MD5 hash collision example

Marc Stevens gave an example of two alphanumeric strings that differ in only one byte that have the same MD5 hash value. It may seem like beating a dead horse to demonstrate weaknesses in MD5, but it’s instructive to study the flaws of broken methods. And despite the fact that MD5 has been broken for years, lawyers still use it.

The example claims that




have the same hash value.

This raises several questions.

Are these two strings really different, and if so, how do they differ? If you stare at the strings long enough you can see that they do indeed differ by one character. But how could you compare long strings like this in a more automated way?

How could you compute the MD5 hash values of the strings to verify that they are the same?

The following Python code addresses the questions above.

from hashlib import md5
from difflib import ndiff

def showdiff(a, b):
    for i,s in enumerate(ndiff(a, b)):
        if s[0]==' ': continue
        elif s[0]=='-':
            print(u'Delete "{}" from position {}'.format(s[-1],i))
        elif s[0]=='+':
            print(u'Add "{}" to position {}'.format(s[-1],i))    

a = "TEXTCOLLBYfGiJUETHQ4hAcKSMd5zYpgqf1YRDhkmxHkhPWptrkoyz28wnI9V0aHeAuaKnak"
b = "TEXTCOLLBYfGiJUETHQ4hEcKSMd5zYpgqf1YRDhkmxHkhPWptrkoyz28wnI9V0aHeAuaKnak"

showdiff(a, b)

ahash = md5(a.encode('utf-8')).hexdigest()
bhash = md5(b.encode('utf-8')).hexdigest()
assert(ahash == bhash)

The basis of the showdiff function was from an answer to a question on Stack Overflow.

The output of the call to showdiff is as follows.

Delete "A" from position 21
Add "E" to position 22

This means we can form string b from a by changing the ‘A’ in position 21 to an ‘E’. There was only one difference between the two strings in this example, but showdiff could be useful for understanding more complex differences.

The assert statement passes because both strings hash to faad49866e9498fc1719f5289e7a0269.

Related posts

Finite differences and Pascal’s triangle

The key to solving a lot of elementary what-number-comes-next puzzles is to take first or second differences. For example, if asked what the next item in the series

14, 29, 50, 77, 110, …

the answer (or at lest the answer the person posing the question is most likely looking for) is 149. You might discover this by first looking at the differences of the items:

15, 21, 27, 33, …

The differences all differ by 6, i.e. the second difference of the series is constant. From there you can infer that the next item in the original series will be 39 more than the previous, i.e. it will be 149.

We can apply the same technique for exploring series that are not artificial puzzles. For example, a one-page article by Harlan Brothers [1] asks what would happen if you looked at the products of elements in each row of Pascal’s triangle.

The products grow very quickly, which suggests we work on a log scale. Define

s(n) = \log \prod{k=0}^n \binom{n}{k}  = \sum_{k=0}^n \log \binom{n}{k}

Let’s use a little Python script to look at the first 10 elements in the series.

    from scipy.special import binom
    from numpy import vectorize, log

    def s(n):
        return sum([log(binom(n, k)) for k in range(n+1)])
    s = vectorize(s)

    n = range(1, 11)
    x = s(n)

This prints


Following the strategy at the top of the post, let’s look at the first differences of the sequence with [2]

    y = x[1:] - x[:-1]

This prints


The first differences are increasing by about 0.9, i.e. the second differences are roughly constant. And if we look at the third differences, we find that they’re small and getting smaller the further out you go.

We can easily look further out in the sequence by changing range(1, 11) to range(1, 101). When we do, we find that the second difference are

…, 0.99488052, 0.9949324. 0.99498325

If we look even further out, looking at a thousand terms, the last of the second differences is

…, 0.99949883, 0.99949933, 0.99949983

We might speculate that the second differences are approaching 1 as n → ∞. And this is exactly what is proved in [1], though the author does not work on the log scale. The paper shows that the ratio of the ratio of consecutive lines converges to e. This is equivalent on a log scale to saying the second differences converge to 1.

[1] Harlan J. Brothers. Math Bite: Finding e in Pascal’s Triangle. Mathematics Magazine , Vol. 85, No. 1 (February 2012), p. 51

[2] In Python, array elements are numbered starting at 0, and x[1:] represents all but the first elements of x. The index −1 is a shorthand for the last element, so x{:-1] means all the elements of x up to (but not including) the last.

Factoring pseudoprimes

Fermat’s little theorem says that if p is a prime number, then for any positive integer b < p we hve

bp−1 = 1 (mod p).

This theorem gives a necessary but not sufficient condition for a number to be prime.

Fermat’s primality test

The converse of Fermat’s little theorem is not always true, but it’s often true. That is, if there exists some base 1 < b < n such that

bn−1 = 1 (mod n)

then n is likely to be prime. There are examples where the equation above holds for a pair (b, n) even though n is not prime, and in that case n is called a pseudoprime to the base b.

If you’re searching for large primes, say for use in encryption, then you’d begin by applying Fermat’s little theorem with a few small values of b. This is because although Fermat’s test can’t prove that a number is prime, it can prove that a number is not prime.

For a small example, suppose you wanted to test whether 50621 is prime. You could start by applying Fermat’s test with b = 2 as in the following Python code.

>>> n = 50621
>>> 2**(n−1) % n

Since the result is not 1, we know 50621 is not prime. This doesn’t tell us what the factors of 50621 are, but we know that it has nontrivial factors. We say 2 is a witness that the number 50621 is not prime.

Next, let’s see whether 294409 might be prime.

>>> n = 294409
>>> 2**(n – 1) % n

This tells us 294409 might be prime. It has passed a test that filters out a lot of composite numbers. What now? We could try other values of b: 3, 5, 7, 11, …. This will not resolve the question of whether 294409 is prime unless we keep going until we try 37. And in fact 37 is the smallest factor of 294409. Our number 294409 is a Carmichael number, a composite number n that passes Fermat’s primality test for all bases b relatively prime to n.

Note that it would be more efficient to use pow(b, n − 1, n) rather than 2**(n − 1) % n because the former takes advantage of the fact that we don’t need to compute 2n−1 per se and can reduce all intermediate calculations mod n.

Factoring pseudoprimes

Now suppose we have a number n that has passed Fermat’s primality test for some base b and we suspect that n is a pseudoprime. If we want to (try to) factor n, knowing that it is a pseudoprime to the base b gives us a head start. We can exploit the fact that we know b to factor n in polynomial time, unless n is a strong pseudoprime.

Suppose we have a number n that we suspect is a pseudoprime to the base b, and we’re smart enough to at least check that n is an odd number, then we begin by pulling out all the factors of 2 that we can from n − 1:

n − 1 = 2e f.

Next consider the set of numbers


for k = 1, 2, 4, …, 2e. Let x be the smallest of these numbers which is not congruent to 1 mod n. The existence of such an x is essentially the definition of strong pseudoprime [1].

Then gcd(x − 1, n) and gcd(x + 1, n) are factors of n. This is theorem 10.4 of [2].

Python example

Let n = 873181. This is a pseudoprime to the base b = 3, which we can confirm by seeing that pow(3, n−1, n) returns 1.

Now 873180 is divisible by 4 but not by 8, so e = 2. So the theorem above says we should compute

>>> b, e = 3, 2
>>> [pow(b, f*2**k, n) for k in range(e+1)]

This produces [2643, 1, 1]. So x = 2643,

>> x = 2643
>>> from sympy import gcd
>>> gcd(x−1, n)
>>> gcd(x+1, n)

shows that 1321 and 661 are both factors of 873181.

Related posts

[1] Definition of strong pseudoprime. A strong pseudo prime to base b is a composite odd integer m such that if m − 1 = 2ef  with f odd, then either bf = 1 (mod m) or bf2c ≡ −1 (mod m) for some 0 ≤ c < e.

[2] The Joy of Factoring by Samuel S. Wagstaff, Jr.

Computing inverse factorial

I needed the inverse factorial function for my previous post. I was sure I’d written a post on computing the inverse factorial, and intended to reuse the code from that earlier post. But when I searched I couldn’t find anything, so I’m posting the code here for my future reference and for anyone else who may need it.

Given a positive number x, how can you find a number n such that n! = x, or such that n! ≈ x?

Mathematical software tends to work with the gamma function rather than factorials because Γ(x) extends x! to real numbers, with the relation Γ(x+1) = x!. The left side is often taken as a definition of the right side when x is not a positive integer.

Not only do we prefer to work with the gamma function, it’s easier to work with the logarithm of the gamma function to avoid overflow.

The Python code below finds the inverse of the log of the gamma function using the bisection method. This method requires an upper and lower bound. If we only pass in positive values, 0 serves as a lower bound. We can find an upper bound by trying powers of 2 until we get something large enough.

from scipy.special import gammaln
from scipy.optimize import bisect

def inverse_log_gamma(logarg):
    assert(logarg > 0)
    a = 1
    b = 2
    while b < logarg:
        b = b*2
    return bisect(lambda x: gammaln(x) - logarg, a, b)

def inverse_factorial(logarg):
    g = inverse_log_gamma(logarg)
    return round(g)-1 

Note that the inverse_factorial function takes the logarithm of the value whose inverse factorial you want to compute.

For example,


returns 42.

Working on the log scale lets us work with much larger numbers. The factorial of 171 is larger than the largest IEEE double precision number, and so inverse_factorial could not return any value larger than 171 if we passed in x rather than log x. But by taking log x as the argument, we can calculate inverse factorials of numbers so large that the factorial overflows.

For example, suppose we want to find the value of m such that m! is the closest factorial to √(2024!), as we did in the previous post. We can use the code


to find m = 1112 even though 1112! is on the order of 102906, far larger than the largest representable floating point number, which is on the order of 10308.

When n! = x does not have an exact solution, there is some choice over what value of n to return as the inverse factorial of x. The code above minimizes the distance from n! to x on a log scale. You might want to modify the code to minimize the distance on a linear scale, or to find the largest n with n! < x, or the smallest n with n! > x depending on your application.

Related posts

Kepler triangle

A Kepler triangle is a right triangle whose sides are in geometric progression. That is, if the sides have length a < b < c, then b/a = c/b = k.

All Kepler triangles are similar because the proportionality constant k can only take on one value. To see this, we first pick our units so that a = 1. Then b = k and c = k². By the Pythagorean theorem

a² + b² = c²

and so

1 + k2 = k4

which means k² equals the golden ratio φ.

Here’s a nice geometric property of the Kepler triangle proved in [1].

Go around the triangle counterclockwise placing a point on each side dividing the side into pieces that are in golden proportion. Connect these three points with the opposite vertex. Then the triangle formed by the intersections of these line segments is also a Kepler triangle.

On each side, the ratio of the length of the green segment to the blue segment is φ. The grey triangle in the middle is another Kepler triangle.

The rest of this post will present the code that was used to create the image above.

We’ll need the following imports.

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from numpy import array
from numpy.linalg import solve

We’ll also need to define the golden ratio, a function to split a line segment into golden proportions, and a function to draw a line between two points.

φ = (1 + 5**0.5)/2

def golden_split(pt1, pt2):
    return (1/φ)*pt1 + (1 - 1/φ)*pt2

def connect(pt1, pt2, style):
    plt.plot([pt1[0], pt2[0]], [pt1[1], pt2[1]], style)

Now we can draw the figure.

A = array([0, 1])
B = array([0, 0])
C = array([φ**0.5, 0])

X = golden_split(A, B)
Y = golden_split(B, C)
Z = golden_split(C, A)

connect(A, X, "b")
connect(X, B, "g")
connect(B, Y, "b")
connect(Y, C, "g")
connect(C, Z, "b")
connect(Z, A, "g")
connect(A, Y, "grey")
connect(B, Z, "grey")
connect(C, X, "grey")


We can show algebraically that the golden_split works as claimed, but here is a numerical illustration.

assert(abs( (C[0] - Y[0]) / (Y[0] - A[0]) - φ) < 1e-14)

Similarly, we can show numerically what [1] proves exactly, i.e. that the triangle in the middle is a Kepler triangle.

from numpy.linalg import solve, norm

def intersect(pt1, pt2, pt3, pt4):
    # Find the intersection of the line joining pt1 and pt2
    # with the line joining pt3 and pt4.
    m1 = (pt2[1] - pt1[1])/(pt2[0] - pt1[0])
    m3 = (pt4[1] - pt3[1])/(pt4[0] - pt3[0])
    A = array([[m1, -1], [m3, -1]])
    rhs = array([m1*pt1[0]-pt1[1], m3*pt3[0]-pt3[1]])
    x = solve(A, rhs)
    return x

I = intersect(A, Y, C, X)
J = intersect(A, Y, B, Z)
K = intersect(B, Z, C, X)

assert( abs( norm(I - J)/norm(J - K) - φ**0.5 ) < 1e-14 )
assert( abs( norm(I - K)/norm(I - J) - φ**0.5 ) < 1e-14 )

Related posts

[1] Jun Li. Some properties of the Kepler triangle. The Mathematical Gazette, November 2017, Vol. 101, No. 552, pp. 494–495

Cross-platform way to enter Unicode characters

The previous post describes the hoops I jumped through to enter Unicode characters on a Mac. Here’s a script to run from the command line that will copy Unicode characters to the system clipboard. It runs anywhere the Python module pyperclip runs.

    #!/usr/bin/env python3

    import sys
    import pyperclip

    cp = sys.argv[1]
    ch = eval(f"chr(0x{cp})")

I called this script U so I could type

    U 03c0

at the command line, for example, it would print π to the command line and also copy it to the clipboard.

Unlike the MacOS solution in the previous post, this works for any Unicode value, i.e. for code points above FFFF.

On my Linux box I had to install xclip before pyperclip would work.

Curvature at Cairo

I was flipping through Gravitation [1] this weekend and was curious about an illustration on page 309. This post reproduces that graph.

The graph is centered at Cairo, Egypt and includes triangles whose side lengths are the distances between cities. The triangles are calculated using only distances, not by measuring angles per se.

The geometry of each triangle is Euclidean: giving the three edge lengths fixes all the features of the figure, including the indicated angle. … The triangles that belong to a given vertex [i.e. Cairo], laid out on a flat surface, fail to meet.

I will reproduce the plot in Python because I’m more familiar with making plots there. But I’ll get the geographic data out of Mathematica, because I know how to do that there.

Geographic information from Mathematica

I found the distances between the various cities using the GeoDistance function in Mathematica. The arguments to GeoDistance are “entities” which are a bit opaque. When using Mathematica interactively, you can use ctrl + = to enter the name of an entity. There’s some guesswork, e.g. whether I meant New York City or the state of New York when I entered “New York”, but Mathematica guessed correctly. The following code lists the city entities explicitly.

    cities = {
        Entity["City", {"Cairo", "Cairo", "Egypt"}], 
        Entity["City", {"Delhi", "Delhi", "India"}], 
        Entity["City", {"Moscow", "Moscow", "Russia"}], 
        Entity["City", {"Brussels", "Brussels", "Belgium"}], 
        Entity["City", {"Reykjavik", "Hofudhborgarsvaedhi", "Iceland"}], 
        Entity["City", {"NewYork", "NewYork", "UnitedStates"}], 
        Entity["City", {"CapeTown", "WesternCape", "SouthAfrica"}], 
        Entity["City", {"PortLouis", "PortLouis", "Mauritius"}] }

Most of these are predictable, but I would not have guessed the code for Reykjavik or Cape Town. I found these by using the command InputForm and entering the entities as above.

I found the distance from Cairo to each of the other cities with

    Table[GeoDistance[cities[[1]], cities[[i]]], {i, 2, 8}]

and the distances from the cities to their neighbors with

    Table[GeoDistance[cities[[i]], cities[[i + 1]]], {i, 2, 7}]
    GeoDistance[cities[[8]], cities[[2]]]

Drawing the plot

Now that we’ve got the data, how do we draw the plot?

Let’s put Cairo at the origin. First we draw a line from Cairo to Delhi. We might as well put Delhi on the x-axis to make things simple.

Next we need to plot Moscow. We know the distance R1 from Cairo to Moscow, and the distance R2 from Delhi to Moscow. So imagine drawing a circle of radius R1 centered at Cairo and a circle of radius R1 centered at Delhi. Moscow is located where the two circles intersect. The previous post shows how to find the intersection of circles.

The two circles intersect in at two points, so which do we choose? We choose the intersection point that preserves the orientation of the original graph (and the globe). As we go through the cities in counterclockwise order, the cross product of the previous line to the next line should have positive z component.

This shows that the original graph was not to scale, though the gap between triangles was approximately to scale. In hindsight this should have been obvious: Brussels and Reykjavik are much closer to each other than Capetown and New York are.

The gap

Why the gap? Because the earth is curved at Cairo (and everywhere else). If the earth were flat, the triangles would fit together without any gaps.

There’s no gap when you take spherical triangles on the globe. But even though the triangles preserve length when projected to the plane, they cannot preserve angles too. The sum of the angles in a spherical triangle adds up to more than 180°, and the amount by which the sum exceeds 180° is proportional to the size of the spherical triangle. Since the angles of triangles in the plane do add up to 180°, each flat triangle fails to capture a bit of the corresponding spherical triangles, and the failures add up to the gap we see in the image.

[1] Gravitation by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. 1973.

Calculating the intersection of two circles

Given the equations for two circles, how can you tell whether they intersect? And if they do intersect, how do you find the point(s) of intersection?

MathWorld gives a derivation, but I’d like to add the derivation there in two ways. First, I’d like to be more explicit about the number of solutions. Second, I’d like to make the solution more general.

The derivation begins with the simplifying assumption that one circle is centered at the origin and the other circle is centered somewhere along the x-axis. You can always change coordinates so that this is the case, and doing so simplifies the presentation. Undoing this simplification is implicitly left as an exercise to the reader. I will go through this exercise here because I want a solution I can use in software.

Finding the x coordinate

Suppose the first circle, the one centered at the origin, has radius R. The other circle is centered at (d, 0) for some d, and has radius r. The  x-coordinate of the intersection is shown to satisfy the following equation.

x = \frac{d^2 -r^2 + R^2}{2d}

When I got to this point in the derivation I was wondering what assumption was made that guaranteed there is a solution. Clearly if you increase d enough, moving the second circle to the right, the circles won’t intersect. And yet the derivation for x always succeeds, unless d = 0. If d does equal 0, the two circles are concentric. In that case they’re the same circle if R = r; otherwise they never intersect.

Finding the y coordinate

Why does the derivation for x always succeed even though the intersection might be empty? The resolution depends on the solution for y. What we’ve found is that if the circles intersect, the x coordinate of the point(s) of intersection is given by the equation above.

The y coordinate of the point(s) of intersection satisfies

 \begin{align*} y^2 &= \frac{4d^2R^2 - (d^2 - r^2 + R^2)^2}{4d^2} \\ &= \frac{(-d+r-R)(-d-r+R)(-d+r+R)(d+r+R)}{4d^2} \end{align*}

If the numerator is negative, there is no real solution, no intersection. If the numerator is zero, there is one solution, and the two circles are tangent. if the numerator is positive, there are two solutions.

The distance between the two intersection points, if there are two intersection points, is a = 2|y|. This will be needed below.

a = \frac{\sqrt{(-d+r-R)(-d-r+R)(-d+r+R)(d+r+R)}}{d}

General position

Now suppose we’re first circle is centered at (x0, y0) and the second circle is centered at (x1, y1). Again we let d be the distance between the centers of the circles. The circles intersect twice if d < R + r, once if d = R + r, and never if d > R + r.

Imagine for a moment shifting and rotating the plane so that (x0, y0) goes to the origin and goes to (d, 0). The length of the line segment between the two intersection points is still given by a above. And the distance from the center of the first circle to that line segment is given by the equation for x above.

So to find the points of intersection, we first form a unit vector in the direction of the center of the first circle headed toward the center of the second circle. This is the black line at the top of the post. We move a distance x along this line, with x as in the equation above, and then move perpendicularly a distance a/2 in either direction. This is the dashed gray line.

Python code

The following code implements the algorithm described above.

    def circle_intersect(x0, y0, r0, x1, y1, r1):
        c0 = np.array([x0, y0])
        c1 = np.array([x1, y1])
        v = c1 - c0
        d = np.linalg.norm(v)
        if d > r0 + r1 or d == 0:
            return None
        u = v/np.linalg.norm(v)
        xvec = c0 + (d**2 - r1**2 + r0**2)*u/(2*d)
        uperp = np.array([u[1], -u[0]])
        a = ((-d+r1-r0)*(-d-r1+r0)*(-d+r1+r0)*(d+r1+r0))**0.5/d
        return (xvec + a*uperp/2, xvec - a*uperp/2)


This post started out to be part of the next post, but it turned out to be big enough to make its own post. The next post looks carefully at an example that illustrates how you could discover that you’re living on a curved surface just by measuring the distances to points around you. I needed the code in this post to make the image in the next post.

Filtering on how words are being used

Yesterday I wrote about how you could use the spaCy Python library to find proper nouns in a document. Now suppose you want to refine this and find proper nouns that are the subjects of sentences or proper nouns that are direct objects.

This post was motivated by a project in which I needed to pull out company names from a large amount of text, and it was important to know how the company name was being used.

Dependency labels

Tokens in spaCy have a dependency label attribute dep (or dep_ for its string representation). Dependency labels tell you how a word is being used. For example, dobj tells you the word is being used as a direct object, and nsubj tells you its being used as a nominal subject.

In yesterday’s post the line

    if tok.pos_ == "PROPN":

filtered tokens to look for proper nouns. We could modify the script to also tell us how the proper nouns are being used by printing tok.dep_.

There are three proper nouns in the opening paragraph of Moby Dick: Ishmael, November, and Cato.

Call me Ishmael. … whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword …

If we run

    if tok.pos_ == "PROPN":
        print(tok, tok.dep_)

on the first paragraph we get

    Ishmael oprd
    November attr
    Cato nsubj

but it’s not obvious what the output means. If we wrap tok.dep_ with spacy.explain we get a more verbose explanation.

    Ishmael object predicate
    November attribute
    Cato nominal subject

Pulling out subjects

Now suppose we wanted to pull out words that are subjects. We could filter on tok.dep_ == "nsubj" but there are more kinds of subjects than just nominal subjects. There are six kinds of subjects:

  1. nsubj: nominal subject
  2. nsubjpass: nominal passive subject
  3. csubj: clausal subject
  4. csubjpass: clausal passive subject
  5. agent: agent
  6. expl: expletive

Finding the range of possible values for dependency labels takes some digging. I don’t believe it’s in the spaCy documentation per se, but if you’re persistent you’ll find a link this list or the paper it came from.

AM over GM

Suppose you take the arithmetic mean and the geometric mean of the first n integers. The ratio of these two means converges to e/2 as n grows [1]. In symbols,

\lim_{n\to\infty} \frac{(1 + 2 + 3 + \cdots + n)/n}{\sqrt[n]{1 \cdot2 \cdot3 \cdots n}} = \frac{e}{2}

Now suppose we wanted to visualize the convergence by plotting the expression on the left side for a sequence of ns.

First let’s let n run from 1 to 100.

This isn’t very convincing. Maybe the convergence is just slow, or maybe it’s not actually converging to e/2. Let’s make another plot including larger values of n. This will require a little additional work.

Avoiding overflow

Here’s the code that made the plot above.

    import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
    import numpy as np
    from scipy.special import factorial

    AM = lambda n: (n+1)/2
    GM = lambda n: factorial(n)**(1/n)
    n = np.arange(1, 100)
    plt.plot(n, AM(n)/GM(n))
    plt.plot(n, 0*n + np.exp(1)/2, 'r--')

This works for n up to 170, but it fails when n = 171 because at that point factorial overflows.

This is a very common situation. We ultimately want to compute a fairly small number, but we encounter extremely large numbers in an intermediate step.

We need to avoid directly calculating n! before taking the nth root. The way to do this is to work with logarithms. Now n! = Γ(n+1) and SciPy has a function for computing the log of the gamma function directly without first computing the gamma function, thus avoiding overflow.

We replace GM above with GM2 below:

    GM2 = lambda n: np.exp(gammaln(n+1)/n)

Now we compute the geometric mean of the first n natural numbers for very large values of n. We only need n = 1000 to see convergence, but the code could handle much larger values of n without overflowing.

Related posts

[1] Richard P. Kubelka. Means to an End. Mathematics Magazine, Vol. 74, No. 2 (April 2001), pp. 141–142