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Illicit opioid

24 January 2014

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I AM not sure whether prizes for academic achievement in the Fifth Form are still awarded in today's educational system. But, if they are, then I very much doubt the award would be a copy of William Burroughs's drug-addled The Naked Lunch. It explains a lot when one hears, on Heroin (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), that such a prize was awarded to the author and former drug-abuser Will Self.

And he was not the only one. The presenter Professor Andrew Hussey received the same book for achievement in Modern Languages. To the teenage boy, reflecting on his existential sense of alienation, there could be no better inducement than the narcissistic outpourings of the Beat generation to encourage experimentation with illegal substances.

Not that The Naked Lunch or other literary escapades involving drug abuse were actually composed while under the influence. The writer's imagination, Self argued, was stimulated by the process of drug withdrawal, not by the ecstatic hit itself.

And here is where Hussey's documentary faltered. For it is a false comparison to treat writers and musicians in the same way. Writers have to be clear-headed to write; musicians whose performances entail a great deal of improvisation can operate while intoxicated. So the jazz riffs of Charlie Parker are in a different register from the literary riffs of the Beat, and all that Left Bank crowd.

Any sense that heroin mightbe glamorised by talking of its creative influence, however, was carefully nuanced. Heroin, Hussey declared, had taken more than it had given. But, in a sense, that is the appeal - the narcissistic self-destruction is all part of the package.

Somebody who knows how it feels to be on the outside is the Norwegian computer expert featured in Invalid Password: The password, a history of failure (Radio 4, Monday of last week). This self-confessed geek spends his days studying password-security systems, and has more than 200 different passwords himself.

But thank goodness somebody cares, because we ordinary folk clearly do not. The most popular passwords remain "password" and "123456"; and hacking technology is so advanced that to be fully secure we would need to create passwords that, because of their length and sophistication, were completely unmemorable.

This programme was first aired in November last year; so we can be pretty confident that the computer capable at that time ofgenerating 350 billion password-guesses per second has already been beaten. This is a system that can crack a 54-character password in an hour; and, in case we were not already impressed, the presenter, Tim Samuels, demonstrated our vulnerability by allowing his own password to be hacked by his guest, sitting in an ordinary café, and using an ordinary laptop and Wi-fi. It took the expert less then a minute.

Biometric systems are being developed, but at the moment they appear weak. The latest iPhone with fingerprint scanner could, we were told, be hacked using a dog's paw-print. So it looks as if good old-fashioned paper, kept under lock and key, is best, after all.

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