THE best password is a long, nonsensical string of letters and numbers and punctuation marks, a combination never put together before. Some admirable people actually do memorize random strings of characters for their passwords — and replace them with other random strings every couple of months.
Then there’s the rest of us, selecting the short, the familiar and the easiest to remember. And holding onto it forever.
I once felt ashamed about failing to follow best practices for password selection — but no more. Computer security experts say that choosing hard-to-guess passwords ultimately brings little security protection. Passwords won’t keep us safe from identity theft, no matter how clever we are in choosing them.The solution urged by the experts is to abandon passwords — and to move to a fundamentally different model, one in which humans play little or no part in logging on. Instead, machines have a cryptographically encoded conversation to establish both parties’ authenticity, using digital keys that we, as users, have no need to see.
Not long ago, a young forty-foot humpback whale on his way to Alaska became enticed by the lure of San Francisco. He veered off course into the bay, and once inside, instead of deciding he had made a wrong turn and retracing his wake, he chose to push on to Sacramento. By the time I learned of his plight, he had worked his way into fresh waters and got trapped in the shallows of the Sacramento River Delta – a most uncongenial environment for any salt-water creature, but practically a bathtub for one used to thousands of miles of open sea.
Humphrey, as reporters dubbed him, immediately became a media sensation. Every day, news services carried updates on his predicament around the world, while hundreds of whale-lovers flocked to San Francisco to help the Coast Guard try to rescue him. But Humphrey just kept swimming up blind alleys.
Finally someone hit on the idea of luring him back to the sea by the call of recorded whale songs. Humphrey began leaping joyfully, splashing great sheets of water to the delight of spectators, and churned toward the open ocean at a good thirty miles an hour. Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge backed up in both directions as fans got out of their cars to crowd at the rails and cheer. They paid handsome fines, but as one woman told reporters, “It was worth every penny.”
Something in all of us cheers when a captive creature breaks free. We are born for freedom, even if we don’t understand what that means or how to find it. Somehow we sense that we are not meant to spend our lives in the shallows of pleasure and profit. We are made for vast spaces, to reach beyond boundaries until, as an English mystic put it, we are “clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.” We are born with intimations of a potential much, much grander than anything we can dream of in the day-to-day world.
While Humphrey’s story was unfolding in the daily news, we human viewers had the advantage of a higher dimension. We could look at maps, watch aerial views on TV, and see the scene whole: the narrow confines of the river delta, the broader bay with its narrow passage in and out, the vast expanse of ocean that Humphrey needed to find. To us it seemed so simple what to do.
But Humphrey had no access to that higher view. All he could have known was that an interesting side trip had turned into a trap. It’s easy to imagine how he must have felt as he found himself alone and boxed in, with no sense of where to turn for help in a situation he could not understand.
The media lost interest in Humphrey once he escaped. But I like to imagine how it must have felt to be free at last, charging out under the Golden Gate Bridge deaf to the cheers of earthbound creatures above him, into the open sea where he belonged.
There’s not much to the continental shelf in northern California, and whales swim fast. Within a few minutes Humphrey would have been in mile-deep waters again, with half a planet of open ocean to roam in as he pleased.
Then, free to go wherever he chose, he must instead have felt a silent command: “North. Go north. Go home.” No details, no map, no companions, no guide, just a direction and a desire in response to an overriding imperative from within: go home.