Unexpectedly, online chatting makes me more productive. I realized long ago that my mental circuitry is wired with a "cool-music lag. " I just don't innately pick up on what's...

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Unexpectedly, online chatting makes me more productive.

I realized long ago that my mental circuitry is wired with a “cool-music lag.” I just don’t innately pick up on what’s hot until it’s either lukewarm or over-saturated in the marketplace.

That’s never been a problem with technology; I was building Web pages when Yahoo! was still a list of favorite links by two Ph.D. candidates named Jerry Yang and David Filo.

Except for instant text messaging, that is. I knew it existed, but couldn’t picture myself typing short messages to someone else on the Internet in a live discussion. Why chat when I had e-mail and a phone?

Today, Apple’s instant messaging application, iChat AV (www.apple.com/ichat/), is always open when I use my Mac. iChat AV is included on all new Macs and with stand-alone Mac OS X 10.3 Panther installations. It’s also free to use: All you need is a .Mac or America Online screen name. (The .Mac name doesn’t require the purchase of the $100 yearly .Mac subscription. Go to www.mac.com/1/ichat.html and sign up for a free 60-day trial membership; after the trial period ends, you can keep your screen name.)

I originally thought instant messaging would be good only for passing gossip or chatting about the movies and politics. Although that still happens (iChat is great for coordinating where to meet for lunch), I’ve found it to be more useful than I originally imagined. Here are a few reasons why, plus a couple of add-ons that make it more fun to use.

Immediate feedback:
The No. 1 reason for using iChat (or other instant messaging systems) is its immediacy. I can send a quick question to my co-columnist Glenn Fleishman and receive a speedy reply. I don’t have to wait for him to check his e-mail, or pick up the phone and engage in the obligatory chitchat that phone calls often demand.

It’s also extremely helpful to look at my iChat Buddy List window and see which of my friends and colleagues are currently online. A status message beneath each person’s name indicates whether he or she is available to chat, which often means they’re at their computers and more likely to be receptive to my inquiries.

Transferring files:
You can drag a file from the Finder onto a person’s name to immediately send the file. iChat creates a direct connection between the two clients to transfer the file, which means you’re not polluting e-mail servers from your Internet service provider to the other person’s machine with large e-mail attachments. I often use iChat to transfer files (such as system updates) between my own Macs because it can be easier than mounting network volumes in the Finder.

Maintaining conversation transcripts:
iChat can optionally save a transcript of every chat, which gives you a written history of what was said and when. Did you forget to write down a phone number? Lose some driving directions? If that info was sent in a chat message, you can still read it (choose Open from the File menu to locate the transcripts). Better yet, download the free utility Logorrhea (www.spiny.com/logorrhea/), which offers an interface for searching for keywords in the transcripts.

People are scattered all over these days, and although phone calls are helpful, sometimes you just need to see the other person’s face. I’ve done video chats in iChat with product managers at Apple and with friends and family members in other cities. Apple’s $150 iSight (www.apple.com/isight/) is built for iChat and works superbly, but you can also use a digital camcorder, too. (Here’s a quick tip: Remove the camcorder’s tape to prevent it from automatically shutting off after a few minutes.)

If you do own an iSight, consider buying Ecamm’s $8 iGlasses utility (www.ecamm.com/mac/iglasses/), which can enhance the video image in low-light situations (or even turn psychedelic with its Crazy Colors mode). Another add-on I tried was Griffin Technology’s $40 SightLight (www.griffintechnology.com/products/sightlight/), an auto-sensing illuminated lamp that fits around the iSight. It definitely boosted my image in a dark room, though its range was surprisingly short; I had to lean in toward the camera more than I expected.

Sharing my music taste:
OK, this isn’t necessarily productive, but it makes up somewhat for my cool-music lag. The free iChat Status (ittpoi.com) uses iChat’s status message text to display other information of your choice, such as the title and artist of whatever song is currently playing in iTunes. This little snippet of information has initiated plenty of chats with friends who either support my song selection or wonder why I’m allowed near speakers at all. iChat Status can also show data such as a city’s current temperature, your active application, or even the title of the Web page you’re viewing in Safari.

Password pointers:
A quick non-Chat follow-up. In my last column (Nov. 20), I talked about changing your passwords, specifically mentioning that you shouldn’t use real words such as your pet’s name. One reader pointed out that my suggestion of substituting numbers for letters (such as “kati3s” for “katies”) is already old-hat, writing, “Your trick of substituting numbers for letters is one that hackers are very savvy to, and so the dictionaries they use will include both names.”

Instead, a better approach is to build a password based on a phrase or quote, with numbers sprinkled in for good measure: “Paper money eventually returns to its intrinsic value — zero.” So “Voltaire” becomes “pMer2iiv-0.” I guess that means “t2Cmpwa” (“time to change my password again”)!

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.