A Lack of Presence

There was once this thing called “presence” – I miss it.

I realized not too long ago that I’ve been using technologies like text and instant messaging for, well, decades.  When I started, you had to be logged in to the mainframe.  Then it was IM. (iChat anyone?  MSN Messenger? Jabber?)  Now, it’s on our phones.

The thing that bugs me is that what I always saw as the biggest drawback – “too bad I’m not logged in all the time” – got solved.  Be careful what you wish for! Continue reading

Three tips for new Mac Users

I got a call last week from a neighbor.  “Stop by when you get a chance,” he said.  “I have something to show you.”

Turns out that he’s just switched.  Has a shiny new iMac on his desk, with a not-so-old PC off to the side. Congratulations!

I had this funny feeling that I should have an opinion for him about what he should do next. He was fairly prepared – he’s a smart guy. I kept thinking I should say, “okay, 1-2-3, you should consider doing these things,” but I didn’t have a list at hand. That I didn’t started gnawing at me.

So, I put this together.  Not a top 50 list, or top 25 list, or even the top 10… how about just three things to start with, because they might be the most useful for anyone who wants to actually start to understand their Mac.

Set up a username and password for your Mac.  It’s a very good idea to keep your Mac locked – to configure it so that when it boots up or you wake it up it prompts for your username and password.  I hear you saying  your computer is unlikely to be stolen, and that makes sense but I have another point: not having your computer totally open is a good habit.  When you log in to your computer, you’re reminding yourself that the information you store is valuable.  You do need to provide this information anyway when you install and/or upgrade software; if you use it every day it’s easier to remember.

But more practical reasons are that when you log in to your Mac, you’re not only starting your “session” but you’re unlocking the Mac Keychain.  The Keychain can store passwords for you (explicitly – using Safari, for example) and also stores other security-related data, such as WiFi passwords and security certificates.  When you log in every day with your username and password, you can take advantage of the Keychain without any further effort.  And, by making a strong password for your login, you enable the Keychain to store data securely.  In fact, if you want to remember only one strong password, use it to login (and for your keychain); that’s the “key” to unlock any others.

Eliminate Distractions: Organize your Dock. A new Mac comes with a shiny array of attractive icons in your Dock when you log in.  I suggest you get rid of those you won’t be using often enough to have them sitting there waving at you, and then make it easy to find any of your other applications:

You can eliminate icons in your dock by dragging them to your desktop – there’s a puff-of-smoke effect, and a “woosh” sound that accompanies this.  That’s how to subtract, and that’s half the job.  The other half is having a quick way to get to the apps you don’t use as often by leaving the “Launchpad” icon in your dock or dragging your Application folder to the dock.  What you’ve just done is divided your apps into two tiers – those you use every day (or often enough to justify “one click” access), and the rest that you want to be able to find relatively easily.

Set Activity Monitor to run at startup.  There’s a good way to keep an eye on what your Mac is doing.  It’s called Activity Monitor, find it in the Utilities folder (which is itself in your Applications folder).  It gives you a list of all of the applications running on your Mac (choose the “All Processes” choice in the pick tab next to “Filter”, then click on the “% CPU” column to sort by the most active process).  The bottom half of that window shows you counters and a graphic of your usage of disks, memory, and network utilization.  Consider having this app start when you log in: right-click (or control-click) the icon in the dock, and from Options choose “Open at login”.  That way, it’s always hanging out so that you can switch to it and answer questions like “why is everything so slow” or “is that thing actually doing anything”.  This can be very useful.

Do you see the underlying idea to all of these tips?  If you implement all of these, you learn a bit about how Mac security works, how to navigate around, and what your Mac is actually “working on”.  In other words, if you set a password, configure your dock, and habitually have activity monitor running, you’ll get a bit more visibility into your new computer.  Just having yourself set up this way will help you see a bit better how the gears go around, and might help you get a conceptual step forward towards figuring out how to do more – and have more fun.

Bonus Round:

Check out MacWorld’s How To’s and Videos.

And consider learning more by using these apps:
Broaden your browser use: try Google Chrome.  More functional, updated frequently (so, arguably more secure), and I personally find the bookmarks easier to use.
Get good secure storage for your passwords: try Password Wallet .  It’s a tool to remember passwords for you.  Doesn’t actually “integrate” with your browser like most tools, which makes it a bit more secure.
Store those little pieces of information so you can find them easily wherever you are: try Evernote . File things like images, web pages, and screen shots, other notes. You can search for them, and it runs on a website, or apps for almost every current device.
File your mail messages really quickly and efficiently: try MsgFiler .  Two to six (in my case) keystrokes to file mail messages into the folder of your choice. Makes it just as easy to save for archive as to delete your mail.

(These are all unsolicited recommendations … this is just my opinion, I’m not being compensated for mentioning these.)

Hope these all help!  Have fun!

Word for the day: “micromort”

Thanks to Bruce Schneier for the heads up on this:

micromort, n.  a numerical score for an event based on a probability of death of 1 in 1,000,000 (1 × 10-6, or 0.0001%).  Unit abbreviation μmt.    Examples: hang-gliding=8μmt, horse-riding=0.5μmt; 100 miles of travel in a car=0.5μmt.

As a blogger with the nom de plume of “Stubborn Mule” put it, “shopping for coffee you would not ask for 0.00025 tons (unless you were naturally irritating), you would ask for 250 grams.” The ability to communicate risks in an accurate but understandable manner is undercut by large denominators expressing very small risks.  Multiplying that fraction to get a micromort makes things more perceptible.


  1. Note that these probabilities are based on findings in the U.K., which may not be equivalent in other regions.
  2. The earliest citation that I could locate was R. A. Howard, “On making life or death decisions” in “Societal Risk Assessment: How Safe is Safe Enough?” (1980, ISBN 0306405547), referenced from Wikipedia.
  3. David Spiegelhalter et al have a wonderful site on the topic of Understanding Uncertainty, with some excellent tools.  Spiegelhalter gave a talk at the LSE’s Department of Economics in 2010 with a very good overview.

Why I don’t want to know your password

I’ve realized that over the course of my career I’ve had to cultivate a professional disinterest about some things.  You might even call it “learned blindness” – when I am helping people with a computer problem, I’ve developed a practice of not seeing certain things.

One of things that I don’t see – nor do I want to hear – are passwords.  They are other people’s secrets, like that spreadsheet the CFO has with everyone’s salary info.  (I’ve actually had to help someone with a spreadsheet like that, twice in my career.)  I don’t want to see that information – it’s the definition of “not any of my business”.

It sounds funny when I tell people that I don’t want to know their passwords… they trust me, after all, or they don’t think their password is very important.  Or maybe they share it with others anyway.  The best analogy that I have to explain this is that passwords are like gossip: people listen to gossip because they are curious about others’ secrets.

In most roles I’ve had, I possessed the master key to all of my organization’s data – I could, if I were “curious”, look at anyone’s email, access any of their files (sure, there’s computer code, but there are also pictures), or even eavesdrop on their phone conversations or web browsing.  In fact, because I’ve had responsibilities for monitoring email and phone systems, I see “traffic” – not the contents of email messages, but as I’m watching the logs I see calls and emails senders and receivers.

If you think about it, I can’t be curious about the data under my control because it undermines the trust that my colleagues have in me to protect it.  Being exposed to information that I have no need of is like being exposed to gossip – the only way to really be above gossip is to not listen, to refuse to be present when people are talking.

To even discern whether something supposedly “secret” is also “sensitive” means that I’m already hearing it.  So, that’s why I have a blanket policy of not wanting to be told secrets – like passwords – that I don’t have a need to know; because I might have the “ability” to find out, I want to train myself to not be interested.

One more thing: systems should be engineered so that secrets are minimized or securely shared.  For example, most applications that require a password use encryption to ensure that no one can see the actual passwords – all that system can do is take an input and reply that it matches the stored password or not. When you’re talking to someone who is an administrator, they can’t tell you what your passwords is – though they can change it for you, or change it themselves and then access your data.  But they can’t then change it back to what it was beforehand, so these actions are detectable.  I try to architect processes so that I don’t collect data that I don’t need – like authentication credentials.

It’s great that people trust me – even people who don’t like me very much trust my standards.  But discretion – keeping confidences – starts by not knowing them.

What Systems People Do

When many people think of systems people – for example, systems administrators, or IT staff – they wonder what we spend our time doing, when we’re not sitting with our customers and actively working to help fix what’s broken.

While in larger organizations there are people whose job descriptions read “IT Support”, many of us have significant other responsibilities.  What are we doing when the alarm bell (or telephone, or ticket system) isn’t ringing?

Often, the answer is that we’re building things.  This time breaks down partly to projects that we’re tasked to do – say, installing new hardware or software, or network upgrades.  But I’ve had a nice opportunity to consider what happens without tickets, phone calls, or support tasks.

What I’ve concluded is that I think about two things:

First, there’s what’s new to learn.  Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that “the well-stocked mind is safe from boredom,” and a corollary to this might be that one who is hungry to learn can never be sated.  It’s amazing to me how much of the important technology in the IT world is available for free, either because it’s open source, or because there are formal programs allowing access to technology for free or at significantly reduced costs though developer/support programs.  I’m thinking of much Oracle technology (free) and Microsoft systems (available at a nominal cost) – for purposes of evaluation, testing, etc. (effectively, “non-production use”, depending on the specifics of the licenses).

In addition, with the commoditization of the vast majority of computer hardware, courtesy of Intel, along with virtualization platforms, it’s pretty easy for a curious technologist to get exposure to a wide variety of applications and operating systems.  There’s also “the cloud” – in which one can “rent” a virtual server for $.08/hour (Amazon) or $19.95/month (Linode).  There are others, of course, but these are examples of what I personally use.

The second thing that I think about is the question of how to understand the ways in which things break – or to put it another way, what lessons one can learn from outages, errors, breakdowns, and failures of hardware, software, networks, applications, security, or human organizations.  What this means in practical terms is an emphasis (in my time and effort, at least) in thinking about how to monitor systems, traffic, the environment and myself.  What can I instrument?  What can I learn about a complex collection of systems and applications by collecting data?  What patterns can I see, and what can I predict?

“Paying attention” is essential to understanding what we’re doing.  Having the time to improve how I do this has been an experience that has given me a better perspective on how to be better at the work I do.

Word for the day – “Interrotron”

I was taken by a short film (okay, short video, if you insist) referenced in today’s New York Times app.

It’s about a man standing along the route of the Kennedy assassination, who was carrying (and under) an umbrella on that sunny day in November, 1962.  A thought-provoking production by Errol Morris, and not what you might assume.

What really caught my eye, though, was a credit at the end of the video for the “Interrotron Tech”.

A what?  It turns out that rather than an adjunct to waterboarding (what was suggested to me by the name), it’s a variation on the teleprompter where the subject of the interview sees the image of the director (that is, the person performing the interview) in front of the camera lens the same way a person giving a speech or working a newscast sees text – and the setup is replicated for the director, who sees the interview subject.

The point of this?  Says Morris, this actually allows a true face to face interview – eye contact – through the camera.  The conversation is carried on by two people who are looking at each other in the eye, just as you and I might when talking, but the interviewee is looking at us.  Morris invented this, and has used it for several of his works.

What a fascinating word, though.

Deja Vu

I’ve been told that as a new parent, there is an eerie moment the first time when they find themselves saying something to their kids – a feeling as the words come out of their mouths – the realization that they are saying to their kids exactly what their parents said to them in the same circumstances, 20 or 30 years ago.  They have an immediate inescapable realization that they are “becoming their parents”.

I had a similar technological moment not long ago, talking to my parents-in-law about Facebook.  They were not entirely clear on what Facebook is, or why people use it.  I explained as best as I could the concept of “friend” as a verb; and wrapped up my thoughts this way:

     “Facebook isn’t really the best way to communicate with me.  I’m not on it very often; in fact I find that I really don’t have the time to spend to check in with it frequently, and don’t feel the need to do so either.”

Boing!  As I was expressing this thought, my brain was pulled back to the mid-1990s.  I had been enthused about a new technology called email, and had gotten my father set up on America OnLine. And now  in 2011 I had the stunning feeling that I’d heard this before… my father explaining that he just didn’t have time to check the computer every day to see if he’d gotten any messages.  Why would he want to do that, he said, as after all people could always call him on the phone if they wanted.  And I, in my late 20’s or early 30’s couldn’t communicate the excitement, no, the necessity of this new (to him) way to keep in touch.

It’s 2011; we all use email and the web, but the composed-form email message is “history” to more and more of the Millennials that I encounter.  It’s txt and Facebook and Twitter now.

Is it incipient obsolescence to argue about whether this is true, desirable, or meaningful?

On change, on keeping up

My wife gets perplexed about a couple of things.

She has a ability that I envy: through force of will, she sits down at her desk and starts to work. Stuff (including my occasional observations) fly by her, without disturbing the continuity of her process.

On the other hand, I’m constantly circling the task at hand. If the right opportunity presents itself, I can dive in, and three hours later – time for lunch? We were going to do what, this morning?

She can’t understand how I get work done. And she can’t understand how I know such intimate details about that thing sitting on her desk that connects her to email and the web and to YouTube videos and the online New York Times.

Part of the answer seems to be how I’m wired, part of it is the times that we live in, and part of it is what my basic skills are.

How much of the time of those of us in IT is spent “doing” what we do – project work, responses to requests from our colleagues or customers, fire fighting – and how much do we spend thinking, reading, researching the stuff that’s not necessarily at the forefront of our concerns but represents the continual replenishment of what we knew about yesterday that’s irrelevant for tomorrow?

Hard to figure out the balance there.

But as I get older, fortunately or not, I begin to see the limits.  The hours of the day are finite; and the time that I spend in the present is time I don’t spend thinking about the future.  The time I spend in response isn’t time that I spend in initiation.