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Fear and Loathing at Technology Open House

Date/Time Permalink: 05/01/09 03:27:27 am
Category: Geek Culture

My daughter dragged me along last night to her school's event, "Technology Open House". Mainly for the giggle value; if any parent would be fun at this event, it would be me. The event was set up with different activities in different rooms, and you had to run back and forth like cattle in a chute milling from room to room. And I came away with a mingled mixture of appreciation and disgust.

The event was put on by QWest, who are granting $15,000 to Des Moines Public Schools. I heaved a guarded sigh of relief: at least I wouldn't have to pretend to be nice to Microsoft all night, but on the other hand, this is QWest.

First we got to log into the school's own Wiki and talk about how technology impacted our lives. "It's shiny!", I added, "It has lots of buttons and lights up!" My daughter gave me one of those looks so I had to write the boring old practical stuff. But hey, it's a Wiki! ka-ching for open source!

Next it was a podcasting demonstration, which involved speaking into a microphone and hearing your voice played back. Golly, us Iowa yokels were supposed to think, it's black magic. Actually, as I leaned in to look at the operator's screen, it was Audacity. ka-ching for open source!

Then it was off to the videoconferencing demonstration, where half of the family goes to the gym and the other half go to the library. Big screens on the wall used Skype to... well, as Wikipedia says, "Skypecast" between rooms. ka-ching for... oh, well, it's actually freeware. But it's open-source-friendly, sort of! I was determined to see silver linings if I had to paint them myself. The kids get to "interview" their parents; when my turn came my daughter asks "What has impressed you most here so far?" and my looming head on the eight-foot screen said, "A lot of it's open source." in front of the throngs of other bewildered parents.

Then it was to the art room, to get your digital photograph taken and emailed to you. Except, uh-oh, the person taking down everybody's email address is sitting in front of a frozen Windows laptop with an Excel spreadsheet open which she can't save, so she's writing everybody's email down on a sheet of paper. My daughter takes the opportunity to hoot that that never happens to her, because she runs Linux. A murmur ripples the crowd. ka-ching for open source!

Then it's off to the cafeteria, where a kind of virtual cyber-cafe has been set up with rows of laptops running either wireless or ethernet Internet access. We scurry about, me taking advantage of having Internet Exploder 7 in front of me to check out how pages on my site show up. Things mostly run. I couldn't get the Meebo shoutbox on the Doomed to Obscurity page to come up, but then sometimes it doesn't come up for anybody, period.

The laptops: Are some breed of HP Pavilions, fairly bulky but powerful. Newly bought with the grant. The sticker says "Windows Vista" but they're all running Windows XP. Throughout the evening, random Windows machines freeze or crash. My wife frisked me for live Linux CDs before I left the house, so I can't do anything mischievous. We deal with Windows as best we can, which is still better than most of the Windows-natives manage. When I bring up a second tab in IE, which comes naturally to a Firefox user, I have the occasional staff member looking over my shoulder wondering what on Earth I'm doing and whether they should stop me before I do some dangerous HAXORing.

One laptop complains of having not recognized its network hardware, which prevents Windows from even starting. I reboot it a couple of times, thinking if I can just catch it at the boot screen and hit F10 or something I can try to restore a driver. Another parent, a mom, happens upon me and starts reaching over my shoulder to fiddle with it, so I scoot out of the way while she confidently TAKES CHARGE. Then I have to show her how to reboot. Then I have to explain the error message to her. Then she has to give up. I thought she was in charge of the laptops, but it turns out she's just another parent, and confesses to being "an Apple person". My daughter and I both chime in "We're Linux people." and the mom has to wander away embarrassed because somebody pulled rank on her when she thought she'd be able to preen. Don't take it so hard, lady; you're every corporate manager I ever had.

The QWest representative is there having a raffle to give away fiber-optic-decorated pens. I get in line just to ask him whether they're getting better at supporting Linux and Apple. I listen to him go through his rote two lines on the subject, which he probably hasn't had a chance to recall since employee orientation. The nut of the matter is that they don't support non-Windows platforms, but if you decide to run them anyway, they won't actually come out to your house and shoot you.

That's usually what we have to settle for. Like I said, this was for the giggle value. I didn't go expecting to single-handedly bring the Renaissance in one night.

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