Dot-Matrix Fortunetelling

When I was in junior high, my school unveiled this state-of-the-art program to help us determine what career paths we were suited for. This being the mid-80s, what they gave us was an MS-DOS program that asked 50 questions, each of which we had to answer on a scale of 1-5. Bo-ring! We all dreaded it. At the end, we got to use the brand-new dot-matrix printer to output our recommended careers.

I got “computer programmer” and “accountant.”

To a 13-year-old, there are few fortunes more depressing than that. I wanted something exciting! I wanted fame and fortune! I wanted something a little bit girly! I wanted something I could show to the other kids that wouldn’t make them say, “Yeah, I can see that.”

What I did was this: I snuck into the guidance counselor’s office, looked up his master sheet of career pages, found a few that I liked, and figured out how to answer the questions to arrive at those outcomes.

Yeah, basically I hacked the code.

I gave myself the following: “actress,” “dancer,” “writer,” “inventor,” and “astronaut.”

It wasn’t until I was in college that my best friend pointed out the irony of me hacking the code to prove to myself that I shouldn’t work with computers for a living.

Oh, well. Embrace the Match.com style of algorithm, is apparently the lesson here. Now that I’m in my 40s, my career is “IT/Accounting Manager.” And, to my relief, they don’t force us to wear pocket protectors.

Gangstas of the 16th Century

In the contest for “Most Baller Astronomer,” I present for your consideration: Tycho Brahe. Man, this cat was the Charlie Sheen of The Renaissance!

spinning starsYou’ve never heard of him? That’s not surprising. Most people know Johannes Kepler, who proved via mathematics that the sun was at the center of our galaxy, rather than everything revolving around the Earth. Ah, but behind every great man is a crazy alcoholic hiding his research.

Wait, that’s not a phrase. Perhaps this is one of the only times in history this actually happened.

Truth is, Kepler owed most of his theories to the fact that he inherited Brahe’s lifetime of research after Brahe died from forgetting to pee.

See, Brahe was partying it up one night but social etiquette said that nobody could take a bathroom break until the Baron called for one. So our boy kept drinking and drinking and holding it in … and died a week later from a kidney infection.

Dude. You’d think that someone who spent half his life partying would remember a thing like emptying his bladder.

Uraniborg Castle
Uraniborg Castle, Brahe’s bachelor pad

This is the guy who convinced the King of Denmark to give him his own 3-mile-wide island with a state-of-the-art astronomy lab that ought to be posthumously featured on “Cribs”. How he ever managed to study the night sky is a mystery, amid the debauchery of all the party guests. I haven’t yet mentioned the dwarf he hired to greet his guests and tell their fortunes. There was his pet Elk who wandered freely through the mansion until it got drunk and fell down a flight of stairs. The dude even had a fully-equipped torture dungeon, which probably sounded much better when he came up with the idea than it did during the next morning’s hangover.

His parties were legendary in Europe through the late 1500s, though I imagine some guests turned up just to get a peek at the dude with the fake silver-and-gold nose.

If Lee Marvin played Tycho Brahe
If Lee Marvin played Tycho Brahe

He’d lost his real nose in his college years, arguing with a Danish lord/punk named Parsbjerg. Tycho’s temper (and blood-alcohol level) being what it was, he flew into a rage and challenged Parsbjerg to a duel with swords. What else could he do – the guy had insulted one of his mathematical formulas!

What’s surprising, really, is that he learned his lesson after the first duel and didn’t proceed to challenge everyone else who mocked him that year. He was taking a lot of heat over an astrological prediction that went wrong.

This was 1566, the same year that Nostradamus died, and everyone wanted to get in on the prophesying game. Tycho published a little piece that used the upcoming lunar eclipse (in October, 1566) to predict the death of Turkey’s Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Fortune-telling is usually an easy gig: either A) the sultan would die shortly after this prediction and Tycho could claim to have forseen it, or B) the sultan would live and Tycho could tell the world that his prediction made the sultan take more care than he ordinarily would have. Win-win, right?

But, alas, Tycho might have been a whiz at astronomy and carousing, but he wasn’t great at current events; the Sultan had died a month before Tycho wrote up the prophesy!

It takes cajones to lose your nose defending a prediction that  wrong. I told you the man was baller!

Continue reading

The Darkest Ages

My third grade social studies book went out of its way to explain that, “Contrary to its name, the Dark Ages were no darker than what we see today.” Even as a 10-year-old, this seemed like a stupid thing to tell a kid. Who would ever have gotten in to their heads that the world was darker back then? Why would you need to point this out to anyone? And don’t the people who write textbooks realize that a 3rd grade kid will remember the ridiculous things you say are not true much longer than anything you are actually trying to get into their heads?

Here’s a joke on the publisher, though — the Dark Ages actually were darker! Not the whole span, of course. That would be ridiculous. But there was a year in there where some people really did think the world had been plunged into darkness.

The year was 536 AD and, while we don’t know conclusively what caused it (science is still split between blaming an asteroid and a volcano near Asia), we do know that some catastrophic event kicked up so much debris in the atmosphere that it blotted the sun for much of the northern hemisphere.

Asia had it the worst, and legend says they could not distinguish night from day for at least a week after the incident happened. In England, scholars wrote that “they despaired of ever again seeing the sun.” Throughout Europe, the sun was so dimmed that people believed the sun was in its death throes. Such pessimism was warranted from people who watched it snow for eighteen straight months.

You’d imagine that they rejoiced when the skies cleared and normal weather patterns returned .. but you’d be wrong.

I’m sure a spring fever of sorts hit everyone, but meanwhile everywhere on the continents they were dealing with the after-effects of such drastic climate change: crop failures, famine, strange new fungi, and, worse, other people.

The crop failures were inevitable, which lead to the famines. It is estimated that in the remote regions of China as high as 80% of the population was wiped out.

From Egypt to Europe, the people who lived to see the crops returning got another nasty surprise in the form of the world’s first reported plague. The Justinian Plague, a direct result of the emerging strains of bacteria from the erratic temperatures, was the earlier cousin of the Black Plague, and just as horrid.

And the people? This led to a number of major migrations, particularly in the Steppes of Asia, when people realized the futility of growing food on a mountainside in perpetual darkness, set out for more arable lands, and seized them, borders be damned. Guess who was the best at this? The Mongol hordes. Hoo-boy, those barbarians knew how to shake things up!

I wonder if it’s too late to write to that textbook publisher and ask for an amendment to the passage that bothered me so much:
The Dark Ages were no darker than any other times … except the bits involving the Mongols.

Creative Passwords

Swordfish was never clever. Nor was “ABC123” or “LetMeIn.”

I’ve talked about the common pitfalls most people fall into when making passwords, and the need to keep just a few distinct passwords going at any time. Now let’s talk about creativity.

With the need for stronger passwords, we are now forced to use combinations of upper/lowercase, numbers, and sometimes irregular characters. And yet, 98% of the passwords tend to be along the lines of: Joseph2 or JSmith3. Sure, you can muddle through life that way .. or you can tie the p.w. to one of your favorite pop culture references and have some fun with it.

Option 1: Sayings
We all have our minds loaded up with cliches anyway, so put them to use for you. Take the first letter from each word and substitute number signs wherever possible.

For example:
“One bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”  becomes  1Bithiw2itb
“A stitch in time saves 9” becomes Asits9

See how simple they are? And since they have nothing to do with your name, they’re less hacker-friendly.

Option 2: Famous Quotes
This is my favorite path to use – historical quotes, movie lines, etc. You can use the same truncating formula as above.

Examples:
“Four score and seven years ago” becomes either 4sa7ya or, if you’re going to do the math anyway, 80a7ya

“Show me the money!” becomes Smt$!
I love this one because it exploits non-traditional characters, so doesn’t need numbers at all.

Here’s another one that does that:
“I am serious and don’t call me Shirley” becomes Ias&dcmS

Option 3: LeetSpeak
LeetSpeak is what we used to call shortcutting the language for speed when typing … back when only geeks were using 3s for Es and calling it cool. These days when we growl at our kids for skipping letters when they text us … it’s the same dang thing.

Example: Baseball could become B@s3b@ll
Scrapbook becomes Scr@pb00k  (those are zeros to replace the O’s)

Option 4: 80s Music
Since I’ve already told you my age, we might as well embrace my decade. Ah, the 80s, when everyone forgot how to spell. So many stupid band names and even worse song names, but for a quick password they are golden.

Examples (don’t judge me – I’m just passing these along):
theB52s
99Luftballons
UGotTheLook
IWouldWalk500Miles — Iww500m

And honorable mention goes to:  Jenny8675309

Please feel free to post some other examples. Readers, just remember these are intended to get you started, or to use as “Level 4” throw-away passwords.

See also: 4 Levels of passwords, and Common mistakes