computers of teenage girls
Friday, August 29 2003
I returned again today to the computer client up in Saugerties, this time driving the Honda Civic (since the truck's paperwork is still in a state of disarray). I'd been working on two different computers when I was up there last. One of these was a new Vaio laptop running Windows XP, which needed little except an installation of Mozilla, the MSBlaster vulnerability patch, and the transfer of some old data. But the other was an old desktop PC belonging to a teenage girl.
In the course of my day-to-day experience with the computers belonging to a variety of people, I'm quickly coming to the realization that there is nothing quite as useless as a computer belonging to a teenage girl. The problem is usually apparent the moment you sit down and grab the mouse. Now where could the cursor be? It's usually not even a cursor anymore, but has been replaced by something unhelpful like an animated rainbow. And it's usually lost in hideous high-contrast wallpaper featuring flawless fakely-smiling faces from transient pop culture, be it a boy band or the brightly-clothed characters from Sex and the City. Just glancing at the System Tray is often a terrifying experience. More likely than not, there are at least a dozen programs loaded into memory during the boot process, and all of their icons continuously throb and spew for attention. RealPlayer, with its constant nags to be updated (though the code never improves) is bad enough. But how about icons of green dollar signs? How did those get there? After starting up such a computer, one typically has to wait at least ten minutes before it becomes useful. During that time, all sorts of crapware loads into memory so it can track your every movement, phone home information on what products to market to you, and assail you with pop-ups of mysterious origin.
In terms of vulnerability to the makers of computer-burdening spyware, teenage girls are something of a perfect storm. Compared to boys, they tend to be technically unsophisticated, yet they are nonetheless comfortable with the technology, since to them it has always existed. They view a computer as a communications device that can also do really awesome things. In response to the pressure of their peers, they try to make their computers stand out as especially rad within the suffocating confines of their teenage orthodoxy. This usually involves the installation of garish wallpaper, annoying sound effects, and the like. But it can also mean clicking "Yes!" in response to celebrity-studded advertising pitches appealing to their teenage insecurity. Though it's assumed that teenagers are inherently rebellious, it's been my experience that what they really want to do more than anything else is conform. What's rebellious about this behavior is that the conformity is to a culture the parents do not recognize. Few teenagers want to be considered weird, and if they believe all the beautiful people are installing SaveNow, the Burger King sound effect collection, the Pepsi screensaver, and HotDealzRUs, they're going to want to install them too. It's rare that they have any qualms about the mainstream brands of global corporations. This particular teenage girl was so intent on conforming that she nearly threw a fit of categorical refusals when I meekly suggested that instead of using AOL to surf the web and check her email, she use Mozilla the way I've taught her mother to. Admittedly, this particular girl has been badly spoiled and still manifests many of the worst traits of the terrible twos, but the reaction that her level of maturity kept her from containing was probably a typical one for teenagers. They so don't want to be shunned by their AOL-using friends by firing up a Mozilla browser in their presence.
It only took me about fifteen minutes of Add/Remove Programs and a RegEdit-facilitated search & destroy jihad to get rid of all the crap that was bogging down this teenager's computer. When I was done, it booted right up and was usable immediately, a condition made all the more unusual by the fact that its operating system was Windows Millennium Edition, a product that all by itself should have resulted in the discontinuation of Microsoft's being an ongoing concern. (But no, our concern continues.)
Making that computer work so much better brought me a certain amount of satisfaction, but this had a sad, defeated undercurrent. Already the daughter had successfully lobbied for a "new computer" (a solution everyone has been conditioned to accept as a reasonable one for their computer problems), and her old one would be used only as a stop-gap. Against the tyrannical demands of a spoiled teenage daughter, it would have been pointless for me to argue that she would never find a use for a new computer that she couldn't do just as well on her old one. All that crapware had served its purpose and shown the old computer to be "old" and "in need of replacement." The fact that it was now all better was useless against a promise already made to the teenage tyrant. (If it wasn't for the widespread installation of crapware, I wonder how Dell's stock price would be doing.)
On the way back from Saugerties, I stopped in at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary and had a short meeting with Kathy, the director, in her doublewide trailer. It was the only place on the premises with a functioning web connection. I've volunteered to take over work on the Sanctuary's website, so Kathy gave me the crucial FTP access information.
Not knowing what kind of server it was and what my capabilities were, the moment I got home I tried out some of my fancy Randomly Ever After backend PHP scripts, and they all worked like a charm. I think this is going to be fun! Interestingly, I feel liberated by the fact that I'm not doing this work for money. (Unless, that is, my work does anything to lower Gretchen's high level of animal-welfare guilt, the force that causes her to donate scads of our money to animal welfare charities.) I have the freedom to build a cool content management infrastructure as a labor of love and not be concerned that I'm over-engineering something for a client with limited expectations.
In the evening, Gretchen and I had dinner of pizza and beer at an unusually crowded Hurley Mountain Inn. After that we walked along Esopus Creek, salvaging ears of yellow sweet corn overlooked in a recent harvest.
We spent the evening watching two back-to-back women's basketball playoff games. It was way too much basketball for me, but I checked in now and then to see how things were going. For Gretchen it was a real nail-biter, but both teams she wanted to win did so. Since New York is out of the picture, she's rooting for Detroit. When watching other games, it's mostly about which one of the teams is evil. When it comes to that crucial criterion, these are the three most-evil teams, starting with the Al Qaeda of the WNBA and working down to meer Syrian levels of basketballian evil:
Los Angeles - the evil one
Houston - a slightly lesser-evil
Charlotte - a Redneckistani form of evil.
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