Book Review: Mort

A great fun read with extremely witty subplots is how I remember this book. But then I think about it a bit and it is not how I felt throughout.

It is extremely slow, occasionally (just) funny in the initial half. It does have that moment of laugh-out-loud humour in between — but slow nonetheless. So much so that I had lost the interest in between. It was as if jokes were written around characters (mostly caricatures) and thrown in. And the pages filled in describing the fantasy land and the surroundings were too much at times. But that is before the plot picks up and fun kicks in again.

The novel is sheer pleasure after that. I couldn’t put it down and wanted to know what happens next. Frankly, more than what happens, I was interested in how Terry Pratchett words it. I have realised that Pratchett is a master of witty fantasies. It was not that rare when I used to pause and admire how unnaturally a feeling (like fear, anger , etc.) can be described without sounding stupid. If there ever was a university of metaphors, Pratchett would surely be the founder of that. And he would still be teaching a course on thinking big — weird, but big.

So here I am confounded for the first time after reading a book. Do I like the book, the story or do I like the way it is often spun? And it turns out I find the book to be just OK. But then I would pick it up any day, go back to my highlighted passages and admire the mastery at work.

And just for this master Pratchett, I will pick up another of the Discworld novels soon and start taking notes.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Ads Dilemma

Every time I read an article online that grabs by attention and interest, I am faced with a dilemma. I feel am gaining something without compensating for what is due to the writer or/and the owner of the website.

I run Ads-block extension. Well, the web publishers are themselves to blame. Look at the following tweet from me and I hope you feel the pain (i.e. if you do not, already).

So I am one less revenue node for the ads-driven sites out there.

I will not be able to pay the subscription price for every individual site I want to visit. That’s like watching, and paying for, television channels á la carte. What worsens the web scenario even further is there are zillions of channels out there instead of few hundreds. And everyone might create just that one interesting episode instead of a long drawn series.

So here’s the situation as it stands then.

I do not want to see the ads. Majority, including me, cannot pay for subscriptions.

Ads are hated — considered, and rightly so, blots on the web. Subscriptions are costly, unaffordable.

What choice are the web publishers left with then?

Passwords are, still, mess

Some time back, I read this interesting post at xkcd, a usual for these guys.

It made me realise, for the zillionth time, passwords are mess. This medium of authenticating a valid, and a human, user has overstayed its welcome. The way it is being used is not secure. Well, can you blame the poor souls who are made to remember the crazy letters every time they want to get something done online? Moreover, they are forced, as a security policy, to change and then remember the new passwords every some time. Sigh! Indeed, passwords are mess.

You need more proof? Try searching for the phrase “passwords should die”. This farce has to be one of the most cursed phenomenon out there.

But then what are the options?

  1. Make browsers/OS’es handle the password generation and management: This is one of the oldest and most recommended solution for this issue. The problem is such machine generated passwords are usually random Strings; hence they are extremely hard to memorise. Good password managers can negate that need. However, they become a hinderance in an environment where there are multiple machines involved (for example, work vs home environment). Moreover, the security aspect of these are hotly debated topics.
  2. Recommend ways for easy to remember, difficult to break passwords: An option that is evaluated a lot these days. The xkcd post linked above recommended one such way. It also opened a lot of threads discussing and analysing the accuracy and feasibility of the same. There were articles and papers written on understanding and improving on the suggested way. The problem is, eventually, it is a human, the lazy ass, who will decide what the password would be. What would end up happening is instead of ”password1” being a common password, it would be ”mypasswodiscommon”.
  3. Go Biometric: Apple introduced a working and, debatably, secure implementation of biometric authentication in TouchId. By bundling it as a core feature of iPhone, Apple made it reach to the masses. Tons of articles were written detailing how it can solve the password problem altogether. Though possible, issue remains this would not happen until biometric authentication comes bundled across all technology devices, even the low-end mobile phones. Passwords remain the standard, and only acceptable authentication method till then.
  4. Make passwords die, altogether: Finally, we come to the most interesting option that can be driven by the application developers themselves and not the users of the application. I feel, this will eventually become a reality.

Password-less Authentication

A lot has been said on this front too. There are articles and even open source frameworks, like Passwordless that want to target this by providing application developers ways to replace their login forms with password-less access. At high-level, key steps involved to achieve this are

  • Make a user just mention his userid/email address
  • Generate a one-time token for him
  • Deliver it to him
  • Authenticate him with the generated token

These are pretty standard and well accepted steps. However the issue remains in the 3rd step, how should these tokens be delivered. Whichever mechanism one selects will become the single point of threat to the whole system going haywire, be it then email (what’s the password for email account then?) or SMS (phone is lost, what now?). The hacker news thread on one such suggested system is nice rundown for the probable issues.

Now that thread is more than a couple of years old. Today, the best option would be to deliver the token to the device which has biometric authentication enabled. As an example, I really like the way Apple has enabled the two-factor authentication on Apple Id. It displays possible devices where the token can be delivered and asks the user to select one. Once delivered to, say, an iPhone, only the user who owns the iPhone can access it by authenticating himself with TouchId. This same mechanism can be applied for delivering the secure tokens of web/mobile applications too. There, the delivery problem is solved.

However, given that majority of the users do not own an iPhone or a similar biometric authentication enabled device, this method cannot become the primary way of authenticating users.

So even though I believe that, in John Siracusa’ words, on an infinite timescale, all applications will have password-less logins, we are some years away from realising that dream.

Ok, so what till then? This is what I would like the applications developers to do to make this password mess a bit less itchy for me. Decide first, do you really need me to secure my profile via a password? User forums/discussion groups, I am looking at you. I will give leeway to banks/financial apps to make me remember and enter the password. For all others, please make this process simple.

  1. When a user visits the first time, ask for his email id/mobile number. Next, make him choose a word, an image or, preferably, a set of words/images to remember as “password”.
  2. For every subsequent visit, just ask him for the email id or mobile number. Even better, just do not ask him anything. Maintain his profile information in cookie with expiration set for a longer timeframe.
  3. Give him the options amongst which lies his password and make him “select”, not enter, that as the password. He gets a couple of chances, else make him fall back to one-time token.
  4. If he does not remember the chosen password, or chooses not to, a click on a link sends him a token on email/mobile which he used while registering.

I believe this will ease the burden from majority of the people of maintaining the passwords without making them any less secure. Passwords can’t die yet, but at least they would be a little less painful.

Thoughts on The Martian

This novel has left me with a lot of thoughts. First off, I am totally confused on what I really feel about this. It is one of the most difficult books I found to review. So I just won’t. I do not think I would be able to word my thoughts well. Well, they are confused.

So I would instead refer to one review that I completely concur with. Thomas has done a great job reviewing this at Goodreads. Here’s how he describes the style of prose in the novel, the survival” journey of Mark Watney.

Watney discovers a problem. Watney worries for a sentence or two. Watney comes up with a solution. Watney enacts the solution with minimal struggle. Watney celebrates. Rinse and repeat.

There, Thomas has described what goes on in 75% of the pages. Sigh! This guy Watney is an unbelievable genius. No trouble or challenge is big for him. He glides over every challenge as one would with a game of toys. Actually that’s exactly how Andy Weir, the author, writes this; as if he is Andy from Toy Story spinning an action-drama around Woody during his play time. Throw anything at him, he would have the smarts, the resources and the luck with him to soar out of it. And you know right that at the beginning of every log Watney writes.

There lies the novel’s biggest drawback. It just has one tone, the tone of success. And you can’t build a thriller if the reader is just not thrilled for the protagonist.

To sum up, this is what Thomas has to say.

My overall thoughts on The Martian center on its lack of introspection and repetitive descriptions of action, its disconcerting lack of characterization, and the drought of struggle each of the characters underwent. Watney faces a difficult situation, but I at no point in my entire reading thought he would suffer, based on his Pollyanna tone.

Completely agree. I do not think Andy Weir wanted to write a thriller about a Martian. He wanted to jot down his thoughts on what will it take scientifically for a guy to survive on Mars. And the novel is a breezy light log of these thoughts. You can skim through it without getting involved, like any science paper/theory you read.

All said, this is a nice fleet of thoughts, dreams of Andy Weir. The efforts that Andy Weir has put in that included extensive research into orbital mechanics, conditions on Mars, the history of manned spaceflight, and botany” for the novel shows. A one time read for sure just for that. Just don’t look for a thriller in this and you should be fine.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kindle and Paperbacks

I read a paperback recently; an incident that made me realise how wrong I had been to believe one will always feel nostalgic towards books with real paper. There indeed was a time when I used to look down on eBooks as format. I knew I wasn’t alone, the debate was on. I used to think reading them is futile, a fleeting pleasure. A pathway for a lazy few; the ones who do not appreciate the feel of a paperback in their hands.

That was before Kindle happened.


EBooks all the way

It was gradually that I started rejoicing eBooks. It was via the Kindle app first, mostly on my iPad. The built in dictionary was one of the most useful feature that pulled me in. It helps a lot when a person, not well-versed in English, can simply select a word to fathom its meaning. No need stretching out to fetch a dictionary and scan for the word. Either that or to make some broken sense out of the sentence without knowing the word. Not an experience one can call satisfactory.

There was another feature that I benefitted from the most, sync to the furthest read position. Be it an iPad, iPhone or the Kindle web reader extension, be it home, office or a lengthy queue of a supermarket, my book was always available, synced to where I had left it earlier. There is some relief in not maintaining a physical book and the nosy bookmarks. They are played with, they are misplaced, they are lost. They even are hinderance sometimes, often when you are in-fact reading. (Isn’t that generally a time one holds a book anyway?)

eBooks came handy. But there was still an issue I faced. iPads were heavy, iPhones tiny. Paperbacks (mostly) are best by size and weight. You hold them, read even at a stretch and don’t feel you have lost a limb. With iPads? Well, they really are not made for reading in long stretches. Not at least the iPad 2, which I own. Most of the time is spent in finding the perfect surface for resting the iPad on. Not really a painless experience. Inadvertently, I ended up reading on iPhone more.

Welcome Kindle

Kindles, the hardware, had just recently launched in India. I knew there were benefits to them. For one, they were made with reading as sole purpose. So they were designed to be best fit by size and weight. I had heard so many stories of how it changed people’s reading habits, made them read more. I knew I wanted one. A bit of research, a bit of playing around with them. I decided I wanted one. For reasons of mine (which I would go into someday), I settled on the Kindle, 6″ E Ink Display (Prev. Generation) with page turning keys, the non-touch screen one.

And the reading experience has never been the same again. I am reading more, I am reading longer. Surprisingly, it has made my wife too into an avid reader. A person who rarely considered reading as her hobby, she spends good amount of time finding and reading books. Paperbacks, ones with real pages, could never do that. eBooks did, especially Kindle.

So coming back to a paperback, it did turn out to be a painful experience. Holding the book was troublesome. Bookmarking was troublesome. Turning pages was troublesome. Wanting to read the book at office was worthless. At one point, I wanted to stop reading it in between, buy an ebook version and continue. The nostalgia, induced by the scent of real pages, can only take you so far. eBooks, for me, have ruined the pleasure of the physical books. Kindle has owned me now; and I can never go back.