Windows: patching holes in a fishnet

October 5th, 2007

Windows. I actually don't have to say any more, because just the one word conjures up a plethora of associations and memories in everyone who's alive today. Chances are that most of your memories are... not happy ones.

The thing with Windows is that you don't realize how much it locks you into a certain way of doing things. The fact is that the language we use determines what we are able to say, and even think. We *think* in terms of a language. For most people, Windows is that language. For most people, when they think about what it is their computer does, what is hard to do with it, what is possible to do, what takes a lot of effort, they think in terms of Windows.

And what *is* Windows? It's a closed product which defines your possible actions in a very short set of alternatives. This has fostered two types of users. There is the normal user, and the power user. The normal user can get by on his own, but whenever he gets into something he hasn't faced before, he needs help from a power user. These power users stand out, because they are bold enough to actually challenge the system and desire things that they are not supposed to have.

As a Windows user, I remember being amazed at the number of "tweak" products out there. There are literally thousands of applications like Tweak Manager whose purpose is to tweak Windows to behave slightly different from the way it does. And who are these products for? The power user, of course. And what could be better than for all these people to use their creative energies to subvert the hand cuffs of a monopolist? It's not like there is anything more meaningful they could pour their talents into, is there?

Just today I happened to surf across a product that promises to solve a very annoying problem. You see, when you want to delete a file in Windows which is currently open, you can't, because it's locked. If this file happens to belong to say a virus that is currently running, well too bad.

Windows has thousands of idiotic quirks like this. No wonder all these tweak products exist. If, for example, Internet Explorer is crashing all the time, and the fact that it's coupled with the shell means that it brings down the whole desktop every time and you have to reboot, perhaps as a power user you realize that you want to tweak it so that the two processes are decoupled. I remember doing this with one of those tweak tools.

This is the reality of Windows that we all know so well. The mentality is I'm stuck with it, so let's see if I can tweak it a little bit so it will annoy me less. It's a closed product, you know you can't just change it. You are locked in. All you can do is pick up that chisel and round off the edges a bit.

Consider the companies behind these tweak products. How many jobs has Microsoft created for people who fix the problems they themselves have introduced? The entire security industry, and most of all the anti-virus companies, *survives* on the very premise that Microsoft will *continue* screwing up. Just imagine how much money they make from all those businesses that consider security high priority. And where did the concept of a virus even come from? How was Windows built so badly that the term computer virus is well known even to our grandmothers?

So there you have your computer. You start it up, and your system tray fills up with icons for all the applications you've installed to make Windows usable. First the anti virus program. Then the firewall. Then the program that intercepts suspicious changes to the registry and system files. All this to secure a system that's about as secure as cardboard box. And then other icons appear, all that junk that made it through even despite your security software. You would love to get rid of that stuff, but you don't know how, because every time you try it somehow survives anyway. But now your computer has finished booting and you're ready to use it. Good, because you have unfinished business. Last night you found what seemed to be a really cool security application that would prevent spyware. Except it turned out to be spyware in itself, and now you can't get rid of it. You track down the filename and realize you can't delete it, because the file is open. What good fortune that I just found the Unlocker product a few paragraphs ago. You start it up, unlock the file, and delete it. Let me repeat that, you start up a whole different program just to delete a file. This is normal in Windows language. Your language.

As a power user, you have a dozen of these specials tools, just for those "special cases". You consider them to be tremendous assets. Heck, you're the power user. Kinda feel bad for all the normal users who don't even realize all the things you can accomplish with your special tweak tools. It's like they don't even realize what's possible.

But all that special software is making your computer run pretty slow. You're effectively running the same code twice. One is Windows forcing on you various behaviors you don't want. The other is your tools reversing (to the extent possible) those behaviors. And performance is dropping. It might be time for an upgrade, let's get some brand new hardware in here. Yeah, that'll be a boost for the hardware vendors, they can sell more units. You open the big boxes and unwrap your shiny new hardware. With Windows, of course, what else? The first thing you do is install a virus scanner. You have to have grown up with Windows to understand this. Special software to protect the original software that somehow doesn't work on its own.

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1 Responses to "Windows: patching holes in a fishnet"

  1. Brian says:

    This post is horrifyingly true. But I think a real "power user" will probably eventually realize that all these tweaks are horrible hacks and are likely to destabilize your system to the point where it implodes. Of course at that point they probably aren't going to be using Windows any longer, one would hope. At work I had been tortured by Windows' file-locking crap for a long time, but brute-forcing it to allow you to circumvent Windows file locking seems to me like it's going to cause problems eventually, e.g. breaking any program that relies on such behavior.

    One way or another Windows users learn to live with some amount of constant pain. Or stop using it.