' John Wilcock - The Column of Lasting Insignificance for November 29, 2014    
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the column of lasting insignificance: December 13, 2014
by John Wilcock

“No matter how complex, no matter how unique, your password can no longer protect you .”
—Mat Honan in Wired

KILL THE P@55WOrD is the cover story in the December issue of Wired which tells the dismal story of how the hackers have won and, no matter how elaborate your precautions, the idea that a password will protect your information is a fallacy. Our digital lives are just too easy to crack. “The age of the password has come to an end” Honan declares. “We just haven’t realized it yet and no one has figured out what will take its place. The Internet doesn’t do secrets. Everyone is a few clicks away from knowing everything”.
    Scary overseas syndicates and bored kids are but two of the adversaries, with today’s virus writer more likely to be a criminal operating out of Russia than a kid in some dorm room. Last year Russian-speaking hackers took in $4.5 billion from cyber crimes, harvesting online banking passwords through phishing accounts and various malware schemes. One simple trick, the magazine explains, is to check “bank” to discover where somebody’s account is located and then just go there and ask for the password to be reset because it’s been forgotten. Answers to questions confirming identity (‘what’s your favorite car?’) are often on your website, and Social Security numbers can be found for sale on databases.
    So what alternatives could there be to regular passwords in an era when a skilled algorithm search might ‘guess’ a million numbers within minutes? Using a single piece of information such as an iris scan or fingerprint, “just means that anyone who can copy it an also get in”. For the time being, suggests Wired, give bogus answers to security questions and use the longest possible password.

MAKING FAKE ID CARDS is a booming business, so profitable that—according, to one Florida expert—what might have cost you less than $50 a decade ago, is now priced ten times as much. Especially in Asian countries they’re cheap to forge and prosecution is rare. The Economist says that in China their main function is allowing admission to internet cafes. A study in 2009 concluded that, in this country, 17% of university freshmen and almost twice as many seniors owned a false ID. The percentage is probably higher today. With a pack of photo paper, laminating sheets, spray glue and a dash of Photoshop experience even an amateur forger can earn as much as $1,500 a week, the mag says.

“I have realized about myself that I’m very motivated by people counting on me. I like to be counted on. I like to have a bunch of customers who count on us. I like being part of a team. We’re all counting on each other. I like he fact that shareholders are counting on us. And so I find that very motivating.”
— Amazon’s Jeff Bezos talking to Fortune

A SLEAZY TRIANGLE OF ACADEMIA is how the Washington Monthly describes the pervasive ghost-writing business that encourages students to buy their essays instead of writing them. The mag reviews the book, The Shadow Scholar: How I made a living helping college students cheat, whose author Dave Tomar confesses to churning out five or six papers a day on every conceivable subject and once wrote a 160-page doctoral dissertation (for $4,000) based on a single-page instruction. The simplest way to bypass plagiarism-detection software, apparently, is with heavy use of a thesaurus. The book, says the magazine, is “ultimately an indictment not just of the paper mill industry…but of the contemporary higher education system which allows the industry to flourish”.

Lovatelli Venus

BLINDINGLY WHITE MARBLE statues don’t represent the way things were in ancient Greece, according to the Smithsonian which says their painted palette “displayed a sophisticated understanding of color and shading”. They commissioned Vinzenz Brinkmann to create a photomechanical reconstruction of the famous 1st century Lovatelli Venus from a Pompeii garden. It was an easy task, explained the German archaeologist, because a spectroscopical examination uncovered traces of the original pigment.

“After a certain age, people don’t look at you. They look at youth. You can’t not look, because it’s so beautiful and it’s so sexy. That fades after a certain time, and that’s quite a difficult thing when it goes. I mean they look at me because they may recognize me now, but, oh my God, you don’t get any wolf whistles on the road.”
–the still awesomely-stunning Charlotte Rampling interviewed by Andrew Goldman

EXACTLY HOW MUCH TIME it took Marcel Proust to write Remembrance of Things Past is not known, but he worked on what became a seven-volume tome of “involuntary memory” for 13 years altogether, until his death aged 51 in 1922. Now, if you don’t have the patience to read it, you can listen for 150 hours to Neville Jason’s reading of 3,000 pages of the labyrinthine sentences. The longest audiobook in existence (120 CDs, costing $600), it features scores of male and female characters, all portrayed by Jason, a trained singer.

WHAT BIG PHARMA doesn’t like you to know about, is that public money pays more than three quarters of all research and development funds for new drugs, with patents awarded to companies in the late stage of development. The drugs are then priced so high that all around the world desperately sick people can’t afford them. “Treating illness is a social need and should not be a commercial goal like producing better phones” says Michelle Childs of Médecins Sans Frontières. The New Internationalist says that pharmaceutical companies claim that R&D costs are around $1.3bn per new drug but never produce the data to back up these claims. The mag mentions only one company, Novartis, which lists dozens of products on its website—of which the best-known is probably Ritalin—is posting quarterly earnings of double that. “Money before morals is the depressing bottom line”.

WITH A MAP illustrating how all but two of the 23 new network TV shows this year were filmed away from Los Angeles, Details revealed that the average cost of $2.7m per episode was keeping actors, key grips and boom operators well fed—but not in Hollywood. One reason for the exodus is that grants, discounts, and tax credits offered by some states are as high as 35%, at least 10% better than California’s tax relief.

THE TRIAL OF the Muslim army major who murdered 13 people at Fort Hood five years ago has become a farce with one judge after another sticking his nose into the affair to delay the trial even further. Disobeying an order to remove a newly-grown forbidden beard, the “alleged” killer was told it had to be removed because it changed his appearance from when witnesses saw him do the shooting and it would have to be shaved off. His lawyers want the judge who made the ruling to be removed.(“Alleged” is a ridiculous word seeing as the major indisputably did the shooting. And shaving off his beard would be a minor thing considering justice would best be served by shaving off his head).

THE WILCOCK WEB: How much longer will it take the Feds to admit that the war against marijuana has been lost?....Afghanistan’s corrupt boss Hamid Karzai is undoubtedly right that US behavior there with its contractors has made things worse for that country, but let’s get out anyway. Tomorrow….MoveOn.org’s Dump the Trump campaign to oust the Donald as Macy’s spokesman has collected 650,000 signatures, but Macy’s is stubbornly undeterred….One of the ways that the huge financial burdens on students could be reduced would be if more employers admitted their jobs could be done quite well without a college degree. Obviously this would not include work that included special training such as scientific, medical, educational etc, but so many other jobs really don’t need over-qualified employees…. …And if colleges made shorter contracts with football coaches, they couldn’t be stuck with such huge buyouts when they fire them (replacing them with expensive hires that rarely do any better)….… Consumers will spend more just to get rid of grimy currency bills because they evoke feelings of disgust, reports the Journal of Consumer Research, which guessed that they hang on to the crisp new currency to proudly spend around other people…..… Stamping dollar bills with slogans such as Money is not speech and Not to be used for bribing politicians is a campaign involving Ben & Jerry’s Ben Cohen which seeks to overturn Citizens United…..Rich French people, as greedy as any other tycoons are moving across the border to Belgium to avoid the new leftwing government’s 75% tax rate on incomes over $1.7m. Latest star to move is Gérard Depardieu….. Meanwhile the Belgian post office announced it would introduce chocolate-flavored stamps to celebrate the country’s best known export….Tennessee’s Wilton Tools Co. is offering $1,000 to anyone who destroys its new sledgehammer during normal use….. Omnishambles, a self-explanatory term, was named by the Oxford English Dictionary as its word of the year…. ….Lawyers for that Russian group Pussy Riot—jailed for their demo in Moscow’s cathedral—are trademarking the name and hoping to make millions from marketing subsidiary products….Supermodel Kate Moss admitted she had a tattoo on her lower back (two swallows) done by the artist Lucian Freud just before he died….…..“All profoundly original art looks ugly at first” explained art critic Clement Greenburg. Popular Science describes a new pill infused with copper and magnesium, when interacting with stomach fluids, sends an electrical impulse to a patch on the patient’s torso, confirming for the doctor that the meds have been taken….. Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, which the NYT once wrote “has witnessed the misbehavior of generations of stars”, will itself be the star of Aaron Sorkin’s miniseries for HBO….And HBO, Universal Pictures and WikiLeaks are just three of the participants who have announced documentaries, bios or movies about Julian Assange, with most of the attention so far devoted to the plans of Megan Ellison, 26 year-old daughter of America’s second richest man, to film a story about Assange by Bill Keller….Rotating imprisoned gang members to different jails every now and again would surely lessen their influence?....An 1882 letter by Paul Gauguin complaining to artist Camille Pissaro that his job in finance has restricted him to being an “amateur painter”, is among historical mss (Van Gogh, Monet, Washington, Jefferson, Paul Revere , Darwin, Einstein, Edison) to be auctioned in New York on Dec 18 … ….A new poll, confirming what has long been standard wisdom, reveals that if they ever hold that long-promised referendum, 49% of Brits would leave the EU…. Judging by the apparently endless “80%-off” ads by competing rug companies in the Los Angeles Times over the past year, there must be millions of exotic rugs out there that nobody wants….“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”—Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

From the Archives: this column originally ran two years ago this week...


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