testing nukes on the commons
Thursday, September 11 2003
Today's jihad was a continuation of the one begun yesterday over the telephone with a client who I'd been indulging with free consultation. This time I was at her house and that meant I would be paid. I'd thought nobody would be at the house, but the teenage daughter was there, evidently taking advantage of the institution known as a sick day. I knew right away that something was different, because instead of the usual WKZE wafting from the outdoor speakers, it was the deep throbs and conversational lyrics of hip hop.
Far more sick than the daughter was her mother's computer, upon which this daughter had foolishly installed a variety of applications related to the downloading of free music. Teenagers think that they can get something for nothing without bothering to learn much about what they're doing. In the past this might have been the case, but today's internet has become too much of a minefield for such behavior to be survivable. If you want to download music, you either have to know how to uninstall adware or you have to know where to get KaZaA Lite. Anything else results in a computer that can't even justify the electricity it uses.
The computer was a late-model Dell with a sexy black flat screen display. Its processor probably ran at over 2 billion cycles per second. But from the moment it was started, it was nothing but a conduit for advertising. These came as Internet Explorer popups at a rate sometimes in excess of one per second until there were over forty of them on the screen. Each of them was riot of bright colors and blinking animations. A good fraction of them were actually huge depictions of blinking targets that asked the rhetorical question "Sick of Popups?" and then provided a fool's solution, "Click Here!" It was the online equivalent of being rear-ended in traffic and then, upon confronting the offending driver, getting an a'capella song and dance routine advertising car insurance. Twenty years ago, nobody could have predicted the dystopia I was witnessing, one in which our very ability to function is frustrated by a relentless storm of advertisements. I had to believe that this computer had an unusually bad combination of adware installations, a setup not anticipated even by the miscreants who released this stuff. Willfully making a computer behave like this isn't just a hard sell, it's a misuse of our internet commons. Gone are the days when some greedy bastard would overgraze the public square - these captains of industry are testing nukes on it!
The popups only require an internet connection to get going, so on a cable-modem equipped computer this means they begin the moment the computer starts. It's an entirely different sort of harassment from that assaults you when you go to certain sites. When popups start attacking you without you having "gone" anywhere, you get a desperate feeling of being invaded, infected, and raped. This experience can't possibly confer much goodwill upon advertisers using such a ruthless method to further their brands. I'm not surprised to see these popups hyping marginal products such as penis patches, herbal viagra, popup-blocking software, and child pornography. What I find amazing is that Expedia.com is willing to advertise this way. What species of desperation is this?
My task was to make the computer usable again. So I did what any normal person would do, attempting to uninstall the crapware listed in the Add/Remove Programs control panel. Jesus, there was so much of it! There were not one but two different filesharing programs, both of them renown for their adware. The worst of these was
NeoNapster (how's that for trademark parasitism?), which comes with more parasites than a puppy from Calcutta. Then there was
Grokster, which is a front end for the same file sharing network but brings its own ecosystem of pathogens.
The spyware/adware/cancerware/trojans included
eXact search bar,
Cleaner 5 EZ,
EBates MoeMoneyMaker, and
SaveNow, only the last of which could actually be uninstalled in the conventional way (that is, the only way any consumer could hope to know about). The control panel hung for about twenty seconds of inactivity whenever I clicked to uninstall BargainBuddy - during which nothing got uninstalled. There was another program that refused to uninstall unless there was an internet connection, but I had to have the internet connection turned off in order for the computer to be even remotely usable. I did eventually try doing uninstall with a live internet connection, and again, nothing got uninstalled. (Later I learned that if the computer is functional and you're connected to the internet, trying to uninstall n-Case takes you to a web page where you have to download an uninstaller program - I'm totally serious.)
The most amusing uninstall came after passing through a gauntlet of screens, all of which hyped the advantages of leaving the spyware installed while providing tiny buttons in difficult-to-find places for those wishing to continue with the uninstall.
But none of these uninstalls actually worked, so I escalated to a search-and-destroy battle waged RegEdit. Amazingly, though, all the spyware survived my attacks. Even the things I'd successfully uninstalled managed to reinstall themselves. Some process, hidden behind an innocuous name, was successfully keeping the computer possessed.
The only solution left was to wantonly kill processes running in the Task Manager and then download and run AdAware (which knows a lot more about adware than I do). This was how I finally exorcised the computer.
After I was done, I went downstairs and talked some to the teenage girl to ascertain what exactly she'd been thinking when she'd installed all that horrible software on her mother's computer. Her ignorance on the subject of file sharing didn't take much interrogation to uncover. She (and the friend who had helped her) had no idea that junky adware usually came attached to file sharing software. Astoundingly, she'd heard nothing about the RIAA's recent lawsuit campaign against file sharers. (It pays to stay on top of the news even if your are an immortal teenager.) I told her that if she must do file sharing she should only use KaZaA Lite, and she should also be sure to turn off file sharing so she'd lessen her chance of getting sued by the fine people who brought us Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and both of them tonguing Madonna on national television. I also left her a CD with the KaZaA Lite installation burned on it.
Today was the second anniversary of September 11th, 2001. Interestingly, George W. Bush stayed out of New York City for this one. His approval rating is running at 20% there these days. I wonder if those 20% think Bush was correct when he told his EPA to advise everyone that the air near Ground Zero was safe to breathe without having conducted a single test. It's most natural to respond to such governmental misbehavior with pitchfork-bearing mobs, but I'll settle for throwing the bums out any way possible. Next year's GOP convention in Lower Manhattan should be a real hoot.
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