Archive for the ‘Science!’ Category

How to Create a Password

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

This is something I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, mainly for my family and any other lass-than-savvy Internet users who might read this blog.

These days, you really need to have a strong password. It needs to have numbers and letters. Preferably even symbols and capital letters. Here are some ways to create a strong password that’s still easy to remember:

  • Take a word with an I, A, O, E, or S in it and replace those letters with 1, @, 0, 3, or 5, respectively.
  • Make a pattern on the keyboard. I was perusing a list of 100 common passwords and was surprised that one of my old standbys, 1q2w3e, was not on the list.[1]
  • Spell your name backwards (or your kids’s names or your street, whatever) and put your age or birth date in the middle.

For an even stronger password, capitalize every other letter. Or just the first and last if that’s too annoying to perform.

And since most people have a ton of different websites that they use, and since using the same password for every site you visit is not a good idea, here are a couple of tips:

  • Keep a mental keychain of passwords, some easy, some hard. For basic sites like MySpace or Facebook, a simple password is fine, but if you’re logging into your bank account or anything involving your credit card, you want that password to be as tricky as possible.
  • If you only want to use one password, then alter it slightly for each use by adding the initials of the website at the beginning or end of your password (preferably in caps for extra safety). So if your standard password were 1q2w3e, then you might use 1q2w3eMS to log into MySpace.

1.) Please don’t try to hack any of my accounts with this password. I haven’t used it for anything in years.

Conet Project / Numbers Stations

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

Reading through my new favorite site,, I came across some things for which I’ve been searching a couple of years now: the collected recordings of the Conet Project, an out-of-print assemblage of numbers station broadcasts.

Numbers stations are repeated, anonymous, apparently encoded shortwave broadcasts emanating from various points across the world in various languages. The most likely explanation for them is that they carry encoded messages for use in espionage. Given the permanently looped nature of many of the transmissions, it’s likely that they’ve been abandoned and are still running only because they haven’t lost power. Prior to today I’ve only heard a few examples, but thanks to, a link to mp3′s of all four discs of the Conet Project was provided at the end of their article on the subject.

Disc 1
Disc 2
Disc 3
Disc 4

So I downloaded all of them and have been listening to them for an hour now. Spooky stuff. It’s fun to wonder about their sources, who set them up, what they mean, and who receives them. And, given that I’m the type of person who tends to have sympathy for inanimate objects, I find a certain romance in the idea of a small transmitter, sitting in the middle of nowhere, lost forever, constantly sending out its odd little signal.

Mental Alarm Clocks and Post-It Notes

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

The human brain has so many applications of which most of us aren’t even aware. Video playback machine, audio receiver, computer, calculator…these are the applications with which most people are familiar. But did you know that the brain can also function as an alarm clock and Post-It note pad?

We hear a lot about the internal clock, but it has an alarm feature and snooze function if you know how to operate it. I remember as a child my grandmother would take naps and always wake up at 4PM because that’s what she would tell her brain to do. She would just focus on that particular hour and she would always wake up at that time. I’ve learned that you can even teach your brain to snooze in as little as 15 minute increments. Sometimes at the office during lunch I would take naps in the workout room and I wouldn’t let myself sleep longer than 15-20 minutes. Most of the time, it worked.

Recently I’ve also discovered the wonders of the Post-It note capacity. If you have a task that you need to accomplish at some point in the future, you can associate it in your mind with some other non-unique coinciding task. For example, the other day as I was going to bed I knew I needed to email my friend Robin, so I focused on my morning routine of opening the laptop, and I attached her name to that task. Or last month when I was leaving Heath’s place I knew that I’d be getting into my car to leave at some point, so I associated the word “pizza” to that task to remind myself not to leave my pizza in Heath’s fridge.

Try these on your own and let me know how it goes.

Auditory Shapes

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, mentions that he once worked for a company that worked on audio recognition software for determining the content of differently labeled mp3 files. Back in the days of Napster especially, the titles of similar audio files would vary widely by user. For example, “One” by Metallica might have dozens of permutations of its title – one.mp3, metallica-one.mp3, one_metalika.mp3, etc. So the software was good at distinguishing identical audio files with different names, but there still is no software to do what the human brain can do, and that is to identify different versions of a song. Humans can recognize melodies irrespective of arrangement, timbre, key, or tempo. Computers have a really hard time with that.

It’s a complex task of course, especially given the vast range of interpretations that jazz musicians[1] offer us. But even when Ella Fitzgerald forgets the words to “Mack the Knife” we still consider it a legitimate version of the song. As yet, no computer can. There’s too much information to weed out, and the underlying question the book’s author presents is “what makes melody so special?”

As I drove back from the laundromat yesterday, I wondered if the answer is “shape.” A melody is a kind of shape. It’s a relationship between intervals, and not notes, or instruments or anything else. I think the brain might most easily process and store basic shapes before anything else. Visually, a triangle is still a triangle regardless of its color, location, shading or background. So the same is true with “Joy to the World” – you can change the instrument, key, arrangement, whatever, but as soon as you alter even one interval, it really ceases to be “Joy to the World.”

A similar visual parallel is CAPTCHA images that prevent spam. You can recognize the letters regardless of the colors, shape mutation and other visual distortions. But thus far computers have a hard time doing the same.

There’s still no solid consensus on how the brain does this. It actually ventures in the realm of philosophy and Wittgenstein’s famous problem with definitions and rules. We define things based on a loose set of characteristics, and computers just aren’t that loose yet. A great example came yesterday when Heath corrected my application of the term “tank” to this picture. It’s actually a self-propelled howitzer, although it carries all the conventional traits one would associate with a tank (treads, turret, armor, cannon). The key difference is their use. A howitzer is a long-range piece of artillery and it doesn’t perform the tasks that tanks perform. Still, there’s always a point at which strict definitions fail us. Nothing can ever be fully, explicitly defined.

So, how does the brain define anything? I wish I knew for sure, but I suspect from my own experience that the brain makes a vague constellation of features and works from that. The esteemed Dr. Odegard pointed me in the direction of what he referred to as “prototypes that represent the central tendencies of a category or stimulus set.” Not quite Platonic forms (one ideal against which all are judged), these are items that more or less resemble each other, and which may fit into multiple categories[2].

Complicating all this is the fact that our brains are great at filling in missing information and making assumptions based on previous experience. The famous email forward that points out that the brain can still read words whose interior letters have been scrambled is a great example. You can sitll udnersatnd tihs sentnece, for exmalpe. So, too, you might recognize “Mack the Knife” when the pianist has created an improvisational intro around the melody.

Simplistically put, I’m guessing our brains recognize general shapes first and add attributes later, factoring in variations from experience. Whether that shape is a triangle or a G# triad, maybe it’s still just a shape to the brain.

1.) Indeed, it seems as though the job of a jazz musician is to see just how much they can get away with in terms of playing around a melody or chord progression and still have people recognize the tune.
2.) This then reminded me of the shopping cart software that we used at Epoch Online. It allowed for the assigning of multiple categories to individual products, as well as various options assigned to each product that the user could select (color, size, version). The actual product exists in one place in the database, but has these variables attached to it.

Get to Know Alan Turing

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

I was watching a C-SPAN2 video of Richard Dawkins (who by the way will be at the Clinton School of Public Service a week from this Thursday), and he mentioned in passing that Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science, was a homosexual who was arrested for having an “indecent” relationship. He was stripped of his security clearance, and died two years later of an apparent suicide. Not only did this man develop one of the first designs for a stored-program computer, he was also a brilliant cryptographer and, by breaking the toughest German codes, arguably did more to defeat the Germans than anyone else in England.

So it goes.

And as an FYI, the next time you have to read a little graphic and fill out a text field to log into a website, you’re using what’s called a CAPTCHA, a rather inelegant acronym for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” While it’s quite different from a conventional Turing Test, it is nonetheless just another small way that Alan Turing lives on in our daily lives.

The Cognitive Vicissitudes of Twins

Thursday, June 16th, 2005

Plugging into what I was saying a few days ago about neurochemical signatures, today I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who has recently moved to Little Rock. She is the twin sister of another friend of mine who moved away a couple of years ago. We’ve hung out a few times now, and today she mentioned to me that I look at her like I know her well, when really I barely do. I had actually noticed this myself recently. In my brain, she moves inside her sister’s neurochemical pattern. I regard her with a set of unconscious assumptions because she fits the same visual and auditory data patterns that her sister created. I have to stop and remind myself that we don’t have a shared history together. That wasn’t her I went to see Amelie with; nor was that her on whose doorstep I left a Valentine’s Day flower. Yet my brain forgets that. She’s immediately an old friend even though I’ve only met her on a handful of occasions. This is weird for me; I can’t imagine how it must feel for her.

A Theory

Saturday, June 4th, 2005

Perhaps my more psychologically knowledgeable colleagues can back me up on this, but I’m beginning to think that, as people spend time together, their interaction produces some sort of neurochemical signature that is specific to their relationship. For example, two people in love will have a unique, literal chemistry together, and will very likely become neurochemically dependent upon each other. When these two people are separated, certain signs of chemical dependency are exhibited, namely, withdrawal.

Sometimes pictures help.

This is the Sound of Your Brain Expanding

Tuesday, April 19th, 2005

I stayed at work a little late, playing with Google Maps (see the entry below), and as I drove home, I experienced a sort of mental jetlag; switching from outer space eye-views of the Earth to my more immediate, pedestrian surroundings gave me a profound sense of irrelevancy and insignificance. A half hour in front of satellite imagery that comprehensive gives one a perspective previously available only to astronauts. It’s a massive shift.

A poem I read in 5th grade talked about aliens looking at Earth and assuming the major lifeforms to be the many cars moving about constantly. Looking at Google Maps, it’s a natural assumption. The little limbed blobs inside the cars are hard to see.

Anyway, I then thought about a 5th grader today having access to the vast amount of information in Google Maps. All I had when I was a kid was a globe and my imagination to switch between it and a US map or an Arkansas map. And those were just representations. Satellite photography shows reality. Seeing the true scale of this country and this planet…if you spend several minutes exploring the vastness of this place, you can practically feel your mind being blown.