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Sunday, January 4 2004
It was a wacky day filled with housecalls. It wasn't entirely pleasant, since I was dealing with things like unreliable cable modems attached to marginal Windows 98 installations. Then there was the old lady in Woodstock who called me and sounded like she was on the verge of a mental breakdown as she said "I can't afford to pay you $70 every time my printer stops working."
I dropped in on the old lady and fixed her printer for cheap and told her to do herself a favor and get a laser printer. It's my opinion that for many people, bubblejet printers just aren't worth the grief, especially given how cheaply they're built and how expensive their ink refilling can be.
The weirdest housecall today was at the home of one of my regular clients, a place where I'd installed an elaborate ethernet system connecting three different places using cables strung outdoors and buried underground. A couple months ago I had to go there and fix a cable that had been chewed completely through by a squirrel. Today I was there diagnosing an intractable network problem. In frustration, I finally stuck my head out of a second floor window and inspected the cable. Sure enough, it had been chewed in one spot. This time the saboteur hadn't actually chewed through the wires; he'd merely exposed them to the elements, and today the elements included a continuous cold rain. Such weather prevented me from taking any immediate action to correct this problem. The strange thing about this particular incident is that it happened in a place where it would be hard to imagine a squirrel being able to go. Perhaps the damage was done by a woodpecker. Or a micrometerorite.
When I wasn't having my energy drained away by housecalls, I spent an unusually large amount of time being a passive consumer of web information. I found myself being particularly entertained by Marshall Brain's Blog for December (a link I followed from Slashdot.org). During December, you see, Mr. Brain documented every incident in which he had to take unusual corrective action with his home network of Windows machines. He's presented it all in excruciating detail, complete with the entire texts of the End User Agreements that 99% of people never reading. This detail is part of what makes it a compelling read. It provides a damning documentary of all that is absurd with consumer computing here at the beginning of 2004. I hadn't even noticed, for example, that half of Microsoft mandatory upgrade EULAs are written in the French language. Why? Like every arbitrary thing done by Microsoft, there's no apparent reason. (There's nothing in the EULA in Spanish, a much more commonly-spoken language in this country.) So even if you do want to completely acquaint yourself with your rights and responsibilities when using Microsoft software, you have to know French to do so.
Brain also does a great job of bringing up the absurdity of mandatory software upgrades, mandatory reboots, and the fact that all of this can come from a company that is sitting on dozens of billions of dollars of cash. Why indeed can't Microsoft take some of that money and develop an operating system that never has to be rebooted? Rebooting a modern computer is a little like buying a new one - you lose all kinds of stuff you don't know you're losing.
Where Brain falls short is his apparent unwillingness to explore the alternatives. The popup assault that his wife experienced at the hands of a malicious ad on Screenit.com could have all been avoided had she been using a more secure web browser such as, I don't know, maybe Mozilla. Indeed, he seems so unfamiliar with non-Windows operating systems that he couldn't recognize the tell-tale Macintosh-only files present on his kid's "Cheerios Playtime" game when it didn't install on his PC. Brain's mainstream average-Joe-ness seems to be at work here, as it is in his frequent descriptions of trips made to Walmart. But unlike most people there, Brain is keenly observant of the whitebread world he has chosen to surround himself with, and when it is stupid or irrational, he has no problem saying so.
The story about Brain's wife suffering a computer crisis spawned by an ad at Screenit.com made me curious about how bad the world of pop-ups have become. Screenit.com didn't seem to be delivering anything too proctological when I went there, so I carried my adventure over to The Homepage Network to Subsidize Free Software and Content, a sleazy site which replaces your homepage with one of its own (in accordance with its End User Agreement of course). In order to get the full whitebread American experience, I had to use Internet Explorer of course. The Default Homepage people run a nest of these manipulative homepages, each made to look like a different sort of Windows error or hijack attempt. To make it easy for you to tour the whole horrible experience, I've made a page you can go to with all of them. I haven't included the link yet because I first want to warn you that you should probably not go there using Internet Explorer. But now that you're warned, you can go there at your own risk. I've always wondered why the ability of websites to change Internet Explorer's homepage hasn't been considered a security problem worthy of, you know, some sort of fix.
Another thing I read (this time from a printout in the bathtub) was an article exploring heresy and the things that constitute it change with history. The most amusing thing about this article is the feeling pervading it that the writer is walking on eggshells. He hardly mentions anything considered a heresy in modern times, mostly (it seems) because he doesn't want to himself commit a heresy. The most shocking heresy he makes in the entire article is the declaration that American cars are badly made in comparison to foreign cars. He never gives voice to the more glaring heresies that all thinking people know: Souls, gods, and inalienable rights are all victims of Occam's Razor. People can be happy and productive under repressive, bloodthirsty rulers. Nature provides no rights. American society as we know it proves we've learned nothing from the dotcom bubble. Lawns are a waste of space. Sex isn't half as fun as the part that comes just a little before it. Embryos have more value as Chinese food than as taxpayers. Once the shock of its being art is over, abstract art isn't shocking or even particularly interesting. Over the long haul, nobody ever gets happier without taking antidepressants. Lobbying your doctor for prescription antidepressants makes more sense than lobbying your boss for a raise. Hugging makes less sense than taking illegal drugs but is harder to avoid doing. Being drunk isn't fun unless you're drinking. We will find our lost files when we get to heaven. Teenagers have powerful sex drives and either active sex lives or crippling frustration. Shit, I don't know, I mostly say whatever I think, so it's hard for me to think of anything heretical right now that I haven't said many times in the past.
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