CAPTCHA Solved But Who Cares?

CAPTCHAAccording to Reuters, These Coders Say They Taught a Computer to Crack CAPTCHA. According to the article, the San Francisco based company, Vicarious, has developed this program as part of his larger mission. As their website says, “We’re building software that thinks and learns like a human.” What I find so remarkable about this is that this wasn’t done a long time ago.

For those of you who don’t know, CAPTCHA is an acronym that stands for, “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” They are those pictures of distorted characters that you have to enter to, for example, post a comment on some blogs. You may have noticed that you do not need one here. This is because I’ve used them in the past and have found that they prevent absolutely no spam comments. This led me to believe that the spammers were just using programs that were able to crack the CAPTCHAs.

The truth is that I don’t see the problem with writing such a program. Imagine a simple CAPTCHA with a graphic with black letters on a white background. That should be as simple as running through the alphabet and doing a two-dimensional cross-correlation with each letter. Clearly, the more common distorted letters would be harder. But even these have standard algorithms that ought to allow one to reverse engineer them. And then increasingly, the CAPTCHAs have visual noise on them. It isn’t clear at this point just how well the Vicarious solution does with these. But often humans aren’t that good at this themselves. Here is a standard image that almost no one gets unless they are told that it is a picture of a spotted dog:

Spotted Dog

The big problem with the CAPTCHAs is not that computers can solve them. Vicarious has only approached the problem as a way to show what they can do with artificial intelligence; they aren’t trying to revolutionize the spam industry. That’s a good thing, because at this point, at least part of most spamming is done by hand. So a computer program will deposit spam on a web site and if it comes upon a CAPTCHA, it will be forwarded to a human to decipher. The article explains:

“Most CAPTCHAs now are broken by paying people in Bangladesh to do it manually,” said computer scientist Greg Mori of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, an expert on machine learning and computer vision. “For 50 cents an hour, you can get someone to break seven per minute.”

That could well be cheaper than the costs of breaking it by computer alone. My cross-correlation idea, for example, would take up a lot of cycles and a lot of real time as well.

I still don’t see what the purpose is of all the spam that I get. Absolutely none of it gets through. Almost all sites where it does get through post them with rel=”nofollow” options, so there is no search ranking increase from the link. And no one but a complete idiot would click on those links. I understand in the old days of spam email, there was effectively no cost of sending out 10 million email messages for a return on 1,000 clicks. But if Dr Mori is to be believed, then the spammers are paying a dollar for every 840 spam posts. That’s more than a tenth of a cent per posts. I just don’t see how it is worth that unless the people doing the spamming are scamming the companies that they work for.

Regardless, spammers do an enormous amount of damage to the internet for very little profit. It is the ultimate example of the tragedy of the commons. The funny thing is that despite what Ayn Rand said, people really do exhibit altruism. And most people will not pollute the entire network for the smallest of personal advantages. But in this context it really only takes one person to cause significant harm to all the others. The whole thing leaves me with very violent thoughts.


One of my favorite spam comments goes something like this, “I have a site very much like yours. Do you have much of a problem with spam? Could you tell me what plugins you use to fight this?” It is quite clever because every time I see it, for an instant I want to respond. The more standard spam is more like, “It’s difficult to find experienced people in this particular subject, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!” This raises the question of whether they know what I am talking about. That particular comment was in reference to an April Fools post based on an article in The Onion. Yes, I am experienced in that particular field; it is no wonder I sound like I know what I’m talking about!

WTF? What a Way to Ruin a Beer!

Brew Dog Taxidermy
If you’re looking for something with a nice blend of weirdness and a package certain to catch the eyes of your guests, try getting your hands on Brewdog’s “The End of History,” a 50 percent ABV beer released in 2010 that sold for the absurd price of $765. But you weren’t just paying for potency at that price: “The End of History” was a special, limited-edition Belgian blond ale. Only 12 bottles were made, and they were all contained within the taxidermied body of a squirrel or weasel. [Read the full text here at mental_floss!]

Guess how you get the bottle into the squirrel. I hope they’re insulated, otherwise condensation will puddle up and the poor rodent will look like it’s (understandably) peeing itself.

New Democrats and the Rightward March

Bill Clinton not Republicans are Responsible for rightward shiftJoel: “Oh no, no, no! Oh, my heavens, no! No! Oh God! Oh Porgy! Oh my dear heavens, no, no, no, no, no, no, no….”

Crow: C’mon, c’mon! Read ’em all!

Joel: There’s six pages of “no’s” here, Crow!

Crow:Well, y’think that’s enough to convey the raw terror she must feel as a giant bowl of “California Cornucopia Vegetable Jubilee” slithers towards her on all fours, it’s hellish maw…[1]

That’s how I felt today reading David Atkins article, Where Did the Republican Political Acumen Go? Look, I admire Atkins; he’s a keen political observer but, “Oh, my heavens, no!”

He started by discussing what a great political machine the Republicans had in the early days of the Bush Jr administration. I agree with that. But Republicans generally have good operations when they control the White House. The Republican Party is an authoritarian group. When they have power, their army falls in line. It is only when they don’t have power that they fall to pieces.

But Atkins really lost me when he wrote, “Conservatives had forced or persuaded a Democratic president to declare the era of big government at an end, to smash welfare, to deregulate Wall Street and pass free trade agreements one after the other.” Really?! That’s not my memory of the 1990s. I’ll admit, this is a time of special focus for me since I’m working on a book that focuses on the New Democrats and their abandonment of liberalism. But still, I remember the 1992 campaign and how conservative Clinton was. I especially remember him promising to “end welfare as we have come to know it.”

So it isn’t the brilliant Republican political machine that pushed Clinton and later Obama to the right. What I would call the center right is where these men feel most comfortable. Another thing I remember from the 1990s is just how crazy the Republicans were. They are marginally worse now, but they were still crazy. Remember how Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons? Even Ken Starr investigated it! This was mainstream stuff. The Republicans didn’t get Clinton to bend to their will; it was the other way around. Imagine what Clinton might have accomplished if he had been a real liberal!

What the Republican political operation shows is that political operations don’t mean that much. Even with a hopeless eight years, they still managed to get the White House back. (They also came close to doing it democratically!) And after all this madness, they may well get it back in 2016. They don’t need to be smart or reasonable or even disciplined. All they need is a good economic slowdown or crisis. That’s how politics works in the United States. Remember, as brilliant as Karl Rove may have been, Bush still lost the 2000 election. This is despite the fact that the unemployment rate had stopped falling and was beginning to rise. Bush should have won that election fairly easily and didn’t.

I think that David Atkins is falling for a myth. The Republicans’ lack of success in governing is not a choice. They really aren’t good at it. If they had been, they would have managed to create their conservative economic utopia in Iraq. Instead, they made a mess of it. All they’ve really been good at is continuing to exist during the dark 1960s and 1990s. Just like bad managers, if political parties stay around long enough, they will be rewarded with power. I understand the desire to look back on it and provide a narrative. But there has never been a brilliant Republican Party in my lifetime. Time in grade.

None of this should be taken as a reason for Democrats to feel safe. Quite the contrary. It means that regardless of how good a job we do, Republicans will soon be back in power. This is why the New Democrats bug me so much. Their idea was that by moving to the right, they could win elections. But just as with the Republicans, the Democrats’ time had come in 1992 and 2008. By electing a conservative Democrat in 1992, the party allowed the political landscape brought in by Carter and Reagan to ossify. Bush Jr came in and pushed things further to the right. Obama is now allowing that new normal to ossify. The problem we face is not the brilliance of the Republicans, it is the cluelessness (or simple conservatism) of the Democrats.

[1] That’s from Crow T Robot’s great screenplay, Earth Vs. Soup. Watch; enjoy; learn:

Euphemisms and the Grand Bargain Hunt

Joshu GreenLast week, Joshua Green wrote, Obama’s Top Economic Adviser Tells Democrats They’ll Have to Swallow Entitlement Cuts. He went to a Q&A session with Gene Sperling and concluded that the administration is trying to soften up the liberal base for a deal that offers entitlement cuts in exchange for Sequester cuts—no new revenue at all. There are a couple of things wrong with this.

The big thing wrong with this is that I don’t know any liberals who are actually in favor of the Grand Bargain. Maybe at one time, it wasn’t such a bad idea. But now the deal has been reduced to limiting loopholes in exchange for decreasing entitlement spending. We all know that the loopholes will quickly come back while the entitlement cuts will go on and on. So regardless of what proponents say, it is a short term tax increase in exchange for long term spending cuts. That’s a bad deal for liberals!

Now Green is pushing the idea that the White House is going to take long term entitlement cuts for nothing—or maybe a couple of years of Sequester cuts. Even I don’t think that the administration is that clueless. Instead, what seems to be happening is that Green is reading the tea leaves wrongly. I don’t know much about him, but I assume that he’s a typical upper middle class Washington reporter who really wishes to see entitlement cuts. You know what they say: wish in one hand…

But my reason for even talking about this is a comment that Green quoted from White House spokesman Amy Brundage in response to Sperling’s comment, “Gene was reiterating what our position has been all along: that any big budget deal is going to have to include significant revenues if Republicans insist on entitlement reforms.” I really hate the euphemisms. And even more, I hate how they favor the conservative reading of what’s going on.

The word “revenues” is not really wrong. But it has been used so often as a euphemism for “taxes” that I think people get the wrong idea. Again: these would simply be the elimination of loopholes, not new taxes. This is then contrasted with “entitlement reform,” which is the biggest euphemism this side of “collateral damage.” No one is talking about reform. We are talking cuts—pure and simple.

What we ought to be asking is this, “Are you willing to exchange the rich having their taxes go up by a very small amount for a couple of years in exchange for having your Social Security cut each year of your retirement?” In fact, as bad as that “deal” sounds, it is even worse. Chained-CPI would also throw more and more lower and middle class people in higher tax brackets going forward. So many people of modest means would see their taxes go up. What a brilliant idea that would be. Conservatives would clearly love it, but I don’t see what is there for liberals at all.

What Joshua Green is offering up is even worse than this. But like most Washington reporters, I doubt he’s thought much about it. In the group he runs with, there are all kinds of things people know that just ain’t so. And that’s the basis of “objective” reporting!

Curing Polio and the Worthless Rich

Jonas SalkOn this day in 1902, the great actor Elsa Lanchester was born. In a career spanning 55 years, she made almost 100 films. A lot of people will know her from countless supporting roles like Mrs MacDougall, the nosy neighbor in That Darn Cat! But I have a crush on her for playing Mary Shelley and the Monster’s Bride in Bride of Frankenstein. She has that wonderful break in her teeth that is just adorable. But of course, she was so much more. Check her out in this great Dick Cavett interview. She’s charming in addition to everything else.

The actor Jack Soo was born in 1917. He is best known for being the very best part of one of the great sitcoms, Barney Miller. Here is the first part of the retrospective the show did after he died:

Bill Gates is 58 today. Along with Steve Jobs, he is the favorite example conservatives offer up as entrepreneurs. In a sense, they are right. But I don’t see it as a good thing. I’ve watched over the last 40 years as both men did far more to limit innovation than they did to produce it. And that’s what capitalism is all about. In general, innovation is hard. Most people don’t have that much in them. But a big corporation like Microsoft or Apple has more than it needs to crush the innovation that comes out of smaller companies. I’m not saying that Gates is an evil man. But he certainly has far more wealth than he deserves. And even more important, he should not be offered up as an example of an innovator who has helped society. There is not a single major innovation that we have Bill Gates (even indirectly) to thank for.

Other birthdays: costume designer Edith Head (1897); the great writer Evelyn Waugh (1903); the great painter Francis Bacon (1909); musician Charlie Daniels (1936); athlete Bruce Jenner (64); actor Annie Potts (61); actor Andy Richter (47); actor Julia Roberts (46); singer-songwriter Ben Harper (44); and actor Joaquin Phoenix (39).

On most days, this would be Elsa Lanchester’s. The day, however, belongs to the great virologist Jonas Salk who was born in 1914. I’m fascinated by diseases that were once so devastating but now are largely a thing of the past. One of the big ones is polio—even affecting the most famous 20th century American president. Salk (along with his own group of researchers and eventually thousands of others) developed the first successful polio vaccine. It was one of the great scientific triumphs of the 20th century.

Salk stands as the ultimate symbol for scientific greatness. He did work that helped millions of people. And just as important, he did not do it for profit. When Edward R. Murrow asked him, “Who owns this patent?” Salk famously replied, “No one. Could you patent the sun?” Of course, that didn’t stop his funder, National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later The March of Dimes), looking into patenting it. But Salk seemed to have no interest.

Happy birthday Jonas Salk!