Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Ghost of Allen Ludden

Tradition has it that resolutions are made with the coming new year and then are forgotten soon thereafter.  It occurred to me that it would be better to make a resolution as the need becomes apparent.  It remains to be seen whether that will create more stick-to-itiveness.  I hope so.

Wanting to do something on a personal level to combat all the apparent negativity, I have resolved that when some potential source of irritation emerges to temporarily vex me, I will try to respond with wit and humor.  This won't be to ignore the provocation, far from it.  My goal will be to illuminate the situation sans the negativity.  Maybe nobody other than me will be amused by the approach.  If so, I will have succeeded in building my own cocoon, which under the circumstances wouldn't be a bad thing to do.  And if perchance others are entertained, then maybe some of them will endeavor to create their own yarn for popular consumption that does likewise, which would be so much the better.

I want to begin here with what might seem an odd thought - focusing on the good consequence in my intellectual development from all that early TV viewing.  The reality is that I watched an awful lot of TV as a kid.  When I was young there were shows in black and white such as My Little Margie, Our Miss Brooks, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges.  Yet it is hard to know what ultimate consequence there was from watching all of that and it is equally hard to remember how much time per day I devoted to TV.

So I want to focus on a different sort of show that might have had a more telling impact on me - the game show.   And here I want to narrow further to game shows that had a quiz or puzzle aspect to them.  Some of the show titles that I recall are To Tell The Truth with Bud Collyer, Play Your Hunch with Merv Griffin, I've Got a Secret with Gary Moore, Concentration with Hugh Downs, The Match Game with Gene Rayburn, and of course Password with Allen Ludden.  That there are still other such shows which my contemporaries might come up with is a testament to how prevalent the genre was when we were growing up.

I played along at home while watching.  Concentration, in particular, was a memory game.  There was an element of luck, to be sure.  But it rewarded good recall.  (We may have had a board game version of the show at home, to practice further this way.)  The Match Game, in contrast, was more about social capital and communication, because the goal was not so much to have the right answer as it was to have the same answer that your teammates had.  I recall, in particular, when the great Red Sox outfielder "Yaz" was on the show that one of the questions was to spell his last name.  (The correct spelling is Yastrzemski.)   As his nickname was so popular at the time, he himself misspelled his name and matched at least one of his teammates in doing so.  It was a lesson, both in humility and in trying to understand the way others process information.  It is possible to do that, at least within some limited domains of knowledge.

Looking back, Password is the most intriguing of these shows to me as it seems so much akin to what the book Made to Stick talks about, the creation of connections between ideas.  A team member who was given the answer would offer up a one word clue to the uninformed partner.   The partner would then respond with a guess at the answer.  The two teams would rotate in their clues and responses until a correct response was given.  So each team would benefit from the sequence that went before, and the current clue and response would be conditioned on that sequence.  There was a friendly competition as to which team would get the answer first.  To win that competition, then, you had to come up with a clue word that really communicated the idea.  The skills the show helped to develop were both in the guessing part from the perspective of the uninformed player and in the clue offering part from the perspective of the informed player.  The board game Taboo is similar in this respect, though Taboo allows teams with many uninformed players.  Undoubtedly, Taboo drew some of its inspiration from Password.

One way Password was distinct from Taboo, and indeed all the TV game shows then were distinct from our playing of these games at home, is that TV game shows were peppered with witty repartee between the host and the guests in between rounds of play of the game.  Since oftentimes the guests were regulars, this back and forth illustrated a kind of intelligence in action that the audience at home was encouraged to emulate.  On Password, Betty White, Allen Ludden's better half, was a frequent guest.  Their interaction on the show was that much more special, informed as it was by personal knowledge as well as by how TV stars were supposed to interact on the little screen.  Ludden was an especially talented host and got the most out of his guests, making the watching both very entertaining and quite educational.

* * * * *

It is time to return to my resolution, which is about the term "password."  Indeed, the entire stream of thought in this stroll down memory lane was triggered by an email reminder that I have to change my University of Illinois password.  As of yesterday, I had 14 days in which to do this.  There are a few things about this I found bothersome about this communication and about the prior communication I received that said I must do this.

First, it remains unclear whether now the same password will apply to Banner (a university-wide service where the login is referred to as Enterprise Authentication) and to those campus services where the NetID password had previously been used or if those will remain distinct processes.  At the moment, when I go to Banner, I get this screen for logging in.

In contrast, when I log into a campus (or LAS) supported application, I get a different screen for logging in. 

While I use larvan for the first line in logging in at both of these places, the passwords themselves are different, at least for the time being.  I have recently changed the Enterprise password.  (I checked my InBox and I have a receipt from 8/16 of this year indicating a password change.)   So, on the one hand, if these passwords are becoming the same in the near future, why do I have to make another change so soon?  But, on the other hand, if the passwords are to remain distinct, with the Enterprise password for the University and the NetID password for the Campus, why did the email message about updating the latter come from the University technology services organization, with a email address instead of an email address?  This is all very confusing to me.  

Second, I no longer understand the necessity of regular password changes as an enhancement to security.  The reality is that non-university providers don't ask for that.  They do other things - registering your computer, asking security questions in addition to the password, giving a two-part authentication with the second part coming in email or text messaging, and letting me know by email when I (or possibly somebody else) authenticate to an account via an unregistered device.  But they otherwise don't require regular password changes.  Operating on the assumption that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, how can this be?  So I would appreciate gaming out what the password change actually buys in terms of increased security.  

As near as I can tell, the big issue is what happens if the password has been hacked and neither the technology organization nor the individual user are aware that this has occurred.  The hackers then may sit on the information for some time before trying to exploit it.  If a password change happens in the interim and if the vulnerability that allowed the initial hacking has since been patched, then the password change does clearly enhance security in that circumstance.  But those are some rather big ifs.  

Third, and this perhaps isn't really fair of me to react this way, but each bit of the university that operates in a heavy handed way contributes to a general malaise, one that the individual office sending out the communication may be unaware of because that office only focuses on its own bit.  As I recently made this mocumentary about getting rid of the ethics training, my visceral reaction to the announcement about the required password change is to get rid of that too.  (And in a recent email to learning technologists on campus, I cautioned them not to use FERPA in a similar manner to get faculty compliance, for just these reasons.)  The possible difference is that with the ethics training I see no benefit whatsoever.  It is a complete sham.  With the password change perhaps there is a benefit, though I remain skeptical.  The communication did nothing to allay that skepticism.  

The above constitutes the initial irritation, which I have not tried to conceal.  In the last section, below, I will attempt some humor in casting how this situation manifests for me.  Alas, the humor stems from an all too real personal decline.

* * * * *

There are certain emblems of aging and the mental deterioration that accompanies it.  For me, the most obvious of these is going to the pharmacy or to the doctor's office.  They want to make sure they know it really is you they are dealing with.  So in addition to your name they ask for other identity information as part of the transaction.  At Walgreens, they ask for home address.  Perhaps sometimes they ask for date of birth, though maybe this is only when I pick up a prescription for one of my kids.  (Do I remember their birthdays?)  At Carle, they ask for these too, also sometimes for home phone, and they verify your health insurance provider.  

In the course of a session where I have to produce this sort of information repeatedly, I feel I'm shrinking mentally.  I can anticipate the day, not too long into the future, where I will fail here, a temporary lapse where the recall just doesn't work.  Outside of the health care interactions, the senior moments are more frequent now, possibly because insomnia is a more frequent companion.  I am still capable of depth of thought now and then.  Blog posts are evidence of this.  But I am writing blog posts less frequently now and more of those that I start writing never get done.  If there were Viagra for the mind, I would definitely take it.  

Instead, I look for diversions that can provide some personal joy and are still do-able.  I find that composing rhymes fits these needs and I can do that much more frequently.  I started writing rhymes for real near when I retired and then had more ambition than talent, writing longish verse to make a point.  Some of these were commentary on our national politics.  (For example, Filly Buster, Lame Ducks Are Quaking, and The (Dis) Charge the Tea Party Made.)  Others take on different sources of befuddlement such as this one on The First Ten Days Blues or this one on The Blue Screen of Death.   

Over time I've found my ambition has diminished and a technology I once abhorred, Twitter, has become something of a salvation for my rhymes.  Staying within the 140 character limit keeps it short and sweet and helps my faulty sense of meter from going too far astray.  Nevertheless, there is substantial time beforehand trying out possible lines that might fit.  The generation of the verse is no snap.  Yet during that time there is a kind of reverie for me, a feeling I enjoy very much. 

James Thurber gave us that charming character, Walter Mitty, and the original short story is still a good read.  What happens when we daydream is the root of what I've called The Professor Mind.  Sir Ken Robinson, in this delightful Ted Talk, Do schools kill creativity?, says that professors live in their heads, while everyone else lives in the real world.  The university, of course, is a place where many of the inhabitants are professors.  The campus is populated by this weird but largely benign life form whose greatest enjoyment is to be entirely lost - in thought.

Let us keep the university as a place for such intellectual enjoyment.  Allow the professors to maintain their mental bubbles for as long as they can.  The younger ones can do this while juggling many balls in the virtual air.  Many of the older ones, like me, may have a more difficult time keeping just a few of these afloat.  

I want to close this discussion on passwords with the following metaphysical question.  How is it that we learn to focus on this year's password and discard the one from last year into our mind's dustbin?  I have changed some of the passwords for my commercial accounts not that long ago after there was a general hacking scare and I've since experienced the occasional getting it wrong because I'm entering the old one.  Is this the road to dementia for me?  

Those with the authority to set password policy, please be merciful for people with the likes of me.  It's all I ask.

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