Thursday, October 9, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Windows Vista

Being a seasoned IT professional, people often ask me for computer-buying advice. Lately, people have been asking whether or not they should get a system with “that new Vista thing.”

It’s sad, really: Vista has gotten so much bad press that it’s made even lifelong Windows users think about switching to Macs. Not me though. I’ve been using Vista—and its evil fraternal twin, Office 2007—for six months now, and I’m happy to report that the latest version of Windows has dozens of stunning new features* that you will never, ever find on a Mac. Here are just a few:

One of the very first things that I noticed about Vista was its improved crash sequence. Earlier versions of Windows crashed with ugly dialog boxes or boring blue screens, but Vista crashes in the most dramatic, cinematic way: the screen is suffused in otherworldly white light, and although you can still see all of your hard work right there on the screen, you can’t touch it (or click “save”). Meanwhile, the mysterious little Vista disc spins before you like a shining halo. It really takes your breath away, which is nice, given how often you end up seeing it. One time, I swear I even saw the ghostly form of my original computer, an IBM PCjr, beckoning me toward the light.

Then it occurred to me: if Microsoft can design such an aesthetically pleasing crash, they could undoubtedly keep Vista from crashing in the first place. So clearly, these are not really “crashes,” but reminders of our own mortality. Microsoft wants us to remember that nothing lasts forever….it could all end at any time. So enjoy your life, spend time with your loved ones, and back up your data frequently.

Take A Minute. Now Take A Few More Minutes.™
In replacing my old Windows XP system, one thing that I was looking forward to was a quicker startup process. So let’s just say that I was “surprised” when my new Vista laptop—which I’d outfitted with a screaming dual-core processor and tons of memory—actually look longer to boot than my old one.

This really puzzled me at first. My new laptop was sooo much more powerful than my old one…how could it be slower? Then I remembered the Microsoft Infallibility Principle (implied above): Microsoft is the largest, most successful software company in the world, and darn-it-all, if they wanted Vista to start quickly, it would.

So why doesn’t it? My theory is that Microsoft wants to give us the gifts of peace and tranquility. We all rush through our lives, obsessed with illusions like "productivity," but here Microsoft is giving us a moment—a whole bunch of them actually—to take some deep cleansing breaths and center ourselves. Yes, it does require a time investment on our parts: I’ve calculated that I will spend roughly 24 hours per year booting my computer, assuming that I only have to do it once a day (which is rare--see Impermanence above). But regardless, I’m sure that all of this lost time will be amply offset by my expanded sense of well-being.

But I’ll admit that, so far, I’ve had trouble waiting through the whole excruciating boot-up process without getting up to do something else.** But at least now I understand that the problem is my own inability to relax, rather than any failing of Vista's. I know I’ll be a better person when I can just sit and breathe…I’m just not there yet.

Everything Old Is New Again.™
When discussing software—particularly the whole Mac vs. Windows thing—the issue of what is or isn’t “intuitive” comes up a lot. Personally, I think this is all a bunch of crap-talk because human beings aren’t born with instincts about computers—what’s “intuitive” is really just what some gigantic corporation has conditioned us to expect.

Which is precisely what makes Vista so revolutionary. Microsoft took the familiar interface of Windows XP—known to hundreds of millions of people around the world—and shuffled everything around so effectively that even seasoned IT professionals like myself were disoriented by it. With Office 2007, Microsoft took this approach a step further, eliminating all of the text menus and hiding the most-used buttons deep within the new Office “ribbon,” whatever that is. Try finding that “Save” button now!

You see, Microsoft recognized that Windows and Office had just become too familiar to us. These products were so successful and ubiquitous that we just weren’t seeing them anymore. We took them for granted, so their only option was to radically rearrange everything. And believe me, I’m not taking anything for granted anymore.

I’ve enjoyed this aspect of Vista so much that I think Microsoft should offer this feature in the real world. You would pay them a nominal fee—say $25,000—and while you’re away on vacation, they would break into your home and rearrange everything: put the kitchen sink in the bedroom closet, move the toilet to the attic, and relocate all of the light switches to the basement freezer. Just imagine the joy of getting to know your own home all over again…the joy that can be yours just by purchasing Windows Vista and Office 2007.

Don’t Touch That. I said, DON’T TOUCH THAT! ™
Okay, so I did encounter a few hiccups when I was setting up my new Vista machine, but as a seasoned IT professional, I knew that these issues could be addressed by downloading software updates for my various programs and peripherals.

So I fired up Internet Explorer, located the software I needed, and started downloading. One of these packages was rather large, so it took about 45 minutes to download over my broadband connection. When IE told me that my download was complete, I went looking for the file, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I searched the whole computer for the filename in question, but…nothing.

Assuming that I’d done something wrong, I started the download again. Forty-five minutes later though, I was back in the same spot: searching for this file that I knew must be somewhere, but just wasn’t.

After doing some online research, I found the answer. A new Windows Vista security feature called “User Account Control” was actually deleting my download immediately upon completion…over and over and over again. Having decided that this download from HP or Canon was clearly unsafe, UAC destroyed it without even notifying me…probably because it sensed that I couldn’t be trusted either.

I have to say, this experience brought me right back to childhood—you’d reach for something really cool or interesting, only to have an adult slap your sticky little hand away. I may not live with my parents anymore, but I do feel better knowing that Vista is there to protect me from myself.

Not Your Best Work™
I had an interesting experience while preparing my first post for this blog. I was typing away in Word 2007 when I saw a little message appear at the bottom of the screen—something about Word saving an AutoRecovery file. I’d seen this message before, but it lingered there longer than usual, and then the whole computer froze for a really long time…like, forever.

In case you’re not familiar with it, AutoRecovery is a feature of Word that automatically saves your work so you don’t lose everything in the event of a crash. Well, in my case, AutoRecovery itself actually crashed the whole computer and didn’t save a word of my work. Ironic? Well, not if you understand what was really going on.

This is what I think happened: Word’s AutoRecovery feature detected that my recent changes were not an improvement to the document. Obviously, I was not in the right place mentally to be writing this post, so Word took evasive action, rendering the whole machine so unresponsive that I had to use the power button to shut it down.

I can't tell you how glad I am that Word was looking out for me. Sure, I was a little disappointed that the crash also corrupted my Vista user profile, which required an additional three hours of digging through the system registry to fix, but I know that it was worth it. I mean, if I’d been able to get right back in, I probably would’ve just continued with whatever substandard crap I’d been writing in the first place. And then the whole exercise would’ve been a waste of time, right?

Make Your Family Appreciate You™
As I said, it took me a few hours to get my computer functioning again after the above Word crash-and-burn. I was in the kitchen with my five-year-old daughter Lilah when Vista finally came back to life. (Apparently she’d been in the house all morning; I’d only just noticed.)

“I got my computer back!” I exclaimed, arms raised in triumph.
“Finally…” Lilah muttered, totally exasperated.
“What was that, sweetie?”
“I said FINALLY…and that’s really a relief for me because now you can play with me more.”

And that’s when it came to me, a new marketing slogan:

“Windows Vista: Bringing families together…right after it rips them apart.”

Finally…the Conclusion
So there they are: Vista features that go way beyond computing as we know it. They aren’t always fun, but neither is life. And frankly, it you don’t like the sound of them, well, maybe you just can’t handle the Vista.

Seriously. Maybe you should just go down to that fancy-schmancy Apple store at the mall and buy that stupid iMac after all. And then give me a call because I might want to come over and check it out.

*Admittedly, these are not “features” in the traditional sense; they’re just things that I’ve observed while using Vista. Windows Vista and Office 2007 are obviously trademarks of Microsoft. All of the other names™ are things that I made up, but which I will gladly license to Microsoft if they ever wise-up and decide to market them.

** My usual Windows Vista startup procedure:

1. Press power button on laptop.
2. Measure out five units of pork insulin in a U-40 syringe.
3. Capture Spalding (gray diabetic cat), pin him to the floor, and give him his evening shot. Dispose of syringe in designated medical waste container.
4. Take a saucer and spoon from the kitchen and head down to the basement, being careful not to trip on the stairs. (Spalding will be underfoot and meowing, and the stairs are very steep. You will likely die if you fall).
5. In the basement, place the saucer in Spalding’s food area, open a can of Friskees Selects, and scoop its contents onto the saucer (try not to breathe while doing this). Pause for a moment to ensure that Spalding is enjoying your choice (once he’s had his shot, he must eat or he will die).
6. Take the dirty saucer from the morning feeding and, using a putty knife, scrape nearby cat barf onto the dirty plate.
7. Back upstairs, rinse the saucer, empty food can, barf scrapings, and spoon into the garbage disposal, and put the empty can in the recycling bin.
8. Return to computer and…it’s almost ready to use!


  1. Don't know about the Vista thing but I can relate to the cat stuff (not the diabetic but the feeding and barf). This was a riot. Keep it up!

  2. Thanks, Chris! Lookee there--you're my very first commenter.

  3. i came across it as a google alert for Spalding Gray.
    Very funny. Will give you a link. It will take time to get to it but it will be linked.

    webmaster for estate of Spalding Gray

  4. Thanks uptonatom! Our cat Spalding is indeed named after Spalding Gray, who was one of my favorite writers/performers. I'm planning a post about the two Spaldings at some point.

  5. D,
    This is BRILLIANT. Must go post link.

    My sympathies on your choice of OS.


  6. What a hoot! I got forwarded this and am ROTFLOL!

  7. I had been using Vista for about a week before I got a warning that a particular application was no longer working. It asked if I wanted Microsoft to notify me when they had a fix for the application.

    The application ?

    Windows Explorer.

    Back to XP.
    Created a Virtual Vista appliance.
    Now I can let it crash and burn to its heart's content.

    Can't wait for Ubuntu 8.10 and openSUSE 11.1


  8. Thanks, Matthew! And thanks for stopping by!