Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Use Secure Passwords Easily with SuperGenPass

It's only natural to be lazy about using passwords for online accounts. I can't tell you how many people I know that use a four- or six-digit number for their passwords - typically their own birthday. But even if you have created one appropriately complex password, if you use it for more than one website, or - worse yet - for all your online accounts, you risk that if one site's database is compromised by malicious hackers, all your online accounts may be similarly compromised.

Today, passw0rd "cracking" tools can easily perform "dictionary" assaults, tirelessly testing combinations of real words, names, and combinations of numbers. Creating complex passwords is therefore a must. Robust complex passwords mix letters, numbers and cases (i.e., f7H8sca93kkZhH), but are therefore nearly impossible to remember. To be truly secure, you'd want to use a different password for each site you visit - but remembering many complex passwords is really awkward.

One nice solution is SuperGenPass. This clever piece of freeware from author Chris Zarate is stored locally on your computer as a Java "bookmarklet" in your Web browser. You need only remember one "strong" master password - SuperGenPass generates a custom, unique password for every website based upon your master password and that site's domain name (i.e., "amazon.com"). No one can "reverse-engineer" your master password. You can install SuperGenPass on every computer you use - even on other people's computers. (Author Zarate assures users that the bookmarklet transmits no information of any kind - and even if you choose to "store" your master password in the Web browser, it is securely encrypted.)

Using SuperGenPass is simple:
  • Use the SuperGenPass Bookmarklet Builder, answering the three questions (I'm using the "Enter your master password each time, but use a hash to verify it" option) and drag the generated bookmarklet to the "personal toolbar" of my browser (on every computer I might use). You only need to do this once for every Web browser on which you wish to use SuperGenPass.
  • Whenever I need to fill in password fields on a Web page, I simply click the "SuperGenPass" bookmark and a small dialog box pops up in the upper-right corner of my browser window, asking for my master password.
  • Clicking the "Populate" button will tell SuperGenPass to attempt to fill in any password fields it finds on the current Web page with your generated password.
That's it. Provided you type in the master password correctly, SuperGenPass will always generate the same unique password for the current website.

Fancy optional features allow you to embed your master password into the bookmarklet for convenience (although this would allow anyone with operational access to your computer to access any sites) or to double-check that you've typed in your master password correctly.

Using SuperGenPass means changing passwords at any site with which you're already registered, so it may require some effort to switch over, if you're determined to remove your old password(s) from all your registered sites. A caveat about using SuperGenPass is that it will *always* generate the same complex password from the same combination of master password and domain name - if you use any sites that require periodic password changes, you might want to avoid using SuperGenPass for those sites.

Monday, May 14, 2007

OS X Migration Assistant Works with USB Drives

Apple's Migration Assistant software, included with OS X since v10.4, makes moving your personal data and applications from an existing Macintosh to a newer one a snap. However, if you are attempting to migrate from an older Macintosh which does NOT have FireWire ports, it may appear that Migration Assistant does not provide a solution. As it turns out, Migration Assistant will work with USB external hard drives - just ignore text prompts that suggest otherwise.

Apple Computer doesn't suggest that this is possible, and when the Migration Assistant is run, the only options presented to the user are to select a FireWire drive or an alternative internal volume. However, I was successful in using an external 2.5" USB hard drive to transfer files from a pre-FireWire 350MHz Mac (all iMacs with CPU speeds of 400MHz or higher have FireWire ports) to a newer iBook G4.
Note: For this to work, the USB external hard drive may require formatting as a Macintosh volume. I attempted to use the external USB hard drive formatted as an MS-DOS volume, Carbon Copy Cloner complained that no available drive could be found. Reformatting using Disk Utility (CAUTION! Formatting deletes all data on the formatted drive forever!) as a Mac volume made the drive visible to CCC.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Make Informed Decisions about Airline Seats

Ever wish you could sit nearer the lavatory on an airplane? Or further away? Have you been given the opportunity to choose a seat number, but didn't know how many seats across your scheduled aircraft had?

A really cool site called SeatGuru has cabin layouts of the specific aircraft any given airline flies, so you can make informed decisions about seats. SeatGuru also lists galley locations, "undesirable" seats, and in-seat power availability, among other attributes. I found it very handy.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Telepresence

This summer I traveled across the country to stay with my mom as she recovered from hip-replacement surgery. My wife - a college professor - was mid-semester, so we planned to video chat often to stay in touch. What actually happened in the first few days was, for me, a revelation/revolution in the human communication experience...

THE FUTURE WAS THEN...
During a visit with my father in 1967, we attended Expo 67, the World's Fair in Montreal, Canada. One of my few enduring memories of the trip was talking to my father on an AT&T Picturephone inside a glass-enclosed pavillion, next to a full-sized mock-up of NASA's Apollo Lunar Excursion Module on a simulated moonscape. My father was only about 50 feet away on another Picturephone, and it was only black & white (hey, my family didn't own a color television until 1979), but the promise was that some day, we all could not only hear but see our friends and family over great distances.

Forty years(!) later, we still don't have Picturephones. There are a lot of reasons, possibly the best reason being that much of the time we just don't want to be seen in whatever state we're in when the phone rings. We've gotten used to the paradigm of speaking to a disembodied voice injected directly into one ear - we've been doing so for well over a century.

Of course, there have been solutions for getting that past-future Picturephone into the home. I the past decade and more, there have been expensive consumer devices that connected to a user's phone line and provided choppy video and gravely audio by digitally compressing them to pass through the same "pipe" intended for only audio.

Today, of course, personal computer users can use inexpensive cameras (which may already be incorporated into their computers) in concert with a broadband Internet connection in their home or business to "video chat" or even "video conference" (with more than two people concurrently) with others anywhere in the world. Video quality can be quite good, depending upon the speed of one's Internet connection, and audio is excellent.

Like many, I have been regularly using video chat on personal computers since 2003, when Apple Computer introduced the "AV" version of their "iChat" text- and voice-chat client application. Starting in the early 1990s, I'd periodically played with Internet telephony, but with disappointing results. Attempting to establish test conversations with other geeky friends always resulted in burning up hours in futile troubleshooting, often with one party hearing the other but not vice versa - sometimes with audio skipping most of the words, and sometimes humorously spitting out 10 seconds of speech in a 2-second Chipmunks-style burst. When Apple introduced iChatAV for their Macintosh operating system, they presented a mature and relatively stable technology for easy audio and video communication over the Internet.

This maturation of teleconferencing was possible too because of the increasing penetration of "broadband" Internet access. Increasingly, consumers around the world subscribe to various methods of delivering 24/7 Internet access at data speeds many times greater than those achievable through the half-century old paradigm of the telephone modem.

TOGETHERNESS
When preparing for my trip to North Carolina, I discovered that the hospital where my mom was having her orthopaedic surgery had free WiFi in some parts of most buildings, but was still in the process of extending coverage campus-wide. I had no idea how much time I'd spend in the hospital, but I prepared for the worst, including acquisition of a WiFi range-extending solution. While in the surgical waiting room, I was delighted to discover that I did indeed have WiFi access in our wing of the hospital.

As soon as my mom was out of surgery and post-op ICU, she was moved to her room. I blogged her status for family and friends, and phoned the less tech-savvy. As soon as I was settled in her room, I set up my laptop and its video camera and discovered my wife online (very early in California). We started a video chat, and I updated her on my mom's status. My wife re-met a friend of my mother's who had stayed with me through the surgery. The laptop was on the rolling hospital bed table, and I showed my wife my mother sleeping off her anesthetic. In these critical first post-op hours, hospital staff popped in every 10-15 minutes, so I'd introduce my wife and each staff member to each other. In every case, the staff seemed delighted and surprised. When my mom first regained consciousness, she was very enthusiastic, if groggy, to be able to speak to her daughter-in-law before she again fell asleep.

The day of surgery was a Friday, and my wife was grading student projects on her computer at home all day, so we just left the cameras going. Staff would come and go and exchange pleasantries with my wife. When the nursing shift changed, new staff would be introduced. Later in the day, I walked my wife around the hospital floor (with her full face on the laptop screen facing forward) and introduced her to the nurses at their station.

After several hours, I was quite hungry, having never left the room. At my wife's encouragement, I went down to the cafeteria, leaving her to watch my mom with the plan that if anything needing my attention happened, she would call my cell phone. I took a break, confident that my wife was "watching" over my mom.

When I returned from the basement cafeteria 20 minutes later with my tray of food, I pushed open the door to my mom's room, and this is when I had an experience:

...the door opened to reveal the contents of the room and in that moment, when I actually saw the mostly-empty room around my mother's sleeping form - there was an expectation, a mental prediction, a mind's-eye image of my wife in the room - that vanished like an unremembered dream upon waking. For that moment, I believed that my wife was in the room. But she wasn't - and she was.

In all the years I've used telephones and Internet-based audio- and video-chat, it was always an "event." You call, you talk. You finish talking, you hang up. The difference here was that for 10 straight hours, my wife was virtually "in the room." For most of the time, we didn't talk. She was doing school work, and I was tending to my mom. When things happened in the room, visitors arriving, staff checking vitals, she interacted with them in the same way that a person physically in the room would, making conversation. I was just as meaningful when she'd go off to get a snack that we could see the empty chair in our office in California, as though that room were now just adjacent to the North Carolina hospital room. It wasn't a communications "event," it was just being there. "Telepresence" comes to mind. Usually referring to technologies that bring more sensory information than the familiar video and audio of our media world, it seems most appropriate here to describe this committed emotional congregation made possible through technological infrastructure more typically utilized for terse bursts of pure information.

Upon further reflection, I remember that in my youth, I did on several occasions watch television while not talking to friends for hours. We were watching the same show, and not really talking but for an occasional "you still there?" In truth, that's kind of the same thing - emotionally, psychically sharing a common, if virtual, mental space. And in the same way, it's similar to my hospital/video-chat experience because of the intent, or lack thereof, to actively use the communications technology for interaction. It wasn't about what we said - it was about spending time with someone.

The tech geek, futurist and creative thinker in me were all caught unawares by the powerful but unobvious meaning of this only recent possibility for mankind. It's something I think others would find similarly satisfying, particularly in the context of being able to provide long-distance emotional support for something like a hospital stay.

EPILOGUE
My mom's hip replacement went spectacularly well. She was completely off her walker and cane in seven weeks, and has more physical stamina than she's had in years. Most impressively, she's talking about having the other hip done.

Our laptop will be there.