Manage what's important to you with rational tools when you join humanity. Or, fuck mozilla.

February 8th, 2020

I spun up my public toilet machine this morning and met with a rather infuriating ad. Suffer with me:

"A message from Firefox

Our brains are not meant to hold so many passwords. That's science. Manage your passwords with Lockwise when you join Firefox."

If only blockquote tags came with disinfectant. The problem is that if you let that which is evil pass by untouched for the sake of your own internal peace/sense of cleanliness, you risk giving it some measure of implicit support. There's a deal being made: I won't take your entrails out and parade them through the town so everyone knows how much they stink, and you won't attach to me. If that strikes you as bullshit, consider that Firefox presents alongside this ad a guide to making yourself part of this deal: you can "dismiss" the particular message you "don't like" by hovering the mouse on the message's far right, where you'll get a magic "x" that keeps the message hidden. I'm okay, you're okay, right?

There are two main branches of evil in this ad: the first, that every statement made therein is outright false. The second, that it attempts to mould humans to their tools, rather than moulding tools to work for humans. Aside from these, its pretense to authority is offensive as all get-out, and the obvious ploy1 to own what are supposed to be your passwords along with owning your very understanding of what passwords even are is a paragon of the malice most people are used to choking down for breakfast by now. It's galling that these would be asides, and that there's something yet more contemptible to drag under the lamps, but we don't get to choose what's broken; all we have is what we do with it.

"Our brains are not meant to hold so many passwords," the ad begins, attempting at the very start to ingratiate its makers with you. Our brains, you see, we're all human, trust us and we'll forgive you for that time you couldn't get into your email inbox. Nevermind you've no idea who we are and we've no way to meaningfully tell you, either2. In derpspeak, "Lockwise" is an appendage of Mozilla, that group of possibly once-interesting consensus-seekers famous for runaway versioning and lately harping incomprehensibly about "a healthy internet" --that is, apparently, one in which they own the gates and maybe let you hang out if you promise to be polite.

Once past the first few words, a new problem arises: not meant? By whom, god? Guy Lombardo? How could a brain be meant to do or not do something, outside of the context of its being authored or otherwise owned? I guess if Firefox owns your brain, they don't mean for you to have to memorize a lot of passwords. Are you ready to join yet? And now, these out of the way3, we can actually proceed to the broad statement. There's no reason why the average human brain shouldn't be able to recall an appropriate number of sane passwords, provided they're properly committed to memory. Miller's 1956 experiments with working memory, which speak to strings retrieved during sub-minute time periods from their establishment, suggest an average register of seven plus or minus two bits. That's not great in terms of handling multiple arbitrary alphanumeric strings in the low double-digits --or even strings of words, if you swing that way. But that's working memory, you're supposed to use it to carry over a digit or hold a basic conversation, not to perform vault operations (unless you're particularly talented or stuck dealing with unusual scenarios)4.

Long-term memory holds quite a lot more --but importantly, how much more isn't at all clear. Like so many aspects of the human brain, understanding of the capacity for long-term memory still eludes us, which sure, makes it a jerkoff move to suggest you memorize truly endless lists. This works both ways, however; it also makes it a jerkoff move to suggest you can't (or worse, "aren't meant to") memorize a handful or three. The Atkinson-Shiffrin model proposes three distinct stages of long-term memory, even. Other ideas, such as Tulving's, organize memories by their subject rather than their retention time. What's correct? And what's your limit? Nobody knows, but you sure as hell remember more than nine things from more than a few minutes ago.

The real problem at hand is that one's memory craves some reason to remember a given string. You need cause to get something transferred from your short-term, working memory to your long-term memory, or to move information between the procedural and the declarative. Whatever's going on in there, the information's got to be important, and not "because it's a password", but because it's a password for something of personal or objective value. Of course it's nigh on impossible to recall thirty and risin' distinct strings that grant access to things one doesn't care about, even if your personal brand of "because I said so" is especially strong. And of course every tool and service under the electric sun requires setting up an account for no ostensible reason. No ostensible reason, except to make you create and remember yet another password. Perhaps you'd like to store it somewhere? It's so easy.

The identity-less and yet avowedly-authoritative voice then joins in on the general rape of science that's been befouling the land lo these many years. In fact, making a statement without recourse to its proof, discussion, or even its underlying hypothesis is the exact opposite of science. And hiding behind this sort of shit is wilfull mendacity.

As for the third sentence in this travesty, managing does not consist of storage. Perhaps said storage comes with a few options. That's configuration, which I guess Firefox has judged is too large a word for the likes of you. One must know something to manage it. Perhaps not down to the finest detail, but management certainly cannot ever be the purposeful neglect to know the thing being managed. Now, these passwords are qualified; the sentence proposes they're "yours". Naturally, once you've divulged a password to another party, it is no longer yours in the singular sense, but in the plural. The correct statement would be "Store and fiddle with settings on our passwords...". Doesn't sound as good? I agree, but "make it zippy" shouldn't snap to the grid of "lie through your teeth".

A tool is something an agent uses to complete a task. It has no power outside the agent's hand, and is made to suit the needs of the given task according to the agent's specific requirements. A tool is not a sort of totem of worship where agents gather to marvel at its greatness and modify both their tasks and their behaviors to fit the specific requirements of the tool. If you're having trouble remembering your passwords, try turning down the constant demand for account creation volleyed at you from every which way, instead of spending your agency on products and services that have no business being paid in such precious currency.

  1. It is obvious, but then I so often run into people who imagine they're "savvy" as professedly proven by I don't know, that they trade bitcoin, or know java, or went to school, and yet they have no qualms about keeping their passwords stored with some third party. They simply don't consider that handing it over is handing it over, somehow, and moreover they don't seem to want to. It's the herd animal outlook at work, as ever: people have a strong drive to believe that computers are basically a sort of person, just, with the personal interest turned off. Somehow the notion that it's not "the computer" but that shifty fucker Bob down the cul-de-sac who wrote the program and that frigid bitch Sheila who accesses the database whenever she feels like it manages it never makes it to the surface. []
  2. Actually I realized mid-sentence that Mozilla has a signing key, so went to fetch --wherein I found the announcement last year, by one "Chris Atlee", that said signing key was expiring and so "we're" going to switch to a new key. It...wasn't signed. []
  3. Can you believe how much irrational, conniving flotsam has to be cleared before we can even attempt the whole sentence? This thing is a wonder, that fits so many lies and placations into ten words. []
  4. The problem with your valuables being within easy access to others is that you'll then have to rely on your real-time observations and your short-term, working memory to keep them safe --it's not that they're likely to be stolen or tampered with for the mere fact of greater exposure. Yes, it's more likely, but in most circumstances, that doesn't actually push anything enough for you to see it manifest. You simply have to be more alert and better able to react for the same degree of safety. []

7 Responses to “Manage what's important to you with rational tools when you join humanity. Or, fuck mozilla.”

  1. Diana Coman says:

    The correct statement would be "Store and fiddle with settings on our passwords...". Doesn't sound as good?

    I suspect it will soon sound just as good as the current thing - for the same ones who found/find the current snappy thing to sound good anyway. It will be a warm and fuzzy "our passwords" to provide solace for those running at full speed from the terrifying cold of "my passwords".

  2. Alternatively, one could just place all their passwords in a plaintext file, gpg -aer theirkey, and then publish the resulting pile. Low-cost leverage from one to infinity wrt passwords, of arbitrary strength an' so forth.

  3. hanbot says:

    @ Diana Coman I bet you're right, too. Shudderfully.

    @ Mircea Popescu Sure, if one doesn't mind uncorking that particularly volatile vial (presumably) fairly often....

  4. I suppose one could also make two vials, or I guess at most three.

  5. hanbot says:

    What's to stop one from making twelve, other than issues of personal desire? You proposin' a limit on that which can be meaningful?

  6. Well how many actual passwords do you propose to seriously remember ? And besides, how many degrees of importance can there meaningfully be ? Seems both society an' memory would be happy with 3.

  7. hanbot says:

    I think three is a sane description of average. I also think a given spoonful of how shall we put it, "extracurricular lifestyle" is prone to adding to that number, and I furthermore think there's nothing wrong or verging on impossible in that, as long as the root cause is well an' good. In other words, I guess, "don't fence me in". ;)

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