Passworded Out

Over the weekend I got another of those messages telling me that my password for my handheld device was expiring, and it was time to come up with another one.

I groaned with dismay, then I sat there for a few minutes, thinking hard about how I could possibly come up with yet another “unique combination” of letters, numerals, and characters that I would be capable of remembering.  Because, after years of coming up with passwords, I’ve just about run dry.

passwords-on-sticky-notes-smallAt first, way back at the dawn of the data security era, coming up with passwords for my handheld and the computer system at work was kind of fun — like being a secret agent who knew the right code word to gain access to information.  Then it became a part of the routine.  But over time passwords became viewed as more important in the war against hackers, and longer and more complex “strong passwords” became the norm, and new policies were implemented to require that passwords be changed much more frequently.  After years passed in which passwords needed to be changed every 60 days, and I’ve therefore had to create and remember dozens and dozens of separate passwords only to see them vanish without a trace after only a few months, the act of password creation became drudgery, and finally it became a telltale sign of my clearly dwindling resources in the password creation creativity department.

I’ve used just about every mnemonic technique I can think of to create passwords.  Dog names.  Nicknames.  Streets where I’ve lived.  Places where I’ve worked.  Rock bands I’ve enjoyed listening to.  Old addresses.  The year our family first moved to Columbus.  The name of the unfortunate defendant in a legal case that my law school classmates and I made into a running joke. The phone number from a commercial jingle that I’ve somehow remembered since childhood.  The name of the robot maid on The Jetsons.   Pretty much everything in the memory bin, down to the most trivial bit of debris, has been hauled out and applied to satisfy the insatiable appetite for fresh passwords . . . and still the demands for new passwords keep coming.  It’s exhausting.

Can we please go back to the days of password1234?

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Have A Happy Wi-Fi Christmas

You go to the food court at a mall, a coffee shop, or some other public space over the holidays, open your laptop or power up your tablet, and start checking for available wi-fi.  When you see a “free” network, you click on it with a chuckle, take a hearty sip of your peppermint stick latte, go through your email, and then start making sure your checking account is squared away before you buy gifts for the last people on your Christmas list.

p1264m1066840fWhat’s wrong with this picture?

Pretty much everything, say data security experts.  It turns out that fraudsters love to set up fake “free” wi-fi networks at public spaces over the holidays, hoping that busy shoppers taking a break, or the bored people accompanying them, will use the networks and expose their personal data, whether it’s passwords, bank or credit card information, or personal data that could lead to identity theft.  Many people who routinely use “free” public wi-fi networks are altogether too trusting, and are willing to agree to just about any terms to get the internet access they crave.

In fact, as the story linked above reports, an 11-year-old kid in Texas won his school science fair this year by proving that point.  He set up anonymous free internet access portals in shopping mall food court areas that had the most draconian conditions available — including allowing the portals to do things like “reading and responding to your emails” and “monitoring of input and/or output” — and more than half of the people offered those conditions agreed to them.  That’s a pretty stiff price for something that supposed to be “free.”

Hackers are everywhere (just ask Yahoo!) and are eager to get to your personal data.  So please:  use precautions and common sense.  Don’t go onto just any “free” network and start exposing your most important and intimate personal and financial data to whoever might have set up that network, or hacked into it.  Think about whether the network really seems to be bona fide.   And consider whether some activities — like on-line banking — really should be exclusively reserved for a network you know and trust.

This holiday season, don’t get ho-ho-hacked.

Out With The Old

I think we need to start thinking about buying a new home computer.  I’m kind of dreading the process and trying to forestall it for as long as possible.

IMG_1232Our current computer has served us long and loyally.  It’s stored countless to-do lists, been a repository for family photos, served as a mailbox and news ticker, and been a blogging platform.  It’s moved around with us to the point that we don’t really think our household has been established until the computer is hooked up and functional.  I’ve watched and rewatched YouTube videos of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ run to the National Championship on it countless times.  The keyboard characters have been tapped so often and the mouse clicked so frequently that they’ve acquired a worn, comfortable feel to the fingertips.

We’ve totally lost track of how long we’ve had the computer. Has it been six years?  Nine?  Longer?  We’re really not sure.  All we know is that the computer has been a staple of the desktop for as long as we can remember.

But lately we’ve started to have some performance problems with Old Faithful.  It’s sputtering and slowing down.  That annoying spinning circle, shown as the computer processes commands, seems to spin ever longer and longer.  “Force quit” has become a more frequent solution to apparently intractable problems that even the spinning circle can’t resolve.  We get more messages about certain programs “not responding.”  It’s as if they’re mad at us and have simply decided to give us the silent treatment — even though, so far as we know, we’ve done nothing to provoke such disrespectful treatment.

There’s a certain out-of-touch embarrassment factor to our computer set-up, too.  Our techno-nerdy friends who have those razor-blade-thin and ultra-light laptops and tablets, the kind that make even techno-nerds look a little bit cool, laugh at our clunky desktop unit.  Once it was cool and cutting edge, now it’s more like relying on an “adding machine.”  The ongoing technology revolution waits for no man, and no computer, no matter how faithfully it has performed over years of service.

So we’ll work a new computer into the home budget, and once we’ve saved up we’ll head to the Apple store, look with a lost and vacant expression at the lines of gleaming laptops and desktops and tablets, and hope that one of those bright instruments of the modern era speaks to us.  Hey, which of you wants to come home with us and become an important part of the daily pattern of our lives?

 

100 Million Times Faster

Recently I tried to read an article about huge advances in computer technology that appear to be just over the horizon.

I say “tried,” because the article includes sentences like this one:  “Quantum annealing (QA) has been proposed as a quantum enhanced optimization heuristic exploiting tunneling.”  I recognize each of those words as being English, and capable of being understood on a word-by-word basis — but put them all together and my conscious mind explodes.  Rather than grasping the intended, core meaning, my brain diverts into cul-de-sacs like:  “Hey, shouldn’t there be a verb somewhere near the end of that sentence?”
black-screen-spinning-wheel-on-bootBut the key concept from the article is that a new form of computer design called a quantum annealer, that a joint project between Google and NASA is experimenting with, is proving to be as much as 100 million times faster at solving difficult, multi-variable problems than the “classical” computer design.  The article cautions that there are still lots of technological hurdles and challenges to be addressed before the quantum annealing approach can be turned into practical technology, but the test results are enormously promising.

It’s not hard to imagine what such a dramatically enhanced and powerful computer could accomplish for an entity like NASA, in calculating the trajectories needed to dodge asteroids, skirt gravitational fields, and safely land spacecraft on alien surfaces.  You could also see how new computers with such tremendously accelerated raw processing power could be used by governments — in decrypting encoded messages, for example — or by hackers looking to crack passwords.  And, of course, such advancements typically are followed by great leaps forward in miniaturization and new applications that weren’t even considered before the technology came on line.  Futurists and dreamers will have a field day considering how faster processing power could be used, for example, in diagnostic medical equipment or implants.

What would having a computer that processes 100 million times faster mean for the rest of us?  We’ll still be moving at standard human mental and physical speeds, of course, unless the new technology results in a trend toward creation of speeded-up cyborgs.  Nevertheless, there is one great promise for all PC users arising from development of inconceivably faster quantum annealing computers:  no more frustrated staring at the computer screen, watching the annoying spinning circle of death!

Living In A Sim Universe

Here’s a bizarre thought for a Tuesday:  what if the world that we know is really just one gigantic, thorough, technologically adept computer simulation that encompasses everything we see, hear, know, and touch?  Believe it or not, scientists and philosophers are actually considering this concept in earnest these days.

In part, this is just another of those weird mind exercises and “proofs” that made philosophy class a tiresome exercise back in college, but it’s also being spurred by the advances in computer gaming technology that are making massive, realistic simulations seem increasingly plausible.  If you’ve seen the latest versions of some “reality” games, you know that things have changed completely in the 40 years since “Pong” — and the pace of improvement in computer simulation capability seems to be accelerating.

Is it so unbelievable that, in 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years, humans could create a simulated world that covers every last detail of life, from the feel of a wooden floor under your feet to the taste of coffee on your tongue to the laws of physics that control the natural world around us?  After all, we perceive the world entirely through electrical stimulation of parts of our brains — so why couldn’t our perceiving minds be wired into an advanced computer game?  Maybe what we call “sleep” is really the downtime when gamemasters load new simulated situations into the programming.

If we are just the imaginings of futuristic disembodied brains in vats, or the product of some hyper-realistic supercomputer existing centuries from now, would we know it?  Some of the scientists and futurists and philosophers quoted in the article linked above think we might search for back doors, programming glitches, or gaming options that could allow us to briefly do superhuman stunts — like Ms. Pac-Man gobbling an energy dot so that she can consume the ghosts that relentlessly chase her.  That seems unlikely to me.  If the goal is to create a truly realistic world that you could immerse yourself in, gizmos that create superpowers would be contrary to the whole goal.  Maybe what we consider to be “normal” is exotic and interesting enough for the jaded game players of the future.

So what if everything around us, from this computer keyboard I’m tapping to the great Mozart piece I’m listening to, is part of an elaborate game?  I would never be able to distinguish the difference, anyway.  In any case, I’m thinking:  Hey, this is a good game!

Computers, And Sod Carriers

We’re in the process of replacing the office computers at our firm.  This week, the wave finally hit my floor.

I had been dreading it, frankly.  I’ve had my computer for years, and it did just what I wanted it to do.  Like many aging Baby Boomers, I was comfortable with the existing technology and not especially eager to move on to something new that I would have to learn all over again.  The younger generation at the firm, on the other hand, was keen to get newer products and integrate them with the tablets, PDAs, and other electronic gizmos they’re always tapping on around the office.

IMG_6132This week, as D-Day approached, I got a multi-page memo about what I had to do to get ready for the change.  I groaned, thinking it would be a huge hassle.  But as my secretary and I walked through it, with her interpreting for the Luddite as necessary, I realized I didn’t have to do most of the stuff because I wasn’t using much of the functionality of even the older computer.  I hadn’t modified the tool bar, subscribed to any RSS feeds (at least, I think that is what it was called), added a bunch of websites as favorites, or changed my desktop, so I didn’t need to do much to get ready for the changeover.

I was grateful that the prep process didn’t take longer, but also a bit embarrassed that I really wasn’t making great use of the awesome capabilities of my desktop computer — which tells you something right there, because most of my fellow lawyers seem to have ultra-thin laptop units that they cart around and set up at every meeting.  The laptoppers seem to be far more technologically comfortable and adept than the desktoppers.  It’s like the separation that occurred in the late Middle Ages, when a craftsman class arose out of the serfs laboring in the fields.  I’m still one of the bent-backed, sod-carrying group.

When I arrived at the office yesterday, to find a new computer with a Skyping camera on top and a headset (a headset?), I was filed with wonder, trepidation — and determination.  Maybe it’s time for me to get off the sod and become a silversmith before it’s too late.

Bitcoins, Bubbles, And Beanie Babies

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of two individuals affiliated with “bitcoin” exchanges. The two men are charged with using the bitcoin exchanges — which allow people to trade bitcoins for currency like U.S. dollars — to obtain bitcoins that could then be sold to users of another on-line exchange, called Silk Road, where the bitcoins could be used to buy drugs anonymously, in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.

Bitcoins are a kind of token to which some people have assigned value. Each bitcoin is represented by a supposedly unique online registration number, created when a computer solves a difficult mathematical problem with a 64-digit solution. There are supposed to be a finite number of such 64-digit solutions and therefore a finite number of bitcoins, which is why bitcoin investors believe they will only appreciate in value. Users receive bitcoins at unregistered, anonymous addresses, which means the bitcoins themselves can be used to conduct anonymous transactions, as a kind of on-line currency. And, as the announcement yesterday reflects, bitcoins can be traded for real money.

I don’t pretend to fully understand bitcoins and how they are supposed to work — but I wonder how many people who have them and use them really do, either. It’s hard to understand how real value could be created simply because a random computer solves a complex math problem, and I expect that many bitcoin investors don’t have the mathematical and computer capabilities to really understand whether bitcoins are truly unique and just how limited their supply really is. And the anonymity of bitcoins means there is plenty of opportunity for mischief in how they may be used.

People who trade in bitcoins and are banking on their appreciation in value are taking a lot on faith. Of course, at a certain level you can argue that every form of currency involves a similar act of faith, but at least there are public, functioning markets for U.S. dollars, Treasury bills, stocks, and bonds and they are backed by functioning, publicly known entities. Bitcoins remind me of subprime mortgage bundles, or for that matter Beanie Babies. For a time, each of them was a hot commodity. Everyone seemed to be buying them and the word on the street was that their value was only going up. Then one day the frenzy ended, people stopped buying, and the investors were left with pieces of paper or a pile of children’s toys — and a big hole in their balance sheets and bank accounts.

Maybe bitcoins will be different . . . or maybe they won’t.