Jeff's Home Page ContraPositive Diary


For a long time it was The Problem That Had No Name: Over a period of time Windows would gradually slow down and become unstable. Every once in a while someone would refer to this as "Windows arthritis" but most of the time the problem was blamed on DLLs, "bitrot" or some evil quality inherent in Bill Gates. In severe cases, people would literally put their slow, cranky machines out on the curb on garbage day and buy another one. After awhile, rumors began to float around that this behavior had been programmed right into Windows from the outset, so that people would buy a new PC (and thus pay for a new copy of Windows) every two years tops.

Not so. It's way simpler than that. It's gunk.

Anyone who's ever rebuilt a lawnmower engine will recognize the concept: Layers and clumps of stuff (usually black and sticky) accumulate in odd corners of the mechanism. Anything with moving parts that needs oil will inevitably accumulate gunk, and things that burn fuel and go fast accumulate it very quickly, absent regular maintenance.

So why did we assume that only physical mechanisms accumulate gunk?

What really bogs Windows down and makes it unstable is a sort of digital entropy. Windows is an extremely complex mechanism, one that makes a Pratt & Whitney rotary aircraft engine look like a teaspoon by comparison. Windows deals in immaterial things rather than fuel and oil, but these immaterial things nonetheless get scrambled, get lost, get broken into chunks, and end up where they shouldn't be. Windows starts out life as a tidy, ordered system, but as it runs for months and then years and juggles Registry keys, temp files, DLLs, bookmarks, spyware, and duplicate MP3s (to name just a few) disorder accumulates. Windows gradually spends more time searching for things that it needs, and then accesses an increasingly fragmented hard drive when it finds them. Programs that have been uninstalled often leave little chunks of themselves behind ("This DLL is apparently no longer in use, but we recommend that you keep it anyway") and these abandoned chunks have been known to wrestle with one another when they have the same or similar names.

These, of course, are legitimate sources of gunk. Some of the most enthusiastic gunk generators are malware: Viruses, worms, adware, and spyware. So-called "free" applications and utilities often come with A Little Extra Something. This might be modest in scope, like a system that downloads little ads to display in a window in a corner of the application, or it might be an aggressive monster that virtually takes over your PC, with each of its components reinstalling the whole spyware system when any component is found to have been deleted.

Windows gunk is all of the above, encountered separately and in combination within a single PC. The problem can become so bad that the PC is virtually unusable, but it's so subtle and hard to describe that many non-technical people honestly believe that the PC's motherboard gradually "wears out."

In mid-2003, during a late-night bull session partly in Scottsdale, Arizona and partly in cyberspace, the term "degunking" was coined by Paraglyph Press staff and friends. Degunking is the systematic reversal of digital entropy, with subsequent discipline to keep it from getting so bad as to bring a system to its knees. Degunking can be applied in many different digital technologies, but it's at its very worst in Microsoft Windows.

Degunking Windows

Most people know by now that I am a founder/staffer of Paraglyph Press, a technical book publisher based in Scottsdale, Arizona. It didn't take long (like, um, three minutes) for us to decide to publish a book called Degunking Windows. The idea was to put forth not just a hatful of tips and tricks but a system for getting Windows back to right-out-of-the-box preformance and reliability. I teamed up with veteran author Joli Ballew to create this, the first Degunking book.

This Degunking system can be adapted to the way you work and to the time you have available to work. How long can you spend chasing gunk? Ten minutes? An hour? Half a day? In each case, we can tell you how to best use the time that you have to clean up your machine.

Some of the topics we incorporated in the book are these:

  • Defragmenting your hard drives
  • Cleaning the Windows Registry using safe third-party utilities
  • Uninstalling unnecessary software
  • Purging Web browser cache contents and other temporary files
  • Checking for duplicate files, especially (large) media files
  • Checking for spyware, adware, and viruses
  • Filtering email spam
  • "Shredding" deleted files so that they can't be recovered
  • Doing a "clean reinstall" of Windows as a last resort

...and a great deal more.

It's Psychology, Not Technology

None of this is rocket science, really. Most of it is pretty simple, and the biggest trick is just learning what's possible and how to do it. That's one of the big missions of the Degunking books, but not the whole mission. A good part (and perhaps the greater part) of degunking is forcing yourself to adopt work habits that will minimize the rate at which gunk accumulates.

The first time you go through your PC, it will seem like a huge amount of work, and it may well be. If you've been using your Pentium 350 since 1996, well, there are shovels full of gunk in there, so start digging. Our books will help you go through the machine from top to bottom. But once your PC is clean, we can help you work smart and keep the gunk level down.

The general principles to be followed for gunk avoidance are these:

  • Protect yourself. Have a personal firewall (or at least a router) and virus protection enabled at all times. Don't double-click on unknown files without first running a virus scan on those specific files.
  • Keep like data files together. Store all your MP3s in one place. Store all your spreadsheets in one place, or at least organized in folders under one umbrella folder. Ditto your word processor files, digital photos, videos, or anything else. Scatter data around randomly and you will forget that you have it, at which point it ceases to be data and becomes gunk.
  • Schedule standard cleaning procedures. Configure a Registry cleaner to run periodically. Ditto virus and adware/spyware scans and hard drive defragmenting.
  • Manage your media collection. Duplicate, corrupt, or unwanted digital photos, music, or videos can take up an immense amount of storage space. Review the collection periodically. Get rid of what you don't need or can't play.
  • Be careful what you install. There are two kinds of free: Really and truly free—and "free," with a catch. Most spyware rides in on "free" software that you install yourself. Read the fine print, or google for other people's reactions to software before you install it.

If you can force yourself to adhere to these principles, the gunk will never bring your Windows PC to its knees.

Degunking Your Email, Spam, and Viruses

Some topics can be covered in just a few pages, but others, well, they can take a book all by themselves. Email is probably the Internet technology that we depend on the most, and email is also a technology uniquely good at spreading chaos in your PC. Spam is email. Viruses ride in on email. And if you use email intensively for a number of years without any thought to organizing your "mailbase," you will have hundreds of megabytes of scattered messages that you can't find when you must refer back to them.

I've been an Internet email user since 1993, and get well over 100 messages per day. Over the years I've developed a whole strategy for keeping email under control, and Degunking Your Email, Spam, and Viruses is a distillation of what I've learned, and what I do every day.

As with any degunking topic, it's really about mindset and discipline: Organize your messages in folders by useful topics, and develop the discipline to let unnecessary messages go. (I saw an email client once with 10,000 messages in the Inbox!) Know how your email client works and be sure you're aware of all the little nooks and crannies (like your Drafts folder) where gunk can accumulate if you don't watch it.

Given the amount of spam bouncing around the Internet, much of the work in managing email lies in managing spam. Prevention is key here: Be careful what you do with your primary email address, or the spammers will get it, and once you're on one of those lists it's very hard to get off. (Rule #1: Never click the "unsubscribe" link. It's really a "verify your email address so we can send you more spam" link!)

Once the spam starts to arrive, filtering is your only real weapon. Filtering is a relatively technical topic, and warrants some careful study. How you approach it depends on how much spam you receive per day, and what sort of spam it is. Separating commercial email that you do want (i.e., newsletters or software update notifications) from the spam that it resembles is one of the toughest challenges of all. Less than one percent of spam now slips past my filters, and it's really not much of a problem anymore. I can teach you how to be just as successful.

The third and final major topic of Degunking Your Email, Spam, and Viruses is malware: Viruses, of course, but also Internet worms, adware, and spyware. Prevention is overwhelmingly important here, because once a particularly bad piece of malware takes over your PC, you may have no choice but to reformat your hard drive and reinstall everything. The four most important malware-prevention principles are these:

  • Have an Internet firewall. Windows XP SP2 comes with one built-in, but with earlier versions of Windows you must install your own. A broadband router contains a very good firewall, and you can download simple but effective firewalls from the Web.
  • Have an anti-virus utility and scan your PC regularly. Scan any individual file before you open it the first time, especially files that come from outside your home or office, like email attachments. Schedule a full-system virus scan at least once a week.
  • Research all software before you install it. Spyware that rides in with "free" software can be among the hardest of all malware to remove. Google on anything you're interested in trying to see if other people have reported spyware in it.
  • Run an adware/spyware detector regularly. These can be downloaded for free, and work quite well to spot those items that slip past your vigilance.

I have been nailed by viruses only three times in ten years, and in every case it was due to my own carelessness. Once you understand where the stuff comes from and how it works, a little care and caution can keep your PC malware free for years. That's what Degunking Your Email, Spam, and Viruses will teach you.

Degunking Your PC

Microsoft Windows isn't the whole degunking story, and some gunk is (alas) physical. My most recent book (again, written with Joli Ballew) addresses the chaos that gathers inside and around your PC, and in your office. We're talking grease and dog hair here, but we're also talking dead, misconnected, misconfigured, or mismatched peripherals, kinked network cables, loose connectors, and pieces of cracker under your Shift key. Any or all of these can affect the speed and reliability of your PC system. Degunking Your PC will show you how to find the gunk and clear it out.

Some of this is straightforward Heloise stuff: We explain how to get grease and pet hair out of a mechanical mouse once the mouse begins to malfunction. Other issues involve mismatches: If you plug the wrong wall wart into a peripheral, differences in voltage and/or polarity may destroy the peripheral. Always label wall warts so that you can always match them to the devices that they came with!

Other PC gunk issues are subtler: You may not know, for example, that there are two generations of USB ports, one hugely faster than the other, and new USB peripherals will run at old, slow USB speeds when plugged into an old, slow USB port. Even determining which generation of USB port is present on your PC is a bit of a trick, but we can teach you that too.

Is your Wi-Fi connection working badly? Did you just get a new cordless phone? Sometimes all these wireless thingies don't play nice together. Does your Ethernet wired netrwork seem slow? Did you make a sharp bend in one of the Category 5 cables? That's all it takes. Is your PC fan making funny noises? Do you know where your hamster is? (Actually, it's probably your hamster's hair.) Cigarette smoke is very sticky, and if there are smokers in your house you may see types and depths of physical gunk (dust, hair, lint) that nonsmokers never see.

Joli and I together have almost 40 years of collective experience with PCs. If there's a type of PC gunk that we haven't seen, it must be mighty rare. Let us help you keep that box clean and sharp and (to steal a line from the Army) being the best that it can be.

Last updated: 2/16/2006