bio

Defining Digital Dreams

I want my computer to work and work well. The same is true for my websites, personal blogs, applications. When I was younger, and when I had more time to putz around on my computers, there wasn’t a very precise method I’d use to make decisions about what I’d install, how I’d try to use it, or why I’d bother. I’m much more picky today…for a few reasons.

My time is more valuable today than it was when I was in school. Mainly: there’s less of it free to me, so the time I have on the computer, non-work related, is precious. I really wish I had the energy to spend an hour or two per day checking out new stuff online…but sadly, after 10 or more hours in front of a computer screen at work, I’m not too excited to sit behind the warm glow of my netbook. It happens, but I get irritated rather quickly if things aren’t working.

I’ve grown wary of things that might screw up my system. One of my first such experiences was installing a desktop mod that was going to replace the explorer.exe application in XP (not to be confused with Internet Explorer…I mean the core windows experience: Taskbar, system tray, start menu, etc). I installed this alternative UI, which crippled my machine. It took hours to get it back in action. Obviously this is an extreme case since it was an aggressive change to core functionality, but even benign applications carry a dark side to them…it’s tough to know how much they’ll impact a machine. I stay much more careful than I did before.

The time I’ve spent in the past has taught me that there is a LOT of awful software floating around out there. One of the big differences today when examining this is that instead of downloading software to install, we’re creating new login credentials for another Web 2.0 site. Many of these have great concepts, but don’t follow through on making the experience exactly what it needs to be.

These factors influence a handful of digital dreams that guide the computing choices I make (OS, core applications, hardware, security, backup). I know what they are and how they feel, but formalizing them has proven to be very difficult. I keep looking to a ready-made solution that lifts the weight of computing endeavor self-management off my shoulders…but I’m afraid I’m a little too picky for that to work. It’s a bit like trying to describe a dream I had to a friend; I know what I saw, how it felt, and what it was like, but it’s immensely difficult to explain the experience. That said, I’ll be doing my best to convey the underpinnings of a worthy digital experience and will be posting them here, which will give you a better idea of what I’m striving for.

I wish I could post them all right now…but they’ll be coming slowly over time because I want to make sure I include enough detail to make the dream clear.

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Passwords…on (in?) my digital keyring

We all have passwords, and they need to live somewhere.  My history:

Oh the days when they could all be kept straight in my head…that was great.  I was a big fan of picking a single word, then substituting in one numeric character for a similar looking letter.  5wordfish and c1etus were my favorites.  You may recognize Cletus as a (then) lesser known character on the Simpsons.  Who ever would think that I’d pick his name, and be smart enough to stuff a letter in the middle?  Those were the days.  My Geocities account couldn’t have been safer.

Eventually, sites started requiring an uppercase letter…fine.  Then C1etus it would be.  However, this soon morphed into inconsistent requirements from web account to web account.  Lame.  Okay…time to formalize this a bit further…add a rule so I’ll know it’ll be one of three potential password case combinations.  Swell.  It’s a little more complicated, but I can handle it.  Most of these sites don’t lock me out with three tries anyway.

This worked pretty well, but shoot, soon my standard username was taken by someone else.  Who would have thought that “soupanderson” would be such a popular handle?  Soon, two handles became three, became a dozen–and was sometimes one of my four email addresses (a lot at the time).

This turned into a text file with codes…website name, code for whether it was a username or email address, last letter of the user name, then a hint to which of my growing array of passwords.

Lately, every site thinks their formula for password requirements is somehow better than any other site.  Must be 9 characters, have at least one uppercase letter, one lowercase letter, one number, one special character, no spaces, and no repeating letters.

IE and Firefox (ok, an chrome too) have integrated password managers.  I adopted the Firefox password manager with an extension called “master password timeout” which forces me to enter a super password if I’m not active in the browser for any 2 minute period.

This worked great…but made me nervous.  I’m not the best at locking my workstation if I walk away, and I was an early adopter of portable applications (read: carried my digital life around with me on a 512MB USB drive, later my iPod).

Then came the popularity of online banking.  All of a sudden, I could access secure information about my financial life through my home (or public–yikes) PC.  It started with credit cards, then moved to online brokering and banking like e-trade, then got mainstream with Wells Fargo, TCF Bank, and US Bank. At this point, it didn’t take a slack-jawed yokel to recognize that a simplistic password strategy was just asking for trouble.

I decided to abandon the browser-saved-credentials ship while I was ahead of the game.  My go-forward solution:KeePassPortable (based on KeePass Password Safe).  I’ll deep-dive on the app another time, but the important bullets include:

  • Encrypted password file: All of my passwords live in one file, which i can back up as desired, and have a single, ridiculously difficult password to remember, as well as an optional keyfile.
  • Easily searchable: one search box to go through my entire password database.
  • Lightweight, portable application: It’s not intrusive into my computing experience, and open source to boot.
  • Each entry gives me latitude to add notes and other meta data so I can keep things straight.

The biggest downside is that I find myself more and more dependent on KeePass.  As this compounds, I need to open my password file more often, which provides more opportunities for my master password to be compromised.  Though this can be a bit nerve-racking, a good password rotation should keep this in check.

I’ve held firm with the KeePass approach for a solid couple of years now, and it’s still the best play as far as I’m concerned.

purpose statement

A little bit about me:

  • I helped assemble a computer at the age of 3.
  • I could beat my dad and his friends in action-based computer games by age 4.
  • At age 6, I was introduced to LOGO.
  • I was a Number Muncher at age 7 (prime!).
  • I learned DOS and windows 3.11 for workgroups by audiocassette at age 8.
  • My oxen died on The Oregon Trail when I was 9.
  • I used my 2400 baud modem to connect to bbs systems when I was 10.
  • I was the only 11 year old (anywhere) who managed home-computer tape backups (lightning fast through a parallel port connection).
  • I created my first personal website at age 12. (guy incognito’s simpsons domain)
  • I was offered my first full time job as a webmaster at age 14.
  • By age 15, I knew what the difference between raid 5 parity 3 and raid 5 parity 5 was.  Also, if you were being annoying in an AOL chat room, I was sending you IM bombs.
  • I had a 6 foot tall anti-piracy poster in my room when I was 16.
  • I completed my CCNA at age 17.
  • Today I work in the Data Storage industry

I grew up with computers as a pillar of my youth.  My computer world started with command prompts and floppies, later transitioned to a Mac SE/30, added an online experience with BBS and gopher, and later upgraded to Windows 95, 98 and my choice of Netscape or IE (on my family’s screaming fast DSL line).  The rapid advances in the digital experience made it tough to keep up, but I had the time to spend (devote) to experiment with these evolving tools.

It was this experimentation that really gave me the opportunity to explore.  I loved to try things out.  Games, utilities, shareware, beta software, anything I could get my hands on.  My Dad’s one rule for our computer was: “It doesn’t matter what you install…but the computer’d better work when I want to use it.”  This rule stuck with me.  Honestly, it’s a good practice.

I’ve tuned this method over the years, and as the line between the local computing experience and the cloud blurs, I’ve had a new set of challenges put in front of me.  The sheer volume of utilities, hacks, apps (local, portable, web), blogging sites, portals, and digitalia out there make it tough to stick to the simple strategies I grew up with.

My Digitalism is where I can share what is working well, what I’m trying to improve, what my goals are, and what the method to my madness is.