The Stupidity of Account Security Questions

Josh Levin has an article in Slate on the surge in bizarre security questions companies now ask for when you create accounts online.  It turns out they don’t enhance security, but they cut down on customer support calls, which both we and the companies hate.  Some excerpts:

Verizon wants to know my favorite ice cream flavor, Google’s got
designs on my library card number, and Wachovia needs my favorite
all-time entertainer. Yahoo! is asking where I met my spouse, and Bank
of America wants the details of the honeymoon. Like those squiggly pictures of letters and numbers,
weird personal questions have become ubiquitous totems of online
security. If you tell the bank your favorite grade-school teacher or
cartoon character, the thinking goes, it’ll be easy to confirm your
identify when you misplace your account number. This thinking is dumb. […]

Security questions are often impossible to answer, frequently creepy (does the power company really need to know where you met your spouse?), and rarely secure—Paris Hilton’s T-Mobile account
was breached by hackers who guessed the answer to her secret question,
"What is your favorite pet’s name?" If these questions are galling to
answer and don’t enhance anyone’s security, why are they suddenly

[…] just because customers value convenience over security doesn’t mean
banks should. Instead of coming up with ever-more-ornate questions
about teachers and toys, banks and security companies should push
solutions that are safe and customer-friendly. While everyone hates
calling customer service, confirming your identity on the phone (an out-of-band
device) is way more secure than using an online form. RSA’s Gaffan told
me about a phone-based authentication system used by more than a dozen
of the company’s clients. At sign-up time, you enter your work, home,
and cell numbers. If you lose your password, simply indicate whether
you’re at home, at work, or on your cell. To authenticate yourself,
just answer your phone and type in a number that appears on your
computer screen. There’s nobody asking about your honeymoon and no
stuffed animal names to remember. Sounds perfect to me.

Link: Why are bank security questions so montrously stupid?

Walter Kirn on Multitasking

The Atlantic Monthly is now free online, which means you should go read Walter Kirn’s November article about multitasking if you haven’t already: The Autumn of the Multitaskers.  An excerpt:

It isn’t working, it never has worked, and though we’re
still pushing and driving to make it work and puzzled as to why we
haven’t stopped yet, which makes us think we may go on forever, the
stoppage or slowdown is coming nonetheless, and when it does, we’ll be
startled for a moment, and then we’ll acknowledge that, way down deep
inside ourselves (a place that we almost forgot even existed), we
always knew it couldn’t work.

The scientists know this too, and they think they know why. Through
a variety of experiments, many using functional magnetic resonance
imaging to measure brain activity, they’ve torn the mask off
multitasking and revealed its true face, which is blank and pale and

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most
basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant
switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in
visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear
to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning.
We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever
it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at
UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index
cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously
listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds.
The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting
responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls
information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive
activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the
cards just as well with the musical distraction—but they had a much
harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the
experiment was over.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of
stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down
our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the
short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability
to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to

See this NYT article for a story about the Atlantic’s new strategy: A Venerable Magazine Energizes Its Web Site.

The Onion Predicts Reading’s Future

Shocking news:

GREENWOOD, IN—Sitting in a quiet downtown diner, local hospital
administrator Philip Meyer looks as normal and well-adjusted as can be.
Yet, there’s more to this 27-year-old than first meets the eye: Meyer
has recently finished reading a book.

Yes, the whole thing.

"It was great," said the peculiar Indiana native, who, despite
owning a television set and having an active social life, read every
single page of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Link: Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book (via Bookninja).

A few weeks ago the San Francisco Chronicle identified Craigslist’s founder as "Craig Newmark, who reads 50 books a year" (!!).  It’s in a story on, some sort of Web 2.0 thingy for writers: link.   

Nicholas Carr’s Big Switch

Lots of folks are reviewing (and liking) Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Big Switch.  Tom Slee writes:

The first half of The Big Switch is given over to convincing us that
utility computing is the wave of the future, and the second half of the
book explores the implications – many of them disturbing – of this
switch. The good news is that both are thought-provoking and open up a
lot of questions. The less good news is that to cover all this ground
Carr has to skim and, at 250 pages, this short book can’t delve very
deeply into any of the questions.

Link: The Big Switch.

See also Andrew Orlowski in the Register: Nick Carr’s Big Switch.

National Research Council says Cell Phone Health Studies are Needed

From Reuters:

Researchers should study more children and pregnant women in trying
to figure out if cell phones or other wireless devices could damage
health, the U.S. National Research Council advised on Thursday.

A few studies have indicated a possible link between mobile
telephone use and brain tumors, although far more show no connection.
But because wireless devices have become almost ubiquitous, researchers
wants to ensure their safety.

The Food and Drug Administration asked the National Research Council
to recommend some future lines of study. The Council, which advises
Congress and the federal government on scientific matters, held a
meeting of experts including engineers and biologists and has now
released the full report.

Most studies have looked only at short-term effects on healthy adults, the report said.


More study needs to be done on multiple, long-term, low-intensity radiofrequency (RF) exposure, the report said.

Link: Study children and cell phones, researchers advise (Globe & Mail/Reuters).

The NRC’s press release, which links to the full report is here: Report Identifies Research to Bolster Knowledge of Any Potential Health Effects of Wireless Communication Devices.