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The Slacker's Guide - Upgrades, Filial Combat and Everything In Between

by Chris Barylick
July 29th, 2005

"But it was working befooooooooooooore!!!"

This comment, often conveyed in pitches reserved for dolphins in heat, both grates against the spine and conveys a very simple message: Something has changed in the way a user interacts with their computer. Odds are they are not terribly fond of this change.

The Problem:

Somewhere around fifth grade, I began to tinker. After coming home from the school, I'd walk upstairs to the den to find my sister firmly entrenched in front of the television. In as much as we got along, she was queen of the remote with a habit of watching seven to eight shows at once, and with her teenage glare pinned down years in advance, I wandered off to find something else to do.

That "something else" usually involved sitting down in front of my family's LC II, finishing my homework, then proceeding to push it to its limits with whatever programs, games or system updates had just come out (the fact that the Mac version of Syndicate suggested a 68040 processor, or that Resorcerer and HexEdit required a better knowledge of system architectures than I had meant nothing).

This was an interest I would continue to develop throughout high school and given that the end result was my being occupied and my teachers didn't have to read through chicken-scratch-meets-Sanscrit handwriting on my assignments, everyone came out ahead.

Where things went wrong were instances when the interface changed from something that my family could recognize and work with to something new and different. If an unknown icon had invaded their desktop or a new option appeared in a menu, the reaction process elevated along the same lines as DEFCON nuclear alert levels.

First, the question of "can you come here and explain this?" Second, a more forcible version of this question. Third, another family member might be called over to see if they knew what this was. Fourth, a mild demand for help. And finally, at level five, the demand to "change it back the way it was, no matter what." At these times, I think my family might have been more comfortable if I'd found a street corner to hang out on.

Two Camps:

In one camp are the users interested in seeing what a system is capable of doing and perhaps expanding this. In the other, there are those who like how the computer is running as it is. They can sit down, does what they want it to do and while their uses might be fairly general, it gets the job done with few (if any) problems.

Put these groups together, especially under the same roof, and something is bound to happen. Whether this is seen from a child beginning to download new programs via a peer to peer client, a family realizing their teenager has made the computer into something new altogether, or a married couple realizing that one person is more than happy to download, install and test every piece of software to hit while the other just wants to use the machine for word processing and e-mail, conflicts are bound to emerge sooner or later.

Get Your Own:

If I was going to fiddle with anyone's hardware, it might as well have been my own, if only for the sake of personal longevity. Or at least this was my family's opinion. Fortunately, Apple decided to compete head on with the PC market in the form of the Mac Mini, a speedy piece of hardware that may not outperform a G5, but can still be outfitted with extra RAM as well as an AirPort card and Bluetooth module. Frankenstein the Mini to any generic USB keyboard, mouse and a PC monitor and you have a sturdy, cost effective system starting at $499.

If there's one universal truth, it's that younger users probably don't have this kind of money floating around. When I first set out to earn a PowerBook to use for taking notes back in high school, I struck a deal with my parents that we'd go 50/50 on the final product with my end being covered in the form of extra house work at a rate of $5 per hour.

For the next several months, I would approach them asking if the basement needed to be cleaned, the attic sorted, or the cars washed, as this would add several hours to the labor total. Even if that kind of deal can't be struck with the parental units, this remains an era in which the neighbors tend to be baffled by the new tech toys they acquire and need someone to sort these out to the point where they can be easily used.

Being the neighbor's kid who can stop the VCR clock from blinking "12:00" (which it's been doing since the Reagan administration) still commands a higher hourly wage than any job flipping burgers and this does not go unappreciated. Tabbed fliers, a simple web site, good word of mouth and some entrepreneurial interest can go a long way and remove the strain of asking.

Divided and Equal:

Since the days of Mac OS 9, Apple has sought to bring a multi user environment to its user base with the goal of each user creating a custom environment to suit their needs. This has blossomed in Mac OS X, its Unix underpinnings having been centered around the idea of administrator and root level accounts. While individual accounts for each user may be the poor man's version of separate computers for each party, this does succeed in giving each party free reign over their own files and settings. If a change is made to a program or the interface is changed significantly, the alteration is confined to an environment where the other user won't be confronted with it.

For a more permanent solution, disks can easily be divided into as many partitions as needed via the Disk Utility program on the Mac OS X install CD/DVD. Simply divide the hard disk into as many partitions as there are interested parties when the system is first installed, then let each user create their own environment by configuring their own user ID, password, install their own programs and configure their own settings and each party should be able to walk away happy with the knowledge that their part of the disk won't be changed without their permission.

Explain What's Happening:

Perhaps the majority of the reason for the tension between tinkerers and average users is the idea that something new is being done to a computer that makes an alien thing all that much stranger to one of the parties. Communication is key, even if the tinkerer wonders why the other person is going absolutely ballistic given the fact that a Skype icon is now in the Dock and wonders if the other party's technological understanding peaked with Francis the Counting Mule.

Still, communication is vital, especially if something is going to change in the overall user experience. While the planned change may not be of interest to the average user (and may, in fact, resolve any possibility of insomnia for the next several months), this is critical. For the tinkerer, an explanation as to why this might be a good idea, what's involved, what will change and how to become accustomed to it generally rounds the bases and puts the other party at ease. Compromise is usually possible, but if the other party is given some form of warning in advance, it can prevent the fallout of their seeing something completely unexpected when they go to perform a relatively simple task.


There's both a tinkerer and a pragmatist in us all and the important thing is that the two sides see each other's perspective. This may not give both parties what they want in the short run, but as long as each other's goals are visible and logical to the other party, technological coexistence is possible.

Besides, it's only a matter of time before your Mac can directly control your Roomba vacuum cleaner via your Internet connection and the sheer coolness factor should eliminate any protests, whatever they may be.

Chris Barylick covers games for The Mac Observer, and has written for Inside Mac Games, MacGamer, UPI, the Washington Post, and other publications.

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