Archive for November 2012

The insecurity of repetition

November 12, 2012

You shouldn’t use the same password for more than one thing, you know. OK, so the number of organisations demanding a password from you has increased hugely in the past few years. OK, so you need to “register” and think of a password every time you buy a pair of jeans or a jar of vitamin pills online. OK, so we’re constantly bombarded with new social networky things to try, all of which require passwords. But don’t ever reuse a password! If you do, the hackers, high on smacky-crack, will steal your money! And your identity! And you’ll only have yourself to blame!

I have an alternative take on this, which may just be one of the most boring conspiracy theories ever. If weak-ass conspiracy theories annoy you, please stop reading now.

What happens when you have to think up a new password for every one-off purchase or one-off interaction? Either…

  1. You have a l33t failsafe system enabling you to generate lots of one-off passwords and somehow not forget any of them. Perhaps this involves a nice weighty electronic “key chain” which is not a substitute for genitals at ALL, oh dear me no.
  2. You generate a new password, then realise next time you visit the site that you’ve forgotten it, so you go through the rigmarole of generating a new one, then you forget it again.
  3. You cheat and reuse the same password for a few unimportant things, e.g. sites which force you to “register” before you can buy anything, trying new social media, etc.
  4. You write down your passwords.

If you’re in the second category, you can feel quite frustrated because you were sure you knew your password, but you keep typing it in and it’s not working. Maybe you spelt it slightly differently? Maybe there was a 1 instead of an I? Aaargh, still not working. Better reset it.

But if you’re in the third or fourth category, things get weird. You feel sure you know what your password is, because you’ve written it down, or because you always use the same one for this kind of thing. And it still doesn’t work. Either you’re so stupid that you wrote it down wrong, or somehow managed to forget it even though you always use it… or something else is going on.

I am absolutely certain of my Verified by Visa password, security theatre bollocks though the whole thing may be. I didn’t need to write it down because it’s a phrase that means a lot to me. The first time I used it after setting it, it didn’t work. So I re-set it, to exactly the same as before. Next time I used it, it still didn’t work. I think I re-set my password about five times, to exactly the same thing, before it “took” and finally worked.

Here’s my conspiracy theory. Maybe when you set a password, for whatever reason, it doesn’t always work. But the proliferation of password demands, and the constant warnings not to reuse passwords or write them down, confuse the human brain to the point where we blame ourselves. If you’re trying to keep twenty or more passwords in your head, it’s understandable that you’ll make a mistake. It’s only when you ignore the security guidance that you realise “Hang on. My version of reality does not match yours.”

Perhaps the institutions who demand and then reject our passwords are gaslighting us.

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How to precipitate a change in someone’s looks

November 7, 2012

Most people have some aspect of their appearance that they wouldn’t have chosen if it had been up to them. It might be a gap in the teeth, a mole, some extra weight. How you deal with it depends on you. Some people remain obsessed with the flaw, or perceived flaw, to the point where they feel unhappy every time they look in the mirror. Getting rid of it is the only solution they can see to this unhappiness.

Other people make their peace with these flaws. No, they wouldn’t have chosen it, but it’s just a bald patch/a wonky tooth/a few freckles. They can live with it. It’s fine.

Want to know how to make those people join the ranks of the obsessed and unhappy? Tell them that the flaw is “part of who [they] are” and an important part of their identity as it appears to you.

“That mole? It’s just you. It’s just part of who you are.”
“You wouldn’t be you without your sticky-out teeth. Don’t get them fixed!”
“You just look weird without your glasses. Not like you at all.”

People who say this kind of thing think they’re being reassuring. The general message is “It would be boring if everybody was the same! That physical flaw you’re worried about – it’s just part of life’s rich tapestry, and it helps to make you unique!” But what the other person hears is: “As far as I’m concerned, that flaw defines you.

I’m happy to have a pot belly if I’m the guy who loves coffee, knows about classic cars, makes hilarious jokes and – oh yeah, he does have a pot belly, now you come to mention it. But to hear that I am the guy with a pot belly and the pot belly “is just part of who you are” – that’s enough to send me running to the nearest Pilates class. In fact, somebody recently told me that my current hairstyle “is what I think of as you” and that was enough to get me looking critically at the hairstyle, realising how boring it is and booking a haircut.

Yes, some people revel in the differences that make them unique. But just because Ken Dodd insures his buck teeth or Christina Hendricks “celebrates her curves” on the Daily Mail’s creepy sidebar, that doesn’t mean the average person feels like that. If you really want to reassure someone you care about, tell the other person that their physical quirk is too far down the list of interesting things about them to be worth mentioning.