Doctor Smoke Interview (Complete text)

By Graham K. Rogers

1. Name, age, occupation, address?

Gregory Swain.



Texas, USA. (Do we need to be more specific?)

2. You used to work for IBM: why Mac, why OSX?

I always admired Macs. My wife is also a fan of them and had the opportunity to work with them in a job she had once. When it came time to buy computers for our household, I decided to give the Mac a fair trial. Though I worked for IBM at the time, the employee discount was minimal and I was frankly tired of Windows. Apple had not yet opened their retail stores, but they had a sales office nearby and let me spend a couple of hours there playing with a Power Mac G4 desktop. I fell in love with Macs right there!

3. What do you do now (consult/OSX/PDF, etc)?

A combination of things. Having retired early, I decided I still wanted to work, but with people I liked and on projects that were of interest to me. In addition to writing my books about Mac OS X, I do some consulting on issues including corporate and IT strategy, business process reengineering, and competitive intelligence, i.e. the things I did while at IBM. I also manage a variety of personal investments.

4. A prolific adviser on Mac forums, what are the major problems you see?

If you're referring to Mac OS X problems, I'd group them into three primary categories. Note that these are not in any specific order:

(1) Bugs: people encountering bugs in Mac OS X or Mac OS X-based applications. These include flawed code, but I take a broader view of what constitutes a "bug," such as:

Capability: the application does not work as expected, but it's working as designed.

Documentation: the help was poorly written.

Usability: the question would not arise if the application were more intuitive.

(2) Self-inflicted wounds: The user basically shot themselves in the foot. They failed to implement backup and recovery, perform the little maintenance required to keep their system running smoothly, or installed questionable software, such as hacks that modify the operating system. Now they're in trouble, often deep trouble. Preventing these kinds of problems is a major focus of my books.

(3) Hardware: a good number of problems are related to broken or incompatible hardware, including peripherals.

5. What communication do you have with other online Advisers?

Once one reaches Level 4 (L4) on the Apple Discussions, which requires a significant commitment of time in helping the community, one has access to a private forum for discuss technical issues with other L4s and L5s. For example, several of us recently engaged in discussing and testing the new lauchd (launch daemon) facility in Tiger. We also use it to obtain corroboration of suspected bugs, or to alert specific L4s of questions that may benefit from their particular expertise. While some L4s are generalists, many specialize: there are experts in networking, iTunes, iPhoto, and other particular areas.

I've made quite a few friends on the Discussions. For example, a number of fellow L4s and I have become friends offline: we regularly e-mail each other, chat on the phone, or share photos. If we lived closer to each other, we'd certainly get together. I know of several cases where L4s from different countries got together when they were on vacation in another's country.

6. What communication do you have with Apple?

On the private Discussion area, we can notify the Discussion's moderators of trends we are seeing in problems, make suggestions for improving the Knowledge Base articles, or alert them to posts that violate the terms of use, such as someone posting an obscene rant. I've also had contact with their legal department to obtain permission to use screen shots in my books. I'd frankly like more contact, particularly with the developers, but I can understand that their time is very limited. Apple also provides some developer-oriented mailing lists, a completely separate channel from the Discussions, and some developers contribute directly to that channel, providing one way to chat with their developers.

7. You provide many online help files, how do these differ from the book?

In several ways. First, the content on the Web site that is also in the books is a tiny fraction of any of my books, perhaps five percent. Sometimes I publish FAQs on the site that are outside the book, new issues I think worthy of a FAQ that are later incorporated in, and expounded upon, in the next book.

8. Your book is only available as a pdf download: why?

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, it is an electronic book, an e-book, which is more flexible in many ways than a paper-based book. With an e-book, one can search the entire contents of the book, zoom in on text or images for a better look, have the computer read the book to you if you are visually impaired, and address similar usability issues with physical books. E-books are also environmentally friendly: no trees are felled nor paper required to publish them. One cannot get a paper cut from an e-book.

My e-books make heavy use of hyperlinks, both to content within the book and on the Internet. For example, if there's a well-crafted answer to a problem already on the Web, I can provide a link to it in the book: clicking the link opens that answer in the user's Web browser. Likewise I can provide related links to additional material on the Internet. For example, there are some good tutorials on the Web concerning how hard drives work. I include links to those in the chapter on Disk Utilities. One merely clicks the link. I'd estimate that if everything in my latest book, including all the linked content, were printed, it would be something in the range of 1,500 pages or more, though the e-book itself is 620 pages.

There are folks who still want a printed book, so I incorporate all of the production values of a physical book: a full table of contents, a detailed index, and page layout that works well on the screen or paper. One can print the book if one so desires, but you lose the e-book advantages, such as hyperlinks.

The second is the business model. With the state of electronic publishing and e-commerce today, I don't need a traditional publishing relationship to author, publish, and sell a book. I can create the book with desktop publishing tools, add features that only e-books support, advertise it on the Internet, and sell it electronically through an e-shop. The book is also available on CDs, which are produced on-demand by another supplier. The overhead is low, and the profit margins are much higher than an author might receive from a traditional book deal. This enables me to sell the book at a reasonable price, anywhere in the world, 24x7. Just as blogs are stealing some of the thunder from traditional news channels, e-books have opened the world of publishing to anyone, anywhere.

9. Suggestions for new users and for those having problems (one or two questions?)?

My approach to troubleshooting emphasizes preventing problems before the happen and being prepared in case they do. Here are some tips along those lines:

(1) It cannot be said enough: implement a comprehensive backup and recovery solution, such as that discussed in my book, and use it regularly. Hard drives fail, albeit rarely, but a backup can save your hide!

(2) Don't panic. I often see posts where people have run into a serious problem and their writing indicates that they are in a blind panic. Panicking when problems arise can often lead to more problems, ineffective troubleshooting, or taking extreme measures (formatting and reinstalling) when just a little time spent taking a breath and approaching the problem methodically will save time and aggravation.

(3) Take good notes. My father was fond of saying "pencil and paper never forget." He was right. Computers are complex systems. Folks install updates, new applications, and hardware only to lose track of license codes, warranty information, and any recollection of what they installed when. Keeping what I call a Mac Diary for tracking this information can be invaluable in troubleshooting. For example, after installing Mac OS X Updates, problems often arise because of an incompatibility between some bit of third-party shareware one installed months ago and the new version of the OS. Having a Mac Diary in which one recorded third-party software installs can help narrow the list of possible candidates when looking for a conflict.

10. The Apple forums are full of problems: why?

People don't generally post to any forum, Apple's or others, to say what a great day they're having with their Mac. They come looking for help. The number of posts doesn't necessarily indicate a systemic problem with the hardware or software. They could be looking for tips on how to do something, advice on what peripheral to buy, or other ways to tap the collective knowledge of the community. Granted, most of the posts deal with problems, but sometimes the user perceives a problem when none is present. For example, Console is primarily a troubleshooting tool, but its messages fascinate people. Console messages are terse, written for programmers, and often look like they're reporting a problem when in fact most Console messages are status information. People will post questions to the Discussions about a Console message that has them worried, but 90 percent of the time it is a message of no importance.

11. What concerns you most about posters (what pisses you off)?

The Discussions are a global cross-section of humanity: some of the things that one finds irritating about posts are same things one finds irritating about people in the real world. Basically, rudeness or an attitude demanding or expecting help. The Discussions are manned by volunteers on an asynchronous basis: there's no commitment to providing an answer within a specific period of time. Sometimes posts demonstrate a clear chip on the writer's shoulders. They should "check their attitudes" at the Discussions home page and stick to the facts.

While not irritating, per se, there is a clear spectrum of skills on any forum. Many who ask questions have no idea how to properly craft a post so that it gets an answer. This is understandable since it appears schools do not teach people how to ask a question, an important skill in any endeavor. Posts frequently lack important details, such as the text of an error message, the version of software one is having problems with, and other facts that can help them get a quick resolution. I actually have a section creating good posts in the "Obtaining Help Online" chapter of my book.

There are some serious stylistic irritants: the use of chat-speak instead of proper language, writing in an E. E. Cummings style (sans capitalization or punctuation), or the giant-block-of-text: no paragraphs, just a stream-of-consciousness diatribe on a problem. Neatness counts. It is unreasonable to expect someone will sort through a poorly written, unintelligible post to provide help when there are others who take the time to write a good post.

I also have some bones to pick with certain answers provided to those seeking help. Some answers are so terse or poorly crafted as to be useless to the person who asked the question. Other answers are attempts to show off one's prowess with Terminal when the person asking the question clearly does not have those kinds of skills. For example, I'll never provide an answer that requires the querent to use Terminal unless (a) there's no other way to solve the problem or (b) the question indicates the querent is skilled in Terminal and UNIX. Then there are the folks who want to answer questions but don't have the skills: they can send the querent down blind alleys with their well-intentioned attempts to help. One should stick to what one knows when answering questions.

12. Why do some people claim that Apple releases bad updates?

Sometimes they do. Consider iTunes 5.0, quickly followed by iTunes 5.0.1. Ditto for iTunes 6. Many Mac OS X updates have had some bugs that escaped testing. Microsoft has an even less enviable reputation in this area. Bugs are an unfortunate part of software. Development and testing methodologies to prevent bugs from reaching the customer are improving on an industry-wide basis, but software is still complex and largely written by humans.

However, when someone reports something as a "bug" or bad update, and cannot back that up with the steps needed to reproduce the error, or, when they can, the majority cannot reproduce the error, then one also has to suspect there could be a problem or incompatibility on the Mac exhibiting the anomaly vs. a bug in the update. I frequently see this with folks who run highly-customized systems: they install all sorts of hacks, themes, and other bits that may be fun but can also make one's system less reliable. Before casting the first stone at the update, one should first remove the mote from one's own eye.

13. Have there been any bad updates?

As noted in 12, a number of Mac OS X updates, or updates to Apple applications, such as recent iTunes releases, have been buggy.

14. Why pdf format for your book (why not hardcover/paperback)?

Answered in 8.

15. Why should people buy your book and not something like the Pogue "Missing Manual" series?

They should buy both, since our subjects are different. Pogue advertises his Mac OS X books as "the book that should have been in the box." I suspect many of my readers believe that my book is the other book that should have been in the box!

Most Mac OS X books are user's guides, filling a gap that Apple should fulfill in the online help. Pogue's books are users' guides. My books focus on troubleshooting. For example, the Tiger Edition of David Pogue's "Mac OS X, the Missing Manual" has 847 pages including the index. Of those, there are 14 pages dedicated to troubleshooting: less than two percent. My book is virtually all troubleshooting, probably 90 percent or more. Where I discuss how to use a facility built into Mac OS X, such as the smattering of how-to information I provide on Font Book in the "Font Book" chapter, it's to help people avoid problems that could arise from misunderstanding Font Book, not as a tutorial on Font Book.

What I intend readers to get from my books that they will not get from the books that are users' guides is a troubleshooting mindset. Unless you are an engineer who has experience in fault-tree analysis and failure analysis, you've probably not studied troubleshooting as a discipline. What I hope my readers will learn is not simply the solution to a given problem, but how to go about preventing problems and how to solve them should they arise.

16. Why did you write the book?

A variety of reasons, which I cover in the introduction to the book. One was I saw a need and decided to fill it. There are numerous users' guides, but few troubleshooting books, and even fewer that don't require a Ph.D. in UNIX®.

None of the books I read when first getting into Macs went into any of the techniques one should use in managing their "personal data center." People don't realize it, but the power available in personal computers today in some ways rivals that of an air-conditioned room full of mainframes a decade ago. Many folks have two or more computers at home, often with a network. They're running a data center and they don't know it. One of the things I try to do in my books is provide them with the same techniques used in running Enterprise-class data centers, scaled down to the home or small business environment. Techniques like backup and recovery, disaster recovery, change management, scheduled maintenance are common in managing large data centers, but no one writes about how the home or small business user should implement these procedures on a their scale.

There's also a wealth of information available for troubleshooting on the Internet, but despite Google and other advances, it's hard to find and difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. My books help people learn what's out there. For example, a number of problems addressed in my books are answered with links to content in the AppleCare Knowledge Base. This is a valuable resource, but few know about it and it can be daunting to search.

There are three kinds of answers to problems in my books: If there's a good answer available on the Internet, I provide a link to it. If the answer could benefit from enhancement, I wrap the link in some text that further illuminates the answer. Then there are the problems for which no one has published a good answer. For those, I develop a solution and lay it out in easy-to-follow, step-by-step fashion. It's easy to throw a list of hyperlinks to "other sources" in a book. I put those sources in context.

Finally, I thought it could be fun and profitable to write and publish a book. Clearly there was a need for the kinds of answers I was providing on the Apple Discussions. Being one of those organized individuals, I had created a FileMaker® Pro database in which I was saving the answers I was posting to the Discussions. Initially this was for efficiency, since some questions arose repeatedly. When the database reached 800 entries, it dawned on me that I had the beginnings of a book.

17. How did you go about writing the book (motivation/process, plus the idea of running a home consultancy business)?

I was basically contributing to the Discussions as a hobby, since I enjoy problem solving and it matches my skills. But when my database of questions I'd answered reached 800 entries, it dawned on me I had the beginnings of a book, a book for which there was clearly a need. As I had been using desktop publishing tools in my work for some time, it was clear that the book would be created in Adobe InDesign. PDF is a universal format that has many attributes one cannot reproduce in other electronic media. One can obtain a domain name and a basic, hosted commercial web site for peanuts, and there are a variety of good Web development tools out there. Given that I know Adobe products, I used GoLive to create The X Lab. Having purchased a variety of shareware through stores hosted by Kagi.com, Kagi was the clear choice for the electronic storefront through which sales of the book would be transacted. Kagi also offers a digital download service, providing both the clearing of secure credit-card transactions and an encrypted download link so the customer can then download their purchase. Finally, Kagi has a relationship with SwiftCD, a CD-on-demand firm that burns and ships orders for the book on CD.

It was a eleven weeks [sic] from the time I had the idea until the First Edition of Troubleshooting Mac OS X was sold online. Granted, those were hectic weeks at times, but all the tools and infrastructure are readily available for anyone with an idea to write, publish, and sell their own e-book over the Internet.

18. Who does your proof-reading/editing/checking?

I do a first cut. My wife helps when she can. I also have some friends who have volunteered to help in this: I acknowledge their contributions in the book and provide them with free copies of the finished work in return for their assistance. I'm seriously considering hiring a college student majoring in English next time.

19. How many users of OSX are there (what is the market potential for all sales -- books, software, hardware)?

At this time, Apple claims on their Developer Connection web site, under the Mac Market link, that "More than 15 million Apple customers are using the Mac OS X operating system and the numbers are growing quickly." (Link: The Mac Market). During the June 2005 Developer Conference, a month after Tiger shipped, Apple CEO Steve Jobs noted about 16 percent of Mac OS X users were employing Tiger, 49 percent Panther, 25 percent Jaguar, and 10 percent using earlier versions. He noted they expected 50 percent to be on Tiger by June 2006. So this means there's a substantial market for my books. Generating exposure for, and awareness of, the books is the biggest issue I face.

20. You were a "Helper" in the early days of Forum uses, now Level 4: what does that entail?

Apple invited significant contributors to become Helpers. By significant, I mean both prolific and helpful. The title merely recognized the contribution and provided access to the private discussion area noted earlier. Existing Helpers often recommended new Helpers to Apple. Apple, for what I suspect are legal reasons, did away with the Helper program and instituted a program of Levels. In the new system, one accrues points based on your number of posts and how people assess their quality, such as by voting them to be Helpful or Unhelpful. The more points one accumulates, the higher one's level. Privileges on the Discussions are based on one's level. For example, Level 4s have access to the private Discussion area, Level 3s could have their own custom avatar (graphic), and so forth. Apple just redesigned the Discussions so there are some changes in terms of the privileges associated with levels that have yet to be documented.

The good part about moving from Helpers to Levels is that it is based solely on accumulated points and length of membership in the community. The bad part is that if you post enough, whether you know anything or not, one can become a Level 4 simply by accumulating the requisite number of points over time. There have been cases of people creating hundreds of posts per day, most of dubious value, merely to try to climb the Level hierarchy faster. Since the recent redesign of the Discussions, the criteria for levels has not been restated, but I seem to recall one had to have 2,000 posts and been a member for a year or two in order to reach Level 4. Most of the "climbers" lose interest before then, so from that perspective there have been few to make Level 4 undeservedly.

21. Engineering and IT Consultancy seems to be at a low level for many worldwide: why?

In my opinion, there are still some leftover effects from the global economic impact of both the bursting of the Internet Bubble in early 2001 and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 here in the US. There are also a number of excesses still to be worked out of the system. For example, many companies either over-invested in IT, or invested in the wrong IT, during the Internet Bubble. The global telecommunications firms still have not recovered from the hype surrounding 3G and the pricey acquisitions they made in those days. While there's been a lot in the press concerning the impact on IT workers in First World countries from the outsourcing of IT jobs to India, China, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe I think the jury is still out as to how effective that will be or how much of an impact it will ultimately have on IT workers in developed nations.

22. How do you relax (cats, etc.)

My wife and I live with our five cats. They are our children. They are perhaps some of the most spoiled and well-cared for cats anywhere. It's almost as if this is their house and they let us live here. My wife and I both work hard, but we tend to relax with the cats, reading, and are big movie fans. I'm a voracious reader. My wife enjoys gardening, I like detailing the cars. I find answering questions on the Discussions to be a pleasant diversion, but we try to get as much quiet, quality time with each other as possible. My interests are diverse and eclectic. I've tried to maintain and cultivate the curiosity of a Renaissance Man despite the fact that the world is one of specialization.

23. Future plans?

I have some ideas for books unrelated to Macs or Mac OS X. I'm particularly interested in the hidden impacts and unintended consequences of broadband. When I look at how various industries are approaching broadband and its potential impact on their businesses, I begin to suspect that "they don't get it." I think pervasive broadband is beneficial and revolutionary, but the side effects are yet to be determined.

24. Why leave IBM?

Personal reasons.

25. Some people want to treat computers as compliances: what is your take on that?

We're not there yet. In some ways, personal computers are no more advanced than automobiles were in the 1920s and '30s: you still have to be part mechanic in addition to doing the driving. The larger revolution in computing isn't in personal computers but in embedded computing: computers integrated into everything. Pervasive computing was a term used by IBM to describe this.

For example, one of my cars has five different computer systems, whose functions range from engine management to climate control, but you'd never know it from driving it. They operate silently, in the background. People have been talking about home automation and the networked home for years, but it's not a reality yet unless you have a good bit of money to spend. Besides, I'm not sure I need my dishwasher to talk to my toaster, or my toaster to chat with my Mac.

There's also a downside to this: the systems can become intrusive. For example, BMW is running a television commercial where a fellow is driving when his car phone rings. It's his dealer calling to schedule an oil change. The driver asks how did they know? The response: his car told them. The driver is concerned because, prior to the call, he was also singing along to a child's CD. He asks, "What else did it tell you?" While funny, and some may see systems like that as a convenience, others may see them as intrusive. Films like Minority Report reflect some of the downside of pervasive computing, such as inescapable advertising, where the world becomes a 24x7 sales pitch customized just for you, along with a complete loss of privacy. I believe having a sense of privacy is important to the human psyche. Systems like this could make paranoia a growth industry for psychiatrists.

26. Are computers magic: are the Dark Arts involved (complex machines, complex programs, etc..)?

Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Computers aren't there yet, although there are probably people who would swear otherwise. I have yet to recommend exorcism as a troubleshooting technique.

27. A motto, or a piece of advice for both my readers, please?

Waste anything but time: it is your most precious resource.

28.Are there OS X viruses?

Not in the sense of the viruses which have plagued Windows, but I recommend a "never say never" approach. Apple is still publishing security updates for Mac OS X. The time between when an exploit is discovered and someone publishes a Web page describing a way to leverage it is getting rather short. I think it is only a matter of time before someone develops a nasty virus for Mac OS X, if only to say that they did it. Systems like Mac OS X, with UNIX underpinnings, are much more secure than Windows.

A greater threat lies in the arenas of malware and spyware. I classify viruses as a subset of the broader category of malware, software intended to do harm to your computer or other computers on your network. For example, Sony's recent DRM (Digital Rights Management) catastrophe affected both Mac OS X and Windows systems. There have also been both real and proof-of-concept malware demonstrated for Mac OS X. A famous one was a download masquerading as a Microsoft Office Trial: running the installer would erase your hard drive. Not a virus, but certainly malware.

29. What about the possible insecurity that could allow a process to access Root (sudo on for 5 minutes -- Apple claims this is not a problem, while others have made suggestions like reducing sudo access to 0 minutes [specific access only] all of which require complex command line work)?

A more likely scenario is that some user will install something from an untrusted source, like the Office Trial discussed above, that requests their Admin password, and then insinuates itself in their system. The Sony DRM case is, for all intents and purposes, an example of a root kit, which is a set of tools used by unethical hackers to control or access compromised systems on which the root kit has been installed. There were extensive discussions in 2004 on sites like Slashdot surrounding Opener, a malicious Startup Item that, once installed, would be executed whenever you started up your Mac. To install this, you either had to provide your Admin password, which many users are accustomed to doing when installing commercial software and shareware, or you had to have physical access to the target Mac and start it up in either single-user mode or from a disc. This is a strong argument against using P2P (Peer-to-Peer) file sharing sites, since the sources in such cases are largely untrusted.

Mac OS X has gotten better and better at warning the user of potential malware, including checking the security settings of Startup Items, but if you ignore the warnings -- which many are likely to do since they often involve false-positives -- you run the risk of installing something you think will be harmless, but it caries a package that can be extremely harmful. Social engineering -- getting people to do things unwittingly, like the Office trial -- is perhaps a bigger threat to security in Mac OS X than conventional viruses.

30. Xfiles I can understand (my own site and columns are named "eXtensions"), but why Dr. Smoke?

(I think you mean The X Lab, and The X-FAQs). My nickname amongst my friends has been Doc, as in Doctor, since college days. My only vice is I enjoy smoking cigarettes and cigars. I regularly enjoy a fine Philip Morris product, specifically Marlboro Menthol Light 100s. Hence, Dr. Smoke as a screen name. Unfortunately, Dr. X was already taken on the Apple Discussions.

Made on Mac

For further information, e-mail to Graham K. Rogers.

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