include security patches! Each time you run PortableApps menu, it will check for updates of all your PortableApps programs. Another nice, free program that periodically scans your computer to see if you have programs that need security updates is
SecuniaPSI. Login again as admin, download run it, and it will show you which of your programs need to be updated and how to do it. As the saying goes, "Just Do It!" Also jot down the names and version numbers of the old programs you're updating. You'll need to login again as admin periodically, let's say once a month, to run SecuniaPSI and check for obsolete programs.

 
11. Install Internet Security
Up to now "we've found the enemy, and he is us." The overwhelming majority of computer problems stem from users always being logged in as admin, neglecting to backup their files, not updating obsolete and potentially insecure programs, etc. So it's more important, but psychologically harder to take responsibility for our own PC problems, and much easier to blame them on external threats such as viruses, trojans and other malware. But now it's time to deal with those external threats.

Hopefully, you're running an up-to-date firewall and anti-virus program. But if not, or if you're disgusted with having to pay out money every year to renew your license, let me recommend Microsoft's highly-rated, free security package, Microsoft Security Essentials: http://www.microsoft.com/security_essentials/ - much smaller in size than many others (no built-in "Pro" version that they try to sell you) and it works quite unobtrusively. I've tried five or six other free Internet Security programs over the years, and this was the best all-in-one internet security program I've found. (It's included in Windows 8 and above by the name "Windows Defender."

But if you're not running Windows 8 or higher, download Microsoft Security Essentials. Next, disconnect from the Internet and uninstall your old firewall and anti-virus program(s), if any. Then click on the Microsoft Security Essentials installation program, and Windows will prompt you for the admin password, to install and run it. Now reconnect to the Internet. At first the program will update the virus database, then you may have to restart your computer, and it will be fully functional. Here are several other free Internet Security programs: http://windowssecrets.com/2008/06/26/05-Get-top-flight-antivirus-without-spending-a-dime.

Whether or not your anti-virus program finds anything, there's a small chance that a "rootkit" might have installed itself at a very deep level on your computer (the "root" level, before Windows fully boots up) and thus is invisible to most anti-virus programs. Download SpyDLLRemover from http://portableapps.com/apps, install it into your "PortableApps" folder and run it, which may take several minutes. It will let you delete any "rootkits" that it finds. It's advisable to run this program periodically, about once per month.

 
12. Protect Against "Zero-Day" and "Drive-By" attacks
A recent variety of malware consists of "Zero-Day attacks" in which hackers inject a 1 pixel x 1 pixel "web bug" image, a zero-width x zero-height iframe, a trojan that asks for your password or credit info, or other malware into perfectly legitimate, well-known websites such as e-Bay, Amazon.com, your bank, sponsored ads on many websites, etc. These malware injections usually last just a few hours or no more than one day before they're caught and removed, but meanwhile thousands of visitors to those websites can become infected and have their passwords, credit card or bank account numbers stolen: AVG detects between 100,000 and 150,000 such infections per day! To avoid such "real time" malware that won't be added to your standard antivirus program's virus databases until it gets updated the next day - "Day One" (when it's already too late), you need a program that scans each website you're going to visit on "Day Zero" immediately before your browser opens up that website.

AVG has just come up with a brilliant solution to this threat: "Secure Search," and you should download and install it right now for free from http://www.avg.com/us-en/secure-search. It guards against well-known but infected websites, and also rogue websites hiding behind a "http://tinyurl.com" or similar link - those extra-long website addresses that can be shrunk down to a tiny URL - people love to use these short URLs on Twitter, etc. But hackers also realized right away that they can hide their malware websites behind these shortened web addresses, or by displaying a descriptive name on a web page instead of the actual web address it's linking to.

Secure Search will prevent you from going to these websites that can infect your computer simply by opening up the web page. On the very same day that I installed Secure Search it found an infected website hiding behind a tiny URL, and it prevented my browser from opening that web page - it really works! Also, if you use the Firefox browser, or if Secure Search conflicts with other programs on your PC making it run too slowly, you can have similar protection (even on a Mac): see "10 Firefox extensions that enhance security" at http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/10things/?p=1160&tag=nl.e055 - one of them, WOT (Web Of Trust), right away found an infected website as I was about to open its home page.

What is a "Drive-By" attack? It's another sneaky, nefarious way that cyber-crooks have devised to steal your passwords, credit card or bank account numbers, or turn your PC into a zombie in a "botnet" sending out spam. It could be a "Zero-Day" infection of a reputable website, or any rogue website that pops up a little window looking almost like a Windows system message and asks for your admin password, or a warning from a supposed anti-virus program saying your computer is infected and asking for your credit card number to download a program that will supposedly remove the infection. Usually the English is misspelled and poorly written, indicating some Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Russian, etc. cyber-crooks wrote the program: that's a good clue it's malware.

Drive-By malware often exploits security flaws in other programs you have installed on your computer, but sometimes it simply uses "social engineering" - a "Click here to exit" or "Click here to continue" message. DO NOT even move your mouse pointer into this popup window, or click on anything in this popup! HTML and Javascript can be written to interpret merely moving your mouse pointer over a window or clicking the red "X" in the popup as your agreement to perform an action, such as installing something on your PC. Instead, close your web browser immediately, by carefully moving your mouse pointer away from the popup to the red "X" in the upper-right corner of your browser and clicking on it. But i f the unexpected browser window takes up your whole screen, or if your browser won't close, shut down or reboot your PC. If by mistake your computer does get infected, contact us and we can tell you how to remove the malware.


I sincerely hope this AA 12 Step Rehabilitation Plan has been helpful. If you need assistance with these steps, or have other computer problems, please call or email us, or go to our Online PC Support page and contact us. Some computer service people recommend reinstalling Windows once a year to get rid of computer bloat, but my experience has been that a good computer cleaning every six months can avoid the painful work of backing up everything, then reinstalling Windows and all of your programs, settings, and documents, which can take a few days to get everything set up the way you want. Only if you have the original setup files and registration keys for Windows and all of your programs, drivers, etc., and if the above 12 steps and any other attempts fail to resolve your computer problems should you consider reinstalling Windows.

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