Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Basic Windows Maintenance and Malware Removal

Greetings Windows user - I've got great news: Basic Windows maintenance is easy enough for you to do yourself!

In my experience, the majority of software issues on Windows machines are caused by malware that has installed itself on the computer. Luckily  there's a number of free programs that will do the majority of the work for you to getting your machine running like new again.

I recommend these steps time and time again to friends and family, and in all honesty, I should have put this guide together years ago - but I'm sure someone will find it useful. I've had great success with this method on Windows XP, Vista, and 7.

I will explain the whole process more thoroughly below, but the gist is to do the following:
  • Downland and install CCleaner - use it remove temporary files and free up space.
  • Download, install, and update Malwarebytes - do a full system scan to detect and remove malware.
  • Download and install Defragler - use it to defrag your hard drive. 
  • Make sure yours system is up to date with Windows Updates, and use Security Essentials for virus protection

1 - Use CCleaner to remove temp files 

Process

Download CCleaner here and install the program. The default settings should be fine.
Run the program and notice all the check boxes, these are the temporary files that CCleaner will remove. (If you depend on your web browser to save your passwords, be aware that if "Saved Passwords" is checked under Internet Explore or Chrome/Firefox/etc in the Applications tab, it will be necessary to reenter them - you can avoid this by unchecking the box.)
Close other running programs and click the "Run Cleaner" button. 

The program will take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes to remove the unnecessary files, displaying something like this when it's finished doing it's job :
CLEANING COMPLETE - (24.321 secs)
-----------------------------------------------------------------
643 MB removed.
-----------------------------------------------------------------
 At this point, we're done with CCleaner, so can close the program and move on to step two.

Explanation 

Files are used to record all kinds of data all over your computer - many of them are not unnecessary for your machine to run properly. These files range from internet cache to speed up page loads for future visits, to logs and memory dumps that can be used for diagnosing hardware and software failures. Over time, these files can compound by the thousands and start taking up a significant amount of space. 

While these files aren't necessarily causing harm to your system, cleaning them up prior to the next steps makes sense, as these files won't have to be processed if they've been removed. It's just good housekeeping. CCleaner can be run as frequently as desired, but I usually recommend it before doing full system scans with other software. 

2 - Use Malwarebytes to find and remove malware

Process

Download Malwarebytes here and install the program (note that at the time of this writing the "Download Now" button redirects to Cnet/Download.com - this is fine, simply click green "Download Now" button on Download.com's page). The defaults are fine during the installation, but may be altered to suit your needs.  When the Complete dialog box come up, "Enable free trial... " is selected by default - I uncheck this, as the free version of the program does everything we need it to do. Keep the other two ("Update... " and "Launch...") selected, and click Finish. The updater will likely pull down a newer definitions, then launch the program.

On the Scanner tab, there are three scan options, tick the "Perform full scan" option and click on the Scan button. A dialog box may appear asking you what drives you wish to scan - defaults are usually fine, but the Windows drive (as marked with the Windows logo - usually C:\) is a must. Click Scan, and the program will start doing its job. This process can take a long time (up to hours, in some cases) but will vary based on a number of factors. Note that "Quick Scan," which scan only the most commonly infected areas is much faster, and can be used, though may miss Malware that would have otherwise been detected, for this reason, I suggest doing a full system scan the first time the program is used. 

After the scan is complete, a dialog box will appear notifying you of such, clicking OK will pull up the scan log if it found anything. All of the malicious objects should be selected by default, simply click "Remove Selected" and let the program do its thing. Depending upon what the Malwarebytes detects a box may popup up with "URGENT! You must restart your system to remove all active threats properly. Click Yes to restart now." Click Yes.

Explanation 

Malware is a general term for a number of different kinds of software that can sneak its way on to your computer and, as the name would suggest, do all kinds of different bad things. This ranges from attempting to collect private information, to causing all kinds of unwanted popups, to "extortionware," which will take your files hostage and demand that you pay for their return.

Malware makes its way onto computers through security vulnerabilities and getting tricked into clicking on things online (e.g. "Congrats, you've won a free iPad! Click here to claim your prize!"). While thinking twice before clicking on an unknown link goes a long way in preventing malware from installing itself onto machines, malware writers are always coming up with trickier ways to get their 'software' distributed - without doing such, they'd be out of a job.

Malwarebytes is a great program for tracking down and eliminating malware on your computer. When it updates, it pulls down the latest definitions, which it checks your files against during the system scan. While Malwarebytes is pretty thorough, there are some nasties out there that it has trouble detecting and/or removing, for which there are tools, but by in far, this software is a great combination of thoroughness and usability.

3 - Use Defragler to defragment your hard drive (optional)

Process

Download the program here and install the software - again, the default install options are fine, but not necessary. Finish the installation and run the program. Take note of the status window, if you see "Ready - SSD Detected" DO NOT defragment the drive - SSD's do not need to be defragmented, nor should they be. Otherwise select the drive you wish to defrag, and click the Defrag button. 

Note that this process can be very time consuming, and is not completely necessary, but can indeed increase system performance in many situations where lots of files are being read from the drive (boot up, loading big programs, etc). The process can also be stopped and/or paused without issue.

Explanation 

Due to the mechanical aspect of hard drives, it's normal for one file to be written in several chunks all over the physical disk. Hard drives are made of one or more platters spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute - data is encoded magnetically by a head attached to an arm that moves across the surface of the platters. So when data's written to the drive, it's rarely all in one physical location, but spread out across many. Large files can be written across many blocks in hundreds (or even thousands) of fragments. 

Defragmentation is exactly what it sounds like: all of the the "fragments" of any and or all files on the drive are grouped together - this means the armature don't have to move around seeking for the data as much, and therefore increases performance. While it's not going to make a huge difference, defraging your hard can reduce loading times. Solid state disks, or SSD's, as the name suggests have no moving parts, so do not need to be defragmented - further, because of how the process goes through so many read/write cycles, it can actually put undue wear on the disk. 


4 - Update Windows and use MS Security Essentials to keep yourself protected

Process

Hopefully your computer is already up to date, and you're using some form of virus protection. To check for updates on a Windows 7 machine, click Start, Control Panel, then Windows Update (if category view is turned on, you will find Windows Update inside System and Security). 

Here you should first check that "Install updates automatically" is selected in the drop-down list under "Change settings." Next, click back, and "Check for updates" - critical updates should already be selected (if there are any). If necessary, click on the Install Updates button - depending upon how much needs to be installed, the process may be somewhat time consuming and may require your computer to be restarted.

So far as virus protection goes, I can't recommend Microsoft Security Essentials enough - it's light weight and does a great job. While it's not as heavy duty as total PC security suites as offered by Norton, McAfee and others, it also doesn't suck up system resources like its heavier counterparts. Further, it's free. You can download MSE here. After the software is downloaded and installed, you'll want to do a full system scan the first time around to ensure your computer is bug free.



Thursday, December 6, 2012

Don't call it 'Gay Marriage'

As of today Washington State has joined eight other states by legalizing same-sex marriage. While I'm thrilled that state is finally joining the 21st century on this issue, the term 'gay marriage' is somewhat bothersome to me. While it's a minor concern, and far preferable to a discriminatory marriage policy, the language is still somewhat problematic.

The term 'gay marriage' implies that it's somehow different than marriage proper. I'd propose that it's not. For purposes of the law, at least at the state-level, 'gay marriage' is marriage; or "marriage equality", or "non-discriminatory marriage."

While this attempt at vernacular adjustment may be too much to hope for, I think it's important for a couple of reasons. First, it emphasizes equality (blah blah blah, about why otherization is bad). And second, it implies what ought to be the norm. Whereas Washington now allows for "marriage equality," Oregon, Idaho, 39 other states, as well as the federal government have a discriminatory marriage policy.

That is, saying something like, "Nine states have legalized gay marriage, while 41 have not," implies something totally different that, "Nine states have marriage equality laws, while 41 states have discriminatory marriage policies."

By all means, I'm thrilled at the steps being taken as a State, and indeed, when I think about the possibilities for progress embedded in much of my generation, I cast my usual political-pessimism aside and have a lot of hope for the coming years, and even decades. But there's still a lot of work that needs to be done both in the United States (It's very likely the Supreme Court will be considering the Defense of Marriage Act, or something similar soon), and abroad (with the most prominent being the anti-homosexuality bill that may be passing in Uganda, which will likely include a death penalty).

Today though, celebrate, Washington!
As for me... well I need more coffee.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Technology as our best hope.



I think this is the kind of thing that's indicative of what will be our planet's best shot at long-term survival. The coming generation will have access to tools and knowledge that the former couldn't have dreamed of growing up. With any luck, fostering creativity through the near-limitless power of technology will provide solutions to everything from global sea-level rise, poverty, and access to education. I'll expand on these ideas shortly, but wanted get the above video shared.

Even with all the injustice in the world, these are exciting times to be alive.