Monday, February 24, 2014

Andrew's True Reviews:

My girlfriend, Jen, started a new business recently. She imported a mechanical horse (or 'dressage simulator' if you're feeling fancy) with which she gives horse riding and Alexander Technique lessons.

She went through all the stages of starting a business - finding an office, redecorating the office, redecorating the office again, having a furious row with her boyfriend about the menu bar on her new website. You know, the usual things.

She also needed a logo: "It's going to cost 4000 francs," she whinged. "And it'll take ages and waah."

4000 francs is a month's income for me. It's 182 medium Domino's pizzas. It's 400 tubs of Cookie Dough ice-cream. Too much! I had an idea: "Try a crowdsourcing website. You'll get hundreds of entries from talented designers around the world. It's cheap, fun, there's bound to be some good ones, and I can write a blog about it."

"No," she said, stamping her size 2 feet, "I'm not going to do that. Ever ever ever."

Crowdsourcing a Logo: Jen's Experience

Jen (and her sister) chose instead of She sat on my sofa and wrote a creative brief that was brutally germanic: "We demand the highest quality. You will obey our instructions. The solution we choose will be final." 

"Okay snuggle sausage," I said, easing the laptop away from her like a cool cop coaxing a cleaver from the clutches of a clumsy kidnapper, "Maybe just tell me what you want and I'll write it in a nice way."

"The logo should be modern," she said, "but classical. Fresh, but earthy. Suffused with bold humility. Distinctive, understated, holistically integrated. It should say 'Reitsimulator Schweiz,' radically transform society's understanding of the word 'logo', and it should be horsey but not too horsey."

I converted that into something more realistic and wrote it in an approachable way. Next we had to give more info about our inspirations. Jen said she liked Roger Federer's logo and something with that kind of elegance and simplicity would be ideal.

Once the brief was complete we had to decide how much to spend. Jen said her budget was 1,000 dollars, which I thought was on the high side. The website ate a chunk, leaving about 600 dollars for the winner. That's loads! Artists are supposed to be poor. Desperation makes their work better.

Entries came pouring in almost as soon as we submitted the brief. A lot of the early ones were awful, and I started getting worried. Also, they all looked exactly like the Roger Federer logo. Gah! People are stupid. I changed the brief to stop that.

Jen looked at the first dozen logos, shrieked "NO!" and started pounding the keyboard with her tiny dwarf hands. I read a fairy tale out loud to put her to sleep, then started writing supportive, constructive feedback to the designers. This allowed them to see where they were going wrong and they could re-work their ideas and try again. When Jen woke up she saw the wisdom in what I was doing and claimed it had been her idea.

Of course, that made the process much more time-consuming, especially as there were over 200 entries by the end. But whenever we wrote something more than once, we added it to the brief so that all designers could see it.

After a couple of weeks this came in:

"But," Jen spluttered, "They've ignored everything I said! I said I didn't want a prancing horse - the simulator can't prance, gambol, or frolic. And I was quite specific that it should say 'Reitsimulator' and nothing else. Robohorse?! This logo is the exact opposite of what I want! Oh, wait. Wait wait wait. You did this, didn't you?"

Yes. It cost me 5 dollars from It's actually much better than most of the logos we got through Crowdspring. (I asked the designer to do lasers and smoke coming from the horse but he said it was too much work.)

A lot of the Crowdspring entries were dross, but the best ones were pretty good. We put them in our focus group page - it's a link where you can send 8 entries to friends and get feedback. Nice feature, but Jen (with her sister) had already chosen the one they liked.

The winning designer was very pliant in terms of making changes to fonts and colours. The runner-up was even more helpful, and Jen sent him some money for his time and effort.

Without further ado, the winning logo. See the negative space? See it?

It looks even better on Jen's website.

I'd say the crowdsourcing process was easy and interesting and I'd use it again. If it doesn't turn up a usable logo you get 100% of your money back, so there's no risk. It all happened pretty quickly, too - it was all done and dusted within 14 days. So if you're looking for something quick, cheap, or both, it's the way to go.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

7 Steps to Password Safety


Wow! I said to myself. This message, coming from a trusted friend of mine, intrigued the hell out of me. I clicked the link. It was all spam! My friend apologised and said she'd been hacked. "You should change your password," I told her. "Yes, I did, I'm safe now," she replied.

The NEXT DAY she sent out the exact message with the exact same link. Hacked again!

This article was written for her benefit. I sent her a draft and she said, "Yeah, it's not very funny and it doesn't make me want to install password software."

Go figure.

Why My Easy-to-Hack Friend is Idiotic About Passwords

Until a few days ago, my online safety was laughable. Not laughable in a good way, like my joke about Hitler's favourite boy band. Laughable in a bad way, like "You've used the same password on every website you've ever been on" kind of laughable.

My password used to look like this:


Now I have a different one for every site, and they look like this:


Looks hard to guess? Correct. It would take a Commodore 64 over ten trillion years to hack that. By then, the sun will have exploded and killed us all and if there is still a universe of some sort, the only lifeform will be the ghost of French smugness, which is eternal.

Being careless and lazy about passwords is stupid. You're making it easy for people to ruin your reputation, steal your identity, and spend your money.

I knew there was password management software out there. They do two things: they generate impossible-to-guess passwords and store them in a database which is more or less unbreakable. Unbreakable even to freedom-hating governments who spy on their citizens.

I've wanted to get a grip on my password situation for a long time, but it seemed like too much work. When I forced myself to sit and do it I found it was easy enough. I showed my girlfriend how to do it and wrote this guide based on that conversation.

7 Steps to Online Peace of Mind

Step 1.
Go to and download the version you need. Jen and I wanted to make our PCs safer, so we started with:

Binary bundle for Windows 2000, XP, Vista and 7

Jen: "This website is ugly."

Step 2.
Once that's installed and launched, you get a somewhat unhelpful screen.

Jen: "Ugh. This is worse than the website. What is this, 1996?"
Me: "Stop moaning. Just click that icon on the left. No! The other left!"

(I'm told the look and feel of the Mac version is much nicer.)

Step 3.
Next you need to choose your master password. This is the most important thing! This is the one password that rules them all.

Jen: "What do I do?"
Me: "Choose an awesome password. Don't let me see. You know, in case they torture me."
Jen: "I'm bad at passwords. All my passwords have the word Unicorn in."
Me: "All right, I'll choose one for you. I'm changing the vowels into numbers and making sure there's a mix of upper and lower case. Okay. Memorise this."


Jen: "You're such a child."

Step 4.
Start building your database.

Me: "Log in to Amazon."
Jen: "Done."
Me: "Okay, go to the password change bit."
Jen: "Right."
Me: "You need to know your current password to change it."
Jen: "It's PinkUnicorn2."
Me: "Sigh. So let's generate a new one. Go to the Keepass thing. Choose Entries, then Add New Entry."
Jen: "Waah! It looks complicated. Let's quit and watch Deal or No Deal."
Andrew: "Stop being a baby. Click the generate button. You can use the eye button above it to show the password."

Jen: "Jesus. This is even worse than the one before. What's all this stuff?"
Me: "It's all about how complicated you want the password to be. Just click generate."

Jen (eyes boggling unattractively): "24 characters long?"
Me: "The longer the better."
Jen: "Giggle."
Me: "Some websites have limits on how long it can be, which is beyond stupid. And some don't like special characters. Amazon likes safe passwords, so just copy and paste that new password onto their website."
Jen: "It says it's changed."
Me: "Ace. Now fill in the rest of the Keypass form. Click ok."

Jen: "Done."
Me: "Log out of Amazon. Go back to the login screen."
Jen: "Wait! I don't remember the new password."
Me: "Don't stress. Right-click on the Keepass screen where it says Amazon."

Jen: "Oh... That's clever. I get it now."

Without further prompting, she used the Ctrl+C function to copy the 24-character password and Ctrl+V to paste it into Amazon. When her browser asked if she wanted to save the new password, she said no.

Jen: "So I have to load this Keepass thing everytime I want to use Amazon?"
Me: "Yes."
Jen: "Well, it's a little bit more work, but not much. It's just ten seconds, really, isn't it? It's probably worth it."

Step 5.
Keep building your database of new passwords, but don't let your browser store them.

For a couple of days, every time I went to a website with a login, I changed the password and added it to my database.

A lot of those ones I let the browser store the new password, because now that each password is different, I don't see the point of adding inconvenience to my life. The ones stored under 'money' - including the many, many charity websites I donate to - I keep more secure.

Me: "You're using Firefox, which is as unsafe as all the other browsers. Do you want to see something terrifying? Go to the 'settings' panel and find the passwords section. Good. Now click the 'show passwords' thing. Now I can see all the passwords you've used from all the websites you've been on. Jesus, you weren't joking about the Unicorn thing!"
Jen: "This is bullshit! Anyone could get all these passwords in, like, a minute!"
Me: "Yep. But not when you switch them over to the Keepass database. Just make sure you don't let the browser store important passwords."

Step 6.
Make a backup of the database. You could put it on a usb stick, or on your phone. For iPhone users, go to the App Store and get MiniKeePass, for free.

Done? When you plug your phone into your PC and iTunes opens, go to the App bit where it shows all the apps you've got on your phone. Scroll down and you'll see something like this:

From there, use the Add... button to locate the database you made.

Jen: "I can't find the database! Danger zone!"
Me: "It's just because you haven't saved it yet."
Jen: "Oh, right. Good point. What filename should I give it?"
Me: "JensPasswords or whatever. No big deal."

Once you've synced your phone to iTunes, open the MiniKeePass app on the phone. You'll see your database there, just like on your PC. Use your code to unlock it. When you click on Amazon and on Password, it automatically copies it, so you can paste it into the app or website. But mostly this is just a backup.

Step 7.
You are now safe. Completely and utterly safe. So you can go ahead and be complacent.

Jen: "You don't need this bit, do you? This is just because you want 7 points instead of 6. I'm right, aren't I? Aren't I?"

Relationship-saving disclaimer: While Jen accepts the need to present her as being computer illiterate for the purpose of entertainment and education, she would like me to point out that she is amazing at computers and technology, visited Xenox PARC before Steve Jobs, and can type at over 15 words per minute.


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Dryathlon 2014: Review

I tried to quit alcohol for a month to get healthier and raise money for Cancer Research UK. The last time I tried to go a month without drinking I failed.

Here are some thoughts. I'm a bit hungover so don't expect it to be funny.

Degree of Difficulty
I found it easy not to drink - I just filled my fridge with alcohol-free beer. The local Swiss brand is merely drinkable, but there's a Paulaner that's really quite nice. 

Oh, and I didn't go out almost the whole month. That helped.

People donated 170 pounds, which I doubled to make 340. Thanks to everyone who donated!

Weight Loss
I was about 85kg on January 1st. I was drinking 25,000 calories in booze per month, which equates to about 3kg. All things being equal, I could reasonably expect to be about 82kg at the end of January.

After two weeks dry I was 83.7kg, which was probably on target. But I felt I wasn't losing enough, so I made an effort to cut out sugar - no more chocolate, pasta, bread. I think I only had two pizzas in the whole of January.

On the menu came tons of chicken, natural yoghurt, and club salads. On the 1st of Feb I had dropped to 80.8. Wowza!

(I just watched a documentary about a guy who lost 4kg in a month, like me - he was told that half was from fat and half was muscle mass. GAH. Another thing to be paranoid about. I'm going to buy one of those scales that tells you your body fat and muscle mass percentage.)

When I write a draft of a blog post or a chapter of my book, I send it to an all-star team of readers. I typically send two or three a month. Halfway through January, having sent one or more a day, every day, I got an email from Cecile saying 'What's happened to you? Why are you writing so much now?!'

One-word answer: dry.

The Future of Drinking
Last night I had two large wheat beers and a normal lager (a student treated me to a premium burger and free drinks). It was my first booze in 2014. I don't feel especially good this morning, which is why this post is so boring. I feel groggy and slow.

I expect to stick to alcohol-free beer in future, but I'll still have red wine. Oh, and tomorrow I'm going to see Robocop, so I'll sneak in some mini bottles of prosecco. "Dead or Alive, you're coming with me!" Action movies are better with booze - that's just common sense.