Thursday, January 09, 2014

My Uncool "Cool Tool": Grandma's Recipe Box Solution to Internet Password Management

The uncoolest "Cool Tool" ever?
A super cheap & easy-to-grok paper system ideal for some people.
Personal organizers take note.
Since I know many of you who follow Madam Mayo are writers, and many are my workshop participants, guys, this one's for you.

Oh, what a chuckle I had the other day morning to find my post about Grandma's Recipe Box Solution to Password Management on Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools blog. Though I admit, I was dismayed by the  torrent of grouchy comments. After having published several books, I'm an old war horse for this sort of thing, but this time, ouch, even as I chuckled, I took a little shrapnel. Since I thought it might be useful for other writers, here's the backstory-- and the two lessons for me as a writer, as I see them.

Backstory: I'm a huge fan of Kelly's Cool Tools blog. Featured tools range from the beautiful free ebook, Butterick's Practical Typography, to the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Charcoal Starter (a $15 miracle), a solar lamp,  a book on how to grow your own seeds, and the $600 Hilty PX-10 Transporter. Whether high-tech or low-tech, new or ancient, it's a blog about tools-- whatever works. So when I saw a call out for Cool Tool blog posts, I thought, ah ha, I'll write up my low-tech, super cheap but amazingly useful desk tool: a plastic recipe box and index cards for keeping track of my ever-proliferating Internet passwords. In its humble way, this system works beautifully for me. I remember how I used to struggle to keep all the many email addresses and passwords in some semblance of order-- and how others I know struggle with that, too. (For instance, one relative keeps his passwords on Post-Its stuck to his computer monitor, another pins them to a bulletin board by his desk, and another, alas, keeps them, or rather it, in her head: the same easy-to-remember password for everything.)

I dashed off my Cool Tools blog post in about 5 minutes. The blog editor said he liked it, send more.

Well, fine for my ego, but I had not stopped to consider my readers. (Which is ironic; I just spent most of this year thinking very deeply and very carefully about my audience for a book about a controversial and, for some, disturbing subject.) Distracted by the holidays, I just hit that "submit" button to Cool Tools as sunny, helpful me. And as my readers here at Madam Mayo-- also a sunny, helpful and literary bunch-- would probably appreciate it, so I thought, oh, I'll just rerun the Cool Tools post on Madam Mayo when it comes out, two birds with one stone.

If I'd thought about it for, like, thirty seconds, it would have occurred to me that, not all, but probably most readers of the Cool Tools blog are younger, tech-savvy guys-- or at least they want to see themselves that way, surfing in for their daily dose of cool. And a blog post about Grandma's recipe box method for keeping Internet passwords would most likely rub their fur the wrong way. 

A head-slapper, I know.

Immediately comments came in like, April's Fool Day, right? And, Did Cool Tools get hacked?

The multitude of indignant comments have not enlightened me about using encrypted on-line services for managing Internet passwords; I knew all about that back when. (I didn't grow up in Palo Alto for nothing.) And I can certainly understand that mobility-- having one's passwords in the palm of one's hand at all times-- is key for many people (you know who are, texting in your sleep). For many, their office is the last place they'd want to leave all their passwords. And, gosh, some people seem to think their house could burn down at any moment!! (Could be true if they live in Malibu.)

I do love my Internet password management system, I stand by it, and I am confident-- and subsequent, more positive, commenters have noted-- that it could work well for many people. But if I could rewrite the opening of my Cool Tools blog post, I would have said:

This is a low-tech and easy-to-grok system for those with the following profile:
* A less than photographic memory; 
* An appreciation for the need to use unique and difficult-to-guess passwords for their various Internet accounts (shopping, blog, twitter, FB, YouTube, websites, etc); 
* No (or a very low) need for digital access away from one's desk;
* A highly secure and private home office or studio;
* An appreciation for why the KGB recently bought typewriters.
So this system might not be for you-- though it just might be for someone you care about who fits this profile. 

The lesson is not that such an opening could have avoided negative comments. It's a free country (or at least pretends to be), different people have different opinions, and if some have nothing better to do than spew in the comments section of a blog, well, may they be Buddha in their next incarnation. When writers publish, whether in print or on-line, there are always reactions of all kinds. Taking negative comments seriously, ruminating about them, that's an amateur's game. But when comments do bother me... and the overall tone of these did... it's because some part of me knows I could have done better. In this instance-- lesson number one-- I could have more respectfully considered my probable audience.

Or, as Grandma would have put it, not everyone likes duck stew, but whatever you do, don't serve it cold.

What's the second lesson? Under the crap, find the pony. The comments of those so indignant at the uncoolness of my paper-based system got me thinking: why paper? And what's the problem with assuming a digital solution is always superior? Later that afternoon, I went for a walk and couldn't help noticing how many people were shuffling along like zombies, twiddling their thumbs on their hand-helds. And it occurred to me that old-fashioned paper systems-- when appropriate for the user-- can, ironically, serve as the most avant garde of tools to help loosen the digital leash.

That is my next Cool Tools blog post, if they'll have it: The Filofax planner.

Key idea: the power of organization in service of a productive and creative life-- a life requiring digital prowess, yet rich with large swaths of digital-free time. How to balance that, the digital and the digital-free? On other words, how to leave the hand-held at home and yet remain on-the-ball? Highly efficient paper systems can come in.

I'm also thinking about how this ties into collections of rare books. It's all about organizing, organizing as adding information.

More anon.

P.S. More on writing down passwords.