How to Solve the Password Problem: Teach Kids When They’re Young

I came across an article a few days ago that explained how to teach humans to remember really complex passwords. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think that there’s an important piece to the solution to helping humans remember really complex passwords: habit.

When we first started using computers, coming up with a super-difficult password wasn’t necessary as we were usually just trying to keep our stuff protected from our family members. Then, it was trying to keep things protected from our co-workers. Slowly, that grew and grew until now, someone (or something!) on the other side of the planet can figure out your password and hack into your online accounts.

I wonder, if we were taught how to come up with complex passwords when we were younger, would there still be such a high percentage of people using easy-to-crack passwords? That is, if we only knew passwords to be in the form of “passphrases,” would someone still try to use a word as their password? While there would still probably be some, my guess is that the percentage would drop.

So, how do we teach our kids to use smarter passwords? Well, assuming that kids at some point are still taught how to type in school, I see this as the perfect opportunity to also teach them about how to use passphrases for accounts. Assuming that students will have to logon to a computer to use the program that teaches them how to type, this is the best time to imprint the habit of using an effective password.

Of course, this won’t solve the problem of all the people out there today who still use “password” or “1234password” for their password, but it will help to correct problem by not adding more people to the number of people who use poor password habits.

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Extending this idea, there may still be some adults or teens out there who are still learning how to type. In these cases, we could have the software that is teaching them how to type also teach them about good password habits. If the adults are learning how to type in some sort of class, this could also be a good place to teach them about good password habits.

A Lesson in Overcomplicated: Gender-Neutral Washrooms

If you’ve ever been part of an organization, there’s a better chance than not that you’ve been involved in a meeting where at some point, you found yourself thinking, “what the heck are we doing?” Well, hopefully you’ve found yourself saying that, otherwise you might have fallen into the trap of overcomplicating something.

There was a great (and short!) post on Pacific Standard about the “problem” of a sign for a gender-neutral bathroom:

“But what would you put on the door?!” said a facility manager at an airport, his concern echoed by an administrator at a university: “When people are looking for a restroom, they look for the ‘man’ or ‘woman’ icon. It’s what we know to look for that means restroom.”

And the sign that answers this problem:

Wow, right?

This situation is a perfect example of how overthinking something can lead to a terrible and overcomplicated solution. Is this sign really necessary to signify that there’s a toilet behind the door (or around the corner, in the case of many airports)? Absolutely not.

While there are many problems we can talk about, let’s look at the key issue: false dilemma. Presumably, upon trying to to develop a solution to this problem, the people in the meeting thought that something had to be added to the existing sign. That is, the sign is usually a little man or a little woman, so we’ve got to make it resemble that little man or woman or people might be confused. There are clearly more options than creating that weird looking sign. From the post, there’s this sign offered:

That seems like a pretty good alternative to me. It’s universal in that many people know what a toilet looks like. To be sure, the person who came up with the idea of this pictorial representation took his laptop to a coffee shop to ask patrons if they could hazard a guess as to what was being the sign: 100% of participants were able to identify what would be behind a door with this sign on it. The author, obviously in jest, explained that his research was limited to a corner in Philadelphia, but I think it’s safe to say that most people would be able to perform as well as his participants.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting where your team is trying to come up with an idea that uses an existing structure/idea, double-check that it might not be better to approach the problem from a different perspective.

How Smartphones Can Lead to Better Parents

Over three years ago, I wrote a post about cell phone etiquette. At the time I wrote that, I wouldn’t have guessed that three years later, I’d be considering the possibility that smartphones could actually lead to better parents.

But that’s exactly what this post is about.

The stereotype goes that many parents will bring their children to the park (and/or some activity) and upon arriving, they shoo away their children only to peer down at their cell phone. Some folks do this while out to dinner with friends (even though they don’t have kids, see here). Many will cringe upon seeing parents sitting on the bench enwrapped in the goings on of their cell phone. Farhad Manjoo, however, points out how smartphones can actually make for more available parents [Emphasis Added]:

But we rarely consider how, by liberating us from the office, smartphones have greatly expanded the opportunity for certain kinds of workers to increase their involvement in their children’s lives. Because you can work from anywhere thanks to your phone, you can be present and at least partly attentive to your children in scenarios where, in the past, you’d have had to be totally absent. Even though my son had to yell for my attention once when I was fixed to my phone, if I didn’t have that phone, I would almost certainly not have been able to be with him that day — or at any one of numerous school events or extracurricular activities. I would have been in an office. And he would have been with a caretaker.

Stop and consider that for a moment: having a smartphone can actually make you more available as a parent. Now, this isn’t a commercial for smartphones, but it’s certainly something that should give you pause for consideration. I know it did for me when I read it. This idea put forth from Manjoo is exactly the kind of thing that I’m talking about when I say putting a new perspective on things. Someone who is so focused on how smartphones are bad for parents and how they keep parents from their children wouldn’t be able to see the possibility that for a small population, having a smartphone can actually allow a parent to be away from the office and with their children.

This idea isn’t meant to invalidate the idea that smartphones are changing the relationship we have with our children, but the idea that smartphones are allowing us to be with our children more is, to be hyperbolic for a moment, paradigm-altering. A key step to being a better parent is being able to be with your children. So, if smartphones can get us out of the office and next to our kids, isn’t that an important step?

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There still might be some of you out there that unequivocally think we shouldn’t be on our phones when we’re with our kids and that’s okay, but I hope that you’ll at least consider (reflect, think about, ponder, etc.) the possibility that the opposite may be true. It’ll put you one step closer to defending against the confirmation bias.

A New Way to Use Pinterest: Financial Charts

I don’t remember when I first signed up for Pinterest, but I do remember that when I did, I had “big” plans of using the site to create a vision board. As you can see from my Pinterest page, I haven’t used it since I signed up. There are any number of explanations I could offer as to why I haven’t really done what I had initially thought I would, but this post isn’t about my usage of Pinterest, no, it’s about Josh Brown’s.

You see, many people (or at least it certainly seems like it) use Pinterest for shopping. That is, they see something they like and Pinterest is a way to bookmark that image. There are also those businesses who use Pinterest to get a better understanding of how their customers like or dislike their products. There are those hobbyists or designers who are trying to showcase their ideas. There are even people who share recipes through Pinterest. In all that I’ve heard of Pinterest, never had I heard someone use it to share financial charts.

Can anyone tell me what this is an example of? Hint: I wrote about this decision-making bias as recently as last month.

Functional Fixedness.

Josh Brown, the person I mentioned earlier, uses Pinterest to bookmark “amazing charts.” These financial charts, in a way, are breaking through that bias of functional fixedness. By using Pinterest to showcase financial charts, Brown found a way to use Pinterest that was a little out of the ordinary.

There are probably dozens of examples of these in your daily lives. On your commute this morning/afternoon (or the next time you head to work), I want you to take a wider perspective and see if you can notice anyone using something in a way that you hadn’t considered. Maybe someone’s using a skateboard as a “wagon” as they’ve tied a string to truck (where the wheels are) and is letting someone pull them down the street. Maybe by watching them participate in what some may consider a dangerous activity, it gives you that flash of an idea you’ve been looking for on a problem you’ve been having. Lateral thinking begets lateral thinking.

The Long View Perspective on Big Data and Metrics?

One of the things that I like to write about is perspective. In my opinion, it’s so important to continue to look at things from different angles and assume other viewpoints to understand the many ways that things can interact. A little over a week ago, I came across a series of tweets from Chris Hayes that presented a perspective that I hadn’t considered:

Big Data is certainly something that has captivated the popular press and some might even say rightfully so. Of course, it’s important that we use metrics when making decisions, but is it possible that the pendulum has swung too far to metrics? It’s hard to say. Chris Hayes certainly seems to think so.

I like how he’s compared this to another phenomenon (can we call it a phenomenon?) from history where engineering took the world by storm. To be honest, given my age, and what I know about ‘recent’ history, I don’t know that engineering had as much hoopla as big data has today. Regardless, this perspective, this long view, is something that we all would be better off with. That is, looking at things from a longer perspective. Considering the adage that ‘history repeats itself.’ Maybe there’s something from our recent past that would help us better understand where we are today.

A good example of this might be international relations. If you’re looking for a ‘fictional’ example, may I recommend the movie “Now You See Me?”

“Julia Lost on Jeopardy Because I Watched Live”

A few weeks ago, there was a contestant on Jeopardy that made quite a run. She didn’t break any of Ken Jennings’ records, but she certainly set a few records for females on Jeopardy. In fact, Julia Collins now has the record for the longest winning streak by a woman (and also the second longest winning streak — male or female) and the woman to have won the most money on Jeopardy. As it happens, I was lucky enough to see every episode.

Earlier this year, my son was born and one of the ways that helps him to sleep is if I bounce on an exercise ball. Since this can happen at odd hours of the day, I started watching DVR’d episodes of Jeopardy. In fact, I remember the first game that Julia won because she had to beat a Canadian. Anyway, over the course of 5 weeks, I continued to watch Julia handily defeat her competition and then when it was interrupted for the Jeopardy Battle of the Decades, I watched that.

When the regularly scheduled episodes returned with Julia, she was beginning to get some media attention. On the one hand, I thought this was great because she certainly deserved it, but it made it harder for me to avoid spoilers (really? Who needs to avoid spoilers for Jeopardy!?). I started to watch the episode a few hours after it aired on some nights because I noticed that some folks were tweeting about Julia’s streak continuing.

Julia hit her 20th win in a row on a Friday, which meant she got to come back on Monday. It just so happened that I was near the TV on Monday night, so, to avoid spoilers, I watched the episode live. As you already know (either from the title of this post or from knowing), Julia went on to lose that game. After she lost, I laughed to myself, “I shouldn’t have watched the episode live — that’s why Julia lost.”

Now, did you notice the cognitive bias?

The confirmation bias.

To be fair, I didn’t divulge all the information up front, but if you understand the confirmation bias, you’re going to think you have all the information. After watching Julia lose attempting to win her 21st game in a row, I said to myself that because I watched it live, she lost. [Note: of course, you're going to have to suspend disbelief for a short while as my watching or not watching an episode of Jeopardy is not actually going to cause or not cause someone to win/lose. At this point, it's science fiction.]

The thing I’m not telling you (nor was I telling myself to have said this to myself then, lest I be experiencing cognitive dissonance), was that I had also snuck a peak at a few of the episodes from wins 16 to 20. That is, even though I may not have watched a full episode live until her loss going for win 21, I did watch some bits of the other episodes live. So, at the conclusion of Julia’s streak, I selectively (though not intentionally) misremembered the number of times I’d seen Julia live and concluded that by my watching live, she lost.

How Do We Free Magneto From the Pentagon: A Lesson in Functional Fixedness

I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to see the new X-Men movie — I rather liked it. There was a scene in the movie that presents a wonderful example of functional fixedness, depending upon your familiarity with the story. Before moving on, I should remind you of the meaning of functional fixedness. Essentially, it’s the idea that, sometimes, we might have a hard time seeing the potential utility of an object. For example, if you need to push nail back into a piece of wood, but you don’t have a hammer around, it might take you more than a few minutes to think of using your shoe. The functional fixedness lies in one’s lack of ability to see the shoe as a potential hammer-like object. The ‘function’ of the shoe is ‘fixed’ on being a shoe.

Alright, now that we’ve reviewed functional fixedness, let’s look at the example from the recent X-Men movie, Days of Future Past. Before continuing, I should say…

(minor spoiler alert)

Near the beginning of the movie, a couple of the X-Men are trying to free another X-Men from a holding cell in the basement of the Pentagon. As the person being held in this cell is Magneto and has the ability to create/control magnetic fields, jailing him with metal is a bad idea. So, he’s being held in a glass encasing. The X-Men trying to free Magneto make it into the basement of the Pentagon and the one person who is meant to free Magneto from the cell is Quicksilver. Earlier scenes from this movie show us that he has the ability to move extremely fast. In fact, he moves so fast that his ability could be mistaken for teleportation.

With Quicksilver standing on top of the glass enclosure, those who weren’t familiar with the X-Men comics may have wondered just how this person with ‘superhuman speed’ was going to free Magneto. This is our example of functional fixedness.

If, when you were watching this scene, you thought to yourself, “Quicksilver won’t be able to free Magneto with his superpower because he can just move quickly, and there’s no door for him to get in,” you’d be locked in functional fixedness.

A few moments later, the answer is revealed: Quicksilver has superhuman speed, so he can use his power to shatter the glass and Magneto is freed.

Note: I didn’t mention this initially, but Quicksilver is able to break the glass because he is able to move his hands so quickly such that he can create a resonance that breaks the glass. For real-life example of this in action, watch this wine glass.