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July 31, 2009
Snake Oil Salesman
In cryptography, we've long used the term "snake oil" to refer to crypto systems with good marketing hype and little actual security. It's the phrase I generalized into "security theater."
Well, it turns out that there really is a snake oil salesman.
Posted on July 31, 2009 at 1:11 PM
• 14 Comments
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Thanks Bruce! My squeaky snake was really keeping me up at night!
@Daniel Haran is on point.
The original Chinese snake oil, high in EPA (Omega-3 oils), provided relief from inflammation, particularly that associated with arthritis.
Copy-cat remedies made from other animals, petroleum, and other sources, lacked that constituent and were fraudulent.
Today Omega-3 oils, EPA, and DHA, are recognized for their healthy and anti-inflammatory properties. Ironic how things have come full-circle.
The term "snake oil salesman" is still appropriate, though, to my mind. It identifies a class of hucksters who sell a product with claimed benefits, often based or related in some tangential way to one which actually does work, but which fails to include or correctly assimilate some essential ingredient, property, or characteristic. There's a cargo-cultism about it as well.
Years ago, on a roadside in Northern Mexico, I was with a friend who bought snakeoil from a real snakeoil salesman. He was also selling dried rattlesnake meat and snake skin. The snake oil was supposed to be good for rubbing on wherever it hurt. The results were not as promised. I was told that the dried snake meat tasted pretty good mixed in with scrambled eggs.
The (snake oil: specious security) metaphor isn't entirely inappropriate, just a bit more nuanced than commonly constructed. And perhaps its meaning is still evolving.
It its original context, snake oil was and is a well respected, widely used remedy. As its popularity grew in the US, less-than-entirely-ethical folks moved to cash in by selling "Snake Oil" products containing little or no actual snake oil. So "Snake Oil" got a bad reputation. Now having developed epistemological and knowledge structures sufficient to posit a plausible mechanism of action, some biomedical practitioners are recognizing that the substance may well have beneficial physiological effects. It'd take more effort and resources to determine (in a way acceptable to biomedical research communities) the utility of snake oil.
The underlying issue for the metaphor, I believe, is one of deceptive marketing. The "true product" (snake oil, security device, extended cell phone warranty, ...) may or may not be capable of delivering the functionality that's promised. With some effort, this is testable and resolvable.
The problematic situation arises when the product that's being delivered (a "faux product") isn't what has been promised (the "true product") and most folks don't have the analytical equipment to recognize the fraud.
By the way it's not just "real snake oil" that has beniffits.
The venom of most snakes is a very complex mixture of quite interesting "poisons".
If you think about it the snake venom has three purposes,
1, protect the snake by making the prey less likely to fight back.
2, Kill or imobalise the prey slowly so that,
3, get the "digestive" enzime content of the snake venom compleatly around the preys circulatory system.
All of these have high utility in medicine so yeh the snake is a rich source of medicinaly active chemicals.
And as one poster has noted they taste nice and are simple to cook, importantly the oil burns without visable smoke.
The easy way to cook snake,
1, catch / kill / skin / gut.
2, chop into 1/2 inch thick rounds.
3, place flat in a mess tin or other cooking pot (a metal plate will work).
4, pour on a little brandy or whisky and light.
The heat from the alcohol burning releases the oil which starts to burn and the protien rich flesh quickly cooks in the burning oil.
Quick (almost) easy hot food without smoke to give away your position.
"The original Chinese snake oil, high in EPA (Omega-3 oils), provided relief from inflammation, particularly that associated with arthritis."
It worked especialy well with traditional Chinese "thousand year" eggs.
The eggs where fresh chickens eggs that where pickeled in their shells for a month. The resulting egg looks like a hard boild egg that has been over cooked in that it is a very dark colour.
Oh I forgot to mention that the egg was so usefull because it was very high in steroids which as we know today have all sorts of usefull medicinal properties.
The egg it's self did not have any steroids, it simply concentrated them from the pickling liquid which was the urine from a pregnant mare...
Before you think uck or whatever modern non traditional eggs use an entirely different pickling solution as the genuine artical for obvious reasons is prohibited from sale in most parts of the world.
Well, it seems the genuine article is unreasonably malingned. But this is even better! You can call stuff snake-oil and if you are called on it, you can appear wise by explaining that it is really faked snake-oil that is the problem!
I prefer the terms "ophidilipid" and "oleophidian".
Snake oil is so last century. The new crook is the magnetic underlay salesman.
@kells "new crook is the magnetic underlay salesman"
Well the autobody undercoaters had to go somewhere
How apropos -- snake oil on Reuters site!
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