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I Wanna Destroy You

I run Linux on my home computer. It gives me greater control over the experience, as well as a greater choice of software... if you've ever spent any time around computer people, you've heard the routine, I'm sure. One of the things that my particular flavor of Linux offers is the ability to plant applets in the toolbar, and I keep one running at all times: a tiny graphic display showing me how much memory and processor power is being used at a given moment. My computer works fine, but it's eight years old and was kind of a bargain buy even then, so having something telling me when I'm running too hot can be quite handy.

Yesterday morning, I was listening to Penn Jillette's podcast and idly reading online articles, when the memory and swap-drive usage suddenly shot through the roof. The podcast stuttered momentarily, and the page that I'd just opened stalled for a moment. Obviously, the webpage was at fault, a suspicion confirmed when I opened the memory window and saw my web-browser suddenly eating 127 MB off the chips.

Here's the thing: I wasn't loading a video, or a videogame, or some obvious piece of multimedia in the browser. It was just an article, on a page containing so many extraneous scripts and so much CSS overkill that it might as well have been a video, or a videogame, or some obvious piece of multimedia.

These days, most of the kludge in modern webpages comes from the need to control your readers' browsers far in excess of anything one would consider reasonable. Endless pages of embedded style sheets, code that reads like machine language, code generated by modern WYSISYG software, code to restrict what the reader is allowed to do, backwash code from the company end of the content management system — It never ends, these days.

Misguided attempts to force multiple windows of streaming-video advertising at the same time are responsible for a good chunk of the problem, as well. If you follow tech media, you'll inevitably hear complaints that ad-blocking software is ruining the business models of many modern websites, and if you know anything about the subject at all, you have to laugh at such complaints. Nowadays, ad-blocking software is such a primary form of self-defense that you're risking your ability to use your computer if you don't use ad-blockers.

Of course, sometimes website design just plain doesn't work...

Back when I wrote webpages for the Daily Racing Form nearly two decades ago, I'd get pages from company executives who'd hired outside designers to create their websites... and then couldn't figure out why the sites made their home computers freeze up. I got to be an expert at pulling junk code out of pages made by the predominent WYSIWYG page-building program of the period, a useless piece of crap called Dreamweaver. I could cut two-thirds of the HTML out of some pages, then easily open the results on an underpowered machine that I kept nearby for exactly such such purposes, testing my results on bad hardware because I knew that the client's prospective customers were likely opening their pages with such computers as well.

The more code deployed on the page, the more memory a computer uses to crunch it and turn it into a finished page, resulting in webpages that look and perform well on that three-grand Apple laptop with the latest processors and upsold memory add-ons that the designer bought six months ago, but might not load so well on the mid-level Windows box that you bought four years ago and haven't replaced since because, hey, it works fine, right? This is why pages from Vogue's website crashes computers.

For some companies, of course, that's just fine: I can't imagine Vogue getting too worked up because the terminals at a library in Topeka, Kansas have problems opening their pages. Who clicks the banner ads for expensive jewelry in Topeka, anyway? More often, it simply doesn't occur to some people that not everybody has access to their expensive toys.


October 17, 2016   •   Back to essay listings


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