My Friend Rob Stuart

Trust me was written all over his face. “I’m a circuit rider,” he said. He was telling me, not asking me. He wasn’t asking me for a job either. He was telling me the future. That was Rob. It was November 1995.

To be honest, I wasn’t too sure why he had come down from New York. An affiliation with the name “Rockefeller” had opened my door. I thought we were going to talk about the “Circuit Rider” project TCN had just completed for the W.A. Jones Foundation. In reality, he was there to shape much of the next few years of my life.

We were across from one another in TCN’s crowded conference room — a room of too many tables and printers and chairs and easels and TV stands. Given the crowding, we were forced onto the corner of one of the larger tables. Sitting there, this 30-some young pup with a winning smile and a twinkle in his eyes proceeds to tell me how we were going to change the world. “I’m a circuit rider,” he said. “I want to take circuit riding to the world. What do I need to know?”

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Inappropriate Misuse

It’s a perennial topic. Every year or so, someone, on some list where I frequent someplace, asks for some sample “Appropriate Use” policies. I’ve spent countless hours wordsmithing such policies — a vainglorious attempt to translate lessons from the foolish past into acceptable (and anonymous) policies. It’s a life’s lesson or two. It’s brought me to the conclusion that it’s kind of odd what people actually do with computers and other sorts of devices.

 It’s also sort of odd to think that policies emerge from the bizarre. That realization has sort of made reading other sorts of policies just that much more fun.

 I imagine that in real life these things we call “policies” really emerge like this: someone does something you never expected they would do, something silly, something where they obviously and unconditionally forgot (or never had) common sense. Then, the policy writer must turn that total silliness into a generic sort of statement — a whitewashed policy where the names have been changed to protect us all from hysterical laughter. (Now that I think about what policies really are, it sorta makes me want to rethink pursuing a (now nearly forgotten) Ph.D. in “Policy Studies.” It also makes me wonder what the Institute for Policy Studies is really up to.)

Regardless, I think it would be much easier just to list the original stuff — perhaps it might make common sense a wee bit more common. Policy analysis would be much more fun too.

So, here you go. I’ve collected that stuff, that list of things gathered from Real-life 101 (advanced placement), at The School of Hard Knocks, where I currently hold the Irascibility Chair in “Advanced Grumbling and Incomplete, Yet Intriguing, Sentences…”

I’ve posted this list once or twice, to this or that list, but in response to a request to post-it-once-and-for-all, I humbly throw it up here. (Ian, sorry it took so long. This list is for you.)

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Cthulhu Calling

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking nine when I ambled into the local opium den (AKA Apple Store) and plunked down 600 simoleons. I was powerless to resist the iPad’s call of Cthulhu.

Despite the early hour, the place was filled with enablers, blue-shirted geniuses and the occasional Utilikilt-clad steam punk. The occasional student would wander by, as if in a trance. It was iPad day; release the apps-Kraken. That day, I was pretty sure that Apple had just launched a tiny world-changing event; badly named, but still world-changing. I still think that.

I was there to pick up an iPad, my iPad – new, oh so shiny and new, screen, as yet, un-smudged. This was something different for me, not the smudging, but the Apple. I’m not much of an Apple fan. I haven’t really touched a Mac, except to admire the size of the monitors, since 1984. There is a faint Orwellian irony in that. I’ve always seen a faint Orwellian irony in Apple itself (but not as much as in Google).

Sadly, with the release of the iPad, I was also pretty sure that Apple had (again) just banged another nail in to the coffin of that ubiquitous common standard known as the Web. Don’t get me wrong. It’s brilliant, the iPad. So too is the iPhone; simply brilliant. But they are, nevertheless, the antithesis of open. To steal a quote from Charles Stross, it’s “the digital equivalent of a fascist police state.” It’s “safe,” you see, because like all police states, it’s controlled. And thus, in Apple world, doing anything dodgy is difficult, if not impossible. It’s a closed garden of earth delights. Continue reading Cthulhu Calling

Kissing the Frog

Kermit’s a liar. You can’t trust a frog (and any princess worth her salt could tell you that). It’s easy being green, at least a pale sort of green.

Lying frogs aside, I can finally answer the pesky perennial question, that question that’s troubled techie types for the last decade or two. That question: Should you turn your PC off at night or over the weekend?

If you’ve been in with the IT crowd, the answer to this question has always been a hearty “Nope!” (No kisses, no frogs, no princesses.) Leave them on. (Go away.)

Enterprise-wise, you see, we need those beasts on and working; even at home, you’re screwed if you don’t let them have their way. It’s the updates you see. Miss an update and the zombies come calling.

If you turn your PC off… well, then all those nice automated things don’t get done — important things, like updates, and bug patches, and virus signatures, and disk defragging, and other gobbledygook sort of technical things. They’re necessary, unfortunately. They’re important.

When confronted, I typically explain the simple trade-offs: It’s a choice between “leave them on” or you’ll be responsible for immanentizing the eschaton, triggering the inevitable zombie apocalypse or another Republican administration — to some, no doubt, one in the same.

Moreover, you’ll suffer! If your PC is off at night; well then, all those pesky updates will have to run while you are actually trying to work, trying to finish your radically over-due dissertation about Romance in America: The Myths of the Frog Prince, or trying to put those ever-so-important final touches on your resume, or, perhaps you’re writing the great-American-time-travel novel about relativity and love across the space-time continuum. Whatever it is, it’s important stuff all, right?

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Dumb Blobs

Email — you may be addicted to it, you may hate it, abuse it, love it, or eschew it. Whatever your relationship, troubled or otherwise, email is and continues to be one of the world’s few, new, great things. When it comes to “killer-apps,” it is the undefeated heavy-weight champion of the world. Email is the backbone of social and commercial intercourse. Commerce flows through it, along with pain and joy, and work and play, and many of the hours of my day.

While you may order that inflatable, remote-controlled zeppelin online, the acknowledgement nevertheless comes via email, as does the receipt, and the shipping updates.

Email is the truck that moves freight – light and heavy – on the information-super-goat-trail. Plain, simple, elegant, boring, your-grandma-has-an-AOL-address-type email remains the venerable heavy lifter of the online world.

Strangely, it has also become the de facto identity management tool. It is universally used to authenticate just who we are, on everything from my bank to the myriad of social and anti-social real-time networking sites. When we forget just who we are, it’s the delivery method of choice to jog the memory or to trigger a reset — ironically, given how totally insecure it really is, likened to a postcard.]

But, the core problem with email is not security. The real problem with email is it’s really stupid. It’s dumb as a bucket of overripe bananas. I mean it. It’s really god-awful stupid. It can’t help it. It was designed that way.

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