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Contest To Crack William Gibson Poem Agrippa 102

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the brought-to-you-by-lisp dept.
An anonymous reader writes "A new cracking contest to cryptanalyse a William Gibson poem. The electronic poem ('Agrippa') was written back in 1992 and self-encrypts after being displayed once. The person who successfully cracks the encryption will win a copy of every published Gibson book." The poem/program binary was recovered in 2008, but it looks like no one has managed (bothered?) to crack the code.
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Contest To Crack William Gibson Poem Agrippa

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  • What was the standard length of an encryption key back then?

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      Not all encryptions are key based.
      • Yes, but I wanted a grasp of what the state of key-based encryption was like in the era so I could get my bearings on the complexity we're dealing with.

        • by djl4570 (801529) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @01:19PM (#40616793) Journal
          DES is 56 bits and has been around since the seventies. Early browsers from c1995 used 64 bits because anything more required export licenses. That's what got Philip Zimmerman in trouble back in 1994 when PGP was first posted to boards and online services. Given that Gibson is a futurist he might well have used an early implementation IDEA which was first described in 1991 and is 128 bits.
  • by Viol8 (599362) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:06PM (#40615681)

    ... and it was still the same. Perhaps the 1992 tech doesn't work in my shiny new HTML5 browser? ;o)

    • by SJHillman (1966756) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:12PM (#40615765)

      Crappy summary. The poem is not self-encrypting, rather a program displays the poem once and then encrypts it... it's that program that needs to be cracked. As far as I can tell, the poem itself is just a MacGuffin

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:16PM (#40615809)

      The summary isn't clear. The posting on the web is just the text of the poem. Per the original linked-to summary:

      While the text of William Gibson's elusive electronic poem AGRIPPA is widely posted around the Web, it has not been seen in its original incarnation — custom-built software designed to scroll the poem through a single play before encrypting each line with an RSA algorithm — since 1992.

    • by Dan East (318230)

      I also thought that the poem itself was written in some sort of scripting language, and that it literally contained the algorithm that encrypted itself. At first glance the frequency of numbers (years) in the poem also gave the impression that the poem was actually a program of sorts. It seems I was also mislead by the summary, as the poem is arbitrary text and the real challenge is the display program that modified the floppy disc to encrypt the poem text.

    • by polymeris (902231) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @01:02PM (#40616495)

      Weird. From here I couldn't even see the decrypted version once. Just see undecyphrable verses.

  • by jxander (2605655) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:08PM (#40615697)
    The next challenge is decrypting Finnegans Wake.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:09PM (#40615717)

      I did that once.

      I ended up with a Tale of Two Cities. Typo in the first sentence, "blurst" of times for some reason.

    • by Frosty Piss (770223) * on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:43PM (#40616153)

      Everyone seems to assume it's a "master work" simpy because nobody can understand it.

      Maybe it's just a bad book?

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Ubergrendle (531719)
        The difference of art over technology, is that art's definition is not binary. It changes based on personal experience, experience of exposure to the art itself, and perception of it can have its own meaning changed by evolving society and its values. Ontop of all of that, there's intricacies of language, meter, symbolism, etc that are not immediately apparentt but may be uncovered in time. In short, just because you don't understand it doesn't mean that its bad. Finnegan's Wake is not accessible to a high
        • Art, like life, does not have an agreed-upon definition but I've settled on one (binary to boot) that's served me well: if it's done purposefully and has no practical use, it's art. It's very generous as regards art installations, photography and even "found art".

          That may earn the ire of any artists here (assuming there are any) but it came in very handy when I had to explain the difference between patents and copyright to someone. I think they may have even got their head around design patents, which can b

        • Finnegan's Wake is not accessible to a high school english student, and it was never intended to be.

          Well, snoot snoot!

          But seriously, apperently it's not even "accessible" to most dedicated English Lit wonks, either. Most descriptions written by the highly edgeumakted run in circles and leap at random when trying to describe this work. In other words, most people accross the board just don't understand this piece of abstract art.

          And much of the abstract art out there is simply crap.

          • You aren't supposed to know what color the Emperor's clothing is. You darn peasant.

            • You aren't supposed to know what color the Emperor's clothing is. You darn peasant.

              Or whether or not his cat is dead...

        • 'Bad' is not a binary absolute. It is an attribute of degrees. Perhaps Gibson's poem is just mediocre. Certainly many people could say that. And they could put it more simply by just saying it is a bad poem.

          Just because somebody doesn't understand it doesn't mean it isn't bad. There is a lot of terrible drivel out there. And remarkably, Gibson is not renowned for his poetry.

      • by Disfnord (1077111)

        Exactly. Anything that I don't like that other people claim to like must simply be explained by the fact that they are all lying about liking it.

    • The next challenge is decrypting Finnegans Wake.

      Its much easier to understand, and enjoy, after having a few pints.

      We are talking about the Irish drinking song, right?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:08PM (#40615699)

    2 copies of every published Gibson book.

  • There's your problem right there as to why no one has bothered. It's like that old joke - ".... second prize is two weeks in Cleveland, Ohio and the grand prize is one week in Cleveland, Ohio!"
    • by snarfies (115214)

      I hate to agree. I loved loved loved Neuromancer, but everything he has written since has been awful (well, Idoru was so-so) to the point where I'm half-convinced he didn't actually write Neuromancer himself. I gave up completely after All Tomorrow's Parties.

      • by realmolo (574068) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:34PM (#40616045)

        It's true. I just re-read the "Sprawl Trilogy" in the last couple of weeks, just to see if "Count Zero" and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" were any better than I remember. They weren't. They're tedious-as-fuck.

        "Neuromancer" is great, but Gibson went up his own ass after that.

        Still, he wrote "Neuromancer", which gets him a lifetime pass.

        • by gl4ss (559668)

          the short stories from burning chrome were best of Gibson so I guess that it fits that Neuromancer was best of sprawl.

          I rather liked Spook Country though.

        • Second prize Is TWO copies of every published Gibson book.

      • A lot of people have the same problem with Larry Niven. Maybe some writers only have a limited time they can write something really good?
        • by arth1 (260657)

          A lot of people have the same problem with Larry Niven. Maybe some writers only have a limited time they can write something really good?

          Not just some, I think.

          Your milage may vary, but authors who I think have declined severely include:

          Neal Stephenson
          Robert A. Heinlein
          Orson Scott Card (very quickly)
          Terry Pratchett
          Spider Robinson
          Philip K. Dick
          And much as I hate to say it, Charlie Stross too

          Come to think of it, the only author whose writing I think didn't decline at all was Poul Anderson.

          Again, YMMV

          • by greg1104 (461138)

            Whether Philip K. Dick's works declined or improved over time really depends on how much you're looking for amphetamine fueled visions of bat-shit crazy. Like it or hate it, his later work really didn't go through the usual out of ideas curve most writers follow over time.

          • Some of those authors are dead. I'd expect that to have an effect on their output....

          • I think Stephenson's always written like this. He just had better editors in the past, who would rein in his more autistic measures. Now that he's a big moneymaker, people are afraid to challenge him too much, even though it was the harsh editing that made his prose better.
            • by arth1 (260657)

              I think Stephenson's always written like this. He just had better editors in the past, who would rein in his more autistic measures. Now that he's a big moneymaker, people are afraid to challenge him too much, even though it was the harsh editing that made his prose better.

              That may be true.
              I also think there's an overall dumbing down of editors; much like most "journalists" nowadays being little more than copy/paste machines, book editors now seem little more than machines for rubberstamping the lastest harlequin parasmut, video game or TV rip-off, or other crap that would have been pulp or outright rejected in the past. And proofreading? That task has been relegated to computer programmes that don't understand the text, and cannot provide useful feedback.
              Seen a stet lately

  • by mmarlett (520340) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:23PM (#40615903)

    "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."

  • by TeknoHog (164938) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:30PM (#40615995) Homepage Journal
    They want you to hack the Gibson.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Came here for this - was not disappoint.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Hack the planet!

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Check the garbage file

    • Mess with the best die like the rest.
      The code was in the place I put that thing that one time
      Crash and Burn.

      There, now you don't have to do those.

      Here's food for though. I'm an assembly programmer, and I decompiled the program. IT'S FUCKING CRACKED. What would you like me to do? NO-OP the cipher?!

    • Acid Burn, Crash Override, Cereal Killer
      Oh the lulz
  • by vlm (69642) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @12:31PM (#40616003)

    No need for new infrastructure, just post it as a project euler problem and when you "win" the blog/psuedowiki thing has a link to the torrent file for a collection of his books... I've uh, heard, that such a torrent exists.

    Seriously though I've also heard second hand that if you really want to piss off Mr Gibson all you have to do it tell him you love his book iconic genre defining cyberpunk book "snowcrash". At least thats what I've heard. If you don't get the joke, if you ask people the name of a cyberpunk author then family feud style 90% of them will say Gibson but if you ask them their favorite cyberpunk novel a majority will say "snowcrash" which was actually written by Stephenson. I like Gibson's novels too, this is just funny how people assume the awesomest book must have been written by the awesomest author.

    • by Maltheus (248271)

      Snowcrash is downright goofy compared to Neuromancer. But Stephensons other books are better than Gibsons other books.

  • MacOS 7 (System 7) apps were 68k, but they were stored as two "forks" - a resource fork (for icons/cursors/windows/menus and 68k code), and a data form (for free-form data - binary, text, or PowerPC code, but I doubt there's any PowerPC in it).

    It's kinda interesting the website doesn't link to ResEdit as it's the way to tell if the binary is runnable by MacOS. (ResEdit also has a primitive disassembler for code resources).

    And some old Apple documentaiton on how the Mac works would've been valuable as well -

    • by mattack2 (1165421)

      Umm, resource forks were there long before System 7. They were always there on Mac OS.

  • Not encrypted (Score:5, Informative)

    by Dan East (318230) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @01:04PM (#40616507) Homepage Journal

    According to the diff of the disc image before and after the program runs (http://www.crackingagrippa.net/files/agrippa_diffs.txt) it's perfectly clear that the text is not being encrypted. The listing on the left is after the modification, and the listing on the right is the original disc image. A large portion of the disc (exactly 8,000 contiguous bytes) has been rewritten with only four different bytes: 0x41, 0x43, 0x47, 0x54.

    Thus a very significant portion of the original information is lost during the "encryption". It sure looks to me like the program merely overwrites the poem portion of the data with one of four randomly selected bytes. The poem, as listed in HTML on the web page, is 9190 characters, which correlates pretty close with the amount of bytes being modified on the disc image.

    • by Dan East (318230)

      Correction. 6,000 contiguous bytes of data on the disc is modified, not 8,000.

    • Re:Not encrypted (Score:5, Interesting)

      by zamboni1138 (308944) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @01:16PM (#40616715)

      A large portion of the disc (exactly 8,000 contiguous bytes) has been rewritten with only four different bytes: 0x41, 0x43, 0x47, 0x54.

      Aren't those hex for ASCII characters A, C, G and T? Isn't that the same four characters that are used in DNA sequences?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by WillAdams (45638)

        Correct.

        The program was supposed to be over-writing itself w/ (randomly?) generated DNA information --- to match the DNA etchings / prints on the bundled cloth included w/ the physical original.

        • Re:Not encrypted (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Dan East (318230) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @01:49PM (#40617219) Homepage Journal

          Well in that case the only question is if that "DNA" contains some other message or meaning. Each of the 6,000 DNA "bytes" can be one of 4 values. Thus each "byte" can store 2 bits of information. That's 12,000 bits of data. Assuming uppercase letters only, it takes 5 bits per letter minimum to encode text (without any compression). That only allows for 2,400 characters, which is 1/4th of the poem text.

          Looking at it another way, the poem contains 1649 words. That allows for 3.6 DNA "bytes" per word (6000 / 1649), which is 6 bits of data per word. I'll round it up to 7 bits per word to be generous. That's still only 128 unique values per word, which isn't enough to encode all the unique words in the poem.

          I just don't see any way to encode a 9,000 word poem into 12,000 bits of data. If the "DNA" does have meaning then it would have to be an excerpt of the poem, or additional verses that aren't in the plaintext version.

          The latter has my vote. If the author really is clever, then he came up with an algorithm that takes the original poem text and converts it into "DNA" looking data, which can further be decoded into text that contains additional readable text that completes the poem. If he pulled that off then he earns some major respect.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            Yup, supposedly there is not enough information (in the Shannon sense) contained in the overwritten genetic sequence to contain the poem, however, it's not clear that this is where the poem is (the sequence is from the *compiled* binary). The available source code suggests something else (it doesn't just say "spit out random genetic sequence"). My guess is that the genetic sequence is a red herring, perhaps to throw people off.

      • Try to feed that AGCT stuff to a DNA to aminoacid translation table [hongyu.org]. The result in single letter aminoacid code should mean something, as there are 20 different aminoacids coded by triplets of DNA bases, e.g. ACT=T (for Thereonin). I would try myself, if I wasn't late allready...
        • Don't forget that there are multiple nucleic acid triplets which code for a single amino acid and that these triplets can overlap. So if the output doesn't make sense on the first attempt there are other means of encoding and it'll also change depending on if there's a start codon (AUG) or not.
    • by Sez Zero (586611)

      A large portion of the disc (exactly 8,000 contiguous bytes) has been rewritten with only four different bytes: 0x41, 0x43, 0x47, 0x54.

      So a poem that calls itself "the book of the dead" kills itself?

      Sounds more like a need for literary interpretation than a cryptographic one.

  • by Phoenixlol (1549649) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @01:07PM (#40616563)
    Perhaps "no one has managed (bothered?) to crack the code" because "The person who successfully cracks the encryption will win a copy of every published Gibson book." Just speculation, being unfamiliar with his work.
  • by eyenot (102141) <eyenot@hotmail.com> on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @01:21PM (#40616829) Homepage

    I mean, what's to stop a programmer, who isn't necessarily a heady cryptanalyst, from simply reverse-engineering the Mac application and figuring out exactly how it's done without looking at the poem itself (or the encrypted version) at all?

    So, this isn't a cryptanalysis contest. It's a reverse-engineering contest. A cryptanalyst isn't given the actual encrypting mechanism, the original, and the cipher all out front and asked for an explanation. They just get the cipher and some reasonable expectation of what the original might possibly contain (the words "fuhrer" or "atom" for example).

    So it's kind of boring for me -- a hobbyist with an ardent interest in cryptography -- to bother tackling the problem, when somebody with some familiarity with Macintosh machine language is going to have a severe advantage.

    The contest caters to the wrong crowd and packages itself all wrong.

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      well, you'd still have to figure out the algorithm to decrypt it if it's really devious, I guess that's the point.

      maybe it's a joke and it just a one way hashing algo.

    • So it's kind of boring for me -- a hobbyist with an ardent interest in cryptography -- to bother tackling the problem, when somebody with some familiarity with Macintosh machine language is going to have a severe advantage.

      Not everything in the world is meant for you. Sorry, you aren't the target audience. You also likely aren't the target audience for barbie dolls, but are you going to complain when their marketing doesn't appeal to you?

      • So who is the target audience, then? Macintosh 68K machine language enthusiasts? I have a few SE/30s in storage, but won't be plugging them in and booting them up for this.

        Possibly the best encryption needed would be to store the poem in plaintext on an 800K Mac floppy diskette.....

    • I met the guy who was doing this, and I think it was written in Mac Common Lisp, which obviates any 68k knowledge.

      The one thing it does do is change the NMI vector so you can't use the programmer's key to break into it. That was my small contribution. You may be able to bypass this by running it in multifinder, finding the process-specific NMI vector, and restoring it. You may also be able to set a breakpoint when the NMI vector changes and then reset it. It's been a really long time, and I've forgotten how

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