Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Change Blindness Plus (YouTube via Schneier)

The Schneier On Security blog points today to an interesting video (embedded below) that demonstrates and discusses the phenomena of Change Blindness:

There are several good videos and resources on this effect and you can find them all here.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Biggest News Stories Of The Year Are Not What You Think (GOOD via Neatorama)

If you are a regular reader of this blog...well, thank you!

More importantly, though, you are probably better informed about what is going on in the world than the average Joe or Jane.

While this is a good thing, it is not a universal good. It probably also creates a cognitive blind spot as well. What do I mean? Well, most people think that other people think the same way they do. This applies particularly to what is "important".

For example, I remember coming back to the US after having worked the Balkans issue for a number of years and being totally taken aback by the lack of news on the situation there. It was the most important thing in my life and I did not understand why it was not important to people in the US as well.

To put things into perspective, then, (and, note, I did not say proper perspective...) comes the "Biggest Stories Of The Year" infographic from the online magazine, GOOD (via Neatorama). The screenshot below just gives you a taste of the level of detail embedded in this image (you can either click on the image or go to the site to see the chart in all its full, glorious interactivity-ness).

The data for this chart comes from US media exclusively but it includes a wide variety of sources (Fox News and MSNBC, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, Limbaugh's radio show, Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity and Olbermann's TV shows, etc.).

Check out the relative importance placed on various stories. It is no surprise that the Economic Crisis and Health Care received a lion's share of the time but look at how they dominated print and the air waves. Eyeballing it, I would say that those two topics alone accounted for 40% of the stories. Worth it? Maybe...

Some of the comparisons are even more revealing. Iraq got 3-4 times less coverage than the death of Michael Jackson, Russia got about as much coverage as the White House Party Crashers and Tiger Wood's Adultery was about as important as the Mexican Drug War in the eyes of the press.

This is not, in my mind, the result of some vast international conspiracy of either the left or the right. It represents, I think, what Americans wanted. These media outlets are supported by advertising and advertising is supported by eyeballs and ears. If people aren't reading, watching or listening then these outlets can't survive.

It is, then, a reasonably accurate reflection of what Americans were interested in and, arguably, what they cared about in 2009.

Something worth thinking about in the new year...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

MethHunter: Find, Fix And Incarcerate! (DagirCo)

Want to cut your town's meth problem in half next year? You can. Really.

The guys over at Dagirco have finally done it! MethHunter is on the streets and check out these early stats: One of our small, local police departments is using it and they have had over a dozen busts and over a half dozen convictions in the last six months. The best part? The program has cut the time it takes to conduct an investigation in half!

One of local TV stations (WICU) recently did a five part special series on meth in NW Pennsylvania in general and on the MethHunter in particular. The video below is only one part of the five part series. The other four parts can be accessed at the end of this video:

I am particularly proud to say I know the team at DagirCo that put this piece of software together. Most of them, including Mark Blair, the CEO, are Mercyhurst grads and I have had the great good fortune to have many of them in class over the years.

Beyond this, though, I am particularly impressed with the way they tackled the problem. They have essentially created an expert system that looks at pill shopping patterns and "thinks" about them the same way a meth expert might think about them. It automates, as Mark puts it in one of the videos, the "80% of the tedious, time-consuming" work of analyzing purchase records. It even examines the shopping patterns for evidence of denial and deception on the part of the pill shoppers!

It is easy for you to imagine this all getting very technical and difficult to interpret. That is where this program really shines. The DagirCo team has worked particularly hard to make the program user friendly for small town and rural police forces. Their thinking was that large cities often have dedicated meth experts but that small and rural police forces may not have the resources for such a position. This meant that the program had to produce something that was understandable and actionable by a police officer who had received no special training.

It turns out that the straightforward, cop-friendly way the program generates output benefits both small and large police forces. It gives the smaller police force a capability where it had none before and it saves the experts in the larger forces time that can be better spent looking at aspects of the meth problem that the software cannot address.

The DagirCo team is also particulaly proud of the "engine" they developed to drive the MethHunter. They think it can be used in a broad range of applications. Currently, they are thinking about how it might be applied to other problem drugs and even other crimes in general (they are working on an anti-graffitti version right now). Mark, a former marine, also believes a modified version of this software could be useful in analyzing insurgent attack patterns in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

SNOWINT (CommunityWalk)

Want to know the odds that your location will have a white Christmas? Check out this map made using one of my favorite online custom mapping tools, CommunityWalk...

CommunityWalk Map - What are the odds of a White Christmas?

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Eleventh Balloon (DARPA Network Challenge)

I was discussing the DARPA Network Challenge with another participant in the contest the other day and the conclusion of our conversation led me to ask why couldn't a similar system be used to locate Osama bin Laden?

For those of you unfamiliar with this challenge, DARPA offered $40,000 to the first individual or team to identify the location of 10 large red helium balloons that DARPA had moored at various locations around the US. The contest was to go on for a week but a team from MIT won the challenge in a little less than 9 hours (for the Lessons Learned from the Mercyhurst effort, see this post).

It occurs to me that the Osama bin Laden problem is a similar one and that social networks might well be as effective in identifying his location (particularly if he is not in the region where most people seem to think he is...).

Moreover, the conditions are much the same -- only better. The reward for bin Laden is 25 million! MIT's winning system seemed to work so well (to me) because everyone in the chain got a piece of the pie. With a much bigger pie, it should work that much better.

Furthermore, there appears to be no reason not to try. Secretary Gates recently stated that there has been no good intelligence on bin Laden "in years". In addition, GEN McCrystal recently testified that he didn't think we could finally defeat Al Qaeda without capturing or killing Bin Laden.

And its not like Pakistanis and Afghanis don't use social networks. They do. Facebook and Orkut are both popular in Pakistan. If the system were optimized for cell phones, it would likely be even more effective as 49 of every 100 Pakistanis (29 of every 100 Afghanis) has a cell phone (Note: These are 2008 numbers. They are likely higher today.) Even the FATA in Pakistan has cellular service. If bin Laden is not where we think he is, then the system could be even more effective.

Using social networks allows us to tap into those people in and around bin Laden who disagree with his message or tactics or both but see no way to get their info to those who can do something about it (and frankly, even if they could, they likely see no advantage in it). It allows us to negotiate with the innocents who are victims of radicalism rather than continue to do business with the guilty that traditionally operate within the elite levels of a state.

Crowdsourcing the bin Laden hunt would also be a real test for these new technologies. A successful effort here would likely have as much impact on the practice of intelligence as 9/11 had on our thinking about terrorism.

So what say you, DARPA? The "eleventh balloon" is out there! Get with the Rewards for Justice people and announce another challenge (this time for some real money).
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Insider’s Guide To Careers In Intelligence Analysis (Henley-Putnam University)

Henley-Putnam University is sponsoring a free webinar on careers in intelligence analysis on 17 DEC at 1100 (PST). Registration is required but the webinar is free.

According to Henley-Putnam: "Author and Henley-Putnam adjunct professor Thomas B. Hunter will provide an introduction to careers in intelligence analysis, including a discussion of counterterrorism, human factors in terrorism, weapons systems, detainee support and Homeland Security. He will also offer a breakdown of the different agencies and their missions. Prior to joining Henley-Putnam, Mr. Hunter served as an intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), where he specialized in a variety of analytical areas, including Homeland Security, Detainee Support, and South American narcoterrorism."
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Yes, Virginia, The Internet Is Big! (Lifehacker)

In case you were wondering...

Click on the image for the full view.

Via Lifehacker.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lessons Learned: DARPA Balloon Challenge

Nope, we didn't win the DARPA Balloon Challenge. These guys did and congratulations to them. It was clearly a well-thought-out and well-executed effort on their part.

While, for the participants, the contest was clearly about winning, it was also about learning. Here, in more or less random order, are some of the things I took away from the experience (Bear in mind, though, that I only watched about two hours of the student's work on Saturday and got to observe through emails, etc. some of the planning. It is my hope that some of the participants will add their own insights in the comments section to this post -- Hint, hint!):

  • This contest was incredibly motivating. DARPA is to be applauded for their willingness to sponsor something like this. I am not sure if they got what they hoped to get (and I hope they make public their findings), but it really fired up many of our students.
  • The Mercyhurst strategy was good... I was very impressed with how the students modeled the problem and self-organized to handle the various tasks. Their fundamental strategy was to identify lesser known networks which would likely be in a position to see the balloons and then motivate people in those networks to report. For example, the students, early on, identified local law enforcement intelligence analysts and crime analysts as an excellent potential network to tap into. Furthermore, they thought that this might not be a network that other participants would think of/have access to. Other examples of networks they tried to tap into included interstate truckers and Mercyhurst alumni. Their secondary strategy was to monitor a wide variety of online sources for leads on the day and then work to confirm or deny them.
  • ... And clearly had some success... The Facebook group the students set up grew from 0 to 447 members in the 24 hours before the contest began. Likewise, some bloggers, such as Deborah Osborne, picked up on the effort and a number of Twitter users re-tweeted the call for help.
  • ... But we got started too late. We did not hear about the contest until 3 DEC and the team did not form until 4 DEC. This gave the team about 24 hours to organize and get the word out. Clearly it was not enough. Looking at the non-traditional social networks was a very good idea but I think it simply was going to take more lead time to energize them.
  • The Game Day execution was brilliant (and fun to watch). With the social networking strategy not panning out the way they had hoped, the students fell back to monitoring online sources and running down leads. The students had done a simple IPB before the contest and had made some judgments about where the balloons were likely to be deployed before the contest even began (for example, they had mapped where all the DARPA funded sites were across the US thinking that the DARPA guys would stick close to home for deployment purposes). That way, as reports started to come in, they were in a position to rank order the leads for viability. It was impressive to be able to watch one of the team members quickly examine a new target and rattle off four or five reasons why it was likely worth exploring or not in a matter of seconds.
  • HUMINT was particularly important. One of the most impressive aspects of the operation was the ability of the students to utilize human sources to track a target. Once a potential target had passed the IPB test, the students used Google Earth to identify restaurants or stores close to the target site and then just called those stores. Listening to the conversations was always interesting: "Uh, this is going to sound weird, but can you look out your window and see if you see a red balloon?" It was also surprising how often people were willing to call back or to go out of their way to confirm or deny the info (one woman got in her car and drove 20 minutes only to call back and indicate that there was not a balloon at the reported location). The big exception here seemed to be in areas where the weather was bad.
  • A custom collection management tool would have been useful. I don't think anyone expected the number of leads that poured in. Each had to be sorted out and tasked for follow up. A system emerged over the course of the several hours I watched the team at work but having something that was custom designed to deal with the problem would have been nice. Here again, I think the late start was a critical factor.
  • We could have gotten more out of the IPB. The OPFOR at NTC used to do something interesting before an attack. They would figure out where the defenders were likely to put scouts and then just shell the stuffing out of all of those locations. They knew that they would likely be blowing up a lot of dirt and trees and only occasionally hitting the defender's scout units but they had plenty of artillery and the strategy was almost guaranteed to blind the defenders. Given the IPB work done in advance of the contest and the generous submission guidelines set by DARPA (each entrant could submit up to 25 entries), it would have been possible to make "good guesses" and enter each of those submissions as soon as the contest opened up.
Massive kudoes to all of the students who participated and massive thanks to all those who helped! Post your own thoughts on the experience in the comments...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Help Win The Balloon Challenge! (DARPA)

DARPA recently issued a challenge: On 5 DEC at 10 AM (Eastern time), it is going to raise 8 foot diameter red balloons over ten different locations in the US. The first person/team to identify all 10 locations correctly will win $40k.

Talk about a way to fire up a bunch of Intel Studies students! Wow!

Our students have organized a team (on their own), have established a collection plan and are busily working, as I type, trying to match collection assets to targets.

Part of their strategy involves sharing the wealth with anyone who spots a balloon and who helps the team win by reporting it to the MCIIS DARPA Challenge HQ. Every new balloon reported and confirmed is worth $1000 to the reporter if the team ultimately wins the challenge. The contact details are on the flyer below.

The team figures that the contest will be over on Saturday (even though it is supposed to run for 7 days), so help them out if you see anything or pass this info (quickly) along to someone who can.

Contest MCIIS RedBalloons[2]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Turkey Industrial Complex, The Best Pie (Chart) Ever And The Happy Turkey Day Song (Thanksgiving Link List)

A Happy Thanksgiving to all SAM readers! May your turkey fryers not explode and may your Cool Whip not be lite! Here are a few non-shopping, non-football related sites to help you enjoy the day:

The Turkey Industrial Complex.
Ever wonder how farmers manage to get 46 million turkeys to table on Thanksgiving? One piece of advice: Read it after you eat...

The Best Pie (Chart) Ever.
Please let this be a joke, please let this be a joke... By the way, if your eighth grader doesn't "get it" then you should probably have a word with his or her math teacher.

The Happy Turkey Day Song. MST3K is still a favorite in my household (If you are not familiar with the series, ask for Manos: Hands of Fate for Christmas). This may not be the perfect Thanksgiving song, but it is nostalgic.

Monday, November 23, 2009

SHOPINT: Repair Or Replace? (Consumer Reports Via Lifehacker)

This time of year, many people's thoughts turn to shopping (well, first to giving thanks...but, then, to shopping). Lifehacker recently republished this very handy Consumer Reports repair or replace chart for a number of electronic items (Click on it to get a better view). Now you have the excuse you need to go out and get that 50 inch plasma...

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Funnies: Spy Pigeon! (YouTube)

Great short video about what would happen if pigeons got access to Top Secret information...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Internet Connectivity In Africa (AppAfrica.net)

The blog White African recently pointed to a post on AppAfrica that featured an amazing infographic of the state of African internet connectivity in 2009. The pic below is too hard to read but it gives you an idea of what is in the document. You can, however download a very detailed view (as well as some shots of specific areas of interest) from Flickr.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Sabotaging The System, The Cyberwar Plan, The PRC's Cyberwar Capability and Trillions (Cyberwar Link List)

Cyber stuff is everywhere these days and the last couple of weeks have seen a number of interesting articles and videos make the rounds:
  • Sabotaging The System. I would start the tour of this particular horizon with the recent 60 Minutes report on the cyberthreat. Readers should note that, in addition to the video below, there is quite a bit of additional material on the website as well.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Trillions from MAYAnMAYA on Vimeo.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hey, Admiral Blair! Did You Get Tetlock's Memo? (NationalInterest.org)

Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment is required reading here at Mercyhurst. While some analysts take issue with Tetlock's findings, I have yet to see anyone create as compelling a study as his regarding the essential qualities of a good forecaster.

So, I pay attention whenever Tetlock writes something, even a book review. Thanks to my colleague, Steve Marrin (who knows of my interest in all things Tetlockian...), I recently had a chance to read Tetlock's review of three new books by people who claim to have an inside track when it comes to predicting the future.

I will let you read Tetlock's review of the books on your own. Suffice it to say that his critique of all three works is based on his research and, as a result, is skeptical (in varying degrees) of the claims of accuracy in the three books.

What really fascinated me about this review is buried at the end of it, though. Tetlock worries about how to improve forecasting, about how we can know which forecasters are worth listening to and which are modern day snake oil salesmen. Then, he makes a point that I agree with in whole:
  • "There is one potential savior on the horizon: a big institutional purchaser of forecasting services that has the financial clout and technical-support staff ready to run forecasting tournaments that would shed light on the relative performance of competing approaches—a big player that also has powerful incentives to discover superior analytical strategies, for even small improvements in its prediction accuracy can translate into billions of dollars and millions of lives saved. And that player is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence."
Right on, Professor T! The DNI has every reason to want to improve forecasting and has the purchasing power to insist upon it. Specifically, according to Tetlock:
  • "Players high up in the political system—who really do want the best-possible forecasts—could decide that it is worth investing a nontrivial share of their intelligence agencies’ budgets into a series of long-term forecasting tournaments designed to distinguish the more from the less promising forecasting approaches across policy problems."
The DNI dipped its toes in this water back in 2008 when it sponsored the Open Source Challenge. Since then, of course, we have not had another Challenge or another Open Source Conference. This does not bode well for Tetlock's very reasonable suggestion.

Still, it is a great idea. If we are ever to break out of the "two-thirds right" trap we are in, we need a robust research program aimed at validating intelligence methods and the DNI will have to be the one to sponsor it.
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Friday, October 23, 2009

ONI's New "Hoo-ahh!" Video, Deconstructing Analysis Techniques, The Geography Of Job Loss And The Future Of Shopping (Link List)

Lot's of interesting stuff crossing my desk this week:

  • The Office of Naval Intelligence has a new promotional (i.e. "hoo-ahh) video out. It gives a brief overview of the ONI's new organizational structure and mission. Many people don't think about ONI as an intel career option but they actually do some pretty cool stuff. The video is certainly worth 5 minutes of your time (Note: It takes a few minutes to get started (I don't understand why these guys don't just upload these videos to YouTube...). Also, if you are interested, see it quickly as Matchbox Twenty's lawyers may slap a take-down notice on the ONI for unauthorized use of copyrighted material (not even a music credit, ONI? That was cold...).
  • Visualizing information is a powerful way to communicate analysis. A good example of this is Tip Strategies infographic showing job loss and gain in the US from 2004-2009. It is both stunning and depressing but clearly shows the value of a good visual (Sorry, no embed. You will have to go to the site to see it).

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Intel Legend Art Hulnick On The Future Of OSINT (ISN)

The ISN, on one of its recent podcasts, scored a very good (if too short) interview with Professor Arthur Hulnick (see picture at right). Art currently teaches intelligence related courses at Boston University and has for a number of years. Before that he was at the CIA for several decades and has contributed significantly to the open body of literature on intelligence through his books (including Keeping Us Safe: Secret Intelligence and Homeland Security (2004) and Fixing the Spy Machine: Preparing American Intelligence for the 21st Century (1999)) and many articles.

Art is one of those guys who has been around, as we used to say in the army, "since Christ was a corporal" and is always worth listening to. Unfortunately, the ISN did not make an embeddable version of the podcast but you can get it on iTunes, download the MP3 or just go to the ISN site to listen to it.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Surreal Saturday: Saturn's Hexagons... (DailyMotion Via Neatorama)

...is not the name of a rock band. Nor is it the name of a science fiction novel. It is even weirder than that.

It is a real phenomena on Saturn that the Cassini probe confirms has lasted for at least 20 years.

Very cool video on DailyMotion (via Neatorama) below along with very interesting possible explanation on Softpedia (also via Neatorama)...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Building A Better Analyst With Technology (10/GUI via FlowingData)

One of the ways to make analysts better is to make them faster. It has always been surprising to me that the various intelligence communities don't do more research into speed reading, for example, in order to figure out how to make analysts be able to access information faster on the job.

Another fairly archaic approach is the QWERTY keyboard and mouse as the primary input devices for computers. There have been lots of attempts to improve on this model (voice recognition, for example, is pretty much there already) but none of them have been able to knock King QWERTY and his trusty sidekick Mouse from the hill.

The most recent entries have been touchscreens but there are lots of problems with them beyond mobile and occasional big screen use (see CNN at just about any time of the day or night...).

The latest entry into this competition is 10/GUI. There seems to be some pretty interesting human-computer interface oriented thought that has gone into the tool. Not sure if it going to sweep the nation but it is worth reviewing and thinking about. See the video below...

10/GUI from C. Miller on Vimeo.

I thought it was pretty cool but I have two concerns. The first is learning the new workflow. I am not too worried about that as it looked like something I would pick up fairly quickly (I figure you have to put in some time on any new piece of equipment and this doesn't look like it would take much more than normal).

I think I would also like to see the left hand functions and the right hand functions on two separate pads, one to the left and one to the right (or at least have this as an option). It looks like it is going to be cramped (particularly for people with big hands).

How would you improve the interface? Leave a comment!
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Monday, October 12, 2009

How To Get A Job In Intelligence (Final Version With Abstract)


I wrote this series of posts to help entry-level job seekers understand the broader market for intelligence professionals and, particularly, intelligence analysts. I start by taking a look at not only national security but also business and law enforcement employment prospects for intelligence professionals and continue with detailed advice along with a number of places to look for employment. The series contains multiple links for job hunters as well as a substantial amount of background information on everything from resumes to interview skills to appropriate dress. Of particular interest to most job hunters should be the extensive and often lengthy comments to many of these posts.

HTML Version:

Part 1 -- Introduction
Part 2 -- The Intelligence Job Market From 20,000 Feet
Part 3 -- The Good News!
Part 4 -- Even Better News!
Part 5 -- Beyond The Big Three
Part 6 -- Beyond Borders
Part 7 -- Beyond Borders: India, Europe And South Africa
Part 8 -- Going It On Your Own
Part 9 -- The 5 Things You Must Have
Part 10 -- Advice From The Trenches
Special Report: Where The Jobs Are, 2009
Part 11 -- Advice From Intelligence Veterans
Part 12 -- Intelligence Job Links
Annex 1 -- "Plan B" Careers

Friday, October 9, 2009

Intel Analyst One Of The Best Jobs In America! (CNNMoney.com)

CNN and Money Magazine just announced their list of the 50 best kinds of jobs in the US. Coming in at number 9 this year was Intelligence Analyst (Thanks, Dave and Rachel!).

This is a pretty big deal for a job category that does not even have a Bureau of Labor Statistics code.

CNN and Money cited personal satisfaction, future growth and benefit to society as major reasons why being an intelligence analyst was such a good job. Job security was considered good but not great and the high stress of the job was cited as the major negative factor.

The report focused only on intel analyst jobs in the US government but did appear to include those analysts who work for contractors who support the US national security intelligence community. The study estimated that there were 51,000 analyst positions in the USG (which sounds a little high, even with the contractors thrown in...).

Fun fact #1: I looked at all of the top ten jobs and each already had a number off comments sent in by readers. The only job category not to have any comments was ... you guessed it ... intel analyst.

Fun fact #2: College professor came in at #3. If this were the BCS, then I would have the best job in America!

Related Posts:
How To Get A Job In Intelligence (series)
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Email Hoaxes Aimed At Intel Professionals (!), New Report On The Pakistani Military And Rising Ethnic Violence In The UK (Link List)

A number of interesting reports have come out over the last several days. Here are three that caught my eye:
  • The Institute of South Asian Studies (out of the National University of Singapore and via the ISN) has recently issued a report on the Pakistani military under General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Given all the recent bad news about Afghanistan, this report is remarkably optimistic, claiming that Kayani "does not harbor ambitions of interfering in politics" and that "crushing the Taliban now seems to be an objective that General Kayani is strongly committed to."
  • ISN has also just published an Intel Brief on the rising ethnic tension in the UK between Islamic and Skinhead groups. The article, written by Mercyhurst alumna, Ania Dunin, claims that the right-wing English Defense League has been "deliberately trying to provoke a response from ethnic minorities in order to create wider violence and mayhem" and that the extremist groups "will likely pose a significant security threat in the UK in the near future, not due to their manpower, but to their tactics."
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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Funnies: A Palindromic Proclamation

Anyone who has taken my Communications class knows of my fondness for palindromes. This sketch is particularly clever...

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Quarantine, shmarantine! Let's send MORE flights into the infected areas!" (My Linux Experiment)

(Note: First, I want to welcome all the Linux lovers to SAM. I had heard that the Ubuntu and the broader Linux communities were pretty good people but wow! I have received a number of very nice emails and even some telephone calls offering both support and help and the referral traffic from sites like Ubuntu-news.net, Tuxmachines.org and Free Software Daily has been impressive. Thanks to all!)

A couple of days ago, I talked about adopting a Linux distribution, Ubuntu, for one of my old laptops. I had a number of personal reasons for adopting this open source operating system but one of my explicit reasons for doing so was in order to become more resilient.

Resiliency, as I use the term here, is about being able to withstand bad times. Microsoft products, because of their popularity, are the primary targets for state and non-state sponsored hackers. One day, the bad guys are going to win and win big. This victory may be only temporary and the perpetrators may pay dearly for it in the long run but do I really want to be just another victim? Having (and knowing how to use) a Linux machine makes sense in this context.

One of the pieces of evidence I pointed to in that article was Jeff Carr's (of Intel Fusion) characterization of Africa as in the midst of a cyber pandemic. Most of the machines there are infected with viruses or are part of zombie networks (or both) due to pirated Windows software and a wholesale lack of anti virus protection.

Associated with Jeff's article is a pretty neat map of the projected level of connectivity (via undersea fiber optic cables) in Africa by 2011. This map doesn't show the explosive growth of the "big pipes" -- the undersea cables that carry most of the internet's traffic -- around the globe, however. To get this picture, you need to go to the BBC (Note: The pic below is just a screenshot. The full map is interactive and shows growth over time).

For me, this explosive growth (which is unlikely to stop in 2011) is the epidemiological equivalent of increasing the number of transmission vectors from an infected area instead of quarantining it.

That said, I am not sure what the answer to the problem is. I consider it almost inhumane to deny these parts of the world the benefits that robust internet and communication facilities provide. Likewise, I don't think you are ever going to see a company (such as Microsoft) take a "responsible" position that is fundamentally contrary to its shareholder's interests. Government control sounds even less palatable (though the government, after a hue here and a cry there, seems to now be taking the risk seriously).

Which sort of leaves just us. We have to act in our own best interests and, for me, at least, that means not putting all your ova into one open-top, woven reed container. So, I converted one of my machines to a Linux machine.

Having used my Ubuntu/Linux machine all week, what have I learned? First, it boots way faster than Windows did. Everything is quicker, snappier now. Second, all of the apps that come pre-loaded with Ubuntu mimic or improve on similar Windows-based apps. Third, most things are the same or about the same. Firefox, for example, works the same. Some of the drop down menus are in different places but I strongly suspect you can move them around if you don't like them where they are. I consider the fact that the user experience is similar in many ways to Windows to be a huge plus, by the way. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to learn a whole new workflow. The similarity in experience also allows me, I think, to really appreciate where Ubuntu is better than Windows, as well.

I also ran into my first snag this week. I went to download a piece of freeware only to realize that there was no Linux version of it. This led me to do a little research and was quickly able to find that the capability was already built into Ubuntu. I am pretty sure that all my surprises will not be that pleasant but that was pretty cool.

There are also things that I don't yet understand. System maintenance, for example. I am used to a whole series of activities (defragging the hard drive, clearing the temp files, etc.) to keep my Windows machine operating at peak efficiency. Do you not have to do this with Linux? I don't know. It is too early to be worried about too much of this stuff but at some point in the future, I suspect that I am going to have to figure it out.

In short, so far, so good.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Annex 1: "Plan B" Careers (How To Get A Job In Intelligence)

Part 1 -- Introduction
Part 2 -- The Intelligence Job Market From 20,000 Feet
Part 3 -- The Good News!
Part 4 -- Even Better News!
Part 5 -- Beyond The Big Three
Part 6 -- Beyond Borders
Part 7 -- Beyond Borders: India, Europe And South Africa
Part 8 -- Going It On Your Own
Part 9 -- The 5 Things You Must Have
Part 10 -- Advice From The Trenches
Special Report: Where The Jobs Are, 2009
Part 11 -- Advice From Intelligence Veterans
Part 12 -- Intelligence Job Links

I thought I was done with this series...until I received a very interesting email from the Federal Citizen Information Center pointing me to an article on Bankrate.com about "Fallback careers" -- careers that you can fall back on if something goes wrong in your main profession.

All of the careers on the list had evidence of growing demand and required less than a year of schooling to get certified according to the Bankrate article.

As I looked at the list, I immediately thought of a use beyond the one intended by the authors. These careers could also be a useful way of filling in the time between graduation and getting a clearance.

Many entry-level analysts get stuck waiting to start work because of a clearance. Predicting when a clearance will be complete is one of the hardest things to do (we had one student whose clearance took three years -- by which time she had married, moved, had a child and changed jobs!). Having a useful Plan B in this situation might allow one to avoid a "challenging career in the food service industry".

Obviously, in order to pursue one of these fallback careers, the job seeker would have to have the certification before graduation (which would likely necessitate summer or night school) and might, therefore, not be an option for everyone. If this is the case, then maybe seeking such a certification makes sense while waiting for a clearance (time and financing permitting). Likewise, if job offers are not as forthcoming as one would hope and grad school isn't an option, then pursuing certification in one of these fields might also turn out to be a good option.

What are the eleven "Plan B" careers?
  1. Emergency medical technician
  2. Police officer
  3. Phlebotomist
  4. HVAC technician
  5. Drafter/CADD operator
  6. Medical assistant
  7. Truck driver
  8. Dental assistant
  9. Massage therapist
  10. Medical records and health information technician
  11. Nuclear medicine technologist
Some of these careers look particularly promising. With the number of analysts currently deployed in war zones, I can imagine that training as an EMT would be an excellent secondary skill to have.

I also have some concerns about this list, though. Police officer seems overly optimistic, for example. While the facts in the article may be true, the number of people already seeking jobs in this field make it seem overly competitive for a fallback career. Maybe if you included all security professionals (including bank guards and mall cops for example), it might make some sense. Otherwise, I would not advise anyone to go this route strictly as a fallback career.

I was also surprised that more information technology positions weren't on the list. Certified computer repair guys and website administrators always seem to be in demand. Getting some sort of technical certification in these fields will benefit an analyst in the lean times and when they are working as an analyst as well.
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Monday, September 28, 2009

Ubuntu Is Pretty Cool (My Linux Experiment)

I decided to install Ubuntu on an old laptop of mine this weekend and I feel, I have to say, more, well, resilient already. The intelligence implications are pretty interesting, too.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ubuntu, it is a Linux-based operating system (For those of you who are also unfamiliar with Linux, it is a catch-all term for a wide variety of operating systems based off a common, open source core. Linux-based operating systems are alternatives to operating systems offered by Microsoft (Windows) or Apple (Mac OS X). (For those of you unfamiliar with the term "operating system", you need to join the rest of us here in the 21st Century...)).

Now Linux is much loved by the technically proficient but not so much by the rest of us. As you can see in the pie chart, Linux has not quite captured a whopping one percent of the operating system market.

What makes it worse is that Linux has more flavors than Baskin-Robbins. Because the core of Linux (the so-called "kernel") is open source, anyone with the technical skill to do so can make a Linux variant (called a "distribution" in Linux-speak). So, the one percent? It is actually divided up among 50 or so different distributions and Ubuntu is just one of them.

Ubuntu is, however, one of the most popular and best supported of the Linux distributions. Because it is free and focuses on usability, it is often the first choice for newbies like me.

But why choose Linux at all? Here are my reasons (in no particular order):

  • I was curious. Trying out new tech widgets and gadgets is something I do for fun. I have been toying around with Linux for years now (using live CDs mostly) and had an opportunity to try it out so I decided, "What the heck?"
  • I had an old Windows XP laptop that was slow and required constant attention. One of the great things about almost any Linux distribution is that is small and efficient. It is often recommended as a good way to get some new life out of an older machine.
  • Ubuntu makes it easy. I picked the Ubuntu distribution because it was easy to figure out and install. The software takes you step by step through the process and even gives you the option to split your hard drive so you can have both Linux and Windows (or whatever) on the same machine.
  • I am not sacrificing much (if anything). As the title to this post suggests, Ubuntu is pretty cool. True, the user interface is a little different but, having oriented myself (and pretty quickly for an old guy, I am proud to say), it seems a little better than Windows. It does well all of the things my old Windows machine did poorly. I have faster web-browsing now through my trusty Firefox browser. Web apps (like Google Docs) are operating system agnostic and I have yet to run into a major plugin that is not also available for Linux distributions. Open Office (a free Office-like application) works very well with most of my Office files (and others). There are also tons of new productivity and gaming applications to explore as well, all with little (some would say no) risk of virus or malware infection.
Finally, and most interestingly, it makes me more resilient (Here is where the intelligence implications come in). Centralized networks attract attention. On the positive side (at least from the standpoint of those that control the network), the "rich get richer", meaning the most powerful node attracts other nodes to it. This is great if you have a product that dominates the market the way Microsoft does with Windows. On the other hand, it also attracts negative attention as well. One of the major reasons hackers go after Windows-based systems so much is because so many people use it.

Machiavelli first outlined the problems with centralized networks in The Prince (Don't believe me? See Chapter 4...). Good ones are difficult to take down but once taken down, they are easy to control because of the efficiencies inherent in the centralized system. Decentralized networks, on the other hand, are very difficult to take down but are also very difficult to control.

There ought to be (and, in fact, there is) an optimal balance between efficiency and robustness in any system. To me, a resilient system ought be closer to this optimal balance than not. I am not a Windows hater and will likely continue to use Windows. That said, I feel better knowing, understanding and owning a Linux-based system as well. A "black swan" event like a zero-day virus that wipes every Windows-based computer is pretty unlikely but if it does, I will still have a computer and (maybe) internet access (many servers run on some form of Linux already).

I am no cyber analyst and do not pretend to know the ins and outs of the subject matter. I am not the only person to note the problems with an over dependence on Windows, however. Fellow blogger, Jeff Carr, over at IntelFusion notes that Africa is in the midst of a "cyber pandemic" due primarily to an over-dependence on pirated versions of Windows.

In the end, understanding something about Linux, what it can and cannot do, seemed to make some sense -- an experiment in resiliency. As I proceed, my intent is to report here periodically about what I find. Your comments and questions about both the process and my findings are, as always, welcome.

Note: Two recent authors, John Robb and Joshua Cooper Ramo, have both written more extensively (and more eloquently) about this concept of resiliency for anyone interested.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

When Does Web 2.0 Work? Lessons For The Intelligence Communities (McKinsey Quarterly)

McKinsey, the capo di tutti capi of consulting firms, recently published a fascinating report titled How Companies Are Benefiting From Web 2.0. You have to register with McKinsey to read the full text but it is probably worth it if you are interested in how (and what) Web 2.0 technologies are actually making a difference in the very competitive, global business environment -- and, of course, which technologies appear to be falling out of favor as well.

The coolest thing about the report is the visualization tool they developed to supplement their report. I have a screenshot of one of the views of the data it provides below but that does not do it justice. Click here or on the picture to take you to the fully interactive set of charts and graphs (No registration required to play with the chart...).

The most interesting thing about the report, however, is the implications it holds for the intelligence community and its attempt to bring Web 2.0 technologies into the workplace. According to a report from earlier this year, Web 2.0 is in a midlife crisis within the national security intelligence community. The McKinsey report pretty clearly points to the likely reasons why. Specifically, they identified three major performance factors (ranked by the percentage that each factor made in the average company's success):

  • "Management capabilities ranked highest at 54 percent, meaning that good management is more than half of the battle in ensuring satisfaction with Web 2.0, a high rate of adoption, and widespread use of the tools. The competitive environment explained 28 percent, size and location 17 percent."
Since management was such a fundamental part of the success or failure of these initiatives, McKinsey then dug into the numbers regarding management and found three critical management related sub-factors:
  • "Parsing these results even further, we found that three aspects of management were particularly critical to superior performance: a lack of internal barriers to Web 2.0, a culture favoring open collaboration (a factor confirmed in the 2009 survey), and early adoption of Web 2.0 technologies."

If McKinsey's results are accurate, then a true cynic would say the national security intel community already has three strikes against it. In these circumstances, it is only surprising that Web 2.0 has had any success -- at all.

That view is clearly unfair to the thousands of people who are already successfully working with these technologies inside the national security intelligence community. What would also be unfair, however, is to underestimate the roadblocks that conventional management approaches may be putting in the way of the productivity to be gained from implementing these technologies in intelligence.

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