Friday, 12-Sep-14 10:01
Insane password policies

A service that I very rarely use just approached me with their new "security rules":

We are pleased to inform you that we have improved the security of XXX website. Because your idea matters, we want to keep them secure and confidential. As per the new policies you will be required to change your passwords on monthly basis. Also the passwords have to be at least 8 characters in length, having at least one letter, one number, and one special character (such as !#$&?.()@^” etc.)

Guys, not like this.

  1. Rolling passwords on a very short basis just makes them insecure.
  2. I don't use your site on a monthly basis anyway, so that means that every single log-in I have the extra burden of inventing a new password that I will never use but which still must be work within your arbitrary rules
  3. Ever heard of two-factor authentication? You know, like if you're really serious about protecting people's ideas? (Of course, this is not without its problems.)
  4. You need me more than I need you. So making the process harder is not actually in your best interest, and telling me that you "require" that I comply with your rules is even less in your best interests.

So basically I'm just shaking my head and putting this thing in my mental "nice idea, but too much trouble" -bucket.

(Yeah, I am aware of 1password and all these tools, but a) they're basically a security single-point-of-failure, and I dislike single points of failure, and 2) I use multiple devices all the time, and the thought of all of my passwords syncing to a single cloud service makes me queasy - and not having the sync makes them kinda pointless.)

Saturday, 16-Aug-14 15:31
Driving with Electricity, pt 1

First, a small confession: I don’t actually own a car. I have never owned one. The reasons are partly practical and part environmental - cars are fairly expensive things to own, and as long as I can manage without one, I can spend the money on other stuff. Like buying an apartment near a major public transportation hub so I don’t actually have to own a car… Also, climate change is a serious problem, and I try to avoid contributing to it. Plus that I actually like my morning commute on the public transport - it’s some quiet time for myself, and it’s faster than driving myself.

However, it does not mean that I don’t drive. I am a member of a car-sharing service as well as a Five Star Gold Member at Hertz… I rent the car when I need one; and take a taxi fairly liberally. The Finnish taxation makes cars pretty expensive things to own, so I’ve been calculating that I am still saving money. Things may of course change when the kids will need to move around more; or if we move to a location where public transportation wouldn’t just work.

The great thing about renting a lot is that you get to drive all sorts of fairly new cars. And I like testing them out, in case I ever actually buy a car. It’s really like getting an extended test drive from the dealer (and I know some people use the test drives as really cheap rentals too, but I haven’t yet used that opportunity).

One car that I had had my eye on for a small while was the Volvo V60 PHEV - a hybrid diesel car that you can plug in at home to charge it up, but which still has a regular diesel engine for the longer trips. So when it popped up on Hertz reservation system when I was looking for my holiday car this summer, I seized the chance, emailed Hertz who got me a sweet deal on it (I’m kinda happy about it, so this is their free plug ;-). Therefore, for the past two months or so I’ve clocked some serious hours in that car - 5400 km worth of time to be precise.

The car

Why people want a hybrid in the first place.

I’m not a car expert, so I won’t be covering a lot of the technical details - frankly, I can’t be arsed to do a lot of research on it. If you’re interested, just go check actual car magazines, who can tell you everything you need to know about how the car lights work etc - I’ll just cover my impressions and thoughts after driving a half-electric-half-diesel car both in city runs as well as a couple of long road trips.

I’ve had a few earlier encounters with Volvos, and I have to admit that they kinda work for me. They’re comfy, spacious, feel a little luxurious (but not too much) and have this… aura of safety around them. Which is nice when you have your most important legacy fighting over toys on the back seat. The D6 engine (the biggest diesel engine that Volvo has) in the V60 PHEV makes this car really GO when it needs to, and the electric engine gives it a nice boost if you press the pedal. Put on the "power" mode and it’s got enough power to give me a scare followed by a big grin the first time I left the traffic lights.

The most wonderful thing about the car though is the electric drive. Driving with an electric engine is pure joy - in fact, I felt slightly offended every time the nasty, polluting diesel engine kicked in. “Why are you ruining my pure experience?”, I swore under my breath many times! Of course, the battery in the car is good for only about 50 km of electric driving, and even then the diesel engine starts from time to time to provide power in sudden accelerations. But there’s a “Pure” (pure!) mode, in which the car really tries to avoid using the combustion engine, so that makes avoiding nastiness a bit easier.

Driving with electric drive is addictive. Nevermind having to dodge people in the garages who’ll never hear you coming ‘cos the thing is just so **quiet**; sometimes I just shut off AC and radio and just listened the wheels and the wind, as there was no other sound from the car. (Aside from the kids bickering in the back, of course. Or the Lego Movie. Whichever happened to be on for the most of the road trips.)

Also, electric driving is cheap. I briefly chatted with the owner of a Prius PHEV, and he mentioned that he hasn’t been to the fuel pumps in over three months. He charges at home, he charges at malls, he charges at the office. He probably doesn’t pay for half of the electricity, since both malls and offices these days have free plugs for EVs. Malls, because it’s a marketing thing (we’ll get to that later); offices ‘cos they are often subletting from a larger garage complex and managing payment for electricity would be more expensive than the electricity itself. Note however that the V60 PHEV is a good deal more expensive than the regular V60, so by my very rough estimate you’d need to drive around 100 000 km with electricity to get even… So at this stage this is more of a lifestyle vehicle than a car you buy because you’re pinching money. But I hear that Volvo is planning to make PHEV versions of all of their models, so I’m certainly giving my thumbs up for that: more production = cheaper prices and more options.

Since everyone’s interested in fuel consumption figures, let me say that I got around 5.2 litres/100km averaged across the entire 5400 km. This is of course because a vast majority of that driving was long-distance (we did one 2000km trip and a few 300 km trips). In the city, the consumption was far less, because we could use electricity to propel us towards new adventures! Volvo themselves claim 1.9 litres/100 km, but that’s only true if you do a massive amount of driving in the city, and are able to charge often. But you could basically go to near-zero if your daily commute was < 50 km and you could charge the battery full at both ends.

But that really brings me to the charging aspect of the EVs. And that’s where things get ugly. Stay tuned for the next episode!

Sunday, 06-Apr-14 15:24
The Danger Of Ostrich Solution

Ever asked an engineer for a solution for a problem with your Windows installation? Ever gotten the answer “use a Mac!”? Or “Buy an iPhone?” Or “Use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office?” That’s the engineer’s Ostrich Solution right there: by pretending the entire premise of the question is invalid, you ignore the problem by blaming the victim. Kinda like putting your head in sand and ignoring the rest of the world exists.

I tweeted recently how I thought that Youtube is becoming useless because they’ve started adding ads directly in the middle of programs. As an automatic algorithm, it disrupts the experience of viewing because it has no concept of story pacing. For some pirated TV shows which have clear cues (like a few frames of black) it might work, but for a whole lot of programming it just ruins the experience.

The responses I got were all in the line of “use an adblocker”. The Ostrich Solution. Pretend Youtube is not screwing things up by ignoring it.

I agree that it is a good solution to annoying ads. It’s direct, it’s simple, it’s effective. It’s the kind of solution engineers thrive on. But it only solves the problem for one person. Everyone else, especially those who don’t have the technical knowledge of installing an adblocker, are completely thrown out in the cold. But the engineer no longer knows this, since he’s solved his own immediate problem, and does not even realize that someone else might have a problem. And that’s how you distance yourself from the general population.

I mean, we engineers know that encryption is important. We run things like “HTTPS everywhere” to keep our communications private. But it wasn’t until Edward Snowden revealed that NSA had been attacking the infrastructure of major internet companies that they decided to turn on encryption for ‘’everyone’’, not just those who actually cared about it. Was it because of cost issues, or was it simply because the engineers figured they know how to turn on SSL from the options so “it was already secure for those who wanted it to be secure”? The designers even made it user-friendly by making the tick look big.

We know that the internet’s freedom is at stake, so we build undeniably wonderful things like Tor and SSH ‘’for those who know how to use such things’’, and leave everyone else to be steamrolled by zealous nationstates. We design internet-enabled gadgets that make our house tweet, and glasses that let you record everything, but don’t really care about what might happen when everyone’s connected this way and someone cracks the OS or our government turns nasty. At least we’ll be rich and can protect ourselves.

I know it’s a human thing. It’s not only that naturally we’re interested in our own wellbeing more than that of other people, but that often it’s just easier and faster to solve the immediate problem and leave the underlying problem field for others. We’re occupied by a billion trivial matters, of which ten are satisfying, and the pressures of the civilization to provide even more and cheaper and better. And we look at people who have made a gazillion dollars and are willing to work long, gruesome hours to get even a whiff of the same success. And this is a wonderful time to be an engineer. We’re good at details, and details is what the world gives us right now in plenty.

Especially in IT, people want to be trailblazers. They want to be the next Twitter or Facebook. That means doing a lot of things that nobody has quite done before in the same way. That’s the nature of engineering in general: there are always exceptions, always problems to solve, no matter how many times you have done it before. And this is good, but it does make it very easy to get trapped in the details. Just solve the problem, and move to the next one.

But I just wish that we could sometimes stop and look at the big picture too. What do things really mean? Where are we going? Do we want to go there? How can we achieve that? What are the steps from here to there? How do we convince everyone else about this too? What will happen when everything is Done?

How to make Solutions For Everyone instead of Solutions Only For Ostrichs.

(OK, perhaps it’s just me who needs to stop and everyone else is constantly looking for the big picture all the time. But I don’t think I am deeply mistaken if I assume that I am not that different from anyone else, and that others share this similar feeling. Perhaps we could do something about it?)

Sunday, 23-Mar-14 03:18
ShadowRun Returns: Dragonfall

OK, so I've been running a ShadowRun game since, well, pretty much late teens, that is, over 20 years now. I've been there pretty much from the first edition of the rules, and been through quite a lot of revisions and world expansions etc - but still, my favourite era in SR is the decade of circa 2050-2060, where everything was still fresh and new and the writing was great. So when the original desktop Shadowrun line developer joined forces with some smart people to make a computer game, I was somewhat excited, but a bit wary - would it truly live up to the expectations?

I may have gushed over the original SR Returns campaign (Dead Man's Switch), and the empty, gutwrenching feeling you have when you realize you have to peek inside an "Universal Brotherhood" -chapterhouse in one part of the game. Without spoiling too much, that place played a pivotal role in the desktop campaign, and as such the campaign for the computer game hit just the right spots, but it was more or less riding on the excellence of the world rather than the writing itself. So it was okay, and promised good things about the future.

However, I just finished the new campaign for SR Returns - Dragonfall. And boy, that's exactly the kind of game the evokes the same feelings as the best game you ever thought you ran as a teenager. That's really where it's at. It's exciting, well-written, and completely and utterly engaging. And it's, well, different from a lot of games. At some point I realized I wasn't playing to win the baddies. I was playing to protect the people - the characters in the game - who were depending on me. I started to take things personally, and at some point I did my darndest to avoid making certain decisions, because they would be bad for the people. And I started caring for those well-written side characters, and wished there was more dialogue written for them. My character "Sparrow" started out as a cynic, no-nonsense street samurai, but over the course of the game he found a soft spot and a home for himself. The character evolved through roleplaying. I would never, ever have thought that that would actually happen in a computer game.

And there were some aspects of some of the missions I just hated. Hated with burning passion. Not because they were bad, but because there were only bad and worse moral choices to be made. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It was wonderful.

Honestly, the last time a game evoked these kinds of feelings was the original Homeworld, where the story and the soundscape created something more than just a game - a feeling of being a part of a story. This is really gaming at it's best; something that lets you discover things about yourself too which you did not realize. I'm really glad to see yet another example of how powerful a game can be - truly justifying games as equal to books or to movies.

I am really looking forward to whatever Harebrained Schemes do next with this game. There are many, many wonderful stories still to tell - I have been telling some of my own for the past 20 years. The goodness of all this makes me giddy.

(You can download Shadowrun Returns on Steam. Well worth it. Both campaigns together took me about 35 hours over the course of a few weeks, an hour here and an hour there. And I just love the soundtrack.)

Private comments? Drop me an email. Or complain in a nearby pub - that'll help.

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"Main" last changed on 16-Aug-2014 15:22:03 EEST by JanneJalkanen.

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