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The Perfect Password Is Six Words Long And Rhymes

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There’s a Catch-22 involved in choosing an online password: it’s either easy to remember and easy to break, or tough to hack and even tougher to remember. As life moves increasingly online, this quandary becomes an increasingly urgent one to resolve; luckily, two researchers at the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute think they have the answer. Marjan Ghazvininejad and Kevin Knight of the computer science department, using a random number generator and some ingenuity, have come up with a way to make a password that’s not only memorable and secure, but also has a bit of artistic flair.

The researchers proudly attribute their inspiration to an XKCD comic by creator Randall Munroe, whose uniquely intellectual cartoons stem from his background as a physics graduate and former NASA roboticist. The six-panel comic in question introduced a novel system for password creation based on increasing the number of bits (units of information) involved in a brute-force attack, which would randomly try all possible permutations of the given number of bits until it found the right one. Even if a user were to follow all the suggestions for strengthening a password—including choosing an uncommon word, replacing letters with numbers, adding special characters, and capitalizing certain letters—a so-called strong password might only take a sophisticated computer a matter of minutes to break. Munroe’s comic suggests avoiding such pitfalls by opting for four common but randomly selected words instead, and creating a story around the nonsensical phrase to render it meaningful. The original comic gave the phrase “correct horse battery staple” as an example. Silly, but as Munroe cheekily points out, most readers will already have memorized it within the minute it takes to read the comic.

In their recent paper [PDF], Knight and Ghazvininejad take Munroe’s method a step further by converting a computer-generated 60-bit string of characters into corresponding words from a 327,868-word dictionary. These words are then assembled into either ungrammatical prose “sentences” or, even better, rhyming iambic tetrameter couplets. Their rationale for the latter approach stems from humanity’s long history of remembering the past by turning it into poetry (see, for example, Beowulf, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Mahabharata, etc.). Unlike these epics, Ghazvininejad and Knight’s passwords are only two lines long with eight syllables each, and yet, at current computing rates, the scientists calculate that it could take as long as 11.3 years to guess it.

The paper gives a sample poem password—“The legendary Japanese/ Subsidiaries overseas”—that demonstrates how meter and rhyme work in tandem to increase the phrase’s memorability. In a test of real-world practicality, 61.5% participants who returned two days after having been assigned a poem-password were able to recall it correctly. The paper makes no mention of any incentive for the participants to put any effort into remembering their assigned passwords, but it seems reasonable to assume that they would have put at least as much work, if not more, into remembering a simple couplet when their own personal information was on the line.

For anyone eager to see what other kinds of password masterpieces Knight and Ghazvininejad’s method might turn up, they’ve provided an online generator that creates a new couplet upon every refresh. The results range from silly to sillier:

Domestic business limousine 
the flashy shopping unforeseen

The damage meekly enterprise 
requested swirling butterflies

Mercedes infant absentee 
militia matter Tennessee

The winter ratio reside 
the fragrances or homicide

The promises McCain Louie 
incumbent Democrat McKee

The researchers stress, however, that the site is only for demonstration purposes; a potential hacker could easily download the entire database of options the site provides, thereby defeating the purpose of using any of those passwords. For actual secure use, there’s a different site, in which users can input their email addresses and be sent a private password, which will then be deleted from the system entirely.

[h/t Washington Post]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.