»  National Review Online

October 30th, 2001

  XPect the Worst


Last Thursday, October 25th, was the release date for Microsoft's new version of the Windows operating system, called "Windows XP"…

Lost your attention? I should certainly hope so. Nothing is more boring than computers. I know whereof I speak: until recently, for most of my adult life I made a living by programming the damn things, or by directing the efforts of others who did so. Permit me, please, to take a trip down memory lane before I get into the philippics.

I started out with a fine enthusiasm, programming big old third-generation mainframes. Those suckers were awesome. (Yes, this is still Derb here. I am lapsing into geek-speak only to try to catch some of the flavor of my early career in IT. Bear with me, please.) Back around 1970 a mainframe computer filled a whole floor. The air-conditioning unit alone cost as much as a car. When you'd learned to make a mainframe sit up and beg, the feeling of power was truly bodacious. At one place I worked, they ran the mainframe only in daytime hours. I asked, and got, permission to do my program testing overnight. I would go home, have dinner, come back, let myself into the computer room, power up the a/c, power up the mainframe, IPL and run the boot deck (those who understand, will understand), allocate myself a couple of partitions, and — VROOOM!  It was like being alone at the controls of the space shuttle. I tell you, I could make that thing sing and dance. I created reports, I designed screens, I built vast databases. In between times, I had fun: One night, for a bet, I wrote a COBOL program to compute π to 100,000 decimal places.

Just as the thrill was beginning to wear off, along came PCs. Of course, having coded for the Big Iron from its very console, you first had to shake off the feeling that PCs were just kids' toys. Once you had broken through that psychological barrier, though, this was a whole new world. You bought the thing in a box and took it home! Then you bought a copy of MASM* and you were off and running. For girly types who couldn't handle MASM there was Turbo C with its clunky WordStar-style IDE and that subtle, intriguing collection of bugs you had to code around. (Everybody knew that if you had a far pointer to an array of structures, the first element in the array got populated with gibberish and was unusable.) I was always a MASM hacker myself, though — I even had a dis-assembler for hacking into other people's object code. SCASB! STOSB! LODSB! XOR! PUSH and POP! NOP — an instruction that tells the processor to do nothing at all!  ASSUME — the mastery of which could make your code completely incomprehensible!!  DOS calls! Bit planes! Those were the days when PC Magazine used to publish Assembler listings right there in its pages. Neat software was sprouting up all over the place. Remember Sidekick? Fastback? Xtree? dBase? Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive; to be young was very heaven.

Then the suits took over and it all got boring. Hey, look, I am a big fan of capitalism, and I know these things have to happen. Our civilization rides on the back of the suits — I know, I know. Some of my best friends are suits. Hell, I was a suit myself, though not a very successful or productive one. That was in the mid-1990s when there was, as it happened, another efflorescence of creative computing, driven by the Internet take-off, and the suits had to stand back for a while and let the propellor-heads take the controls. It was all too late for me. I'd started a family and acquired one of those yellow paisley-pattern ties. Being a suit's not a bad life, and having kids makes up for everything. Then I got interested in other things and the wife got herself a job, so I quit the IT game altogether.

Now I am merely a computer user. Not — here's the main point at last — a very happy one. To be blunt about it, I hate the damn things. Part of this is hacker esthetic snobbery: when you have written a word processor yourself in less than 4,000 bytes, it is just offensive to see that the latest version of MS Word occupies nearly nine million bytes. What on earth is all that code doing? The art of coding efficiently is dead. When disk space costs nothing, and memory very nearly nothing, there is no point in being efficient, except of course the esthetic point.

Most of it, however, is just resentment at the hundreds of hours I have had to spend just getting today's computers to work. Not "to work the way I want them" — I have long since given up on that. Just to work. When I had my first PC, back in that golden age of the early 1980s, I tried everything and bought every piece of software that came out. Now, I never try anything. Who dares? I am hunkered down behind the dozen or so pieces of software that are indispensable to my life and living, and wary of all newcomers. Early this year I bought a new desktop, and after weeks of fiddling got most of it working. Now that's it, and I shall change nothing, nothing, until I absolutely have to — until, that is, the next hard drive failure. For the record, here are my indispensables, roughly in order of usage:

In case I ever feel the urge to do some heavyweight programming, I have VB6 and Access installed … but the urge hasn't come upon me since I got the new system. I think my programming days are over.

So, shall I be buying an upgrade to XP? Not bloody likely. Why make trouble for myself? Half my software wouldn't work, and the other half wouldn't work the way I'm used to it working. Going from 98 to ME when I bought my new system was enough of a headache.

Actually, it was mainly a hardware headache. When I tried to run the install for my trusty old Hewlett Packard 4100C scanner, it crashed ME so comprehensively I had to restore to factory defaults. I called HP. Oh, yeah, they said, there's a patch. Downloaded the patch, tried to install again: same crash. Called HP again: "Oh yeah, there's a disk you need." Bought the goddam disk. Ran it: same crash. Called HP. They had me check the part number printed on the disk label. "Yep, that's the part number for the ME installer, can't understand why it doesn't work for you …" Meanwhile, I had been scrutinizing the disk. Burned into the inner ring around the center hole was a part number different from the one printed on the label. It was, in fact, the part number of the old install software. HP had just stuck a new label, with a new part number printed on it, on to the old ME-crashing install disk! I called them up and explained this. The seventh or eighth techie understood my point. I asked for a replacement. Got it: same problem. Another: the same. Called them. I was shunted off to the Distribution Center, which sounded as if it was in somewhere like Bhutan. After another seven or eight attempts, I got the problem explained. They would "research" it. Seven months later, HP is still "researching" how to get a label saying "part number X" on to a disk that actually contains part number X.

Furious with HP, I went out and bought another scanner, an Epson 1240U. No way I was ever going to buy HP again! Well, the Epson installed OK, but it was all downhill from there. It would copy only in black and white, and only at a uselessly low resolution. There was no light-dark control. When I could get it to scan without crashing, and had mastered the weirdly counter-intuitive interface, I could get a scan into Paint Shop Pro, but I really need a machine that will copy without me having to scan first. I fired off some emails and called them up. Once I had got past their stunned amazement that I was trying to use an Epson scanner to copy to a non-Epson printer — who ever heard of a user wanting to do that?! — the techies were polite, keen and ready to help, but a great weariness had settled on me. "Let's try a few things, shall we? First, reboot your machine …" Goodbye, afternoon. Why do I have to beta-test their frigging drivers for them? Should't the damn thing work out of the box? Who's got the time for this stuff?

I was starting to hate the Epson machine on other grounds, too. It was designed, I had come to realize, by the team in the Dilbert strip, under the supervision of that pointy-haired boss. Get this: there is no on-off switch! To preserve the life of your scanner lamp, you have to unplug the machine from the wall receptacle each time you use it. It actually tells you to do this in the instruction manual! I cut through the power cable with scissors and wired up an inline switch I bought from Home Depot for $2.89. Now the fool thing sits there, sneering at me, and if I want to copy a health insurance form I have to scan it into Paint Shop Pro first, via a couple of crash-reboot cycles. I weep for my dear old HP 4100C, which would have copied to my dishwasher if I had asked it to, but which now sits folornly on a basement shelf, useless under Windows ME because the Ph.D.s at Hewlett Packard can't stick the right [expletive] label on the right [expletive] [expletive] disk.

As you can see, I get mad just thinking about the hundreds of hours of my one and only life I have spent with these dolts and their chimp-designed machines and their crappy software and their "distribution centers" in Ulan Bator. No more: what I have now works, more or less, after a fashion, and I'm sticking with it till I have absolutely no choice but to upgrade. XP? Only if Bill Gates himself comes and installs it.

* That is, Microsoft Assembler language, the lowest-level programming language for the Intel family of chips, in which you write instructions from the chip's own actual instruction set — "coding down to the metal," we called it. I still have my first copy of MASM, version 1.25.