Check and sign, please

“Check and sign, please.” Thus goes the debit card mantra. I pass the shop assistant a copy of Bill Brysons’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. He scans the barcodes, and tippety-taps something on the cash register.

“That’ll be twelve pounds, please,” he says. I hand over my Switch card. He swipes it, and twirls it idly in his fingers while he waits for the network authorisation. The cash register spews out an itemised receipt, and a voucher for me to…

“Check and sign, please.”

Where’s the dotted line? There it is. I scrawl and scribble something that looks like india ink seeping into a cracked windscreen. I hand him back the pen and the signed slip. He compares it with the stylised and miniaturised version on the back of my card, and decides not to call his supervisor for a second opinion.

He pulls a plastic back from a pile under the counter, flaps it open, and slides the book inside. “Shall I just put the receipt in the bag?.”

“Nah,” I say, “I’ll get it in my wallet.” Along with dozens of other pink, green, blue and white slips recording my spending habits over the last couple of weeks.

“Cheers,” I say. “Thanks very much.” And the transaction is complete.

…or is it?

A couple of days later I was emptying out my wallet and bringing our accounts spreadsheet up to date. £31.45 at Safeway, £12.71 at ScotMid, £33 to renew my bus pass, and… hang on…. £120 for the Bill Bryson book?

When they say “Check and sign, please,” they mean that you should check the amount, and then sign the slip. Not just check to see where you have to put your autograph. I thought that barcode scanning took care of all these pricing issues, but apparently there’s still plenty of scope for human error.

The folk at Waterstones were very good about giving me a refund for the excess £108, and they all had a good giggle about it. So did I, once I had the money back.

Joey’s Worst Date Ever

You are keeping up with Joey deVilla’s account of his Worst Date Ever, aren’t you?

With lines like this:

If life were a highway, Crabs would be the guy in the eighteen-wheeler with a bottle of cheap Tequila telling the monkey in the passenger seat “Hey buddy, you take the wheel for a while.”

…it’s utterly hilarious.

Password Safe

“Many computer users today have to keep track of dozens of passwords: for network accounts, online services, premium web sites. Some write their passwords on a piece of paper, leaving their accounts vulnerable to thieves or in-house snoops. Others choose the same password for different applications, which makes life easy for intruders of all kinds.

“With Password Safe, a free Windows 9x/2000 utility from Counterpane Labs, users can keep their passwords securely encrypted on their computers. A single Safe Combination–just one thing to remember–unlocks them all.”

There’s not much more you need to know. When my list of accounts and passwords became too much to memorize, I started keeping them in a little “keyring” file on my PC. First it was just a plain text file (*embarrassed cough*), but more recently I’ve kept the text file in an encrypted zip file. I’ve seen numerous little programs that take care of this password tracking job, but until now I have never found one that a) doesn’t try to do more than I want it to, b) is a pain in the arse about backups and transporting files, c) is inexpensive, and d) comes from a vendor I trust.

Password Safe nails all of these issues:

  1. All that Password Safe does is hold passwords. You give each item in your list a title, a user name, and a password. There’s also a small space for additional notes if you need them. But that’s all it requires: three small pieces of data per password. And once you’ve entered this information, it shows up in a simple list. It’s clean, simple, and elegant.
  2. Your passwords are stored in a single .dat file. The .dat file is encrypted with the Blowfish algorithm. Transporting your passwords between computers is a matter of taking your .dat file with you, running Password Safe on the other computer, and making sure you know the master password (the “safe combination”) to open the file.
  3. Password Safe was originally developed by Counterpane Labs, but it’s now being developed as an open source project. It’s free.
  4. Counterpane Systems was founded by Bruce Schneier, one of the biggest names in computer encryption and security. He invented the Blowfish algorithm. He developed the Solitaire algorithm used in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon–one of the best fiction books ever written about code-breaking and computer hacking. He has written many other books about cryptography, computers, and privacy. He publishes the monthly Crypto-Gram newsletter about computer security and cryptography. His credentials are beyond reproach. Do I trust this utility knowing that it comes from his company? Absolutely.

Password Safe. It’s the way to go.


  • 1 car
  • 2 career changes
  • 3 residences
  • 12 jobs
  • 2,349 books
  • 4,927 nappies

10 years. 1 marriage. I love you, Abi.

(Abi does a much better job of the whole reminiscence thing, though.)

The actual anniversary was last Wednesday, 23rd July. We didn’t do anything special during the day. Abi was at work, and because I don’t work on Wednesdays, I spent the day stripping wallpaper with Alex. In the evening, though, Scott and Ange came round to babysit, and Abi and I went out for dinner at the Pompadour restaurant at the Caledonian Hotel. Very posh, very nice.

We were also stuck for a present to get each other. I got Abi a diamond ring when Alex was born, and I don’t wear any jewelry other than my wedding ring. A romantic holiday would have been nice, but tricky to arrange. So what could we fall back on? Books? CDs? That didn’t seem terribly special for a ten-year anniversary….

The answer came in the form of tools. Abi’s hobby is bookbinding, and recently she has been craving leatherworking ornaments and various other bits of esoteric hardware. My main hobby right now is computers (sigh), and I’ve been craving a brain transplant and a spinal upgrade for Frankenstein, my PC. So we decided to reward each other with a cash budget to blow on our favourite tools.

It may not sound romantic, but we’re both fairly practical types, and we much prefer getting presents that we want and know we’re going to use, than trinkets that’ll end up lying around in drawers.

Wow. Ten years. I often get surprised looks when I tell people we’ve been married for that long. I was 21, fresh out of university; Abi was 22 and herself only six months past her graduation. By modern standards, we married really young. Still, it seems to have worked out okay so far. 🙂

A very pleasant thought struck me yesterday about the next ten years. In 2013, Alex will be just 12 years old. The last ten years seem like a long time. That means there is still an equally long time of Alex’s childhood to enjoy. That feels really nice to know.

Sneakernet 2003

Don’t underestimate the bandwidth of a UPS truck filled with 200GB hard disks:

“I’ve been working with a bunch of astronomers lately and we need to send around huge databases. I started writing my databases to disk and mailing the disks. At first, I was extremely cautious because everybody said I couldn’t do that?that the disks are too fragile. I started out by putting the disks in foam. After mailing about 20 of them, I tried just putting them in bubble wrap in a FedEx envelope. Well, so far so good. I have not had any disk failures of mailed disks.

“… lately I’m sending complete computers. We’re now into the 2-terabyte realm, so we can’t actually send a single disk; we need to send a bunch of disks. It’s convenient to send them packaged inside a metal box that just happens to have a processor in it. I know this sounds crazy?but you get an NFS or CIFS server and most people can just plug the thing into the wall and into the network and then copy the data.”

(From an ACM Queue interview with Jim Gray, head of Microsoft’s Bay Area Research Center.)

I’ve just tried out this technique myself. I’ve got about 15GB of MP3s kicking around at home and at work. Rather than use CD-Rs or network transfers to keep them synchronised, I’ve now got an 80 Gig external hard disk that I shuttle back and forth.

I suppose you could look at it as a primitive iPod…that doesn’t actually play music on its own…and that’s about twenty times as heavy and ten times as big… Come to think of it, it’s a bit crap.

Oh, iPod. Some day you’ll be mine. Oh yes, you will be….