Max’s Corner: Computing Your Way Out of a Paper Bag

This edition of Max’s Corner deals with developments in a couple of fields touched on before, namely advancements in cryptography and the hunt for Satoshi Nakamoto.

Photo: Unsplash

Photo: Unsplash

This week we learned that a self-taught programmer solved the MIT cryptography puzzle 15 years earlier than expected. In honor of that achievement, we thought it would be fitting to dedicate this version of Max’s Digest to telling that story and explaining its significance.

In addition, we are going to return to the topic we have covered before to take a look at some new developments that have been making headlines. The Satoshi Nakamoto identity saga simply never says die. Although all the nonsense that has been circling around Satoshi’s name has hardly ever transcended the realm of juvenile vaudeville, the implications that come with it are very real and concerning to us at Bytecoin.

Cryptography Puzzle

In April of 1999, architect Frank Gehry was delivered a time capsule with instructions to incorporate it into his design of the building that would eventually become the home of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, or CSAIL. The time capsule consisted of 50 items contributed by some of the leading minds of computer science at the time, namely, Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee, among others.

Gehry’s treatment of the time capsule – he placed it inside of a sculpted reproduction of a paper bag, a familiar topos for the architect – emphasized the utility – or lack thereof – of what the object contained. The suggestion being, for all the genius in the world, if you can’t compute your way out of a paper bag, how valuable is this knowledge?

The time capsule was designed to be opened 35 years after it was given to Gehry, which would have been sometime in 2034, unless someone could crack the cryptographic cipher that sealed it shut. The cipher was designed by Ron Rivest, one of the creators of the RSA cryptography protocol. Rivest said that the cipher was not designed to be particularly complicated, only resistant to expedited computation.

Rivest’s cipher asked would-be solvers to find the number that was produced by running a squaring operation nearly 80 trillion times. Once they got the result of the squaring, they were tasked with taking that number and plugging it into a calculation involving another number provided by the creators.

This calculation produces a consequential number which can be translated into a short phrase congratulating the successful essayer on his achievement. As of yet, the phrase hasn’t been revealed to the public, it is supposed to be unveiled on May 15 when the time capsule is officially opened.

Bernard Fabrot, a self-taught Belgian programmer, was the first to solve the cipher, completing it almost 20 years to the day it was first announced. Fabrot has spent the last three and a half years computing the solution to the cipher and was able to crack it while another computing team led by tech executive Simon Peffers was inching closer to the solution.

Fabrot used a basic Intel Core i7-6700 to solve the cipher with the GNU Multiple Precision Arithmetic Library. Peffer’s team took a different path, using a new squaring algorithm created by Erdinc Ozturk from Sabanci University and run on a programmable hardware accelerator called an FPGA. Peffer’s team is working as part of the Cryptophage collaboration. The team is set to solve the cipher within two months of having started.

Describing his working process, Fabrot said:

“I basically used my everyday workstation. There were 79 trillion operations to be made and I’d save the intermediate result every 1 billion result (so approximately every 22 minutes I’d save a result). The computation cannot be parallelized and the i7 I was using has four cores. So basically instead of turning it every night off I’d simply leave it running 24/7.

I’d simply backup the files with the intermediate results once in a while. I rebooted the computer about 50 times in 4 years and during those 4 years during about 3 and half years it was computing towards the solution. But I coded (totally unrelated things), compiled things from source, browsed the web, did my email, etc. from the very workstation which computed the solution.”

The difficulty in finding the solution to this puzzle was that it was impossible to calculate faster by using parallel computing. Everyone who wanted to try their hand at solving it had to go through the squaring process one step at a time, without the help of additional computers or of the strength of a supercomputer.

Rivest predicted, based on how long it took to run the squaring operation in 1999 and Moore’s law, which states that the speed and capabilities of computers can be expected to double every two years, that it would take 35 years to crack the cipher.

Rivest chalks his overestimation of the length of time it would take to solve the cipher up to the difficulty of predicting improvements in technology. He did not anticipate breakthroughs like FPGA chips which have become much more accessible and powerful than previously imagined.

Fabrot’s achievement is a significant gauge of the progress we have made in computing and specifically cryptography over the past two decades. All the promise and power that was attributed to computing, its potential as a means of restructuring life itself, has finally started making its way out of the metaphysical paper bag and into the real-world.

In a nod to Fabrot’s achievement, the Antpool mining pool posted a message in the block header / coinbase data of Bitcoin’s block 573138 saying, “Congrats Bernard Fabrot for solving LCS35!”

Satoshi Burlesque

Not long ago we wrote a column outlining the major components of the mystery behind Satoshi Nakamoto. At that time John McAfee was still promising that he would reveal the true identity of the developer of Bitcoin, an identity Craig Wright was claiming was his.

Well, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Craig Wright is still telling everyone who is willing to listen that he is the mastermind behind Bitcoin, and, while McAfee has forgone his vow to disclose Satoshi’s identity in the better interest of both his own and our safety, a new website has appeared with a countdown clock to what it claims will be the public unveiling of Satoshi’s true identity.

While this has all the appearances of another publicity stunt, it is worth stating again that this kind of flippant regard for anonymity in an industry that is supposed to be maintaining it is unhealthy. Not only does this circus act fly in the face of many of the things we are supposed to be about, it reeks of amateurism and is a black eye to the industry in a time where things seem to be otherwise coalescing in a positive direction.

Our prescription? Forget about Satoshi. Whoever he (or they) is, he is more important as a symbol than a person and that is the way he wanted it. Let’s drop the theatrics, the technology is too important.

Max Hasselhoff

Max was born at the end of 80s in Frankfurt, Germany. He studied engineering and telecom at university, and had internships in the US and UK. At the same time, he was coding on the side in С++ and scripting languages. After entering the Bytecoin team in 2016 as a technical support engineer, he rose through the ranks and now works as an integration engineer. Max is collecting vintage gaming consoles and loves English literature.

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