Most of the time, when I do a house call to fix someone’s computer, the job is pretty straightforward. Bodgy internet, fussy printer, hard drive that won’t wake up: mostly I fix it, sometimes I have to break the bad news, but in general I don’t spend my time looking for naked photos of a bloke’s wife on his laptop. This is a story about the one time that was different…
Location: Abels Bay, by the beach. Theo was a balding forty-something chap with a nervous handshake. He told me his story and I understood why he was nervous. His wife of ten years, Elly, had recently made the decision to stop being his wife, and was in the process of introducing him to her lawyers. Point of contention: some photos that Theo had taken of her as she stepped out of the shower. Elly claimed that this sort of sleazy behaviour was typical of him, that he’d always done it even though she hated it. Theo admitted taking the photo in question, and plenty before, but asserted that it was always with her complete, even enthusiastic consent. Now that she wanted out of the marriage, he said, she was lying to make him look bad.
I’m the IT blacksmith, not the IT Freudian psychoanalyst, so I figured I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, and asked why he needed my help. “It’s the photos,” he told me. “They’re on here somewhere, and they show Elly, stark naked, and smiling, proving that she didn’t mind me photographing her. Trouble is I don’t know much about computers and I can’t find the bloody things. I want you to find them for me so I can prove I’m not the biggest sleaze since Rolf Harris!”
OK. So you want me to find naked photos of your wife. Riiiiight. Well, a buck’s a buck, and I used to live in Canberra so I’ve heard worse than this. Get to work then!
The first part of the job was easy. A simple command to find every photo file on his entire computer and stick a copy in one folder where I could check them. Took a while to run, but run it did. Problem: it turned up about ten thousand photos. Far too many to search through manually!
If I had a super computer with image recognition software, I could just program in “show us your rude bits” and it would spit out the anti-incriminating photos in no time. Problem: I did not have a super computer with image recognition software.
Or did I…?
As it happened, I did have a super computer. In fact, with two of us in the room there were two super computers! The human brain is a remarkable machine, and it just so happens that it’s very good indeed at finding pictures of people in among other noise. That’s the reason people keep seeing the Virgin Mary on their toast! Why not apply that fact to this puzzle?
I downloaded Irfanview, an image viewing program, and pointed it to the folder with the ten thousand photos. Irfanview had a feature I needed: it flicks through photos quickly if you hold down the space bar. That’s what I did: I just sat there, let my eyes unfocus, and began looking through all the images.
What did I learn? For a start, Windows sticks an awful lot of pointless photos on a typical computer. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of icons, buttons, animated dogs, chatty paper clips and the rest. Most of what I saw was those. And after that, I learned that Theo was indeed a keen photographer. Very keen. However, his subjects were mainly his boat, his dogs and the rocky and snow-covered piece of far north Tassie where he and his wife used to have a holiday shack. As for photos of Elly herself… there were none. Irfanview was fast, so we were able to go through the collection twice, just to make sure. I know the trick worked, because the couple of photos that had, say, Theo in a singlet or some passing tourist in a t-shirt were immediately obvious, even at high speed flicker, so I could stop and go back and, gritting my teeth, check to see if they contained Elly’s smile and other less-commonly-seen bits of her. They did not.
Poor old Theo had his day in court, and came out a chastened and somewhat poorer single man. Elly, if I’m to trust Theo’s account of the matter, started a relationship with a nice lawyer, coincidentally the one who had been of such great assistance to her in her time of need. And as for the photos, well… maybe they were there and had already been deleted by the much more tech-savvy Elly, or maybe they never were and Theo was delusional, or paying me to waste some time to make his argument look plausible. Who knows? I’m not the IT magistrate either; just an IT blacksmith.
I love the idea of being the local IT blacksmith. It strikes me every community should have one. All these people with computers in their homes and not much idea of how to keep one healthy and working, and all they need is access to someone with the magic fingers. Obviously in the big city we do have various dial-a-nerd services, but I rather suspect the quality is patchy and without the sense of community, there’s no real ongoing continuity or trust. I have a mental image of you wearing a tunic and tights, and pointy shoes that curl up at the end, walking up to people’s computers and exclaiming “odds bodkins who configured your IMAP server?!” I accept my vision may not be completely accurate.
I confirmed that his vision was not entirely accurate (I don’t wear the tights or the curly shoes, but the “odds bodkins” is spot on) but I decided then and there that he had hit the nail on the head regarding my vocation. I am indeed the IT blacksmith: people have a problem with their computers or assorted gadgets, so they call me and I fix it. It involves less sweating over a hot forge than your standard blacksmith, but it serves the same purpose. I give people the support they need to get their own work done. And in the process, I can’t walk down the street without running into someone I know, someone I’ve helped with some problem or other.
After years in Sydney and Canberra, when the only time you learn your next-door neighbour’s name is while you’re prepping for yet another bushfire to tear through the suburb, this is an improvement!