Best of the Best:
The Hackers of Damascus [Stephen Faris on Bloomberg Businessweek] (11/15/12)
Much has been written about the rebellion in Syria: the protests, the massacres, the car bombs, the house-to-house fighting. Tens of thousands have been killed since the war began in early 2011. But the struggle for the future of the country has also unfolded in another arena—on a battleground of Facebook (FB) pages and YouTube accounts, of hacks and counterhacks. Just as rival armies vie for air superiority, the two sides of the Syrian civil war have spent much of the last year and a half locked in a struggle to dominate the Internet. Pro-government hackers have penetrated opposition websites and broken into the computers of Reuters (TRI) and Al Jazeera to spread disinformation. On the other side, the hacktivist group Anonymous has infiltrated at least 12 Syrian government websites, including that of the Ministry of Defense, and released millions of stolen e-mails. The Syrian conflict illustrates the extent to which the very tools that rebels in the Middle East have employed to organize and sustain their movements are now being used against them. It provides a glimpse of the future of warfare, in which computer viruses and hacking techniques can be as critical to weakening the enemy as bombs and bullets. Over the past three months, I made contact with and interviewed by phone and e-mail participants on both sides of the Syrian cyberwar. Their stories shed light on a largely hidden aspect of a conflict with no end in sight—and show how the Internet has become a weapon of war.
Why Things Fail: From Tires to Helicopter Blades, Everything Breaks Eventually [Robert Capps on Wired] (10/19/12)
This meticulous work has produced revelations. Before, even information like the size of the market—how much gets paid out each year in warranty claims—was a mystery. Nobody, not analysts, not the government, not the companies themselves, knew what it was. Now Arnum can tell you. In 2011, for example, basic warranties cost US manufacturers $24.7 billion. Because of the slow economy, this is actually down, Arnum says; in 2007 it was around $28 billion. Extended warranties—warranties that customers purchase from a manufacturer or a retailer like Best Buy—account for an estimated $30.2 billion in additional claims payments. Before Arnum, this $60 billion-a-year industry was virtually invisible. Then there are the warranty “events.” When a company gets something seriously wrong, it shows up in an Arnum spreadsheet. Asked for a dramatic example, he thinks for a second, then says, “the Xbox 360.”
The Hazards of Growing Up Painlessly [Justin Heckert on The New York Times] (11/15/12)
Her life story offers an amazing snapshot of how complicated a life can get without the guidance of pain. Pain is a gift, and she doesn’t have it.
Luck and Skill Untangled: The Science of Success [Samuel Arbesman on Wired] (11/16/12)
Of course, we know one of the terms of our equation — the observed outcome — and we can estimate luck. Estimating luck for a sports team is pretty simple. You assume that each game the team plays is settled by a coin toss. The distribution of win-loss records of the teams in the league follows a binomial distribution. So with these two terms pinned down, we can estimate skill and the relative contribution of skill. To be more technical, we look at the variance of these terms, but the intuition is that you subtract luck from what happened and are left with skill. This, in turn, lets you assess the relative contribution of the two. Some aspects of the ranking make sense, and others are not as obvious. For instance, if a game is played one on one, such as tennis, and the match is sufficiently long, you can be pretty sure that the better player will win. As you add players, the role of luck generally rises because the number of interactions rises sharply. There are three aspects I will emphasize. The first is related to the number of players. But it’s not just the number of players, it’s who gets to control the game…The second aspect is sample size. As you learn early on in statistics class, small samples have larger variances than larger samples of the same system…Finally, there’s the aspect of how the game is scored. Go back to baseball. A team can get lots of players on base through hits and walks, but have no players cross the plate, based on when the outs occur. In theory, one team could have 27 hits and score zero runs and another team can have one hit and win the game 1-0. It’s of course very, very unlikely but it gives you a feel for the influence of the scoring method. Basketball is the game that has the most skill.
China Mafia-Style Hack Attack Drives California Firm to Brink [Michael A. Riley on Bloomberg News] (11/28/14)
For three years, a group of hackers from China waged a relentless campaign of cyber harassment against Solid Oak Software Inc., Milburn’s family-owned, eight-person firm in Santa Barbara, California. The attack began less than two weeks after Milburn publicly accused China of appropriating his company’s parental filtering software, CYBERsitter, for a national Internet censoring project. And it ended shortly after he settled a $2.2 billion lawsuit against the Chinese government and a string of computer companies last April. In between, the hackers assailed Solid Oak’s computer systems, shutting down web and e-mail servers, spying on an employee with her webcam, and gaining access to sensitive files in a battle that caused company revenues to tumble and brought it within a hair’s breadth of collapse.
The Folly of Scientism [Austin L. Hughes on The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society] (Fall 2012)
The temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects. Of course, from the very beginning of the modern scientific enterprise, there have been scientists and philosophers who have been so impressed with the ability of the natural sciences to advance knowledge that they have asserted that these sciences are the only valid way of seeking knowledge in any field. A forthright expression of this viewpoint has been made by the chemist Peter Atkins, who in his 1995 essay “Science as Truth” asserts the “universal competence” of science. This position has been called scientism — a term that was originally intended to be pejorative but has been claimed as a badge of honor by some of its most vocal proponents. In their 2007 book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, for example, philosophers James Ladyman, Don Ross, and David Spurrett go so far as to entitle a chapter “In Defense of Scientism.”
Alan Turing in three words [Michael Saler on The Times Literary Supplement] (12/28/12)
Turing’s rehabilitation from over a quarter-century’s embarrassed silence was largely the result of Andrew Hodges’s superb biography, Alan Turing: The enigma (1983; reissued with a new introduction in 2012). Hodges examined available primary sources and interviewed surviving witnesses to elucidate Turing’s multiple dimensions. A mathematician, Hodges ably explained Turing’s intellectual accomplishments with insight, and situated them within their wider historical contexts. He also empathetically explored the centrality of Turing’s sexual identity to his thought and life in a persuasive rather than reductive way. Thus he made a convincing case that Turing’s teenage crush on a fellow schoolboy, Christopher Morcom, was an important catalyst for his lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between brain and mind. Morcom’s unexpected death at the age of eighteen was a shattering blow to Turing, who began to reflect on whether his friend’s consciousness might survive after death or whether it was simply a result of complex material processes and expired when life did. Hodges also linked the famous “Turing Test”, in which a computer attempts to pass as an intelligent human being, to Turing’s own dilemma as a gay man in a homophobic world. (Turing called his test the “imitation game”, and Hodges observed, “like any homosexual man, he was living an imitation game, not in the sense of conscious play acting, but by being accepted as a person that he was not”.)
Pardis Sabeti, the Rollerblading Rock Star Scientist of Harvard [Seth Mnookin on The Smithsonian Magazine] (December 2012)
Sabeti was convinced that there was a way to pinpoint when more recent changes in the human genome had occurred and that this knowledge could lead to breakthroughs in fighting disease. Specifically, she wanted to use the makeup of neighborhoods of genes (called haplotypes) to determine if a specific gene variation (called an allele) in a given neighborhood had recently come to prominence in a population because it conferred an evolutionary advantage. This should be possible, she thought, by using the never-ending process of genetic recombination—the breaking and rejoining of DNA strands—as a kind of clock to measure how long ago a given mutation had swept through a population. If a widespread mutation had appeared recently—for instance, the mutation that enabled adult human beings to digest the lactose in cow’s milk, a nutritional advantage for many people in Europe after cows became common there—fewer recombination events would have occurred since it was introduced. As a result, the mutated version of that allele should be on a stretch of DNA that was more or less identical for everyone in a population. If the mutation had appeared a longer time ago, recombination would dictate that the area around the mutated allele would have gone through more random recombination events and it would be on a stretch of DNA that was more varied across the population. It was a radical approach: Instead of using existing tools to analyze new data, she was trying to develop new tools to use on available data…early one morning, she plugged a large data set related to the DC40L gene, which she’d already linked to malaria resistance, into an algorithm she’d developed and watched results showing it was associated with a common haplotype—indicating it had recently been selected for—come into focus on her computer screen…That October, she was the lead author on a paper published in Nature that laid out her discovery’s “profound implications for the study of human history and for medicine.” For the first time, researchers could look for evidence of positive selection by testing common haplotypes even if they didn’t have “prior knowledge of a specific variant or selective advantage.” By applying this approach to pathogens, there was the possibility of identifying how diseases had evolved to outwit the human immune response or develop drug resistance—knowledge that would open up new avenues to combating disease.
5 Statistics Problems That Will Change The Way You See The World [Walter Hickey on The Atlantic] (11/13/12)
Abraham is tasked with reviewing damaged planes coming back from sorties over Germany in the Second World War. He has to review the damage of the planes to see which areas must be protected even more. Abraham finds that the fuselage and fuel system of returned planes are much more likely to be damaged by bullets or flak than the engines. What should he recommend to his superiors? PROTECT THE PARTS THAT DON’T HAVE DAMAGE: Abraham Wald, a member of the Statistical Research Group at the time, saw this problem and made an unconventional suggestion that saved countless lives. Don’t arm the places that sustained the most damage on planes that came back. By virtue of the fact that these planes came back, these parts of the planes can sustain damage. If an essential part of the plane comes back consistently undamaged, like the engines in the previous example, that’s probably because all the planes with shot-up engines don’t make it back. Wald’s memos on this situation — in addition to being a remarkable historical statistical document — shed additional light of the statistics developed during the Second World War that would go on to found the field of Operations Research.
What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web? [Rob Rosenbaum on The Smithsonian Magazine] (January 2013)
In his often provocative and astute dissenting book You Are Not a Gadget, he recalls one of the participants in those early mind-melds describing it as like being “in the most interesting room in the world.” Together, these digital futurists helped develop the intellectual concepts that would shape what is now known as Web 2.0—“information wants to be free,” “the wisdom of the crowd” and the like. And then, shortly after the turn of the century, just when the rest of the world was turning on to Web 2.0, Lanier turned against it. With a broadside in Wired called “One-Half of a Manifesto,” he attacked the idea that “the wisdom of the crowd” would result in ever-upward enlightenment. It was just as likely, he argued, that the crowd would devolve into an online lynch mob.
The Boy Who Became a World War II Veteran at 13 Years Old [Gilbert King on Smithsonian Magazine] (12/19/12)
Aboard was a gunner from Texas who would soon become the nation’s youngest decorated war hero. Calvin Graham, the fresh-faced seaman who had set off for battle from the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the summer of 1942, was only 12 years old…Calvin Graham told his mother he was going to visit relatives. Instead, he dropped out of the seventh grade and shipped off to San Diego for basic training. There, he said, the drill instructors were aware of the underage recruits and often made them run extra miles and lug heavier packs.
Which professions have the most psychopaths? The fewest? [Barking Up the Wrong Tree] (12/5/12)
“Psychopathy is a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions (in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial character, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity and antisocial behaviors such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality.” So which professions (other than axe murderer) have the most psychopaths? What about the least? Via The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success:
East St. Louis Cops Outgunned as Cuts Let Killers Thrive [Tim Jones on Bloomberg News] (1/3/13)
Parks, the mayor, said the city has had “an image problem” since the 19th century, when the city’s first elected leader, John Bowman, was murdered in his front yard.
Restless Genes [David Dobbs on National Geographic] (January 2013)
In the winter of 1769, the British explorer Captain James Cook, early into his first voyage across the Pacific, received from a Polynesian priest named Tupaia an astonishing gift—a map, the first that any European had ever encountered showing all the major islands of the South Pacific. Some accounts say Tupaia sketched the map on paper; others that he described it in words. What’s certain is that this map instantly gave Cook a far more complete picture of the South Pacific than any other European possessed. It showed every major island group in an area some 3,000 miles across, from the Marquesas west to Fiji. It matched what Cook had already seen, and showed much he hadn’t. Cook had granted Tupaia a berth on the Endeavour in Tahiti. Soon after that, the Polynesian wowed the crew by navigating to an island unknown to Cook, some 300 miles south, without ever consulting compass, chart, clock, or sextant. In the weeks that followed, as he helped guide the Endeavour from one archipelago to another, Tupaia amazed the sailors by pointing on request, at any time, day or night, cloudy or clear, precisely toward Tahiti. Cook, uniquely among European explorers, understood what Tupaia’s feats meant. The islanders scattered across the South Pacific were one people, who long ago, probably before Britain was Britain, had explored, settled, and mapped this vast ocean without any of the navigational tools that Cook found essential—and had carried the map solely in their heads ever since. Two centuries later a global network of geneticists analyzing DNA bread-crumb trails of modern human migration would prove Cook right: Tupaia’s ancestors had colonized the Pacific 2,300 years before. Their improbable migration across the Pacific continued a long eastward march that had begun in Africa 70,000 to 50,000 years earlier. Cook’s journey, meanwhile, continued a westward movement started by his own ancestors, who had left Africa around the same time Tupaia’s ancestors had. In meeting each other, Cook and Tupaia closed the circle, completing a journey their forebears had begun together, so many millennia before.
WHO MURDERED BENAZIR BHUTTO? [Eric Margolis] (12/28/12)
By the time her season’s greeting card and a handwritten note arrived in my office, my old friend Benazir Bhutto was already dead. The card mailed in Pakistan days before her murder, remains on my desk to this today, a touching last link from this remarkable lady. So, too, the names of the men who may have murdered her. Five years ago last Thursday, Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan, was murdered in Rawalpindi during a campaign rally. This charismatic lady was adored, even venerated by her supporters, who called her the savior of Pakistan. She was equally hated by her foes who accused her and husband, Asif Ali Zardari, of robbing Pakistan and acting as agents of the United States. Shockingly, five years after her death, we still don’t know who was behind it even though her family political fief, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has held power ever since. We are not even sure what killed her: a suicide bomber next to the vehicle from which she was waving to crowds, a sniper, or a fractured skull caused by hitting her head on a roof latch as a result of the explosion. UN investigators reported she had been denied proper security by the regime of then president, Pervez Musharraf whose grip on power was faltering. Washington’s plan was to replace him with US ally Benazir.
Your Brain in Love [Mark Fischetti on Scientific American] (1/18/11)
Men and women can now thank a dozen brain regions for their romantic fervor. Researchers have revealed the fonts of desire by comparing functional MRI studies of people who indicated they were experiencing passionate love, maternal love or unconditional love. Together, the regions release neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain and blood that prompt greater euphoric sensations such as attraction and pleasure. Conversely, psychiatrists might someday help individuals who become dangerously depressed after a heartbreak by adjusting those chemicals. Passion also heightens several cognitive functions, as the brain regions and chemicals surge. “It’s all about how that network interacts,” says Stephanie Ortigue, an assistant professor of psychology at Syracuse University, who led the study. The cognitive functions, in turn, “are triggers that fully activate the love network.”
The Placebo Phenomenon [Cara Feinberg on Harvard Magazine] (Jan-Feb 2013)
Two weeks into Ted Kaptchuk’s first randomized clinical drug trial, nearly a third of his 270 subjects complained of awful side effects. All the patients had joined the study hoping to alleviate severe arm pain: carpal tunnel, tendinitis, chronic pain in the elbow, shoulder, wrist. In one part of the study, half the subjects received pain-reducing pills; the others were offered acupuncture treatments. And in both cases, people began to call in, saying they couldn’t get out of bed. The pills were making them sluggish, the needles caused swelling and redness; some patients’ pain ballooned to nightmarish levels. “The side effects were simply amazing,” Kaptchuk explains; curiously, they were exactly what patients had been warned their treatment might produce. But even more astounding, most of the other patients reported real relief, and those who received acupuncture felt even better than those on the anti-pain pill. These were exceptional findings: no one had ever proven that acupuncture worked better than painkillers. But Kaptchuk’s study didn’t prove it, either. The pills his team had given patients were actually made of cornstarch; the “acupuncture” needles were retractable shams that never pierced the skin. The study wasn’t aimed at comparing two treatments. It was designed to compare two fakes…But researchers have found that placebo treatments—interventions with no active drug ingredients—can stimulate real physiological responses, from changes in heart rate and blood pressure to chemical activity in the brain, in cases involving pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and even some symptoms of Parkinson’s. The challenge now, says Kaptchuk, is to uncover the mechanisms behind these physiological responses—what is happening in our bodies, in our brains, in the method of placebo delivery (pill or needle, for example), even in the room where placebo treatments are administered (are the physical surroundings calming? is the doctor caring or curt?). The placebo effect is actually many effects woven together—some stronger than others—and that’s what Kaptchuk hopes his “pill versus needle” study shows. The experiment, among the first to tease apart the components of placebo response, shows that the methods of placebo administration are as important as the administration itself, he explains. It’s valuable insight for any caregiver: patients’ perceptions matter, and the ways physicians frame perceptions can have significant effects on their patients’ health.
The Real Cuban Missile Crisis [Benjamin Schwarz on The Atlantic] (1/2/13)
Although the missiles’ military significance was negligible, the Kennedy administration advanced on a perilous course to force their removal. The president issued an ultimatum to a nuclear power—an astonishingly provocative move, which immediately created a crisis that could have led to catastrophe. He ordered a blockade on Cuba, an act of war that we now know brought the superpowers within a hair’s breadth of nuclear confrontation. The beleaguered Cubans willingly accepted their ally’s weapons, so the Soviet’s deployment of the missiles was fully in accord with international law. But the blockade, even if the administration euphemistically called it a “quarantine,” was, the ExComm members acknowledged, illegal. As the State Department’s legal adviser recalled, “Our legal problem was that their action wasn’t illegal.” Kennedy and his lieutenants intently contemplated an invasion of Cuba and an aerial assault on the Soviet missiles there—acts extremely likely to have provoked a nuclear war. In light of the extreme measures they executed or earnestly entertained to resolve a crisis they had largely created, the American reaction to the missiles requires, in retrospect, as much explanation as the Soviet decision to deploy them—or more. On that very first day of the ExComm meetings, McNamara provided a wider perspective on the missiles’ significance: “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem here … This is a domestic, political problem.” In a 1987 interview, McNamara explained: “You have to remember that, right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically.” What largely made the missiles politically unacceptable was Kennedy’s conspicuous and fervent hostility toward the Castro regime—a stance, Kennedy admitted at an ExComm meeting, that America’s European allies thought was “a fixation” and “slightly demented.” In his presidential bid, Kennedy had red-baited the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, charging that its policies had “helped make Communism’s first Caribbean base.” Given that he had defined a tough stance toward Cuba as an important election issue, and given the humiliation he had suffered with the Bay of Pigs debacle, the missiles posed a great political hazard to Kennedy…The risks of such a cave-in, Kennedy and his advisers held, were distinct but related. The first was that America’s foes would see Washington as pusillanimous; the known presence of the missiles, Kennedy said, “makes them look like they’re coequal with us and that”—here Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon interrupted: “We’re scared of the Cubans.” The second risk was that America’s friends would suddenly doubt that a country given to appeasement could be relied on to fulfill its obligations. In fact, America’s allies, as Bundy acknowledged, were aghast that the U.S. was threatening nuclear war over a strategically insignificant condition—the presence of intermediate-range missiles in a neighboring country—that those allies (and, for that matter, the Soviets) had been living with for years. In the tense days of October 1962, being allied with the United States potentially amounted to, as Charles de Gaulle had warned, “annihilation without representation.” It seems never to have occurred to Kennedy and the ExComm that whatever Washington gained by demonstrating the steadfastness of its commitments, it lost in an erosion of confidence in its judgment. This approach to foreign policy was guided—and remains guided—by an elaborate theorizing rooted in a school-playground view of world politics rather than the cool appraisal of strategic realities. It put—and still puts—America in the curious position of having to go to war to uphold the very credibility that is supposed to obviate war in the first place.
Curiously Strong Remains:
- Human intelligence ‘peaked thousands of years ago and we’ve been on an intellectual and emotional decline ever since’ [Steve Connor on The Independent] (11/12/12)
- Exclusive: John McAfee Wanted for Murder (Updated) [Jeff Wise on Gizmodo] (11/12/12)
- WHY THE AMERICAN RAJ IS UNDER SIEGE [Eric Margolis] (9/25/12)
- AFRICA’S LAST EMPIRE SHAKEN BY DEATH OF MELES ZENAWI [Eric Margolis] (8/24/12)
- Gertler Earns Billions as Mine Deals Leave Congo Poorest [Franz Wild, Michael Kavanagh and Jonathan Ferziger on Bloomberg News] (12/5/12)
- Why Workers Are Losing the War Against Machines [Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee on The Atlantic] (10/26/11)
- We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two [David Remick on The New Yorker] (7/30/12)
- Surprisingly Interesting: A dispatch from the 2012 Boring Conference. [Mark O’Connell on Slate] (11/17/12)
- Jack Welch’s Unretirement [Sheelah Kolhatkar and Diane Brady on Bloomberg Businessweek] (11/21/12)
- I Really Like That You Like What I Like [Nathan Heller on New York Magazine] (11/18/12)
- Is There a Jewish Gene? [Richard C. Lewontin on The New York Review of Books] (12/6/12)
- Human Evolution Enters an Exciting New Phase [Brandon Keim on Wired] (11/29/12)
- A More Perfect Union [Sasha Issenberg on Technology Review] (12/19/12)
- Revisiting why incompetents think they’re awesome [Chris Lee on Ars Technica] (5/25/12)
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty [Matthew C. Rees on The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society] (Fall 2012)
- 6 Simple Rituals To Reach Your Potential Every Day [Amber Rae on Fast Company] (12/4/12)
- The Round World Made Flat [Jackson Lears on Book Forum] (Dec/Jan 2013)
- Let’s Eliminate Sports Welfare [Patrick Hruby on Sports on Earth] (12/12/12)
- The great swindle [Roger Scruton on Aeon Magazine] (12/17/12)
- Monopoly Is Theft: The antimonopolist history of the world’s most popular board game [Christopher Ketcham on Harper’s Magazine] (10/19/12)
- A Brain With a Heart [David Wallace-Wells on New York Magazine] (11/4/12)
- Germs Are Us [Michael Specter on The New Yorker] (10/22/12)
- The Rise of the Third Coast [Joel Kotkin on New Geography] (11/15/12)
- Male Nurses Make More Money [Ben Casselman on The Wall Street Journal] (2/25/13)
- Acura Survives Near-Death to Seek Salvation in Supercar [Alan Ohnsman on Bloomberg News] (2/26/13)
- Atari’s Bankruptcy Filing Ends Videogame Pioneer’s Gradual Decline [Winston Ross on The Daily Beast] (1/24/13)
- The New Mandate on Defense [Barney Frank via Democracy] (Winter 2013)
- What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space [Scott Belsky on 99u] (2013)
- Document shows how much data cops suck up from suspects’ cell phones [Timothy B. Lee on Ars Technica] (2/26/13)
- Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA and film critics have a very bad evening [Glenn Greenwald on The Guardian] (2/25/13)
- Wal-Mart’s Slowness to Stock Shelves Worsens, Sales Slump [Renee Dudley on Bloomberg News] (2/28/13)
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