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CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published: February 22, 1999

The Day the Windows Died

"Physician, heal thyself", so the saying goes. How many times have I preached and nagged about the importance of using good anti-virus software and keeping it updated regularly to protect your PC against the pond scum who propagate electronic disease and pestilence? Many times I've harped about the lethal infections that can attach themselves to e-mail, file downloads or data files and then upset or completely destroy your computer system.

Knowing full well the possible consequences, I still chose to engage in unprotected Internet discourse with the cavalier attitude of "I'm careful, it won't happen to me...I'll take care of that anti-virus stuff later when I have time." Well, I had nothing but time after The Day that Windows Died.

I wasn't totally unprotected from virus attack, since I did have the latest version of McAfee VirusScan software installed on my computer, but it was essentially useless since I hadn't bothered to update the virus definitions since last August. Failing to update your anti-virus software is a serious problem, since it's estimated that 200 new computer virus strains are proliferated each week, and the problem keeps growing exponentially.

Computer viruses are small software programs that have the ability to replicate themselves in the host computer. They often lurk undetected until unleashed by some innocuous event or routine command. The more dangerous virus strains are polymorphic in nature, meaning that not only do they replicate, but they also mutate. Mutation is usually by design in order to escape detection by anti-virus software.

Such was the case with the terminal virus that infected my system. It started with a simple Word document; a homework assignment attached to an e-mail message, but the document was tainted with a strain of the well-known WAZZU virus, a Word macro virus that corrupts the Normal template. I recognized this culprit immediately when I opened the document, but it was too late as the virus was already mutating and spreading.

Before the actual crash, I experienced some of the more common symptoms of virus infection over a period of days. Slow system operation, increased frequency of error messages, reports of unusually long filenames, and incorrect reporting of free disk space. Other common errors that can signal infection include failed program execution, changes in the date or time stamp, unusual screen activity and boot failures from the a: drive.

Try as I may to execute some last minute fixes and heroic life saving efforts, I was only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Finally, Windows refused to load altogether as it gasped, "Fatal exception error", over and over. I called in the cavalry and hardware guru Dave Kent, with Microhelp! came to the rescue with Norton AntiVirus software in hand.

NAV detected the trouble immediately and Dave was able to resuscitate the patient, but so much damage had been done to the critical system files, eventually everything had to be reconfigured from scratch. The hard drive itself survived, but Windows was totally thrashed and required a new installation in a fresh folder. Since the lobotomy, I've decided to keep Norton AntiVirus rather than McAfee VirusScan, as Norton offers weekly virus updates and McAfee only updates their definitions monthly. With the LiveUpdate feature enabled, NAV will automatically retrieve the new definitions and update my anti-virus software weekly.

"I told you so" and "Practice what you preach" are also adages that I've chanted frequently over the past 10 days. This much I've learned for sure: With so many bright, computer-literate people in the world with too much time on their hands and no sense of ethics or values, you cannot afford to be computing unprotected. And remember: It's not enough to have anti-virus software installed. It must me updated regularly to be effective.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.

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