Category Archives: Security

Google 100% CAPTCHA fail

Last May I posted a concern about the 50% failure of CAPTCHA. Only one of the two words were actually checked to validate a user as human so entering random data worked half the time.

A few days ago a full disclosure post announced a 100% CAPTCHA failure.

Google’s reCAPTCHA is currently broken. At the moment, you may follow these
steps to complete a CAPTCHA without user-input:

1) Click the “Play Sound” button
2) Enter any sentence comprising of 10 words (“google google google google
google google google google google google”, as an example).
3) “Answer Correct!”

Happy 75th to Penguin Books

The Penguin Archive Project has revealed some fascinating details in the history of Penguin Books, such as the story of their ‘secret editor’ as reported in the Telegraph.

Eunice Frost became an editor at Penguin in the late 1930s and went on to be its first female director. Along with the firm’s founder, Allen Lane, she revolutionised the way we read by making good writing accessible to anyone for the price of a packet of cigarettes. So much was she the guiding spirit of the historic house that its penguin mascot and logo is named ‘Frostie’ after her. In 1958 she became the first woman in publishing to be awarded an OBE for services to literature.

Yet her name never appeared on any book, and even those who knew her well are still in the dark about the specifics of her life and the causes of her chronic regret.

Beyond ‘secret’ editing she also generated original writings, poetry and paintings. A somewhat sarcastic view of identity is presented in her work:

If only I could get a small advance

You bet I’d go straight to the South of France —

You need a lot more for the USA

Than any publisher will give away.

Oh to be Shaw — or even Graham Greene

They are twice damned and still show on the screen.

I hear the Council’s puffed you in Peru,

That’s nothing to my puffing up of YOU,

And anyway the whole thing’s just a plot

To make us think we’re someone when we’re not.

She clearly struggled with how to judge quality when reflecting upon market demand. Penguin appears to have been founded upon the concept that valuable information still can be delivered in affordable packages — quantity should not have to require a lack of quality — so the job of an editor there was particularly important.

In 1935 Allen Lane, then a director of his family’s publishing firm, The Bodley Head, was returning from a visit to see Agatha Christie in Devon when he decided to buy something to read. Scanning the shelves of the shop at Exeter railway station, he found nothing but pulp fiction and reprints of Victorian novels. At that point paperbacks were synonymous with those genres; high-quality fiction came in hardback form.

Lane determined to produce the same fare with soft covers (for sixpence a volume), and to make it available in stations and chain stores, thereby creating a democracy of reading from which civilisation has never looked back

This view of Penguin’s history reminds me of a poetry magazine that was started in 1909 in London. Harold Monro of the Poetry Bookshop in London was the Poetry Review’s founder and first editor.

Published by the Society and sharing its aim of “helping poets and poetry thrive in Britain today” — a declaration of intent towards all schools and groups of poetry, not merely the fashionable or metropolitan…

Although a respected editor at the time his work is far less known than those who followed his vision (e.g. Harriet Monroe of Chicago) and is probably forgotten by most. This new review of Penguin Books history might bring the story of quiet yet influential editors back into focus. Penguin started 20 years later but like the Poetry Review they relied on someone special to find message integrity among authors that could innovate independently from market demand and influence.

Diesel cars outsell Gasoline

The BBC notes that diesel overtakes petrol car sales for first time:

Diesel sales made up 50.6% of the total in July, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said.

The sale of petrol cars dropped by almost a third in July compared with the same month a year earlier.

The article gives two main reasons in their analysis: company fleet restock and drivers buying more efficient engines. They say the tipping point came with diesel pump prices reaching the same as gasoline.

“They are buying despite the £1000 extra cost of diesel car, relying on the 15-20% greater fuel efficiency to leave them better off in the long run.”

According to the motoring organisation, a petrol car owner is now spending on average £123.85 a month on fuel compared with a diesel driver’s average spend of £103.28.

The popularity of diesel has been helped by a substantial fall in the price differential between petrol and diesel. In 2008 it was 13p per litre, wiping out any substantial cost savings a more fuel-efficient diesel engine might offer.

Last month, the difference at the fuel pumps was only 1.5p per litre.

I do not agree with this analysis. The price at the pump varies regularly and diesel is usually close in price. Diesel can be above or below gasoline with very little explanation or reason. Thus, unless people are buying cars on a moment’s notice, there is something else driving them (no pun intended) towards a diesel engine.

My guess is that the usual criteria like performance and prestige are a bigger factor. Why else would so many purchase cars that require premium fuel, which always costs more than regular? BMW, for example, markets their cars to drivers who are concerned with the time to go 0-60. The new diesel 3-series is as good or even better than the gasoline model. That is more likely a real tipping point, rather than just cost at the pump.

The aesthetics of a modern diesel also may be a factor: quieter, better-smelling, better-looking…all the things that used to be said about gasoline are now the reverse. You want an engine that purrs or has a low growl? Diesel comes that way by default. The high-pitched whine of gasoline is out.

Perhaps most important of all, however, is the efficiency measured in terms of convenience and lifestyle. A man who lives in San Francisco I recently met said that due to his first newborn he finally sold his Chevrolet Tahoe and bought a VW Jetta SportWagon with a diesel engine. His eyes grew wide and his hands gestured excitedly as he explained “I have to find a station and stop for gas half as often now — just once every other week. I get back so much time!” When was the last time you heard the father of a newborn talk about all the time they have found?

A quick calculation on productivity in America could make regulation go something like this: require all new pickup trucks to have engines that get 45mpg without any loss in towing power or capacity; this has been done before using diesel technology and could easily be done again. In some sense, it already has.

The funny thing about general technology/marketing evolution is that this 1980s vision of utility

has recently been turned into this (concept)

and this (reality)

There will be approximately 1.5 million pickups sold this year, which get a (questionable) publicized average of 22mpg. Take the 1.5 million gasoline engines filling up 20 gallon tanks every week and compare it to the same number of diesel engines filling up 15 gallon tanks every other week. Right there you eliminate 1 billion (975 million) gallons of fuel consumption in one year and that is just for new vehicles. Assuming 30 minutes is spent for each pump visit we also would recover 19.5 million hours of time for those new vehicles. With current pump prices ($0.20 difference between regular and diesel in America) that means $2.6 billion saved ($1742/yr per vehicle). If the time saved is mapped to $20/hr of productivity that is $585 million gained a year ($390/yr per vehicle).

US Savings in One Year: If All New Pickups Had Diesel Engines

In other words moving the pickup market to diesel would return approximately $2,000 per vehicle in time and cost per year. These calculations alone, however, will not be enough to move the majority of consumers, as noted above. When you add in performance and more prestige — being seen as macho, hip or cool with a diesel — you cover all the primary issues in the American market. On that note the recent fashion trend towards 80s nerdiness (led by the coming-of-age consumers born during that time) should make it easy to see how diesel could outsell gasoline even in the American market.

Identity and the Gefilte Fish Test

I love old black and white spy movies where a subtle etiquette or taste mistake foils a plan. They highlight the importance of privacy and identity as related to culture. One example is the American spy in German-occupied France of WWII who switched his fork and knife during a meal in a cafe.

It is news to me that the flavor of Gefilte fish can be one such identifier. Today few of us probably are familiar with variations of home-made Gefilte, but many years ago

The “gefilte fish line” ran though eastern Poland.

Jews living to the west — most of Poland, as well as Germany and the rest of Western Europe — ate the sweet gefilte fish. Those to the east — Lithuania, Latvia and Russia — ate the peppery version.

The real story is how fish flavor represents a major geographic divide in customs, culture and even language. In other words, choose the peppery version and you could reveal far more information than you might realize.

Can you tell where this recipe is from?

Grind together

1 lb whitefish
1 lb pickle
1 small onion
1 stalk celery
1 egg

Mix in

1 heaping Tablespoon matzo meal
1 teaspoon salt

Fish heads and bodies that were carefully boned
1 sliced onion
1 whole carrot
1 stalk celery
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 inches water
Bring to boil then simmer

Form fish balls in palm of hand
Put on top of broth
Poach for about 1 hour with pot covered
Strain broth after removing fish balls
Add gelatin dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water to broth
Mix well and chill

Other recipes, such as the three day one used by Firefly, call for just 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns.

Churchill’s Cherwell and the 1943 Famines

Scientific American has a detailed historical look at the role of Lord Cherwell who served as Winston Churchill’s Personal Technocrat. The article says the analysis of security for Britain had a humanitarian flaw — a disregard for people of their former Colonies and the importance of trade routes — that caused unnecessary famine.

In his memo to Churchill, Lord Cherwell suggested that the Bengal famine arose from crop failure and high birthrate. He omitted to mention that the calamity also derived from India’s role of supplier to the Allied war effort; that the colony was not being permitted to spend its sterling reserves or to employ its own ships in importing sufficient food; and that by his Malthusian logic Britain should have been the first to starve — but was being sustained by food imports that were six times larger than the one-and-a-half-million tons that the Government of India had requested for the coming year. The memo did raise the prospect that harm would be inflicted on long-suffering Britons if help were extended to over-fecund Indians.

Cherwell was born in Germany in the late 1800s as Frederick Alexander Lindemann. He gained respect from his strong work ethic, broad intelligence, innovation, and sharp data analysis. However, he also seems to have been insecure about his intelligence. This is perhaps what led to his most notable mistakes such as believing in a model of humanity with structured high and low status.

“Somebody must perform dull, dreary tasks, tend machines, count units in repetition work; is it not incumbent on us, if we have the means, to produce individuals without a distaste for such work, types that are as happy in their monotonous occupation as a cow chewing the cud?” Lindemann asked. Science could yield a race of humans blessed with “the mental make-up of the worker bee.” This subclass would do all the unpleasant work and not once think of revolution or of voting rights: “Placid content rules in the bee-hive or ant-heap.” The outcome would be a perfectly peaceable and stable society, “led by supermen and served by helots.”

That perspective is probably not what most people think of when they hear the name Cherwell or read the stories of a brilliant scientist known as the most fervent anti-Nazi, Hitler-hating, advisor to Churchill.