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iStock / Public Domain

The Surprisingly Devious History of CAPTCHA

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iStock / Public Domain

Life in the Information Age changes so fast and so often that we often don’t even notice. Take, for example, the CAPTCHA system of internet user authentication, which became ubiquitous, then kind of sinister, then began to fade away. 

The word CAPTCHA is an acronym for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.” The original system was developed in the early 2000s by engineers at Carnegie Mellon University. The team, led by Luis von Ahn (who calls himself "Big Lou"), wanted to find a way to filter out the overwhelming armies of spambots pretending to be people. 

They devised a program that would display some form of garbled, warped, or otherwise distorted text that a computer couldn’t possibly read, but a human could make out. All a user had to do was type the text in a box, and access was theirs.

The program was wildly successful. CAPTCHA became a ubiquitous tool and an accepted part of the internet user experience. 

Unfortunately, the designers overlooked one very human trait: a need to get paid. Before too long, spam-sponsored CAPTCHA farms were popping up all over the internet, especially in poor countries, offering workers money to solve CAPTCHA boxes by the thousands.   

Even with these spam farms, CAPTCHA was a solid product. But the engineers weren’t satisfied. Millions of people were voluntarily translating nonsensical images into text, which seemed, to von Ahn, like a waste of perfectly good free labor. 

Speaking to The New York Times in 2011, von Ahn remembered thinking, “’Can we do something useful with this time?” 

After some more tinkering, reCAPTCHA was born and implemented on sites all over the internet. The general user experience was pretty much the same: type the letters and numbers you see onscreen. But rather than randomized words, reCAPTCHA asked users to translate images of real words and numbers taken from archival texts. Computers are pretty good at reading old documents, but smeary ink and damaged paper may make some words hard to read. Fortunately for von Ahn, humans can still read those words just fine. 

They started with the archives of The New York Times, then sold the technology to Google, who began using it to transcribe old books. That’s right—you have likely worked for free for Google and The New York Times. Those grainy images of old-timey text are real words from real pages. 

Von Ahn was pleased with the new version and confident that reCAPTCHA was here to stay. “We’ll be going for a long time,” he told the Times. “There’s a lot of printed material out there.”

But, as we said, this is the Internet Age. Most of the programs and online behaviors that we take for granted today will be extinct in a few years, and the CAPTCHA dynasty is no exception. 

In 2014, a Google analysis found that artificial intelligence could crack even the most complex CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA images with 99.8 percent accuracy, rendering the programs useless as security devices. 

In their place, Google unveiled the now-familiar “No CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA” system, which relies not on a users’ ability to decipher text, but on their online behavior prior to the security checkpoint. While a user is on a page, an invisible algorithm is monitoring how they interact with the content to determine if they’re human or robot.

Then, at the checkpoint itself, users are asked to confirm a single statement: “I am not a robot.” 

If the program believes you’re a human, all you have to do is check the box and move on. If you’re suspected of spambot tendencies, checking the box will open up a new challenge, like identifying all the kittens in a photo array.

The arms race between internet security experts and spambots may never end. In time, No CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA will be outsmarted, then replaced. And when that happens, pay attention.

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Hamilton Broadway
A Hamilton-Themed Cookbook is Coming
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Hamilton Broadway

Fans of Broadway hit Hamilton will soon be able to dine like the Founding Fathers: As Eater reports, a new Alexander Hamilton-inspired cookbook is slated for release in fall 2017.

Cover art for Laura Kumin's forthcoming cookbook

Called The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating, and Entertaining in Hamilton’s World, the recipe collection by author Laura Kumin “takes you into Hamilton’s home and to his table, with historical information, recipes, and tips on how you can prepare food and serve the food that our founding fathers enjoyed in their day,” according to the Amazon description. It also recounts Hamilton’s favorite dishes, how he enjoyed them, and which ingredients were used.

Recipes included are cauliflower florets two ways, fried sausages and apples, gingerbread cake, and apple pie. (Cue the "young, scrappy, and hungry" references.) The cookbook’s official release is on November 21—but until then, you can stave off your appetite for all things Hamilton-related by downloading the musical’s new app.

The Man Who First Made Childbirth Pain-Free

The Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology in Schaumburg, Illinois—a sprawling exurb of Chicago—is home to an obstetric treasure: a plaster cast of a newborn infant’s head. The bust shows the trauma of birth, the infant's head squeezed to a blunted point. The cast was made on January 19, 1847 by Sir James Y. Simpson in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a very special reason: It commemorates the first time that modern anesthesia was used to ease the pain of childbirth.

Simpson was not only a titled 1st Baronet but a gifted obstetrician. At age 28, he became Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh. Many his senior in the medical community thought Simpson was an upstart—in fact, it's said that his middle name, "Young," was originally a derogatory taunt by his elders. In response to their jeers, Simpson adopted it for good.

Simpson initially used ether as an anesthetic in deliveries, but he soon began looking for an alternative anesthetic because of the gas's "disagreeable and very persistent smell" and the fact that it was irritating to the patients' lungs. His experimentation with chloroform—invented in the United States in 1831 by physician Samuel Guthrie—began in November 1847, with a brandy bottle and some post-dinner party research. The story goes that he presented the filled bottle to his guests to inhale. The next morning, the party were all found on the floor unconscious.

Scholars say this dramatic version of events is likely overblown, but the story illustrates the dangers of discovery. As Simpson's experiments continued, one neighbor and fellow doctor reportedly [PDF] came around to his home at 52 Queen Street every morning "just to inquire if every-one was still alive."

A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.
A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.

Eventually, Simpson got the formulation right with some help from his assistants, who were also local chemists. Over time, the delivery method also improved: Instead of a whiff of fumes from a brandy bottle, doctors developed an apparatus that resembled a glass hookah with long tubes attached to a mask. Later in the century, a soft flannel-covered, metal-handled cup or pouch placed over the nose and mouth of the patient was the preferred delivery method. The doctor—hopefully competent—doled out the anesthetic drop by drop. This method sought to reduce the risk of overdose deaths, which were a significant concern early on.

Simpson was the first to discover the anesthetic properties of chloroform, and soon began to use the drug to help women in labor. The medical community applauded his achievements, as did many women of childbearing age, but some Scottish Calvinists (and members of other religions) were not so happy. Genesis 3:16 was very clear on the matter of women suffering in childbirth as punishment for eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge: "To the woman he said, I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." For those who took the Bible literally, easing a woman’s pain was anathema.

Some reports from the time describe the divide between medicine and religion on this issue as an all-out revolt, while other accounts claim the religious response to anesthetizing "the curse of Eve" has been overblown by history. In general, it's fair to say the church wasn't thrilled about the use of anesthesia in labor. When Simpson introduced his discovery in 1847, the Scottish Calvinist Church proclaimed it a "Satanic invention." Pregnant women were reportedly warned by preachers: Use this “devilish treatment” and your baby will be denied a baptism.

Simpson disagreed—he didn't think women should have to suffer the pain of childbirth. He made both a scientific and biblical argument for anesthesia during labor. In a pamphlet, Answers to the Religious Objections Advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery and Obstetrics, Simpson pointed to Genesis and the deep sleep of Adam while his rib was being removed as being evidence "of our Creator himself using means to save poor human nature from the unnecessary endurance of physical pain." He went further, declaring that labor pains were caused by anatomical and biological forces (a small pelvis and a big baby caused uterine contractions)—not a result of the curse of Eve.

Public opinion changed after Queen Victoria took chloroform (applied by Dr. John Snow, famous for his work related to cholera) for the birth of her eighth child, Leopold, in 1853. The queen wrote in her diary: "Dr Snow administered that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure." Her final child, Princess Beatrice, was also born with the aid of anesthesia. Clearly, she approved.

Edinburgh is still proud of Simpson and of its special place in the history of anesthesia. From August 16 to 18, 2017, the Edinburgh Anesthesia Research and Education Fund will host the 31st Annual Anesthesia Festival, featuring lectures on anesthesia and pain medicine as well as drinks receptions, a private viewing of a Caravaggio, recitation of the works of Robert Burns (Scotland's most revered poet), and bagpiping.

According to the event website, the past success of the festival has led to moving the whole thing to a larger space to accommodate demand. Apparently there are a great number of people with a passion for medical history—or at least, a great deal of gratitude for the development of anesthesia.


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