Parlor game has password ideas

Security: This method will help you create an easy-to-remember name.

February 15, 1999|By James Coates | James Coates,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

You won't find finer journalistic musings on the possibilities and the pratfalls of the human condition than in the writing of Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich.

She doesn't know it yet, but Schmich has stumbled upon a rather amazing, not to mention downright amusing, solution to an incessantly vexing problem shared by computer users everywhere.

Schmich's Solution brilliantly addresses a computer user's need to come up with hacker-resistant computer passwords that one can actually remember.

You probably know the password paradox all too well.

If you use a password that you're likely to remember, like your birth date, the name of your child or your phone number, co-workers or crooks can crack into your computer simply by doing a bit of research and trying a few likely combinations.

On the other hand, if you make up complex sign-ons like 2@BroAwi or crush+upside with no meaning to them, you have a devil of a time remembering the sign-on.

Schmich's Solution comes in her recent ramblings on the strange parlor game of finding the name that one would perform under if one were an exotic dancer.

To play, you hark back to your childhood and remember the name of your first pet and the name of the street where you lived.

Schmich, for example, recalled her home on Harlan Street in Savannah, Ga., and her dog, Rebel. She announced that she would dance under the name Rebel Harlan, which, she noted, sounds loads more exotic than Mary Schmich. The pet and street combo almost always produces a standout name, she notes.

My dog was Trixie. We lived at 11th and Birch in Rawlins, Wyo. I would dance under the stripper name Trixie Birch.

I can hear the catcalls now:

``Put on your clothes, Trixie, you're scarin' the horses!''

But what a wonderful password. Short of reading this column, nobody on earth except my elderly sister (Trixie Eleven?), is going to remember our beloved little yelping generic terrier, Trixie.

We lost Trixie in the Truman years. I left 11th and Birch when Kennedy was in the White House. Let some hacker figure that out.

Talking about stripper names is whimsical, but this business of dealing with the need for bulletproof passwords that we can remember is serious as sin in a world where log-on passwords or PIN numbers or other identity codes are absolute requirements for just getting through the day.

You need a password for your voice mail at work and maybe a password for your voice mail service at home. Your AOL account demands a password, and so does your computer network at the office.

If you use an Internet service provider you'll need a password there, and chances are good that you'll also be prompted for one when you try to buy a book at amazon.com or sign up for a free Hotmail Web e-mail account.

In 1956, a psychologist named George Miller published a landmark paper titled ``The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two'' introducing Miller's law of passwords, which states that people can't handle much more than seven unrelated things in short-term memory at any one time.

A stripper name is a great solution because it lets you use things that you'll never forget and so you don't need to memorize a thing. And because the stripper name is based on minutiae deep in the past, it offers substantial security.

Research by outfits such as AT&T and Ameritech have documented how people have problems remembering more than three or four unrelated numbers, even in the short term. That's why phone numbers come with a three-digit area code, a three-digit prefix and a four-digit number.

People use a strategy called ``chunking'' to break passwords into two or more parts for memory's sake, as happens with first pet/home street.

Researchers like Thomas Landauer at the University of Colorado's Institute of Cognitive Science have coined the term ``retroactive interference'' to describe how the new phenomenon of piling on passwords makes it increasingly difficult to remember any one of them.

Landauer quotes David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, who was a renowned fish biologist.

Asked if he enjoyed his post, Jordan reportedly said: ``I like it fine. But every time I learn a student's name, I forget the name of a fish.''

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