Monday, February 20, 2012

A Password for the Ages - and the Aging


I am staring at my computer screen reading and re-reading the four words that confound me the most whenever I surf the Internet:

"Please enter your password."

I had become a member of this online shopping site just three days ago, creating the obligatory password in the process. I took the advice of cyber experts who warn us not to duplicate our passwords and fashioned something entirely new. However, I failed to take the advice of cyber experts who also suggest we write the password down somewhere.

"I'll remember it," I thought. "It's my first Little League team followed by the year I began playing baseball. Badgers1973."

Now, as I continue to type the password into the box and hit "enter," only to be stymied by "Incorrect Password," I am second-guessing myself. Is this the right password for the right site? It's a question I'm asking myself more frequently these days. Does "funnydad49" allow me to book tickets via American Airlines' website, or is that what I use to check my Google mail? Does "3472" unlock my phone or raise and lower my garage door by means of the electronic keypad outside my house? Is "cyberdork871" my Apple ID that lets me shop in the iTunes store through my iPad or is it the code I created for my home wireless network that lets the iPad talk to the iTunes store?

As I approach the half-century mark of life, my eyesight and my memory skills are deteriorating at alarming rates. Bifocals help the former, but there is no medical remedy for password absent-mindedness. My phone contains an app called Password Keeper that promises to store all the passwords I have created, but I'm not using it for one simple reason:

The app is password protected. I'd need a password to retrieve my passwords.

If you are among those people mentally exhausted due to the jumble of word and number combinations swirling around your brain like lottery balls, take heart. I'm creating a new social network and I'm inviting you to join. I won't reveal all the details, but here's an elevator pitch in case any venture capitalists are reading.

The network will be called OurPassword and sign up is free. Once you have established an account (you won't need a password to do so) I will send you the single password that all members use. Let's say that password is "FAILEDGEEK100." That becomes your password for EVERYTHING you do on line. If you forget the OurPassword password, just seek out another member. OurPassword may never rival Facebook in terms of participants, but I'm confident somebody will be nearby. Imagine sitting at your desk and being unable to make an online dinner reservation because your password escapes you. Just shout, "Is anybody here a member of OurPassword?" I guarantee that, within moments, somebody will glide over and whisper in your ear, "FAILEDGEEK100."

There is one qualification before joining the network. You must first prove that you have been locked out of at least three different websites because you couldn't remember your password. Just snap three photos of your computer screen containing the message, "PASSWORD FAILED" and send them to me as evidence. I'm doing this for security purposes; I don't want this singular password to get into the hands of hackers. By showing me that you are consistently forgetting your passwords, you are also proving you do not have the intelligence to hack. Besides, hackers aren't usually middle aged and suffering memory lapses. From what I've read, hackers are twentysomethings who still live in their parents' basements and whose only friends growing up were a laptop and a poster of Steve Jobs.

I promise I will never change the password, for that would defeat the purpose. Still interested? Stay tuned because I will reveal more details later. Right now, my deadline is approaching and it's time to upload this column to my editors. I just need to log in to the server and then enter my pa . . .

On second thought, maybe I'll just fax it.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Robot Is In The Driveway


My hometown of Chicago is extremely quiet and boring in February with the exception of two events.

The first is a massive surprise snowstorm that will begin precisely at 7 a.m., just as thousands of commuters are headed to work. The blizzard will taper off around noon, but, like the eye of a hurricane, return with a vengeance several hours later. By this time everybody has reached their offices, only to discover they are closed for the day and there is nothing else to do except turn around and head home.

The second is the Chicago Auto Show, a spectacle that brings masses of car enthusiasts to McCormick Place, where they gawk at the latest and greatest automobiles, most of which are identical to last year's models except with higher sticker prices due to one upgraded feature, typically a sturdier cup holder.

I attend the Auto Show whenever I'm in the market for a new car. This is in sharp contrast to most Auto Show attendees, who go merely to get out of the cold. Once inside, they can also feast on $8 dollar hot dogs and have their pictures taken with bikini-clad women who make their living saying, "Things get hot and heavy, when I'm inside my Chevy" forty-eight times per day. This year, however, I will be attending for a different reason. Our society is getting ever so close to a new form of transportation and I want to make sure it's designed correctly.

I'm talking about the driverless car.

No, that's not a misprint. General Motors, Audi, Volkswagen and BMW are among the manufacturers that envision the day when cars will drive themselves, leaving occupants free to do what's really important in a vehicle: composing text messages and applying makeup. Also hoping to catch a piece of the autonomous car market is none other than Google, whose top geeks have apparently finished compiling information on everything in existence and are now seeking new challenges. Search "driverless car" on YouTube and marvel as Google fellow and former Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun explains how a prototype car sans driver recently drove 140,000 miles while stopping at toll booths, parallel parking, avoiding deer and even navigating the crooked streets of San Francisco. I've already shown the video to my 14-year-old daughter and said she will face similar tests when she takes driver's education. (Might as well scare her now, right?)

I was disappointed that the video did not show the vehicle in a car-pool situation. My wife and I spend half our waking hours idling in driveways waiting for some kid to emerge from a house carrying a sports bag large enough to hold an acre of AstroTurf. The computer that operates the driverless car needs to know what awaits it. At this year's Auto Show, I plan to seek out the engineers behind this technology and insist that autonomous cars are equipped with appropriate car-pooling features. Among my requests:

The car must be able to "sense" when one of the kids is darting through the house looking for cleats and notify everyone else, via text message, that the car pool is now running eight to ten minutes late. Might as well notify the opposing team, too.

The car must immediately emit a warning light when somebody in the rear seat drops a sandwich, thereby ensuring a cheese slice won't be discovered six months later.

The car must be immune to odors emitted when one occupant decides to remove a piece of equipment, a kneepad for instance, after practice. Until my kids started playing sports, I never realized knees could smell so bad.

The car must receive only one radio station: National Public Radio. With no driver in the front seat, who's going to keep the occupants from reaching forward and blasting the latest single from a foul-mouthed rapper?

Finally, the car must trust its on-board navigational system and not succumb to suggestions from the occupants such as, "Turn left, I mean right, NO LEFT," "I think that's my house" and "You just passed it."

Please notify me when these features are in place. I'll be at the Chevrolet booth, posing for a photo.