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Password advice in the wake of Heartbleed

I’ve seen a lot of bad password advice lately. Guessing passwords is just too easy for a computer to do, especially as they get more and more powerful.

Formulas are bad, but unavoidable, so here’s what I recommend if you’re not going to use a password manager creating completely random passwords: Unverifiable (or difficult to verify) facts. Things like what house you lived in in 2001 and what you paid for it. Better yet, your favorite baseball card and what you paid for it. Or maybe the address and phone number of your favorite long-gone pizza or BBQ joint. Think along those lines.

T206Wagner$0.50 was a reasonably good password before I published it here (you paid 50 cents for one at a garage sale! Right?) only because it contains an unverifiable fact. I guarantee T206Wagner$1M (the value of the most valuable baseball card in existence) is in all the password lists these days.

This isn’t especially great advice, but it’s something that there’s half a chance people will be willing to follow, and it pretty much forces passwords to have a nice mix of character types and to be at least 12-16 characters long. I don’t think it forces enough non-alphanumeric characters, or a wide enough variety of them, but left to choice most people won’t put any of them in. It would become lousy advice if very many people chose to follow it, but I know few will, and most people will continue to use the weakest passwords a site allows, so it’s adequate for a while.

The most important thing is to make it personal. What I paid for favorite baseball cards is easy for me to remember. If you never collected baseball cards, think of something along those lines that’s easy for you to remember, with a spin that’s hard for someone else, computer or otherwise, to guess.

Clean your air conditioner at home

Last week I had to get an air conditioner serviced. The air conditioner was cooling fairly well, but struggling to keep up on hot days when it had kept up just fine last year. So I bit the bullet and paid $79 for a cleaning and health check. In the process I learned it’s possible to clean your air conditioner at home. And save a bundle.

I also learned is that a cleaning can make the difference between running all day and being able to maintain a comfortable temperature while cycling. So cleaning the air conditioner makes it more comfortable and more efficient, saving you money. I also learned that the most important part of the cleaning is something you can do yourself, very easily. If your air conditioner isn’t under warranty anymore, you can save the $79, which adds up.

Read More »Clean your air conditioner at home

Marley and Me

My wife and I watched Marley and Me tonight. Good movie. Not as good as the book, of course. But I think they did a good job of adapting it to the screen.

I guess the book and movie hit me on three levels, rather than just two. I’m a parent, I have a Labrador Retriever, and I went to school to try to be John Grogan. That last part didn’t quite work out, but that world just doesn’t seem to exist anymore, not with a major newspaper closing its doors pretty much every week now.I’ll get the first question out of the way. Yes, the movie gives a pretty accurate picture of what life is like with a Lab. Some chew more than others. Ours has demolished a curtain, a window shade, and scarred a couple of doors, but not much else. Marley has her beat. I’ll spare you the stories about the fascination with toilets and dirty diapers. The book talks about that more than the movie, and it’s true.

And underneath the mischief is a heart of gold. You see that in the movie in spades, and it’s all true. I think pretty much any dog is capable of that kind of love, and capable of sensing when we really need them the most, but Labs are especially good at it. They may not know everything that’s going on, but they’re perfectly willing to just sit there with you and get through it, and they’ll never, ever hold anything you say against them.

The attachment between dog and child is every bit as strong as in that movie. When we first brought our son home, he was a bit suspicious of that big furry thing, and probably a bit scared of her. I remember him looking at her with those big, wide, not-so-trusting eyes. They weren’t the same big wide eyes he looked at Dad with. It took a little while for the two of them to adjust to one another, but they did. He’s 13 months old now, and he’ll climb on her or pull on her ears, laughing like it’s great fun, and she just sits there, tail thumping the floor in approval, trying to lick him. When he cries, if she’s not sure we hear it, she’ll start whimpering and jumping up on things until she has our attention.

It’s very easy to see the two of them growing up together just like the dog and kids in the movie.

I know from my own experience that his life as a journalist is glamorized. I lived that portrayal at the beginning. While all the other reporters have great stories to chase, his assignment is two paragraphs about a fire at the city dump for the police blotter. Sometimes that turns into a great story. One Saturday I was listening on the police scanner and learned about some guy burning leaves in a BBQ grill in his front yard. Then a gust of wind came, and the next thing we knew, his neighbor’s house was on fire, along with the same neighbor’s barn and field. I rushed out there and found a disaster. I have no idea what it was, but the neighbor really opened up to me, and it turned into a great story. The editors thought so too, and what normally would have been a couple of paragraphs in the blotter ended up taking up most of the page.

I chased a lot of stories of people burning leaves in BBQ grills–you wouldn’t believe how often that happens in central Missour-ah, with an "uh"–but it rarely even merited more than a line in the blotter.

I loved every minute of it. I hated every minute of it. It’s called paying your dues, because nobody wants to do write about misdemeanors and city council meetings for more than a few months. You hate writing meaningless copy, but the worst writing job is still better than doing anything else. Right? Um….

The gruff, bald, humorless, emotionless editor? True. Definitely a stereotype, but this particular stereotype has a lot of truth.

I think that’s what really hit me the hardest. Fifteen years ago I wanted to be a journalist. I changed directions because a computer professional can work pretty much anywhere. I didn’t want to be stuck writing obituaries and police blotters for a small-town newspaper 45 minutes outside of Toledo making $18,000 a year. I wanted to be able to afford a house and a car and a dog. The price I paid for a job that pays a living wage is boring and mundane work (although important). But I can’t write about it because I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. I’m not even supposed to talk all that much about it, which is a shame because I have some great stories, like the one where a guy who makes three times my salary called me up, complaining that the network was broken because a service running on his computer couldn’t contact (Translation: his computer couldn’t figure out how to talk to itself, so obviously it’s a network problem.)

Not being able to talk about it is the ultimate price. John Gorgan’s stories are funnier than mine, because everyone can relate to kids and dogs. People eat those stories up. I can tell you the story about trying to log into a domain controller and getting an error message that the computer can’t contact the domain controller. I yelled, "Look in the mirror!" The third time it happened, I probably inserted another word before "mirror." A small number of you reading are laughing and trying to diagnose the problem. The rest of you are wondering what on earth mirrors have to do with computers and why would anyone think that’s funny?

So I’m insanely jealous of John Grogan, but increasingly his life is something that no longer exists. Newspapers are closing their doors left and right. There aren’t enough jobs out there for the best of the best. And the only people this seems to bother are other journalists. I blame Fox News and talk radio, neither of which would exist without credible news sources to seed them, but that will become obvious soon enough.

So I’ll settle for having a son and a dog, and being able to afford to live in a safe neighborhood. And maybe when I’m 40 and too old to be in IT, I can finally tell those other stories.

Fathers: Give your family a gift this Father’s Day weekend

I’m sitting here watching NBC’s tribute to Tim Russert tonight. Although he was famous for being the biggest political guru of his generation, he was also the author of two books, both about fatherhood.

He died today of a heart attack. He was only 58.

I would have liked to have asked my dad what to do to minimize the risk of heart attack. Being a doctor, he should know. But I can’t. He died of a heart attack in 1994, age 51.I think I know what Dad would say, although he would say it with a whole lot more authority, having four degrees and the title "D.O." to his name.

I’m sure Dad would point out that not all of the factors are within our control. The best we can do is control the factors that we can control. (Not that he did, sadly.)

I don’t know much about medicine (Dad didn’t want me to be a doctor, and honestly, I never had much interest), but I know plenty about controlling the factors we can, in hopes of minimizing the factors we can’t.

But diet is a big factor, and we can control it. We can (and should) eat foods lower in cholesterol. We can (and should) avoid hydrogenated oils as much as possible. And we can (and should) eat foods that seem to lower cholesterol, such as oatmeal. Soy is also rumored to lower cholesterol, but the question is whether it actually lowers cholesterol, or if it merely replaces lots of foods that are high in cholesterol.

So, here’s the gift I want fathers to give their families this week. Start eating oatmeal for breakfast at least a couple of times a week. And if you’re really ambitious, eat fake soy meat a couple of times a week instead of the real thing.

Trust me on this one. I’m a red-blooded, beef-eating Kansas City native. I grew up on the stuff. Eight years ago I gave up meat for Lent, mostly because it was something that seemed possible but extremely difficult to do. I wanted to see if I could do it. So I did it–barely. Then I went out for BBQ afterward.

Back then, I tried soy burgers. I wasn’t impressed. Trust me. They’re better now. If you don’t like one brand, try another, but my favorites are the Boca Flame Grilled. Soy bacon is good too. It doesn’t look a thing like the real stuff, but it tastes fine.

If there’s a relatively minor and tolerable adjustment that we can make to potentially increase the number of our years, and almost certainly increase the quality of those years, shouldn’t we do it?

My family threw me a wedding shower this weekend

I spent a nice weekend in Kansas City, where my family threw us a couples wedding shower. It was nice. The theme was BBQ.

I was happy.Among the gifts were at least 8 bottles of BBQ sauce, and I think they represented six or seven different brands, most of which aren’t available in St. Louis.

I rattled off a few of the kinds of BBQ sauce you can get in St. Louis: Kraft, Heinz, KC Masterpiece, and–I had to think for a while to come up with the name of the local brand–Maulls.

Most of them snickered when I said "Kraft." I think that stuff is illegal in Kansas City.

Actually, you can get Gates here in St. Louis also. A couple of relatives got me bottles of Gates and KC Masterpiece, but that’s OK. I’m never one to turn away good BBQ sauce, even when I can get them locally. The last time Gates was on sale here in St. Louis I bought about half a dozen bottles.

I also got a bottle of Arthur Bryant’s. It’s very famous too, and not available in eastern Missouri, as far as I know.

One relative sent me a bottle called Famous Dave’s BBQ Sauce. I posed for a picture with it. I hope my aunt sends me a copy.

So I think I might have enough BBQ sauce to get me through my final month of bachelorhood. We’ll just have to see.

I was on vacation

I went on vacation and I guess my DSL connection got jealous. As far as I can tell it died two days into the trip. Figures. So that’s why the site’s been dead.

If it interests youm I’ll tell you about my trip.I went with the girlfriend’s family to Orange Beach, Alabama, which is close to Pensacola, Florida. In Alabama the beaches are just about as white and much easier to walk on because it’s softer, but the shell hunting is better across the Florida border.

My St. Louis buddies say I’ve already lost the twang I picked up down there. That’s a good thing. I’m a northern boy.

Train fans will have something to look at near the intersection of highways 59 and 98 in Foley, AL. An old Louisville & Nashville diesel switcher locomotive, L&N caboose and boxcar are there, along with a St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco) boxcar. They appear to be in reasonably good condition.

The Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is excellent. I could spend days there. Take the 11 AM restoration tour if at all possible. They take you out into the airfield where planes that won’t fit in the museum are displayed, but they also take you inside the hangar where you can see their works in progress. In front of the hanger was what was left of a Brewster Buffalo, an early Navy fighter from World War II. It’s something of a holy grail today, because its ineffectiveness against the Japanese Zero doomed it early in the war. We sold a bunch of them to Finland and palmed a few more off on the British while the Navy did its best with the Grumman Wildcat, which was slightly less ineffective, while waiting for the Hellcat and Corsair fighters.

But anyway, they had the *censored*pit section of a Buffalo in front of the hangar and another Buffalo inside, which was waiting for its wings to be installed and a trip to the paint shop. They were also working on a replica of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. She wasn’t in the Navy, but her role in aviation and women’s acceptance in it means the museum was interested in the plane. The widespread belief that the Japanese believed her to be a U.S. spy and shot her plane down doesn’t hurt, either.

For great fish and seafood, check out Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores, AL. We had an hour and a half wait, which we passed by browsing the adjacent shops. I imagine that’s the source of most of those shops’ business. The shops aren’t earth-shattering but won’t bore you to tears either. The seafood is.

Flounders Chowder House in Pensacola Beach, Florida, is also amazing. Don’t ask me which one’s better. I think Flounders has the better atmosphere but the food in both places is first-rate. While just about every seafood place in the area is going to be better than Red Lobster, it’s easy to find disappointingly mediocre seafood in the area. But these two places knocked my socks off.

I made a new friend outside Papa Rocco’s in Gulf Shores. A sign outside Papa Rocco’s advertises warm beer and lousy pizza. Seriously, that’s what it said. I was walking across the Papa Rocco’s lot on my way to a souvenir shop when a woman started yelling at me. I kept walking but turned a couple of times. When I turned and looked at her, she yelled, "Yeah, I’m talking to you!" She wasn’t anyone I knew and she was obviously drunk. I have no idea why she was upset with me. I picked up my pace and got lost in the souvenir shop as quickly as I could.

I was crossing Papa Rocco’s to get a good look at Tracks To BBQ. Obviously if I’m on the Atlantic coast I’m going to eat seafood, since I can get good BBQ closer to home. But the ad for Tracks To advertised "Antique model train cars on display." So of course I wanted to check it out. Peering into the window, I was able to see that it was a small establishment, with only two or three tables inside. I saw a couple of Lionel posters on the wall and some assorted trinkets in the window. Further back, next to the cash register, I saw a couple of old OO or HO scale train cars that looked pretty old. What appeared to be a locomotive in the original box sat next to them. On a shelf below that I saw a postwar Lionel hopper car. I paid $10 for the same car at a swap meet last month. Nothing earth shattering there, at least not from what I could see inside. That’s not to say there wasn’t something cool running on a shelf under the ceiling, but I couldn’t tell from outside and the establishment was closed.

I’d hoped to see some prewar tinplate. Oh well.

The outlet mall in Foley is large and you can spot the occasional bargain. Some of the shops were handing out 40% off coupons for other shops in the complex. I got a pair of $50 Reebok tennis shoes for $20. I thought about buying a pair of the canvas Reebok Classic shoes as well. They would have been $12 with a coupon. I’ve had a couple of pairs of them in the past and they’re decent shoes. I’ve had shoes that were better looking and lasted longer, but in most cases I also paid $60 for them.

But as with all of these kinds of places, caveat emptor. I tried on plenty of shoes with lumpy soles. Those shoes aren’t worth taking for free because of what they’ll do to your feet. And mixed with the bargains you can find some high-priced items that are trading on reputation. Careful shoppers can save a bundle though.

I also learned that a large sand castle can attract a lot of attention. We built one large enough for a 4-year-old to hide in completely. It drew lots of looks and comments.

The quest for BBQ in St. Louis takes me to Smokin’ Al’s

I’ve written many times before about my never-ending search for BBQ in St. Louis. It’s a lot easier to find now than it was 10 years ago. And, although it’s still not up to Kansas City standards, I do have to say it’s getting better.

This weekend’s adventure took me to Smokin’ Al’s, which is on Hampton, just north of I-44 and south of U.S. 40, within earshot of Forest Park. It’s in the city, so be sure to pack your concealed weapons.

I’m kidding. That part of St. Louis is safe, and Smokin’ Al’s seems to be popular with the police anyway. But what’s it like?The first thing I noticed was the prices. They’re very reasonable–higher than McDonald’s but no higher than, say, Subway. My girlfriend got the BBQ hamburger with fries and a drink. Posted price was $4.99. I got the BBQ brisket sandwich with fries and drank my usual water (I don’t drink caffeine after noon). Posted price was $5.75, I think. Our total came to $11.99.

Like a true BBQ joint, Smokin’ Al’s has a napkin dispenser on the table. On a recent BBQ excursion, someone handed me a single napkin. I held it up and told whoever would listen that this was a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with BBQ in St. Louis. If you can clean up afterward with a single napkin, it wasn’t BBQ.

When the food arrived, it came with reason to hope that the napkin dispenser would be necessary. It had BBQ sauce on it! Amazing!

Like the classic Kansas City joints, the brisket sandwich was served on Texas Toast. The girl at the counter was much friendlier than the people at the counter at Gates or Arthur Bryant’s though. (They make rudeness an art form at those places. It’s part of the atmosphere.)

The quality of the meat was very commendable. It wasn’t dry or tough, and it was about as lean as you’ll ever find at a BBQ joint. You could tell from looking at it that it was cooked the way it’s supposed to be: long and slow. And there was a lot of it.

The sauce is their own homemade blend. It’s a bit different. It wasn’t quite as spicy as, say, Gates, but it wasn’t sweet. I doubt there’s a lot of honey or molasses in it. It also wasn’t tangy like a lot of BBQ sauces. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s pretty good, but it’s not much like anything I’ve had in other parts of the country. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say "St. Louis Style BBQ"–that’s what it says on the sign. And I know they don’t mean pork steaks, because those weren’t on the menu.

And yes, during the meal I went through about five napkins.

Best BBQ I’ve ever had? No. Best BBQ in St. Louis? Well, you’ve got me thinking, and I’ll grudgingly admit that the title of Best BBQ in St. Louis is no longer like the title of Tallest Building in Topeka. I might give a slight edge to Super Smokers, but Smokin’ Al’s is cheaper and the portions are a bit bigger. Best BBQ value in St. Louis? Absolutely.

So how’s it rank on the All-Time scale? It’s not quite in the same league as Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, or Smokestack, all in Kansas City. Second tier is Biffle’s in Concordia, Mo., Carson’s in Chicago, or Trotter’s, an old chain out of Springfield, Mo., which during its prime was as good as anyone’s but whose quality dropped off very quickly in the early ’90s. It disappeared soon after. But I remember it fondly.

I rank Super Smokers a notch below those two levels. I’ll put Smokin’ Al’s in that same category. But one must remember, both of these chains are mere rookies.

The quality of life in St. Louis just went up a notch. This Kansas Citian will be back. Especially seeing as it’s about a 10-minute drive from work, making it suitable lunchtime fare.

I can’t think of a higher compliment I could give.

A taste of… Missouri, I guess

I have no idea how much of this stuff is available outside of St. Louis, and I don’t normally write about what I ate for dinner because it bores me to tears when other people do it, but an idea came to me as I walked down the aisles at the local grocery store, and I think it’s a pretty good one.

John Goodman once said in a Saturday Night Live skit that there are three secrets to great barbecue: You need meat, bread, and sauce. He was right.The meat is salsiccia. I have no idea if this stuff is widely available, or if, like toasted ravioli and pork steaks, it’s a St. Louis thing. Basically it’s an Italian sausage, but the spices are a bit different. The Gatermanns introduced me to it, and they’ve always just cooked them like bratwursts.

The bread, well, was Healthy Choice whole-wheat hot dog buns. Nothing too special about that. Next time I’ll probably go to McArthur’s Bakery and pick up something. St. Louis has tons and tons of great bakeries–it’s as easy to find great bread in St. Louis as it is to find great barbecue in Kansas City. Ahem.

In Kansas City, the bread gets third billing. I think Gates serves the majority of its sandwiches on plain old Wonder Bread. That’s the main criticism I have of Gates. John Goodman was being sarcastic, but the right bread can steal the show.

Good bread from St. Louis is available nationally. The Panera Bread chain of sandwich shop/bakery/coffeehouse originated here in St. Louis.

And the sauce. I picked up Gates mild BBQ sauce. Gates is possibly the most famous of the Kansas City BBQ chains (and keep in mind that for something from Kansas City to have any market in St. Louis, there has to be something special about it), and it’s known for heat. Rather than calling their sauces mild, regular and spicy, they really probably should call them hot, hotter, and hottest.

I don’t know if Gates makes its sauce available nationally or not. If not, the KC Masterpiece brand really was developed in Kansas City, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But Gates has been around longer, and I was feeling traditional. And Gates, as far as BBQ sauces go, is very low in sugar.

Slather a fairly generous amount of Gates on the salsiccias, grill or broil them, then serve on the best bread you can find, and I think you’ve got something special. Especially considering the amount of effort that goes into it. We’re talking five minutes’ prep time and maybe 30 minutes’ cooking time.

It ain’t health food, but hey, we need to treat ourselves every once in a while.