NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, May 2003
Avoiding Self-Inflicted Computer Disasters

by Alan Luber
Author of PC Fear Factor: The Ultimate PC Disaster Prevention Guide
(click to email author)

Alan Luber is an author, journalist, and technology consultant. His new book, PC Fear Factor: The Ultimate PC Disaster Prevention Guide, is all about defensive computing. PC Fear Factor teaches non-technical computer users how to prevent most computer disasters, and how to prepare for and recover from unavoidable disasters. For more information about PC Fear Factor, as well as additional disaster prevention and recovery information, visit Alan's web site, http:///www.pcfearfactor.com or visit http://www.quepublishing.com.

Avoiding Self-Inflicted Computer Disasters

"We have met the enemy, and he is us" -- Walt Kelly

Who among us has not been the victim of a computer disaster at the hands of a virus writer, computer hacker, or some other factor beyond our control? We tend to think of computer disasters as having some external catalyst, but as they often say, most accidents occur in the home.

You are probably familiar with the old joke about the guy who walks into the doctor's office and says, "Doc, it hurts when I do this." The doctor's sage advice is, "Don't do that."

And so it is with one of the most common types of computer disaster: the self-inflicted computer disaster, also known as the Homer Simpson computer disaster.

Here are four helpful tips for avoiding self-inflicted computer disasters.

Slow Down!
Haste is a major cause of self-inflicted computer disasters. For example, when installing an application, you may receive a pop-up window asking if you wish to overwrite a file that is present on your computer with a different version of that file. Similarly, when uninstalling an application, you may receive a message asking if you wish to delete a file from your computer that may no longer be needed. For the record, you should never allow an installation program to overwrite an existing file with an older version of that same file, and you should never allow an uninstallation program to delete a file if leaving it on your computer will do no harm. The problem is that, depending on how the question in the pop-up window is phrased, you may need to answer "yes" or "no" to effect the appropriate action. If you proceed hastily with the install or uninstall without carefully reading the question and pondering the response, you are likely to answer incorrectly and precipitate a computer disaster, overwriting or deleting something of vital importance.

Don't Be Overzealous
In the old days, we had to squeeze every ounce of performance out of our slow computers and every megabyte of space out of our puny hard disks. Although this is no longer necessary in a world of 3Ghz processors and 160Mb hard disks, many have not abandoned this mentality, and it gets them into trouble more often than not. For example, there are dozens of web sites offering thousands of Windows XP tune-up tips. Most of these tips make me shudder because they provide imperceptible gains in performance at enormous risk. My advice here is simple: if it ain't broken, don't fix it.

And while there is nothing wrong with good housekeeping -- keeping your hard disk clear of clutter and debris -- I run into too many examples of bad housekeeping. ("Alan, I deleted a lot of stuff off of my computer that I didn't need and now my speakers don't work.") If you are not absolutely certain whether something can be safely deleted from your system, leave it alone. As Dirty Harry said in Magnum Force, "A man's got to know his limitations."

Don't Be Gullible
Every few weeks I receive an email warning me about a new computer virus. These messages tell me that if I have certain files on my computer, my computer has been infected and that I should immediately delete these files. Such warnings are always virus hoaxes, intended to coax the gullible into deleting critical system files from their computers. Be suspicious of all such warnings. All antivirus software vendors have a section of their web site devoted to virus hoaxes. Before you take any action, verify that the virus warning you received was legitimate. (Hint: I have yet to receive such a warning that was legitimate.)

Unfortunately, antivirus software cannot protect us from ourselves. But wouldn't it be great if Symantec came out with Norton AntiGullible to compliment Norton AntiVirus? I can see it now. A virus hoax from a well intentioned but uninformed friend arrives in my inbox. Norton AntiGullible swings into action, throwing up a warning message:

"Warning: you have just received an email message from an idiot advising you to delete critical files from your computer. This message has been automatically deleted to prevent you from shooting yourself in the foot, and a reply-all response has been automatically generated to help protect others on the message's distribution list." Why, the very thought of it brings a smile to my face.

Don't Be Reckless
The easiest way to cause a self-inflicted computer disaster is to make changes to your computing environment with reckless abandon. Computers are unstable equilibriums, and change and stability are mutually exclusive concepts. You may not realize this, but every time you install an application on your computer, you are making four implicit assumptions:

    1. The application will not conflict with your operating system, other applications, or hardware.
    2. The application's install program will not cause problems by automatically overwriting or modifying files that are shared by other applications.
    3. The application is well behaved and won't wreak havoc on your computer.
    4. The application will uninstall cleanly without leaving any vestiges of any problems it caused on your computer.

Given that any change to your computing environment can disrupt its tenuous, unstable equilibrium, it always amazes me that some people think nothing of downloading, installing, and trying dozens of software packages without regard for the potential disastrous consequences.

Here's a suggestion for how to avoid problems when trying new applications. Suppose you want to download and evaluate trial versions of six different photo management software packages. Before you download and install any of these applications, I urge you to take a complete backup of your hard disk using a disk imaging tool. I recommend Symantec's Norton Ghost for this purpose, and I provide detailed step-by-step instructions for backing up and restoring your hard disk in my book, PC Fear Factor.

After you have backed up your hard disk, download and install each of the applications and play with them to your heart's content. Once you are finished, instead of uninstalling the applications, restore your hard disk from your backup. This is the only approach that is absolutely guaranteed to get you back to the same point of equilibrium that existed prior to installing the applications. After you have restored your system, purchase and install the one package you have elected to use.

Copyright 2003 by Que Publishing and author Alan Luber. Reproduced with permission. Article reproduction coordinated by Steve Bass, Pasadena IBM Users Group. Alan Luber is the author of PC Fear Factor: The Ultimate PC Disaster Prevention Guide, Alan Luber, ISBN: 0-7897-2825-7, US $24.99. For More Information or to Order PC Fear Factor: The Ultimate PC Disaster Prevention Guide or any other Que Books visit http://www.quepublishing.com.

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