December 22, 2009

Fear of Fritterware: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Last night I had one of the most frightening dreams a man can have. I dreamt that someone, someone who hated me deeply, had given me a brand new computer for Christmas. I woke up screaming, but the dream persisted.

A new computer! I could just see it. It had everything: a processor so fast that it was measured in googlehertz rather than megahertz, more ram than the entire sheep population of New Zealand, a hard drive bigger than the Great Plains, and a megaplex sized-monitor capable of displaying 2.5 trillion ordinary colors at warp six and with such a blistering intensity that your eyes boiled in your skull. A broadband connection so huge it could suck the Library of Congress dry in a nanosecond. The CPU was covered in sable. The keyboard fashioned from rare woods. The wireless mouse was surgically implanted in my finger tip so all I had to do was gesture mystically.

It got worse.

This Christmas puppy came loaded with Fritterware. It had Openfly OS, BrokenWindows Version 6.66, HomelessOffice 2004, Internet Destroyer, Fretscape, iEverthingEverywhere and Pong. The Paperclip was back as the host of my new computer's "interactive" training program aptly named RageMaker. When I opened the box in my nightmare my first impulse was to rip open all my other presents in hopes that someone had given me a gun so I could just shoot myself.

Nothing is worse than a fully loaded new computer, and I've been using them for nearly 20 years. Setting up a new computer is like getting ready to French Kiss an elephant; you know it will be a new experience, but you know it won't taste like Veal Cordon Bleu.

I presently own and operate three computers (One hopefully named "Power Macintosh.") I hate all of them in a separate but equal ways. I am not alone.

Given the death-dwarf invasion of System 7, the retail desperation of Best Buy, the Piranaesque Dell feeding frenzy, and the return of Web TV (Just Right for Grandma and so simple from Microsoft!)aka "Nutflix", teeny-tiny-cheapy Notebookz, Twitterehea, and Faceblah, I know that all over the world this holiday season, millions upon millions of people will be receiving new computers, and that they will truly be the "gifts that keep on giving."

Those gifts will be:

As people across the globe attempt to install backup drives, get modems to dial, configure wireless networks, cheat at Solitaire, and sign-up over the telephone lines for America Online Sometimes, suicide hotlines will begin jam as human beings come face to face, not for the first time, with the only machine in history that makes its customers into human lab animals. And makes them pay thousands of dollars for the pain.

How did we get here?

Why have we become a world of sheep begging the Bill Gates' of the Silicon City to not only clip us, use us, keep us on hold to their aptly name "Help Lines" for hours at a time, and then clip us again with "upgrades" to programs that are less than six months old?

When did we become like junkies who don't even get the first one free, but have to go back time and again to get the latest, greatest, fastest version of something we didn't really need in the first place?

How did we lose our sense of time being of at least some marginal value so that we patiently endure the loathsome America Online message, "Please Wait While We Download New Art."

The truth is that, over the last 20 years that personal computers have been a part of our lives, we have been trained to expect computers to fail. Weve accepted that they will screw around with our lives and our fortunes. We have slowly and without any organized protest, been suckered into being the Beta Testers for new software and hardware that not only screws up in predictable ways, but is known by the manufacturers to screw up in predictable ways ("The inability for the program to connect with the Internet? Oh yes, that's a known bug. Well have a patch soon. Just connect to Internet and download it.")

If General Motors were to release an automobile whose steering wheel froze without warning, whose engine took three minutes to load and start itself and then came to a halt when turning left and going downhill five percent of the time, whose windshield suddenly went from clear to black, whose trunk made ten percent of the things put inside disappear forever, whose radio went on and off without warning, and whose passenger compartment came with a dog that ate homework daily, and whose Owner's Guide was the size of a phone book printed in Farsi, would the consumers of the world line up in droves screeching Feed Me!?

If life is brief, how can we go on and on spending oceans of time dicking around with what is, for most people, only a very expensive version of an electric typewriter, adding machine, and mailbox? What can be the reason behind the thirst of millions to own computers with more and more features to fail, and software programs whose primary advance over the previous program is to enable you to put a drop-cap in a thank you note while secretly mailing your credit card numbers to Bobs Wild World O Porn in Bosnia?

It can only be that besides being junkies and sheep, computer users are also masochists willing to pay for being abused, degraded, humiliated and made to feel as if we hand the intellectual capacity of a planeria.

Well, this worm is turning. I, for one, am kicking the habit, leaving the barnyard, and getting the whiphand. After almost 20 years of getting bigger, "better," more powerful computers, I am now going to search for a smaller, slower, more dependable model. I want to find the way-new old computer.

Here are the specs for the computer I really want for Christmas:

1) I want it to go on and off with the touch of a button like a light or a television.
2) I want the mouse to go where I steer it.
3) I want the monitor to be big and bright and never fail.
4) I want ALL the drivers in place so I can drive it.
5) I want it to save everything I do in the background all the time so I never lose anything.
6) I want it to keep track of everything and never lose anything.
7) I want to never again see an error message that reads "Memory Fault at 000E461"( Nobody knows what that means, not even Bill Gates, but the preferred translation is "Neener, neener, neener!").
8) I never want to wait to wait while we download new art again.
9) I dont want to see Theres a 40 megabyte $99.00 upgrade for this software. Download? I want the software to be finished when I buy it the first time.
10) I don't want it to eat my homework, I want it to do my homework.
11) I want it bug free, freeze free, and fritter free the first time.
12) I want it to cost about what a decent 21 inch color TV costs and be just as quick and easy to operate.
13) I want it to listen to and understand my voice so I can never again feel I have to run Typing Tutor just to answer my email.
14) I want it to incinerate the junk email that fills up my hard-drive quicker than you can say "Make Money Fast." and send a letterbomb to spammer.
15) I want all the technoblather that this machines fills the world with to just stop right now! I never, ever, again want to wake up in the middle of the night staring at the ceiling thinking, "JAVA? What is it and why do I have to care about it?"

Personal computers for human beings have been around for over twenty years and it is long past time for the industry's 'experimental' phase to end. Its time for everyone who is tempted to buy a new computer to just say, "We're mad as hell about being roadkill on the Information Highway and we're not going to buy in any longer! Use some of your billions to make these machines fit for human consumption before you dump them on the market, or we're going to force our governments to issue global recalls on these tainted, virus ridden rotten machines! If they can do it to beef, they can do it to silicon."

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. This Christmas my computer nightmare comes to an end. Unless of course I get a copy of something like Uru, in which case I'll be right next to you on hold for an hour at the Uru help line.

[Revised and Updated from Christmas, 2003]

Posted by Vanderleun at December 22, 2009 2:45 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Ah, yes. Now I remember why I'm so reluctant to buy that shiny new tablet PC...

Posted by: Mike Anderson at December 22, 2005 11:58 AM

What you want is the equivalent of a toaster. An appliance, in other words.

Yes, it will eventually come to that, but I'm not sure that you really appreciate just how friggin' complex these computers really are.

I don't think that the automobile industry is really a good comparison, but go take a look at the first 20 years of commercial autos.

Go take a look at the first 20 years of aviation.

Now think really hard about the 1st 20 years of personal computers.

Something different is going on now.

Posted by: Eric Blair at December 22, 2005 1:26 PM

Warren Buffet says that he never invests in anything he doesn't understand. That's worked out pretty well for him. A similar rule should apply when buying a computer.

Posted by: Jonathan at December 22, 2005 6:46 PM

Didn't Buffet just lose a bunch of money betting investing in the Euro and betting against the dollar?

Posted by: Eric Blair at December 23, 2005 5:19 AM

Are you sure you want a machine that is smarter than you are?
The risk is that at the worst possible time, you are will hear the words "I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that".

Posted by: Lane at December 23, 2005 8:07 AM

I saw the handwriting on the wall back when Bill Gates started "giving away" Explorer.

Yeah. Right.

On the back end, meanwhile, he was peddling his web development applications to marketeers which sported features that allowed them to plant cookies onto our machines, spring popups onto our screens, install applications uninvited onto our harddrives, and spy on us unawares.

There's no free lunch, kids.

Posted by: D.C. Hammer at December 23, 2005 10:27 AM

I have the cure for your new computer blues. Hope that Santa, or whoever plows down your chimney, comes with the new Apple iMac G5, the 17" screen is fine, the 20-incher is monsterous. You simply take it out of the box, plug in your communications devices and you're ready for rocket sled speed surfing. And to round off the pre-installed software, the Safari browser will quickly take you to the sites for OpenSource 2.0 (just kills the MS Office suite), Firefox and for e-mail, Thunderbird. All free and marvelously easy to use. Price - the 17" can be had for under $1,300 with free shipping, the 20" under $1,600 same free shipping.

And trust me, once the Mac hooks sinks in, you'll never use a "PC" again

Posted by: Ed McIntosh at December 23, 2005 3:13 PM

Everything the previous poster said is true. But go for the 20", Gerard. You're, ahem, over 40.

Posted by: Roger L. Simon at December 23, 2005 3:32 PM

How do you cheat at computer solitaire? Please tell me--I want to know!


Posted by: Steve at December 23, 2005 4:06 PM

When Ed McIntosh said "OpenSource 2.0", I think he meant OpenOffice 2.0.

Other than that, he's absolutely right. Apple's computers are the easiest to use BY FAR of anything on the market right now.

If you have to use a PC, though, your best option is to thumb your nose at Mr. Gates and install Ubuntu Linux ( Yes, Linux -- it's finally reached the point where it's easy to set up and use.

But then, Apple's computers are easy to use, too, and there are a lot more games available for the Mac than for Linux. It's a toss-up. The only thing I can say for sure is that you'd be better off with either of those options than using Microsoft Windows any longer.

Posted by: Robin Munn at December 23, 2005 4:21 PM

I've owned PC's for 20 years and couldn't even understand all of what you were writing about!

But I'm able to do nearly everything I ever want to do, with very little aggrevation, on my Apple iBook, once I got it a cordless mouse anyway.

Posted by: srhcb at December 23, 2005 5:51 PM


You'll shoot your eye out.

Posted by: Morgan K Freeberg at December 22, 2007 5:47 PM

Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared.

Posted by: Brian at December 22, 2007 9:54 PM

We're getting an iMac. Depriving the children of the experience of opening presents will set us back 1700 smackers, but seeing them bolt down the stairs and seeing NOTHING, NOTHING under the tree but a mac-which they are forced to work on at school, anyway, so yawn, .....priceless! HAHAHAHAHA!

Posted by: Jewel at December 23, 2008 5:18 AM

Robin: of course, now it is OpenOffice 3.0. Also, another advantage of Linux is free software upgrades forever (no guarantee that they work, except the reputations of their developers). And there's some other slick new software recently made available, check out KDE and Kubuntu ( and

Also, there's an essay written in the late 90's called "In the Beginning was the Command Line Interface" by Neal Stephenson, which is actually still fairly relevant today, that helps explain some things about computers today.

Posted by: raptros-v76 at December 23, 2008 5:49 AM

Once you try Mac, you'll never go back.

Posted by: Daphne at December 23, 2008 5:51 AM

Thanks for the Stephenson pointer. I found the essay and promoted it to the sidebar with

"About twenty years ago Jobs and Wozniak,

the founders of Apple, came up with the very strange idea of selling information processing machines for use in the home. The business took off, and its founders made a lot of money and received the credit they deserved for being daring visionaries. But around the same time, Bill Gates and Paul Allen came up with an idea even stranger and more fantastical: selling computer operating systems. This was much weirder than the idea of Jobs and Wozniak...." from Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning was the Command Line

Posted by: vanderleun at December 23, 2008 6:22 AM

I would add one more specification, though this is a more in-general kinda thing: That there be a law passed making it a capital crime for any software publisher to FAIL to provide clear, concise, and RELEVANT definitions for all error messages their product may throw.

That ship WITH the product. None of this, "available on our Web site" booshwa.


Posted by: Mark Alger at December 23, 2008 6:32 AM

We don't need to go take a look at the first 20 years of aviation. Just look at what the planes can do today. They can practically take off, navigate and land themselves. The only problem is that the wheels fall off when the plane taxis for take off.

Buy a Mac Gerard.

Posted by: gabrielpicasso at December 23, 2008 8:12 AM


"I presently own and operate three computers (One hopefully named "Power Macintosh.") I hate all of them in a separate but equal ways. I am not alone."

Quit scanning.

Posted by: vanderleun at December 23, 2008 9:10 AM

Well, Mac didn't waste their marketing dollars.

They're good appliances.

Posted by: RiverC at December 23, 2008 9:15 AM

I think the joke is he basically wants an impossible computer? I don't know. Gerard?

It helps that with Cars and Planes if something messes up you die. With computers it's just your soul that dies, and doesn't create much of a scandal.

Posted by: RiverC at December 23, 2008 9:31 AM

I've been a new computer junkie for years -- had to have the latest and greatest, because, you know, I'm special. And my time is worth it, you know.

I'm always disappointed.

What's with multicore processors, and why are they so worthless?

To wit: I have a PC which is dual processor, 4 core Xeon powered. 8 flippin' cores! 7 of them serve the purpose of heating my office. They never get used. One core does all the work, and machine slows to crawl when anything is accessing the hard drive. Virus scan? fuggeddaboutit. Offsite backup? nearly as bad. File indexing? Can you say "continental drift", boys and girls?

Oh, and its Windows XP, so a reboot is mandatory every few days, sometimes more often. Vista? They'll get XP away from me when they pry the tiny-lettered license out of my cold, dead hands.

Next to this "high-performance" machine is a Mac, 4 core Xeon. Still painfully slow at most tasks. It's main asset is that it never crashes. Ever.

Yet we get suckered into buying these global-warming offenders, time and time again. What a con.

Although that new Intel processor looks really, really fast ...

Is there a 12-step program for me?

Posted by: Dr Bob at December 23, 2008 11:59 AM

The earliest computers had no apparent use. What does any individual need one for? --especially when a huge one (in those days) had about the computing power of the chip in your optical mouse, and the reliability of a Scale extra with a thousand bucks in her purse. So they all came with powerful disclaimers: This machine isn't guaranteed to turn on, much less do anything useful. If it doesn't, you have to pay us to try to get it to do something. (No, it didn't say that, exactly, but that's what the lawyerese came out to.)

Personal computers, when new, were in even worse shape in that respect. Their makers were anxious to insure that nobody expected the thing to do much, so the disclaimers got longer and more complex, but amounted to the same thing. It makes sense, in a way. Until the Internet came along computers were 'way more sizzle than steak, but they would never even have reached the point they have got to without the free money generated by that policy.

Nowadays the custom is so engrained that even Macs, which are in fact a good bit better in that respect than anything cursed by Microsoft, still come with the same anti-warranty. If the Linux guys really had the courage of their convictions, they would put together a consortium to have the Chinese (or, better, the Taiwanese) build a medium power box, equip it with a software suite, and sell it with a warranty of merchantability and fitness -- it would have to be carefully phrased to avoid trouble with Aunt Minnie, but as of the last couple of years it should be possible. The result wouldn't be your dream computer -- among other things, the wallahs aren't even close to reliable random-phrase voice interpretation -- but it would point the way. Who's got the angel money for it?


Posted by: Ric Locke at December 23, 2008 12:04 PM

Remember, DOS stands for both Digital Operating System and Denial of Service.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at December 23, 2008 12:21 PM

Rule of doing stuff fast on computers: Do only that thing. Most people's computers are slow and crash because they have installed and are running some 40 things - some of which inevitably conflict with one another. Mac's solution to this was to make all software proprietary. This made their OS's crash a lot less but - surprise - software entrepreneurs (game makers among them) mostly went elsewhere.

Still, I remember a lot of the Mac's I've used been horribly slower than the PC's because they preloaded everything under the sun...

Build your own computer, maybe. Hah! That's always satisfying, when it works. Sometimes the parts are DOA!


Posted by: RiverC at December 23, 2008 12:51 PM

Rule of doing stuff fast on computers: Do only that thing.

Boy is that the truth. Ever wonder why your PC crashes all the time but your Nintendo never does?

Because the Nintendo does one thing and does it well, while the PC is a jack-of-all-trades. And that makes it an order of magnitude more complicated.

Still, Gerard is right. It's time for computers to get more like an appliance and less like a giant science experiment. But computers still are very new. They are, 20 years is nothing. When the automobile industry was 20 years old, the cars were much less reliable and had far fewer features than today.

Posted by: Darrencardinal at December 23, 2008 6:34 PM

Gerard, poor soul, you've set your bar too low.

What I want is computer that I never have to turn on but the first time, and then never have to touch again.

I want wireless, light-quick, crystal-clarity displays in any or all the rooms of my house, in all the varying sizes I might want, from iTouch sized all the way to home theater. If I want.

I want a totally voice-operated OS for which a keyboard is a superfluous anachronism, and I want to voice operation to work in plain, ordinary language, no special jargon required.

I want a wireless voice connection so that I can cell-dial my computer from anywhere in the world to command it. I want to to be able to ask it questions, such as, "Where's a good cheeseburger joint near where I am right now?" and then get an answer within a second or two. Or, "I'm going to the grocery, email me my shopping list." And the computer just does it with no further prompting from me.

I want to tell it, "Call Joe Smith and leave a message that I'll be 15 minutes late for handball," then forget about it while the computer makes the call, listens to Joe's voice-mail hell and formats and leaves the message. Same for email.

I want it hidden well away from the rest of my living space. As I said, I want to touch it only once, and that's for initial setup.

I want to locate my printer where it is most convenient to me rather than a cable length from the computer.

Yeah, that's what I want. A "Dave" from 2001 who knows its darn place in the world and never rebels.

Posted by: Donald Sensing at December 22, 2009 8:28 AM

That reminds me of a scene in one of those Star Trek movies where the crew returns via time travel of some sort to San Francisco in the late 20th century. Thery're shown a Macintosh and Scotty says, "Look, a keyboard! How quaint."

Posted by: vanderleun at December 22, 2009 9:04 AM

If computers did everything they were supposed to every time, without fail, world with out end, amen, I'd probably be asking you, "Would you like fries with that?" (And no, I *don't* do Windows for a living.)

Posted by: WWWebb at December 22, 2009 9:56 AM

@Alan Kellog: Cute DOS/DoS comparison, except for the fact that the correct OS acronym was DISK Operating System.

And yes, the OS I work with is command-line.


Posted by: WWWebb at December 22, 2009 10:01 AM

Every 4 or so years, I buy a new Mac and don't even bother to read the manual. I just plug it in, follow the setup instructions on the screen, and they've always worked. In 20 years I've never lost anything and the screen has never gone blank.

To hook up to the web, I phone my cable company (in Canada) and they guide me step by step from screen to screen in setting up my connection. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes and I'm done.

Posted by: Gloria at December 22, 2009 11:21 AM

I want a photo -- opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard

Posted by: Fat Man at December 22, 2009 11:40 AM

Mr. Sensing I'm with you except I want a helpful rebellious 'puter with multi-core Dinkum Thinkum.

...The name would be Mike of course.

Posted by: monkeyfan at December 22, 2009 1:15 PM

That reminds me of a scene in one of those Star Trek movies where the crew returns via time travel of some sort to San Francisco in the late 20th century. Thery're shown a Macintosh and Scotty says, "Look, a keyboard! How quaint."

I love that scene. Scotty first attempts to give the computer verbal commands, and of course gets no response. The two young computer nerds exchange knowing looks ("Get a load of this old fart."). They show Scotty the keyboard, and he sits down and heaves a sigh of resignation. Then he proceeds to type at a rate of about 800 WPM.

Posted by: rickl at December 22, 2009 5:13 PM

Well, Macs are for me. Covet that quad core 27 inch new IMAC for photos, but have heard rumors about the build quality being disappointing. I only get their cheapest laptops as Apple so loathsomely claim that anything that goes wrong is the result of abuse/accident and therefore not covered under Apple Care. I dutifully buy Windows PCs for the rest of the family (all gaming geeks) and spend HOURS configuring and cleaning them out. The bloatware on one Sony Vaio just about made me throw it downstairs while trying to remove it.

My dream computer would be an Apple Macbook Pro w a 512 video card,2 TB hard drive (photos take up space), still weighing only about 4 or 5 pounds, only with mil spec toughbook hardening, and impervious to drops, spills, with a built in 4G card (and the national wireless broadband that Europe and Far Eastern countries already have).

Also, plug in and out components designed to be idiot user serviceable.

Netbooks would be the answer, given manufacturer's refusal to make durable laptops at a reasonable price. Use them a year or two and throw them away IF only Mac made one. And charged under 500 for it.

I can dream, can't I??

Posted by: retriever at December 22, 2009 5:14 PM

Oh it's a dream I can share Retriever. A dream I can share.

Posted by: vanderleun at December 22, 2009 7:16 PM

Great scene recall, Ricki. I can see it all again.

Posted by: vanderleun at December 22, 2009 7:18 PM