Don’t They Normally Go In Threes?

There’s much hullabaloo in the media today over a pair of deaths.

The tech community, we are told, is mourning the imminent demise of Winamp. Back in its day (the late 90s and early 00s), Winamp was the media player of choice on Windows.

Many of the online obituaries are praising Winamp for all it did in popularizing the concept of “skins”: the ability for users to redesign the application’s appearance and functionality in a shareable fashion. A user could change the background graphic, rearrange the controls in a way that he felt was more intuitive, and even add or delete controls. Those changes could then be bundled up and shared with others.

The problem was that Winamp did such a good job of implementing skins that it started a fad for skinning. For a while there in the early 00s, it seemed like the first question asked about any new program, regardless of what it did, was “Is it skinnable?”

“Hey, check out this great new word processor! It makes everything else obsolete!”

“Really? Is it skinnable?”

“Well, no.”

“Ah, forget it. It’s doomed.”

“What? Why would you want to skin a word processor?”

OK, I exaggerate, but only a little.

I think it’s reasonable to say that the expectation that programs should allow you to customize taskbars, keyboard commands, and menus derives directly from Winamp’s pioneering efforts in skinning. That’s a good thing, but boy were the intermediate steps ugly.

“Ugly” brings us to our second celebrity death. “Celebrity psychic” Sylvia Browne died Wednesday.

Ms Browne made in excess of $3 million a year through a combination of aggressively-marketed books on spiritual and religious topics and high-priced psychic readings.

She’s notably famous for her failed predictions. Repeated attempts to validate her work as a “psychic detective” have unanimously resulted in conclusions that she has never gotten a prediction correct. She’s assured parents that their kidnapped children will be found alive years after they were actually killed, and contrarily, kidnappees have escaped their captors years after Ms Browne told the world they were dead. Perhaps the most prominent such failure was the case of Amanda Berry, who was kidnapped in 2003. In 2004, Ms Browne told Berry’s mother that her daughter was dead. Her survival and escape earlier this year made news around the world.

It’s entirely typical that Ms Browne’s prediction of her own death was wrong: as many have noted, she predicted in 2003 that she would die at age 88. She only missed by 11 years.

Despite her uninspiring track record and her 1992 criminal conviction for investment fraud and grand theft, she continued to counsel the bereaved, charging a reported $850 for a 20 minute telephone session.

As of this writing, her website has not been updated. It still assures us that she will “psychically reach into your soul, pull out your Chart, and then recite back to you those things you have already planned for yourself.” How nice. Why would I pay somebody to go poking around in my soul and then tell me things I already know? Given her past, one would hope she at least washed her psychic hands before reaching into peoples souls, but the website doesn’t say anything about proper sterilization practices.

Any accusations that I’m being heartless in poking fun at the dead will be cheerfully ignored. I consider her actions to be fraud on the same level as those practiced by the Marks family, currently being tried for fraud in Florida.

My joy in knowing that Ms Browne will no longer be committing theft and destroying lives is tempered only by the knowledge that her son Chris is still following in her footsteps.

Winamp’s sins have largely been forgiven and forgotten. Sylvia Browne’s have not.

In both cases, however, it truly can be said that an era has ended.

Winamp, rest in peace.

Sylvia, go and sin no more.