What to do with a day-and-a-half while in Ottawa.

We flew back to Ontario this past Christmas, both to better familiarize ourselves with that province's many fine airport facilities, and, incidentally, visit with the relations.

While enjoying a stay in hometown Ottawa, I took it upon myself to tidy, disinfect, and lock down my mother's venerable Windows ME laptop.

Windows ME -- voted #4 worst tech product of all time by PC World magazine -- is nothing if not consistent: it refused to complete the startup sequence exactly one out of every two times I rebooted the computer. (I eventually solved that glitch via some judicious device driver pruning.)

My first task was to make sure that all applicable Microsoft patches had been installed. Visiting windowsupdate.microsoft.com merely crashed Internet Explorer. On a whim, I downloaded Firefox and tried the update site, but of course it will only work with IE because of all the ActiveX doohickeys it uses.

Obviously, I would have to upgrade Internet Explorer. The computer was running version 6.0, but Windows ME can't run version 7, so I had to locate the most up-to-date 6.0 release on the Microsoft site. I found that release soon enough, but the download page -- you guessed it -- crashed Internet Explorer.

The crashes were due to a problem in MSHTML.DLL but all of the suggested fixes I could find either a) didn't apply, or b) required visiting a page that crashed IE.

Google found me another location to download IE, and that didn't crash anything. Once installed, I returned to the Windows update site, and made it just a little bit further before crashing. At least now I know that the laptop is missing 35 critical updates.

Putting that matter aside for the moment, I downloaded and ran Spybot and Ad-Aware to find and eradicate a combined 435 malware issues.

The installed virus scanner was a 2001 vintage of Norton that had never been updated. My mother had a coupon from her ISP for a free version of Norton Security 2006 including a subscription to the updates. (What a super idea. Why don't all ISPs offer this?) I uninstalled the old version and visited the site to download the freebie, which promptly crashed IE (and couldn't be accessed via Firefox "yet").

This time I found another upgraded version of IE. This release was hardy enough to download the Norton apps, but still crashed on the Windows and IE update pages. The Norton suite installed, and immediately consumed so much of the laptop's memory that the next reboot took 20 minutes or more (I was able to read a complete New Yorker article from start to finish in that time, so that tells you something).

I tried disabling various Norton-provided services to ease the memory burden, but eventually had to give up and uninstall the whole caboodle. The next reboot blue-screened rather dramatically, but the subsequent attempt worked just fine. I re-installed the free ZoneAlarm firewall and Clamwin antivirus (I had installed them earlier but then removed them upon learning of the ISP's free Norton offer).

An hour-long disk defrag and I was done. There is still the matter of the 35 unapplied patches and the rickety IE version, but I had had enough. This was as secure and stable that this ME installation would ever be. I do wonder how many computers out there are similarly buggered. Most are probably sending me zombie spam even as I write this.