Sunday, August 7, 2011

Genius and Stupidity


Email received:

From: <>
Date: Wed, 3 Aug 2011 19:59:15 -0400
Subject: ATT: Account User

ATT: Account User,

Our data base has full and we want to expand to a better service, also we want to change our log in page for all User to prevent to receiving of unwanted emails. We requested that all our customers should send us the bellow details:

User Name_______
Pass Word________
Date of Birth___

Failure to send us the above information 48hrs after receiving this email will render your account useless.

Thanks, Account Dept.

Shout the "pass word" loudly— they want the bellow details.

I don't like to mix work and blog, but I'm going somewhere with this. There are several attempts a day to send messages like this to our user community at, and we block almost all of them using custom rules that I created. This past week two of them made it through and I was not feeling too good about it.

The one above was very old fashioned. It wanted the person to send the credentials by reply email. We can block the replies. They took the trouble to insert our edu domain into the text many times, which they don't usually do. That makes it spear phishing, not just phishing.

Next one. I've changed the sender. This was sent from a user account that was probably stolen using a message like this. I could mock the sender by leaving the name. I won't. I've changed the web page it directs to, also.

From: First Last <>
Date: Fri, 5 Aug 2011 08:51:25 -0500
Subject: Important Notice fron the Helpdesk


Your E-mail box has reached its maximum limit of 20 GB of storage and Your account will be disabled if you do not update now.   To upgrade your account,please click the link below and follow the instructions to upgrade to more storage space.

Your account will remain active after you have confirmed your account successfully.   |Auburn,Alabama 36849

=A9 Copyright 2011 Regulation

This is the modern way. They send you to a web page to give away your identity.

Mail fron our helpdesk does not usually come from another edu domain, nor have we relocated the university to Auburn, Alabama, so this was not totally convincing.

I often check the web page used in these things. This one was a commonly used form made with the phpFormGenerator software. When you have a URL, if you go up the tree by deleting one level at a time off the right side, sometimes you get to other pages that will tell you whose site it is. With these phishing pages, chances are the thieves don't own the web site. More likely they stole a password to get access. It's what they do.

In this case, once I backed up to, I got to a page that showed me the forms I had created so far, and asked whether I'd like to create another one. And for each one I had created so far, it asked whether I wanted to delete it. So in this case the thieves did not steal a password. You don't need one. D'oh! I told the site owner and the hosting service.

The form was gone the next day.

But let's get on to the good part. Look at the box on the left side under the title "wise words".

What is the difference between genius and stupidity?
Genius has limits.
— Albert Einstein.

Oh, that Einstein. I wondered on what occasion he said this.

Almost at once I also thought of Yogi Berra's wise words, "I really didn't say everything I said". That is the title of a book he wrote, so I think he did say that one.

Famous quotes are always by famous people who are known for famous quotes. Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison. They said a lot of things they didn't really say.

Google says there are 1,710,000 web pages containing that quote and the name Einstein. Could they all be wrong?

Well of course they could all be wrong.

There's an alternate quote:

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
— Albert Einstein

The mention of the universe makes it sound a little more like Einstein. He was always thinking deep thoughts about the universe and infinity.

I tried various searches to get past the nearly two million people quoting other people quoting other people in endless recursion.

The saying with "the difference between genius and stupidity" is common in print only since 1996. It must have appeared in some widely read or heard source that year. And it was not at first attributed to Einstein. It seems to be anonymous until 2000.

The oldest print citation I could find is from 1961. It's in a trade periodical called Grassroots Editor, volume 2 page 34. The page contains humorous quotes collected from local papers.

One man says that the difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.
Louisville (Ky) Irish-American

Einstein died in 1955. I'd like to have found the quote somewhere during his lifetime, if I'm going to consider that he might have said it. Did the editor of the Louisville Irish-American make it up? I wouldn't rule it out.

I've got to say that a date as old as 1961 surprised me. The sarcastic tone sounds either more modern or else jumps us back a century to the days of Mark Twain.

But the gist of the quote might have been stated earlier in a different form. So I looked a little further.

Back! Back!

In the scientific biography Claude Bernard by Michael Foster, 1899, page 229, we find:

But in the origin of the hypothesis out of the observation, and in the framing of the needed experiment, there is room for all the difference between genius and stupidity.

He goes on to imply that there are more ways to be stupid than genius, but he doesn't make it into a pithy remark. He keeps to a certain elevated tone that you can probably pick up from the one sentence.

Back in 1873, if we had picked up an issue of Every Saturday / A Journal of Choice Reading, we would find on page 530 an article called "The Modesty of Genius" by an author whose name is not supplied. He or she writes as follows (in an essay that runs for twenty-two pages of double columns in small print, to be continued next issue, that makes me wonder how far into the year it took to reach page 530):

The man of genius attributes to obstinacy or idleness what is the result of good, plain, honest stupidity. [...] Perhaps it would be as well if, for a brief period of his life, everybody was condemned to be a schoolmaster or a crammer, in order that he might more or less fathom the stupendous abysses of human stupidity.

There! The stupendous abysses of human stupidity! It's not the quickly tossed-off remark that Einstein made in another universe, but it speaks of the genius's limitations in comprehending stupidity itself. If only there had been a witty bon mot the author could have put in there.

Let's go forty years earlier if we may. In a number of The European Magazine and London Review from 1821, page 301, we come to an article by M M D called "On the Gradations of the Human Intellect". In one of the shorter sentences he or she has this to say:

The most sublime genius has but indistinct views, or confused ideas, of whatever is placed beyond the proper limits of his understanding ; and though he has clear ideas of whatever is placed within these limits, this does not distinguish him from the dunce ; for the stupidest mortal will perceive whatever is placed within the reach of his understanding, as clearly and distinctly as Locke or Newton.

That's 190 years ago. Have we reached the limit? Maybe not. According to some web pages, we can go all the way back to the poet John Dryden (1631-1700), who wrote:

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
— "Cymon and Iphigenia" (l. 107)

This was exciting! It's the alternate version contrasting stupidity not to genius but to the universe, and it's got a specific cite down to the line number in a certain poem. It sounds so modern, and yet, they couldn't put it on the web if it wasn't true.

Sigh. The World Wide Web lets us down again. It lets us down, it lets us down. Here is what you will find at line 107 of "Cymon and Iphigenia":

The fool of nature stood with stupid eyes
And gaping mouth, that testified surprise.

It's somewhat apt, but not what we were looking for.

Inevitably, while I was searching around, I came across this, and said to myself, self, you didn't know it, but this is the quote you were looking for:

There is such a fine line between genius and stupidity.
- David St Hubbins, This Is Spinal Tap

But, despite the solemn word of 6,410 web pages, that's not what St Hubbins said. I don't know what to believe any more. My faith in humanity is shattered.

This is actually how it went:

David St Hubbins: It's such a fine line between stupid, and uh...
Nigel Tufnel: Clever.
David St Hubbins: Yeah, and clever.

And with this week's blog: Q E D.


1 comment:

  1. Could it have been Dryden, and not Franklin (or Einstein), who said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results?