Hashes and blogging

…which are two separate topics for today.

Blogging

I’ve been frustrated recently with my drift towards simple link-based posts drawing attention to a topic instead of presenting (and thus forcing myself to do more) original thinking.

I’m planning to sort that by writing on:

  • topics I need to understand better
  • things I find fascinating, and
  • topics where I’m annoyed by my ignorance.

While I’m broadly planning to use it for that attempt to study more history that I’ve mentioned before, Daniel has also pointed out¬†Reddit as a good place to look for all three.

Unfortunately, I got distracted by an article that gave me the last piece of the puzzle for understanding how encrypted passwords (and the hacking thereof) works. I’d share that with you, but it depends a lot on the idea of hashes, so let me tell you about hashes instead.

Hashes

Hashes are* a way to check encrypted information (read: information in code) without decrypting it.

To get a hash, start by encrypting your message, then run it through a complicated maths equation – an algorithm – to get a number that was created from the original information, but can’t be used to work backwards to get the original information (at least, not without a lot of work).

For example, imagine your unhashed information is “3922 X 7290” (where that X is a multiplication sign, not part of the encrypted information), and your hash is the resolution of that sum: 28591380. From the unhashed information, it’s very easy to create the hash. But it’s really difficult to work it in the other direction – there are so many equations that could result in the number 28591380 that it would take a ridiculous number of hours to find the right one.

This is enormously valuable for ensuring people can keep information (like their bank password) secret while still communicating it over the open internet. If anyone tampers with your message, the resulting hash will be dramatically different, just like if you try changing one digit in the sum above – you’ll get an answer that’s obviously different.

However, this is also the reason why you need to avoid passwords like “password” or “123456” for any information you want to keep at all safe. There are only a few secure encryption systems around, and the systems themselves aren’t that hard to get hold of. This means an enterprising coder can run common passwords through an encryption system and find out what the hash for “password” looks like. Hey presto! If they can intercept the hash for the information, anyone using “password” has just given away their password**. This isn’t especially rare – it’s possible to buy hash tables online.

The moral of the story: take the extra three seconds to think of a proper password! Or use LastPass or a similar password management system. I’ve got an evaluation of LastPass on the way, but the short version is: do it.

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*While I’m writing this in the definitive, I’m also learning as I write. Keep in mind that
a) it’s entirely likely I’ll get some details wrong. If you need to be definite, do your own research. ūüėČ
b) in six months, this post will be useless as an indication of what I know about the topic.
** Wikipedia does a pretty good job of explaining this.

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Writing well and with profanities

Today has delivered me a wealth of thoughtful pieces on the art of writing well, though not necessarily politely:

The case for profanity

The New York Times has criticised a range of publications – not least the Times¬†– on the old-fashioned way that¬†media outlets refuse to use profane words like ‘fuck’, and the importance of including them in appropriate contexts. The article links to the ‘Fit to Print’ blog chronicling instances of careful wording the Times has used to avoid profanities, including delightful examples like:

He also told them not to talk nonsense, though he used a less family-friendly word.

And the rather confusing:

Aside from the Internet law signed Monday, the Russian leader also signed a new profanity law that levies heavy fines for using four common vulgarities in the arts including literature, movies, plays and television.

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Writing well on a deadline

The annals of the Baltimore Sun seem like an obscure place to find content when you’re on this side of the equator*. However, the former head of the Sun’s copy desk has written an excellent ‘macro checklist‘ for¬†reviewing one’s writing without getting too far into the nitty-gritty.

The list includes some excellent probing points:

How much better would it be if it were shorter?

Does the article conclude merely than trailing off? Does the conclusion in some way reflect the elements of the opening so that the reader is left with a sense of completion?

If you made an outline of the article, would it show a series of subtopics clearly related to the focus? Do you see transitions from one subtopic to the next?

It also checks the bits that it’s easy to overlook when you’re writing for a short deadline:

Does the rest of the article match the opening? Are there elements in the opening that are not developed in the article?

Is the level of abstraction excessive? Are concrete examples presented?

I’m planning to use this checklist for a lot of writing here on. Keep an eye out for some positive improvements right here. And as always, feedback on my writing is very welcome.

Learn all the history!

Sacha Chua’s replies to the top 10 excuses for not blogging grabbed my attention last week, not only because it pointed out some things I’m doing very well on this blog, but also because it highlighted a major weakness: planning.

So far I’ve happily bumbled along with a post each evening, plus a buffer of draft posts to see me through busy times. Now that I’m getting into the swing of my blog, though, I’m looking for ways to add some structure and long-term vision to my posts.

One of the ways I’ll do this is by writing on themes, which will begin with history. My (lack of) knowledge of history and geography is something of a running joke among my friends (I shouldn’t have mentioned that Argentina was in Europe), so this will be a great way to catch up on some background information while improving my writing.

I’ll be starting with a focus on European history (since it’s the series of events that’s most informed my community), and working from a very high level point of view, then looking to finer details and wider geographic area as I go. My current plan is to do one post each on the major time periods listed in the relevant Wikipedia article, then¬†explore from there, circling back to the start (well, a starting point – it might change each time) and looking at more detail each time through.

If you’ve got any suggestions for timelines/historical models to work with, events that are particularly weird, wonderful or fascinating, or just want to throw in your two cents, please hit the comments section. This project will be all the more interesting for having a group with whom I can discuss it.

Your Opinion Here

What blogs¬†do you recommend?¬†What subreddits? What other¬†¬†sources of information that I haven’t even thought of yet?

Discussing this blog has made me realise how much blogging can be a social thing, and how little attention I’ve recently been paying to the brilliant blogs I should be using as inspiration. I’ve lined up a bunch of feeds that come quickly to mind (the UK Government Digital Service, BrainPickings, XKCD) as well as the blogs of some friends, my sister and some other niche writers. I’ve also dived into Reddit and am quickly¬†finding that there’s more variety and fascinating topics in the sub-reddits than I’d realised.

More importantly, I’d like to spread my attention to sites I’m not yet aware of, sites that are likely to tickle my fancy, encourage me to think or otherwise grab my attention. If anything comes to mind, please mention it in the comments; I’d love to have a read.

Coming up this weekend: posts that are not about blogging. Promise.

Please blog some more

Nine days after I started blogging, Sacha Chua published a perfect summary of ways to find something to blog about.

A chart of refutations for ten common excuses for not blogging. Full text below.

While a lot of these are approaches¬†I’m already using (not worrying about my strategy, writing about a range of things, focusing on the selfish benefits of blogging, sharing while I learn), there are some others that I’m adding to my long term plan (asking for feedback, turning my ideas for huge posts into smaller questions, planning and organising). I’m also using a few approaches that aren’t listed. In particular, I’m giving myself permission to write very short posts so that I know I can fit it in every day, and manage at least a tid-bit even when I’m tired.

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Image transcript:

A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

Summary of 10 blogging excuses and how to work around them

sach.ac/no-excuses-blogging

  1. I don’t know what to write about.
    1. Write about what you don’t know
    2. Write about what you’re learning
    3. Find tons of topics
    4. Deal with writer’s block
  2. There’s so much I can’t write about
    1. Focus on what you can
  3. But I’m not an expert yet
    1. Share while you learn
  4. I don’t want to be wrong
    1. Test what you know by sharing
  5. I feel so scattered and distracted
    1. Don’t worry about your strategy
    2. It’s okay to write about different things
    3. Plan, write, organise and improve
  6. I have all these ideas but I never finish posts…
    1. Turn your ideas into small questions, and then answer those
  7. I don’t feel like I’m making progress
    1. Be clear about your goals and possible approaches
  8. It takes too much time to write
    1. Make sharing part of the way you work
  9. I’m too tired to write
    1. Figure out what you can write better when you’re tired
  10. No one’s going to read it anyway
    1. Focus on selfish benefits
    2. Ask for feedback
    3. Get other people to read your posts

13 February 2014 Sacha Chua

(I’m giving myself a gold star for accessibility today)