heart of data

the hard and dark side of modding

Last night’s better part I spent with Resource Hacker, prying open certain system files and having healthy looks at their contents. Having looked long enough made me start to understand how WinXP’s graphical user interface (GUI) works. Then I found the two articles Windows XP and skinning and The skinning primer: A comprehensive look at Windows customization by Brad Wardell. Both are excellent reads and give you a true understanding of how Windows creates the graphics of the interface you see on your screen—if you use Windows, that is. If you want to go into details, like of which elements a window is composed and so on, the Skinning Guide [also as ↑.pdf | 1.6MB] for Stardock‘s WindowBlinds is a comprehensive and understandable source. Brad Wardell himself works for Stardock and therefore his articles naturally are a bit biased in terms of advocating WindowBlinds and other Stardock products. But in every article Wardell states so himself, and you have to be fair: Although Stardock meanwhile is a ‘Gold Certified Microsoft Partner’, their product palette consists of shareware plus the random bit of freeware. Anyway, what I am driving at is the cultural difference between modders and professional customizers.

All time favourites of Windows GUI-modding are changing the looks of the start button and the boot screen. There are several ways for replacing the start button, among which the manual procedure has the most appeal. Ah yes, the classic way involves a little bit of disabling the system file checker and modifying system files. In the case of the Windows start button it is explorer.exe, which has to be modified—the shell of the system—be brave and do not hesitate to put the ghost into it. And now hold your breath, because it becomes even better … here is a classic tutorial for modifying your WinXP boot logo. It involves patching the very heart of the darkness Windows is, the operating system’s (OS) kernel himself :-) [Before messing around with the kernel it just may be not too bad an idea to make a backup copy of it. I just couldn’t resist and had to rename my backup of ntoskernel.exe into kurtz.exe. Got it? … say aloud: “Kernel Kurtz”]

The professional Brad Wardell is horror-stricken: “Just the thought that someone was patching their OS kernel to have a new boot screen sends shivers down my spine.” Well, it sends shivers down the spine of those who do it, too—they appreciate the shivers, Wardell doesn’t, although he nicely describes some ideological background of GUI-modding in his primer:

Once upon a time some user, some where, noticed that their computer looked exactly like everyone else’s computer. And that just didn’t make sense to them. After all, everything else is personalized based on the individual needs and tastes of the consumer—cars, phones, shoes, appliances, houses, etc. Yet computers, in which people spend so much time in front of, looked exactly the same. This user started looking at what they could do on their computer to change it to be more their own [emphasis mine]. […] This user wasn’t alone. There were thousands like him. People of all ages from around the world had the same desires and no way to address them. But nature abhors a vacuum and pretty soon the pieces started coming together. [Community-building set in.]

Changing the interrelationships between artefacts and human beings is a, maybe the decisive aspect of sociocultural appropriation. This very much is manifested in the obviously insane stunt of tinkering with your operating system’s very core, risking to ruin everything, only to replace an insignificant picture, 640×480 pixels in dimensions, equipped with a meager palette of 16 colours, which you only see for some seconds when booting your machine. The replaced picture is not essential, it is only the symptom. Essential is the practice of fucking around with the kernel for no apparent reason, and then the awareness of having done so.

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