Listserv Why Still Use it?

A cartoon of four chipmunk like critters passing around a bunch of envelopes. What is Listserv and Why Use it?
Cute chipmunks pass around an email.
Listserv- Why Still Use It?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am watching my parent’s condo this summer while they are gone, and that includes checking their PO box and an email account. The postal mail is tame, but the email seems to be out-of-control. My question is listserv- why still use it? There are tens of messages that come in daily from the condo association listserv. The emails are diverse – restaurants that offer an early bird special, at what time the lifeguards will open the pool, and concerns about an assessment. Occasionally there is a posting for free boxes or furniture which I find useful. I just got out of school and don’t understand why people are flooding email boxes with this junk instead of say using a forum with channels- like Slack or Google Groups. Dylan, Brookline

Dear Dylan: Since you are housesitting, it’s unlikely that you can propose improvements to their communication network. So use this time to steep yourself in telecommunications history and understand how the Internet developed. Listserv is to the Internet as corded wall phones are to wireless telecomm. You can read about the early history of listserv here on Wikipedia. When listservs came of age in the nineteen eighties, email was also in its infancy. Before then, only  scientists and geeks got to try it out. Your parents, and those still using in-house listservs, probably remember those early days of technology.


There are pros and cons to a listserv service, and older people who grew up with it find it useful. They do not have to use the Internet to visit outside sites so it lowers the barriers to participation. And for a generation accustomed to writing letters, the email format lets them continue to write long diatribes- without text limitations. Having reactions and feedback stretched over time also seems natural, since they used to send letters through the post office.

A listserv also provides more security, than say Nextdoor. You have to be vetted by a moderator and he/she surely knows who is moving in and out of the condo building. That gives listserv subscribers more confidence that they are participating in a safe “closed” group. But, it’s hard to be anonymous on listserv- say to complain about the noise upstairs or the mess left in the trash room.  


The most annoying feature of the listserv as you note, is the volume of email that it can generate. I have three suggestions, but you will need to run these by your parents! You can ask the moderator of the listserv if they have a web site you could access, in lieu of sending out the emails. Second, see if there is an option to get a weekly digest, not day- to-day traffic. If all else fails, set up a rule for incoming email that sorts and compiles the listserv emails.

For either Outlook or Gmail , the basic steps within email are: Manage rules> Alerts>New Rule. When you establish a rule description, it will automatically filter incoming listserv messages and compile them in a new folder. You can find more directions online.

Taming listserv makes me imagine that early tech founders, say Jack Dorsey on Twitter or Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook were also party to listserv communiques, just like you. They innovated because of their frustration with this dialogue method. They imagined a better version of messaging where discussion threads were threaded or tagged, where pictures and images could be posted, and topics were easy to search. Perhaps they wanted a shareable calendar. Most of all, they saw a need for two-way dialogue in real time without the long gaps in between. As you follow the daily blasts from the listserv this summer you can steep yourself in the history of the Internet and appreciate how faster and shorter messaging has become.

Two Factor Authentication a Pain

An example of two factor authorization. You login on a computer but have to complete an additional step when sent a passcode on your phone.
Two Factor Authentication, a Pain or Necessary?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I took your class and try to be mindful about using my phone, so I often choose to work on my laptop computer. And I try to keep it secure. The problem is that many of the web sites I go to on my laptop require two-factor authentication and it’s a pain. So, I need my phone nearby in order to get this login code. Seems like I am back to keeping my phone right by my side and don’t have deep work time away from it.  Pete, San Rafael

Dear Pete: Yes! Both security and mindfulness need to work side by side when we use technology. Sometimes they gently compete with each other. It’s particularly hard to avoid that with two-factor authentication (2FA). Secure organizations used to give their employees and interns fobs that contained an unique signature. Others required those annoying ‘captchas.’  Now that smartphones are ubiquitous the six digit authentication code seems here to stay, at least for a while. Two factor authenticiation is a pain, but a necessary one.

The external fob and its alternative, sending you an authentication code, describe two of the four ways that a web site can vet you. The first is to require something you know (your login name and password) and second, something you have (the fob or an one-time number code). Other  ways to authenticate you are with biometrics (e.g., an iris scan, a fingerprint) or by exact location (through GPS). Things may change in a few years, but for now most banks and secure sites rely today on the 2FA code.

7 Plus or Minus 2!

Perhaps you occasionally receive five digit codes, and occasionally a seven digit one. Never longer. There is a science behind this. Before the computer age in 1956, a psychologist called George Miller wrote a seminal paper called “ The Magic Number of Seven Plus or Minus Two.”  Through extensive testing he discovered that humans could facilely remember just 5 to 9 numbers at a time. His discovery focused on two conditions: how the brain responds to multiple stimuli at the same time, and on the capacity of working memory. In the same paper Miller writes about overcoming bottlenecks by chunking data. Seven, plus or minus two, is the magic number.

Here’s a ‘Smartphone’ aside: It’s a nice coincidence that Bell telephone numbers in the nineteen fifties were just seven digits long. People didn’t need to add the three digit area code to their local calls. For long distance calls they looked up the area code. Perhaps that explains why we can’t remember our own phone number, or anyone elses today!  Adding the three digit area code (7+3) stresses our working memory! 

Not Counting:

In the future, the authentication code you receive on your phone will probably be replaced by more modern tech, for example, biometrics that recognize your speech patterns, or say the way you text and use the keyboard.  I have always been intrigued by whether the bad guys in movies who want to get access to a sizeable bank account or a golden safe deposit box just need to possess the good guy’s phone to gain entry. Again- this is Hollywood- they kidnap the wealthy victim, cut off the index finger, possess the phone, and gain the authentication codes to swipe into the financial system. While there is mention of a fairly wicked plot in 2017 in which a German company, Telefonica, was spoofed you will be glad to know that finger cutting is a dead-end (literally). The finger must show a pulse and other activity to pass through the biometric measures. 

For the time being, there is not a clear way to get around  two-factor authentication, unless you “trust” the site, as you mentioned. That could open up other vulnerabilities. So, if you are doing deep work and trying to concentrate, perhaps rearrange your work time so that you request these two factor authentications at a certain time of the day. And, after they are received, turn off notifications on your phone. Otherwise, the mere presence of the phone may distract you, remind you of outside things, and cut into the quality of your worktime.

Can’t Turn Off Bluetooth

the control bar of an Android phone with the Bluetooth icon highlighted (in blue).
Can’t turn off Bluetooth?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I consider myself fairly informed with tech so I can’t figure out why my phone is always turning itself ‘on’ to Bluetooth. I turn the Bluetooth ‘off’. Next time I pick up the phone it is back ‘on’. It feels like the phone overrides what I want. BTW, I have an Apple phone, but my son says has the same issue with his Android. He can’t turn off Bluetooth either. Terry, Rohnert Park

Dear Terry: This Bluetooth problem makes you wonder if these next-generation phones have sentience! Bluetooth, for the record, is a low-powered two way radio signal emitted by smartphones. It works over short distances, about 30 feet or less. More exotically the logo, comes from a bind rune honoring an Old Norse ruler, Harald I of Denmark (source: Wikipedia).

Bluetooth enables your phone to connect to headphones, to speakers in your car, nearby computers, and significantly ‘More’! It is in ‘More’ that you will find the answer to your question. Data exchanges and handshakes take place all day between our phones and data centers. They are not transparent but Bluetooth enables the process. Bluetooth is sending essential updates for advertisers, business people, and information brokers. Perhaps that is why our phones make it so hard to override the defaults?

Pinging Away

For example, one of the most useful transmissions of Bluetooth data occurs in the transportation arena. Phones with Bluetooth are constantly pinged for their travel time and location. Hundreds and thousands of these pings help create the travel maps we use in real time. Perhaps you are grateful for knowing if there is traffic on the Bay bridge, or how long it’s going you to get to the airport.

Or, say you are in a retail store or coffee shop, and they have Bluetooth sensors hidden in the ceiling or displays. They collect travel data from your phone– when you entered the establishment, your indoor walking path, and how long you stayed. Should you log onto the free WiFi, the data miners might also capture your phone’s MAC address and remember it when you return.

Keep in mind all phones are “leaky” when it comes to privacy so it’s good digital hygiene to take precautions. Your phone is going to turn Bluetooth on by itself whenever you use an app that requests location data, so you should take steps to check these defaults. If you close these apps and deny them location data Bluetooth should stay off. But know that true privacy is hard to come by. A phone with cellular service still stays connected unless in airplane mode.

Off is it?

Even when you deliberately turn off both Bluetooth and GPS, your phone may be sending some data. This article in Quartz describes how tricky it can be to turn off all these settings on an Android phone. You have to go deep into the menus to find this feature, and even then, the description will obfuscate. Both the Android and the Iphone, let you turn Bluetooth ‘off’ in the control bars, but it seems to stay turned ‘off’ longer if you do this through the settings page.

One final note on Bluetooth- treat it like a third party to your phone and take precautions. About five years ago there was a virus called Blueborne (son of Harald) and it exploited vulnerabilities in the two-way settings. For Apple, an operating system newer than iOS 10.3.3 is safe. But, that’s until the next hacker finds an opening. On a more personal note, be conscientious when your speakers are enabled by Bluetooth- is anyone else in the room listening in? Remove the Bluetooth trace from the dashboard when you return a rental car, and over Airplay, revoke the right to send and receive from “everybody,” particularly over a WiFi setting.