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Archive for December, 2013

My 2013 year-in-review

People often send Christmas cards with a little year in review tucked in with it. The wife and I can’t even get our act together to send out cards, let alone write a letter with our own highlights of the year.

So, I thought I’d do a blog post of our year in review along with of my own personal accomplishments:

Terry and The Wife’s 2013 Year in Review!

January

  • Hiked Patagonia (southern Argentina and Chile)
  • Watched the musical The Book of Mormon at the Paramount Theater in Seattle

February

  • KODO at Meany Hall in Seattle (scantily clad drummers… men)
  • Went to San Francisco for a conference – Feb 20th – 24th
  • Saw the National Geographic lecture Adventures in Polar Exploration

March

  • The wife started a sewing class
  • The wife went to Iceland
  • I went to the National Geographic lecture K2 (second highest mountain in the world)
  • Saw Cirque du Soleil – Amaluna at Marymoor Park in Redmond

April

  • Visited Winnipeg for a friend’s wedding
  • Went to the National Geographic lecture Birds of Paradise

May

  • The wife went to Vancouver Island with a friend
  • Went to the National Geographic lecture Dawn of the Maya
  • Went hiking in the Columbia Gorge
  • Bought a FitBit and started counting my steps

June

  • Went to Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czech Republic and discovered that I like beer!
  • Started to consistently get 10,000 steps per day

July

  • Went to Kelowna to visit family
  • The wife discovered vegetarianism

August

  • The wife went to Wind River with some friends for hiking
  • I climbed the Murderhorn!
  • I experiment with vegetarianism 4 days per week

September

  • Moved houses
  • Went to Whistler in B.C. and got 50,000 steps in a day
  • My parents came to visit

October

  • The wife’s parents went back to live in Taiwan for 9 months
  • We visited Montreal and Winnipeg

November

  • Saw the Vienna Boys choir in Seattle
  • Saw the wife’s renter’s choir performance in Seattle
  • Saw a comedy shot in Kirkland (it was okay)
  • Watched my weight drop 7 lbs from the year before

December

  • Saw A Christmas Carol by the Taproot Theater in Seattle
  • Saw The Coats (a capella singing group) in Seattle
  • Got 10,000 steps per day every single day of the month!

Well, those are the highlights from 2013. I’m sure there’s a bunch of things I am forgetting. My blogging this year was the worst of any year since I started writing. But, I finished December strong!

Onwards to 2014.

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Back when I was growing up, my favorite hockey team was the Winnipeg Jets. This was because I lived in (near) Winnipeg and they were my local team. I knew all the players and faithfully read the Winnipeg Free Press every day to see if there was any Jets news during the winter.

I started watching in the spring of 1988 when the Jets were eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Edmonton Oilers. From that point forward, the Jets were always a mediocre or poor team. They either finished third in their division and lost in the first round of the playoffs, or last in their division and missed the playoffs.

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After the 1996 season, the Jets moved to Phoenix. I followed them for a season or two before finally losing interest and not following hockey too closely. After I returned to Canada in 2002, I followed hockey again but I didn’t have loyalty to any one particular team. For a while I liked the Ottawa Senators and the Vancouver Canucks but I was not that attached to them. Because I didn’t have a local team, my personal attachment went down.

The Jets returned to the city in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg. Everyone in Winnipeg was excited! No one in Atlanta noticed.

I have many friends back in Winnipeg who follow the new version of the Jets and express their disgust when they lose games and can’t get it together. In both the 2011/2012 and 2012/2013 seasons, the Jets missed the playoffs. The first year back they were fairly far out of playoff contention but last year they missed it by a little bit.

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I’m not sure if my friends are serious or not about their expectations for the Jets. Before they left for Phoenix, the Jets were very hit-and-miss. They were either one of the worst teams in the league or an average team.

The modern Jets are still basically the Atlanta Thrashers and the Thrashers were a terrible team. In the eleven seasons since they came into the league in 1999, they only made the playoffs once. They have only had 3 winning seasons their entire history (and one of them they had one more win than loss).

In other words, the current version of the Jets, when they moved, were not a very good team to begin with. I don’t get too upset with them because, in my emotionally detached state, I don’t see them as a good team not playing to its potential, but instead as a bad team doing as well as it can.

Yes, it’s fun to cheer them on. Yes, there’s always hope that perhaps one day they will go on a playoff run (they haven’t advanced in the playoffs in nearly 30 years). Yes, let’s go out to games and have a good time.

But let’s keep our expectations realistic.

At least for a few more years.

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Don’t spammers know they are irritating the rest of us?

Lately, I have been thinking a little bit on why spammers spam. I have never conducted a large study of this, all of my research about their own explanations comes from my memory of articles I have read and videos I have seen of convicted spammers. They usually have a few explanations:

  • I did it for the money
  • I wasn’t annoying people
  • What I was (am) doing wasn’t illegal
  • You can always hit delete

I can understand the first motivation. It’s the middle two I want to examine. Many spammers think that they are providing a valuable service and that what they are doing isn’t that big a deal. Or, they minimize the irritation that they cause because the pursuit of money is more important.

Do spammers genuinely believe this? Or are they putting on an act? And if they do believe it, how can they possibly not know how annoying they are? And how much damage they are causing to the rest of the Internet? How can they possibly exist in the bubble that they do?

What can we learn from psychology?

I have a theory. I am going to try to explain it using psychology. This is only my theory, I am not trained in the psychological arts. Still, it’s my blog and I can write what I want.

One of the books I read this past summer was Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.

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In the book, Pinker looks at historical trends regarding violence amongst humans (it has declined), why it has declined, explanations about why it occurs in the first place, and finally strategies for reducing it in the future.

The sample size of spammers amongst the human population is small, but all of us humans are prone to the same sorts of errors and biases. One of these is the Moralization Gap. Here’s an excerpt from Pinker’s book:


When psychologists are confronted with a timeless mystery, they run an experiment. They asked people to describe one incident in which someone angered them, and one incident in which they angered someone. The order of the two questions was randomly flipped form one participate to the next, and they were separated by a busywork task so that the participants would answer them in quick succession. Most people get angry at least once a week and nearly everyone gets angry at least once a month so there was no shortage of material. Both perpetrators and victims recounted plenty of lies, broken promises, violated rules and obligations, betrayed secrets, unfair acts, and conflicts over money.

But that was all the perpetrators and victims agreed on. The psychologists pored over the narratives and coded features such as the time span of the events, the culpability of each side, the perpetrators’ motive and the aftermath of the harm. If one were to weave a composite narrative out of their tallies, they might look something like this:

The Perpetrator’s Narrative:

The story begins with the harmful act. At the time I had good reasons for doing it. Perhaps I was responding to an immediate provocation. Or I was just reacting to the satiation in a way that any reasonable person would. I had a perfect right to do what I did and it’s unfair to blame me for it. The harm was minor, and easily repaired, and I apologized. Its time to get over it, put it behind us, let bygones be bygones.

The Victim’s narrative:

The story being long before the harmful act, which was just the latest incident in a long history of mistreatment. The perpetrator’s actions where incoherent, senseless, incomprehensible. Neither that or he was an abnormal sadist, motived only by a desired to see me suffer, though I was completely innocent. The harm he did is grievous and irreparable, with effects that will last forever.  None of us should ever forget it.

 


The psychologists next had a follow up wherein they had people come in and read a fictional account of a college student help another with some coursework. The first student reneges on his promise and the second receives a poor grade, has to change their major and switch to another university. The psychologists had the volunteers retell the story – some from the perspective of the first student (perpetrator), some from the second student (victim) and some from a third party (neutral) viewpoint. Both the victims and the perpetrators distorted the story to the same extent but in opposite ways, either omitting details or embellishing points to make their own characters look more reasonable and the other one to look less so. And this was for a fictional story!

The Self Serving Bias

This set of events wherein we minimize the gravity of our own infractions, and emphasize the damage of infractions committed by others is called the Moralization Gap. It is part of a broader phenomenon known as the Self-Serving Bias. This is when we interpret events in ways that are favorable to ourselves, but do not extend the same courtesy to others. From Wikipedia:

A self-serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self esteem. When individuals reject the validity of negative feedback, focus on their strengths and achievements but overlook their faults and failures, or take more responsibility for their group’s work than they give to other members, they are protecting the ego from threat and injury. These cognitive and perceptual tendencies perpetuate illusions and error, but they also serve the self’s need for esteem.

This is also called the Lake Wobegon Effect. Lake Wobegon is a fictional town where everyone thinks that they are above average drivers. When they told everyone who said they are above average that everyone else said the same thing, they stuck to their guns, insisting that they were above average. When the surveyors explained that it wasn’t possible for everyone to be above average and that people inflated their own abilities, the respondents were firmly committed to their own positions – everyone else was inflating their own abilities but they themselves were perfectly capable of assessing their own superior driving ability.

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The reason why we do this is because it’s an evolutionary adaptation, a survival technique. It is persistent in humans because it was useful to us to get to where we are today. We can see why everyone else is a hypocrite because it helps cuts others down to size. Back when we were still hunters on the African savannah for hundreds of thousands of years, social status was crucial (it still is). People higher up the social ladder had better reproductive odds and the ones that were higher up survived to pass on their genes. If you could fake it your higher status, so much the better!

Of course, if someone else was faking it, showing their status (and therefore odds of attracting a mate to reproduce) was better than your own, it was in your best interests to point out they were hypocrites and not of a higher social standing than you. Better to push them down and pass on your genes then let them go on faking it and you pass on into oblivion.

By contrast, faking it was in your best interest. If you could convince others that you were the best, the top of the ladder, then your odds of reproductive success and passing on your genes would increase. And even better: rather than you faking it, if you genuinely believed you really were better than anyone else, you could thereby convince others even more convincingly. You wouldn’t have the tell-tale signs of deception like fidgeting, sweating, or needing to keep your lies straight. Thus, it’s in your own best evolutionary interest to believe in your own greatness regardless of whether or not it is true, and point out the hypocrisy of others to prevent them from getting ahead.

And that’s why the Self-Serving Bias exists. We exonerate ourselves while not granting the same leeway to others.

And this brings us back to spammers. The reason they don’t see why they are so annoying is because of this Moralization Gap. They are minimizing the damage of the infractions they are committing and the Self-Serving Bias prevents them from seeing it.

The Perpetrator’s Narrative:

What we are doing isn’t such a big deal: We have good reasons for doing it, we are making money and being a productive member of society. The damage is minor (only a few email messages) and easily repaired (hit delete). Just get over it and let bygones be bygones.

That’s why I think spammers don’t know (or don’t care) why they are so annoying – at one point they got into it and now they rationalize it with a feature of the brain that worked well in our evolutionary history but is now being used for the wrong reason.

That’s my theory.


Unfortunately, there is a twist

But there’s one problem: the problem of self-deception has its limits and it’s difficult to show that it exists in all cases. To test this, psychologists had a group of volunteers to help them evaluate a study where half of the people would get a pleasant and easy task (looking at photographs for ten minutes) while the others would get a boring and difficult one (solving math problems for 45 minutes). They then allowed the participants to pick what task they wanted to do and give the other task to another paired off participant.

Most participants selected the easy task for themselves and gave the difficult task to the other participant (who was actually one of the researchers). When given a questionnaire afterwards, most of the participants said that their choice was fair. However, when describing these actions to another group of participants, most of them said it wasn’t fair at all.

Up to this point, this is all consistent with the self-serving bias.

The researchers probed deeper. Did the “selfish” participants they really, deep-down think their choice was fair? Did their unconscious mind know of their own hypocrisy?

They tested this by tying up the participants conscious minds by forcing some of them to keep seven digits in memory while they filled out the questionnaire indicating whether or not their choices were fair. The truth came out: the participants judged themselves as harshly as they judged other participants. The reality was there all along, it just took some coaxing to bring it out. Be careful though, in the absence of ridicule/argument/time, the default state is for people to misjudge the harmful acts they have committed.

So, perhaps there is hope for spammers after all. Deep down, perhaps they do know that what they are doing is irritating (and illegal) but it is repressed in their unconscious minds.

Perhaps the final justification for why they spam is a Freudian slip – “You can always just hit delete.” Is this a tacit confession that the “service” they provide is not a service that everyone wants? Maybe. Spammers do use antispam filters to keep their mailboxes clean, they themselves do not want to be annoyed so they are aware to some extent what they are doing.

If only there were some way to make them memorize seven digits the next time they send out a spam campaign.

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I have been fighting spam for 9 1/2 years. Sometimes I wonder what I am going to do after it, and how long I should even spend fighting spam. I’ve always said that I would stay until I had nothing left to accomplish. With any luck I could put myself out of a job.

That still hasn’t happened.

Lately I have been reading a little bit about what makes people happy. I’ve seen talks on TED about how to motivate people. As it turns out, for people who are in jobs that are highly creative and require critical thinking, extrinsic motivation like more money doesn’t work. That is, saying they’ll pay me more if I work harder is not a good motivator. It works for jobs like assembly line where what you do is measurable but not for me where the results between what I do and what the end result is, is unclear.

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When it comes to happiness, the wife and I saw a video recently where there are five things that contribute to it:

  1. Having new experiences

  2. Being part of a cause more important than yourself

  3. Having a wide social circle (family, friends) you get together with regularly

  4. Plus two more things I can’t remember

When I first started as a spam analyst back in 2004, I wasn’t making much money. However, I was pretty happy because I felt I was contributing to an important mission – fighting spam and I hated spam. I still hate spam. Sometimes when new people from other divisions join the team, others introduce me by saying no one else in the world hates spam more than I do.

Thus, even though I wasn’t getting paid very much, I enjoyed it. I was driven to be good at it and I wrote lots of blog posts in my spare time because it was fun.

You can see that this corresponds to #2; whether or not I was right or just being ideological, I saw the fight against spam as a mission more important than myself. I was making the world a better place.

(It doesn’t matter whether or not I actually was making the world a better place, it only matters that I thought I was).

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Several years have passed since then a couple of years back I was thinking about leaving the team and moving internally. I am probably rewriting history but I remember having conversations with other co-workers who were less ideologically devoted to stopping spam and more concerned with company profitability even though the ideas they were presenting were wrong (in my opinion, of course).

I had a conversation with a co-worker that went something like this:

“Stopping spam is not important. Money is. It doesn’t matter whether or not the idea is good. Even if it’s bad, it’s about money. Money is what matters. It is all about money.

That’s an exaggeration but not much of one. I was driven by being a good internet citizen and not polluting the Internet and my co-worker was telling me that this was a secondary concern.

Now, I am well aware that the goal of a business is to make money. Businesses are not charity. If it’s not making money, then I am out of a job. I understand that.

But the flip side is that the goal of making money (wherein I receive a very small fraction of the profits) is not a cause that is bigger than myself (#2). Whereas humans need that for happiness, money does not meet that requirement. It is an extrinsic motivator, not an intrinsic motivator. As I explained in my last post, money does make you more happy but there are diminishing returns.

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This is the paradox of me fighting spam – as soon as I see that my goals and efforts are “merely” contributing to the company’s bottom line and making money, the business will be more successful and more profitable, but this will decrease my motivation. Once spam is solved, what do I do next?

I get paid very well at Microsoft. It’s allowed me to not have to worry about money, my health care is mostly paid for and I get to travel (e.g., Ireland, San Francisco, Vienna and Prague). But what keeps me going is the belief that I am making the world a better place and it’s not just about the money.

So what would I do once my job is done?

I think I’d still stay in the security space. I sometimes think about moving to the Digital Crimes Unit. I think it’d be fun to help co-ordinate botnet investigations with the company and with others in industry as well as law enforcement. I think it’d be fun to bring together multiple sources of fraudulent Internet activity. All in the noble pursuit of making the world a better place. I think that is what I would want to do next.

But not yet. My work fighting spam is not yet done.

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For nearly all of my time at Microsoft, where I work as a Program Manager, I have had no desire to manage people. I have been able to get away with this for years because I have only been there for 8 1/2 years and they usually want more senior people to manage others. I don’t know how long I can get away with this because there’s a motto – Either move up or move out. I don’t know how long I can last as an individual contributor, rather than having to go into management (of people).

So why don’t I want to be a manager of people?

#1 – The technology interests me too much

I like learning about technology. As an individual contributor, I can do a deep dive into how something works and implementing it. I like to be an expert about technical things.

I interviewed for a manager position one time and I thought it would be 30% management and 70% technical. It turns out that expectations where 30% technical and 70% management, the exact opposite ratio.

This would mean that I wouldn’t get as much time to do what I really enjoy – learning the technical aspect. I couldn’t become an expert on it, learning it for myself.

That is a big deterrent.

#2 – The money isn’t a big draw for the additional burdens

It’s true that as a manager my pay would go up. I also think that good managers are probably more important than good technical people and that’s why they are paid more.

But it isn’t that inviting.

I’ve read about a study in the United States about whether or not money really does buy happiness. The result: Yes, it does. But only up to a point.

You see, if you are poor, that makes you miserable. Being sick, or hungry, or cold (because the heat is too low) makes you unhappy. Having money for shelter and physical needs adds to your happiness by meeting your basic needs.

Once you have enough money to live in relative comfort and you have the ability to do nice things occasionally such as go out to eat or see a movie or a play, that’s the extent of happiness money can by. Afterwards, it doesn’t make much difference. So yes, money can make you happy but there is a cut off level.

In the USA, that level is about $75,000/year. In some parts it’s a bit more (e.g., New York and San Francisco) and in other parts it’s a bit less (e.g., Oklahoma and Kansas). But by and large, $75,000 is the amount to shoot for.

If I were a people manager, I wouldn’t get to do the things I like (learning technical stuff) and instead I would have the headaches of managing people. Sure, I’d get paid more but according to the above, the additional money would make no difference to me. Instead, work would be more stressful but the extra money wouldn’t make me any happier.

Instead, why not do something I like to do? I’m already at the optimal pay scale. I think I am happier where I currently am than I would be if I made a change.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

That’s why I don’t have any intention of going into management.

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The cat plays favorites, it’s true.

Whenever the wife and I are on the bed next to each other, or on the couch, the cat likes to climb on and sit by one of us. 80% of the time, it’s me. In fact, the cat will actually climb over the wife in order to get to me, sometimes even taking the long way around.

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Of course, the cat doesn’t play exclusive favorites. Whenever I get home, she frequently waits at the door in anticipation of the wife coming home. Here’s a picture of her tonight:

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Sometimes this cat acts like a dog.

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A couple of weeks ago, I read a blog post on the Wall Street Journal where they were commenting on comments made by Brad Smith, Microsoft’s top legal counsel. His comments were in response to latest revelations that the NSA sometimes sniffs network traffic between data centers:

Microsoft’s top lawyer compared the National Security Agency to elite hackers, and said the technology giant will encrypt customer information traveling between its data centers, according to a company blog post published Wednesday night.

That makes Microsoft the latest Internet company – following Google, Facebook and Yahoo – to say it is encrypting internal traffic in response to NSA snooping efforts. The agency sometimes siphons off customer information traveling on rented fiber optics cables between U.S. company data centers, former U.S. officials have said.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, said the NSA is circumventing the legal process if those assertions are accurate. Smith, of course, does not mention the NSA by name, but clearly alludes to them.

“If true, these efforts threaten to seriously undermine confidence in the security and privacy of online communications,” Smith said in the blog post. “Indeed, government snooping potentially now constitutes an ‘advanced persistent threat,’ alongside sophisticated malware and cyberattacks.”

In other words, Microsoft is not okay with unauthorized government collection of user data.

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But a more interesting article is one in Wired entitled Clash of the Titans! Inside Microsoft’s Battle to Foil the NSA. The title sounds like a spy novel, and in it Wired talks with Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich who is one of the lead architects in Azure.

I have never met Russinovich but I have heard his name and seen it in various articles and possibly on email threads. But the part I want to get to is Russinovich’s opinion on whether or not Microsoft collaborates with the US government on creating back doors into its systems:

Amid the Snowden revelations, many pundits have also wondered whether the Microsoft brain trust — the people who run the company — have actively worked with the NSA to provide access to data. More than a decade ago, privacy geeks questioned Microsoft’s relationship with the agency when a researcher discovered a variable called “_NSAKEY” buried in the Windows operating system. More recently, Snowden’s leaked documents reportedly show that Microsoft cooperated with the FBI to make sure the government — including the NSA — could access Outlook.com e-mail.

But Russinovich says the NSAKEY controversy was a red-herring, and he believes that Microsoft would only be hurting itself if it cozied up to the NSA. “I can’t say for sure that that hasn’t happened, but I will say that I’m really skeptical that it could. The risk to the business is monumental,” he says. “Without trust, there is no cloud. You’re asking customers to give you their data to manage, and if they don’t trust you, there’s no way they’re going to give it to you. You can screw up trust really easily. You can screw it up just by showing incompetence. But if you show intentional undermining of trust, your business is done.”

The way I interpret these comments is that Microsoft never knowingly puts in back doors into its software and gives them to any government. To say that he can’t say for sure means that there may be some secret program he is not aware of but it would be localized to a very small group of people and it would be difficult to keep secret given the amount of scrutiny code receives internally.

That’s my view, too, but I’m just a ham-and-egger here within the company. I’m not that far up the chain.

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But this is not what I want to focus on, either. Instead, I want to look at a psychological phenomenon known as The Backfire Effect.

Many of us here are familiar with Confirmation Bias. This is when we, as people, look for things we agree with and ignore things we don’t agree with. For example, if you’re a staunch Republican you probably watch Fox News and read right-wing blogs. If you’re a die-hard, left-wing liberal you probably watch Rachel Maddow and read The Huffington Post.

Confirmation Bias has been studied many times and confirmed multiple times over and it’s not just politics. It is psychologically painful to be on one side of an issue and read or listen to the opposing side. Try it yourself sometime – if you’re a political left-winger, watch Fox News’ editorials for 20 minutes without changing the channel. If you’re a political right-winger, watch Rachel Maddow for 20 minutes and not tune out. You will struggle to reach the end of that 20 minutes. It will feel like such a relief when you flip back to what you already agree with.

The Backfire Effect is related to Confirmation Bias. It occurs when you are given material that contradicts what you currently believe, you discard it and it then ends up actually reinforcing what you previously believed. It doesn’t change your beliefs, it makes you more secure in what you though previously.

From You Are Not So Smart:

In 2006, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler at The University of Michigan and Georgia State University created fake newspaper articles about polarizing political issues. The articles were written in a way which would confirm a widespread misconception about certain ideas in American politics. As soon as a person read a fake article, researchers then handed over a true article which corrected the first. For instance, one article suggested the United States found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The next said the U.S. never found them, which was the truth. Those opposed to the war or who had strong liberal leanings tended to disagree with the original article and accept the second.

Those who supported the war and leaned more toward the conservative camp tended to agree with the first article and strongly disagree with the second. These reactions shouldn’t surprise you. What should give you pause though is how conservatives felt about the correction. After reading that there were no WMDs, they reported being even more certain than before there actually were WMDs and their original beliefs were correct.

They repeated the experiment with other wedge issues like stem cell research and tax reform, and once again, they found corrections tended to increase the strength of the participants’ misconceptions if those corrections contradicted their ideologies. People on opposing sides of the political spectrum read the same articles and then the same corrections, and when new evidence was interpreted as threatening to their beliefs, they doubled down. The corrections backfired.

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you.

 

When you read a negative comment, when someone dumps on what you love, when your beliefs are challenged, you pore over the data, picking it apart, searching for weakness. The cognitive dissonance locks up the gears of your mind until you deal with it. In the process you form more neural connections, build new memories and put out effort – once you finally move on, your original convictions are stronger than ever.

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Via XKCD.

If you’re reading this, I hope you don’t feel too smug. I do this all the time. And so do you.

And that brings me back to the article in Wired. The gist of the article is this:

  • Microsoft was surprised by the scope of data collection by the US government
  • Microsoft is planning to encrypt all of its data
  • Microsoft does not insert any back doors into its software

Let’s now head to the comments of the article. An example of the Backfire Effect would be this: “Microsoft says they don’t insert back doors. Well, the fact that they deny it proves that they do it! Why else would they deny it!”

Do we see any examples like this in the comments? Yes, we do!

“Smokescreen. Microsoft regularly hands over encryption keys to governments such as India, Pakistan, UAE, China (and others), so they can monitor Skype and other programs.

As usual, follow the money. This is nothing more than a sophisticated PR campaign by the mega-corps”

And this:

yeah right, after MS being the first one to hop on the NSA bandwagon we now have to believe that they are fighting them, lipstick on the pig. I don’t believe anything from a company who’s business model was always about monopolizing and using their customers at any cost.

And this:

what’s in it for Microsoft? you ask
GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS MONEY$$$$$$

 

And this:

Microsoft? The same company that altered Skype so that all calls go through a server that they control instead of directly between the two callers so it would be easy for the government to spy on them?

Yeah, this sounds like a puff piece of PR crap.

 

And this:

This M$ fluff piece is up there with 60 Minutes. Sad and tired, Wired.

Example after example of people discarding what the article said and re-iterating what they previously believed. This is a textbook example of the Backfire Effect. And here’s the thing – the more informed a person is about something, the more biased they are towards their own beliefs.

That’s part of the problem of an Internet-connected world with social media and news articles. Aren’t we supposed to live in an information utopia where we can learn everything, where right beliefs are only a few clicks away?

Yes, we do live there. But, our brains are not wired that way. For you see, millions of years of evolution have programmed us to protect our beliefs and shield our sense of selves from conflicting evidence. Rather than using the Internet to correct ourselves, we use it to reinforce what we believe. We quickly run to the sources that make our brains feel good and we express it online despite what anyone else says. From You Are Not So Smart:

When our bathroom scale delivers bad news, we hop off and then on again, just to make sure we didn’t misread the display or put too much pressure on one foot. [tzink – I do this] When our scale delivers good news, we smile and head for the shower. By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and insisting on more when it doesn’t, we subtly tip the scales in our favor.

– Psychologist Dan Gilbert in The New York Times

That is not to say Microsoft does or does not put in back doors (I don’t know but like Russinovich, I doubt it).

But I do know this – I will interpret the evidence in a way that I already agree with. And so will you.

 

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Getting older

A few weeks ago, I turned 35. Man, am I really that “old”? I remember 20 years ago in 1993 thinking that I still had my whole life in front of me. While I am still reasonably young, I am very close to the country’s average age (in the United States) and I am older than the world’s average age. I am not sure how I feel about this.

I remember when I turned 30. I was still working at Microsoft although I was in another building further south and my sister sent me this big basket of balloons congratulating me on that milestone.

The truth is, getting old only bothers me because I fear a deterioration in my health. Will I still be able to do all the things I can do now, or might do in the future, as I get older?

Well, let’s review. I am basing this on my memory:

  • My weight

    People are supposed to put on weight as they get older. I don’t know how much I weighed 5 years ago, but on Dec 19, 2011 I weighed 136.0 lbs. On Dec 22, 2012 (1 year later) I weighed 133.2 lbs. Today, Dec 23, 2013 I weigh 126.5. I have lost nearly 10 lbs in two years. I attribute this to walking 4.5 miles per day and cutting back on my meat consumption. So in that regards, I feel pretty good.

  • My hips

    My hips still hurt. Both of them. But I have more mobility in my left hip due to more exercise and more stretching. It may never get better but at least it doesn’t interfere with any physical exercise I currently do.

  • My neck

    This past year, I slept funny on my neck on three different incidents each separated by about 6 weeks. It took time for the acute pain to go away but it never really got better. This has been annoying. I am only 35 but my neck feels like I am 55.

Overall, I don’t really feel any worse than I did five years ago. Sure, I have a few more wrinkles. But who doesn’t? And yes, maybe my eyes are a bit worse, but so what? I still wear glasses and maybe one day modern science will cure me (I am ineligible for Lasik).

So yes, I’m getting older. But so far, I feel pretty good.

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This is going to be a long post.

I have been following this NSA spy-story for several months now ever since Edward Snowden started revealing back in the summer that the US government was spying on everyone.

At the time, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Based upon what I was reading from security experts (and I am oversimplifying the discussion… sorry about that), I was supposed to (a) care a lot, and (b) be outraged.

When it comes to government accountability, I am not the most informed person. I do try to keep up with technology, policy and governance but I only have so much mental bandwidth. After work, I like to relax and rather than reading discussion forums and important articles, I frequently watch Netflix (I just made my way through Orange is the New Black, in case you are wondering). Sometimes I like to read books on my Kindle (I just finished You are now Less Dumb), or just doodle around on my iPad. I have read some stuff on spy-gate, but I don’t know all the nuances of the arguments for it on both sides.

Thus, when it comes to a complicated topic like NSA spying, I end up relying upon my gut instinct. This is a poor way to make decisions. But, in my defense, everyone uses gut instincts to make decisions most of the time. Us humans are subject to dozens and dozens of biases. Most of the time, we make snap decisions intuitively and then make up logic to rationalize why we think this way.

This is not how we think we make decisions but it is how we do it most of the time. And sometimes it works; back when the United States was talking about taking military action against Syria, I was strongly against it. I am not blasé about all things.

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When I hear people in my local social circles – the ones outside of security and even a few inside of it – talk about the NSA, most of them are a little surprised by the scope of it but don’t really give it much thought. Many joke about it.

Many references to it in pop culture are equally dismissive. The South Park episode Let Go, Let Gov parodies people who actually do care. Eric Cartman is outraged at the NSA spying scandal, so he infiltrates the NSA and exposes all of their hacking. Yet immediately afterwards, he is shocked by the amount of nonchalance everyone around him has. Indeed, he starts crying to his mother because he exposed everything they were doing, yet no one cared. He tries to push the NSA into violating his constitutional rights, but they dismiss him as “fat an uninteresting.”

I’m tempted to take this thinking as most people don’t care about NSA spying but this would make me guilty of the availability bias – the belief that since my immediate social circles think a certain way, that everyone thinks this way. Maybe only those around me don’t give it much thought. Or maybe people who matter think this is a big deal (i.e., people on Intelligence committees).

Yet the other day on All Things D, an article entitled People are More Freaked Out by Hacking than Tracking shows the following:

  • 75% of people surveyed were worried about hackers stealing their personal information. As if to underscore this, Target admitted it leaked 40 million credit and debit cards over the 2013 Thanksgiving weekend and now these are for sale on the black market.
  • 54% of people are worried about their browsing history are being tracked by advertisers.
  • Only 15% reported the top threat is government accessing people’s information.

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After reading the article, I ran through my own mental processes – the things which I worry about online the most are those three things, in that exact order. I’m just like everyone else.

I check my credit card statements looking for possible fraud and I get angry when my credit card is leaked and I have to change it. I keep my anti-virus up-to-date and I have started using more unique passwords.

I delete my cookies regularly, clean my cache and sometimes use private browsing. I have adjusted the privacy settings on some websites I visit and I sometimes read privacy policies (parts of them, anyway).

As you can see, the two things that I think matter the most to me I have taken action to lower my risk.

By contrast, ever since the NSA story broke, I have changed nothing about my habits. Not one thing. Furthermore, I don’t worry about the NSA spying on me because in the back of my mind, my gut instinct says “You’re too boring for the NSA to care about.” I don’t worry about them stealing my credit card information, searching my browser history or tracking my online behavior. Maybe I should be worried, but I’m not.

So how come I’m not?

Like I said, this is a gut instinct (in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, this is called System 1 thinking; for a full explanation, read the Wikipedia summary). The threat from hackers is clear to me: they might steal my identity and I can see the fall out – they could steal money from my financial accounts, or they could degrade my credit, or they could infect my computer with malware. These are all real and tangible and I can see a direct link between hackers and bad things that come as a result of being hacked.

Privacy is a little tougher but I can still see the issue – online retailers, browsers, and large corporations are tracking everything I do and sending data back to a central processing unit and then sending me something based upon what I do. This “something” is usually advertising. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that targeted advertising since I use the Internet to do things I enjoy, and now that’s being used “against” me by private corporations for their own profit. A bit more blurry, this one.

But when it comes to NSA tracking, I have a very hard time seeing the fallout and that’s the problem. The cost is hard to see.

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Defenders of the NSA spying program say that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about. My System 2 thinking – the part of my brain that is logical, reasonable and analytical – knows that this is true on some level, but it also knows that we are entitled to privacy rights. Yet it also doesn’t fully understand the arguments. My System 1, on the other hand, happily accepts this argument:

“The NSA is looking for criminals and terrorists. Since I am not one, I have nothing to fear and there’s way too much data they are collecting for this to be a problem since I can hide in my own obscurity. This is different than companies tracking me and selling my information or targeting me with ads. They are browsing my legal, normal behavior looking for patterns, whereas the NSA is looking for people with malicious intent; they are looking for illegal behavior.”

And you know what? It’s probably true. The NSA isn’t targeting ordinary Americans.

My System 2 has to fight to overcome this belief. This is difficult because System 1 is nearly automatic, and System 2 is lazy (this is true in all humans, even you). It frequently just goes along with what System 1 says. Did you ever wonder why sometimes you are tired after a long day of thinking? Because System 2 drains a lot of your physical energy.

Last week, General Keith Alexander appear on the TV show 60 Minutes to defend the NSA program, and The Guardian posted a rebuttal. They have the best summary I have seen about why the NSA program is wrong:

Very few people think the NSA is staffed by mustache-twirling villains who view the law as an obstacle to be overcome. The real concern is two-fold.

First, even if NSA doesn’t mean to break the law, the way its data dragnets work in practice incline toward over collection. During a damage-control conference call in August, an anonymous US intelligence official told reporters that the technical problem bothering Bates in 2011 persists today. The NSA even conceded to Walton in 2009 that “from a technical standpoint, there was no single person who had a complete understanding” of the technical “architecture” of NSA’s phone data collection.

They haven’t succeeded yet in convincing me why this is a problem, not enough to override my System 1.

Second, there is a fundamental discrepancy in power between the Fisa court and the NSA. The court’s judges have lamented that they possess an inability to independently determine how the NSA’s programs work, and if they’re in compliance with the limits the judges secretly impose. That leaves them at the mercy of NSA, the director of national intelligence, and the Justice Department to self-report violations. When the facts of the collection and the querying are sufficiently divergent from what the court understands – something the court only learns about when it is told – that can become a matter of law.

In other words, it can be simultaneously true that NSA doesn’t intend to break the law and that NSA’s significant technical capabilities break the law anyway. Malice isn’t the real issue. Overbroad tools are.

And therein lies the problem; in the United States, the government is built on a system of checks-and-balances. It seems like the government sometimes can never get anything done, but that’s because it’s supposed to be hard to get things done. With the NSA system, the courts say they can do X but there’s no way to make sure that’s all they are doing. We have to trust them to do what they say they are doing.

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So you see, intellectually, I understand the issue (or rather, I understand what The Guardian is saying the problem is; you readers might have other issues like the government should straight up not be reading your email, ever). But even though I understand it, I still have trouble really caring about it.

In order to do this, I have to make it more emotional. Here’s the way I do it – the whole situation reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons, back when the show was funny. A cat burglar has plagued the city of Springfield so Homer forms a vigilante group and sets out to stop crimes. While he does succeed in stopping some crimes, he ends up causing others. For example, while underage drinking is down, sack beating with doorknobs is up. Homer’s task force is popular with the people because he has taken the law into his own hands, but the trouble is the city now has unabridged power without the checks and balances.

Homer is basking in his glory when Lisa asks him a question: “Dad, don’t you see? If you’re the police, who will police the police?”

Homer shrugs and flippantly responds “I don’t know. Coast Guard?”

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It’s a very funny moment and it is the only argument I can think of that makes me think that the problem is not so much that I personally have nothing to hide so who cares, but rather, that an entity with unconstrained power has the ability to spiral out of control. This is not a linear relationship the way malware and hacking is. The reason I don’t care as much is because it requires my System 2, and System 2 doesn’t like to work.

I think that’s how I feel about the NSA scandal. To those of you who think I’m too flippant, sorry about that.

But it’s better than not caring at all.

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Crime in the US and Canada

Recently, the Winnipeg Sun released a report comparing the homicide rate across all provinces in Canada, as well as the rate across the largest cities in Canada. When comparing crime rates, statisticians usually do it per 100,000 people. This is to adjust the rate across larger and smaller cities.

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The province where I am from originally – Manitoba – has the highest murder rate and the city where I was close to – Winnipeg – has the second highest rate of all cities, next to Thunder Bay which is an 8-hour drive east. But if you count large cities (population larger than 500,000), it has the highest rate in 2012 and it has had that title 16 times since 1981.

Indeed, the cities with the highest murder rates are all in Central Canada:

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Sheesh, I lived in a death zone!

I read through some of the comments on the article and there were numerous commenters saying that the reason the murder rate is so high is because of the native populations of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They cause more of the homicides than other visible minorities.

To determine whether or not this is true, I went to Wikipedia and looked up the demographics of Canada. I then compared all of the populations and percent of visible minorities of each province against the crime rate of each province, and then did the same thing of each city in Canada (i.e., compared the crime rate of each city against the percentage of visible minorities).

The result?

Cities and provinces with higher proportions of Aboriginal people are correlated with higher rates of homicide. Across provinces, the correlation is 0.85 (which is a very strong correlation), and across cities it is 0.67 (also strong, and statistically significant).

So, the Internet commenters are right that there is a relationship between the proportion of the population that is Aboriginal and the amount of homicide in Canada.

But does this mean that Aboriginal people are the problem?

Comparisons to the United States

To determine this, I checked the demographics of the United States? Is there a relationship between the proportion of a US state’s population that is Aboriginal and its homicide rate?

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The answer is no, there is none. The correlation is –0.02 (which means no statistical relationship). I don’t have racial breakdown by city in the US to do the comparison the way I have for Canada.

There is, however, a strong correlation (0.76) between the proportion of a US state’s population that is black and its homicide rate. However, in Canada it is non-existent across provinces (0.04) or even negatively correlated (-0.23) across cities.

Border-by-border comparison

I took a look at the border-by-border comparison of the provinces with the highest crime rates and compared their homicide rates per 100,000 population:

– Manitoba – 4.23
– Saskatchewan – 3.59
– Alberta – 2.89
– BC – 1.9

Compared to the US:

– Minnesota – 1.5
– North Dakota – 2.0
– Montana – 3.2
– Idaho – 1.5
– Washington – 2.8


Canadians frequently like to boast about how their homicide rates are lower than the US’s. This is true for both countries as a whole but there is substantial variance within each country. From the above, four out of the five border states (Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington) are lower than three out of the four border provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta).

Explanations – More weapons

So what can we make of this?

Advocates of gun control say that more guns = more violence. Do weapons explain it?

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The US has higher rates of gun ownership than Canada does. It is difficult to find accurate statistics on a state-by-state and province-by-province breakdown. Nationally, the US has nearly three times the number of guns per citizen compared to Canada. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that three times as many citizens have guns in the US compared to Canada because one person in the US could have multiple guns. In other words, one citizen in ten might have 3 guns in the US whereas one citizen in ten might have only 1 gun in Canada.

For the sake of simplification, let’s assume that the rate of gun ownership in terms of citizens who have them is at least double in the US as it is in Canada.

As we can see from the above, Canada’s homicide rate is higher than the US’s in border-by-border comparisons even with far fewer guns.

This is further complicated by the fact that while there is variability in homicide across provinces and states, cities in the US have higher rates of murder than they do in Canada. In the border states and provinces (nothing for Montana and North Dakota which skews this):

– Thunder Bay – 5.81
Winnipeg – 4.09
– Regina – 3.06
– Saskatoon – 2.08
– Edmonton – 2.68
– Calgary – 1.45
– Vancouver – 1.5

Compared to the US:

– Minneapolis – 4.7
– Boise – 2.9
– Spokane – 3.4
– Seattle – 3.7

The urban areas in Canada have lower rates of homicide than the rural areas, but it is reversed in the US. In Canada, cities suppress your violent tendencies but they make them worse in the US.

More and more, and better and better, weapons does not correlate that well with rates of murder. Gun ownership has decreased in the US even as gun sales have increased which means the same people are buying more of them. But the homicide rate has fallen since the 1990’s. So there may be some truth to the claim that fewer guns = fewer deaths, but it is a complicated relationship. It seems to be guns in the hands of fewer people, not just less guns overall, has more of an effect.

And even then, it doesn’t explain why we see such variability between urban and rural areas in Canada and the US.

What about poverty?

Blacks in the United States are associated with higher rates of crime in the US, but not in Canada. Aboriginals are associated with higher rates of crime in Canada, but not in the US. This is not news to most people.

One explanation is that violence is more common among people of lower socio-economic classes – the poorer you are, the more likely you are to resort to violence.

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There is some truth to this claim. Higher proportions of white people in Canada and the US are associated with lower crime rates, and white people are higher on the economic ladder than any other race.

I won’t get into the background in this blog post about the relationship between poverty and crime because there is some association but as with weapons, the relationship is complicated.

There are examples of poor tribal groups in Africa that are non-violent, and examples of poor ones in South America that are.

Furthermore, historically, wealth and poverty have not tracked well with violence. For centuries in Europe, even up to the first half of the 20th century, it was the rich nations that were constantly attacking each other. Wealthy people used to be just as violent as poor people. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, was shot and killed in a duel by the third Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr. Both men came from privileged classes.

It wasn’t until relatively recently in the past 75 years that wealthier people and nations started giving up violence and resolving their differences with reason, trade and respect for human rights. Violence does not necessarily result in violence, or even poverty amid affluence. There is some truth but it is more complicated than that.

Conclusions

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for a long time and I have much more to write. I think it’s fun to compare this stuff and get my thoughts all out on cyber-paper.

The good news is that violence has declined over time – both in the past two and a half decades and in the past two and a half millennia. There is more work to go, but we have made progress.

Even in the United States.

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