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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Of Passwords and That's All

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The objective of a password is to keep a person from getting into their own account, I mean a hacker from getting into that account. The password generally needs to be six or eight characters, mixing in numbers, symbols, capital letters, and assorted cooking implements — in order to thwart the dastardly perpetrator (starring Hugh Beaumont). This highly intricate process keeps the good people out, I mean the bad people out, and then provides a backup means of verification should any of the good people decide to go over to the bad side.

Alas, the password keeper’s dilemma: Make a password that is memorable enough to retain within the brain while also having it be discreet enough to be unpredictable and thereby unhackable, but still not too similar to other passwords they have on other accounts, which then makes it harder to commit them all to memory, so then they have to write them down somewhere, so then if someone finds their list of passwords, they have found a goldmine.

When one enters a password, the password field cleverly hides what you’re typing by replacing the characters with black dots. ••••••• They’re kind of like Braille, but you can’t feel them. So we have our black dots displaying on screen. That way, if somebody’s watching over your shoulder as you enter your password, they won’t see what it is, although if you can’t trust a person looking over your shoulder, then who can you trust? Ah, therein lies the problem.

And yet they could just watch your keystrokes if they’re quick enough, or if you’re slow enough by typing with one finger, or if they’re videotaping it, or if they take seven pictures of it, or if you say everything you type out loud, or if your password is the same letter eight times, or if you do your password telepathically. Actually that last one hasn’t been verified by the Food & Drug Administration for any claims made. Or if you’re real dumb and accidentally type your password up in the user name field for all to see… well, then all bets are off. If you happen to be one who shares passwords across accounts, then you may have just revealed 30% of your portfolio, and now it’s a race to see if you can change the passwords in all of them before they can be logged into by the hacker’s army. Ready, go!

We wonder how identity theft works. The credit card companies tell us they’re helping protect us from the bad identity thieves, and for a minimal fee, the credit card company will gladly become the thief instead. And then when we become too complacent, they mysteriously turn a blind eye and let some inadvertently go through, and then they gallantly come to our rescue and say even though someone used your card to purchase the Taj Mahal, they’re willing to waive it and offer us a great deal on increased protection. Our heroes! They saved us from certain doom, snatching us from the jaws of a would-be IdentiTheft Protection subversive in a single bound. We should throw more money at them for giving us such a false sense of security. They let somebody get through… sure I’ll pay you more after that. Where do I sign?

But here’s the thing… Do we really need those black dots for passwords? Why have them at all? It helps you to see how many characters you’ve typed. That’s something the Atari people would’ve gotten excited about. But does that do much good in the world of non-make believe? Not really, because you still don’t know if the characters you’ve typed are correct. You might be looking at seven black dots thinking you’re golden and all you need left is a capital Z. So you type the capital Z, and then press Enter, but it comes up wrong. So you have to re-type the whole thing anyway. Or maybe you accidentally typed everything on one hand a key to the right (O jate wjem tjat ja[[ems). So you could easily waste a good 6 seconds typing along without realizing that you have already blown it. Meanwhile, the keyboard is trying to communicate with you: “You sure about that? I mean I’ll type them if you really want me to, but I don’t see the point. Hey, you! Wake up, you typing fool!”

In essence, the dots are quite often providing a false sense of hope, making you believe that you’re only 1 or 2 keystrokes away from completing the required password, only to have your hopes dashed to smithereens. If the dots really wanted to help, they’d give you a character-by-character analysis. “Good, yes, another good one, keep going, almost there, nice, good job, you’re smokin’ now, and… ehhhhhh! I’m sorry, thank you for playing… Please try again. Are you on drugs? Don’t you know what the Caps Lock is? Do you have pea soup for brains? Is it really that hard to push seven or eight buttons without getting disoriented? You’re the advanced species, right? Oh, does Mr. Typer need a little remedial typing there? Ah, so sad. Or maybe… maybe you actually did type the keys you meant to, but that memory of yours is so messed up from all the chemicals running around in your skull that you have trouble spelling your own name even when being spotted the first two letters. All right, we’ll give you maybe one more chance, and possibly two on good behavior, before we exile you to Mesopotamia, where you will undergo lab experiments on Pavlovian responses based on typing the wrong keys, you plebeian ball of ear wax. And the electrical shock adds a level of excitement to the proceedings. Then we’ll see how well you concentrate when the chips are really down, and one false move can mean the difference between success and having your adenoids put on a skewer.” Unquote. I don’t know… maybe your dots don’t talk to you. Maybe that only comes with Vista, who knows. At any rate, a little pressure never caused any damage. Being trained in keyboard espionage to type under intense scrutiny can only help you in the long run.  

The truth is we all secretly want to have progress bars associated with our personas, to monitor what we’ve supposedly accomplished, and this is what the black dots serve to do, filling an at once vital psychological albeit empty need. When we see black dots as we’re typing, it gives us a grand sense of fulfillment, like our keystrokes have not gone for naught. They’re getting validated right there on the screen in real time. n8G%1y9Q has meaning, dang it. Oh, rats. Now I’m going to have to redo all my online financial accounts. That was rather poorly planned.

And here’s the rub.* With the black dots showing up on the screen, that would seem to help hackers when they’re attempting to crack a password, giving them a greater degree of precision. We don’t want the hackers to achieve any type of fulfillment. The trade-off on benefit and downside of having the black dots seems null.

(*-Everything has a rub. They should just put the rub part at the beginning and get it over with.)

Password fields should likewise be encrypted. And when a hacking program tries to decipher the true password, it should encrypt the attempt. Randomly arrange the characters and replace two of them with crossbones just to mix things up. Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have a match there. Would you like to play a game?

Sociologically speaking, the need for passwords is a rather sad commentary on society. We can’t respect each other’s property enough, and so the idea of a reasonable level of civility within our world must be reserved to “How ya doin’?” (or in some parts of Missouri, “Whatcha doin’?”) when we run into somebody in public, but otherwise a generous portion of them would steal you blind when given the chance. Any notion of safety only comes from building bigger safeguards than the hackers and thieves can build. It’s a carnivorous world out there, and passwords provide a wondrous microcosm for this delightful phenomenon.

And that is why we must eradicate the black dots for passwords. After all, who knows what’s really inside of them? Whatever it is, they’re a tool of the hackers for aiding their cause. In the meantime, I’d recommend having passwords that are at least 28 characters long so that the hackers can’t see all of them at once, and it complicates the whole counting process.

Wait, now I’m giving away my secrets to the hackers. But I did that on purpose, knowing you hackers would think I was telling you the real techniques. However, if I did that, then I wouldn’t have needed to explain that I did it, so maybe I’m just trying to obfuscate, in which case you have no reason to believe that’s what I’m doing. Remember on Dallas when the whole season was just a dream? Me either, but the idea is that you thought this happened but it really didn’t. These were just a bunch of black dots you were reading, devoid of any meaning or content. Move along now.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Siren Songs

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The only good thing about having a lack of statistics for extra-sensory qualities is that it still preserves the imagination. Curiosity breeds more curiosity, as Alice adeptly intoned.

Cue number one for the backdrop…

In the midst of listening to aural verse on the earbuds, looking around at the masses, generally quite confident that no one else in the vicinity is listening to the same song. But supposing in the rare event that they were, it would only be apropos for both of us to get up and righteously dance into the center of the auditorium. These visions keep coming, and I presume they are mine. Nevertheless, any logistical problems — a la finding ourselves at different parts within the song — are academic to the main idea. A song’s rhythm is not about one moment, is it? Each song a rhythm conglomerate, each album a rhythm de force. In speaking of rhythm, not the traditional meaning of a beat, but the underlying wave elements molding a song, as it sways in various directions. But my playlist en toto meanders in and out of obscura sans camera, to the point that a match with other passers-by would translate into only the serendipitest of occurrences. Like that would ever happen.

I set the player to stun, which is also shuffle.

Up next is mellower rock of a more classic era. Able to muse with confidence that nobody else in this city is simultaneously listening to Marillion’s erstwhile “Blind Curve” (circa 1985). The older your circa is, the less likely another is partaking from the same well.

Which then makes me wonder, how far away is the closest person who is listening to this same song? Someday they’ll have a universal web site that can perform this indispensible function of sorts, but in the meantime I have to postulate with the synapses intact.

The careful thinker would posit to set Marillion’s song to 381 miles, spanning parts of Canada all the way down to mid-California. A cult band in the progressive realm with a decent following, yet the radio pooh-poohs them like a three-year-old unadvisedly shuns cheesecake placed right in front of its nose.

A handful of people might be listening to the album from which it comes (Misplaced Childhood), but perhaps only one other is on the same track at the same time. You figure in a statistically responsible way that with a 9-minute song, you have about a 4½-minute window in which you and another listener will cross before one of you goes to another song. All in all, a good song to play when you need some space, to the tune of 90,000 square miles. I’ve got a monopoly on this song, increasing its wholesale intrinsic value.

On the other end of the spectrum, when feeling too isolated, one can all too easily hit the charts and imbibe in mass appeal, a veritable feeding frenzy obsessed with “what are they listening to?” as well as “at this exact moment on the chronograph.” I can go in that direction, but only in moderation before spiraling into a Lord Vader flight path. Instead of piranhas, I’ll take anchovies, please. Ultimately, I settle in nicely with Leona Lewis’ offering “Brave” from her latest album in 2009. A smart and savvy artist who knows the wisdom in staying within one’s limits (what a concept) and (who ever thought of that), and the non-diva can spin a nice melody. No fluke she, Lewis has begun her career with two intriguing albums (yes… gasp! … albums). I like the trajectory she’s on. In the mold of Alicia Keys, not selling out to the machine but putting heart into her craft, Lewis is going to make some noise before she’s done. Mark my earbuds.

So she brings me back to a 17-mile radius of concurrent listeners, making me feel a little cozier about the process. That’s pretty close to reaching my aura under certain weather conditions.

But that was all too easy. The serious distance listener requires more of a challenge. Not that it was Leona’s fault, per se. She just has wider appeal, and she has a newer sheen on her. In another ten years, her radius will extend into the 50-mile range. But I won’t be losing her signal.

In wishing for what’s coming up, there are many variables to consider. Is my mood pensive or jilted, floating or fixated? Where will the mind’s soundtrack venture next? Only the shadow shuffler knows… Let’s go with a mixture of melancholy with a pinch of vinegar in it. Something to keep the senses off kilter enough to cause them to pay some authentic attention. Next we come across Amorphis’ thoughtful rendition of its own “Alone” from 2001. Amorphis seems a tad angry at the world here, but it comes across as a controlled and justified anger, which garners more respect. I don’t know what the song is about, but it sounds like justice is somehow occurring, so that’s what we would term cool.

The track almost threatens a wild eruption of sound, while still keeping it streamlined within something meaningful. It makes you think it wants to get hard-edged, but it’s the anticipation of it, that quality that fills in for actual blasts, not tearing up your speakers while letting you get the effect all the same. The best of both worlds — portending a total rock-out without having to jump in the water. Sunbathers know the mist is often enough.

In retrospect, I figure this one has a 78-mile radius, which is far enough away that I’m not going to meet any of these people anytime soon. They remain in their world and I remain in mine. Were there any global conflicts brewing between our worlds, we would still be safe for the time being. But Amorphis did its part to settle our differences.

After that sojourn into pseudo-ragged territory, we wind it down a notch, and we’re ready to get a little beat going, but only subtly. We’ll let the melody drive it. Time for Clearlake’s piece de resistance, “Getting Light Outside” from 2006. At least it is to me, and this is my concert I’m conducting, so I’m going to give them a Grammy nomination for this one. Play on, band. Don’t really know if it ever made the charts, so it’s hard to gauge how closely it reaches. It feels like a 52-miler. This is nearness territory while still giving a fair portion of wandering room.

You can’t very well end with a song like that, because one good tune deserves another, begging for an encore of emotions. Well, you have to end somewhere eventually, but you can wrap it up with something more on the mellow side. Cue Godley & Crème’s 1985 offering “Cry,” which draws emotion out of you even if you resist. Being 25 years old, it’s surely less commonly played than it was in its heyday, so we’ll give it 11 miles, which makes us feel comfortable about our surroundings and we can end on a good note.

No, don’t skip it just because they opened with a cut from their 10cc days. Be quiet, they said. Requesting quiet…

Now this is where you could sink into the pavement as all your muscular tissue turns to jello — probably green, but not with carrots in it. Carrots only belong in food with pictures of them on it, like carrot cake.

The shadow shuffler gave me a decent cross-section of styles, as it is wont to do. Sometimes it might be heavier, but for our current situation it wanted to be nice to the readers, because four of the five of you go for the tamer variety. On a different day, there’s a different play. Pearl Jam will have to get in line like everyone else. Nobody died and made you guys king of hard rock, Mr. Jam. Now I start conversing with the characters within my playlist, even when they’re not present. I tell some of them to stop teasing Manilow. It rankles Metallica when I point out not only was Barry more well-received than they, but he was also more accomplished. Accomplished means you had lots of good songs. I didn’t say I had anything against Metallica and their clones, but they need not get carried away into visions of grandeur. They take up only a small portion of my songfest. It’s OK to like the Carpenters and Grand Funk Railroad at the same time. It won’t upset the Time/Life Music continuum. Meanwhile, I threaten to play “Looks Like We Made It,” and it puts them all in their place. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Occasionally I stumble across inadvertent tracks that provide a hiccup to the proceedings. When are the Michael Jackson tributes going to stop? Let the guy rest. Tom Waits ebulliently crooning “Beat It” just doesn’t seem right. Note to self: Justin Bieber’s got a real future ahead of him. May he have the good judgment not to mess it up with music.

Oh wait! There’s more! The son of encore! If you act now, we’ll throw in “Shine” by Martin Ansell as a bonus, from the Better Off Dead soundtrack, also of 1985. Shadow shuffler is on a nostalgic kick, this being the 25th anniversary of some year or another. But this song acts as one of my guilty pleasures which never hit a wide audience, with the movie deservedly garnering all the notice. Yet the song somehow manages to pose as near perfect pop once it gets moving. And it’s peppy beyond le pew. If I’m not mistaken, I believe the message is probably something feel-good too. This would be an ideal workout song for moms all around to be listening to. I’ll bet there’s still one of them about 134 miles away who is.

Listening to rock, you’re on a roll, so one can’t very well stop now. I wonder what’s next, and how far away it reaches…

Ah, the things that go on inside earbuds.

Dance Like Nobody's Watching

Philosophy Soccer