Cryptocurrency and irreversible transactions

There’s a current news story about a wallet blunder freezing up $280,000,000 of Ether, a cryptocurrency. I try to avoid posting too much opinion on my blog, but I do have a view on this.

Cryptocurrency

A cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ether is based on the idea of unbreakable contracts and irreversible transactions. This is great in many contexts, but somewhat scary to me as consumer should I ever choose to pay for something using a cryptocurrency.

If you want to know more about Bitcoin, you should check out the Bitcoin 101 course on Cognitive Class.

Mostly Harmless

I think this Douglas Adams parable about the design problem of un-openable windows applies to many things in tech, including cryptocurrency:

…all the windows in the buildings were built sealed shut. This is true.

While the systems were being installed, a number of people who were going to work in the buildings found themselves having conversations with Breathe-o-Smart systems fitters which went something like this:

“But what if we want to have the windows open?”

“You won’t want to have the windows open with new Breathe-o-Smart.”

“Yes but supposing we just wanted to have them open for a little bit?”

“You won’t want to have them open even for a little bit. The new Breathe-o-Smart system will see to that.”

“Hmmm.”

“Enjoy Breathe-o-Smart!”

“OK, so what if the Breathe-o-Smart breaks down or goes wrong or something?”

“Ah! One of the smartest features of the Breathe-o-Smart is that it cannot possibly go wrong. So. No worries on that score. Enjoy your breathing now, and have a nice day.”

It was, of course, as a result of the Great Ventilation and Telephone Riots of SrDt 3454, that all mechanical or electrical or quantum-mechanical or hydraulic or even wind, steam or piston-driven devices, are now requited to have a certain legend emblazoned on them somewhere. It doesn’t matter how small the object is, the designers of the object have got to find a way of squeezing the legend in somewhere, because it is their attention which is being drawn to it rather than necessarily that of the user’s.

The legend is this:

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”

Adobe password breach as the world’s greatest crossword puzzle

Adobe was recently breached and 150,000,000 user accounts were stolen. Adobe was following the one of the worst practices of password storage — reversible encryption (rather than hashing with a salt using a good, slow algorithm like bcrypt). A very, very old throwaway password of mine was among those leaked.

XKCD has referred to this breach as The Greatest Crossword Puzzle in the History of the World!

It was bound to happen eventually. This data theft will enable almost limitless [xkcd.com/792]-style password reuse attacks in the coming weeks. There's only one group that comes out of this looking smart: Everyone who pirated Photoshop.

With the help of LastPass’ Has Adobe Leaked My Password, let me illustrate why:

The following hints have been used by other people that share your password. This information could be used to determine your password as well.

  • Life, Universe, Everything
  • life?
  • DA
  • h2g2
  • hitchiker’s guide to the galaxy
  • yes
  • meaningoflife
  • theusual
  • everything
  • hitchhiker
  • dolphins
  • gta
  • a4
  • answer
  • meaning?
  • life
  • the answer
  • the question of life
  • HGTTG
  • meaning of life
  • the usual
  • life..
  • life the universe and everything
  • a2lae
  • the ultimate
  • Hitchhiker
  • What’s the answer?
  • hitchhikers?
  • Life the Uni and Every
  • life meaning and flower
  • common
  • douglas adams
  • a?
  • maiden
  • lotr no #
  • Adams question
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide
  • answer?
  • question
  • Life Meaning
  • adams
  • life universe everything
  • HHGTTG
  • the number
  • towel
  • typical
  • The Usual
  • How many roads must a man walk down?
  • Life, the universe, and everything
  • What is the meaning of life, the universe and all?

Would you care to guess what password the naive, young me used for Adobe?

Next steps

Write to be read

In 1997, Jakob Nielsen wrote How Users Read on the Web. His organization conducted a formal study of usability and found:

  • Concise text (half the words) is 58% more readable than rambling text.
  • Scannable text (bullets) is 47% more readable than wall of text.
  • Neutral language (facts) is 27% more readable than marketese.

Nielsen added specific recommendations:

  • Mark keywords
  • Use descriptive headings (not puns or references)
  • Use bullets
  • Limit one paragraph to one idea
  • Start with the conclusion
  • Halve the wordcount

Concise text

Blaise Pascal: I have only made this letter long because I have not had the time to make it short.

Maintaining high information density is hard. You need to edit and cut the dead text. It takes up your time, but it saves readers time; it is respectful.

Scannable text

I think that Jakob Nielsen and Jeff Atwood overuse bolding. Nevertheless, they remain widely read because their postings are clear and readable. I can see at a glance their topics, their reasoning, and their conclusions.

Neutral Language

Being positive and writing empty boasts is different. Don’t blather about awesomeness, or people will ignore even the facts.

Inverted pyramid style

Observe:

  • Newspaper stories start with the most important fact and work down.
  • Essays start with the thesis and then prove it.
  • Reports start with an executive summary.