Somewhere in the world, there is a saying that if you find that you are riding a tiger, don't jump off. It is sound advice and if you will permit me to make an analogy, I would liken this situation to being a Windows user. It may, however be wise to dismount if the tiger you are riding starts jumping sharks but you must factor in your age and situation overall before making that decision. I am a man that avoided computers with great zeal from the time I became aware of them. This process began when I worked at a bank and was exposed to the crude office equipment of the 70s. I had more respect and admiration for a good slide-rule or an abacus.
Over ensuing years, I couldn't help but notice the billboard ads for familiar products and services which all sported dotcom URLs on their footers. I wondered for the longest time what those things were. Eventually, I came to the untutored conclusion that the computers I was seeing in places of business were nothing more than glorified word-processors enhanced with calculators and the ability to print out results.
This started to pique my interest, as I have always loved printed words and graphics. I was given a DOS computer by a friend at the Post Office to use as a word processor once when I was busily writing a book on a set of yellow legal pads. It weighed as much as a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and had a CRT screen with a lovely obsidian background and a fluorescent jade colored digital alarm clock font.
The unit came with a ten pound box of books on how to use it. One had to type long strings of computer script after hours of reading in order to set up a simple format, such as a page of justified text. The impressive part to me was how much information it could store. I still find this mind-boggling today, being an avid reader who is still mourning the destruction of the Serapeum at Alexandria. There had been at least two prior users of this computer. One was the giver and the other was an acquaintance of his who went on to later become a celebrated Vancouver author and poet.
Evidently she hadn’t deleted her work when she was custodian of the DOS box. It was heady reading and I could relate to much of what I read before deleting it. Rather than being a finished work, these angst-filled streams of consciousness seemed to me to be her way of opening a steam-valve in order to get her train running. I made a mental note to take care when swapping, trading, selling or borrowing computer or word-processing equipment in the future to securely wipe the contents of the drive.
In a short while, I became concerned that I was spending more time getting the computer to work than I was composing anything. I went in search for a word-processor and found a beautiful old Smith Corona at a junk store in New Westminster. The proprietor was kind enough to let me sit and play with the unit until I was sure I could make it work for me. In a session or two, I was thrilled with it and took it home.
I called it the Smith & Wesson and set about finishing the novel. I gave away a small collection of manual typewriters I had amassed over the years and started filling up floppy disks. This served my needs until just after September 11, 2001. That date itself is not really important to this narrative but it stands out as the defining moment of the times of which I speak.
I had two sons in school and had been plagued for years by friends and family with admonitions to get a home computer, if not for myself, for them. Pointing out to these well-meaning busy-bodies that the boys had computers in their school classrooms and knew quite well how to use them was less successful than trying to teach synchronized swimming to three cats and a dog. Anyway, one morning as I stood on my stoop in Vancouver waiting for the bus, I did a one eighty and decided to purchase a home computer. All I can recall of my reasoning at the time was that I felt that even though I disagreed with the human herd on many fronts, I wasn’t prepared to be the only fool talking to himself in the bank line up while waiting to cash my cheque.
Christmas was on the horizon, so I headed to London Drugs and purchased a desktop system with Windows XP as the Operating System. It happened to be the very first day of release in Canada. Hence, no one I knew could help me get acquainted with it as they all had older versions with quite different user interfaces. I soon discovered that computers, as long as the internet was working, could and would teach the patient average student all that they could want to know about how to use them. I still think that is the greatest thing about them. If my Suzuki could talk and tell me how the hell to reach the oil filter, I would buy it a beer.
Of course my two boys were miles ahead in their abilities and showed great patience while I muddled through the simplest of operations. First we installed games. Several for each of us. We set up a complex system of individually dedicated hours. To be quite honest, this also demarcated the point at which we three began to take different forks in the road of family indoor leisure time, not coming together in a major way until we took up playing Magic Card tournaments.
Looking back now, I have a warm, fuzzy nostalgia of those days. It has the soundtrack of Morrowind layered over the graphics of Warcraft, Myst and Silent Hunter. Our speech was peppered with newly acquired jargon to do with everything from “flushing buffers”, “hot fixes”, “final patches” and “tapping Manna”. I recall the eating of massive platters of delicious Filipino cuisine as only red-eyed all-night gamers can and a continued striving to invent new ways of thwarting the maleficent Ebon Praetor. We fought like junk-yard dogs and bonded on digital levels never attained before that generation. Bleeding corneas and auditory hallucinations became badges of honor. My darling wife just shook her head and kept us watered and fed.
Over time, I tired of games because of the dearth of themes, finding only one Norwegian game where it was impossible to die. I began to dream of making a web-site. Starting from the piece of HTML code which makes a background color appear, I slowly began creating a site. Luckily, I had stacks of physical manuscripts and a little AGFA scanner. Over the next several years I expanded this web-site and even translated it into French, Spanish and German. I remember an acquaintance telling me around this time that for every hour I spent on the internet, I would lose a friend. I laughed in his face as I intimated to him that if that was the case, I had become friendless after the very first day.
While this was going on, I became very interested in computer security. I had had an experience early on of watching things move around on my desktop. It was as puzzling as it was disconcerting. A quick Google search introduced me to the so called Trojan Horse. A piece of code that lurks on a victim’s computer, unseen and possessed of the ability to remotely manipulate said machine. Not something I would want to put up with as I became increasingly tied into the internet system with personal communication, paid-for websites and banking.
To prove it was real, I opened a notepad text file on my desktop and wrote, “Hi, If you can see this, move my mouse up and down twice.” My unwanted visitor did so. I made a judgment call not to open verbal hostilities due to my lack of expertise in this field of devilry. It would have been like fighting a ghost with a baseball bat.
I did however buy and try many different types of security software over the next year until I had a short-list of the most effective for each of the different categories of malware such as trojans, worms, dialers, viruses, port scanners, root-kits and their ilk. I reviewed the ones that worked well on XP and posted them on my web-site. Some of the authors of the software used my reviews on their own web-sites.
I discovered that among the white hats writing that kind of code in those days, many were German, Swedish, Finnish and Australian and that some of their work was and still is free of charge. I can tell you that without those guys in the background, our devices are potentially nothing more than quanta of RAM, Bandwidth and personal use telemetries data for some jackass to hijack, collect, amalgamate into a Botnet and sell to the highest bidder on the “Other Internet”. A scheme very similar to outlaws rustling cows, creating new herds and marketing them to even worse people on the other side of the ridge.
I stuck with the XP OS and only upgraded to XP Pro, when I saw some of the useful Administrative Tools contained in it that were inaccessible in the plain version. I used this system all the way up to the beginning of this month. I still hold it in the highest regard from among the other available systems. I have never owned or operated an Apple system, so I will leave them out of this discussion except to say that their cost and their perceived invulnerability to attack put me off when I had to choose my first Operating System.
Similarly, I did try several Linux systems and even set up a dual-boot with XP/Ubuntu and XP/Mepis some years ago during a fit of righteous Windignation. At that time, a normal geek couldn’t figure out how to get their printer to work in Linux if you gave them a case of Bugles, a six-pack of Rock Star and a working internet connection. I tried around 2004 and they found my spent avatar on some obscure university archives web-site reading about how it was indeed possible in theory to do this very thing.
In, fairness, I did a little experiment with Ubuntu this year and they seem to have finally solved all those problems. They even include the dual-boot set-up in the installer. The on-board software would easily replace everything the typical Windows desktop person would likely ever need by way of tools. There remains however, the tedious matter of learning to manipulate new versions of software in order to accomplish tasks that a Windows person could do with their eyes closed, a cat dancing on the keyboard and Dr. Phil chewing someone’s ass out in the other room. In addition, there are the exotic file formats to contend with if you need to share any of the work you happen to be doing.
In my case, after a long internal debate, I decided that because today there is nothing sure in life but death, taxes and Windows; that I would ride Bill’s Behemoth right on up to his own Pearly Gates. I ordered my new desktop set forthwith and took a month to physically and mentally prepare for the transition.
I will interject here that in my considered opinion, based upon a decade and a half of using a home computer, that rather than being an organic outgrowth of us clever humans at large, the PC and the internet were developed purposefully for this time we live in and made available to us who could afford them in first world countries. Now, as the last few poor but resource rich third world countries are being divvied up among the corporate winners, we see many humanitarian initiatives to supply those people with Facebook and Twitter as well.
Why was this so? Well, to get everyone on the same page, particularly those who are more literate, educated and possessed of enough funds to ever be a problem to monopoly men. Using herd mechanics, the dialectic and basic well understood principals of human psychology to feed a data gathering machine, it has become possible to manufacture tailor-made thoughts, opinions and indeed, whole social movements. After critical mass is achieved the rest will follow like lemmings.
Coupled with this are the “first one’s for free” tactic of schoolyard drug pushers and the scourge of planned obsolescence. For example, when I got my first computer at the turn of the millennium, it came equipped with free VOIP capability. On day two I was chatting for free with friends all over the globe while busily chipping away at my keyboard doing other work. Within a year this converted to a paid for service. I investigated alternatives, came across Skype and read the entire EULA. The first clause that caught my eye revealed that in order to provide this free service one had to agree to share their “extra” bandwidth. That opened up an interesting can of spinach. My portion of bandwidth was strictly controlled as a measured purchased product. My basic package soon proved to be barely adequate to deal with the load placed upon it by me and my two sons. There simply wasn’t any left over to share with Skype.
So, now we arrive at the actual transition from XP to Windows 10. Here is what I noticed by way of change both good and bad. First up, was the not too thinly veiled transition in Windows OS being marketed by its makers as a service rather than a concrete product. This serves several purposes at once. Instead of a person buying and owning a copy of an operating system which, as their property, is theirs to do with as they see fit; a person now is buying a service from a Corporation that will do as they see fit. This is not all bad, but is a significant sea change in the mentality of the customers buying the Serduct.
Thus, in Windows 10, updates are pushed out, downloaded and installed with no interaction from the user. Of course, the lucrative sales trick of snob appeal still exists in Widows 10 Pro, in which a customer can access a Group Policy Editor to do many chores that a standard user cannot easily accomplish. Also, a Pro user may postpone updates to a time more acceptable to themselves. Updates cannot be declined, however. I personally don’t have a quarrel with the true fact that we are only buying a service but since that was always the case in reality, the former subterfuge is further highlighted.
A good side of this is the increased security of the internet at large due to the smaller number of Windows boxes sporting known vulnerabilities. Since Windows is infamous for myriad code glitches, stack overflows and such when compared to other Operating Systems, a person might as well stay at least as up to date as the makers and keepers of the system in terms of plugging up those juicy holes in the C++ fence. In my opinion, it isn’t worth the extra money to go Pro, as a user can manually add several missing registry keys and files which will have the effect of adding those features anyway.
If you migrate as I did, you will also notice that what used to be labeled “My Computer”, "My Pictures”, etc. has become designated “This Computer”, “Pictures”, etc. You may think this insignificant at first glance but it is further strengthening the major message of the Windows vision. It’s not yours anymore. I would go so far as to predict that eventually via an automatic update, these items will become designated as “A Computer” or possibly “Some Pictures.”
Which brings us to the other major thrust I see in this incarnation of Windows. It is designed for multiple device users and those people are being herded to the Cloud. If you are a multi-device user, you are in for a treat with Windows 10. You can Sync all your gadgets, all the time with a minimum of clicks. You can beam Netflix to your bedroom TV (if you have the latest model) and you can interact with your Xbox. Networking to other remote computers and sharing files and resources have received the lions share of development. You will be told that this was in response to your requested needs, which is true in a sense. But it can easily be seen that you were led there and now its too complicated to go back.
We have already seen the 40 gig hard drive and 3 gigs of RAM give way to the 500 terabyte hard drive sporting up to 32 gigs of RAM. This started to occur even back in Windows Vista and Windows Seven days. It was of course driven by the fad of downloading movies, TV shows and music as a commodity rather than a well considered choice of personal taste that one was willing to pay for and slowly collect physically. We have all seen the reality shows of people with hoarding disorders. Believe me, there is a digital dimension to this sickness that makes the physical pale by comparison. It is actively encouraged as far as I can see because it is good for business.
This brings us back to the Cloud. As you noticed some time ago on your Outlook mailbox, there appeared by magic some links to Cloud storage. Of course it was free within prescribed limits but subject to future change. You were encouraged to share these folders but you didn’t have to. For many people it really solved the pressing problem of a full hard drive. It was also pushed as a better way to send attachments. I couldn’t help but notice that the attachment facility in Hotmail for instance, has degraded steadily from the time I first used it up to today.
We can look at this two ways. Was the old service cut back to encourage the new way or was the new way an organic altruistic outgrowth of the needs of a demanding public? For sake of plotting myself on a graph, I can honestly say that in fifteen years of website creation, podcasting, photo editing, collecting music, gaming and research, I have yet to fill an 80 gig drive. I’m just saying, OK.
By way of eulogy for my trusty old XP, I will say that it was as stable as a draft horse and a raccoon couldn’t break it if you smeared bacon on the keyboard and locked the animal in the computer room. This went away with Windows 8.1 and I am very happy to say that Widows 10 seems thus far to me to be built of the same sturdy bones as XP. You can’t break it but you can piss it off to the point it will refuse to play unless you are willing to play by its rules. Sound familiar? I broke it within 2 hours while performing simple security tweaks and had it fixed within minutes of desisting in my efforts of doing what I wanted to do. I will treat it as an unbroken horse for now. That is, with respect and gentleness but requiring some reciprocation when it comes to performing the work I intend for it. It must be quick when spurred and capable of slogging through lengthy operations.
Several months ago all my XP system’s peripherals literally fried, one each day. Then I got a strange call from a nice man who worked for my cable provider. He asked how my computer was going and I told him. I had kept the same OS up, running and maintained for over ten years without ever having to re-install or reformat. I had tweaked it in ways that are not even possible nowadays until it was an extension of me personally. He understood that it was hard for me to turn away from it but we both knew that using obsolete browsers and software was inviting disaster. He decided to chop a few bucks off my cable bill for a set period of time while I made up my mind what I was going to do. I did contemplate going caveman, then I remembered that I am soon to be sixty years old. In my own opinion it would be a noble challenge for a young man or woman to do that but for me at this point, it would be folly.
Finally, I will tell you of a few programs and simple tweaks that I have found to be of immense benefit to those of you who have yet to change to Windows 10. It must be born in mind that Microsoft has stated that this will be the last version. There will be no Windows 11 for you to hold out for. Either you go Windows, Linux 31 Flavors, Apple or God forbid, Raspberry.
To avoid clutter and a ragged registry you can purchase jv16 PowerTools or get the free CrapCleaner program. To give the on-board Windows Defender anti-virus another set of eyes and ears you may get the free Malwarebytes stand-alone scanner. A Swedish program I have used since my incident with the trojan alluded to earlier in this essay, is TrojanHunter. To scrub the millions of data traces, endless Windows logs and large memory dumps, I heartily recommend East-Tec Eraser. Diskeeper16 will preserve hard drives by preventing the fragmentation of files even as they are being created. Those three are paid for programs. I recommend Spybot Search&Destroy for a free and thorough security and utility program. Another free program from Spybot is called Anti-Beacon. This is of particular utility, nay, necessity for the Windows 10 user. It is a simple way to turn off the growing hell-broth of telemetry services tracking your actions and reporting to Microsoft using your bandwidth. In no version of Windows before now was this aspect so emphasized. I have found that LibreOffice, GIMP, paint.net, VLC media player, Audacity, ImgBurn and Secunia PSI all work well in Windows 10. All seven of these programs are free. The first is a complete Office Suite, the next two are photo editors, the next is an audio/video player, the next is an audio recorder and mixer, the next is an ISO image burner and the last one mentioned, Secunia PSI, monitors all your installed software up to 75 programs and either updates them in real-time with no interaction from you or by giving you a heads up to get it done.
As for hand tweaking, for the interested party who is so inclined, a little research can yield instructions for adding registry entries to enable hidden switches, to uninstall unwanted Windows apps and to safely disable unnecessary services. This is a realm of personal risk and reward so I shall refrain from offering any advice.
A few words about the interface of Windows 10. Everything appears to be buried a layer or two deeper than it was before because it is. Most people go straight to Windows Classic Shell as a remedy so their desktop and start menus resemble those in XP or Windows Seven. I was advised by my computer builder not to take this route and I must say I now believe him to be right on that point. Once I got past figuring out the differences in the new account creation process (when it must be decided to go with a Microsoft Account or an Other User Account with Administrative Privileges), uninstalling live tile Start Menu clutter and using the provided Power Shell to uninstall those apps that offer no uninstall options, she opened up like a steamed clam and I found that I could navigate with ease all around under the hood. To muzzle Cortana would require another essay as would the singing of her praises by many multitasking entrepreneurial types. Yes, the Windows Media Player 12 is lurking within and you can still rip and burn CDs although the process is a bit different than you may remember from previous versions.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.