A Tale of Two Mice

People sometimes wonder why I’m always slagging Microsoft. No, really. Apparently it’s not obvious to some people.

So here’s an example. I recently changed my computer setups, both at the office and at home, from using wired trackballs to wireless mice. The mouse I installed at the office was from Microsoft. The mouse I installed at home was from Logitech. Both items cost about the same amount of money, and have essentially the same features.

Installing the Microsoft Mouse

  • The packaging on the Microsoft mouse urged me to install the software first. Its dire warnings implied that the fate of the world depended on it. So I installed the software. During the installation, it detected my Logitech trackball software, and refused to proceed unless I uninstalled it. So I uninstalled the trackball (which also uninstalled my Logitech keyboard software), and installed the Microsoft mouse software.
  • I was then prompted to reboot the computer. (Huh? When’s the last time you had to reboot just because you installed a piece of software? What is this, 1996?).
  • After rebooting, I plugged in the mouse and was prompted to configure it, which I did. Then I had to reboot, again. (I don’t think this second reboot is a normal part of the installation, but it simply wouldn’t work until I rebooted again.)
  • Then I had to reinstall the Logitech software in order to get the special features of my keyboard back. I also had to go through it and re-set my keyboard preferences, since they had been lost when I was forced to uninstall it.

Installing the Logitech Mouse

  • I plugged it in, and it worked.
  • I had the option (option) of installing software to enable the special features, which I did. It required no reboot.

There is no rational explanation for this. However, it is entirely consistent with other Microsoft experiences I’ve had, plus things I’ve read about, in which Microsoft doesn’t just want you to have a computer with an operating system and applications; they want everything to be fully integrated and dependent upon each other.

They call this progress. They think that a mouse is only fully a mouse if it is entwined right into the kernel of the operating system. They think your Web browser needs to be woven into your word processor, which needs to be meshed with your email program. They think the average person gets out of bed thanking the Microsoft gods for their ability to embed an Excel spreadsheet into a Word document and to email it without having to open Outlook.


Nobody cares about that crap. Sure, people want their applications to be able to talk to each other, but they don’t need them to be interwoven to the point of having to reboot the system every time you add or remove something.

The worse part, and the part that Microsoft seems to have the greatest difficultly understanding (or at least caring about) is that the more interwoven those applications are with the operating system, the more vulnerable the entire system becomes. That’s a big part of why a Windows virus can hide in a Word document or a hidden script can run in an Outlook email that burrows right in and wrecks everything.

No more Microsoft peripherals for me. No way.

Another Facebook Scam: “Secret Crush”

This one with malicious “adware.”

One of the things about Facebook that has most concerned me is the proliferation of “apps” or “widgets,” those sometimes fun, sometimes annoying add-ons like “Scrabblicious,” “Six degrees,” and “Superlatives.”

Specifically, it bothers me that these apps ask you to hand over your entire profile and all its goodies in order for you to run them. Most people just blow through the installation process, blindly saying “yes” to everything in order to get to the app, not noticing that they are agreeing to let the app have unlimited access to all of the information they have ever put into Facebook, and essentially authorizing the app’s creators to do anything they want with that information.

Yesterday it was revealed that running the “Secret Crush” app (and at least a million people have already done so), installs an “adware” widget on your computer. The adware widget tracks your Web browsing (not just your Facebook activity) and launches annoying pop-up windows.

Here’s the story from Wired.

Here are a few excerpts from the Wired story:

According to an advisory from security software vendor Fortinet, the “Secret Crush” application prompts users to install ad-serving software from Zango, a company that was fined $3 million in 2006 by the feds for letting third parties install its adware without user consent.”

…the link to Zango’s software came through a sly iframe, a HTML code often abused by online scammers to attempt to install truly malicious code on people’s computer without their consent or knowledge.

Manky thinks such attacks will become more and more common on social networking sites, as users get accustomed to installing add-ons to their profiles and trust that sites like Facebook are safer than the larger internet.

This is exactly the kind of abuse of (badly-placed) trust that I’ve been complaining about when it comes to Facebook. More information about the Zango adware attack is available here, at ZDNet, in a blog article revealingly titled “The next hacker frontier: Social networking sites.”

To be fair, this is not an attack by Facebook, it is an attack by a company using Facebook as a vehicle. But the fact remains that Facebook was designed (by Facebook) expressly for this kind of thing.

What do I mean by that? I mean that Facebook was designed from the ground up to break down people’s fears and concerns. Instead of encouraging good privacy and online safety practices, it is designed to exploit the (false) sense of security people feel when they are surrounded by friends, and to encourage them to act recklessly. It is social engineering in which a facade of “fun” masks the real purpose, which is to monetize your every thought and move.

Reading List: Books I Read in 2007

As is my annual habit, I present to you the list of books I read in the year just ended (2007).

  • The Best Travel Writing 2007 (Traveler’s Tales Books), edited by James & Sean O’Reilly and Larry Habegger
  • The Man Who Turned Into Himself, by David Ambrose
  • Night Train, by Martin Amis
  • Heavy Water, by Martin Amis
  • Articles of War, by Nick Arvin
  • Rule of the Bone, by Russell Banks
  • Heat, by Bill Buford
  • In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
  • Summer Crossing, by Truman Capote
  • Abducted, by Susan A. Clancy
  • Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee
  • Slow Man, by J.M. Coetzee
  • A Fine Passage, by France Daigle (Translated by Robert Majzels)
  • Fragile Night, by Stella Pope Duarte
  • Get a Life, by Dupuy & Berberian
  • Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler
  • The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis
  • Let’s Travel in the Soviet Union (edited by Darlene Geis)
  • A Gun for Sale, by Graham Green
  • A Gradual Ruin, by Robert Hilles
  • Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens
  • The Hungry Years, by William Leith
  • The Terrible Hours, by Peter Maas
  • The Cement Garden, by Ian MacEwan
  • The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan
  • Focus, by Arthur Miller
  • Paul Has a Summer Job, by Michel Rabagliati
  • Sister of the Road, by Ben Reitman
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
  • It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, by Seth (Gregory Gallant)
  • Archetypes: Social Animals in Our Midst, by Mireille Silcoff
  • The Finishing School, by Muriel Spark
  • Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta
  • The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson
  • Simple Recipes, by Madeleine Thien
  • Close to the Machine, by Ellen Ullman
  • The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
  • Tourists, by Richard B. Wright

That’s 38 titles, broken down as follows:

  • 27 written or edited by men, 11 written or edited by women.
  • Three “graphic” novels/story collections.
  • 25 works of fiction, 13 works of non-fiction, and six items that can be considered “memoir.” These are tricky distinctions, however. For example, In Cold Blood is an account of a true story, but was written using the techniques – and license – of fiction writing. As such, I consider it fiction. Similarly, Sister of the Road is presented as a memoir, but long after publication it was revealed to have been entirely made up by a third party, so I considered it too as fiction, and not as memoir. The Rum Diary, on the other hand, is presented as fiction, but it draws so much on Thompson’s real life experiences that I consider it to be both fiction and memoir. (Tip to taxonomers everywhere: life is easier if you have a high tolerance for ambiguity.)

The five highlighted item are the ones that left the greatest impression on me. In general, there are various reasons why a book will have that effect; some tap into a deeply held interest, others push certain emotional buttons that I may be especially sensitive to. In all cases, they must be exceptionally well written in order to leave a lasting impression.

I don’t pretend to be a literary critic, so I’ll spare you the pretentious and haughty reviews. But in a nutshell (or a handful of nutshells, as it were) here’s why those five books stayed with me (listed in alphabetical order, by author):

Heat, by Bill Buford

Buford is an excellent writer and raconteur, and those traits come through superbly in this book. Part foodie journal, part memoir of an obsession, and all hairy-chested, red blooded brio, this book kept me wide-eyed from start to finish. It helps that I share similar views on food as the author and his mentor (Mario Batali); a fascination with, and love for, rustic, authentic Italian and Mediterranean cooking that is high on gusto and low on pretension. Early in the book, Buford recalls Batali explaining why he has little interest in French food; “All that boiling,” he complains. When I read that, something clicked and I felt like this was a party I had been personally invited to.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I will admit that some passages in this book seemed a bit long for my taste, but that is likely due to my inclusion in the collectively shortened attention spans of the world as brought about by Facebook and an excess of RSS feeds. Despite that, for which Capote can in no way be faulted as he published In Cold Blood in 1965, I was captivated by Capote’s writing style, which is composed and lyrical, and sometimes a bit melancholy. The somewhat dazzling and urbane sensibilities that are found in his other novels are reeled in for this one, which was a good choice for the material. Yet I couldn’t help but hear the text, in my head, being read in the distinctive voice and cadence of Truman Capote; sometimes that of the real thing, and sometimes as interpreted by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who played Capote in the 2005 film, Capote).

Focus, by Arthur Miller

It helps that I’ve had a long standing fascination with New York City and the era of the endless fedora, but what really blew me away about this short novel was the sheer precision and depth of the writing. Not a word or a thought misplaced, not a scene even remotely unnecessary. The events that take place are small from an outsider’s perspective, yet you feel, through the reading, their cataclysmic effect on the protagonist.

The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson

I half expected this to be an over the top roller coaster ride of excess and debauchery, sort of a “not ready for prime time” precursor to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After all, it was Thompson’s first full length manuscript, written in the early sixties but not published until 1998 after Thompson reworked it. I was only party right; while it is filled with an excess of booze and sleazy characters, it differs from the later iconic work in that the emphasis stays grounded in the protagonist’s sense of adventure and his search for freedom and authenticity as it conflicts with his fears of aging and of wasting his life. It’s a long time since I read a novel that rattled me as much as this one, and it boggles my mind that Thompson waited so long to publish it. Perhaps he feared it was, by comparison, too temperate after building a career based on rage and bombast. By comparison, The Rum Diary feels thoughtfully restrained and surprisingly mature, especially when you consider he was only 22 when he first wrote it.

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

I enjoy memoirs in which the author seems to be on as much of a journey of discovery as are we, the readers. That’s the case with The Glass Castle, which recounts the author’s childhood and adolescence, passed in the shadow of her needy and self-absorbed mother. The story reads more like a work of fiction than memoir. It brings To Kill A Mockingbird to mind, but rolled into a Grimm’s fairy tale (the original, creepy type) and sprinkled with a little Jack Kerouac.

How I Spent the Last Day of 2007

Out of bed at 8:00 AM, frustrated at the persistent sinus drip-induced cough and headache that’s kept me awake since 5:00. Too fuzzy-headed to read, so I turn on the TV. MoviePix is showing a “documentary” about the women of James Bond. I catch the last 30 minutes.

The documentary segues into a non-stop, all day James Bond marathon. I sit through “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love.”

Martine reminds me that our self-imposed quarantine, now running into its fourth day, must come to an end, as the food supplies are running low. And besides, the driveway needs to be shoveled.

We manage to clean up and make ourselves presentable. Fortunately, the recent snowfall has been light and fluffy and is easy to scrape aside. We drive to the grocery store where we lurch about somnambulistically, sniffling and moaning like zombies. We stock up on a few essentials, as well as some non-essentials that we hope will make us feel better.

Back home, we are miraculously clear headed enough to read for a while, as night settles.

While heating up dinner (a tourtière) I briefly contemplate the dozen or so bottles of wine that lay undrunk in the basement. The first thing to go when I have a cold is my taste for wine, and Martine seems equally afflicted by this tragic symptom. Neither of us have had a festive tipple since December 26.

We eat, pleasantly surprised that we can actually taste our dinner. A promising sign. We return to the sofa where we read some more, and then have desert; a store-bought pineapple upside down cake at 440 calories per portion. “Don’t worry,” I tell Martine, “think of the 1000 calories worth of New Year’s Eve booze you’re not drinking tonight.”

We settle deeper into the sofa and watch four episodes of “Battlestar Galactica,” back to back. Around midnight, we watch a few minutes of Bye Bye, the satirical year-end review on Radio-Canada. Then we watch another episode of “Battlestar Galactica.”

It was a long day. I was awake for 20 hours, almost ten of which were spent in front of the TV. We went to bed by 1:00 AM, and I got up today at 9:00, feeling much better in my sinuses (finally), although I feel like a physical wreck from all that laying about without actually sleeping. But at least things are on an upswing, and that’s a good way to start a new year.

Happy 2008, everyone.