Skip to content

Dinner After Eight

I was on my tour of the Yukon.  It was early July, a time of 24-hour daylight above the Arctic Circle.  We were staying at a hotel in Inuvik.  The weather forecast posted at the front desk of the hotel said “cloudy today and sunny all night”.  In the morning, we were waiting for the fog to clear at Tuktoyaktuk so we could fly there.  Our guide kept us posted on flight conditions.  We had time for lunch in Inuvik.  After lunch, we headed for the airport and boarded our Twin Beech for the short flight to Tuktoyaktuk.  They call it Tuk there.  We had a tour of the townsite in a 12-passenger van.  The first thing our driver told us, when we were parked right across from the RCMP office, was that nobody wears seat belts in Tuk.  We believed him.  After a very interesting tour of the townsite, including a view of the Arctic Ocean with the pack ice just offshore, we all lined up at the Northern Store to use the staff washroom.

Our return trip to Inuvik was by boat through the islands and channels of the Mackenzie Delta.  It was a long trip, about five hours.  Our driver pointed out the ice-scoured sides of the islands.  I asked him how long ago it was that the ice went out.  About three weeks, he said.  There was a lot to see in the delta, but we were all tired and hungry when we finally climbed out of the boat back at Inuvik.  It was about 8 pm.  We hadn’t had anything to eat since lunch.  The sun was still high in the sky, but it was getting late.

When we finally arrived back at our hotel, our guide told us that the restaurant was closed, but we could still order food in the bar.  We all agreed to meet there after a quick trip to our rooms.  At the bar, however, we found out that we couldn’t order food there because the restaurant was closed.  Didn’t they know that it was still bright daylight outside?  Our guide then told us that we could bring in pizza to the bar.  He’d done that before.  The waitress agreed that we could do that.  Our guide went out to pick up our pizza order.

We each ordered a beer.  Yukon Gold is a popular brand.  Soon we were eating pizza with our beer.  Our waitress told us we all had to leave the bar by 10:30.  A few minutes later, the manager came over and told us the same thing.  Clearly it was a serious matter.  Their liquor licence was at risk if we stayed later.  We assured her that we would be gone by then.  What a rush!  I had to gobble my pizza.  Some people didn’t finish their beer.  Still, we left just before the deadline.  It was a long day, but a memorable one.


Password Security

Many people use easily-guessable passwords like `123456′ or `qwerty’.  Hackers can compute millions of password hashes per second.  Your passwords are in great danger.  That’s the alarming information that we hear every day.  How much of it is really true?

Experts tell us to use long complex passwords.  They advise us to memorize them and not write them down.  They tell us to change all of our passwords frequently.  Don’t they realize that what they are telling us is impossible to do?

The reality is somewhat different.  To understand it, you first need to know how passwords are used for authentication.  They are never used directly.  Instead, a hash is computed from the password that you have offered.  This hash is simply a long string of bytes calculated by a known procedure.  In the case of authenticating (proving your identity) to a web site, a copy of this hash is stored on the web site, along with hashes from everybody else who uses the site.  In the case of logging in to your computer, tablet, or mobile phone, a copy of this hash is stored on the device.  Next, the hash from the password you offered is compared to the hash that was previously stored.  If they are equal, you are granted the access you requested.

Indeed, an attacker can generate millions of hashes per second from a list of trial passwords.  These hashes are useless unless they match the one stored at the site or on your device.  They need to be verified somehow.  The only practical way to verify them is to compare the two hashes.  To do this, the attacker needs access to the hashes on the web site or on your own device.  Breaking in to the web site or your device is the only way to get them.  Most web sites are well protected against break-ins.  Your device should be protected too.  Without these hashes, the attacker cannot use the hashes they have generated, even if they have guessed your password.

The latest thing in authentication is biometrics.  All you need is a scan of your fingerprint or the iris of your eye.  These are guaranteed to be unique to you.  You don’t have to type anything.  You don’t even have to remember anything.  It’s much more convenient.  Why isn’t it used everywhere?

For one thing, it still involves a hash, this time taken from the unchangeable elements of your fingerprint or iris scan.  The hash will be sent to the web site, to be compared to the one already stored there.  Don’t expect an exact match, though.  Your scan changes a bit each time.  The hash changes a bit too.  The web site can only determine a probability that it’s you at the other end.

This authentication method can still be compromised.  You leave fingerprints everywhere.  Your fingers or your eye are photographed frequently.  That’s all an attacker needs to pretent to be you.  What do you do if your scan is compromised?  How do you change your biometric password?  I suppose you could switch to another finger.  You have ten of them.  Eyes are more of a problem because you only have two.  I wouldn’t jump to biometrics just yet.

Your passwords are not really in danger, as long as you follow some simple advice.  The first thing is to protect your local computer, tablet, or mobile phone from intrusion.  If your security fails there, all is lost: everything you do on that device will be visible to the intruder.  Protecting your local device is essential.  As well, make sure that any passwords you use locally, such as your password for logging in to the device, are stored locally.  Don’t store passwords on the cloud, even though it may be convenient.

You should be using high quality passwords for every site, including your local device.  These also should be different for each site.  That way, if one site is compromised, the people who did it won’t have access to all your other sites.  You won’t be able to remember all of these passwords.  Write them down someplace that’s secure, or keep them in a password manager.  I know that it’s possible to use a web browser to save all of your passwords, but I recommend using a real password manager instead.  You’ll still need to remember the one password for the password manager, but it’s only one.  Even if that password is long and complex, you’ll remember it because you use it so often.  I speak from experience.


Food Preferences

Two articles on the web recently came together to raise some questions.  One mentioned that apricots were domesticated thousands of years ago in China.  How are foods domesticated?  The other was a report on a scientific study.  It indicated that certain food additives were bad for our health.  Why are these things in our food anyway?

With a little thought, you will realize that almost everything we eat comes from domesticated fruit, vegetables, or animals.  A few come from wild sources, of course, but not many.  The fish we eat are mostly wild, but this is changing as wild stocks are depleted and fish farming grows.

If you look at a seed catalogue, you will quickly discover that there are many varieties of each plant.  All of those varieties have been developed by selective breeding.  They have been selected to be superior in the marketplace or appealing to the gardener.  Fruit varieties are generally selected for sweetness.  Varieties of domestic animals were also developed by selective breeding.

My brother gave me a package of dried apricots as a Christmas gift.  According to the nutrition label, they are about 60% sugar.  No wonder they taste so good.  Those much maligned chocolate covered cerial bars are only about 35% sugar.  Dried apricots, or any dried fruit for that matter, is not the healthy snack you thought it was.

Of course, the food companies know exactly what we prefer.  They use panels of ordinary people to rate foods according to sweetness, texture, flavour, and mouth feel.  They produce foods to meet our preferences exactly.  We get what we like.

In the grocery store, fruit and vegetables have to be perfect or we leave them on the shelf.  We won’t buy misshapen vegetables or spotted fruit.  We also won’t buy things like fruit drinks that have separated in the bottle, even if the label tells us to shake well.  We are very particular in what we will accept.

That article on food additives used ice cream as an example.  Why are emulsifiers even necessary in ice cream?  Apparently they are.  In addition to preventing separation in liquids like fruit drinks and salad dressings, they improve the texture of many foods.  That ice cream may appear more creamy because of emulsifiers.  They can also substitute for higher cost ingredients while retaining the appeal of the food.  It may seem like homemade ice cream, but cost a lot less.

Some people say that all processed food is full of chemicals.  Names that you can’t pronounce are usually called chemicals in this context.  I suppose that they mean manufactured unnatural ingredients with scientific names.  They presumably equate unnatural with unhealthy.  This attitude can’t be correct; most food additives are beneficial and harmless, regardless of their names.  Some, of course, might be harmful, but this can only be established by scientific study.  The food producers are counteracting this fear of chemicals by finding natural-appearing names for them, and by switching to natural-source additives.  They are doing this, not because these additives are harmful, but in an effort to make the food more appealing to customers.

We all expect food to be attractive, healthy, and low in cost.  Much of this drive for quality is a result of competition between food companies.  We like food to be just like homemade, but quicker and cheaper.  Certainly companies want their products to be as healthy as possible, and want to let you know this is so.  All of their ingredients have been approved by government agencies.  Approved additives should not be harmful, but some may turn out to be harmful in ways that nobody suspected.

Generally, we get high quality food and low prices, as a result of competition between food companies.  However, our food choices can be manipulated by advertizing or swayed by fashion or fad.  In general, though, we want what the companies believe we want.  We value sweetness.  We want quality, as it appears to us.  The companies are correct, at least for the majority.  Other people may want something completely different.  I’m sure they will have a harder time finding what they want.


Music I Like

The first type of music that captivated me when I was growing up was folk music.  I listened to it on radio and television.  I bought records by folk musicians.  I went to the local folk festival every year.  That was at the time when folk music was popular.  Soon, however, it was replaced by rock and roll music.  The world had changed.  I went along, but half-heartedly.

Much later, I decided to educate myself in classical music.  I accomplished this by buying collections on CD.  These were often Naxos CDs, generally called “Best of” a particular composer.  I bought ones I thought I might like, and listened to them constantly.  Pretty soon they became familiar to me.  Pretty soon I began to like some of the music.  Like most people, I liked what I knew.  Of course, I thought instead that I knew what I liked.

I started with the simplest classical music, which also turned out to be the oldest.  I soon liked Handel.  Then I gradually moved on to other composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.  I began to like their music too.  After that, I moved on to more recent composers like Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and Mahler.  I found I liked some of their music too.  Most recently I tried operatic composers, Verdi and Puccini in particular.  At every stage I discovered what I liked and what I didn’t like.  I’m sure my likes and dislikes will change as I educate myself further.

My favorite is now orchestral music.  I like all the Russian composers.  No doubt this fits with my temperament.  I like listening to classical music on CBC radio 2.  I appreciate the tasteful commentary and anecdotes that accompanies their musical selections.  If I wanted music without that, I’d just listen to a CD instead.

I like some operatic music, particularly from Verdi’s operas.  I do like some others as well, but I can’t appreciate Wagner.  I’ve tried, but it only sounds like men shouting to me.

I still appreciate hearing some folk music, old or new.  I also like some jazz, but only the oldest kind.  I’m sure I got to know jazz by hearing my parent’s music.  I also like some old country music, probably because it’s similar to folk music.  Most of the time, though, I listen to classical music.  My attempt to educate myself was clearly successful.


Happy Family

I was recently asked who I would choose if I could have a different mother than the one I have.  I don’t have an active imagination, so I could only answer that this was not possible.  When we are growing up, the only family that we know is our own.  We assume that other families are like our own.  We have no standard for comparison, not even the happy families that appear on television; these are fictional, after all.  If we have an abusive family, we believe that all of them are like that.  If we have a loving family, we believe that all the others are like that too.  My family was a complex mixture, but I have no doubt that both of my parents were doing the best they could do.  I can’t ask for more than that.

I was supposed to choose a celebrity to be my substitute mother.  I don’t follow the lives of celebrities, but I do know that many of them went through a series of marriages and divorces.  They often had several families too.  Those can’t be happy families.  The celebrity might be very wealthy, too.  Having that sort of mother didn’t appeal to me at all.

There is a well-known saying that money doesn’t buy happiness.  This is actually not true.  Just ask people who don’t have any money.  They will tell you that money will bring them happiness.  Here’s what’s really true: an adequate amount of money does bring happiness.  More money will not bring more happiness.

This revised understanding has more to do with the nature of happiness than with the nature of money.  Happiness and unhappiness are not mirror images, one positive and the other negative.  There are many degrees of unhappiness.  You can be somewhat unhappy or desperately unhappy.  There’s only one degree of happiness.  You are either happy or not.  You can’t be more happy.

So, once you have achieved happiness, don’t go looking for more of it.  You won’t find it.  It’s time to think about other people or other things in this world.


Windows XP Upgrade

What should I do with my Windows XP pro desktop, I asked myself.  It’s the only Windows machine on my home network.  I only used it occasionally, for software that only runs on Windows.  I used it to extract audio files from a casette tape, and to operate a slide scanner before that.  Now XP is no longer supported by updates from Microsoft.  Maybe I could upgrade it to a newer version of Windows?  I’d probably have to upgrade the hardware at the same time.  As I reviewed the upgrade costs, I soon found that path to be uneconomical.  What else could I do at a reasonable cost?

Replacing it is the usual solution.  People go out and buy a new computer when their old one stops working or becomes obsolete.  They get the latest Windows that way.  With my limited use, I really didn’t want a new one.  Then I hit on the idea of buying a refurbished computer.  It would come complete with a newer version of Windows.  All I had to do was to transfer all my files from the old one to the new one.  That sounded like a good path to follow.

I found a Canadian company that had a wide stock of refurbished business desktop computers, mostly from Dell and HP.  The prices were reasonable.  The one I chose had more memory and a faster CPU than my XP computer.  It was also newer and came with Windows 7 pro.  I ordered a small form factor HP model, just so I wouldn’t be getting another large box that was mostly empty.  I didn’t expect to add any components, but I was pleased to see that it had three low-profile PCI-E slots.

My new computer was shipped by UPS, arriving at my front door in about five days.  It included a keyboard and mouse.  The keyboard looked fine, although I didn’t use it.  The mouse, though, was smashed into many pieces.  I suppose I was unlucky, but I didn’t need another mouse.  The computer itself was in excellent condition.  It was about half the size of a conventional tower, but just as heavy.  It was quite easy to configure on my network.  Once I answered the usual questions that a new installation of Windows 7 asks, it was ready to go.

I used Windows easy file transfer to transfer files from my XP pro computer to my new Windows 7 pro computer.  The file transfer software was already present on Windows 7.  I had to download and install it on Windows XP.  I had already purchased a 32-gig flash drive to do the transfer, but I never needed it.  Both computers were connected to my home network.  Transfer using the network worked, so I used that instead.  It was pretty easy, although it did take several hours to copy 60 GB of data.  It copied all of my settings too.  My new computer looked just like the old one.  Even the SMB share from a non-Windows server on the network was there.

I’m quite impressed with the whole thing.  It couldn’t have gone more smoothly.  No doubt I’ll only use the new Windows 7 pro computer occasionally, just like the old one.  At least it will be supported with Microsoft updates for some time to come.  I shut down the XP pro computer almost immediately, and took it apart about a week later.  The replacement is complete!


Fat or Sugar

From the viewpoint of nutrition, all foods are the same.  Our body is remarkable in that it can build all the tissues it requires and power itself from any food.  Inputs and outputs balance, of course.  The input can be carbohydrate, fat, or protein.  The output can be exertion or heat.  Any excess input accumulates in our bodies as fat.  These facts are the background that we require to understand other viewpoints.

Looking in more detail, there are differences in types of foods.  Proteins need to be kept in balance.  We require certain vitamins and certain minerals to prevent disease and promote health.  As well, some types of food can cause disease, usually only when we eat them in excess.  Some types are implicated in heart disease or obesity.

Does saturated fat cause heart disease?  Recent research has challenged this strongly-held belief.  Three articles that I’ve read recently describe the origin of the belief and point out that evidence of a link between saturated fat and heart disease has mostly disappeared.  Some studies show no association whatsoever.  They also state that some unsaturated fat provides no protection, but that trans fats are linked to heart disease.

Unsaturated fat is not just one thing, but several.  I found three articles that describe the different types, although they focus on omega-6 fatty acid.  Just substituting margarine for butter may not be effective if the margarine contains the wrong kinds of fatty acids.

It does seem that sugar is the new villain.  Barry Popkin, an American food science researcher, and Robert Lustig, an American pediatric endocrinologist, have featured in many articles that I’ve read.  Robert Lustig is the author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar.  Most of the articles focus on the diabetes and obesity risk from sugar.  Some point out the high fructose level in soft drinks and fruit juices.  Even though fruit juice has a healthy image, it contains the same amount of sugar as soft drinks.

I conclude first of all that the links between saturated fats and heart disease are very complex, certainly more complex than we used to believe.  Spreading butter on your toast may not be a problem after all.  Margarine and vegetable oils are healthy too, provided that they contain the proper mixture of fatty acids.  Trans fats are looking like the bad guys; avoiding them seems like a good idea.

Excess sugar in the diet is a major contributor to obesity, mostly because the sugar is hidden.  We do need to reduce our intake of sugar, and food in general, and increase our activity in order to avoid obesity.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 93 other followers