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Michael Lewis and the parable of the lucky man taking the extra cookie

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In 2012, Michael Lewis gave a commencement speech at Princeton University, his alma mater. In the speech, Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, and The Big Short, talks about the role of luck in rationalizing success. He tells the graduates, the winners of so many of life’s lotteries, that they “owe a debt to the unlucky”. This part near the end is worth reading even if you skip the rest of it.

I now live in Berkeley, California. A few years ago, just a few blocks from my home, a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.

This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I’m sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.

You can watch Lewis’ speech as delivered on YouTube:

I wonder if hearing that moved the needle for any of those grads? I suspect not…being born on third base thinking you hit a triple is as American as apple pie at this point. (via @goldman)

Tags: commencement speeches   Michael Lewis   Princeton   video
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14 days ago
well put
14 days ago
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13 days ago
Excellent! Don't forget to help your lucky friends come to the same realization.
15 days ago
Well, as someone who was "born on third base" and is making decent progress on scoring a run (to keep up the analogy), I can tell you that there's at least one of us out here who is damn well aware that luck has played a significant part and does at least try to pretend that he doesn't deserve the cookie.

“If only there were a vast empirical literature…”

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Paul Krugman blogged on that, with initial impetus from Noah Smith.  Here is Noah:

If you and your buddies have a political argument, a vast literature can help you defend your argument even if it’s filled with vague theory, sloppy bad empirics, arguments from authority, and other crap. If someone smart comes along and tries to tell you you’re wrong about something, just demand huffily that she go read the vast literature before she presumes to get involved in the debate. Chances are she’ll just quit the argument and go home, unwilling to pay the effort cost of wading through dozens of crappy papers. And if she persists in the argument without reading the vast literature, you can just denounce her as uninformed and willfully ignorant. Even if she does decide to pay the cost and read the crappy vast literature, you have extra time to make your arguments while she’s so occupied. And you can also bog her down in arguments over the minute details of this or that crappy paper while you continue to advance your overall thesis to the masses.

…My solution to this problem is what I call the Two Paper Rule. If you want me to read the vast literature, cite me two papers that are exemplars and paragons of that literature. Foundational papers, key recent innovations – whatever you like (but no review papers or summaries). Just two. I will read them.

If these two papers are full of mistakes and bad reasoning, I will feel free to skip the rest of the vast literature. Because if that’s the best you can do, I’ve seen enough.

Those are both interesting posts, but my perspective is different, probably more as a matter of temperament than thinking they are objectively wrong.  Here are a few comments:

1. The best two papers on ethics are not very convincing.  Nonetheless people who have worked their way through a good amount of that literature are much better at ethical reasoning than those who have not.

2. The best two papers on global warming are not very convincing.  What is convincing is how many different perspectives and how many different branches of science point toward broadly similar conclusions.  In fact the aggregate effect here is quite overwhelming (don’t debate gw in the comments, not today; I’ll delete).  It is a question of many moats, not all of them being entirely muddy.

3. I see the Smith-Krugman standard as fairly economistic, and fairly MIT-late 20th century at that.  It is one vision of what a good literature looks like, and a fairly narrow one.  It will elevate simple answers in status, whether or not that is deserved.  It discriminates against dialogic knowledge, book-based knowledge, historical knowledge, and knowledge when the answers and methods are not very exact.  There is the risk of ending up too certain about one’s knowledge.

That all said, I do understand that specialized top researchers, including Nobel Laureates, often may do better holding relatively narrow methodological visions.  Look at all the Nobel Prizes that have been awarded to Chicago.  It might be entirely correct to insist that Becker’s treatise on the family pay more attention to anthropology, but that doesn’t mean he should have followed that advicee.

4. The standard seems to discourage reading, and I would not want to teach it to my students.  I teach something more like “always read more, unless you are writing or doing relevant quantitative work.  And one reason you write is to improve the quality of your reading.  Read more and write more, all the time.”  I still think that is better advice for most (not all) people.

5. Isn’t there a lot to be said for deferring to the opinions of those who have read through the “muddy moat”?  By no means are they all partisans, and the non-partisan ones care most of all about the truth.  After all, they did all that reading!  Defer, rather than trust so much in your ability to pick you the right two papers, or have someone pick them out for you.  I have a much more positive view of survey articles than does Noah, while understanding they do often leave you fairly agnostic on major issues.

6. If the truth of the matter is in fact muddy, you may need to dip into the muddy moat to learn that.

7. The difference between total value and marginal value may be relevant.  You might conclude a field literature has low total value, but the marginal value of learning more about that area still could be quite high.  That is in part because muddy fields and results don’t spread so readily, and so dipping into the muck can yield some revelations.  That is another reason why I would not offer the “two paper standard” as practical advice.

8. If anything, I would put the reading pressure on the other side, namely more rather than less.  Rather than encouraging readers to dismiss or downgrade fields, I would urge them to consult different disciplines altogether, including political science, sociology, and anthropology, others too.  This is much easier to do if you take a more positive attitude toward survey articles.

9. This is quite a subjective impression, but I worry that the dogmatic will use the two paper standard to dismiss or downgrade particular lines of investigation.

10. I don’t know if Noah and Paul were referring to my colleague Garett Jones, who frequently tweets “…if only there were a vast empirical literature” when he sees claims that he regards as empirically false.  Now, I am not the Garett Jones oracle, but I always took his use of the word “vast” to be slightly sarcastic.  Usually these are cases where even a fairly cursory knowledge of the literature in question would indicate something is wrong with the claim at hand.  In my view, Garett is not demanding “vastness” of effort, rather he is criticizing those who don’t grasp what the effort space looks like in the first place.

The post “If only there were a vast empirical literature…” appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

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35 days ago
surprisingly relevant conversation.
do you demand "completely thought out " proposal or should a manager look for a dialogue
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35 days ago
I sympathize with both sides of this argument, and I wonder if it would work better to demand a textbook recommendation.
Mountain View, CA

Neutral vs. Conservative: The Eternal Struggle

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Vox’s David Roberts writes about Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology.

It’s got a long and complicated argument which I can’t really do justice to here, but the thesis seems to be that the US Right is defecting against the country’s shared institutions in favor of forming its own echo chambers.

So for example, there used to be a relatively fair media in which both liberals and conservatives got their say. But Republicans didn’t like having to deal with facts, so they formed their own alternative media – FOX and Rush Limbaugh and everyone in that sphere – where only conservatives would have a say and their fake facts would never get challenged.

Or: everyone used to trust academia as a shared and impartial arbitrator of truth. But conservatives didn’t like the stuff it found – whether about global warming or trickle-down economics or whatever – so they seceded into their own world of alternative facts where some weird physicist presents his case that global warming is a lie, or a Breitbart journalist is considered an expert on how cultural Marxism explains everything about post-WWII American history.

It concludes that “the press cannot be neutral”, although it also “cannot afford to be, or be seen as primarily instruments of the Democrats”. To its credit, it admits this is kind of contradictory:

They must figure out a way to play a dual role: to be fair and consistent referees of policy and ideological disputes within the public square — while also acting to defend the institutional integrity of the square itself from what is, at present, a highly asymmetrical threat. They must fight to keep some core principles and commitments inviolate, outside the sphere of normal political dispute, against an administration that wants to drag them in…that’s a humdinger of a problem.

Let me start by saying what this article gets right.

I think it’s right that the two parties used to have much more in common, and be able to appeal to shared gatekeeper institutions that both trusted.

I think it’s right the Republicans unilaterally seceded from those shared gatekeeper institutions, so that now we’re in the weird position of having two sets of institutions: one labeling itself “neutral” and the other labeling itself “conservative”.

I think it’s right to consider the situation asymmetrical. Yes, CNN leans liberal, but it’s not as liberal as FOX is conservative, and it’s not as open about it – it has a pretense of neutrality that FOX doesn’t, and although we can disagree about how realistic that pretense is I think few people would disagree that the pretense is there. Nor is there a liberal version of FOX that lacks that pretense of neutrality.

I think it’s right that the conservative side is worse than the neutral side. However biased and crappy you think CNN and mainstream academia are, FOX and the conservative academic bubble are working on a different level (though note that as a liberal, I would say this, and you should interpret it with the same grain of salt that you would any other “my side is better than yours” claim).

I think it’s right that this situation is horrible and toxic and destroying the country, and it’s really good that someone has pointed this out and framed it this clearly.

I think it’s wrong in exactly the way I would expect it to be wrong, which is also an example of what’s wrong with it.


Roberts devotes four sentences in his six thousand word article to the possibility that conservatives might be motivated by something deeper than a simple hatred of facts:

The right’s view that the institutions lean liberal is hyperbolic, but not without foundation. Science, academia (at least liberal arts and social sciences), and journalism do tend to draw their personnel from left-leaning demographics.

Those institutions have cosmopolitan aspirations — fair application of transpartisan standards — but there’s no doubt that in practice, those aspirations often cover for more parochial preferences.

But the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own.

Roberts says that these neutral gatekeeper institutions “tend to draw their personnel from left-leaning demographics”, as if this was just a big fuss about 105 New Englanders for every 100 Texans. I would like to counter with a report from a friend who graduated from a top university last year:

I was at my graduation last weekend, and the commencement address was basically about twenty minutes of vitriolic insults directed at Trump. And in between burying my head in my friend’s shoulder in discomfort and laughing nervously, I was thinking about the family of this guy in my class.

He’s the first person in his family to go to college. He drove an hour every day to go to a somewhat better high school because there was an epidemic of gang violence at his local school. Against the odds, he did well, and got into college, where he has continued to get good grades and play sports and generally do things that make parents proud.

His family is not well off. They’re Mexican-American. And they’re Trump supporters.

Yeah, I’m kind of confused too. But they honestly are. (Not even reluctant Republicans supporting Trump–they voted for him in the primary. His aunt owns a Make America Great Again cap.) And all I could think about was how happy they must have been to be attending their son’s graduation from one of the best universities in the world [citation needed], only to have that happiness turn to bewilderment and anger as everyone around them cheered a series of caustic attacks against them and their values. The message couldn’t have been clearer: “You don’t belong here.”

My mom thought this speech was So Courageous. When I suggested that it might have been more courageous to say something that not everyone there agreed with, she replied, “the students maybe, but a lot of the parents looked unhappy.”

Seventy percent of the parents there had family incomes over six figures. (More, probably, since low-income parents are less likely to attend graduation.) A lot of them are members of the self-perpetuating intellectual/economic elite. This probably isn’t true of the few Trump supporters among them.

So if we are going to single them out for judgment, force them to account for their support for an “infantile,” “bullying,” “proto-fascist” “charlatan”…can it not be on the day of their kids’ graduation?

And sure, if you consider me your friend, then that makes this one of those “friend of a friend” stories. But I dare you to say that any of this sounds the least bit implausible. My point is, just because a university paints “ACTUALLY, WE ARE POLITICALLY NEUTRAL” in big red letters on the college quad, doesn’t mean that anyone is required to believe it. And the ideology that invented the microaggression can’t hide behind “but we haven’t officially declared you unwelcome!”

And the same thing is happening in the media. For example, in this very piece, Roberts cites a Vox poll showing that Trump supporters are more likely to be authoritarians. Vox has pushed this same claim many more times: Authoritarianism: The Political Science That Explains Trump, The Rise Of American Authoritarianism: A Niche Group Of Political Scientists May Have Uncovered What’s Driving Donald Trump’s Ascent, The Rise Of American Authoritarianism Explained In 6 Minutes, The Best Predictor Of Trump Support Is Authoritarianism.

Okay. But Vox is working off an internal poll that it hasn’t released (or at least I can’t find it) meaning no one has any idea if the sample size and methodology are okay. And some political science professors tried the same exercise around the same time with excellent methodology and a sample size of over a thousand and found the opposite – Trump supporters were less authoritarian than Cruz supporters, and no more authoritarian than Rubio supporters. They did find that Republicans were a bit more authoritarian than Democrats, but correctly noted that the measure involved is literally called “Right-Wing Authoritarianism”, is based on a scale invented by Theodor Adorno to prove conservatives had fascist tendencies, and only asks questions about child-rearing practices (you get marked as “authoritarian” if you have a traditional religious child-rearing style). And there are other investigations of authority that try to control for this sort of thing and sometimes find find liberals and conservatives are about equal in respect for authority.

I don’t want to overdo my criticism. “Right-wing authoritarianism” is a powerful idea with a good academic reputation, and the decision to focus solely on child-rearing was a principled choice to avoid including politics itself in the construct. And failed replications should be an opportunity for reflection rather than a cause to instantly dismiss a finding.

Yet it’s still good practice to mention their existence. And I still feel like somewhere there might be a conservative who reads this sort of thing and feels like Vox is not quite the perfectly-neutral mutually-beneficial gatekeeper institution of their dreams.

And whenever I mention this sort of thing, people protest “But Fox and Breitbart are worse!” And so they are. But I feel like Vox has aspirations to be something more than just a mirror image of Fox with a left-wing slant and a voiced fricative. It’s trying to be a neutral gatekeeper institution. If some weird conservative echo chamber is biased, well, what did you expect? If a neutral gatekeeper institution is biased, now we have a problem.

Roberts writes that “the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own”. This is a bizarre claim, given the existence of groups like Accuracy In Media, Media Research Center, Newsbusters, Foundation For Individual Rights In Education, Heterodox Academy, et cetera which are all about the right seeking greater fairness in mainstream institutions, some of which are almost fifty years old. Really “it’s too bad conservatives never complained about liberal bias in academia or the mainstream media” seems kind of like the opposite of how I remember the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternately pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. Then they defected to create their own.


This predictably went badly.

I wrote before (1, 2) about the sort of dynamics this situation produces. A couple of years ago, Reddit decided to ban various undesirables and restrict discussion of offensive topics. A lot of users were really angry about this, and some of them set up a Reddit clone called Voat which promised that everyone was welcome regardless of their opinion.

What happened was – a small percent of average Reddit users went over, lured by curiosity or a principled commitment to free speech. And also, approximately 100% of Reddit’s offensive undesirables went there, lured by the promise of being able to be terrible and get away with it.

Even though Voat’s rules were similar to Reddit’s rules before the latter tightened its moderation policies, Voat itself was nothing like pre-tightening Reddit. I checked to see whether it had gotten any better in the last year, and I found the top three stories were:

The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.

FOX’s slogans are “Fair and Balanced”, “Real Journalism”, and “We Report, You Decide”. They were pushing the “actually unbiased media” angle hard. I don’t know if this was ever true, or if people really believed it. It doesn’t matter. By attracting only the refugees from a left-slanted system, they ensured they would end up not just with conservatives, but with the worst and most extreme conservatives.

They also ensured that the process would feed on itself. As conservatives left for their ghettos, the neutral gatekeeper institutions leaned further and further left, causing more and more conservatives to leave. Meanwhile, the increasingly obvious horribleness of the conservative ghettos made liberals feel more and more justified in their decision to be biased against conservatives. They intensified their loathing and contempt, accelerating the conservative exodus.

The equilibrium is basically what we see now. The neutral gatekeeper institutions lean very liberal, though with a minority of conservative elites who are good at keeping their heads down and too mainstream/prestigious to settle for anything less. The ghettos contain a combination of seven zillion witches and a few decent conservatives who are increasingly uncomfortable but know there’s no place for them in the mainstream.


I don’t want to give the impression that this is limited to the places people traditionally gripe about like academia and the media. The same dynamics are going on everywhere.

In the hospital where I work, there’s a RESIST TRUMP poster on the bulletin board in our break room. I don’t know who put it there, but I know that anybody who demanded that it be taken down would be tarred as a troublemaker, and anyone who tried to put a SUPPORT TRUMP poster up next to it would be lectured about how politics are inappropriate at work. This is true even though I think at least a third of my colleagues are Trump supporters.

I went to a scientific conference in a field completely unrelated to politics where one of the researchers giving a presentation started with a five minute tangentially-related anti-Trump rant. I can’t imagine someone giving the opposite rant any more than I can imagine a pro-Trump commencement speaker at my friend’s graduation.

I’m desperately trying to avoid the Nerd Culture Wars, which have somehow managed to be even worse than the Regular Culture Wars, but even I’ve heard about GamerGate and the Sad Puppies. These were originally movements to fight a perceived liberal bias in regular gaming/sci-fi. They of course failed, and now they’re their own little separate conservative spaces practicing conservative video game commentary/sci-fi writing. I don’t want to deny that they’re often horrible. They’re horrible in exactly the same way FOX News is horrible, and for exactly the same reasons. I expect this pattern of conservatives seceding from theoretically-neutral-but-realistically-left-leading communities and forming terrible communities full of witches to repeat itself again and again, because it’s happening for systemic rather than community-specific reasons.

The overall impression is of a widespread norm, well-understood by both liberals and conservatives, that we have a category of space we call “neutral” and “depoliticized”. These sorts of spaces include institutions as diverse as colleges, newspapers, workplaces, and conferences. And within these spaces, overt liberalism is tolerated but overt conservativism is banned. In a few of these cases, conservatives grew angry enough that they started their own spaces – which began as noble attempts to avoid bias, and ended as wretched hives of offensive troglodytes who couldn’t get by anywhere else. This justifies further purges in the mainstream liberal spaces, and the cycle goes on forever.

Stanford historian Robert Conquest once declared it a law of politics that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing”. I have no idea why this should be true, and yet I’ve seen it again and again. Taken to its extreme, it suggests we’ll end up with a bunch of neutral organizations that have become left-wing, plus a few explicitly right-wing organizations. Given that Conquest was writing in the 1960s, he seems to have predicted the current situation remarkably well.


David Roberts ends by noting that he doesn’t really know what to do here, and I agree. I don’t know what to do here either.

But one simple heuristic: if everything you’ve tried so far has failed, maybe you should try something different. Right now, the neutral gatekeeper institutions have tried being biased against conservatives. They’ve tried showing anti-conservative bias. They’ve tried ramping up the conservativism-related bias level. They’ve tried taking articles, and biasing them against conservative positions. I appreciate their commitment to multiple diverse strategies, but I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a possibility they’ve missed.

Look. I read Twitter. I know the sorts of complaints people have about this blog. I’m some kind of crypto-conservative, I’m a traitor to liberalism, I’m too quick to sell out under the guise of “compromise”. And I understand the sentiment. I write a lot about how we shouldn’t get our enemies fired lest they try to fire us, how we shouldn’t get our enemies’ campus speakers disinvited lest they try to disinvite ours, how we shouldn’t use deceit and hyperbole to push our policies lest our enemies try to push theirs the same way. And people very reasonably ask – hey, I notice my side kind of controls all of this stuff, the situation is actually asymmetrical, they have no way of retaliating, maybe we should just grind our enemies beneath our boots this one time.

And then when it turns out that the enemies can just leave and start their own institutions, with horrendous results for everybody, the cry goes up “Wait, that’s unfair! Nobody ever said you could do that! Come back so we can grind you beneath our boots some more!”

Conservatives aren’t stuck in here with us. We’re stuck in here with them. And so far it’s not going so well. I’m not sure if any of this can be reversed. But I think maybe we should consider to what degree we are in a hole, and if so, to what degree we want to stop digging.

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52 days ago
52 days ago
wow! даже левые иногда говорят дело. у меня сходные ощущения - читаешь там, всё вроде ок. но стоит теме коснуться религии (и как следствие - абортов) - начинается кровавый понос.
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52 days ago
Except most of those attempts to secede aren't usually "noble attempts to avoid bias." That's the claim they make to excuse their "witch"ery.

Who is Publishing NSA and CIA Secrets, and Why?

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There's something going on inside the intelligence communities in at least two countries, and we have no idea what it is.

Consider these three data points. One: someone, probably a country's intelligence organization, is dumping massive amounts of cyberattack tools belonging to the NSA onto the Internet. Two: someone else, or maybe the same someone, is doing the same thing to the CIA.

Three: in March, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett described how the NSA penetrated the computer networks of a Russian intelligence agency and was able to monitor them as they attacked the US State Department in 2014. Even more explicitly, a US ally­ -- my guess is the UK -- ­was not only hacking the Russian intelligence agency's computers, but also the surveillance cameras inside their building. "They [the US ally] monitored the [Russian] hackers as they maneuvered inside the U.S. systems and as they walked in and out of the workspace, and were able to see faces, the officials said."

Countries don't often reveal intelligence capabilities: "sources and methods." Because it gives their adversaries important information about what to fix, it's a deliberate decision done with good reason. And it's not just the target country who learns from a reveal. When the US announces that it can see through the cameras inside the buildings of Russia's cyber warriors, other countries immediately check the security of their own cameras.

With all this in mind, let's talk about the recent leaks at NSA and the CIA.

Last year, a previously unknown group called the Shadow Brokers started releasing NSA hacking tools and documents from about three years ago. They continued to do so this year -- ­five sets of files in all­ -- and have implied that more classified documents are to come. We don't know how they got the files. When the Shadow Brokers first emerged, the general consensus was that someone had found and hacked an external NSA staging server. These are third-party computers that the NSA's TAO hackers use to launch attacks from. Those servers are necessarily stocked with TAO attack tools. This matched the leaks, which included a "script" directory and working attack notes. We're not sure if someone inside the NSA made a mistake that left these files exposed, or if the hackers that found the cache got lucky.

That explanation stopped making sense after the latest Shadow Brokers release, which included attack tools against Windows, PowerPoint presentations, and operational notes -- ­documents that are definitely not going to be on an external NSA staging server. A credible theory, which I first heard from Nicholas Weaver, is that the Shadow Brokers are publishing NSA data from multiple sources. The first leaks were from an external staging server, but the more recent leaks are from inside the NSA itself.

So what happened? Did someone inside the NSA accidentally mount the wrong server on some external network? That's possible, but seems very unlikely. Did someone hack the NSA itself? Could there be a mole inside the NSA, as Kevin Poulsen speculated?

If it is a mole, my guess is that he's already been arrested. There are enough individualities in the files to pinpoint exactly where and when they came from. Surely the NSA knows who could have taken the files. No country would burn a mole working for it by publishing what he delivered. Intelligence agencies know that if they betray a source this severely, they'll never get another one.

That points to two options. The first is that the files came from Hal Martin. He's the NSA contractor who was arrested in August for hoarding agency secrets in his house for two years. He can't be the publisher, because the Shadow Brokers are in business even though he is in prison. But maybe the leaker got the documents from his stash: either because Martin gave the documents to them or because he himself was hacked. The dates line up, so it's theoretically possible, but the contents of the documents speak to someone with a different sort of access. There's also nothing in the public indictment against Martin that speaks to his selling secrets to a foreign power, and I think it's exactly the sort of thing that the NSA would leak. But maybe I'm wrong about all of this; Occam's Razor suggests that it's him.

The other option is a mysterious second NSA leak of cyberattack tools. The only thing I have ever heard about this is from a Washington Post story about Martin: "But there was a second, previously undisclosed breach of cybertools, discovered in the summer of 2015, which was also carried out by a TAO employee, one official said. That individual also has been arrested, but his case has not been made public. The individual is not thought to have shared the material with another country, the official said." But "not thought to have" is not the same as not having done so.

On the other hand, it's possible that someone penetrated the internal NSA network. We've already seen NSA tools that can do that kind of thing to other networks. That would be huge, and explain why there were calls to fire NSA Director Mike Rogers last year.

The CIA leak is both similar and different. It consists of a series of attack tools from about a year ago. The most educated guess amongst people who know stuff is that the data is from an almost-certainly air-gapped internal development wiki­a Confluence server­ -- and either someone on the inside was somehow coerced into giving up a copy of it, or someone on the outside hacked into the CIA and got themselves a copy. They turned the documents over to WikiLeaks, which continues to publish it.

This is also a really big deal, and hugely damaging for the CIA. Those tools were new, and they're impressive. I have been told that the CIA is desperately trying to hire coders to replace what was lost.

For both of these leaks, one big question is attribution: who did this? A whistleblower wouldn't sit on attack tools for years before publishing. A whistleblower would act more like Snowden or Manning, publishing immediately -- ­and publishing documents that discuss what the US is doing to whom, not simply a bunch of attack tools. It just doesn't make sense. Neither does random hackers. Or cybercriminals. I think it's being done by a country or countries.

My guess was, and is still, Russia in both cases. Here's my reasoning. Whoever got this information years before and is leaking it now has to 1) be capable of hacking the NSA and/or the CIA, and 2) willing to publish it all. Countries like Israel and France are certainly capable, but wouldn't ever publish. Countries like North Korea or Iran probably aren't capable. The list of countries who fit both criteria is small: Russia, China, and...and...and I'm out of ideas. And China is currently trying to make nice with the US.

Last August, Edward Snowden guessed Russia, too.

So Russia -- ­or someone else­ -- steals these secrets, and presumably uses them to both defend its own networks and hack other countries while deflecting blame for a couple of years. For it to publish now means that the intelligence value of the information is now lower than the embarrassment value to the NSA and CIA. This could be because the US figured out that its tools were hacked, and maybe even by whom; which would make the tools less valuable against US government targets, although still valuable against third parties.

The message that comes with publishing seems clear to me: "We are so deep into your business that we don't care if we burn these few-years-old capabilities, as well as the fact that we have them. There's just nothing you can do about it." It's bragging.

Which is exactly the same thing Ledgett is doing to the Russians. Maybe the capabilities he talked about are long gone, so there's nothing lost in exposing sources and methods. Or maybe he too is bragging: saying to the Russians that he doesn't care if they know. He's certainly bragging to every other country that is paying attention to his remarks. (He may be bluffing, of course, hoping to convince others that the US has intelligence capabilities it doesn't.)

What happens when intelligence agencies go to war with each other and don't tell the rest of us? I think there's something going on between the US and Russia that the public is just seeing pieces of. We have no idea why, or where it will go next, and can only speculate.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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53 days ago
"I think there's something going on between the US and Russia that the public is just seeing pieces of. We have no idea why, or where it will go next, and can only speculate."
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53 days ago
"What happens when intelligence agencies go to war with each other and don't tell the rest of us?"

The 94 yr old physicist who invented the lithium-ion battery just invented something even better

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Most people may think that a 94 yr old can’t possibly have new ideas, especially when it comes to technology. But John Bannister Goodenough is poised to change the world – again. Goodenough who is a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at the University of Texas at Austin invented the lithium-ion battery with his team back in the 1980’s. Without him, the device that you’re probably using to read this article would be a lot bigger and clunkier.

Now he and his team at the University of Texas at Austin are set to shake up the tech industry with a breakthrough battery that is made of glass, has three times the power capacity of a similarly sized lithium-ion battery, charges in minutes and won’t go up in flames.

This can mean that a future of phones that last days instead of hours and all electric vehicles that drive further and charge faster could come much sooner than we hoped.

If you’d like more technical info about this Goodenough’s new battery tech, check out this article a ExtremeTech.com

Filed in categories: Cables, Batteries and Chargers, News


The 94 yr old physicist who invented the lithium-ion battery just invented something even better originally appeared on on March 13, 2017 at 11:01 am.

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102 days ago
Fingers crossed
102 days ago
This sounds really good. Glass batteries make me wonder if drop damage will mean needing a new battery, though.
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AI learns to write its own code by stealing from other programs

self code
Set a machine to program a machine

iunewind/Alamy Stock Photo

By Matt Reynolds

OUT of the way, human, I’ve got this covered. A machine learning system has gained the ability to write its own code.

Created by researchers at Microsoft and the University of Cambridge, the system, called DeepCoder, solved basic challenges of the kind set by programming competitions. This kind of approach could make it much easier for people to build simple programs without knowing how to write code.

“All of a sudden people could be so much more productive,” says Armando Solar-Lezama at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the work. “They could build systems that it [would be] impossible to build before.”

Ultimately, the approach could allow non-coders to simply describe an idea for a program and let the system build it, says Marc Brockschmidt, one of DeepCoder’s creators at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK.

DeepCoder uses a technique called program synthesis: creating new programs by piecing together lines of code taken from existing software – just like a programmer might. Given a list of inputs and outputs for each code fragment, DeepCoder learned which pieces of code were needed to achieve the desired result overall.

“It could allow non-coders to simply describe an idea for a program and let the system build it”

One advantage of letting an AI loose in this way is that it can search more thoroughly and widely than a human coder, so could piece together source code in a way humans may not have thought of. What’s more, DeepCoder uses machine learning to scour databases of source code and sort the fragments according to its view of their probable usefulness.

All this makes the system much faster than its predecessors. DeepCoder created working programs in fractions of a second, whereas older systems take minutes to trial many different combinations of lines of code before piecing together something that can do the job. And because DeepCoder learns which combinations of source code work and which ones don’t as it goes along, it improves every time it tries a new problem.

The technology could have many applications. In 2015, researchers at MIT created a program that automatically fixed software bugs by replacing faulty lines of code with working lines from other programs. Brockschmidt says that future versions could make it very easy to build routine programs that scrape information from websites, or automatically categorise Facebook photos, for example, without human coders having to lift a finger

“The potential for automation that this kind of technology offers could really signify an enormous [reduction] in the amount of effort it takes to develop code,” says Solar-Lezama.

But he doesn’t think these systems will put programmers out of a job. With program synthesis automating some of the most tedious parts of programming, he says, coders will be able to devote their time to more sophisticated work.

At the moment, DeepCoder is only capable of solving programming challenges that involve around five lines of code. But in the right coding language, a few lines are all that’s needed for fairly complicated programs.

“Generating a really big piece of code in one shot is hard, and potentially unrealistic,” says Solar-Lezama. “But really big pieces of code are built by putting together lots of little pieces of code.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “Computers are learning to code for themselves”

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120 days ago
It finally happened :-)
120 days ago
Welp, it's basically doing my job already.
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119 days ago
hope you enjoyed being vastly overpaid, business software developers.
Louisville, KY
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