Lessons of a Lifelong Learner:
A Conversation with Jeffrey McPheeters
I became acquainted with Jeffrey McPheeters by reading his unusual contributions to the TidBITS Talk List, available at http://www.tidbits.com. His writing jumped out at me, with rare clarity of thought infused into extensive essays on the ways Macintosh and Internet technology pervade and evade our existence.
Jeffrey is not a philosopher. He is a 24/7 technology guru, helping local and international users to brave the crevasse between power user and power expert status. His dozens of postings to TidBITS Talk are freely available, by searching for “McPheeters” from the TidBITS Talk page.
He is an avid reader of My Mac Magazine and the Nemo Memo, and we correspond regularly. I treasure his email messages, with their thought-provoking approach to simple and deep issues. I persuaded him to discuss his background and future plans, in an extensive email interview.
We welcome your comments and responses. Here goes:
MEET JEFFREY McPHEETERS
JOHN: Are you in or out of the mainstream these days, Jeffrey?
JEFFREY: I retired from the “regular” way of doing things some time ago, but at no special risk, with thanks to my wife for encouraging me to do it and supporting the decision.
JOHN: Does this mean you are hanging around the house most of the time?
JEFFREY: Besides taking the bulk of the responsibility for teaching our three sons at home, handling our home-office business affairs, and assisting my wife with some publishing, presentation, and training projects, I am a student of the Internet and personal computing in general.
JOHN: In what way?
JEFFREY: It’s hands-on mostly, as I try and test my knowledge by applying what I “think” I’ve learned to helping other organizations and businesses utilize the Internet in various ways.
JOHN: How do you identify yourself?
JEFFREY: My short signature is simply: Jeffrey McPheeters, Internet Services Designer.
LIFELONG LEARNER DEFINED
JOHN: You often refer to yourself as lifelong learner. What does that mean?
JEFFREY: As a teacher by education, an entrepreneur by profession, and a home schooling father of three boys, I’ve found that what I once thought I knew pales in comparison with what there is yet to learn and understand. In so doing I’ve come to love the whole process of learning as much, if not more than, the supposed “end result.”
JOHN: Please expand.
JEFFREY: A child’s love of learning is too quickly replaced with the idea that learning is simply a means to an end. Applying what we learn is important, but the process of learning as a lifelong occupation should not be diminished or overshadowed by our perceived need for an answer; otherwise we tend to become more focused on what we have obtained/understood than on what there is yet to obtain/understand.
JOHN: Do you have a role model?
JEFFREY: Yes, several, especially my parents and my wife. But in regard to my identity with lifelong learning I’ve adopted some quotes to challenge me which I obtained from Michael Bryant, of Baltimore, author of the book Lessons on Life. Bryant has this to say about being a lifelong learner:
Good students are passive recipients of information. Lifelong learners are active pursuers of knowledge.
Good students ask “When?” and “How?” Lifelong learners ask “Why?” and “Why not?”
Good students color inside the lines. Lifelong learners color outside the lines.
Good students run the world. Lifelong learners change the world.
JOHN: Very ambitious! On a more practical topic, how is your day structured, as a sole-practitioner?
AT WORK AT HOME
JEFFREY: With Timbuktu access to our cable Internet system, online is 24/7 but my personal availability is not 24/7! I’m usually checking email around 5:00 a.m., and depending on the day of the week, I have some early morning meetings outside the house around 6:30-8:30. Then I’m usually doing real work on the computer from 9:00 a.m. onward through the day.
JOHN: Can you be a bit more specific about some of the typical activities?
JEFFREY: Mornings are usually spent checking the news, doing a few beta tests for developers, and gathering info for various projects. I try and take care of some maintenance tasks that come in from people whose lists and/or sites I manage. I also receive reports from my wife’s business via their secure intranet. This is where I get to use Windows. Oh, fun!
JOHN: Where do your children fit in?
JEFFREY: During the “school year” the morning tasks take a back seat to the homeschooling priorities. The older boys like to get started by 5:00 a.m. (their choice, not mine), so with a 7:30 break for breakfast, they are usually done by around noon.
JOHN: A busy fellow. How about the rest of the day?
JEFFREY: After lunch it really varies. During crunch times I’m usually here wrestling with Quark and Photoshop along with bookkeeping chores via Quicken. I prefer to do my phone work then as well.
JOHN: You recently moved to a country house, and needed to construct a new office environment, didn’t you?
JEFFREY: Indeed! I converted a 6-car garage into a 2+ car garage, workshop, and office/homeschool with large attic for storage. I still have to figure out some issues in connecting the separate buildings. Some major construction plans are a couple of years away and I’m hoping that wireless networking finally comes of age.
JOHN: Long live Steve Jobs, right?
JEFFREY: I had no clue earlier this summer that Apple would be incorporating the AirPORT wireless technology into their entire line so quickly. I used to tell people that due to the nature of our profession, we could live anywhere we wanted as long as we had good telephone service and reasonable access to an airport. Now I can say that with double meaning.
JOHN: Now that summer has gone and the school year is here again, do you miss the long days with no home-school instruction by Professor McPheeters?
JEFFREY: I really prefer the “school schedule” as it provides some structure that infuses necessary variety into my day as well as providing opportunities for me to learn new things and, in some cases, re-learn old things.
JOHN: Back to the topic of 24/7. Why did you choose a cable service provider instead of a DSL phone system?
JEFFREY: We won’t see DSL for at least a year here, even though locally we’re already putting in place the Internet II infrastructure. Lawrence, Kansas was one of the first to have Internet access as well as one of the first to offer true cable modem access. I’ve used cable modems for three years now.
JOHN: So what’s the holdup on the DSL?
JEFFREY: One problem we have is we’re all fiber-optic here as far as the main trunks are concerned, and DSL is optimized for copper. We’re already too advanced for our own good! Kansas City is getting DSL tested with full deployment later in the fall and winter. Not here. Bummer. Since moving out to our country property, I’ve found that the cable network is within 1.5 miles and they expect to come on out here within the next year to year and a half.
JOHN: Tell our readers more about Internet II, or whatever it is called.
JEFFREY: Lawrence is one of the original nodes on the Internet and will have a node on the “Next Generation” Internet as it’s being called now. A lot of this is directly related to the local presence of the University of Kansas and their history with the Internet. In addition, the local newspaper is a regional publisher for USA Today, which means they have incredible bandwidth directly into the Internet, which they need for their specialized services. And since the owners of the newspaper also own the cable service… well, you see the connection.
JOHN: Sounds like a very savvy community.
JEFFREY: We have local access to skilled networking programmers, Internet bandwidth, Internet backbone, and a larger than average ratio of students+teachers which makes for heavy demand for Internet services. What it boils down to is that the communities that have access to Internet II will have access to broadcast-quality networking at reasonable prices.
JOHN: What do you see in your crystal ball?
JEFFREY: My guess is that once Internet II becomes widely available, Internet I will exist as a basic, nearly free and ubiquitous service for conventional messaging and text-based resources. Higher level communication and information capacity will be available on the fee-based Internet II network. But I’m not a prophet so it’s anyone’s guess as to the timing and effectiveness of all this.
JOHN: At the risk of being provocative, Jeffrey, you come across as a home-based workaholic. Am I jumping to conclusions?
JEFFREY: Some people need to interrupt themselves to get fresh air and break the monotony. I, on the other hand, seem only to be able to squeeze bits of work in between interruptions! But, yes, I do like my work and I probably fit the profile of a workaholic. I need to have lots of irons in the fire, always. Some are hotter than others.
JOHN: That can be dangerous. Is this a good time to get some sort of perspective on where you are heading at a gallop?
JEFFREY: You said it! Seriously, I think I’m in an in-between place in my life and not sure what I want to do when I grow up, but I’m doing a lot of serious thinking. I spend a lot more time now just walking around our property and enjoying the peaceful solitude it offers.
JOHN: Didn’t I write an article on that subject a few months ago?
JEFFREY: Yes, John. It was called “GOFAW&T,” meaning “go for a walk and think.” Great advice from the Nemo Memo, partner. It works wonders. The evenings here are incredible, as are the early mornings before sunrise. I just need to keep reminding myself to take that advice.
JOHN: You are fortunate to be able to have that new house out in the country.
JEFFREY: Our humble place gives us access to family within walking distance, and our friends can easily find us by just traveling five miles straight west of town on paved highway. We’re just three miles from the I-70 interchange and 40 minutes from Kansas City International airport. We couldn’t have planned it better ourselves. Now, to get a local AirPORT hub installed in my office and a wireless-networkable PowerBook!
JOHN: How much work is being done, as part of the transition from town to country living? I recall that you spent years in construction management business.
JEFFREY: Moving from the city to the country is a major step in acquiring equipment and tools. Fortunately, I’ve kept a lot of stuff I had from my days in the building business. Now that the office area is nearly completed, I’m ready to tackle the shop area which will have state-of-the-art woodworking tools for everything from basic molding creation to complete cabinet making potential.
JOHN: I’m sitting here in the Arizona desert, Jeffrey, not one bit jealous of your big lawn to care for.
JEFFREY: “Big lawn” is right. With three riding mowers and two walk-behinds, none of which are new, I’m now a part-time mechanic. I’ve already completely taken apart and cleaned and adjusted a carburetor, replaced the brakes, and various other adjustments. It’s quite a bit different from working on the inside of a computer, let me tell you!
JOHN: Speaking of computers…
JEFFREY: …I know! What to do with myself once we’re all settled in… still thinking.
JOHN: But on a practical level?
JEFFREY: I’ve already relocated my servers in town with the help of the cable ISP. I need to complete some software and hardware upgrades both there and here in the country. Since I prefer to purchase pre-owned Macs, I seem to always be in the market for various parts and upgrades. It’s time to catch up on both deferred acquisitions and past due projects.
JEFFREY GETS SERIOUS
JOHN: Future enterprise plans?
JEFFREY: Okay if I number them? It helps me stay organized.
1) Use my “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” background to help small, local companies, non-profit organizations, work-at-home or work-from-home businesses, and homeschooling families to incorporate or migrate to a concept of the Internet-as-OS. It would bring my computing, architectural, teaching, training, and networking skills into useful collaboration.
2) Build up my remote administration skills using Perl, Applescript, and some combination of FileMaker Pro/Lasso/Tango.
3) Figure out this XML business and how to incorporate it into future website development more effectively. Since we do a lot of print publishing using Quark and Photoshop, but also publish electronically using Acrobat and HTML, there needs to be better ways to transition from one to the other and back again. It needs to be more transparent than it is currently. I’m still listening closely to the experts out there who work in both color ink and color phosphors simultaneously.
4) Advance our homeschooling and small business intranets using tools like Acrobat 4, JAVA, and QuickTime to make online teaching/training/testing more interactive, especially considering those with small budgets. I never liked Acrobat until version 4. I despised versions 1 and 2, tolerated version 3, but version 4 seems indispensable. JAVA has great potential for web infrastructure. It’s a natural for the behind-the-scenes stuff and someday will have a prettier face. The great thing about it is it is portable and “fat-free.” But beyond all these, QuickTime is by far the most intriguing. I think it’s going to be more significant to future web development than Postscript was to desktop publishing.
5) Finish two complete remakes of http://www.kansashomeschool.org and http://www.lawrence.com/teach as well as the database that drives the content so that I can assign various people tasks for updating them using standard web forms (they won’t have to learn HTML). Add in the calendaring and feedback CGIs. Deploy the chat CGI. My house moving schedule keeps pushing all these time-intensive projects back.
6) Deploy a new domain I’ve registered: http://www.homeschoolcomputing.com as a site to offer tips and links to using computers in home school environments. Apple finally brought the estimated 1.5 million homeschoolers into the Apple Education fold in August http://www.apple.com/education/k12/homeschool, so I’m rethinking this site to make it more evangelistic on behalf of Apple.
7) Register and deploy a domain for my own net-services business with examples of various capabilities such as DNS serving, list, chat, mail services, custom forms, surveys, feedback setups, archiving mail/feedback systems, and mixed-media publishing help.
8) Set up a small training camp out here with a Mac OS X Server and some iMacs teaching a) familiarity with computers including the Mac OS and Windows; b) basic graphics and web publishing skills; c) introductory programming skills in JAVA or REAL BASIC; and d) basic networking fundamentals including security and using Mac OS X, Linux, and possibly NT.
9A) While I’m always looking for a truly portable workstation that could replace my huge desktop RAM-rich triple-monitor workstation, I realize this is probably not practical yet. I despise working on multiple computers because of the problems with keeping data synchronized and minimized. So my focus is primarily wireless these days: getting the workstation, printers, modem, and backup drives all available to a wireless hub of some sort.
9B) The second part of the equation is a little foggier. I need the ability to do a lot of my work detached from the office. I crave the capability to do a substantial amount of work from the shade of a tree, enjoying the breeze across the meadow, or from the enclosed deck during a gentle downpour… without wires. And I’d like to access the local server, the servers in town, and the Internet and various peripherals. Should I buy an iBook? The discussion in My Mac’s iBook Talk http://www.mymac.com/exclusives/web_only/ibook.shtml was very helpful. Should I save some money and get an older G3 PowerBook with a 14″ screen at closeout pricing and add wireless networking via the card slot for a little more money–but greater expandability? I’ll let you know where I put my money when it happens.
10) Get a G4/Sawtooth, what else! AND remember that my dear wife, who refuses to touch a computer, helps me to keep things in perspective: “Don’t be a slave to technology… make technology serve the user above all else.”
JOHN: Does all this heavy artillery over the horizon allow you to keep your personal site current?
JEFFREY: Almost. I do most of my work building secure password protected sites, so I can’t exactly “display” my talents easily unless I take the time to build some demo sites (which I have not yet done). But I really need to do that sometime soon.
JOHN: Using what applications?
JEFFREY: I use Tango and FileMaker Pro for rapid development projects, Adobe GoLive, BBEdit, and sometimes DreamWeaver and FireWorks.
JOHN: You list a bunch of addresses and numbers as part of your email signature, Jeffrey. What do they all mean?
ICQ Address: 10187794…………….AOL IM: JSM1955
PGP Public Key Location:
JEFFREY: Those are just ways to access me if we need to chat. I run ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger, and Timbuktu so it’s not too difficult for most people to find me if they need. Since I’m so easy to locate I try not to offend any serious hackers! I long for a common standard that all these separate tools could use.
JOHN: You’re way over my head. We’ll need to have another long conversation to bring me up to speed. Did you leave anything out?
JEFFREY: Yep. The PGP file is for people who want to do collaborative projects and need to verify that it’s really me who submitted the proposal or whatever.
JOHN: Are you still active on America Online?
JEFFREY: JSM1955 is my AOL nick. Been on AOL since I bought my IIci in 1989 and got a Practical Peripherals 2400 to go with it. I finally gave up my CompuServe account (since 1984) about three years ago but have kept AOL around just in case. I find the old proprietary bulletin boards kind of nostalgic, I guess. I’ve added you to my IM Buddy list so I’ll try and keep it running and watch for you.
JOHN: Seems to me that you are the one to watch out for. Many thanks, Jeffrey.
JEFFREY: It has been my pleasure, John. My best to you and everyone associated with My Mac Magazine.
Internet Services Designer