Thursday, February 10, 2011

Breaking and Entering, and Exiting and Reinstalling

Despite the fact that I work in front of a computer all day, when I return home from my job the first thing I usually do is boot up my computer and stare at a screen some more. The Internet keeps me connected to my biggest side projects--GameCola, my YouTube channel, and this blog. I write occasional journal entries and (at least once upon a time) electronically scribble down ideas for my next Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I waste hours and countless thugs in all manner of PC games. Though I can certainly function without it, my computer is very much a part of who I am.

Imagine how I felt when a rogue virus snuck onto my computer a few weeks back. My memory of the whole situation is a mite fuzzy, but I'll recount it as best I can.

I had been doing absolutely nothing all day but checking my e-mail and editing a GameCola article when I got a popup advertisement in the middle of not actually surfing the web at all. I instinctively closed the window immediately, but by the time it registered that this random popup was highly suspect, things had begun to fall apart around me.

For one thing, my desktop background spontaneously changed to an alarming warning message about a horrible virus being detected and I should get virus protection immediately. AVG 2011 Free was doing just fine, thank you, aside from the part where I'd been having a few quirky issues since upgrading from 2010, and aside from the part where AVG was clearly not doing its job. Moments later, another popup arrived with a message telling me that a virus had been detected, and I should click here to purchase virus protection right away.

Off to the Internet I flew like a flash, in hopes that I could research this "System Tool" "program" that had instantly manifested and kill it before something bad actually happened. I was concerned, yes, but still keeping a level cool in the face of very clear scare tactics. It wasn't until I was unable to open my virus scanner that this program began to damage my calm.

"This program has been detected as a threat, therefore we won't let you open it. Give us $40 and we'll go away," is effectively what the popup message told me. Fine; let Spybot do the work. No dice; Spybot was also a threat. Not to me, of course. It wasn't long before every program, including Firefox, was classified as a threat. I started calling people up for assistance as I found the folder where the problem resided. My attempt to delete the program outright was met by a jolting reboot of my computer.

I was able to defeat the monstrosity through Safe Mode, but my trust in the antivirus software that had kept me protected since graduating college had diminished significantly. Worse than that, I felt like my home had been violated. Fighting to regain control of my computer was like breaking into my own apartment after a burglar had locked me out. Everything seemed to be in order once the situation returned to normal, but how was I to know that nothing had been stolen or destroyed? Or that the perpetrator wasn't still there, in hiding?

This incident, on top of all the minor issues I'd been having with AVG 2011, led me to invest in the trustworthy Norton 360. I had used a few different iterations of Norton in the past, and I don't ever recall a successful invasion. I also don't recall my computer slowing down to unusable speeds or swatting away popups every ten minutes.

Norton 360 required a lot of processing power. I could tell just by listening to my computer's fan, which sounded like the entire unit was going to blast off after half an hour of the computer being on, regardless of whether any programs were open. Even if the microphone barely picked it up, the frustratingly distracting noise put a serious damper on my recording efforts.

Norton 360 also appears to have been designed for nincompoops who might pluck the keys off their keyboard and try to eat them if they weren't labeled with letters and numbers to indicate that they aren't chocolates. From what I'd read and seen, Norton 360 effectively turned my computer into a fortress, but a fortress where all the soldiers ran around in giant plastic hamster balls so as not to injure themselves. What I'm getting at is that, while I felt secure, I felt almost like Norton had taken over my computer instead of any potential viruses, and confined me to quarters "for my own good."

No matter what settings I commanded Norton to follow, it kept running a scan every time I left the mouse alone for more than ten minutes. It got to the point where I was running a manual full system scan, and because I wasn't moving the mouse, Norton decided to start another full system scan. Between the constant scanning and the popups every five seconds about one thing or another, I felt I had just hired a bodyguard who kept trying to sell me life insurance every time I looked away from him.

As if this weren't bad enough, it was about a week or two before I was no longer able to open Firefox. I would've been able to live with a message telling me that I was locked out because Firefox was a security risk (which it is, if you browse the web the way overprotective Norton 360 assumes you will). I got upset because there was no message. Was there a conflict with Norton? Had one of my Firefox plugins decided not to play well with the latest version upgrade? Was Norton hogging so much of my system resources that I couldn't open Firefox?

Other programs were slowing down, too, and I kept getting alerts that some random website was trying to access my computer--but Norton never told me how to fix the problem, or even where I could begin looking for a solution. Either Norton was messing up everything, or else Norton was so intent on keeping me from using my computer happily that it had failed to detect another virus.

I couldn't use Firefox to look up solutions, so I turned to Internet Explorer. After about three uses, I got locked out of IE as well. I could open the programs in Safe Mode, but at this point, I was greeted with a blank desktop sans taskbar 50% of the time I tried to reboot the computer.

Unable to come up with or search for any more solutions, I resorted to "uninstalling" Norton (I say this in quotation fingers because there's always something leftover from Norton, like when you try to wash a dirty casserole dish that's been sitting out for a week). I had downloaded the installer for AVG 2011 Free again, and was going to start over with what I knew. No more rocketship computer towers, no more problems opening basic programs, and no more continuous popups and scans.

Except AVG wouldn't install. The files got unpacked, and then...nothing. And I couldn't even get online to figure out why.

My computer had been in a state of gradual decline since the first time I installed AVG 2011 Free, and this was the last straw. My fragile computer had been attacked by a stranger and then battered and bruised by the doctors and policemen who were supposed to make everything better. I had been contemplating a full reinstallation of Windows for some time, but I wanted to wait until I was done recording my Mega Man 6 videos before initiating such a major disruption.

Well, the last time I tried to record commentary, my recording program locked up while saving my audio file, presumably because Norton thought my voice sounded suspicious. I was fed up, and I trusted nothing. It all had to go.

While others were watching the Super Bowl, I was backing up every file on my computer except the semi-important things I completely forgot about because of how obvious they were. I pulled the trigger somewhere around dinnertime and started the reinstallation process.

When it was finished, I went to get the essentials set up on my computer before bed. Internet access, firewall, better virus protection. I had everything in order before the reinstall, so this should have been a relatively quick and easy process. Assuming I still had the reinstallation CD containing all the important drivers, such as a driver that would allow my computer to establish a functional Internet connection.

I save everything, and I still can't think of where the install CD went. I sent my fiancée to a public computer lab to toss the driver on her flash drive. Public computer labs don't always approve of downloading executable files. I had to delay watching more Venture Bros. with friends that evening to download the drivers I needed. But it's all back now, at least the fundamental stuff.

On the one hand, it's refreshing to have all that clutter removed from my computer. It was good to spend all that reinstallation and copying-from-external-hard-drive time reading or doing dishes, or staring contentedly at the wall, simply because I could. On the other hand, I feel like a refugee who's hiding out on this computer until a more permanent one arrives. It's the same machine, and all the same programs, but something feels off, and I can't explain it.

Perhaps it's an increased desire to sit around reading instead of expending creative effort writing a blog post or recording a video; Sunday marks the longest period of sustained non-comics reading I've had since The Time Traveler's Wife. It was refreshing. It's the way I used to be about reading, before high school kicked in and all those extracurriculars took on such importance. Maybe the pain of my computer falling apart is still too recent in my memory to feel completely confident that this time is going to be any different, and I just need some distance.

I won't be able to stay away too much, though. I've got a review copy of Gemini Rue to try out so I can add another article to my surprisingly full GameCola pipeline. I've got people asking about my next video, and I myself am curious to see what I'll do. And, of course, the blog must go on.

Still, I've recently picked out a few books that, when added to the small pile of things I've been meaning to read since last year, should provide some friendly competition. We'll just have to see where things go from here.

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