The Password Nightmare

If you are sitting in front of your PC (if you are over 50 years of age) or staring at a mobile device (if you are under 30) and struggling with, “sch#m!t1/” or “Sc-h^m%…..” or some other weird and unpronounceable word, let me say, ‘Welcome to the maze called ‘Remembering Passwords’  –  otherwise known as, “Victory of Machine over Human”.

Passwords are a necessary evil that came into existence as the digital world evolved. In the centuries gone by, those who were lucky enough to have a PC probably had one place to log into and had up their sleeves ingenious passwords such as ‘abc123’ or ‘12345’ or something at the same level of complexity. And, more often than not, such a sophisticated password was written down on a piece of paper and stuck to the monitor in the living room.

Then came the online explosion – bank accounts, credit cards, multiple email accounts, online groups, Facebook, and so on. Overnight one had to develop an elephant memory for remembering passwords (called ‘credentials’ by the nerds who designed them). Again, simpletons like me were able to beat the system for a while with the ubiquitous ‘abc123’ as the universal password – but not for long. The powers that be, backed by real and imaginary security threats, started designing complex algorithms to force unsuspecting users to create passwords that were difficult to break – and more difficult to remember, if I may add.

Try creating a humane password for your bank account where the requirement is a minimum length of ten characters, no two characters repeated, beginning with an uppercase but ending with a non-alphabetic character with at least two numbers in between. You outsmart yourself by designing a word straight out of hieroglyphics, memorize it and try to adapt it as your panacea for all (password) evils – till you get to your next online account that politely but firmly informs you that the password cannot be more than 8 characters long and, sorry, no special characters allowed. You are ready to jump off the cliff at this stage.

But, wait, there is more, as they say in those intrusive TV ads! You have to change your password every 90 days (no doubt to keep you safe and secure, though at the risk of driving you insane) and you cannot use the past ten passwords. This is when you start keeping a written log of your password history with scant regard for the very security that the password is supposed to enhance.

There are of course other nuances with passwords such as the hints that ‘help’ you retrieve forgotten passwords – the high school where your grandma studied in her ninth grade (I am not sure if my grandma made it that far in school), the third letter of the month in which your eldest sibling was born (what about people who don’t have siblings?) and so on. This soon begins to look like a mystery adventure with Sherlock Holmes.

Let us end with a silver lining to this miserable saga. The increasing use of biometrics and retinal scans – with nothing to remember – as acceptable and preferred forms of identification may bring the much needed relief to the password challenged population.

A Conversation – of sorts

A conversation is defined as “oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas” by Merriam-Webster and as “interactive communication between two or more people” by the more modern Wikipedia. Both are obviously naïve and unaware of how so-called conversations take place in contemporary social media driven society.

Fundamentally, today’s conversation is part of a multi-tasking adventure by the participants, with the number of tasks per head varying from two to infinity. Some less talented people, in addition to the in-person interactions (!) taking place, carry on a parallel conversation on their mobile phone. The more skilled ones, however, juggle with multiple chat sessions and peruse/post messages on Facebook, WhatsApp and a plethora of other must-indulge-in-every-minute applications – including posting about the discussion currently (not) taking place.

Another characteristic of modern conversation is talking only in questions (as they do in game shows such as ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’). People usually do not wait for answers to any of their questions – and to match this expectation, the responder treats every question as a rhetorical one and proceeds to the next topic with the speed of a car accelerating at a signal about to turn red.

The phenomenon reaches hilarious proportions when three or more people are involved in the said multi-tasking adventure. Let us follow one such conversation between three friends (I have limited the participation to three, based on my own limitations in multi-tasking).

Peter: Hello, how is it going? Did you all have a nice weekend?

Sheila: I will call you later …… Hi Betsy! Mom, I said … I will call you later.

Betsy: Hello Peter, how is John, your little one, doing?

Peter: Well, John is …..

Sheila: Hi Peter, how are you – did not see you earlier….. excuse me (looks at her smart phone)

Betsy: Oh my God! (vigorously swipes on her iPhone)

Peter: (looking lost) Ladies, is everything OK?

Sheila: (looking at her phone) Betsy, did you see where Bill was having dinner last night?

Betsy: (looking intently at a photo on her phone) Is that Bill?! Could hardly recognize…..Peter, you were saying…..

Peter: Never mind.

Sheila: Peter, you look a little off color today. Anything…..I forgot my brain, I mean, purse, at home…..My brain is not working…

Betsy: You never told me about how John is doing. Is he ……

Betsy: Hey, look….they are crazy……they did not deliver the Mother’s Day flowers to my mom….What a bummer.

Shortly thereafter, all three walk away looking at their smart phones.          QED

A Visit to the Supermarket

Of all the things that I dread having to do, a visit to the supermarket easily ranks at the very top – well above the unpleasant but equally unavoidable visit to the dentist. There is a kind of panic, akin to jumping off a cliff and realizing that you forgot to take the parachute with you, that sets in as soon as I am told that it is that time of the day/week/month when I am required to head in a certain direction.

The first obstacle to overcome in the adventure is to find a parking spot that is free from risks such as damage to your car from freewheeling trolleys, decoration from ice-creams and pies that kids getting into cars in adjacent parking spots are likely to be spraying, I mean eating, or simply being a spot that is impossible to locate when returning with your shopping bags.

Entering the supermarket feels like entering a traffic junction where dozens of roads meet with the proverbial infinite paths to choose from, the only certainty being that I would head down the wrong road/aisle to start my journey. I customarily take a shopping basket instead of the more convenient trolley on the assumption that I am buying only ‘a few things’ as my folks at home had indicated by way of encouragement. The result is that, halfway through my shopping escapade, I feel like I am working out in a gym carrying impossible weights up and down aisles.

To avoid a second trip to the dreaded place in the not-too-distant future, I usually carry a list of items I am expected to return home with. The only problem is that this list, similar to the announcement of finalists in a beauty pageant, is truly in a random order, which in turn results in my traversing the full length of the store to pick up successive items which seem to be mysteriously arranged in exact opposite corners.

I wonder if I am the only one challenged with the ability to pick up even mundane items like bread and milk amidst the bewildering variety of descriptions, more like computer technical specifications, that accompany the myriad of choices available for each of these – hardly what our forefathers were thinking when they coined the phrase, ‘bread and butter’. What is the difference between ‘free range’ eggs and ‘cage free’ eggs? How low is the fat content in a ‘low fat’ milk can? How many more types of grains are there in a ‘multi-grain’ bread as compared to a ‘seven grain’ loaf?

After completing the equivalent of a two-hour workout in a gym, I triumphantly head to the cash register with the least number of customers ahead of me and, of course, end up spending the maximum amount of time to actually get to the cashier, silently watching the queue in adjacent counters melt like fresh snow in the midday sun. After I am made aware of several stupid mistakes such as carrying the wrong coupon with an invalid date and picking up the wrong buy-one-get-one-free fruit basket, I am ready to jump off the cliff – yes, without the parachute. I am in some sort of a trance as I pay the cashier, lug the shopping bags to the car and wriggle out of the parking lot without hitting anything or anyone  – until the cell phone rings …..”Hi, we forgot to add cheese to the list……”.

Browsing in Traffic

Hold it. Before you accuse me of offering ill-founded (if not illegal) advice to browse the web while driving (which, I suppose, is certainly a less dangerous activity than texting as you are in a read-only mode), I would like to make it clear that I am pondering on the nuances of browsing in digital traffic.

Readers who are old enough to remember will no doubt recall the good old days of leisurely reading through the daily newspaper or the weekly magazine without having to be on high alert to respond to the barrage of messages arriving on your smart phone (smart, really?!) in millisecond intervals. Perish the thought and move on to contemporary times and join the digital highway.

When the first digital version of my favorite newspaper came out, I was thrilled because I no longer had to wait for my dad to finish reading all the editorial essays and solve the world’s problems before I could get a chance to look at the sports headlines (our family code of ethics prevented separation of pages in the newspaper or jumping the hierarchy). And the wait for the paper boy to whizz by on his vehicle of choice followed by retrieval of the item of interest from the garbage dump into which it was regularly thrown was over. Everything was (your favorite smiley face here).

But my happiness was short-lived. First, it was the plethora of newspapers on the Net competing for one’s attention. Unlike the physical paper, every one of which had to be paid for, the digital media was free. Add to this the variety of periodicals and nameless news feeds that I had succumbed to by providing my email address during brain-dead moments, I was in a traffic jam worse than my worst nightmare on an interstate highway.

Let us move on to the next stage of this saga. After serious pursuit of meditation and yoga principles, I discipline yours truly to practice amnesia on non-essential web links and limit myself to browsing only the chosen sites. However, I soon realize, to my horror and dismay, that all the traffic on the Internet gets routed to the one site that I am on at any point in time. There are pop-ups (I have never been good at playing whack-a-mole), alerts (my computer seems to be a living encyclopedia of real and imaginary viruses), greyed content (why has everything gone so dark? where is the ‘close’ button on this moving gadget on the screen?),  one-question surveys (please, let me read the paper first before giving an opinion on the news), advertisements for defibrillators (how do they know about my recent heart attack?) and offers for my evening soup (is there a secret camera above my dining table?) – all superimposed on the one paragraph that I am desperately trying to read. It feels more like playing a video game than browsing a newspaper.

After fighting a losing battle for several days, I find myself sheepishly standing next to my dad with his face buried in his (physical) paper – ‘Dad, I would like to catch up on some sports news’!

Days Of Our Lives

Disclaimer: I am not promoting the eternal soap opera with the same name – a TV show that, by the way, is quite likely to outlive all of us. I am talking about the various ‘Day(s)’ that seem to clog our calendar year on year.

It is becoming rare to find a date on the calendar that is not annotated as a day that is expected to be remembered and, God forbid, ‘celebrated’ – Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Friendship Day, Groundhog Day, Administrative Professional’s Day and so on.  Before every one of the 365 days is taken, I want to file a patent to designate one day as the Day-Free Day – and call it ‘(myname)’ Day!

Don’t get me wrong – I truly admire the innovative souls that constantly conjure up a new value, moral or shouldn’t-forget concept in our lives and, before you can say, ‘hickory dickory dock’, usurp a day to hammer it down your throat on an annual basis.

The issue I have is that I am not a ‘day’ person. I have great difficulty in remembering my own birthday, worse, my spouse’s and all the cousins twice removed. I barely escape the guillotine every year on my wedding anniversary – having finally solved the problem by bribing a few friends with yearly retainers to remind me in time.

If remembering a day on the right day (you know what I mean) is stressful, knowing what to do on that day takes it to an entirely different level of torture. What color dress are you supposed to wear on St Patrick’s Day? What is the correct wrist band to wear on Breast Cancer Awareness Day? Do I celebrate Grandparents Day even if my only surviving grandparent has Alzheimer’s and cannot distinguish yesterday from the day after? And, when do I (not) say, “Happy …. Day” – you know how people nonchalantly say, “Happy Columbus Day (who is this dude?)” or “Happy (tongue-in-cheek) Mother-in-Law Day” or “Happy Martyrs’ Day (really?)”.

I suspect that many of these ‘days’ are a ploy of the capitalist economy to reduce your assets and increase your liabilities (commonly called ‘debt’!). By the time you are done with buying cards, chocolates, jewelry and flowers for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and any other days that you manage to remember, and donating to various charities on appropriate ‘days’, the only thing you are likely to be left with is a lengthy credit card statement. This is when you wish there were a day named, “Forgive Your Credit Card Debt Day”! But for now, just grin and bear it!

Takeoff to Touchdown

It is happening! I am actually at the doorstep of the aircraft to begin, what I naively assume to be, an exciting journey. For those who are wondering, “what is wrong with this guy?”, I recommend a quick review of my earlier travails here.

Finally, I am inside the aircraft where I witness activity and chaos comparable to those in my local flee market. Some elite class passengers are seated trying to bury themselves in their electronic devices while managing to sneer at the lesser mortals trying to snake their way to the bottom, I mean, back of the aircraft. The majority of have-nots have had their progress through the aisle stopped by a determined individual trying to fit an oversized suitcase in the overhead bin. Mercifully, with the intervention of several flight attendants, some order is restored and the flight actually takes off with a delay of only 5 minutes – but not before the customary public announcements have forcefully provided an update on all possible disasters that could strike us in the next 2-3 hours.

The takeoff is eventless and various warning lights are extinguished. A sense of having been released from prison prevails. Wedged in a middle seat and having lost the battle for the use of either arm-rest, I valiantly attempt to retrieve my book from the tote bag that is wedged in front of me inches from my feet. Needless to say, the degrees of freedom available for movement amount to zero and I might as well be strapped to an electric chair. So, I turn my attention to other modes of entertainment such as solving the Sudoku puzzle in the airlines magazine. A cleverer passenger on an earlier flight has solved all the puzzles in my copy and I, having boarded the flight in Group Z, do not have the courage to ask for another copy.

The tinkling sounds of the refreshments trolley fill me with the hope that all is not lost. I wait eagerly as the cabin crew slowly and unsteadily make their way from either end of the aircraft to the center row where yours truly is seated, in a manner of speaking. “Would you like something to drink?” says the robotic voice. Making sure that the question was definitely addressed to me, I say confidently, “coffee, with cream please…….. and, er …. some water ……. without…”. I am cut off in mid-sentence and a glass of ice lands in front me and the stern lady promises to come back with coffee. For the next ten minutes, I embark upon a mismatched duel between ice cubes and my teeth while trying to keep the sound level to an acceptable decibel.

My coffee service stands suspended indefinitely as fresh restrictions are placed on the movement of one and all due to unexpected turbulence (I have a feeling the pilot chose to enter turbulent zones to avoid my being served the elixir!). Just when I have lost all hopes of anything going right for me, the good lady brings me a cup of coffee that I gratefully accept. Wisely deciding that it would be too risky a maneuver to attempt, I skip the open-the-milk-sachet-spill-and-splash-and-get-some-into-the-cup act and gulp down the black coffee – just in time to obey commands for the prepare-the-cabin-for-landing routine.

I give myself a break and decide to disembark last from the aircraft even as the cleaning crew try to hinder my exit. The overwhelming sense of being a free human being again seems to make every minute of the just concluded ordeal worth it!

Waiting to board

Exciting! I have finally arrived – I mean, not in any philosophical sense, but at a more earthly destination, the airport! Where do you think I am headed (choose one):

  • Vacation
  • Business meeting
  • Family reunion
  • Running away from a misdeed

What I am about to explore, I mean experience, remains the same for any of the above choices.

There are very few people at my gate, given that I have arrived 3 hours before the flight departure time, as stipulated by the airline. I position myself on a seat closest to the podium, now empty, but soon to be occupied by the powers-that-be who will usher me in. I hold my boarding pass (printed paper, I may add) correctly turned with my name facing the beholder and my tiny hand luggage with the wheels properly aligned for being dragged behind me. I am ready to go!

More and more people trickle in as the hours and then minutes go by – not least the smiling ladies who rightfully ascend the podium and turn on their computer screens. I flash my warmest smile at them in an attempt to register my presence as an eligible passenger. They of course ignore me and concentrate on large sheets of paper that constitute various administrative procedures that need to be completed before the flight can be cleared for departure.

People start peering through available glass surfaces to announce the arrival of the incoming flight, a positive sign that energizes everyone around with the indication that our own departure is now imminent, if not inevitable. The long stream of arriving passengers tackles its way past departing travelers firmly holding their positions in the passageway – reminding you of running backs in an NFL football game.

When the announcement is made that the flight is almost ready to board, I am up on my feet and perform a self-check – boarding pass, check; handbag zipped, yes; coffee cup closed and covered, yes; reading material in front zip packet, yes. All set from my end. But the other party has other ideas.

There is a long announcement about the bewildering sequence in which people will be allowed to enter the aircraft – from the most elite to the downtrodden and also-rans. First class and business class followed by platinum plus, gold minus and various other noble metals from the Periodic table are invited to board through the red carpet lane after removing unsuspecting bystanders like me from the area. I continue a losing battle to stay in front as suit after suit, mixed with dazzling colorful shirts and skirts, who have obviously done their homework to slot themselves into one of these premier classes of citizenship, pass by me with many sneering at my impudence to stay ahead by checking my boarding pass for a non-existent status indicator.

Finally, when just about everybody else seems to have boarded, I hear the magic words, “all others are welcome to board”. With a sense of relief, summoning my courage, I approach the airline lady at the gate, no longer smiling as all the important categories have already boarded. She lets me know, in a robotic voice, that my tiny bag will need to be checked-in as the overhead bin space is no longer available to lesser mortals like me. She even gives me a condescending look that seems to say, “Did you really expect to be allowed to take that silly handbag with you on the aircraft?”