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Law Lets I.R.S. Seize Accounts on Suspicion, No Crime Required

34 min 7 sec ago

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Sections Home Search Skip to content Skip to navigation View mobile version U.S.|Law Lets I.R.S. Seize Accounts on Suspicion, No Crime Required http://nyti.ms/1rB2Y9n See next articles See previous articles U.S. |​​NYT Now Photo

Carole Hinders at her modest, cash-only Mexican restaurant in Arnolds Park, Iowa. Last year tax agents seized her funds. Credit Angela Jimenez for The New York Times Continue reading the main story Share This Page Continue reading the main story

ARNOLDS PARK, Iowa — For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her funds, almost $33,000.

The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

“How can this happen?” Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?”

The federal government does.

Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up and settle the case for a portion of their money.

Photo

Jeff Hirsch, an owner of Bi-County Distributors on Long Island. The government seized $447,000 from the business, a candy and cigarette distributor run by one family for 27 years. Credit Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

“They’re going after people who are really not criminals,” said David Smith, a former federal prosecutor who is now a forfeiture expert and lawyer in Virginia. “They’re middle-class citizens who have never had any trouble with the law.”

On Thursday, in response to questions from The New York Times, the I.R.S. announced that it would curtail the practice, focusing instead on cases where the money is believed to have been acquired illegally or seizure is deemed justified by “exceptional circumstances.”

Richard Weber, the chief of Criminal Investigation at the I.R.S., said in a written statement, “This policy update will ensure that C.I. continues to focus our limited investigative resources on identifying and investigating violations within our jurisdiction that closely align with C.I.’s mission and key priorities.” He added that making deposits under $10,000 to evade reporting requirements, called structuring, is still a crime whether the money is from legal or illegal sources. The new policy will not affect seizures that have already occurred.

The I.R.S. is one of several federal agencies that pursue such cases and then refer them to the Justice Department. The Justice Department does not track the total number of cases pursued, the amount of money seized or how many of the cases were related to other crimes, said Peter Carr, a spokesman.

But the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public interest law firm that is seeking to reform civil forfeiture practices, analyzed structuring data from the I.R.S., which made 639 seizures in 2012, up from 114 in 2005. Only one in five were prosecuted as a criminal case.

The practice has swept up dairy farmers in Maryland, an Army sergeant in Virginia saving for his children’s college education and Ms. Hinders, 67, who has borrowed money, strained her credit cards and taken out a second mortgage to keep her restaurant going.

Her money was seized under an increasingly controversial area of law known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agents to take property they suspect of being tied to crime even if no criminal charges are filed. Law enforcement agencies get to keep a share of whatever is forfeited.

Owners who are caught up in structuring cases often cannot afford to fight. The median amount seized by the I.R.S. was $34,000, according to the Institute for Justice analysis, while legal costs can easily mount to $20,000 or more.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act, banks and other financial institutions must report cash deposits greater than $10,000. But since many criminals are aware of that requirement, banks also are supposed to report any suspicious transactions, including deposit patterns below $10,000. Last year, banks filed more than 700,000 suspicious activity reports, which are reviewed by over 100 multiagency task forces.

There is nothing illegal about depositing less than $10,000 unless it is done specifically to evade the reporting requirement. But often a mere bank statement is enough for investigators to obtain a seizure warrant. In one Long Island case, the police submitted almost a year’s worth of daily deposits by a business, ranging from $5,550 to $9,910. The officer wrote in his warrant affidavit that based on his training and experience, the pattern “is consistent with structuring.” The government seized $447,000 from the business, a cash-intensive candy and cigarette distributor that has been run by one family for 27 years.

There are often legitimate business reasons for keeping deposits below $10,000, said Larry Salzman, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice who is representing Ms. Hinders and the Long Island family pro bono. For example, he said, some grocery store owners in Fraser, Mich., had an insurance policy that covered only up to $10,000 cash. When they neared the limit, they would make a deposit.

Ms. Hinders said that she did not know about the reporting requirement and that for decades, she thought she had been doing everyone a favor.

“My mom had told me if you keep your deposits under $10,000, the bank avoids paperwork,” she said. “I didn’t actually think it had anything to do with the I.R.S.” Lawyers say it is not unusual for depositors to be advised by financial professionals, or even bank tellers, to keep their deposits below the reporting threshold. In the Long Island case, the company, Bi-County Distributors, had three bank accounts closed because of the paperwork burden of its frequent cash deposits, said Jeff Hirsch, the eldest of three brothers who own the company. Their accountant then recommended staying below the limit, so the company began using the excess cash to pay vendors, and carried on for more than a decade.

More than two years ago, the government seized $447,000, and the brothers have been unable to retrieve it. Mr. Salzman, who has taken over legal representation of the brothers, has argued that prosecutors violated a strict timeline laid out in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, passed in 2000 to curb abuses. The office of the federal attorney for the Eastern District of New York said the law’s timeline did not apply in this case. The federal attorney’s office said that parties often voluntarily negotiated to avoid going to court, and that Joseph Potashnik, the Hirsches’ first lawyer, had been engaged in talks until just a few months ago. But Mr. Potashnik said he had spent that time trying, to no avail, to show that the brothers were innocent. They even paid a forensic accounting firm $25,000 to check the books.

“I don’t think they’re really interested in anything,” Mr. Potashnik said of the prosecutors. “They just want the money.”

Bi-County has survived only because longtime vendors have extended credit — one is owed almost $300,000, Mr. Hirsch said. Twice, the government has made settlement offers that would require the brothers to give up an “excessive” portion of the money, according to a new court filing.

“We’re just hanging on as a family here,” Mr. Hirsch said. “We weren’t going to take a settlement, because I was not guilty.”

Army Sgt. Jeff Cortazzo of Arlington, Va., began saving for his daughters’ college costs during the financial crisis, when many banks were failing. He stored cash first in his basement and then in a safe deposit box. All of the money came from his paychecks, he said, but he worried that when he finally deposited it in a bank, he would be forced to pay taxes on the money a second time. So he asked the bank teller what to do.

“She said: ‘Oh, that’s easy. You just have to deposit less than $10,000.’”

The government seized $66,000; settling cost Sergeant Cortazzo $21,000. As a result, the eldest of his three daughters had to delay college by a year.

“Why didn’t the teller tell me that was illegal?” he said. “I would have just plopped the whole thing in the account and been done with it.”

A version of this article appears in print on October 26, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Law Lets I.R.S. Seize Accounts On Suspicion, No Crime Required.

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We Just Thought, 'This Is How You Start a Company in America'

34 min 7 sec ago
Guest post written by Taro Fukuyama

CEO and Cofounder, AnyPerk

Kind of like every baseball player will try to be Major League, I thought that Silicon Valley is where you should start if you want to go big as an entrepreneur.

In Japan, of course, there are accelerators and a proud tradition in technology. I had followed the tech industry even as a student, reading the blogs and keeping up with all the developments. A few of us visited Silicon Valley while we were in college and I got really inspired. In fact, that’s when I met Sunny (Tsang, web designer, who became AnyPerk’s co-founder). We both wanted to start a company; and as we began trading concepts on Skype – I was back in Asia by then – it just seemed natural to come to Silicon Valley.

We thought we had a cool idea for a dating site. It was early summer, 2011. Sunny was in the Valley already, and I flew in from Asia, leaving my friends and family behind. We had no money, but we needed to drive to meet investors — so we borrowed a car from a friend.

That car became our first office and first hotel.

We were being so careful with funds that initially we tried to just sleep in the car.  We didn’t want to sleep on the street, though – or at least, not while the car was on the street. We saw a sign at a Taco Bell in Redwood City that said, “Open 24 Hours” — we thought maybe we could park in the lot at night and sleep there. After three days, an employee came out and asked us to leave. We weren’t surprised, but we needed a place to stay. It turned out that the cheapest place to stay in San Francisco was Mission 16, which was in kind of a sketch area, but it had a ten-dollar a night room for three people – Sunny, a student engineer, and me. Our room had only one bed, and you couldn’t really ask anyone to sleep on that floor. That was the worst day: three people on this bed, and we’re holding our legs, trying to not take up too much room and still sleep a little so we could go forward in Silicon Valley and …do what we’d come to do.

The next two months we worked really hard on our company. We pitched it to probably hundreds of investors, and each day we’d come back to our little hotel room. It was difficult I guess, but at the moment we thought — ‘The next day we will meet another investor, maybe he or she is going to be the first person who will give us money.’ So we were always very optimistic, telling ourselves, ‘the next day is going to be the game changer; okay, the *next* day is going to be the game changer.’  Somehow we believed it could happen, every day.

It wasn’t so bad. I mean, where we were, there were fights, arrests, but there were also people just trying to make it. You’d look around and know it could be worse.  Somehow, we were enjoying it because we just thought, ‘This is how you start a company in America.‘

After two months, we’d met a ton of investors, but none who’d actually given us money. We decided to go back to Tokyo to try and raise money there.

There was one last chance: the TechCrunch Disrupt conference was coming to San Francisco a few days before we were supposed to leave. We absolutely could not afford a ticket, yet some key people would be there. We tried everyone we knew to get a pass, to get in somehow, but got nowhere.

I heard that some executives from Japanese companies were attending Disrupt. I went to TechCrunch and offered to serve as a translator … in exchange for a ticket. TechCrunch said yes, I got in…

…And that changed everything.

Paul Graham [venture capitalist and founder of the accelerator YCombinator] was speaking at the conference. He was walking up the aisles (where the startups were exhibiting) beforehand. I thought, “Well, this is the last opportunity for us to raise money.”  We just went to him with our iPad and pretty much said, “Hey, we’re from Tokyo. We have this startup, could you invest in us?” He of course asked to see the product. We showed him our demo, and he said, “That’s interesting, but why don’t you go back to Japan, do something there and come back to the US later?”

The thing is, I‘d read his blog and HackerNews for years. I told him, “Your posts say that if you want to do big things you have to come to the Valley. That’s why we came here.”  Like, you have to take some responsibility for your words. He said, “Apply to YC” (YCombinator) — and then he introduced us to some of his partners.

We applied, and I don’t know if he remembered us, but we were accepted.

We started in January 2012, and may still be the only Asian YC founders ever.

Three days into joining YC, we decided to pivot. We’d been working on the dating site for six months at that point, and we knew it wasn’t working.  It’s hard for founders to admit their startup isn’t working: you’ve been telling everyone, “This is going to be the next Facebook,” or something like that. In that way, it was really hard.

But in YC, they tell you that in three months you’ll present your startup to more than 500 investors at their Demo Day. That day can change your life — it should change your life. You have to be honest about what is and isn’t working, so that you build something powerful, something that grabs attention when you walk up there. If what you’re working on isn’t turning out as strong as you planned, you have to consider changing ideas. So in that sense our pivot was no more difficult than anything else we’d faced. I knew of really successful perks companies in Asia. Also, I’d read a study that said happy employees are twice as productive as unhappy employees. That was the beginning of AnyPerk: we created a platform that makes it easy for companies of any size to delight their employees with perks they really like and actually use.

Maybe pivoting after you get into YCombinator sounds crazy. But we were also maybe different because we knew that worst case, we could go back to the hotel or even to the Taco Bell parking lot – which makes our burn rate almost nothing. It’s almost no risk, when you think about it. That realization helped us: we decided to create the company we wanted to create. It gave us a passion to do whatever we wanted to do…and freedom, really. We had nothing to lose.

* * *

In June, AnyPerk closed a $4.5 million round in seed funding led by such investors as Stephen Ross, Tony Hsieh and Zach Ware.

Don't run 'strings' on untrusted files

34 min 8 sec ago
Many shell users, and certainly most of the people working in computer forensics or other fields of information security, have a habit of running /usr/bin/strings on binary files originating from the Internet. Their understanding is that the tool simply scans the file for runs of printable characters and dumps them to stdout - something that is very unlikely to put you at any risk. It is much less known that the Linux version of strings is an integral part of GNU binutils, a suite of tools that specializes in the manipulation of several dozen executable formats using a bundled library called libbfd. Other well-known utilities in that suite include objdump and readelf. Perhaps simply by the virtue of being a part of that bundle, the strings utility tries to leverage the common libbfd infrastructure to detect supported executable formats and "optimize" the process by extracting text only from specific sections of the file. Unfortunately, the underlying library can be hardly described as safe: a quick pass with afl (and probably with any other competent fuzzer) quickly reveals a range of troubling and likely security-relevant out-of-bounds crashes due to very limited range checking, say: $ wget http://lcamtuf.coredump.cx/strings-bfd-badptr ... $ strings strings-bfd-badptr Segmentation fault ... strings[25840]: segfault at 4141416d ip 0807d97c sp bfda6440 error 4 in strings[8048000+9c000] ... if (idx->shdr != NULL && (s = idx->shdr->bfd_section) != NULL && elf_next_in_group (s) != NULL) { elf_next_in_group (hdr->bfd_section) = s; break; } ... (gdb) printf "%x\n", idx->shdr 41414141 Interestingly, the problems with the utility aren't exactly new; Tavis spotted the first signs of trouble some nine years ago. In any case: the bottom line is that if you are used to running strings on random files, or depend on any libbfd-based tools for forensic purposes, you should probably change your habits. For strings specifically, invoking it with the -a parameter seems to inhibit the use of libbfd. Distro vendors may want to consider making the -a mode default, too.

Roman Gladiators ate a mostly vegetarian diet and drank a tonic of ashes

34 min 8 sec ago

Roman gladiators ate a mostly vegetarian diet and drank ashes after training as a tonic. These are the findings of anthropological investigations carried out on bones of warriors found during excavations in the ancient city of Ephesos.

Historic sources report that gladiators had their own diet. This comprised beans and grains. Contemporary reports referred to them as "hordearii" ("barley eaters").

In a study by the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna in cooperation with the Department of Anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern, bones were examined from a gladiator cemetery uncovered in 1993 which dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century BC in the then Roman city of Ephesos (now in modern-day Turkey). At the time, Ephesos was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and had over 200,000 inhabitants.

Using spectroscopy, stable isotope ratios (carbon, nitrogen and sulphur) were investigated in the collagen of the bones, along with the ratio of strontium to calcium in the bone mineral.

The result shows that gladiators mostly ate a vegetarian diet. There is virtually no difference in terms of nutrition from the local "normal population." Meals consisted primarily of grain and meat-free meals. The word "barley eater" relates in this case to the fact that gladiators were probably given grain of an inferior quality.

Build-up drink following physical exertion

The difference between gladiators and the normal population is highly significant in terms of the amount of strontium measured in their bones. This leads to the conclusion that the gladiators had a higher intake of minerals from a strontium-rich source of calcium. The ash drink quoted in literature probably really did exist. "Plant ashes were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion and to promote better bone healing," explains study leader Fabian Kanz from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna. "Things were similar then to what we do today -- we take magnesium and calcium (in the form of effervescent tablets, for example) following physical exertion." Calcium is essential for bone building and usually occurs primarily in milk products.

A further research project is looking at the migration of gladiators, who often came from different parts of the Roman Empire to Ephesos. The researchers are hoping that comparison of the bone data from gladiators with that of the local fauna will yield a number of differences.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Medical University of Vienna. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Recreating the spectrogram face

34 min 8 sec ago

I recently stumbled upon the face hidden in the spectrogram of the Aphex Twin track called " Spectrogram

So what exactly is a spectrogram?

A spectrogram is a visual representation of the frequencies which make up a sound. Say you whistle a pure "middle C", then a spectrogram would light up right at 261.6 Hz, which is the corresponding frequency for that tone. Likewise, the "A" note makes the spectrogram turn bright white at 440 Hz.

If you've ever heard of the fourier transform; a spectrogram is simply the frequency spectrum of the sound at each small moment in time, with the amplitude at each frequency visualized as a grayscale value.

Click the button to see a live spectrogram of what your computer is hearing right now. Try whistling.

Activate spectrogram

Constructing the face

With this in mind, how would we go about converting an image into a sound, which can then be interpreted by a spectrogram?

The solution is simple. Let each row of the image represent a sinusoid (pure tone) at some frequency. Say the bottom of the image represents the frequency 5 kHz and the top 15 kHz. The grayscale intensity of each pixel determines the amplitude (volume) of each sinusoid. So a black pixel on the bottom row means "turn off the 5000 Hz tone", whereas a white pixel means "blast a 5000 Hz tone at max volume".

Now just scan the image, column by column. Starting with the first column, figuring out the intensity of the sinuoid for 5000 Hz, then 5001 Hz, then 5002 Hz etc, finally outputting them all as a sound (or rather, their sum), and then move over to the second column.

This will produce the, awful, but pretty darn radical, sound below.

Audiofy yourself Audiofy Vader

Note that you'll need to turn on your speakers and run Chrome for this. If you're seeing a lot of distortion you may need to lower the volume.

Video

Let's have a bit of fun. Suppose we just continuously audiofy the video. How would that look/sound? Try interacting with the sound by moving around.

Audiofy the video

Take it to the limit

Something interesting starts to happen if we increase the refresh rate significantly.

Start instrument

It starts acting like an instrument! Notice that if you place your finger over the webcam, the sound is muted. You can produce low-pass or high-pass filters by covering only part of the webcam.

Written by Daniel Rapp. Check out the code for this on Github.

Will It Optimize? (2010)

34 min 8 sec ago
recent posts | all posts | about fish Will It Optimize?

July 23rd, 2010

See how well you know (or can anticipate) gcc's optimizer. For each question, the left box contains some code, while the right box contains code that purports to do the same thing, but that illustrates a particular optimization. Will gcc apply that optimization? Put another way, will the code on the left be as fast as the code on the right, when compiled with an optimizing gcc?

I used a pretty ancient gcc 4.2.1 for these tests. If newer versions have different behavior, please leave a comment.

Beware: not all proposed optimizations are actually valid!

1. Recursion elimination

Can GCC replace recursive functions with a loop?

int factorial(int x) { if (x > 1) return x * factorial(x-1); else return 1; } int factorial(int x) { int result = 1; while (x > 1) result *= x--; return result; } I think GCC does this I think GCC cannot do this I say this optimization is incorrect! 2. Loop-invariant strlen()

Will GCC hoist out strlen()?

unsigned sum(const unsigned char *s) { unsigned result = 0; for (size_t i=0; i < strlen(s); i++) { result += s[i]; } return result; } unsigned sum(const unsigned char *s) { unsigned result = 0; size_t length = strlen(s); for (size_t i=0; i < length; i++) { result += s[i]; } return result; } I think GCC does this I think GCC cannot do this I say this optimization is incorrect! 3. Multiplication by 2 to addition - integer

Will GCC transform an integer multiplication by 2 to addition?

int double_it(int x) { return x * 2; } int double_it(int x) { return x + x; } I think GCC does this I think GCC cannot do this I say this optimization is incorrect! 4. Multiplication by 2 to addition - floating point

Will GCC transform a floating point multiplication by 2 to addition?

float double_it(float x) { return x * 2.0f; } float double_it(float x) { return x + x; } I think GCC does this I think GCC cannot do this I say this optimization is incorrect! 5. Division by 2 to right shift

Will GCC transform an integer division by 2 to a right shift?

int halve_it(int x) { return x / 2; } int halve_it(int x) { return x >> 1; } I think GCC does this I think GCC cannot do this I say this optimization is incorrect! 6. If-else chains to switch statements

Will GCC apply the same optimizations to if-else chains as it does to switch statements?

void function(int x) { if (x == 0) f0(); else if (x == 1) f1(); else if (x == 2) f2(); else if (x == 3) f3(); else if (x == 4) f4(); else if (x == 5) f5(); } void function(int x) { switch (x) { case 0: f0(); break; case 1: f1(); break; case 2: f2(); break; case 3: f3(); break; case 4: f4(); break; case 5: f5(); break; } } I think GCC does this I think GCC cannot do this I say this optimization is incorrect! Summing up

It is tempting to think of compiler optimizations as reducing the constant in your program's big-O complexity, and nothing else. They aren't supposed to be able to make your program asymptotically faster, or affect its output.

However, as we saw, they really can reduce the asymptotic complexity in space (question 1) and time (question 2). They can also affect calculated results (discussion of question 4) and maybe even whether your program goes into an infinite loop (see here).

On the flip side, several "obvious" optimizations are subtly incorrect and so will not be performed by the compiler, especially when they involve floating point. If your floating point code is demonstrably a bottleneck and you don't need exact precision or care about special FP values, you may be able to realize a speedup by doing some optimizations manually. However, untying the compiler's hands through options like -ffast-math is probably a better idea, and then only for the affected files, since these flags have a global impact.

And lastly, this isn't meant to be a prescriptive post, but we all know why micro-optimizing is usually a mistake: it wastes your time, it's easy to screw up (see question 5), and it typically produces no measurable speedup.

Code smart, and be safe out there!

Wikipedia needs an IDE, not a WYSIWYG editor

12 hours 34 min ago
Wikipedia needs an IDE, not a WYSIWYG editor

Wikipedia, if you haven’t heard of it already, is the world’s biggest software project. At almost a billion lines, it’s twice as large as heathcare.gov. It’s coded in a homegrown Turing-complete programming language, and the full thirteen years of history is kept in a homegrown version control system. The final built artifact — an online encyclopedia — gets more traffic than Twitter.

What text editors do contributors use to write this software? Just one: an HTML <textarea> element. It’s decorated with some buttons for common operations like inserting a link, but otherwise it’s a plain old textarea with the functionality of Notepad. The workflow for editing is: find the page, click either “edit” at the top of the page or next to a section heading, hunt in the textarea for the text you wanted to edit, edit the source, click “show preview”, scan the page to see if it looks like it’s changed in the way you expected, if it hasn’t then try again, then click “show changes”, scan the diff to see if that’s what you expected, if it isn’t then try again, then finally enter an edit summary message and click “save page”.

What’s so wrong with that? Well, users apparently hate it. It’s too difficult, too intimidating, too time-consuming. Users apparently dislike this workflow so much that they don’t bother contributing at all: significantly less people are editing Wikipedia than did a few years ago.

A failed solution: Visual Editor

Wikipedia, having identified its editing interface as a key reason for the decline in active users, has spent many years and many dollars producing its Visual Editor. It’s supposed to be a WYSIWYG editor: the editing interface looks almost exactly the same as the page, only with a blinking cursor.

Visual Editor was rolled out in 2013. Thing is, editors hated its bugginess so much that the roll-out was reverted shortly afterwards. Today, we again have the humble textarea, while the Visual Editor remains as an obscure opt-in checkbox in user preferences. I believe it will stay there.

Why did the Visual Editor fail? Because it tries to deny the basic fact that Wikipedia is a program, not a word document. Pages on Wikipedia are built with a wealth of abstractions: templates, transclusions, tables of contents, references, categories, semantic triples, and so on. One cannot simply place the cursor anywhere in an infobox and arbitrarily edit it. There is a basic tension between WYSIWYG, which the user wants, and the concept of abstraction, which the programmer wants and which Wikipedia is built upon. This tension is irresolvable: the terms “WYSIWYG” and “abstraction” are literally antonyms. Editing the artifact and editing the source are only isomorphic if the compilation step is trivial and involves no abstraction. Wikipedia’s compilation step is certainly not trivial: it’s Turing-complete. A WYSIWYG editor for Wikipedia has about as much hope as a WYSIWYG editor for a weather prediction program.

A better solution: an IDE

Rather than hiding the fact that Wikipedia is a program, the editing tools should embrace that fact. Most of us, when we write, edit, and navigate conventional programs, use an IDE to help us: the IDE understands the syntax and semantics of the programming language and helps us to understand it too. Instead of a WYSIWYG editor, Wikipedia needs an IDE.

What would an IDE for Wikipedia look like? Rather than having the user clicking “compile” every now and then to check their work, the IDE would update display the source and the HTML together, and update the HTML in realtime. Source on the left, HTML on the right.

The IDE would understand the relationship between the source and the HTML. Scrolling one panel also scrolls the other to the approximate equivalent location. Hovering the mouse over a word in the source highlights it in the HTML, and vice versa. In other words, the IDE understands a correspondence between characters in the source and characters in the HTML, and can convey that correspondence to the user.

The IDE would understand the Mediawiki syntax. A little bit of syntax highlighting goes a long way to helping the user understand the syntax. User error shows up immediately as a syntax error in the source and as an unexpected output in the HTML.

The IDE would integrate the diff viewer, for both the source and the HTML, in realtime. Add a new word in the source, and it gets highlighted in green in the source as you type. The equivalent change in the HTML also gets highlighted in green, as you type.

Rather than hunting for an “Edit” button to open the IDE and then having to re-find the text that you wanted to edit, you can right-click any character in the HTML and choose “jump to source”. The editor scrolls in from the left-hand side of the page, with the cursor at the equivalent character in the source, ready for you to edit.

These additions, rather than hiding Wikipedia’s semantics, instead make the semantics manifest. For beginners, these additions quickly teach you the Mediawiki language by trial and error. For seasoned users, these additions provide the usual benefits of an IDE.

Character correspondence

Most of what I suggested is pretty conventional: syntax highlighting (implemented everywhere), realtime compilation (any Markdown form on the web), realtime diff highlighting (many IDEs).

The one unconventional suggestion is the idea of a correspondence between the characters of the source text and the HTML text. To be more precise, there is a partial function that, for each character in the HTML, assigns it its originating character in the source:

'''Operation Northwoods''' was a ...
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<p><b>Operation Northwoods</b> was a ...

If we can establish this provenance at compile time, then we can use this to trivially implement three features: (1) scrolling the source pane with the HTML pane; (2) bidirectional text highlighting on mouseover; (3) “jump to source”.

Instead of the compilation step producing a plain output string, we would like it to produce a string where every character is annotated with its original source character. We can then split this up to produce the plain HTML and the character correspondence map.

Unfortunately, PHP, like most programming languages, doesn’t keep track of the provenance of values through execution. Values go into the black box, and other values come out, but if you want to understand the relationship between the input and output then you have to look in the black box.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! We can track provenance without changing the source code at all. We just need to change the representation of strings, so they continue to act as strings according to the language semantics, but additionally keep track of their provenance. This could be achieved by hacking the PHP compiler, or by creating a data structure which implements the ‘string’ interface but also tracks provenance.

There is some prior art for this. In the TeX world, a program called SyncTeX apparently does a similar job: you can jump-to-source from a location in your PDF to a location in your original .tex file. In Perl and elsewhere, taint checking tracks values at runtime and annotates them according to whether they originated from an untrusted source. Such values are called ‘tainted’. Operations on tainted; values yield new tainted values; i.e. taint is infectious. What I’m suggesting is pretty similar, with just a more fine-grained notion of provenance than tainted/not tainted.

Conclusion

Wikipedia has a declining population. Their own research identifies the editing process as a significant barrier to entry and as a reason for leaving. Their solution to this was a WYSIWYG editor, which failed for the basic reason that it denies the fact that Wikipedia is a program. I suggest a more conservative solution: as a program, Wikipedia needs an IDE that embraces and understands the Mediawiki language. That IDE should make rapid feedback its priority: realtime compilation, realtime diff viewing, and realtime correspondence between source and HTML.

Alan Eustace Jumps from Stratosphere, Breaking Felix Baumgartner’s World Record

12 hours 34 min ago

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Sections Home Search Skip to content Skip to navigation View mobile version Science|Alan Eustace Jumps From Stratosphere, Breaking Felix Baumgartner’s World Record http://nyti.ms/1tsMNPZ See next articles See previous articles Continue reading the main story Video

Play Video|1:11 Google Executive Makes World Record Jump

Google Executive Makes World Record Jump

Alan Eustace, a senior vice president at Google, broke the world record for high-altitude jumps.

Video by Atomic Entertainment on Publish Date October 24, 2014. Photo by Atomic Entertainment and Paragon Space Development Corporation. Continue reading the main story Share This Page Continue reading the main story

ROSWELL, N.M. — A well-known computer scientist parachuted from a balloon near the top of the stratosphere on Friday, falling faster than the speed of sound and breaking the world altitude record set just two years ago.

The jump was made by Alan Eustace, 57, a senior vice president at Google. At dawn he was lifted by a balloon filled with 35,000 cubic feet of helium, from an abandoned runway at the airport here.

For a little over two hours, the balloon ascended at speeds up to 1,600 feet per minute to an altitude of 135,908 feet, more than 25 miles. Mr. Eustace dangled underneath in a specially designed spacesuit with an elaborate life-support system. He returned to earth just 15 minutes after starting his fall. .

“It was amazing,” he said. “It was beautiful. You could see the darkness of space and you could see the layers of atmosphere, which I had never seen before.”

Mr. Eustace cut himself loose from the balloon with the aid of a small explosive device and plummeted toward the earth at a speeds that peaked at more than 800 miles per hour, setting off a small sonic boom heard by observers on the ground.

Photo

Alan Eustace on his ascent to near the top of the stratosphere on Friday. Credit J. Martin Harris Photography/PSDC

“It was a wild, wild ride,” he said. “I hugged on to the equipment module and tucked my legs and I held my heading.”

He did not feel or hear the supersonic boom as he passed the speed of sound, he said. He performed two slow back flips before a small parachute righted him.

His technical team had designed a carbon-fiber attachment that kept him from becoming entangled in the main parachute before it opened. About four-and-a-half minutes into his flight, he opened the main parachute and glided to a landing 70 miles from the launch site.

“To break an aviation record is incredibly significant,” said Mark Kelly, the former astronaut, who viewed Mr. Eustace’s ascent. “There is an incredible amount of risk. To do it safely is a testament to the people involved.”

The previous altitude record was set by Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner, who jumped from 128,100 feet on Oct. 14, 2012.

Mr. Eustace was carried aloft without the aid of the sophisticated capsule used by Mr. Baumgartner or millions of dollars in sponsorship money. Instead, Mr. Eustace planned his jump in the utmost secrecy, working for almost three years with a small group of technologists skilled in spacesuit design, life-support systems, and parachute and balloon technology.

He carried modest GoPro cameras aloft, connected to his ground-control center by an off-the-shelf radio.

Although Mr. Baumgartner was widely known for death-defying feats, Mr. Eustace describes himself as an engineer first with a deep commitment to teamwork. He pilots his own Cessna twin-engine jet and has a reputation in Silicon Valley for thrill-seeking.

“Alan is a risk-taker with a passion for details,” said Brian Reid, a computer network specialist who has worked with Mr. Eustace.

Photo

Alan Eustace, in suit, preparing for his ascent on Friday morning. Credit Volker D. Kern/PSDC

After he decided to pursue the project in 2011, Mr. Eustace was introduced to Taber MacCallum, one of the founding members of the Biosphere 2 project, an artificial closed ecosystem built to explore ideas such as space colonization. Mr. Eustace had decided to pursue a simpler approach than Mr. Baumgartner’s.

He asked Mr. MacCallum’s company, Paragon Space Development Corporation, to create a life-support system to make it possible for him to breath pure oxygen in a pressure suit during his ascent and fall.

Mr. Eustace said Google had been willing to help with the project but he declined company support, worried that his jump would become a marketing event.

James Hayhurst, director of competition at the United States Parachute Association, who verified the record, described the venture as “legitimate science.”

“I think they’re putting a little lookout tower at the edge of space that the common man can share,” he said.

Mr. Eustace said he gained a love of space and spaceflight from growing up in Orlando during the 1960s and 1970s. His family crowded into a station wagon to watch every launch from Cape Canaveral. A veteran aircraft pilot and parachutist, he worked as a computer hardware designer at Digital Equipment Corporation for 15 years before moving to Google in 2002.

Mr. Eustace said that his technical team designed and redesigned many of the components of his parachute and life-support system during the three-year development phase. Many of the redesigns were the result of technical surprises.

For example, he discovered that in order to control his suit, he was required to make movements that were exactly the opposite of the control motions made by a conventional parachutist. Left movements must be made for rightward motion, for instance, and upward movements for downward motion.

Despite the fact that the stratosphere becomes colder at higher elevations, the problem the suit designers faced was keeping him sufficiently cool at the top of the stratosphere, because there is no atmosphere to remove the heat. His suit did not have a cooling system, so it was necessary to make elaborate design modifications to keep dry air in his helmet so that his face plate did not fog.

In order to keep from overheating, Mr. Eustace kept his motions to a minimum during his ascent, including avoiding moving his arm to toggle a radio microphone. Instead, he responded to ground controllers watching him from a camera rigged above his suit by slightly moving one leg to acknowledge their communications.

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The Fourier Transform, explained in one sentence

12 hours 34 min ago

If, like me, you struggled to understand the Fourier Transformation when you first learned about it, this succinct one-sentence colour-coded explanation from Stuart Riffle probably comes several years too late:

Stuart provides a more detailed explanation here. This is the formula for the Discrete Formula Transform, which converts sampled signals (like a digital sound recording) into the frequency domain (what tones are represented in the sound, and at what energies?). It's the mathematical engine behind a lot of the technology you use today, including mp3 files, file compression, and even how your old AM radio stays in tune.

The daunting formula involves imaginary numbers and complex summations, but Stuart's idea is simple. Imagine an enormous speaker, mounted on a pole, playing a repeating sound. The speaker is so large, you can see the cone move back and forth with the sound. Mark a point on the cone, and now rotate the pole. Trace the point from an above-ground view, if the resulting squiggly curve is off-center, then there is frequency corresponding the pole's rotational frequency is represented in the sound. This animated illustration (click to see it in action) illustrates the process:

The upper signal is make up of three frequencies ("notes"), but only the bottom-right squiggle is generated by a rotational frequency matching one of the component frequencies of the signal.

By the way, no-one uses that formula to actually calculate the Discrete Fourier Transform — use the Fast Fourier Transform instead, as implemented by the fft function in R. As the name suggests, it's much faster.

AltDevBlog: Understanding the Fourier Transform

Porsche: The Hedge Fund That Also Made Cars

24 October 2014 - 7:00pm

Oct 24, 2014 · 783 views

“When you play the game of thrones you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

Cersei Lannister, The Game of Thrones

***

In 2008, Porsche was cruising. 

The luxury car manufacturer generated $13.5 BN in pre-tax profit, and sold a record 98,652 automobiles -- a staggering $136K profit per car sold. Even for a luxury brand, the numbers seemed nearly impossible.

Upon closer inspection, $11.5 billion dollars of that profit wasn’t from selling cars -- it was from speculating on financial derivatives: Porsche was furtively amassing a sizable position in call options to buy up Volkswagen shares. As a report from the BBC put it, Porche was “a hedge fund with a carmaker attached.” In 2008, the car business was good, but the financial engineering business was even better.

The company’s CEO at the time, Wendelin Wiedeking, was the highest paid executive in all of Germany. He’d taken the helm of the company in 1993 when the once-fabled car-maker was bleeding money and at the edge of irrelevancy. When he took the position, he negotiated a seemingly moot provision in his contract that would give him 1% of the company’s annual profits as bonus -- in the unlikely event the company ever turned a profit. The company was losing $150MM a year at the time; no one could’ve foreseen how lucrative that provision would turn out to be.

The company’s operational performance improved tremendously under Wiedeking’s decade-long management, and the company sold thousands of cars at very lucrative profit margins. And so, the CEO set his sights on an even bigger financial coupe: He’d acquire Volkswagen, the largest car manufacturer in Germany. At the time, Volkswagen produced 50 times more cars than Porsche. But, starting in 2005, the smaller competitor quietly bought up Volkswagen shares and options; by October 2008, they announced that they controlled 74% of VW.

At that moment, the hostile takeover of massive Volkswagen by little Porsche seemed inevitable. But just five months later, Porsche’s plan fell apart: just before completing the acquisition, the global financial crisis worsened and the company ran out of money. Porsche had gone severely into debt to buy out VW; all of a sudden, banks were very anxious to get their $13 billion in loans repaid.

Porsche was left scrambling for a white knight to save it from its financial woes. In a stunning turn of events, that white knight ended up being Volkswagen, the very company Porsche had attempted to acquire.

Wendelin Wiedeking: Porsche’s Golden Boy

Porsche, like most German automobile makers, has seen its fortunes rise and fall dramatically.

Founded in 1931 by Ferdinand Porsche, the company was initially an automotive design consultancy that helped automakers design cars. Most notably, the company designed The Beetle, dubbed by Adolf Hitler as “the people’s car,” on behalf of their biggest customer -- Volkswagen. 

Ferdinand Porsche (tallest person in picture) with a Porsche-designed Volkswagen in 1939.

It wasn’t until 1948, when Ferdinand’s son Ferry Porsche couldn’t find a sports car to his liking, that Porsche began making its own cars. The company’s first model, the Porsche 356, was a success: it went on to sell 76,000 units, and put Porsche on the automotive map. In 1963, the company launched its signature model, the Porsche 911; today, the car is still the linchpin of its lineup. 

Ever since Porsche produced its original model, the company’s cars’ reputation vacillated between “luxury precision engineering” and “over-priced junk that breaks down frequently.” In 1993, it was firmly in the later category, and dark times had descended on the company.

After selling 50,000 vehicles per year in the 1980s, the company’s sales plummeted to 14,000 cars in 1993. In the US, Porsche’s largest market, the company was obliterated. The rising value of the Deutschmark, the increasing popularity of Japanese cars, and a US recession tanked sales to 3,000 cars sold per year, down from 30,000 just a few years earlier. The company was in financial ruin.

This was when 39-year-old Wendelin Wiedeking took over as Porsche's CEO. A former company engineering manager, Wiedeking sought to revitalize the German automaker by adopting new-fangled Japanese techniques. He operated on a fresh set of principles: manufacture cars with fewer defects, handle less inventory, and hire fewer production workers. 

Wendelin Wiedeking via Porsche.com

To implement these radical changes at Porsche plants, he enlisted the help of Shin-Gijutsu, a Japanese consultancy made up of ex-Toyota manufacturing experts. Yoshiki Iwata, the lead consultant, recalls Porcshe’s less-than-ideal conditions:

“It was appalling. ‘Where is the car factory,’ I asked myself. ‘It looks like a mover's warehouse!’ And there were no workers, just apes clambering up and down shelves.”

An extensive revamping of production methods ensued. At the consultant’s behest, Wiedeking symbolically sawed the factory's storage shelves in half; now there was 50% less shelfspace to keep all this wasteful inventory around. 

Though some employees resented being ordered around by consultants who didn’t speak a lick of German, the Porsche factories improved dramatically under Wiedeking: assembly time per vehicle went from 120 hours to 72 hours, defects per vehicle shrunk 50%, the labor required to make the cars fell by 19%, and 30% less factory space was used.

Perhaps most strikingly, Porsche shed its artisanal view of craftsmanship for a more scientific one -- something Daniel Jones, a professor at Cardiff Business School, enumerated on in a 1996 New York Times article:

"The traditional craftsmanship for which Germany became famous was filing and fitting parts so that they fit perfectly. But that was wasted time. The parts should have been made right the first time. 

So the new craftsmanship is the craftsmanship of  thinking up clever ways of making things simpler and easier to assemble. It is the craft of creating an uninterrupted flow of manufacturing." 

When the US and global economy rebounded in 1996, Porsche was a leaner, more efficient company poised to take advantage of increased demand. Sales spiked, especially in the United States: by the end of 1996, the company had broken even, and by 1998, it was turning a $166 million profit.

Wiedeking, who had negotiated in his contract that he would receive 1% of the pre-tax profits as a bonus, received a sizable payday. But his pot of gold was about to get much larger. During the Wiedeking era, the company introduced a slightly more affordable sportscar (the Boxster), and an SUV (the Cayenne), the latter during a time when Americans were gaga for SUVs. These introductions effectively tripled the revenue of the company.

Note: Wiedeking took over in 1993. Data via Porsche.com.

By 2005, the company’s revenue had jumped to $10.3 billion per year, compared to $1.7 billion in 1993. The company made a whopping $1.9 billion in profit, entitling Wiedeking to a bonus of around $20 million. In 2006, every employee received a $4,655 bonus.

Around this time, Wiedeking started grappling with what to do next. According to his philosophy, the company needed to be actively working on something new, otherwise it would atrophy resting on it’s laurels. He recalls his process:

“...I just started to talk about visions for 2005 and 2010. Where will the company be in 2005 and 2010? In 2002, we introduce the SUV. What will we do then? This is, again, my job, because a company must grow. If a company is not able to grow, it is not able to survive. If you stagnate, I think, that's the beginning of the end."

At the onset of the 21st century, Porsche had emerged from a crisis stronger than ever. Operations were modernized, new products were selling strongly, and profits were at an all-time high. As recalled by then-CFO Holger Härter, Porsche had launched these products and invested in operations without using any debt:

“We learnt the hard way that banks are there for you when you don’t need them, and when you do need them, they’re no where to be seen.”

And yet, this lesson would be forgotten by the very same CFO and Wiedeking a few years later. The company would borrow billions of dollars as it sought out it’s next conquest: the acquisition of Volkswagen. And, just as CFO Härter’s observation suggests, when Porsche needed the banks the most, they would be nowhere to be found.

The Prize of Volkswagen

In 2005, Volkswagen had the dual privilege of having a depressed stock price and being an important partner for Porsche. Though the company had $123 billion dollars in annual sales, its annual profits were only around $2.2BN and it’s market capitalization only around $17BN.  It was widely considered by the financial community to be a pretty crappy company, which is why it was trading at such a low multiple of revenue.

Since Volkswagen was trading relatively cheaply for a company with $120 billion in sales, there were rumors that at US corporate raider like Kirk Kerkorian would make a play at acquiring them -- or worse yet, that an American or Japanese car company could swallow them. There were, after all, a lot of companies out there that could shell out $17BN.

Though Porsche always had a close relationship with Volkswagen, over the years Porsche had become increasingly reliant on its larger counterpart. Most notably, the Porsche Cayenne SUV, responsible for almost a 1/3 of the company’s sales by 2005, was built using the VW SUV chassis -- a move that saved Porsche hundreds of millions of dollars. Porsche’s 4-door soon to be released sedan, the Panamera, would also be built on a VW chassis. These new Porsches were essentially fancy Volkswagens with a Porsche engine dropped in.

With this context in mind, on September 25, 2005, Porsche announced that it was paying $4.2 billion to acquire a 20% stake in Volkswagen. Though this was a sizable part of Porsche’s $6.0 billion cash reserve, the transaction would make it very difficult for a corporate raider or competing car company to swoop up Volkswagen, and thusly compromise Porsche’s ability to build cars on Volkswagen’s platforms.  In his initial announcement, Porsche CEO Wiedeking made it clear that this minority position was taken just to stave off potential hostile takeovers. Porsche, he adamantly stated, would not be trying to take over the company:

"Our planned investment is the strategic answer to this risk.  We wish in this way to ensure the independence of the Volkswagen Group."

The financial markets were baffled by Porsche’s acquisition of Volkswagen shares. Why was a sports car company pouring so much money into a struggling mass-market car company? It seemed to be the equivalent of a company like Hermes announcing they were taking a large stake in Old Navy.

“‘Porsche told us that they were going to invest back into the company rather than pay higher dividends,” wrote an German financial analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. “Now they're investing into one of the least profitable car companies in Europe.”

The Economist weighed in on CEO Wiedeking’s move -- somewhat prophetically, it turns out:

“Mr Wiedeking is one of those rare beasts in the corporate jungle who have not yet had their come-uppance. He is widely revered for his forthrightness and his leadership of Porsche, from the dark days of near-bankruptcy in 1993 when he took over, to years of growth and glowing results today. So it would be a pity if this David overreached himself and fell victim instead to another phenomenon, known as the Peter principle: promotion beyond one's level of competence.”

Moreover In 2005, it was technically impossible for Volkswagen to get acquired by anyone because of something called the “Volkswagen Rule.” The essence of this rule was that the local German government of Lower Saxony owned 20% of VW and could prevent anyone from acquiring company without their permission, or anyone from having more votes than them over shareholder matters. 

However, this law was incompatible with European Union laws that barred capital restrictions like this, and there was reason to believe that it would be soon repealed. When this happened, VW would be fair game for an acquisition. With their 20% share in the company, Porsche made it less likely that anyone else would be able to buy VW in the event of a repeal.

One year later, in August 2006, Porsche modestly increased its stake in VW from 20% to 25%. Moreover, the company started actively lobbying for Germany to repeal the Volkswagen Rule so that Porsche could “take full advantage of [its] rights as a shareholder.”  Publically, Porsche still publically claimed to not be interested in acquiring VW.

By November of 2006, Porsche had increased its holdings in VW to 29.9%. A Businessweek headline trumpeted “Porsche's 'King Looks to Expand Empire” (or course, referring to Wiedeking). As recounted by the New York Times, Wiedeking began discussing VW as if he were already its boss:

“‘We could be passive board members or active board members,’ he said at a meeting that was supposed to be about the performance of his company. ‘Our intention is to be very, very active members of the supervisory board.’

‘We believe that if anybody can stand up to Toyota, it is Volkswagen...There will be some changes -- there have to be some changes, no doubt.’

Buying a stake protected Porsche's access to VW factories. Besides, Wiedeking grins, ‘the share price was cheap.’”

By now, a more honest reason for Porsche acquiring Volkswagen shares became apparent:  they thought the company was cheap, and they were getting a good deal. Moreover, in interviews around this time, Wiedeking refers to Volkswagen as a “goldmine” with lots of opportunity to make the kinds of operational improvements he enacted to turn Porsche around years earlier.

“Turning around VW” was to be the next grand project for Wiedeking and Porsche.

As Porsche continued to state publicly -- and vociferously -- that they had no intentions to take over the larger Volkswagen, their actions indicated otherwise. In March 2007, the company announced it would increase its share in Volkswagen to 31%. By now, VW shares were trading at twice the price from when Porsche started acquiring them two years prior. It was getting expensive to buy VW.

A year later, in March 2008, the Porsche supervisory board gave the company authorization to increase the company’s share in Volkswagen to 50%. By this point, VW shares had tripled in price from three years before, when Porsche started buying them.

Volkswagen Becomes the Most Valuable Company in the World

As Porsche slowly bought up VW shares, two reactions took place in the financial markets. First, the price of Volkswagen shares continued to trend upwards -- despite the company’s poor performance. This was based on the belief that Porsche would continue to buy up shares and drive demand for the stock upward.

Second, there were those who felt that Volkswagen’s share price was a case of “the emperor has no clothes” and that the VW stock price would soon fall. The price was artificially high based solely on the expectation that Porsche would keep buying shares in VW -- not because of anything fundamental about VW. Given that the Volkswagen Rule was still in effect (and that Porsche publicly stated they weren’t interested in merging with VW), many analysts were betting that Porsche would soon stop acquiring VW shares, and that their value would plummet.

In the truest sense of the term, the VW shares that Porsche acquired were only valuable “on paper.” That is, if Porsche tried selling any of the shares, the value of their VW holding would likely drop (the market expectation that Porsche would continuing buying VW would break). At the same time, buying more shares in VW would continue to be expensive because that would mean Porsche continued to prop up the price.

Moreover, by 2008, the full effects of the Financial Crisis had hit public markets and it was seeming less than likely that Porsche could borrow enough money to buy up shares of VW. That Fall, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Washington Mutual collapsed. Almost every American bank received a cash infusion from the US Government to avoid insolvency. After a years of lax lending practices, banks stopped lending money.

As a result, Volkswagen became one of the most shorted stocks on the market. By October 2008, almost 12.8% of the shares were being shorted with the hope that the price would fall and they make a profit. 

On October 20, the financial publication Barrons published a story about VW titled “The World’s Most Overvalued Stock” and surmised that VW shares would “likely drop like a Beetle pushed from a cliff” once Porsche stopped purchasing the company’s shares. 

The timing of this article couldn’t have been worse. 

On October 27 2008, Porsche dropped a bomb on the financial community: they had again raised their stake in VW -- now to 42.6%. Moreover, they had secretly purchased “cash-settled” options to purchase another 31.5% of outstanding VW shares. Combined, Porsche had now corned 74.1% of all Volkswagen shares! Moreover, after years of denying their intent to acquire VW, they now finally stated they intended to pursue a “domination agreement” -- or 75% of the shares. In doing so, the $12 billion sitting on Volkswagen’s balance sheet could be used by Porsche to finance this acquisition.

For the short sellers, this was a disaster. Not only was Porsche continuing to buy up VW, (which drove up its price), but since Porsche and the Lower Saxony government controlled 94.1% of the VW shares together, there were practically zero available shares on the market for the short sellers to cover their position.

The VW share price shot up from $200 per share to $500 per share in one day. The following day, the shares skyrocketed to almost $1,000 per share. For a brief moment on that day, VW was technically the most valuable company in the world.

VW stock price in for the first 10 months of 2008.

Short sellers lost tens of billions of dollars over those two days. On the third day, Porsche agreed to make 5% of its shares available to the market to provide liquidity to buyers (and presumably turn a massive profit on those shares). Only then did VW shares return to more earthly levels. 

This maneuver of secretly buying shares would’ve been (and still is) illegal in the United States. In Germany though, where Porsche is based, it was likely legal. Normally, they would have had to disclose their growing position, but they used “cash settled” options, which technically wasn’t considered “buying shares” in the company. That meant that the underlying asset of the derivative was cash equal to the the price of a Volkswagen share -- not an actual share. Moreover, they bought these options in small amounts spread out among six different banks. It was so convoluted, that no individual knew the extent of Porsche’s move.

Porsche was at the verge of completing one of the most audacious acquisitions ever. It had gained control over 74.1% percent of the shares of one of the largest companies in the world. Moreover, when it reached 75%, it would attempt to gain access to VW’s cash reserves. And if the “Volkswagen Rule” were repealed (as was widely expected), Porsche would easily be able to own VW outright.

But none of this would happen. Instead, over the next few months, Porsche’s plans fell to pieces.

Meanwhile at Volkswagen

“According  to rumour, Ferdinand Piëch likes to run chickens off the road in his Volkswagen Touareg. Whether that is true or not, he certainly tends to ride roughshod over humans, metaphorically at least.”

-- The Economist on Ferdinand Piëch, Chairman of Volkswagen

***

If there is a Vladimir Putin-type character in the automobile industry, Volkswagen Chairman 

Ferdinand Piëch is a good candidate. Known for ruthlessly firing VW senior executives and CEOs, and buying up luxury sports car companies on a whim, Piëch was running Volkswagen as his own personal kingdom. After decades at the company, he had transformed second-tier maker of unreliable German cars into a stable of powerhouse automotive franchises with over a hundred billion dollars of sales per year. Piech’s autocratic rule had made Volkswagen a force to be reckoned with.

But to everyone’s surprise, Ferdinand Piëch appeared to give up Volkswagen without much of a fight. At the beginning of 2006, Piech announced he would resign from the board of Volkswagen when his term ended in 2007 in order to make way for Porsche CEO Wiedeking and CFO Härter.  

While uncharacteristic, it appeared to all that perhaps he had recognized his time running Volkswagen was coming to an end. 

But Piëch would not end up stepping down. Instead, he would remain behind-the-scenes and manipulate the process so Volkswagen would end up buying out Porsche at the 11th hour -- after nearly every analyst had assumed that Porsche was acquiring VW. In the end, Piëch would get the job that he’d always vied for, but that had eluded him for years: He’d get to run Porsche.

Despite his last name, Ferdinand Piëch is actually the grandson of Porsche's founder, Ferdinand Porsche. By virtue of this lineage, he was the second largest shareholder in Porsche.   

During this episode, Piëch sat on the boards of both Porsche and Volkswagen. While running Volkswagen, his Porsche holdings were becoming very valuable; as Porsche bought up shares in VW, he made billions of dollars.

To say this was a conflict of interest would be an understatement.

***

Ferdinand Porsche, the founder of the eponymously named company, had two children: a boy and a girl. The girl married a boy with the last name Piëch, hence half the heirs to to the company have the name Piëch, and the other half more fortuitously retain the Porsche surname.

Ferdinand Piëch, the grandson of the founder, was born with a 10% stake in Porsche -- the same as the rest of the grandchildren. He entered the family business in 1963, and, by 1971, became Director of Engineering. As such, he was the leading contender to succeed his uncle as CEO of Porsche. 

Ferdinand Piëch (on left) with this uncle Ferry, the CEO of Porsche. Image via Stuttcars.com.

However, family squabbles would prevent this from happening.

As sometimes happens with family businesses, things were in a bit of a disarray but by the third generation. In the case of Porsche, the acrimony had grown so bad that in 1970 the family decided no member of the Porsche-Piëch clan would be allowed to play an active role in the management of the company. Instead, the family would continue to run the board and retain 100% of the voting shares in the company.

For members of the Porsche family who relaxing with their trust funds, exiting the management of the family business was all well and good -- but it meant that Ferdinand, Porsche’s CEO, would have to find a new job. In 1975, he join Audi, a small car brand owned by Volkswagen, as the Head of Technical Development.

Ferdinand Piëch has also been the instigator of much of the family’s drama. In 1972, as a married man with five children, Piëch struck up an extra-marital affair with Marlene Porsche -- the wife of his cousin and fellow heir, Gerd Porsche. Piëch left his wife for Marlene, and they cohabited for twelve years and had two kids together (during this time, Piëch also fathered two children with other women). 

You can imagine that taking up with your cousin’s wife might make things awkward at Porsche-Piëch family reunions and company board meetings. Many family members suspected Piëch did this solely to gain access to the company shares that Marlene received in the divorce, though this fear never materialized: in 1984, Piëch left Marlene for their 27-year old nanny, Ursula. They are still married today.

At Audi, Piëch was credited with integrating the Quattro all-wheel-drive system into the cars, and turning the company in the sporty luxury brand. In the mid-1980s, reports surfaced that the cars were accelerating erratically and causing serious injuries; Audi had to institute a massive vehicle recall in the US. When Piëch brusquely responded -- “We must teach Americans how to drive” -- sales of the company’s cars fell by 50% within a couple of years.

In 1988, Piëch became the CEO of Audi. By 1993, he became CEO and Chairman of the parent company, Volkswagen. At the time the company was losing over a billion dollars a year and was reportedly just three months away from bankruptcy. Piëch brought the company back from the dead: he cut costs by reducing the number of vehicle platforms used from 12 to 4, brought in General Motors “cost cutting ace” Jose Ignacio Lopez, and swiftly taught himself the politics of dealing with labor unions and the German government. Instead of laying off workers, he negotiated a 20% reduction in working hours and lower salaries.

He also tremendously grew company’s market share in the US and Europe with the introduction of cars like the “new” Beetle and the VW Passat. By 1998, he’d transformed Audi into a legitimate competitor of Mercedes and BMW. But, as recounted in a Businessweek article, this turnaround came at a cost:

“Piëch’s visionary leadership has a dark side. VW's achievements since 1993 have come in a virtual autocracy.

Moreover, his iron grip on VW means there are few checks and balances on his decisions. Piëch has shrunk VW's management board to just five members, from nine before he took the top job. He holds personal responsibility for R&D, production, purchasing, and the VW brand--areas typically assigned to individual directors.”

With his staff, Piëch did not tolerate dissent. During his time at VW, he fired over 30 board members, as well as the CEOs of Volkswagen and Audi. At the tail end of 1994, a year after Piëch was named CEO, a group of VW managers submitted their thoughts to the then-Chairman of the board: “this company is run by a man with psychopathic traits.'' In one meeting, a manager made the mistake of questioning a policy of Piech’s; Piech’s icy response: “I’m going to remember your name.”  

But under Piëch’s command, VW thrived. So much so, that they could afford to buy up a slew of sports car companies. In rapid succession, the company acquired Bugatti, Lamborghini, Bentley, the assets of (though not the brand of) Rolls Royce, in addition to brands like SEAT, Skoda, and Ducati. In this era, Volkswagen became a global car powerhouse on par with Toyota or General Motors.

In 2002, Piëch reached the mandatory CEO retirement age of 65; while he stepped down as the CEO, he remained Chairman and retained dictatorial power. Union leaders, German politicians who oversaw the government’s stake in the company, and top executives were all hand picked as “Piëch-loyalists.”

All this is to say it was surprising that Piëch was sitting by idly as the Volkswagen Empire he had built with an iron fist was being devoured by some upstart who was running Porsche -- the family business that Piech was deprived of taking over.

Throughout the process of Wiedeking and Porsche slowly acquiring a their stake in Volkswagen, Piëch was publicly silent on the issue. Not only that, but he sat on the boards of both companies, so he was very much aware of what Porsche was doing. Since he was one of the largest shareholders of Porsche, observers noted he may be selling out VW to Porsche so that he could profit from the move.

In 2006, with two years left on his CEO term, Piëch announced he would be stepping down from the Volkswagen board when his time expired. It would seem that he had capitulated to Wiedeking and Porsche. But as that two year period came and went, Piëch soon reversed his decision.

It would seem that Piëch was just biding his time.

Porsche Crashes in the Final Lap

Porsche race car in 1969. Image via Stuttcars.com.

By the end of 2008, Porsche had acquired 42.6% of Volkswagen and had the option to acquire 31.5% more. However, in this process, the company had also acquired $13BN in debt to finance the acquisition. 

VW stock had appreciated substantially, and the company had made a paper fortune on these financial trades; meanwhile, speculators shorting VW stock had lost tens of billions of real dollars. Moreover, once they acquired 75% of VW, the company’s $12BN cash reserves would become available to Porsche -- assuming that the Volkswagen Rule would be lifted soon.

Wiedeking, the CEO, and Härter, the CFO, were heiled as financial geniuses. Arndt Ellinghorst, an analyst at Credit Suisse, called Porsche “one of the most sophisticated investors on the planet, as well as being a car maker." The Economist humorously noted:

“Great cornering and eye-popping acceleration make Porsche's cars popular among thrill-seeking bankers and hedge-fund managers. Now its clients are discovering that the carmaker itself has an unexpected talent for cornering markets,” as they reported that Porsche made between $7-15BN from the short squeeze.”

But in reality, the company was actually in a very tough position. Their primary asset was the shares they held in Volkswagen. Those shares were only valuable because of the market’s expectation that Porsche would continue to buy up VW stock; and if they did, it would be very expensive to buy the rest of the company. If Porsche stopped buying up VW shares, the price of VW stock would plummet, the value of most of Porsche’s assets would fall, and the company would experience massive losses.

This scenario would look very bad for Porsche’s creditors -- and by now, there were many. By Spring 2009, Porsche had accumulated $13 BN in debt. This wasn’t an enormous amount of debt considering they were making $2BN operating profit a year from selling Porsche’s and  and owned half the of Volkswagen, but in order to pull off buying the rest of Volkswagen, they’d need access to a lot more capital.

And precisely when Porsche needed banks the most, banks stopped lending money. The words spoken by the company’s CFO years before -- “banks are there for you when you don’t need them, and when you do need them, they’re no where to be seen” -- now seemed prophetic.

By the end of 2008, the great Financial Crisis had hit and all the banks had either given Porsche new funds or allowed them to rollover the debt when it came due; in any case, they were no longer interested in funding a speculative scheme to corner the market for VW shares. 

Porsche’s debts were coming due much sooner than they expected. And not only that -- after years of consistent growth in automobile sales, Porsche’s core business of selling cars was hurt severely by the recession and unit sales dropped 27% in one year.

A financial maneuver that had been considered “brilliant” just a few months earlier was now a poor decision: Porsche was out of money. On March 24, 2009, loan payments of $13BN were due. While previously it would have been a trivial matter to refinance the amount, this time the banks weren’t interested. Moreover, Porsche owed money to 15 different banks, each of which could bankrupt the company if it so wished.

Porsche’s CFO managed to avert disaster the day before the loan was due and refinance most -- but not all -- of the $13BN debt into a new loan. The catch: $4.4 BN of it would be due within 6 months. 

But even with most of the debt refinanced, Porsche would need additional capital to pay the part of the loan that was currently due. It just so happens that one of the board members was able to get the company an emergency infusion of almost a billion dollars from another company that he also sat on the board of. That loan would be from Volkswagen, orchestrated by their Chairman Ferdinand Piëch. 

In the blink of an eye, Porsche went from predator to prey. Once on the brink of acquiring Volkswagen, Porsche now found itself borrowing a billion dollars from them just five months later. 

Piëch Twists the Knife

Porsche didn’t publicly disclose the Volkswagen loan for another two months, though internally, they knew their quest to buy out Volkswagen was over. One does not simply acquire the company you are borrowing money from.

From CEO Wiedeking and CFO Härter’s perspective, this was a setback -- but not necessarily a dire circumstance. Porsche was still a great car company, and they had acquired half of Volkswagen with options to acquire more of it. They might not be able to finalize the acquisition, they figured, but they still had a valuable company -- as as long as they didn’t run out of money. Surely, money would be available.

The company’s immediate problem, however, was that they were about to run out of money. They now also owed money to a myriad of banks, as well as to Volkswagen, the company they had been antagonizing. But the looming $4.4 BN debt payment was a sword hanging over the company’s head, in addition to the estimated $790 MM annual interest payment.

Porsche needed help. At best, it could retain its independence if it brought in a new investor. Or instead, it could merge with Volkswagen as an equal. Still worse from Porsche’s management perspective, it could be acquired by another car company. The worst case scenario, however, was looking very likely -- the hallowed sports car maker would simply run out of money and go bankrupt.

What Porsche needed was a bailout.  

As many governments did during this time, the German government set up a stabilization fund to loan money to German businesses that were in need of a bailout. Porsche applied for multi-billion dollar loan, but was rejected. It couldn’t have helped that head of the Lower Saxony Government, and board member of VW, Christian Wulff, was a close ally of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. Wulff, who later became Germany’s president under Merkel, was said to be the one who convinced her not to repeal the Volkswagen Rule.

By the end of the spring, it appeared that a savior had emerged for Porsche, in the form of the Qatar Sovereign Wealth fund. Qatar was close to acquiring a multibillion dollar stake in the company in exchange for much needed cash to pay down the debt. 

Qatar Prime Minister and Chief Executive of the investment fund at the time.

Then, the Qatar government abruptly decided not to invest in Porsche, reportedly at the urging of Lower Saxony government head Wulff and and Chancelor Merkel. Instead, they would only invest in Porsche after it had cleaned up its finances and resolved its situation with Volkswagen. (Qatar would later provide a cash infusion to the company, but only after it was too late to save an independent Porsche.)

With a healthy balance sheet of cash, the support of the German government, and Qatar’s money waiting in the wings, VW had amble funds to pick up the wounded Porsche. Moreover, Porsche owed VW nearly a billion dollars and that would be due soon.

Now was the time for Volkswagen to strike. 

After publically staying quiet on the merger for years, Piëch started rumbling about his waning confidence in the Wiedeking and the Porsche management team and their mismanagement of the company’s financance. VW’s loan would come with “strings attached.”

The “strings,” as it turned out, would be that Porsche would sell themselves to VW, otherwise VW would force them to pay back the loan. By July 2009, Porsche CEO Wiedeking would resign. The $71MM severance package he received suggests this wasn’t purely voluntary, but instead was to pave the way for a Volkswagen acquisition of Porsche. Wieking had flown too close to the sun, and now his career at Porsche was over.

By, fall 2009, the acquisition was set. Volkswagen would acquire the Porsche automotive business for $11.3BN in cash (49% of it right way, and 51% of it later, for tax reasons). The Porsche family would retain their shares in a holding company that owned 50% of Volkswagen -- but also all the Porsche debt. The Qatar fund would, however, provide capital to the Porsche holding company to help eliminate that debt.

Considering that they’d fumbled their family business, the Porsche-Piech family did pretty well for themselves. All said and done, they ended up owning approximately 32% of Volkswagen by the end of negotiations; a few years later, they bought back the shares they’d sold to Qatar.  

But one member of the Porsche-Piech family did particularly well: Ferdinand Piëch. Under his lead, Volkswagen had gained control of Porsche -- the company his grandfather started. His stake in Porsche became a stake in both Volkswagen and Porsche; today, it is worth many billions of dollars. 

Conclusion

“You come at the king, you best not miss...”

- Omar Little, The Wire

***

So, what is to be learned from the saga of Porsche?

First, if you’re a car company, it’s probably best to focus on making cars instead of gravity-defying financial maneuvers.  Wendelin Wiedeking ran Porsche brilliantly when it was just a car company. He modernized its operations, successfully added new products, and turned the company from near bankruptcy to a highly profitable enterprise. It was only when Porsche started making more money from its hedge fund-like activities than it’s automotive ones that Wiedeking got his comeuppance and was terminated (though his $71MM exit wasn’t so bad).

Second, capital has a tendency to be there when times are great, but disappears when you need it most. Different parts of the economy are highly correlated with each other. So, when your business turns sour, lots of other businesses turn sour, including the banking business. Any strategy that requires access to capital to succeed can be shakey, because capital is likely to not be available during times of duress.

Finally, if you’re going to go shoot the king, don’t miss. In order for Porsche to acquire Volkswagen, they needed to acquire 80% of the company and revoke the “Volkswagen Rule” -- which allowed the local German government to block any acquisition. When the rule was not revoked, the acquisition process dragged on and sapped Porsche’s financial reserves.

All of this gave Ferdinand Piëch time to wait and see what would happen. And at the first sign that Porsche was in trouble, Piëch decisively struck and took his grandfather’s company back. 

And, finally, after many decades of waiting, he became the boss of Porsch. Or rather, he became the boss of the boss of Porsche. Either way, Piëch is definitely in charge.

This post was written by Rohin Dhar. Follow him on Twitter. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.

How Verizon's Advertising Header Works

24 October 2014 - 7:00pm
How Verizon’s Advertising Header Works | Web Policy

October 24, 2014    

Over the past couple of days, there’s been an outpouring of concern about Verizon’s advertising practices. Verizon Wireless is injecting a unique identifier into web requests, as data transits the network. On my phone, for example, here’s the extra HTTP header.1

X-UIDH: OTgxNTk2NDk0ADJVquRu5NS5+rSbBANlrp+13QL7CXLGsFHpMi4LsUHw

After poring over Verizon’s related patents and marketing materials, here’s my rough understanding of how the header works.

In short, Verizon is packaging and selling subscriber information, acting as a data broker on real-time advertising exchanges. Questionable. By default, the information appears to consist of demographic and geographic segments.2 If a user has opted into “Verizon Selects,” then Verizon also shares behavioral profiles built by deep packet inspection.

Whatever the merits of Verizon’s new business model, the technical design has two substantial shortcomings. First, the X-UIDH header functions as a temporary supercookie.3 Any website can easily track a user, regardless of cookie blocking and other privacy protections.4 No relationship with Verizon is required.

Second, while Verizon offers privacy settings, they don’t prevent sending the X-UIDH header.5 All they do, seemingly, is prevent Verizon from selling information about a user.

Much better designs are possible. Verizon doesn’t need to supercookie its wireless subscribers to sell their advertising segments.6 And it certainly doesn’t need to send a supercookie if a user isn’t participating.

The diagram above includes phone, server, cloud, and cash assets from The Noun Project. Thanks to the participants in Princeton’s Web Tracking and Transparency Workshop, who provided valuable feedback.

1. In my (very limited) testing, the header was injected into every HTTP request from my iPhone 6 Plus. Some subscribers have reported not seeing the header, or only seeing the header with certain requests.

2. Verizon’s case studies also suggest the system can be used for advertising attribution.

3. According to a comment on Hacker News, the X-UIDH value changes each week. I can’t (yet) confirm that. Over the past two days, anyway, the X-UIDH value for my phone has been static.

4. HTTP blocking, like Adblock Plus or Privacy Badger, would still be effective.

5. If I understand correctly, the demographic and geographic advertising segments are opt out, associated with Verizon’s CPNI privacy preference. Behavioral segments are opt in, associated with the “Verizon Selects” preference (formerly “Relevant Mobile Advertising”).

6. For example, Verizon could send an encrypted ID and nonce with each request. A recipient website would not be able to use the values to track a user.

All material available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
I am not your lawyer and this is not legal advice. How Verizon’s Advertising Header Works | Web Policy

October 24, 2014    

Over the past couple of days, there’s been an outpouring of concern about Verizon’s advertising practices. Verizon Wireless is injecting a unique identifier into web requests, as data transits the network. On my phone, for example, here’s the extra HTTP header.1

X-UIDH: OTgxNTk2NDk0ADJVquRu5NS5+rSbBANlrp+13QL7CXLGsFHpMi4LsUHw

After poring over Verizon’s related patents and marketing materials, here’s my rough understanding of how the header works.

In short, Verizon is packaging and selling subscriber information, acting as a data broker on real-time advertising exchanges. Questionable. By default, the information appears to consist of demographic and geographic segments.2 If a user has opted into “Verizon Selects,” then Verizon also shares behavioral profiles built by deep packet inspection.

Whatever the merits of Verizon’s new business model, the technical design has two substantial shortcomings. First, the X-UIDH header functions as a temporary supercookie.3 Any website can easily track a user, regardless of cookie blocking and other privacy protections.4 No relationship with Verizon is required.

Second, while Verizon offers privacy settings, they don’t prevent sending the X-UIDH header.5 All they do, seemingly, is prevent Verizon from selling information about a user.

Much better designs are possible. Verizon doesn’t need to supercookie its wireless subscribers to sell their advertising segments.6 And it certainly doesn’t need to send a supercookie if a user isn’t participating.

The diagram above includes phone, server, cloud, and cash assets from The Noun Project. Thanks to the participants in Princeton’s Web Tracking and Transparency Workshop, who provided valuable feedback.

1. In my (very limited) testing, the header was injected into every HTTP request from my iPhone 6 Plus. Some subscribers have reported not seeing the header, or only seeing the header with certain requests.

2. Verizon’s case studies also suggest the system can be used for advertising attribution.

3. According to a comment on Hacker News, the X-UIDH value changes each week. I can’t (yet) confirm that. Over the past two days, anyway, the X-UIDH value for my phone has been static.

4. HTTP blocking, like Adblock Plus or Privacy Badger, would still be effective.

5. If I understand correctly, the demographic and geographic advertising segments are opt out, associated with Verizon’s CPNI privacy preference. Behavioral segments are opt in, associated with the “Verizon Selects” preference (formerly “Relevant Mobile Advertising”).

6. For example, Verizon could send an encrypted ID and nonce with each request. A recipient website would not be able to use the values to track a user.

All material available under a

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

license.

I am not your lawyer and this is not legal advice.

PSA: Don’t Open Random PowerPoint Presentations from Strangers

24 October 2014 - 7:00pm

Heads up! In what feels like a throwback to the late 90s/early 2000’s, Microsoft has discovered one helluva bug in Microsoft Office. Executed properly, the bug could be exploited to take over your entire system running just about any version of Windows.

You can find Microsoft’s full disclosure on the bug here, but here’s the bulk of what you should know:

  1. This bug is being exploited in the wild, though Microsoft only knows of “limited, targeted attacks” so far
  2. It affects Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows Server 2012, and Windows RT. XP isn’t mentioned as Microsoft no longer supports it — but yeah, it’s probably affected too.
  3. If executed properly, the exploit gives the attacker the same permissions on your system as whatever type of user you’re currently logged in as. If you’re an admin, that means full admin rights — code execution, app installs, etc.
  4. If you have Window’s User Account Control feature enabled, it’ll throw up a prompt asking if the file is okay to execute. If you aren’t 100% sure that the file is legit, avoid doing so.
  5. The bug is part of PowerPoint’s OLE system, which lets you embed things like spreadsheets into a presentation. It’s supposed to be fairly well sandboxed; alas, it looks like someone found a gap.
  6. Microsoft says that hacked presentations e-mailed to users and hacked presentations sitting on the web are potentially dangerous. The short version: avoid all but the most-trusted PowerPoint presentations right now.

So just how gnarly is this bug? Says Microsoft (emphasis ours):

An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could gain the same user rights as the current user. If the current user is logged on with administrative user rights, an attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could take complete control of an affected system. An attacker could then install programs; view, change, or delete data; or create new accounts with full user rights.

But should you panic?

Nah. Do a few things things, and you should be safe:
1) Play it smart about what presentations you open
2) If you’re on a build of Windows that has User Account Control as an option, enable it (it should be on by default, in most cases.) This won’t fix the bug outright, but it’ll throw up a big permissions prompt that’ll remind you not to open mystery files.
3) Check out this advisory page from Microsoft, which offers up a temporary patch until Microsoft finalizes a security update.

The Misfortunes of a Trio of Mathematicians Using Computer Algebra Systems [pdf]

24 October 2014 - 7:00pm

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Old Masters: After 80, some people don’t retire. They reign

24 October 2014 - 7:00am

The portraits here are of men and women in their 80s and 90s, rich in the rewards of substantial and celebrated careers, and although I know none of them except by name and reputation, I’m asked why their love’s labor is not lost but still to be found. Why do they persist, the old masters? To what end the unceasing effort to discover or create something new? Why not rest on the laurels and the oars?

The short answer is Dr. Samuel Johnson’s, in a letter to James Boswell in 1777: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” A longer answer is that of the 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai, who at 75 added a postscript to the first printing of his “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji”:

“From the time that I was 6 years old I had the mania of drawing the form of objects. As I came to be 50 I had published an infinity of designs; but all that I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth being counted. It is at the age of 73 that I have somewhat begun to understand the structure of true nature, of animals and grasses, and trees and birds, and fishes and insects; consequently at 80 years of age I shall have made still more progress; at 90 I hope to have penetrated into the mystery of things; at 100 years of age I should have reached decidedly a marvelous degree, and when I shall be 110, all that I do, every point and every line, shall be instinct with life — and I ask all those who shall live as long as I do to see if I have not kept my word.”

Hokusai died in 1849 in his late 80s, by all reports still far from satisfied with his work then in progress. I’m not surprised. When I was 6, I delighted in the act of writing, at 12, in the expecting that by the time I turned 21, I would know how to make of it an art. The birthday came and went, and no dog showed up with the bird in its mouth. Before I was 30, I’d written seven drafts of a first novel mercifully unpublished; I consoled myself with the thought that by the time I was 40, I would know what I was doing. Another dream that didn’t come true, and so when I was 45, I began to explore the uses of the essay, the term from the French essayer (to try, to embark upon, to attempt), the form experimental and provisional, amenable to multiple shifts of perspective and tone, and therefore the best of instruments on which to practice the playing with words. The essay proceeds from the question “What do I know?” and doesn’t stay for an answer until the author finds out what he means to say by setting it up in a sentence, maybe catching it in the net of a metaphor.

On the way through my 50s I could see signs of progress, producing manuscripts that required only extensive rewriting, not the abandonment of the whole sorry mess of a dumb idea. Revisions pursued through six or seven drafts allowed for the chance to find the right word, to control the balance of a subordinate clause, to replace the adjective with a noun. I didn’t enlist the help of a computer because words so quickly dressed up in the costume of print can pretend to a meaning and weight they neither enjoy nor deserve. Writing with a pen on paper, I can feel the shape and sound of the words, and I’m better able to judge how and why one goes with another, and on approaching the age of 70 I toyed with the hope that success was maybe somewhere not far away in a manger or on the near side of a rainbow.

Now I am 79. I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

T. H. White, the British naturalist turned novelist to write “The Once and Future King,” calls upon the druid Merlyn to teach the lesson to the young prince Arthur:

“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

The lesson can also be drawn from the strength of the work done in the dying of the light by the octogenarian and nonagenarian students of the several and various arts — by, among others in a very long list, Michelangelo, Titian, Thomas Hardy, Claude Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe, Donatello, Pablo Casals, Jasper Johns, Giuseppe Verdi, Toni Morrison and Picasso.

John D. Rockefeller in his 80s was known to his business associates as a crazy old man possessed by the stubborn and ferocious will to know why the world wags and what wags it, less interested in money than in the solving of a problem in geography or corporate combination. By sources reliably informed I’m told that Warren Buffett, 84, and Rupert Murdoch, 83, never quit asking questions. Sophocles in his early 90s wrote “Oedipus at Colonus”; the American journalist I. F. Stone began the study of ancient Greek in his 70s in order that he might read the play in the language of its birth. Stone, the most relentless investigative reporter of his generation, had uncovered the truth known to both Hokusai and T. H. White, and the lesson I’m now almost old enough to learn: that the tree of knowledge and the fountain of youth are one and the same.

The Case of the Modified Binaries

24 October 2014 - 7:00am

After creating and using a new exitmap module, I found downloaded binaries being patched through a Tor exit node in Russia.  Tor is a wonderful tool for protecting the identity of journalists, their sources, and even regular users around the world; however, anonymity does not guarantee security.  

At DerbyCon this year I gave a presentation of my binary patching framework, BDF.  Many binaries are hosted without any transport layer security encryption. Some binaries are signed to prevent modification, but most are not. During that presentation, I talked about the MITM patching of binaries during download, and showed how easy it was using BDFProxy. I also mentioned that similar techniques are probably already in use on the Internet.

I had only circumstantial evidence until recently.

Microsoft Updates Error

I tested BDFProxy against a number of binaries and update processes, including Microsoft Windows Automatic updates.  The good news is that if an entity is actively patching Windows PE files for Windows Update, the update verification process detects it, and you will receive error code 0×80200053.  

This error code indicates a failed signature verification for the downloaded binary.  Windows Update produces this error code for three root causes:

  1. The file was truncated during download. Very possible.
  2. The file was patched during download. Improbable.
  3. MS certificate verification is broken. Very improbable.

If you Google the error code, the official Microsoft response is troublesome.

The first link will bring you to the official Microsoft Answers website. Notice that this question has been viewed over 34,000 times.

 

If you follow the three steps from the official MS answer, two of those steps result in downloading and executing a MS ‘Fixit’ solution executable.

If an adversary is currently patching binaries as you download them, these ‘Fixit’ executables will also be patched. Since the user, not the automatic update process, is initiating these downloads, these files are not automatically verified before execution as with Windows Update. In addition, these files need administrative privileges to execute, and they will execute the payload that was patched into the binary during download with those elevated privileges.

Note: a Windows Home or Enterprise user could configure AppLocker to only run signed binaries.

Nullsoft Scriptable Install System (NSIS) Error

NSIS provides a form of self-checking that weakly ensures that a binary was not modified after compiling. It issues the following error when the self-checking fails:


 

Looking at Google Trends, this error message is quite common:

 

Notice the top countries where this search is originating:

A user can receive an error code for any of the following three root causes:

  1. The binary was patched. Improbable.
  2. The binary was truncated due to a poor Internet connection. Very probable.
  3. An actual error with the install program. Very improbable.

This combined circumstantial evidence left me wondering if there is an individual or group actively patching binaries on the greater Internet.

To have the best chance of catching modified binaries in transit over the Internet, I needed as many exit points in as many countries as possible.  Using Tor would give me this access, and thus the greatest chance of finding someone conducting this malicious MITM patching activity.

After researching the available tools, I settled on exitmap.  Exitmap is Python-based and allows one to write modules to check exit nodes for various modifications of traffic.  Exitmap is the result of a research project called Spoiled Onions that was completed by both the PriSec group at Karlstad University and SBA Research in Austria.

I wrote a module for exitmap, named patchingCheck.py, and have submitted a pull request to the official GitHub repository.  See the usage example.

Soon after building my module, I let exitmap run.  It did not take long, about an hour, to catch my first malicious exit node.

 

Details from https://check.torproject.org/exit-addresses

ExitNode 8361A794DFA231D863E109FC9EEEF21F4CF09DDD
Published 2014-10-22 01:06:40
LastStatus 2014-10-22 02:02:33
ExitAddress 78.24.222.229 2014-10-22 02:08:01    

This exit node was very active.

Patched Binaries by Exit Node 8361A794DFA231D863E109FC9EEEF21F4CF09DDD
Original Binary Download URL Online Sandbox Analysis URL http://download.microsoft.com/download/5/B/C/5BC5DBB3-652D-4DCE-B14A-475AB85EEF6E/vcredist_x86.exe   Malwr.com Analysis Results http://download.microsoft.com/download/3/2/2/3224B87F-CFA0-4E70-BDA3-3DE650EFEBA5/vcredist_x64.exe   Malwr.com Analysis Results http://download.tuxfamily.org/notepadplus/6.6.9/npp.6.6.9.Installer.exe

Malwr.com Analysis Results

http://downloads.malwarebytes.org/file/mbam/

Malwr.com Analysis Results

http://live.sysinternals.com/psexec.exe

Malwr.com Analysis Results

http://live.sysinternals.com/tcpview.exe

Malwr.com Analysis Results

http://nmap.org/dist/nmap-6.47-setup.exe Over size limit for Malwr.com. VirusTotal Results http://www.ntcore.com/files/ExplorerSuite.exe

Malwr.com Analysis Results

http://www.spybotupdates.com/files/filealyz-2.0.5.57.exe

Malwr.com Analysis Results

http://live.sysinternals.com/procexp.exe

Malwr.com Analysis Results

Upon further inspection, the original binary is wrapped within another binary similar to the technique mentioned in the research from Flex Grobert, et al, titled “Software Distribution Malware Infection Vector” (2008).  However, these malware authors solved the icon issue noted in the paper by keeping the .rsrc section intact.  By using a wrapper for the original binary, the malware authors do not invoke the NSIS error and bypass simple self-checking mechanisms.

Out of over 1110 exit nodes on the Tor network, this is the only node that I found patching binaries, although this node attempts to patch just about all the binaries that I tested.  The node only patched uncompressed PE files. This does not mean that other nodes on the Tor network are not patching binaries; I may not have caught them, or they may be waiting to patch only a small set of binaries.

Leviathan has notified the Tor Project of the issue.

Companies and developers need to make the conscious decision to host binaries via SSL/TLS, whether or not the binaries are signed. All people, but especially those in countries hostile to “Internet freedom,” as well as those using Tor anywhere, should be wary of downloading binaries hosted in the clear—and all users should have a way of checking hashes and signatures out of band prior to executing the binary.

Posted by Josh Pitts Comments 0 Tags anonymous, APT, binary, Malware, MITM, patching, privacy, Tor,

Amazon.com redesign

24 October 2014 - 7:00am

1984 v. Brave New World

24 October 2014 - 7:00am
BUY THE LETTERS OF NOTE BOOK: UK / US

In October of 1949, a few months after the release of George Orwell's dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he received a fascinating letter from fellow author Aldous Huxley — a man who, 17 years previous, had seen his own nightmarish vision of society published, in the form of Brave New World. What begins as a letter of praise soon becomes a brief comparison of the two novels, and an explanation as to why Huxley believes his own, earlier work to be a more realistic prediction.

Fantastic.

Trivia: In 1917, long before he wrote this letter, Aldous Huxley briefly taught Orwell French at Eton.

(Source: Letters of Aldous Huxley; Image: George Orwell (via) & Aldous Huxley (via).)

Wrightwood. Cal.
21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual's psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud's inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

Mono for Unreal Engine

23 October 2014 - 7:00pm

Earlier this year, both Epic Games and CryTech made their Unreal Engine and CryEngine available under an affordable subscription model. These are both very sophisticated game engines that power some high end and popular games.

We had previously helped Unity bring Mono as the scripting language used in their engine and we now had a chance to do this over again.

Today I am happy to introduce Mono for Unreal Engine.

This is a project that allows Unreal Engine users to build their game code in C# or F#.

Take a look at this video for a quick overview of what we did:

This is a taste of what you get out of the box:

  • Create game projects purely in C#
  • Add C# to an existing project that uses C++ or Blueprints.
  • Access any API surfaced by Blueprint to C++, and easily surface C# classes to Blueprint.
  • Quick iteration: we fully support UnrealEngine's hot reloading, with the added twist that we support it from C#. This means that you hit "Build" in your IDE and the code is automatically reloaded into the editor (with live updates!)
  • Complete support for the .NET 4.5/Mobile Profile API. This means, all the APIs you love are available for you to use.
  • Async-based programming: we have added special game schedulers that allow you to use C# async naturally in any of your game logic. Beautiful and transparent.
  • Comprehensive API coverage of the Unreal Engine Blueprint API.

This is not a supported product by Xamarin. It is currently delivered as a source code package with patches that must be applied to a precise version of Unreal Engine before you can use it. If you want to use higher versions, or lower versions, you will likely need to adjust the patches on your own.

We have set up a mailing list that you can use to join the conversation about this project.

Visit the site for Mono for Unreal Engine to learn more.

An Imaginary Town Becomes Real, Then Not

23 October 2014 - 7:00pm

This is the story of a totally made-up place that suddenly became real — and then, strangely, undid itself and became a fantasy again. Imagine Pinocchio becoming a real boy and then going back to being a puppet. That's what happened here — but this is a true story.

It's about a place in upstate New York called Agloe. You can see it here, circled in blue ...

i i Booklist /American Library Association

Booklist /American Library Association

... just up the road from Roscoe and Rockland.

In the 1930s (I learned from Frank Jacobs' excellent blog, Strange Maps), there was no town on that stretch between Rockland and nearby Beaverkill — just a dirt road. This wasn't an important or often visited place, which made it a perfect spot for what's called a "paper town," or a map "trap."

Pirate-Protected Maps

Companies that create maps get their work copied all the time. You hire a draftsman. You check spellings, you work on the colors, you get all the cities in the right place, and along comes a gas company, or a tourism agency; it takes what you've done, slaps its own name on it. You cry, "Piracy!" and take it to court.

The pirates say, "Prove it." It's a map, they say. It describes what is. Because there's a real world out there, obviously maps are going to be identical. So we're only guilty of describing the same world the other map described. Jurors think, "Hmm, sounds reasonable," and the pirates get away with it. Unless the mapmaker runs a little scam.

Inventing Agloe

That's what Otto G. Lindberg, director of the General Drafting Co., and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, did in the 1930s. They were making a road map of New York state, and on that out-of-the-way dirt road, they created a totally fictitious place called "Agloe." The name was a mix of the first letters in their names, Otto G. Lindberg's (OGL) and Ernest Alpers' (EA).

Booklist /American Library Association

A few years later, Rand McNally, the famous map company, issued its own New York state map, and, guess what? Right there in the same place — same spelling — was the exact same Totally Made-Up Town, "Agloe."

"Gotcha!" cried Lindberg. "No," said the Rand McNally lawyers. And they offered this totally startling defense.

The Telltale General Store

Rand McNally told the court that its designers went to the official map of that county, looked up the coordinates, and on the spot called Agloe they found a building, and that building, they told the judge, is the Agloe General Store. So there is an Agloe. Otherwise, where'd the owners get the name?

Good question. Here's the ironic answer. The owners had seen Agloe on a map distributed by Esso, which owned scores of gas stations. Esso had bought that map from Lindberg and Alpers. If Esso says this place is called Agloe, the store folks figured, well, that's what we'll call ourselves. So, a made-up name for a made-up place inadvertently created a real place that, for a time, really existed. Rand McNally, one presumes, was found not guilty.

Then the store closed. It isn't there anymore. Decades passed.

Now, writes Frank Jacobs, you can go to your computer, "Turn to Google Maps, and type in Agloe ..." and — oh my gosh — there it is!

Jacobs says, "[A]n arrow still lands in the spot where Messrs. Lindberg and Alpers placed it, long after the general store there has gone. And long after the General Drafting Company itself has gone. One of the 'Big Three' in road map publishing, [Mr. Lindberg's company] was absorbed into the American Map Company in 1992 and its state maps amalgamated with that company's catalog."

So, as of last week, when I wrote this post, Google was perpetuating an 80-year-old fantasy that for a short time turned real, then unreal. But then, just as this story was to be published, to be extra sure, we went to Google Earth, typed in "Agloe" one last time, and, whaddya know? It isn't there any more!

It was removed this week. And so, instead of a Google Gotcha post, you are now attending an instant online funeral for a town that never was, then was, then wasn't and now isn't. So, I ask you to stand silently, think of the late Otto Lindberg and the late Ernest Alpers, who gave their initials so that Agloe might be; think of the proprietors of the Agloe General Store, and of the Somebody at Google, who, apparently, reads Frank Jacobs' blog, Strange Maps, and reacts faster than I do. Damn that Google guy. And let us say ... Amen.