Improving My Information Security, Or “Noncoterminous Planch Dotal Steeple”

I’ve often thought that it is fairly ridiculous that, in order to be able to confirm my identity, some web sites require you to answer a set of three question. You know the kind: First car you drove? Name of your 2nd grade teacher’s wife? Middle name of the doctor who delivered your grandmother’s best friend? It seems to me that by providing this information, I am giving away personal information when I should be protecting it. I used to just have three words I’d use, one for each question, the same three for all sites, but that doesn’t seem particularly secure either.

So a while back, I wrote a little command line alias I call random-word. As might be expected, typing random-word on the command line give me a random word. For example:

As it turns out, “lambency” is a good word because I am not familiar with it1. I know a lot of words so if I don’t know this one, I imagine it is pretty hard to guess.

The source for random-word is the Unix dictionary, which is convenient because it makes the actual command behind the alias very simple. Plus, there are over 235,000 words, so I am not likely to run out.

Well, today, one of the services I used moved to a new site, and I had to verify my account there. Part of the process involved supplying a new password and answering three intimate questions about myself. I decided to put my new script to good use. For each of the 3 questions I was asked, I ran random-word and the first one that came up I used to answer the first question. I repeated this for each of the 3 questions. It makes for some amusing response. Here is a made up example (courtesy of “random-words”):

  1. The model of your first car? pell
  2. Your mother’s maiden name? oxamate
  3. The town in which you attended high school? bejuggled

Yes, that’s right. My mom’s maiden name was Oxamte. I went to high school in the little-known town of Bejuggled, and I drove there in my Pell.

I record the question and the random word in LastPass, where I also keep my passwords. In this way, I befuddle any would-be hacker of my account and/or personal information snooper in said service. This worked perfectly. It’s funny because it never really occurred to me to provide completely meaningless answers to these questions. But it makes a lot of sense.

I know a lot of people are not command line users like I am, but those of you on Macs or Linux who want a peak at my random-word command, here it is:

cat /usr/share/dict/words | shuf -n 1

In English, that says: display the content of the Unix dictionary, but filter it through a shuffle program and return the first random line that you find.

I turned this into an alias in my .zshrc file like this:

alias random-word='cat /usr/share/dict/words | shuf -n 1'

Now, all I need to do is type random-word to instantly get a random word (saphenous). It’s fun and it makes me feel less lame when filling out those “security” questions.

I feel like I could put this little script to even better use. I’m thinking of using it for my next post, which I plan to title: “Noncoterminous Planch Dotal Steeple”, which sounds a little like the title of a Ph.D dissertation in higher mathematics.


  1. I just looked it up: “playing lightly over a surface; flickering.”

One comment

  1. Interesting. I’ve always answered these questions with things that are significant to me but don’t match the category. Like in the “what’s your first pet” I’ll put my hometown. Not unbreakable, but I figure it’s a little tougher and I have a chance of remembering it myself!

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