My problem began the last Sunday in July, when my nearly teenage daughter, newly returned from a month away at camp, announced, "Something's wrong with the computer."
She couldn't "IM." (IM stands for "instant messaging." And for those a bit behind the times, yes, it can be used as a verb.) This alone would have qualified as a crisis (the IM failure, not its use as a verb) because it meant she couldn't start reconnecting with friends at home -- never mind that the telephone worked just fine -- or with the bevy of new friends she'd just said goodbye to so teary-eyed.
In fact, her comment marked the start of a much larger headache, one that launched an odyssey that has taken $800 and roughly 48 man-hours over nearly three weeks to end. During that time, my personae alternated, usually several times a day. One moment I was the computer addict, the person stuck to the keyboard for hours and hours on end, driven by belief in a holy grail, that one more attempt would fix things. Then, when I pondered the time being wasted, I was an aspiring vigilante, keen to hunt down and kill all computer hackers.
By the end I came to understand that the meltdown of my home computer was my fault, the result of having switched to a high-speed Internet connection without installing a firewall or heeding those pesky warnings to download critical updates for Windows and anti-virus software. What wasn't my fault was the ordeal I had to endure to fix it.
But back to that Sunday.
I told my daughter not to worry, I'd fix it, and I sat down to do just that. The computer was, after all, indispensable to me, too. As a reporter, I have often written stories from home when they break late at night or on weekends, or if I'm sick or need to stay home with my daughter.
Immediately I noticed my PC was sluggish and that when I tried to go to a Web site it would divert me to another. As the day progressed, the diversions became more aggressive. I must have hit the control-alt-delete key combination two dozen times that day to determine which programs were running and try to delete what I thought might be the hijacker.
It was a hit-or-miss exercise. I found not one but maybe a half-dozen programs residing on my computer that didn't seem to belong. I set out to delete them, but it wasn't easy. Most started up as soon as I started my computer and couldn't be killed unless they weren't running, quite a Catch-22 for most computer users. I learned how to go into what's known as "safe mode," which allows only the most basic programs to run, thus enabling me to delete what I thought to be the offenders. It wasn't a fun process. Sometimes after I deleted a program, the computer would shut down abruptly, resulting in that agonizingly long reboot that chides a user for having improperly shut down the system. And my PC still didn't work properly.
I needed help.
In the six years since my husband and I bought this computer for family use, only once had we had to resort to paying a computer expert for assistance. It was earlier this year, in January, when we still had a slow, dial-up connection to the Internet and, it turned out, a virus. I hired Glenn Paterson, one of a team of Information Technology experts who keep the computers running in The Washington Post's newsroom and who moonlights as a rent-a-tech for people's home computers. He'd fixed our PC quickly and advised us to buy and install an anti-virus program, which we did. The anti-virus program from Norton came in a two-in-one package that included a separate firewall program, which I didn't bother installing because most computer experts I talked to said it wasn't necessary with a dial-up connection.
By Monday morning I thought again of Glenn. I called him, but he had to work on his own time and couldn't come over until the following Sunday. Yikes! That was a week away, and my daughter was home for only two weeks before heading off to another camp. And what if there were a terrorist alert downtown and I had to work from home? A week seemed like a very long time. But I trust Glenn, so I agreed.
By Tuesday the problem had worsened. I could not get to any Web page. Windows Internet Explorer would only take me to a blank page. The lower left-hand corner flashed the ominous "badurl.grandstreetinteractive.com." Even I knew that wasn't a good sign. At work I plugged the URL into a Google search and felt relieved to discover a site where dozens of folks were complaining about the same thing and asking for suggestions. One said he had gotten rid of the problem by going to www.grandstreetinteractive.com and following the "uninstall" instructions.
I went to the site. It looked legitimate. I clicked "About Us" and this appeared: "Grand Street Interactive enables users to extend the effectiveness of their Web experience and is headquartered in New York City. Our management team consists of experienced Internet professionals whose shared passion is to transform the way people experience the Web." Well, the last part was certainly true. But I didn't know it would transform the experience into a bad one. I've since tried to contact the human beings behind Grand Street Interactive to quiz them about that "badurl," but haven't been able to locate them, in New York City or anywhere else.
I printed out the instructions and spent hours that evening trying to rid my PC of whatever had taken hold of it. The uninstall didn't work. Earlier in the day, another Washington Post tech named Michael Ramey -- Glenn's boss, actually -- said my problem sounded like spyware and suggested I try installing anti-spyware programs I could download for free from the Web -- Ad-Aware, Spy Sweeper and one program whose name especially appealed to me, Spybot-Search & Destroy.
I explained to Michael that I now couldn't get onto the Web but that he might download the programs and e-mail them to me at home. But when I turned on my computer that night, my e-mail no longer worked, either. Messages told me I didn't have an account, that the right "POP server" couldn't be found. Constant noises were coming from the computer, indicating something was hard at work in there, even though I had few programs running. Soon the Internet browser and e-mail icons on the screen began to mutate -- into fuzzy carbon copies of themselves.
Michael downloaded the anti-spyware programs onto a disk and gave it to me at work the next day.
I installed the programs Wednesday night, hopeful that I might fix this on my own. They ferreted out lots of bad stuff but had no better luck than I in killing it -- software, the computer informed me, couldn't be deleted while running. It was maddening.
I went into safe mode armed with the names of the programs the anti-spyware had identified and tried to manually delete them. Rather than die, they shut down the machine. By now I was crazed, and I half expected to hear the voice of Hal, the renegade computer from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," come from my screen.
I wondered if maybe some of the programs I was trying to kill weren't really spyware but something essential to Windows that I shouldn't try to delete. I called Microsoft and was passed from operator to operator as I asked where I could find a list of legitimate Microsoft applications so I would know what to kill and what to leave alone. But the only response I got from one person after another -- most of them in foreign tech-support centers like those in India I had been reading so much about lately -- was that I needed to go to Microsoft's online sales. After 45 minutes of this, I hung up. Then I gave up. I actually stood up and walked away from my computer.
Glenn was my last hope. He arrived on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and didn't leave until 9:30 p.m. Eventually he cleaned up enough so the computer could connect to the Internet correctly. But there were problems still. He would have to come back. Glenn had also established with near certainty why I had a problem: I had switched to a high-speed connection several months before, after the slowness of a dial-up hook-up became too infuriating. But I hadn't installed that firewall. Intruders had unloaded what most certainly was a combination of spyware and viruses onto my machine.
The following week is a blur. In several trips over the next two days, Glenn exorcised the bad software that had hijacked my computer in the first place. Then he reinstalled the Norton anti-virus program. But now a new problem emerged, one that we were never able to fix: No matter what Glenn did, he could not install the Norton firewall software. He was baffled.
I don't understand all of it except that the problem boiled down to this: Windows couldn't boot up properly while a certain Norton program file was active, but the Norton firewall couldn't operate without its being active. Glenn spent hours taking that file -- SYMTDI.VXD -- on and off the computer, each time having to reboot. Eventually he installed more memory -- triple what we had -- because our limited supply made the reboots ungodly long.
He called Symantec Corp., which makes Norton, went on its Web site, found our problem described on the troubleshooting pages, printed them out and followed them. The firewall still wouldn't work, giving messages like the program couldn't be "initialized" or, adding insult to injury, "You do not have the necessary rights to configure the item you have double-clicked." Sheesh.
The computer was now clean and fast, but without a firewall I couldn't go on the Internet without risking another invasion. That meant no IM-ing and no ability to work from home. I was frantic. And I had many empathizers.
One morning, when I was obsessively trying to make the computer work, the pediatrician called to say my daughter's routine blood work looked fine, and then, upon hearing about my computer, spent 20 minutes ranting about her episodic experience buying a new printer. It wouldn't work with their computer, no matter what they did. Bottom line: After hours on the phone (literally hours, she swears) with the manufacturer (she and her husband took turns), and many additional hours plugging and unplugging cords, etc., the manufacturer concluded she needed a new computer. She bought one. The printer still didn't work. It had been defective all along. She exchanged it. She needn't have bought a new computer, after all.
I cluck-cluck-clucked in heartfelt sympathy through the entire recitation. I had heard similar laments from nearly everyone I know.
A few hours later, I actually left the house. Amazingly, I immediately bumped into a friend who said he had had the same problem: His Norton anti-virus appeared to prevent installation of the Norton firewall.
Surely this was a joke.
I rushed to tell Glenn, who was coming to a similar conclusion. By now, two weeks had passed and I still had a computer I couldn't use to connect to the Internet. Finally, last Monday, a young summer intern working as a computer technician at The Post suggested we stop trying to make Norton's firewall work and instead try a program that he said was much, much better from ZoneLabs.com that could be downloaded free from the Internet.
And it proved to be true! It worked! I loaded and installed ZoneAlarm in minutes! It is, as the intern said, like an "iron curtain," not letting anything in or out without my approval.
What a revelation: Four programs -- one a firewall and three to combat spyware -- I downloaded FREE worked better than one I paid through the nose for. Why would anyone create these terrific programs for free? Often, as in the case of ZoneAlarm, they hope people will like the product so much they will buy an upgrade or, in the case of the spyware, pay to subscribe for upgrades.
That's fine with me.
As for now, I plan to update my Windows and all protection software once a week and do checks for problems just as often.
Glenn and I explained our problem to executives at Symantec and asked if the company knew about the problem. It did! By now it was a relief to just know we weren't crazy. Kraig Lane, Symantec's product manager for consumer Internet products, put it this way: "We have an unknown incompatibility problem between our firewall software and the software of another company."
He said installation complaints like mine haven't been numerous enough, though, to enable the company to pin down what the offending software might be, or which company makes it. There have been enough complaints, however, for Symantec to know that if customers update their Windows application, then reboot and try to reinstall the firewall, it usually works, even if it didn't in my case.
Computer techs will tell you that, like fingerprints, every computer is configured differently. That's why highly complex software like a firewall, regardless of who makes it, may work fine on one machine and not on another. The truth is, many if not most popular software programs have unfixable errors embedded in them, though most go unnoticed until some unlucky consumer stumbles on one, only to be forced to plow through pages and pages of obscure material to find the small print saying that it's unsolvable.
My recent experience, besides taxing my time, my patience and my pocketbook, confirmed my general disdain for overly complicated gadgets like cell phones and computers that have many more features than I will ever use. It gave me solace to know I'm not alone in feeling I have a machine at home that is fast requiring me to have a second, full-time career learning how to operate it.
But it also gave me a tiny glimpse into the wild world of computer programmers, where, like the never-ending point-counterpoint struggle in Mad Magazine's "Spy vs. Spy," a battle wages daily between hackers and those who try to stop them. In 20 years of reporting, I've never written a story on a typewriter -- I've always used a computer. So it's not as though I don't know how to use technology or have a mental block against it.
Quite the opposite. I love technology. But I like it to work.