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Alive 8

      Diary of a Computer Repairman

             By Gus Mueller

I've  been borrowing stuff again,  without permission,  but this guy really
does  have some of the most cogent and sensible arguments against  plunging
headlong  into  the  Wintel/Microsoft lifestyle,  that I've ever  heard.  I
daresay that he has managed to throw fresh light on even these old topics.

This time around, it is the perils of Adware, and how it can literally take
over your Wintel box,  in the way that unattended  choking weeds can do for
even the tidiest garden. Here we go now!

Computers of teenage girls  -
Friday, August 29 2003

I  returned again today to the computer client up in Saugerties.   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has  been  replaced by something unhelpful like an animated  rainbow.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

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

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.)

A place for this kind of madness  -
Tuesday, September 30 2003

Today on a housecall,  I encountered a computer so badly diseased by adware
that  I couldn't fix it,  not even after two hours and repeated use of  the
adware-fighting program Ad-Aware.

So  I  had  to take it home with me.   This is the worst kind  of  computer
repair  gig,  because  I always end up putting in a lot more hours of  work
than I can possibly bill for.  At this point, though, I tend to think of it
as educational.

I'm  become  fascinated  by adware and how it can be  so  horrible  and  so
widespread  at  the  same time.   The fact that something  so  uncelebrated
quickly turns a bleeding-edge computer into a 486, sending the owner out to
spend a thousand dollars on a replacement - I'm just amazed that capitalism
has  carved  out a place for this kind of madness.   Why aren't  all  these
adware  writers in jail?  Compared to adware developers,  virus authors are
positively benign.

Alive 8