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There are a lot of tasks that computer users should really -- in an ideal world -- be doing every single week. The pressures of life, however, inevitably keep us from doing them regularly enough. As a substitute, then, many people would be well-served to adopt a policy of doing some computer "housekeeping" once a week, and rotating through four essential tasks. That way, none of those tasks go more than a month without getting done. It's imperfect, but it's far better than the common alternative -- never doing any of them at all.

The first week of every month, one should run a complete backup of personal information on the computer's hard drive. This is usually best done straight to a portable hard drive, and run overnight when it won't affect any users. Once every few months, one should go a step farther and burn the really essential files (financial files, family photos, important e-mails) to a DVD, and send that DVD somewhere far away for safe keeping. This step is important because there's always the risk -- no matter how low, it's ever-present -- that one's home and entire community could be destroyed in a massive disaster, like the tornadoes that hit Joplin, Missouri, or Parkersburg, Iowa. Having a solid-state backup (like one burned to a DVD) of the really essential files somewhere far away guarantees that those most precious files won't be lost forever, even if everything else in the home is gone. An easy rule of thumb: Find a bank in a town at least 100 miles away from your home, but someplace you're likely to visit at least a couple of times a year, and rent a safe-deposit box there. Whenever you're in town, drop off your latest DVD in the box and walk away knowing that your most precious data is safe and sound behind lock and key.

The second week of every month, check for updates to the programs on your computer. This includes programs like the Internet browsers Firefox and Chrome, mail programs like Thunderbird, office suites like LibreOffice, and the add-on programs that make other programs work, like Adobe Flash Player. This task falls to the second week because it should always follow a data backup.

The third week of every month, install the latest Microsoft updates issued on Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of every month). This advice obviously doesn't pertain to Apple or Linux users, but they too should practice good housekeeping by looking for operating-system updates at least once a month. Microsoft, though, sets the Patch Tuesday schedule, so this task has a natural place in the normal monthly rhythm of good housekeeping on your computer.

The fourth week of every month, run a full (or "comprehensive") antivirus scan of your computer. Like a backup of the hard drive, this should be run overnight, when it won't interfere with any computer use. A thorough antivirus scan should also include a scan for spyware and other malware, and it could easily occupy 50% or more of the computer's processing power, so it can be a massive nuisance to run while the computer is in use. An overnight scan is just as effective and won't bother anyone in the process.

These recommendations, of course, depend on the precise circumstances of the individual computer user. But as general guidelines, they're good for ensuring that the truly essential steps for computer security get taken on a routine basis. Ideally, one would actually conduct a full backup, a round of program updates, and an antivirus scan every single week...but it's a sad fact of life that nobody but a small handful of hard-core enthusiasts does this. Committing to following at least a monthly cycle for these steps, though, will at least bring one's computer use to an acceptable level of safety and security.

Have your own evacuation orders

You never know when a worst-case scenario could cause you to have to leave home in an emergency. Not all disasters are predictable, nor is there always time to gather belongings. But often, one has at least a couple of moments of clarity before having to evacuate.

In those moments, everyone should have a plan to grab a digital backup of their most important files. Everyone should have an SD card or USB flash drive they could grab in an instant with at least three essential sets of items:

- copies of digitized family photos
- scans of important paper records, like medical details, birth and marriage certificates, school and employment information, and tax filings
- backup copies of any accounting records or other essential financial and business information that's routinely kept on a computer hard drive

The flash drive or SD card should always be kept current, and stored in its own secure location -- but one that can be reached speedily if the need arises.
One of the problems with the speedy emergence and massive popularity of Facebook and other social-networking websites, like Twitter and LinkedIn, is that we haven't really grown into a realistic cultural knowledge of how to use them. With other technologies, even when rapidly deployed, society had a sort of grace period to figure them out -- automobiles took a place that had logically been occupied before by horses and carriages, and there were more than two decades between Carl Benz's 1886 patent on the gas-driven automobile and Henry Ford's 1908 introduction of the Model T, during which the new technology of the automobile could start to settle into a place in the popular mindset.

With the Internet generally, and in particular with sites that enhance the individual's ability to share instantaneously with a global audience, we haven't had the same kind of break-in period. All of the mistakes we make now are not only potentially public for all the world to see (as the Star Wars Kid learned) -- they're also really durable, as well. Once something finds its way onto the Internet, it can quite possibly reside there forever.

Thus when we equip ourselves with tools like Facebook, we're potentially a lot like toddlers in an armory full of loaded weapons. We don't really know the full extent of what we're doing, and the consequences can be permanent. This potentially dangerous situation is made even more hazardous by the fact that social-networking sites are designed to encourage the user to over-share. This is very much by design. The act of adding another person to one's social network on Facebook is called "friending". Whether or not we should even do something like that to the English language, the fact remains: One is programmed to believe that Facebook information is just shared with a bunch of "friends". This psychological programming just enhances some participants' willingness to throw caution to the wind and share too much. But no matter how the language of a social-networking site is framed, it is nearly impossible to ensure that the information one shares there will only go to true friends, and that it won't be deliberately misused by others. Thus, some precautions are in order.

There are many things that should never be shared online, and particularly not in a semi-public space like Facebook. Here are four particular examples:

#1: Never share your full birthdate or place of birth in a social-networking profile. There's a lot of pressure to do this. Facebook recently changed its profile layout, and it leaves a gaping hole for the user to see if he or she hasn't entered a hometown. And there's no doubt that one of the most popular uses of Facebook is to leave a birthday greeting for friends (and, most people should be ready to admit, mere acquaintances). But the problem is that those two facts, long assumed to be the kinds of things that only close friends and family might know, have also long been used by companies and organizations to help positively establish a person's identity. There are innumerable websites, for instance, that still ask "What is your hometown?" or "What was your place of birth?" as a security question. And while it's patently irresponsible for those sites to continue using those as security questions (since it really is absurdly easy to figure out anyone's place of birth), until they stop, it's unwise for anyone to share that information willingly on the Internet. And if there's any factoid used more often than the place of birth to establish a person's identity, it's the date of birth. In some cases, a name and date of birth are all that a person might need to offer to get access to medical records at a doctor's office -- especially by phone. Hometowns should always be omitted from social-networking profiles, and if one can't resist the urge to share his or her birthday, then one should at least leave off the year of birth. Again, it might not be very difficult for a crook to deduce, but there's no reason to make the job easier.

#2: A social-networking profile should not include photos or names of minor children. This prohibition probably sounds needlessly harsh, but it's actually surprisingly vital. First, bridging the notes in rule #1 about security questions, a question that remains much too widely-used in the security field is "What is your mother's maiden name?" Again, that may have been a suitable security question 20 years ago, but it's absolutely not today, when Facebook profiles, e-mail addresses, and old accounts of a million kinds routinely contain a woman's married and unmarried last names. A woman's "maiden name" is no longer any more challenging to figure out than her eye color. And if she leaves a digital footprint behind with her children's names, then she totally renders useless any online security checkpoint that asks the question. The question itself should be thrown out because it's totally obsolete today, but until that happens, there's no need to make crime easier for identity thieves and other crooks.

But there's also a more immediate risk for children, and it is that they become too easy to identify when their parents advertise them on the Internet (which is exactly what happens on a Facebook page, unintentionally or not). There is no reason to make the task easier for potential abductors by sharing names, routines, schedules, and photographs of a whole set of family members via Facebook. One might think, "Well, I only have 100 friends on Facebook, and I'm not worried about any of them." But how certain can a person be that each of those 100 friends are sufficiently security-conscious that they'll never have their accounts hacked?

And then, of course, there's also the concern that a parent should have about his or her child's reputation and good name. As of the latest count, a video entitled "David After the Dentist" had been viewed more than 82 million times on YouTube. It's funny, to be sure. But it's also going to be something for which that child will be known most likely for the rest of his life. Celebrity may be fleeting, but once it's been digitized and placed on the Internet, it's pretty durable as well. Leave the choice in the child's hands whether to put up pictures or videos of him- or herself once they reach adulthood. It's shocking, really, that virtually everyone can agree that youthful fame probably did permanent damage to Michael Jackson, but so many of those same people have no second thoughts about exposing their own children to Internet fame.

#3: No profile should detail a favorite book or movie or song. There are a few errors made here: Either one makes the mistake of sharing just a single favorite of each (which is, following the basic details of a person's birthdate and birthplace, yet another favorite "security" question), or one shares far too many of these items. If there's one thing to be learned from Netflix and its movie-recommendation algorithm, it's that a whole lot of predictive power is attached to whatever a person has strongly liked or disliked in the past. There's nothing particularly wrong with sharing five or ten favorite books or movies, but sharing dozens or scores of them gives away a lot more about one's psychological profile and other behaviors than are necessary to share. Sites like Facebook aren't being operated for the public interest; they're not charities. They make money, and they do that by selling detailed profiles of their users, whether that's as aggregated data, anonymous profile information, or otherwise. No matter how it's sliced up and sold, the data itself has enormous value, and simply giving it away for free -- especially in massive volume -- is a lot like going to work and declining to take a paycheck.

#4: One's immediate location does not need to be shared, ever. Shy of those rare instances (like the moment a commuter snapped a photo of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River) when something truly remarkable has taken place, it's a bad idea to publicly share one's location -- or one's plans to be somewhere at a particular time. Giving away the details on an upcoming two-week vacation is the equivalent of putting a sign in the front lawn saying "We're not home". Posting a snapshot to Twitter of crazy times at a bar might just be telling an unstable ex or a faceless stalker where they can find inebriated prey. Even sharing too many photos of the commute to and from work might be an act that betrays when one's latchkey kids might be home alone.

It's altogether too easy to forget that what we place on the Internet appears on a global stage -- a stage that's not full of just bubblegum and teddy bears. It's a world in which today's supercomputers will very shortly become cheap, affordable tools that could be used by anyone -- with any kind of intent, whether innocent or malicious -- to scrape together the many little breadcrumbs we leave behind on the Internet to build a profile of any one of us that would have made J. Edgar Hoover envious. It is essential that nobody be lulled into a false sense of security about what they share on the Internet. As it's been said about crime, "The crooks only have to get lucky once. The cops have to get lucky every time." As Internet users, we are collectively in the same position as the police -- hoping, almost as much as deliberately trying, to keep our privacy, dignity, and security intact in the face of a world that may have a lot of reason to try to take those things away.
People often wonder why the computers that seemed so fast when they were fresh out of the box turn out to become such slow-moving dullards after a year or two of use. While some slowdown is inevitable, there are some things that people can do to improve computer speed and performance, several of which are just good common-sense elements of a computer maintenance program.

Let's look at the reasons why a computer might be running slowly. First, we need to break down the problems into two categories: The physical and the digital. The home computer itself is, of course, a piece of machinery, and like all machinery, it has moving parts and things that wear out. There's not a lot that can be done for most computers from a physical standpoint -- when things break, they tend to break catastrophically, like a motherboard burning out or a hard drive failing. But when it comes to the speed of a computer, there's a persistent little problem that often goes overlooked by the novice user: Dust. Dust is everywhere and cannot be eliminated unless you live in a clean room. And though it may seem innocuous, dust accumulates inside the computer and builds up around the CPU and around fans. That's a problem, because a computer that can't keep its processing system cool is a computer that works harder than it needs to (physically) to do the job of computing. Hence, tip #1 is simple: Apply a good shot of compressed air to fans and ports to the computer once every few weeks. It may seem like a silly bit of nonsense, but keeping the inside of the computer well-cleaned of dust keeps the CPU cooler, and that helps the computer perform better -- not to mention, if it's a laptop, that it keeps the machine from burning your legs.

Most ordinary computer users shouldn't do a lot more than that to address the physical needs of the computer, so we turn to the digital. The main digital culprit to what slows down most computers is programs that run when they aren't needed. We can break these down into two categories, each with an action step: Programs we deliberately install, and programs we didn't choose to install.

Among programs that we deliberately install, there are a huge number of programs that essentially declare, "Hey, I'm such an important program that you'll need to use me a lot. To make me install faster when you use me, I'm going to create a little preloading routine that makes me start up every time you start your computer." These preloading routines are common -- you'll find them built in to everything from office suites like Microsoft Office and OpenOffice to instant messaging programs and Skype. The problem is that what might make sense for one or two programs doesn't make sense when you have dozens loaded onto your computer at once. Honestly, you just don't need a lot of programs to pre-load themselves every time you use your computer. Sure, you sometimes want Skype to run, but it doesn't really need to pre-load itself every time you hit the power switch. This brings us to tip #2: Shut off the pre-loading feature in any program you don't use every single time you boot up your computer. You can usually disable the pre-loading feature by looking inside the options menus of most programs. For programs where that doesn't work, or to take care of several programs at once, you can follow some simple instructions to manage your startup programs list. One of the worst offenders on this list of self-important programs is Apple's iTunes, which defaults back into your startup menu every time you update the software. It's an obnoxious feature, and the people at Apple should knock it off. There's no reason for iTunes to pre-load every time.

Finally, we have the problem of software that you didn't deliberately install on your own computer. Broadly speaking, we call this stuff malware: It's our umbrella term for viruses, Trojan horses, and spyware -- anything bad (hence the prefix "mal-") that you don't want on your machine. This stuff can seriously hoover up more of your computer processor power than anyone should ever be willing to give away. There are two steps involved in cleaning up the malware on your computer, so we'll break up this third tip into two parts: Tip #3A is to run a complete and comprehensive anti-virus and anti-spyware scan of your computer. We are asked on the WHO Radio Wise Guys program all the time where people can get free antivirus software, and it's available from a number of sources (I think Avast is probably the best among them, at least as of this writing). But if there's one thing you should be willing to pay out-of-pocket to get on your computer, it's good antivirus software. Seriously. Pony up the $30 or $40 it takes for an annual subscription to a professional service like Norton Antivirus or Kaspersky, and get professional-quality antivirus protection. Most of the good (paid) antivirus programs also check for spyware. Yes, the free programs are better than nothing. But the paid stuff is better. Seriously, just pay for it -- just like automobile insurance and health insurance and homeowner's (or renter's) insurance, the cost of antivirus software is just the price you pay for having stuff you want to protect.

Once you've scanned the computer in full and have swept all of the bugs out, it's time to make sure that you don't let them back in again. Hence, we reach tip #3B: Use your administrator account only for installing and upgrading programs, and practice safe Internet browsing. Most people live dangerously by surfing the Internet and reading their e-mail while on an administrator-level access account on their computers. That's dangerous, because the computer assumes that the administrator is authorized to install programs whenever he or she wants. The trouble is, the computer is stupid and doesn't know the difference between you deliberately installing a program and you accidentally downloading a virus (which is, of course, a program). The computer, being stupid, allows you to do either thing without a lot of resistance when you're logged in as an administrator. The way to avoid this is by creating a second profile on your computer and giving it only limited powers -- not including the right to install programs. It's free and easy to create a limited-access account, and that account is where you should stay for 99.9% of your computer use, whether it's watching movies or surfing the Web or checking your e-mail. The limited part of "limited-access" doesn't keep you from doing these things, it just keeps you from installing programs. You can always log into your administrator account if you need to install something new, but -- honestly -- how often do you do that? Once a month? Get into the habit of doing most of your computing from behind the safety wall of a limited-access account. Remember, your computer doesn't know the difference between you and a virus pretending to be you. So if you're logged in with a limited-access account, the computer will just say "No" to installing new stuff -- whether it's you trying to do it, or (more likely) a virus trying to install itself. The limited-access account isn't a complete failsafe insurance policy, but it's probably 95% effective against allowing spyware and viruses onto your computer, all by itself. For additional safety, I recommend that you use an alternative Internet browser (by "alternative", I mean one that isn't the #1 browser, which at present and for about a decade has been Microsoft Internet Explorer). Use Firefox or Opera or Chrome or something else -- just do what you can to avoid using the same browser as the majority of other users. The IE browser itself is OK, but it's also so popular that it's a major target for crooks who write viruses. They know that most people are using IE, so they try to take advantage of its weaknesses. If you don't use it, you'll find yourself less exposed to danger.

These are three simple steps you can take towards faster computing, even on an old machine. Remember, computers don't last forever, so you should always backup your important data (like financial records and photographs), just in case something catastrophic happens to the machine itself. But these tips should generally help keep your computer running at its top available speed.
If you have kids (or grandkids), you're probably quite proud of them. That's great; it means you're a caring parent. But please do not use your child's picture as your Facebook profile photo -- or your profile picture anywhere else on the Internet, either. Here are several reasons why:

  • Safety. Don't make it easier for predators to identify your kids by putting their pictures on the Internet. It's ridiculously easy to figure out who's related to whom just by using a few simple Internet searches. Once someone knows your name, and knows that you have kids, it takes no more than a couple of steps for them to figure out your kids' names. And if a predator knows your name, your kid's name, and what your kid looks like, then it's remarkably easy for that predator to target your child at school, at soccer practice, or on the playground -- and then use their knowledge of your family to concoct a potentially convincing story: "Hey, [child's name], my name's [fake name], and I'm a friend of your mommy and daddy. [Your name] had some car trouble, and they told me to take you home." If the predator has followed your Twitter posts, he might be able to add convincing details about something you did last weekend. If he's been following your LinkedIn profile, he could add lots of information about where you work and false details about how long you've been "working" together. Most children aren't wired to be skeptical enough for the information that's readily available today.
Frankly, that reason alone should be enough to stop you in your tracks. Remember: Your Facebook profile photo is as public as public can be -- it shows up in any Google or Bing search of your name, and the searcher doesn't have to do anything to prove they know you. But if the serious safety risk isn't enough, there are two other very good reasons not to use your child's photo as your profile picture:

  • Confusion. If someone is looking for your profile online, they want to confirm that it's you that they've found. Casual acquaintances, old friends from school, and other people who are looking for you (which is what a profile picture is for) probably don't know what your kids look like. They might be able to locate a resemblance of some sort, but don't make their lives more difficult. Just put up a picture of yourself.
  • Identity in the Internet age. The Internet has delivered the age of permanent memory. And as tools like Google Image Search improve, words (like your name) and pictures are being linked permanently in the "memory" of the Internet. Linking your child's photo to your name means that, should something happen to you (good or bad), it can become associated with your child's identity. If, for instance, you were to be accused of a crime, or involved in an accident, newspapers and television stations are going to search online for a picture of you, because that's what their readers and viewers want to see. If you've caused your name to be linked to your child's picture, they're going to get false results -- but how would they know? Mixing the wrong name with the child's picture can cause confusion and possibly even damage the child's reputation. It's going to be hard enough in the future for people born in the Google age to keep their reputations intact, with tools like cell-phone cameras available to document every childhood indiscretion. Don't make it harder for kids to protect their reputations by intermixing their identities with your own -- who knows what indiscretions of our own from the pre-Internet era are going to find their way online, on top of the ones we add today?
It's a simple request: Don't put your child's picture up under your name. It's a free and easy practice, and it's more important than you as a proud parent might intuitively think.
David asks:
My wife and I have an IBM-compatible computer that uses Windows XP. We recently switched from dial-up to a higher-speed line, giving us 1.5 mb/second. The problem is, it still seems to take forever to start our computer (and download e-mails). We suspect that we have a ton of programs that are slowing us down.

Can you recommend a low-cost software to scan our computer, delete unnecessary programs, and increase our computer's speed? Thanks for your consideration.

Brian's answer:
Can I recommend a program to do this? No. But I can offer you a series of steps that won't cost you anything and create the same result.

First, you'll need to run a full backup of anything valuable on your hard drive. You should do this anytime you're about to do any technical work on your computer, just in case anything goes wrong.

Once you've completed the backup, run a complete scan of your computer using your antivirus and anti-spyware programs. There are usually several different levels of scanning available. Use the most thorough one and plan to let it run overnight some night (this will take at least two nights, since you'll run antivirus one night and anti-spyware the next night). If either scan picks up anything nasty, allow the program to clean it up, then run it again the following night. As it says on the side of the shampoo bottle, "lather, rinse, and repeat." Repeat these scans until both of them come up clean.

Next, you'll need to learn how to enter your computer's system configuration utility and shut off those programs that automatically load themselves. It's not difficult, but it does involve following some pictures in order. I've prepared a guide to cleaning up the system configuration utility. Print it and follow the instructions.

Finally, to reduce the likelihood that you'll have these problems in the future, set up your computer to operate in a limited-access mode for most of your routine use (like web browsing and checking your e-mail). This will help make your computer more resistant to viruses and other malware that are often the culprits slowing your computer.

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