March 20, 2019

Passwords: Safeguards or Satanism . . . by James Bishop, Jr.

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I should hate to spend the only life I was going to have here
In being annoyed with the time I happened to live in.

–Robert Frost, Notebook Entry, 1935

Lucky chap that poet, because if passwords were inundating the citizenry in his day, he did not know it, at least his stanzas never showed it.  Indeed and to be sure, passwords, until recently, were the stuff of pulp spy novels, TV miniseries and children’s games.  In short, whatever vexation might have annoyed the sage of New England – and many there were – passwords were not it.

For years, TV talking heads have speculated about the fearsome societal threat destined to replace humans with computers and machines. Once a controversial publisher, Morrie played his life one day at a time; he had no time to think about the future.

On the face of it, some days ago, it was a typical morn.  The smell of fresh asphalt was in the air; clouds of diesel smoke tickled the nostrils and grumbles of Ugh! Grumble! Ugh! were heard coming from the picketers around the City Hall who were demanding access to the underground tunnels where their relatives were imprisoned for nonpayment of sewer fees.

Needing petty cash for a Double No-No, (hold the vanilla) at the Wrenwood, he trudged to the ATM at the location of what once the Last Interstate Bank. The machine from hell asked for his password. Gulp!  His normally fecund mind was as blank as a map to the Pink Nectar Café.

Wait a minute! No problem said the onetime brave publisher; simple way to solve this is to make a long distance call to Malaysia, headquarters of the ATM repair facility.  Whoops! 

What was his secret long distance ID number? How embarrassing! No one must know that this legend was experiencing a senior moment. No one.

So he leapt onto his motorbike and sped home to his computer. No problem. That magical tool rumbles with life’s answers. All that was needed was a password to log on.

A password.  A simple freakin’ password.

His mind was as blank as the mind of a Phoenix TV pundit, yet he racked it ‘till dozens then hundreds of possible passwords flashed on his mind screen—names of old dogs, girlfriends, former bosses, streets where he had lived.

When he was done, it was nearly herbal teatime and he was on the verge of being late to do a full body mud treatment for a former GOP pol who had been banished to the high desert by his White House-bound wife.

So he put in a call to the local internet provider. Yes, they said, they were still in business. No, they said, they did not know his special password because it was encrypted in the system somewhere.

Pride runs high in Morrie’s family. Now, said the proud publisher, he would go home and find his original password. It had to be written down somewhere in his home office, now ankle deep in balls of scratch paper.

No luck!

By now it did not matter that he had forgotten the password to his corporate E-mail, five masseuse databases, the Encyclopedia Britannica and Amazon.com.  Hell’s fire, now he could not even log on.  For the first time, he was caught between a hard place and a rock. For the first time, his gorge rose.

But wait! He had one arrow left in his quill. Suddenly he knew where he could raise some petty cash, which he needed because the bank was closed for the weekend and he had forgotten his ATM password anyway. Yes, there was this 800 number in Fargo, somewhere in the Dakotas. All one had to do was to phone them up, advise them of one’s card number and money would be wired to Nationwide Postal Center, to Lisa, keeper of more Sedona secrets than the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Off to a pay phone, he punched in the numbers. The voice said: “Thank you for your interest but our voice recognition system does not recognize your voice or your credit card number. Please do not use this number again…”

Morrie was last seen shoveling snow at Nick’s where people at least tried to tell him who he was.  “Who am I?” he asked nearly everybody passing by. They all spoke in nicknames, codes and passwords. In addition, they told him about George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

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