Die, Windows, Die! And the Peripatetic Venetician

This blog is — let me check — entitled ‘This Writing Life’, but that doesn’t mean I can’t post on top­ics that are only tan­gen­tially related to writ­ing. So here goes. As reg­u­lar read­ers will be aware, I’m a card-car­ry­ing Apple Mac user. The priv­ilege of using such nice equip­ment was brought home to me recently dur­ing some enforced frat­ern­isa­tion with Microsoft Windows machines. Yes, I’m teach­ing intro­duct­ory psy­cho­logy at the moment and this means — because it’s a British uni­ver­sity — that Windows PCs are frick­ing every­where. Goodbye Firefox, hello Internet Explorer (the old ver­sion with no tab sup­port). Goodbye Pages, hello Word.

Jeez, I hate Windows. Leaving aside the fact that the IT ser­vices at Canterbury Christ Church have opted for lock­ing down their com­puters, it doesn’t take more than a few seconds for an incid­ent to occur where I think, ‘Oi! Computer! No!’ because a pop-up has appeared ask­ing me if I want to tidy up the desktop (‘None of your busi­ness’) or that Sophos Antivirus appears to be out-of-date (‘Guess what; it isn’t’). And it’s slug­gish. And I have to hit ‘Start’ if I want to stop the com­puter.

Hey, I worked in IT for eight­eenth months, and had a PC for ten years. I wrote my share of ASP and cus­tom­ised by com­puter every which-way but loose. I know my way around a Windows com­puter. But damn if I don’t hate Windows.

OK, the intro­duc­tion to this art­icle has rambled on some­what. What I wanted to say is that I’ve found a Mac util­ity that oth­er Mac users might well be inter­ested to know about. Partly because of my travels through vari­ous Internet cafes (neces­sit­ated by the lack­a­dais­ic­al atti­tude of BT), I’ve been con­tinu­ally open­ing and clos­ing my shared folders, turn­ing on and off my Bluetooth con­nectiv­ity, switch­ing from ‘bet­ter per­form­ance’ to ‘bet­ter energy sav­ings’. What I really needed, I thought (and still to) is a good loc­a­tion man­ager.

Introducing Marco Polo. Like the peri­pat­et­ic Venetian, Marco Polo by David Symonds is built for travel. This free util­ity works with ‘con­texts’. A con­text might ‘home’, ‘roam­ing’ or ‘plugged into the tele­vi­sion’. Each con­text might have beha­viours asso­ci­ated with it. So, for example, when you’re plugged into your TV, you might want to dis­able the screensaver. Or, when you’re out and about, you might want to have your VPN con­nec­tion kick in just after you con­nect to a open wire­less net­work.

How does Marco Polo know what con­text you are cur­rently ‘in’? Well, here comes the sci­ence bit. The pro­gram uses sources of inform­a­tion prob­ab­il­ist­ic­ally. What that? Well, Marco Polo knows wheth­er my com­puter is plugged into the main or run­ning on bat­tery power. This is called a ‘source of evid­ence’. I’ve told that, if this source of evid­ence shows true, there’s a high like­li­hood that I’m at home in my office. So there is a prob­ab­il­ist­ic con­nec­tion between the evid­ence of the power cord set­ting and the con­text that Marco Polo sets itself to (and, on chan­ging that con­text, Marco Polo can fiddle with set­tings of the sys­tem like the screensaver).

Of course, that’s fairly straight­for­ward. Let’s add some­thing else into the mix: I know the name of my wire­less router (the SSID), and when this router is present, there is a 100% prob­ab­il­ity that I’m at home. I can cre­ate a new con­text, which is: ‘at home, but roam­ing’ (in oth­er words, check­ing email in front of the telly or some­thing). With this con­text, I tell Marco Polo to use the absence of the power cord as evid­ence, plus the pres­ence of my home wire­less net­work. Marco Polo is able to com­bine the prob­ab­il­it­ies to pro­duce a best guess for the cur­rent con­text.

This means that, as I wander around my house, around Canterbury, into the uni­ver­sity and out, my com­puter is adjust­ing itself smartly to its envir­on­ment.


When I’m in an Internet cafe, Marco Polo knows that (a) I’m roam­ing because the power adaptor isn’t plugged in, (b) that I’m con­nec­ted to the net, © that the net­work is open (i.e. unen­cryp­ted). So: it changes the con­text to ‘Oot and aboot > Unsecured con­nec­tion’. For this con­text, I’ve set up the fol­low­ing beha­viours: turn off Bluetooth, turn off all my file shar­ing ser­vices (iTunes, per­son­al folders, etc.), switch to ‘bet­ter energy sav­ings’, and con­nect securely to my VPN serv­er so I can check my email with wor­ry­ing about send­ing my pass­words in the clear.

I know that Marco Polo is doing these things because the pro­gram­mer has been smart enough to include Growl sup­port. So I get a little mes­sage say­ing, ‘I think you’re in an Internet cafe con­nec­ted to an unse­cured net­work’, then one say­ing, ‘I’m now turn­ing off Bluetooth, and so on’.

I love this stuff. It’s inter­est­ing because some of my aca­dem­ic research has been in the area of con­nec­tion­ist mod­el­ling (i.e. using groups of math­em­at­ic­ally ideal­ised neur­ons to solve mini inform­a­tion-pro­cessing tasks like gram­mar acquis­i­tion) and it’s quite sim­il­ar in approach. Basically, arti­fi­cial neur­ons are very good at tasks where they need to place a bet on solu­tion to a prob­lem based on mul­tiple sources of evid­ence. The draw­back to this approach is obvi­ous: uncer­tainty, and occa­sion­al error. You wouldn’t want your email cli­ent to act like this. The dif­fer­ence between this approach and Marco Polo is that you don’t actu­ally train Marco Polo in the sense of start­ing with a ‘blank slate’, allow­ing the pro­gram to pro­duce its own prob­ab­il­ity val­ues; you hard wire the val­ues them­selves.

But it’s a great pro­gram and a neat illus­tra­tion of some cre­at­ive prob­lem solv­ing. If you down­load and use Marco Polo, con­sider send­ing David a dona­tion.

What’s that you say? Is there a Windows ver­sion?

Bah, and — I might add — hum­bug.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

6 thoughts on “Die, Windows, Die! And the Peripatetic Venetician”

  1. Marco Polo sounds fab. But don’t you find a little mes­sage say­ing ‘I think you’re in an Internet cafe con­nec­ted to an unse­cured net­work’ as annoy­ing as one ask­ing wheth­er you want to tidy up your desktop? It all sounds a bit like Eddie the Shipboard Computer to me. Or those twee cof­fee cups on trains that warn you “I’m Hot”.

  2. Nice, I’ve been using MP for a while, but I didn’t even think to get it to open the VPN cli­ent or turn off my shared folders — great idea!

  3. Splendidness, will be sure to check this puppy out.

    I feel for you re: Windows use. Even Parallels makes me feel so dirty. And Vista really is as hor­rif­ic as they said it would be.

  4. Tim, you’re not wrong. And it must be said that Marco Polo does occa­sion­ally get it wrong — but not very wrong, and it’s usu­ally because of a poor choice of rules set by the user.

    Ian, it looks like you’re in an Internet cafe. I’ve taken the liberty of order­ing you a hazel latte.’

    Tearfully: ‘That’ll do, com­puter. That’ll do.’

  5. Kristarella — yeah, it can do all that. I’ve run into a couple of prob­lem with it not being able to close applic­a­tions, but I this would prob­ably be sor­ted by a few more Applescripts.

  6. Definitely, Michael. You sound rather peri­pat­et­ic too, so it should be right up your street (or whatever they call them in Venice).

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