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Keeping 2FA Secrets in a Password Safe?

The two most important things you can do to protect your online accounts remain to (a) use a different password, ideally a randomly-generated one, for every service, and (b) enable two-factor authentication (2FA) where it’s available.

If you’re not already doing that, go do that. A password manager like 1Password, Bitwarden, or LastPass will help (although be aware that the latter’s had some security issues lately, as I’ve mentioned).

Diagram showing a password safe on a desktop computer being used to fill the username and password parts of a login form, and a mobile phone providing the information for the second factor.
For many people, authentication looks like this: put in a username and password from a password safe (or their brain), and a second factor from their phone.

I promised back in 2018 to talk about what this kind of authentication usually1 looks like for me, because my approach is a little different:

Diagram showing a password safe on a desktop computer being used to fill the username, password, AND second factor parts of the form.
My password manager fills the username, password, and second factor parts of most login forms for me. It feels pretty magical.

I simply press my magic key combination, (re-)authenticate with my password safe if necessary, and then it does the rest. Including, thanks to some light scripting/hackery, many authentication flows that span multiple pages and even ones that ask for randomly-selected characters from a secret word or similar2.

Animated GIF showing a login form requesting a username, password, and "Google Authenticator Code". An auto-typer fills all three fields with the username "2fa-autotype-demo", a long password, and the code 676032. The "Remember Me" checkbox is left unticked.
I love having long passwords and 2FA enabled. But I also love being able to log in with the convenience of a master password and my fingerprint.

My approach isn’t without its controversies. The argument against it broadly comes down to this:

Storing the username, password, and the means to provide an authentication code in the same place means that you’re no-longer providing a second factor. It’s no longer e.g. “something you have” and “something you know”, but just “something you have”. Therefore, this is equivalent to using only a username and password and not enabling 2FA at all.

I disagree with this argument. I provide two counter-arguments:

1. For most people, they’re already simplifying down to “something you have” by running the authenticator software on the same device, protected in the same way, as their password safe: it’s their mobile phone! If your phone can be snatched while-unlocked, or if your password safe and authenticator are protected by the same biometrics3, an attacker with access to your mobile phone already has everything.

Repeat of the diagram in which a PC provides all authentication, except the PC has been replaced with a phone.
If your argument about whether it counts as multifactor is based on how many devices are involved, this common pattern also isn’t multifactor.

2. Even if we do accept that this is fewer factors, it doesn’t completely undermine the value of time-based second factor codes4. Time-based codes have an important role in protecting you from authentication replay!

For instance: if you use a device for which the Internet connection is insecure, or where there’s a keylogger installed, or where somebody’s shoulder-surfing and can see what you type… the most they can get is your username, password, and a code that will stop working in 30 seconds5. That’s still a huge improvement on basic username/password-based system.6

Note that I wouldn’t use this approach if I were using a cloud-based password safe like those I linked in the first paragraph! For me personally: storing usernames, passwords, and 2FA authentication keys together on somebody else’s hardware feels like too much of a risk.

But my password manager of choice is KeePassXC/KeePassDX, to which I migrated after I realised that the plugins I was using in vanilla KeePass were provided as standard functionality in those forks. I keep the master copy of my password database encrypted on a pendrive that attaches to my wallet, and I use Syncthing to push secondary copies to a couple of other bits of hardware I control, such as my phone. Cloud-based password safes have their place and they’re extremely accessible to people new to password managers or who need organisational “sharing” features, but they’re not the right tool for me.

As always: do your own risk assessment and decide what’s right for you. But from my experience I can say this: seamless, secure logins feel magical, and don’t have to require an unacceptable security trade-off.

Footnotes

1 Not all authentication looks like this, for me, because some kinds of 2FA can’t be provided by my password safe. Some service providers “push” verification checks to an app, for example. Others use proprietary TOTP-based second factor systems (I’m looking at you, banks!). And some, of course, insist on proven-to-be-terrible solutions like email and SMS-based 2FA.

2 Note: asking for a username, password, and something that’s basically another-password is not true multifactor authentication (I’m looking at you again, banks!), but it’s still potentially useful for organisations that need to authenticate you by multiple media (e.g. online and by telephone), because it can be used to help restrict access to secrets by staff members. Important, but not the same thing: you should still demand 2FA.

3 Biometric security uses your body, not your mind, and so is still usable even if you’re asleep, dead, uncooperative, or if an attacker simply removes and retains the body part that is to be scanned. Eww.

4 TOTP is a very popular mechanism: you’ve probably used it. You get a QR code to scan  into the authenticator app on your device (or multiple devices, for redundancy), and it comes up with a different 6-digit code every 30 seconds or so.

5 Strictly, a TOTP code is likely to work for a few minutes, on account of servers allowing for drift between your clock and theirs. But it’s still a short window.

6 It doesn’t protect you if an attacker manages to aquire a dump of the usernames, inadequately-hashed passwords, and 2FA configuration from the server itself, of course, where other forms of 2FA (e.g. certificate-based) might, but protecting servers from bad actors is a whole separate essay.

Kev Quirk: Ten Years of Blogging

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

If you read a lot of the “how to start a blog in 2023” type posts (please don’t ever use that title in a post) the advice will often boil down to something like:

  • Choose a niche
  • Start collecting email addresses immediately (newsletter)
  • Write on a regular schedule

I don’t do any of those things. 😂

Kev writes about what he’s learned from ten years of blogging. As a fellow long-term blogger1, I was especially pleased with his observation that, for some (many?) of us old hands, all the tips on starting a blog nowadays are things that we just don’t do, sometimes deliberately.

Like Kev, I don’t have a “niche” (I write about the Web, life, geo*ing, technology, childwrangling, gaming, work…). I’ve experimented with email subscription but only as a convenience to people who prefer to get updates that way – the same reason I push articles to Facebook – and it certainly didn’t take off (and that’s fine!). And as for writing on a regular schedule? Hah! I don’t even manage to be uniform throughout the year, even after averaging over my blog’s quarter-century2 of history.

Also like Kev, and I think this is the reason that we ignore these kinds of guides to blogging, I blog for me first and foremost. Creation is a good thing, and I take my “permission to write” and just create stuff. Not having a “niche” means that I can write about what interests me, variable as that is. In my opinion the only guide to starting a blog that anybody needs to read is Andrew Stephens“So You Want To Start An Unpopular Blog”.

And if that’s not enough inspiration for you to jump back in your time machine and party like the Web’s still in 2005, I don’t know what is.

Footnotes

1 I celebrated 20 years… a while back?

2 Fuck me, describing a blog as having about a quarter-century of history makes it sound real old.

Murder in the Library

Two years after our last murder mystery party, almost three years since the one before, and much, much longer since our last in-person one, we finally managed to have another get-the-guests-in-one-place murder mystery party, just like old times. And it was great!

A woman dressed in a tweed waistcoat, glasses perched atop her head, sips a glass of champagne.
Full credit goes to Ruth who did basically all the legwork this time around. Cheers!

It’s still been been over a decade since we played a mystery that I wrote (though I’m hoping to rectify that within the year): this time we played D’Avekki StudiosMurder in the Library.

D’Avekki’s murder mystery sets use an unusual mechanic that I’ve discussed before online with other murder mystery party authorship enthusiasts1 but never tried in practice: a way of determining at random who the murderer is when play begins. This approach has a huge benefit in that it means that you can assign characters to players using a subset of those available (rather than the usual challenges that often come up when, for example, somebody need to play somebody of a different gender than their own) and, more-importantly, it protects you from the eventuality that a player drops-out at short notice. This latter feature proved incredibly useful as we had a total of three of our guests pull out unexpectedly!

Three people sit alongside a dining table: a woman with dark hair, holding her play notes, a man wearing sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, grinning, and a short-haired woman in a conforming white off-the-shoulder top and bright red lipstick. There are beer bottles, champagne flutes, and Coke cans on the table.
Most of our guests were old hands at murder mystery games, but for Owen’s date Kirsty this was a completely novel experience.

The challenge of writing a murder mystery with such a mechanic is to ensure that the script and evidence adapt to the various possible murderers. When I first examined the set that was delivered to us, I was highly skeptical: the approach is broadly as follows2:

  1. At the start of the party, the players secretly draw lots to determine who is the murderer: the player who receives the slip marked with an X is the murderer.
  2. Each character “script” consists of (a) an initial introduction, (b) for each of three acts, a futher introduction which sets up two follow-up questions, (c) the answers to those two follow-up questions, (d) a final statement of innocence, and (e) a final statement of guilt, for use by the murderer.
  3. In addition, each script has a handful of underlined sections, which are to be used only if you are the murderer. This means that the only perceivable difference between one person and another being the murderer is that the only who is the murderer will present a small amount of additional information. The writing is designed such that this additional piece of evidence will be enough to make the case against them be compelling (e.g. because their story becomes internally-inconsistent).
A group of people sit around a dining table; one man, wearing spectacles on his floury face, is taking the photo in "selfie" mode. The other visible characters appear to be a chef, a vicar, a librarian, a thrillseeker, and an aspiring starlet. With the exception of the photographer, they're all looking off to the side, listening to an unseen character speak.
As I recently discovered, glasses make me look like an entirely different person.

The writing was good overall: I especially appreciated the use of a true crime podcast as a framing device (expertly delivered thanks to Rory‘s radio voice). It was also pleasing to see, in hindsight, how the story had been assembled such that any character could be the murderer, but only one would give away a crucial clue. The downside of the format is pretty obvious, though: knowing what the mechanic is, a detective only needs to look at each piece of evidence that appears and look for a connection with each statement given by every other player, ruling out any “red herring” pairings that connect to every other player (as is common with just about the entire genre, all of the suspects had viable motives: only means and opportunity may vary).

It worked very well, but I wonder if – now the formula’s understood by us – a second set in a similar style wouldn’t be as successful.

A party of unlikely characters stands around and points accusingly at the "murderer" among them: it's Kirsty.
Our classic end-of-murder-mystery-party photo post makes a comeback. Extra-special hat tip to Kirsty, who ended up by coincidence being the murderer at her first ever such event and did astoundingly well. From left to right: Rory (Major Clanger), Simon (Chef Flambé), JTA (Noah Sinner), Kirsty (Phyllis Ora), Ruth (Dusty Tomes), Liz (Ruby Daggers), Owen (Max Cruise), and me (Professor Pi).

That said, nobody correctly fingered the murderer this time around. Maybe we’re out of practice? Or maybe the quality of the hints in such a wide-open and dynamic murderer-selection mechanic is less-solid than we’re used to? It’s hard to say: I’d certainly give another D’Avekki a go to find out.

Footnotes

1 There are dozens of us. Dozens!

2 We made a minor adaptation to the formula to fit with our experience of what makes a compelling party, but the fundamentals here are as-published.

Dan Q archived GC8W7QW Forgotten Bridge

This checkin to GC8W7QW Forgotten Bridge reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Out on a walk with the dog along the footpath nearby I elected to drop in on this cache for routine maintenance. But as I approached the GZ I learned that the footbridge that provided this cache with its home clearly wasn’t as “forgotten” as I’d thought! The council have been up here again and rather than just signing the log as they did last time they were on a mission to replace the entire bridge!

When they did this with the bridge that hosted GC90RH3 they gave me enough notice to remove the cache, but not this time: by the time the geopup and I discovered the “new” bridge the cache container was long gone. (It was a modified ammo can, so I might reach out and see if they happened to retrieve it during the demolition and can give it back!)

Ah well; it was a fun cache while it lasted.

A French Bulldog in a blue jacket stands on a newly-constructed wooden footbridge. The footbridge is sandwiched into a hedge and spans a ditch separating two fields. The dog is sniffing at the bridge, as if she's hunting for something.

Map of 51.7652,-1.390367

The Page With No Code

It all started when I saw no-ht.ml, Terence Eden‘s hilarious response to Salma Alam-Naylor‘s excellent HTML is all you need to make a website. The latter is an argument against both the silly amount of JavaScript with which websites routinely burden their users, but also even against depending on CSS. As a fan of CSS Naked Day and a firm believer in using JS only for progressive enhancement, I’m obviously in favour.

Screenshot showing Terence Eden's no-ht.ml website, which uses plain text ASCII/Unicode art to argue that you don't need HTML.
Obviously no-ht.ml is to be taken as tongue-in-cheek, but as you’re about to see: it caught my interest and got me thinking: how could I go even further.

Terence’s site works by delivering a document with a claimed MIME type of text/html, but which contains only the (invalid) “HTML” code <!doctype UNICODE><meta charset="UTF-8"><plaintext> (to work around browsers’ wish to treat the page as HTML). This is followed by a block of UTF-8 plain text making use of spacing and emoji to illustrate and decorate the content. It’s frankly very silly, and I love it.1

I think it’s possible to go one step further, though, and create a web page with no code whatsoever. That is, one that you can read as if it were a regular web page, but where using View Source or e.g. downloading the page with curl will show you… nothing.

I present: The Page With No Code! (It’ll probably only work if you’re using Firefox, for reasons that will become apparent later.)

Screenshot showing my webpage, "The Page With No Code". Using white text (and some emojis) on a blue gradient background, it describes the same thought process as I describe in this blog post, and invites the reader to "View Source" and see that the page genuinely does appear to have no code.
I’d encourage you to visit The Page With No Code, use View Source to confirm for yourself that it truly has no code, and see if you can work out for yourself how it manages this feat… before coming back here for an explanation. Again: probably Firefox-only.

Once you’ve had a look for yourself and had a chance to form an opinion, here’s an explanation of the black magic that makes this atrocity possible:

  1. The page is blank. It’s delivered with Content-Type: text/html. Your browser interprets a completely-blank page as faulty and corrects it to a functionally-blank minimal HTML page: <html><head></head><body></body></html>.
  2. <body> and <html> elements can be styled with CSS; this includes the ability to add content: ::before and ::after each element. If only we could load a stylesheet then content injection is possible.
  3. We use the fourth way to inject CSS – a Link: HTTP header – to deliver a CSS payload (this, unfortunately, only works in Firefox). To further obfuscate what’s happening and remove the need for a round-trip, this is encoded as a data: URI.
Screenshot showing HTTP headers returned from a request to the No Code Webpage. A Link: header is highlighted, it contains a data: URL with a base64-encoded CSS stylesheet.
The stylesheet – and all the page content – is right there in the Link: header if you just care to decode it! Observe that while 5.84kB of data are transferred, the browser rightly states that the page is zero bytes in size.

This is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever coded, and that’s saying a lot. I’m so proud of myself. You can view the code I used to generate this awful thing on Github.

Footnotes

1 My first reaction was “why not just deliver something with Content-Type: text/plain; charset=utf-8 and dispense with the invalid code, but perhaps that’s just me overthinking the non-existent problem.

I’d Like to Change my Mother’s Maiden Name

Following their security incident last month, many users of LastPass are in the process of cycling their security credentials for many of their accounts1. I don’t use LastPass2, but I’ve had ocassion to cycle credentials before, so I appreciate the pain that people are going through.

It’s not just passwords, though: it may well be your “security question” answers you need to rotate too. Your passwords quickly become worthless if an attacker can guess the answers to your “security questions” at services that use them. If you’re using a password safe anyway, you should either:

  1. Answer security questions with long strings of random garbage3, or
  2. Ensure that you use different answers for every service you use, as you would with passwords.4

In the latter case, you’re probably storing your security answers in a password safe5. If the password safe they’re stored in is compromised, you need to change the answers to those security questions in order to secure the account.

This leads to the unusual situation where you can need to call up your bank and say: “Hi, I’d like to change my mother’s maiden name.” (Or, I suppose, father’s middle name, first pet’s name, place of birth, or whatever.) Banks in particular are prone to disallowing you from changing your security answers over the Internet, but all kinds of other businesses can also make this process hard… presumably because a well-meaning software engineer couldn’t conceive of any reason that a user might want to.

I sometimes use a pronouncable password generator to produce fake names for security question answers. And I’ll tell you what: I get some bemused reactions when I say things like “I’d like to change my mother’s maiden name from Tuyiborhooniplashon to Mewgofartablejuki.”

But at least it forestalls them asking me “So why did you change your surname to ‘Q’?”

Footnotes

1 If you use LastPass, you should absolutely plan to do this. IMHO, LastPass’s reassurances about the difficulty in cracking the encryption on the leaked data is a gross exaggeration. I’m not saying you need to panic – so long as your master password is reasonably-long and globally-unique – but perhaps cycle all your credentials during 2023. Oh, and don’t rely on your second factor: it doesn’t help with this particular incident.

2 I used to use LastPass, until around 2016, and I still think it’s a good choice for many people, but nowadays I carry an encrypted KeePassXC password safe on a pendrive (with an automated backup onto an encrypted partition on our household NAS). This gives me some security and personalisation benefits, at the expense of only a little convenience.

3 If you’re confident that you could never lose your password (or rather: that you could never lose your password without also losing the security question answers because you would store them in the same place!), there’s no value in security questions, and the best thing you can do might be to render them unusable.

4 If you’re dealing with a service that uses the security questions in a misguided effort to treat them as a second factor, or that uses them for authentication when talking to them on the telephone, you’ll need to have usable answers to the questions for when they come up.

5 You can, of course, use a different password safe for your randomly-generatred security question answers than you would for the password itself; perhaps a more-secure-but-less-convenient one; e.g. an encrypted pendrive kept in your fire safe?

Geohashing expedition 2023-01-02 51 -1

This checkin to geohash 2023-01-02 51 -1 reflects a geohashing expedition. See more of Dan's hash logs.

Location

Muswell Hill, Piddington, Oxfordshire

Participants

Expedition

I bundled the dog into the car and drove out to Piddington, a couple of kilometres North of the hashpoint. Cherwell Council advertise a circular walk that seems to circle from the village (which looked like a good place to park) up to Muswell Hill, the summit of which is near the hashpoint.

She and I walked through Piddington, past the church, and up onto the path. A soggy kilometre or so later we quickly discovered that this was going to be more-challenging than I’d anticipated. We quickly got bogged down in a flooded field and needed to double-back. With my socks already soaking wet and the dog in a similar condition, we found a different route that looped around the entire hill and through an alpaca farm (or were they llamas?), then we worked our way up the South face of the hill, over the summit, and down to the hashpoint. We got there at 11:00 UTC, took a quick look around and pulled the closest thing a dog can manage to a silly grin, and then hacked our way back (by road) to Piddington for the drive home and some dry clothes.

Tracklog

Entire expedition

Walking part only

Photo

Dan - a man with a beard, wearing a grey fleece with a white poppy attached - crouches alongside his French Bulldog in a green field under a blue sky with a few wispy clouds.
Multi-species silly grin.

Video

Also available on YouTube.

Map of 51.8337010,-1.0719239

Email newsletters via RSS

I love feeds!

Maybe you’ve heard already, but I love RSS.

I love it so much that I retrofit sites without feeds into it for the convenience of my favourite reader FreshRSS: working around (for example) the lack of feeds in The Far Side (twice), in friends’ blogs, and in my URL shortener. Whether tracking my progress binging webcomic history, subscribing to YouTube channels, or filtering-out sports news, feeds are the centre of my digital life.

Illustration showing a web application with an RSS feed; the RSS feed is sending data to my RSS reader (represented by FreshRSS's icon).

 

There’s been a bit of a resurgence lately of sites whose only subscription option is email, or – worse yet – who provide certain “exclusive” content only to email subscribers.

I don’t want to go giving an actual email address to every damn service, because:

  • It’s not great for privacy, even when (as usual) I use a unique alias for each sender.
  • It’s usually harder to unsubscribe than I’d like, and rarely consistent: you need to find a recent message, click a link, sometimes that’s enough or sometimes you need to uncheck a box or click a button, or sometimes you’ll get another email with something to click in it…
  • I rarely want to be notified the very second a new issue is published; email is necessarily more “pushy” than I like a subscription to be.
  • I don’t want to use my email Inbox to keep track of which articles I’ve read/am still going to read: that’s what a feed reader is for! (It also provides tagging, bookmarking, filtering, standardised and bulk unsubscribing tools, etc.)

So what do I do? Well…

Illustration showing a web application using MailChimp to send an email newsletter to OpenTrashMail, to which FreshRSS is subscribed.

I already operate an OpenTrashMail instance for one-shot throwaway email addresses (which I highly recommend). And OpenTrashMail provides a rich RSS feed. Sooo…

How I subscribe to newsletters (in my feed reader)

If I want to subscribe to your newsletter, here’s what I do:

  1. Put an email address (I usually just bash the keyboard to make a random one, then put @-a-domain-I-control on the end, where that domain is handled by OpenTrashMail) in to subscribe.
  2. Put https://my-opentrashmail-server/rss/the-email-address-I-gave-you/rss.xml into my feed reader.
  3. That’s all. There is no step 3.

Now I get your newsletter alongside all my other subscriptions. If I want to unsubscribe I just tell my feed reader to stop polling the RSS feed (You don’t even get to find out that I’ve unsubscribed; you’re now just dropping emails into an unmonitored box, but of course I can resubscribe and pick up from where I left off if I ever want to).

Obviously this approach isn’t suitable for personalised content or sites for which your email address is used for authentication, because anybody who can guess the random email address can get the feed! But it’s ideal for those companies who’ll ocassionally provide vouchers in exchange for being able to send you other stuff to your Inbox, because you can simply pipe their content to your feed reader, then add a filter to drop anything that doesn’t contain the magic keyword: regular vouchers, none of the spam. Or for blogs that provide bonus content to email subscribers, you can get the bonus content in the same way as the regular content, right there in a folder of your reader. It’s pretty awesome.

If you don’t already have and wouldn’t benefit from running OpenTrashMail (or another trashmail system with feed support) it’s probably not worth setting one up just for this purpose. But otherwise, I can certainly recommend it.

Why Did Media Players Look Like That?

You don’t really see it any more, but: if you downloaded some media player software a couple of decades ago, it’d probably appear in a weird-shaped window, and I’ve never understood why.

Composite screenshot showing Sonique, Windows Media Player and BSplayer music players, among others, in a variety of windows that are either unusually-shaped, look like conventional Hi-Fis, or both.Mostly, these designs are… pretty ugly. And for what? It’s also worth noting that this kind of design can be found in all kinds of applications, in media players that it was almost ubiquitous.

You might think that they’re an overenthusiastic kind of skeuomorphic design: people trying to make these players look like their physical analogues. But hardware players were still pretty boxy-looking at this point, either because of the limitations of their data storage1. By the time flash memory-based portable MP3 players became commonplace their design was copying software players, not the other way around.

Composite screenshot showing Windows Media Player, the (old) iTunes companion widget, KMPlayer, and other media players. All of them have unusually-shaped windows, often with organic corners.

So my best guess is that these players were trying to stand out as highly-visible. Like: they were things you’d want to occupy a disproportionate amount of desktop space. Maybe other people were listening to music differently than me… but for me, back when screen real estate was at such a premium2, a music player’s job was to be small, unintrusive, and out-of-the-way.

WinAmp music player in minified mode: just a sliver of a music player, small, showing just back/forward/play/pause/stop controls, play time, and a mini-equaliser. The timer shows we're 3 seconds into a track.
I used to run Winamp in its very-smallest minified size, tucked up at the top of the screen, using the default skin or one that made it even less-obtrusive.

It’s a mystery to me why anybody would (or still does) make media player software or skins for them that eat so much screen space, frequently looking ugly while they do so, only to look like a hypothetical hardware device that wouldn’t actually become commonplace until years after this kind of player design premiered!

Maybe other people listened to music on their computer differently from me: putting it front and centre, not using their computer for other tasks at the same time. And maybe for these people the choice of player and skin was an important personalisation feature; a fashion statement or a way to show off their personal identity. But me? I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now. I’m glad that this particular trend seems to have died and windows are, for the most part, rounded rectangles once more… even for music player software!

Footnotes

1 A walkman, minidisc player, or hard drive-based digital music device is always going to look somewhat square because of what’s inside.

2 I “only” had 1600 × 1200 (UXGA) pixels on the very biggest monitor I owned before I went widescreen, and I spent a lot of time on monitors at lower resolutions e.g. 1024 × 768 (XGA); on such screens, wasting space on a music player when you’re mostly going to be listening “in the background” while you do something else seemed frivolous.