I’m Not Making This Up

So I sent my fourth tweet ever today. While I had my tweeting-software fired up I noticed that the Calgary Flames were selling used equipment. I perused the list, and there are a few interesting things there. But nothing that matches THIS:

Ferland Goalie Jock @$39.99
Size: SR
Uniform/Color: N/A
Used/New: Used
Final Cost:$20
Quantity: 1

Remember, those are Canadian dollars, so it’s an even better bargain!

1

Gone is the Village, and the Hero Thereof

As I write this, I’m watching a girl in hot-pink ice skates take instruction from a portly woman who moves like she never takes her skates off. The girl is doing well, arms held so, feet working the drills, and my instant assessment is that this kid can be pretty good.

But, honestly, not great. I hope she’s in the whole figure-skating game for the right reasons: because she loves the challenge, the discipline, and feels great when she gets the toe-thingie just right.

Once upon a time (was it Vonnegut who first pointed this out to me? Maybe. Probably not.) a pretty-good singer could be the pride of a village. “She has the voice of a nightingale,” her neighbors would say. They would ask her to sing at all the village events, and she would, without any compensation beyond the appreciation of her friends.

It was electricity that broke this relationship. Curse that devil’s magic! The villagers could hear the broadcast from New York, then buy records, and before long our village chanteuse is being compared to the best in the whole damn world.

But it didn’t end there, especially in sport. First there’s a tournament in town. The winner of that goes on to face the winners in the nearby towns. That winner goes on to face a group from farther away. Somewhere on this sleigh-ride our hero loses. All the heroes lose but one, out of thousands. Tens of thousands. “He lost at regionals.” “She lost at state.”

OK, that’s an exaggeration, there’s plenty of celebration when a local athlete gets to state. But as the world gets smaller we just can’t let someone be a local champion.

And so, back to the girl on the pink skates. She’s working hard, dong things slowly that seem like they’d be easier fast. I hope she’s having fun. (I think back to trumpet lessons when I was a kid. I wanted to be good, but honestly the lessons weren’t fun. That’s about me, not the teacher. I wasn’t hungry.) I hope there’s a village where Miss Pink-Skates can be the best, but even if there isn’t, that’s not a disaster. The worst part about being the best in the village is the sudden arrival of the world outside.

1

Idly Pondering Redesign

I was staring blankly at my blog earlier and I thought maybe it’s time to redo the banner. I decided to mention my musings here on the off chance that someone out there cares at all, and has ideas I could mooch. Weighing the good and the bad of the current banner:

  • things move and fade in
  • there's a new haiku every fifteen seconds
  • there's a theme song for the clicking
  • it breaks out of its box
  • never got that wow factor
  • stylistically all over the place
  • Flash - doesn't work everywhere

The last one is the biggie. Flash does not now and never will work on some mobile devices. The number of devices where Flash works is declining now that Microsoft has decided to give up on Flash as well. So… time to move on. Eventually.

One impediment: I don’t know what I want the new header to look like. Something geeky. Gears turning? That would be cool, and could fall back to static gears on older browsers. Maybe some kind of machine that spits out the haiku? Or does a duck poop them out? What should the typesetting look like? How should it reveal?

Maybe a way to pop up a form and submit new guest poems?

Should there be an elevator? An ocelot? A rutabaga?

Frankly, I’m completely stumped.

These sorts of solicitations haven’t met with much response in the past, but if anyone out there has thoughts on the whole design thing, I’d love to hear them.

The Suburban Dream

Three Home Depot visits into home ownership finds me on the back patio, a dog at my side, a fine beer next to my laptop on the glass-topped patio “dining table”. The umbrella is deployed for the first time and is doing its job admirably; my laptop screen is plenty bright enough and WiFi signal is strong. Across from me is my fancy new grill, just waiting for propane. To my left I see the new little push-mower and other garden tools.

My sweetie is around front right now; she spent yesterday pulling out some of the old landscaping to replace it with stuff more our style. Today’s Home Depot visit was to pick out the first wave of colorful flora for the front bed.

The Round Mound of Hound has forsaken my side to find a sunny patch of grass to lounge in. She seems pretty content.

This is pretty good.

2

Round Mound of Hound… Rebound

Sad news for fans of the Official Muddled Dog: We’ve been busted. You see, the ol’ gal is substantially larger than the nominal limit for our neighborhood. Even at her ideal weight she would be quite a bit too big.

The rule is very inconsistently enforced, however; so as long as no one complains, management is willing to not see the big dog. Well, we’re getting new neighbors and before they moved in they complained. Management has notified us that our quiet, gentle, well-behaved dog must go.

Looking for a home, once again.

To my new neighbors I say, “The next time your &*$#^*@ fence is on fire, there won’t be a dog around to alert people to the trouble.” (True fact: OMD raised the alarm a few days ago when a fence was burning. Just like in Reader’s Digest.) But, I remind myself, we were the ones breaking a rule, we knew we were breaking it, and the neighbors have every right to be jerks and rat on our dog before talking to us. They don’t know us, they don’t know how we would react. The era of neighborliness is sadly over. How long ago was it that when something bothered a neighbor they just went and knocked on the door before calling in higher authority?

Now there’s someone who’s bed is maybe thirty feet from mine, whom I’ve never met, that has pissed me off. Part of me wants to get a new dog that fits the regulations and barks nonstop.

But that’s not constructive. What is constructive is helping to find this fine animal her permanent home. Apparently our role in her life is an interim stop between old and new homes, so we can make sure she lands in a good place.

Please, especially if you’re in the Bay Area, put the word out that there’s eighty pounds of unconditional love just looking for someone who needs her.

It’s going to be really tough to say goodbye.

Pop Quiz

You have a pile of chips and a bowl of guacamole. You’re hungry. Life is pretty good.

Except… there are about three times as many chips as the bowl of guac can support at ideal dip levels. Don’t forget, you’re hungry. Do you:

  • Enjoy chips with ideal guacamole levels while it lasts, then eat the rest of the chips dry
  • OR
  • Stretch the guacamole to make every bite a little better than a dry chip

No going Kobayashi Maru here and ordering more guacamole.

A Quick Tip for Would-Be Hockey Goalies

If you follow hockey at all, you’ve heard of the five-hole. It’s the space between a hockey goalkeeper’s legs, and it’s a popular place to shoot at.

All NHL goalies that I know of use the ‘butterfly‘, a ligament-stretching move in which the knees are pushed together and the lower legs are parallel to the ice, forming a solid barrier to any pucks skidding along the surface. Why shoot for the five-hole, then, when it is so easily turned into an impenetrable wall? It’s all about time.

When a player slaps the puck toward the net, the time it takes a goaltender to close the hole is limited by the acceleration of gravity. Even after he recognizes the threat his body must fall into position, and no amount of strength or conditioning can make it happen faster.

I just watched in slow motion as the Rangers goaltender let a puck through his five-hole, and I had to cringe. You see, a lot of five-hole goals are preventable, and pretty easily, too. As the goalie collapsed into position, his stick was off to the side, pointing directly at the shooter, and completely useless. Had he simply kept his stick in front of him as he went into the butterfly, the goal would have bounced harmlessly away. His sloppiness might mean his team will not compete for the Stanley cup this year.

This failing is frightfully common. I often see keepers lift their sticks as they move down, and while that will get their legs into position a couple of milliseconds earlier, they lose their most important interim defense. It is a completely natural reaction to throw your arms up to get your body down faster. Don’t do that!

So, kids who want to be the next great net minder, when you’re practicing dropping into the butterfly long into the night (you are practicing long into the night, right?), always, always have your stick and always keep it in position. Watch video of yourself or have someone watch your stick as you work, and watch your GAA go down. I don’t think there’s any more easily correctable habit in all of hockey that can make such a difference.

More is Better

In the Official Muddled Dog’s mind, there are three things more awesome than anything else. Food, belly rubs, and tennis balls. I don’t know who invented the modern tennis ball, but if dogs had a museum his statue would be out front. As any tennis player will tell you, however, it’s only a matter of time before a tennis ball is nothing more than a tattered pile of rubber fragments and colored fuzz. It pays, therefore, to buy in bulk.

My sweetie came home from Tennis Balls R Us yesterday with a 12-pack of the fuzzy toys and OMD did not need any prompting to claim the entire bag for herself. Hilarity (and pictures) ensued.

My sister asked if Official Muddled Dog had any positions besides “prone”. I’m happy to answer yes, as long as there’s a tennis ball around. The third shot of the set demonstrates that maybe shooting at f/1.2 isn’t always the right choice — could have used a bit more depth of focus there.

2

Penfinal?

I just received a document named “XXX_final_v2”.

2

Alert for the Sports Media

I’m hanging out at a local drinkery, waiting for friends, and on the TV is Tiger Woods, who is doing pretty well in the latest tournament, but not great. As usual. THIS IS NOT NEWS!

I don’t follow golf, but even so I get all sorts of breathless “Tiger was in the middle of the pack!” articles before I can click through to actual sports. Tiger is in the middle of the pack. It’s not news anymore. Move on.

How Stupid do you Think I Am?

So I was looking around for a Web service that could take a string of text and return an MD5 Hash of that string, and I found something disturbing.

An MD5 Hash is a big number that is generated by doing crazy math on the original information. It has two good qualities – when you start with the same text you always get the same result, and it’s pretty much impossible to tell what the text was from the number.

A lot of places store the hash of your password, rather than the password itself. When you type in your password, it’s hashed, and the resulting number is sent over the wire. If the number matches the one in their database then you’re in.

But there is one way to crack the hash I hadn’t considered: keep a database of known strings and the resulting hash. It had never occurred to me to try to keep a table so huge, but with access to this information you could pretty easily crack passwords that lots of people use.

In my search for a hashing service, I came across one such Web site. Also on that site: a service to generate a hash for you. The message: “Hey! We keep a database of hashes to render them useless! You want us to calculate a hash for you?”

Um… No thanks?

At this point, I have to advise, stay away from Web-based hash generators. I know you were about to go and use one.

The Round Mound of Hound

It’s a little difficult to get a blog episode out when there’s a largish dog begging for your attention. The dog in question is Chiquita, our newest resident. Chiquita’s owner died suddenly and the ol’ gal was was looking for a new home.

She may be the sweetest-tempered dog I’ve ever met, happy to see anyone. She didn’t bark at repair men and delivery guys today, even though she’s starting to get the feel of her new territory.

The first thing we did when we got home was give her a bath; she’s been living outside for the last few weeks. She put up with the water and shampoo stoically, but we missed a few spots.

People over in Facebookland have been asking for pictures, so here for your delight are a few snaps. (You can click to see them larger.)

We had bought a package of rawhide bones for her; after she showed no interest in a tennis ball we gave her one of those. She walked around with it for a while, relaxed in the shade with it firmly between her teeth, but never chewed it. After a while, she found a corner of the yard and buried it. In the second photo she’s pushing more dirt on top of the burial site. Of course I’ve heard about dogs burying bones, but I’ve never seen it before.

As you can see our new doormat could stand to shed a few pounds. Her hip stiffens up and stairs are particularly difficult for her. We’ll be putting he on a diet.

3

On the Success of Blogs, and I Don’t Mean This One

One aspect of successful blogs is that they focus on a single topic. If you’re interested in conservative politics, you frequent blogs that speak exclusively about conservative politics. You’re not interested in what your favorite pundits had for dinner last night. You might tolerate the occasional post about some other passion of the blogger, as long as it didn’t get in the way.

I thought about this today as I finished my third episode this week concerning Internet security. I could become a blogger focused on that very important issue. After a while folks would start to look for me, to accept me as an authority, for better or for worse. That would be kind of cool.

Instead, I thought, “I have to break up all these techno-geek articles with something more fun.” I pushed publication of two of the security episodes into the future. (Whether the intervening episodes are actually fun is another story.) I now realize that it’s not merely that MR&HBI is poorly aligned for success, I’m actively working to keep it that way.

You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

1

A Princess of Mars

Some time ago I downloaded Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars through Project Gutenberg. Recently I downloaded it again into my eReader and this time I actually read it. Not long after I began to read I was sucked into the improbability vortex.

The first coincidence was external: I realized that the main character was named John Carter and there’s a special-effecta-palooza stomping its way into cinemas with that title. I was reading the material from which the movie was adapted. I knew the cinematic beast was based on stories of this ilk, but here I was holding the exact one.

The coincidences didn’t stop, but from then on they were within the story. John Carter is the luckiest SOB I’ve read about in a long time.

“But Jer,” you say, “it’s an adventure story. It’s pulp. Some slack is due.”

Yep indeed, the words I put into your mouth are dead on. Some slack is due. Carter is a lucky SOB all right, but it is his skill and derring-do that make the most of that good fortune. On Earth Carter is a pretty impressive specimen; in the lower gravity of Mars he kicks some pretty phenomenal ass.

It is not just physical prowess that sets him apart, however. While living in a society of heartless warriors, his horses (um… thoats) are far more faithful, because he uses the carrot as well as the stick. When the pragmatic Green Martians see that sometimes a gentle hand gets results, subtle societal changes begin.

As promised in the title, there’s a Princess, the undisputed Most Beautiful Woman on the Planet, and of course she’s captured by (what a coincidence!) Carter’s Green Martian sort-of-captors. You might not be surprised to hear that Carter and the Princess hit it off pretty well, despite some problems caused by culture clash.

Let’s reflect for a moment on some of the things Burroughs did well. There are two intelligent races on Mars, competing for dwindling resources. Death by old age is exceedingly rare, especially among the Green Martians. They spend a lot of time killing each other. I had no trouble at all getting the feel of this race, of the strengths and weaknesses of the society, and how their long history had shaped them. (By a remarkable coincidence, the two Green Martians closet to Carter were throwbacks to a gentler age. By an even larger coincidence the two were related.)

For all the Princess was Unimaginably Beautiful and in need of frequent rescue, she held her own. She did have an affliction I will call diminishing adjectivitis – almost every adjective applied to her minimized her, emphasizing her slightness, her delicacy. Yet she made the decision to sacrifice herself to save her people. That the Manly Men of the story managed to free her and save her people (and unite traditional foes, realigning politics on Mars from “Red vs. Green” to “Cool vs. Asshole”) does not take away from her sacrifice. Were the story written these days, more might have been made of her self-sacrifice, but let’s face it. This story was written for the same demographic that would be sneaking looks at their fathers’ Playboys a few decades hence.

Then there was The Coincidence That Went Too Far. I felt the strain when Carter ran into an old pal in enemy territory. Credulity snapped when Carter’s airship crashed right next to his old Green Chum in the heat of a savage battle, just in time to save the guy and get leverage to assemble an army to go save the princess.

A nation is slaughtered, but their king was a jerk, so that’s OK. Don’t go starting wars if you’re not ready to pay the price. This came out during The Great War.

So, in the shambles of the One Coincidence to Rule Them All, the story winds to a close on a wistful note. It’s a tight read, easy-breezy (though the language is filled with pomp), and it keeps on moving. I wonder, if the math of publishing had been different and Burroughs felt comfortable pushing to 300 pages, if he would have needed those coincidences to get the players into position. I also wonder if the story would have been any better without the Hand of Fate smacking things around so blatantly. After all, this way we get to the next action scene that much faster.

It’s kind of funny – In the end, four-armed men who own guns accurate for miles fighting with swords on the moss-covered beds of the ancient oceans of Mars didn’t bother me at all (well… not much). It was a chance meeting in a city square that pushed me to the breaking point.

I haven’t even alluded to the Greatest Coincidence Of Them All. The Great Mambo Coincidence that makes mere luck rock back on its heels and suck its thumb. A coincidence so stupendous that it can only save all life on an entire planet. It’s actually not that bothersome here since it’s not central to the action. It does put Carter back on Earth, though.

You know what, though? I’m pretty sure John Carter goes back to Mars. Maybe his kid has hatched (best not to think too hard about biology here). I’m equally confident that I’ll read more of these stories. I expect to roll my eyes at some mind-abusing good fortune on the part of our protagonist. But I’ll still have fun, and in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback. I chose to link to this version for the awesome cover, but you should know that if you have an electronic reading device, you can download the novel for free.

Protect Your Passwords, an Encore Performance

A while back I mentioned that if someone got hold of your email password, that all your other passwords, no matter how cryptic or “safe”, would soon follow. To recap, it goes like this: If someone can get your email address, they can go to every bank and hit “reset my password” and get to the automatic email before you do.

A friend of mine recently put up a post that reminded me of another way hackers can get into your accounts (including primary email), one that I’ve been meaning to mention. You know those security questions they ask you, so they can confirm your identity? Those questions aren’t very secure. Questions like, “Where did you go to elementary school?” Pretty easy to find out stuff like that these days.

Say I want to hack into a celebrity’s yahoo account. I just need to answer a few questions, most of which are probably answered in imdb. Then I’m in. There’s a GQ article linked in my friend’s post that illustrates just how easy this all is.

The problem is, lots of places force you to set up these questions – making it mandatory that you provide a huge hole in your own security. A lot of people call these “insecurity questions”.

Security questions can work, but only if you choose to answer them incorrectly. Where did I go to school? A fish. What was the name of my first pet? 4e$RE*Plaster. Of course, in the rare event that I actually need to be able to answer the questions, there’s no way I’m going to remember what I said the first time.

While pondering that I had a thought for a method of answering these questions, one that removes any worry about remembering much of anything. Let a machine do the work. Imagine if you could select the question with your cursor, push a button, and paste your own personal complete gibberish into the answer field. Then, whenever confronted with the same question, you can generate the same gibberish. No remembering and no chance of anyone ever guessing your answers.

This would actually be pretty easy to do. It might even just take GnuPG and a bit of scripting. All it has to do is take the selected text, add a little secret extra bit that you set, then put the MD5 hash onto your pasteboard. It would be better as a browser plugin, so it was ready and waiting whenever you needed it. A little gizmo like that could go a long way toward tightening up one of the biggest security holes in the interwebs.

I’d build it except for two things: I just don’t have time right now, and a major technology company would end up owning it.

While we wait for someone to step up and build that little beauty, take a moment and reset your “insecurity questions” to something no one can guess. Perhaps for each question that asks for a name, you have one ridiculous answer (that you never tell anyone) and for locations you have another, and so forth. It’s not as good as a different answer for every site (who knows how securely each place stores them?) but it’s a hell of a lot safer than the truth.