Monday, December 23, 2013

A Christmas Card With A Secret

As a 'Happy Holidays' from SAM, we bring some cheerful holiday pictures that are a bit more than meets the eye. Yes, they are Christmas trees, but they are also intel!

Population Movement Simulation Results 1 

Consider this a teaser for what is to come from SAM in the new year. 2014 will bring a series of visually-appealing posts on Turkey, Syria, nuclear non-proliferation, refugee population simulations and a host of innovative analytic methods for the everyday analyst's toolbox. 

Population Movement Simulation Results 2

Wishing happy holidays and a brilliant start to 2014 to all our faithful readers!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Day We Almost Nuked North Carolina (Or...Why Don't We Still Write Like This?)

The M-39 in a field near Goldsboro, NC, 1961
Old cold warriors like me are not surprised by stories of accidents and incidents involving nuclear weapons but most of my students have no idea what that environment was like.  In fact, other than those inducted into the Cult of The Atom, very few people living at the time had any idea of how close we came, on a number of occasions, to accidentally blowing ourselves up (while forgetting about those times we almost did so purposely....).

Recently, several stories about those good 'ol days have resurfaced as a result of newly declassified documents.  For example, the news making the rounds today is that the launch code on US weapons was 00000000 for 20 years - sort of like setting "password" as your password, except with a nuke.

This article led, in turn, to some new information on the Goldsboro, North Carolina incident in which, back in 1961, a B-52 broke up in mid air, allowing a couple of 4 megaton M-39 nuclear weapons to fall out of the airplane.  One of the bombs fell straight into a muddy field where it disintegrated more or less harmlessly on impact.

The second one, however, deployed its parachute and started going through its arming sequence.  Why didn't it blow up?  According to Parker Jones, the supervisor of the nuclear weapons safety department at Sandia national laboratories (writing in 1969), "one simple, dynamo technology, low-voltage switch stood between the US and a major catastrophe!"

Curious about how much damage a 4 MT bomb would do?  Here is an estimate courtesy of NUKEMAP.  It includes both immediate damage and the resulting fallout.,10,100,1000&zm=8

What really impressed me, however, was the way the memo was written.  There is no tiptoeing around the issue, no spin doctoring.  Here is a senior scientist calling the nuclear weapons community out on improving safety.  He does it directly, bluntly, and with no attempt to spare the readers' feelings.  The Guardian, which published the declassified memo, doesn't allow me to embed the document but it is only 2 pages and worth reading in its entirety.

Monday, November 25, 2013

TS/SCI: Thanksgiving Supper/Special Culinary Ingredients

Happy Thanksgiving!

In light of the impending holiday season, we are taking a moment (or a blog post, as it is) to indulge in quiet reverie for all that is edible and delicious. 

And yes. You read correctly. SAM is publishing TS material!

Don't worry. We aren't Wikileaks. Just humble listmakers bringing you the top ten most unexpected yet necessary ingredients for holiday (and everyday) cooking.

  • Stone ground mustard 
Everyone has that one ingredient; the one thing they add to almost every dish they prepare. Mine is stone ground mustard. Inglehoffer is my brand of choice. Stone ground mustard makes just about anything better, from salad dressing to my heart-attack-Mac (fantastic baked macaroni and cheese recipe below). But mustard's capabilities do not stop there! Who knew there was a chic side to mustard? For an explanation of that statement, see the tarragon and carrot tart recipe.

  • Honey
Honey is the number one ingredient in salad dressing. Homemade salad dressing is one of those things that may seem intimidating, but any person with some olive oil and a spoon should be able to whip up in under 60 seconds. I guarantee that you already have the ingredients at home. See simple salad dressing recipe below.

  • Nutmeg
Nutmeg is not an uncommon ingredient in pie. But it is an uncommon ingredient in fetuccine Alfredo   In fact, nutmeg is the top secret ingredient in all those delicious Italian cream sauces we know and love. Whether it's Gruyere, Parmesan, white wine or just plain cream sauce, it isn't complete without a dash of nutmeg. (Homemade Alfredo sauce is another seemingly intimidating recipe that is actually quite easy and perfected in under five minutes; see Alfredo sauce recipe below).

  • Vodka
Okay. I know what you're thinking. Vodka is the not-so-top-secret ingredient in martinis. But there is a certain method to the madness of putting vodka in your homemade holiday pie crusts. The vodka gives the crust added moisture; it makes it easier to work with. But alcohol quickly evaporates in the high temperatures of the oven leaving your pie crust alcohol-free.

  • Chocolate
This trick comes all the way from the ancient Maya. Put chocolate in your chili and chili in your chocolate. Being a history-of-cacao fanatic, ancient cacao remedies can be traced all the way back to before the Spanish conquest. The famous Mexican mole (moh-lay) sauce is based off the timeless mixture of chili and chocolate. Long story short, next time you make a pot of chili, throw in a Hershey bar or some cocoa powder.

  • Chili
This brings me to chili. Not chili the soup, but chili the pepper. Chili powder is the secret to that winter cup of hot cocoa. Some rich chocolate, a cinnamon stick and a dash of chili powder and that is what they call Mexican Hot Chocolate. Beyond hot cocoa, chili is the key ingredient in all things chocolate; sauces, truffles, fudge, etc. The darker the chocolate, the more chili appropriate.

  • Beer
Beyond answering the question, "when is beer not a good addition to food," I make the case that beer has a very special place in two particular culinary endeavors. The first is one I have already mentioned. Chili. The single best thing for a slow-cooking pot of chili is a bottle of beer (I personally like to use an amber). The second suggestion is a bit more surprising. Bread. Yep, there is such a thing as beer bread. The steam smells of hops and it's dense with a slightly sweet finish. The best part (other than the fact that it contains beer) is that it is extremely easy to make. Why? No kneading required. Also, no yeast! The beer contains the yeast the bread needs to rise, so the beer bread recipe is basically just beer and flour. It is also very flexible. Experiment with different kinds of beer (nothing too hoppy or it doesn't rise well), add herbs (rosemary is great) or add jalapeños for those who like a little spice.

  • Cabernet Savignon
This one might seem obvious, but is worth noting anyway. Cabernet (even cheap Cabernet - any red wine, really) makes a red sauce. It also makes sauteed mushrooms. So it really makes a sauteed mushroom red sauce! Add half a cup of white wine to your cream sauces and half a cup of red to your marinaras just when you turn off the stove about 10 minutes before serving, so the alcohol doesn't completely cook out of the sauce.

  • Sumac
Sumac is the most top secret of all the secret ingredients listed in this post. It is so secret, you will never find it in your local grocery store, but it is well worth the hunt. Typical of Turkish or Greek food, it is a staple spice in Middle Eastern cooking, especially Lebanese cuisine. Dark red or dark purple in color, sumac has a dry, tannic almost burnt flavor, pairing well with paprika or cayenne. Use it in a rub for chicken, sprinkled over a simple yogurt or tzatziki sauce or with anything paired with feta cheese for an authentic Mediterranean flavor.

  • Cinnamon
The final secret ingredient is no stranger to the American palette. Cinnamon is quite common, especially sprinkled on top of a cappuccino or mixed in the filling of a warm apple pie. As it turns out, the secret to putting cinnamon in coffee is when you put the cinnamon in the coffee. Just after pouring your fresh grounds into the coffee filter, sprinkle cinnamon over the top before brewing. This will accomplish two things: 1. Give your coffee a subtle yet unmistakable hint of cinnamon and 2. Make your house or apartment smell amazing!

Now, as promised, here are the recipes:

Baked Mac-and-Cheese (Heart-attack-Mac)

1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
2 cups sharp cheddar cheese (plus 1/2 cup more for topping)
Elbow noodle pasta
1 tablespoon stone ground mustard
Black pepper

Blend cottage cheese, sour cream, mustard and salt together in blender until smooth. Cook pasta and strain. While pasta is still hot, pour cheese mixture over top, adding cheddar cheese and tossing until thoroughly coated. Place mixture in baking pan, top with the extra 1/2 cup of cheddar cheese and black pepper. Bake in oven at 350 for about 20 - 30 minutes, or until edges just start to brown. Remove from oven and let sit for approx. 20 minutes before serving.

Simple Salad Dressing

Mix the following ingredients together in no particular order (can be made in advance):

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (quality olive oil is key)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
The juice from half a lemon
2 teaspoons stone ground mustard
2 teaspoons honey
Fresh ground black pepper
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons dried thyme

For sweet salads containing spinach, mushrooms, pears, Gorgonzola cheese or walnuts, increase honey and mustard, decrease lemon and vinegar. For tangier salads containing chicken, dried cranberries, green apples, pecans or feta, de-emphasize the honey and mustard.

Homemade Alfredo Sauce

1 cup heavy cream
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons paprika or cayenne
2 cloves garlic, minced
5 - 7 large brown mushrooms, sauteed (with Cabernet or sherry)
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley 
Freshly ground black pepper

Sautee mushrooms and garlic together. Set aside. Heat cream over medium in saucepan on stove until steaming, but do not bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, but leave the saucepan on the stove. Add butter and stir until melted. Add cheese and stir until melted. Throw in spices, parsley and mushrooms, stir lightly and pour over warm, fresh pasta.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Reduce Bias In Analysis By Using A Second Language

In a world where the majority of analysts are bi- if not multi-lingual, the question of how language affects both the analytic process and analytic product is an important one. Emotion, language processing and cognitive biases aside, the intriguing question remains: Would you make the same decision in English as you would in, say, Chinese? Most analysts would likely answer yes to this question, but recent research led by Boaz Keysar out of the University of Chicago suggests otherwise[1].

Thinking of learning another language? This infographic is a good
suggestion of which language you might want to consider
tackling first.
The study, published in Psychological Science, concludes that “people are not as loss averse in a foreign language as they are in their native tongue.” Being less loss averse, that is more willing to take on risk, might sound like a dangerous characteristic to possess from an intel analyst’s perspective. In this case, however, being less risk averse means that people more systematically assessed the problem and came to a more rational conclusion. At the root of this finding is the conclusion that “people rely more on systematic processes…when making decisions in a foreign language.” Regardless of how accepting of risk we are as analysts, the ability to make decisions driven more by rational thought and less by emotion is a capability to which every analyst likely aspires.

In three studies, Keysar showed that while participants made different decisions based on how the problem was framed[2] (as more or less risky), they made the same decision for both risk conditions when using their foreign language. The three groups of participants had English as a first language and Japanese as a second, Korean as a first language and English as a second or English as a first language and French as a second, indicating that this effect is replicable within and across language family boundaries.

So why, then, do we make more rational, less biased decisions in our second language than in our first? It largely has to do with the lack of “emotional resonance” that we derive from foreign language text. Literature on second language acquisition unanimously agrees that people perceive messages delivered in their second language as less emotional (and consequently less impactful) than messages delivered in their first language; this concept applies to everything from political opinion to curse words[3].

How we perceive emotion then ties directly to our internal cognitive processes. According to Daniel Kahneman, the most widely respected authority on these internal processes, we have two broad systems of thinking – System 1 and System 2 thinking[4]. System 1 is automatic (and often times uncontrollable) while System 2 is more deliberate and rational. Think of System 1 as the mechanism driving impulse buys and split second decisions, whereas System 2 is more like making a grocery list in advance. Cognitive biases, or internal heuristics (shortcuts) that influence both our analytic process and analytic product, originate in System 1 thinking. Examples of cognitive biases particularly relevant to intelligence analysis are confirmation bias, anchoring bias and the framing effect (addressed directly in Keysar’s article).

Cognitive biases originate in System 1 thinking along with our gut instincts, emotional reactions and a less credible substantiation for intelligence analysis, intuition. Consequently, it makes sense to pursue analysis derived from System 2 processes as it will likely be less biased, more rational and more systematically attained. The argument here is that conducting analysis within the domain of a second, third or fourth language will lead to an increased reliance on System 2 processes, thereby reducing bias and ultimately resulting in more systematically-derived analysis. The results of Keysar’s study, while still relatively new, support this perspective.

In practice, with bilingualism now practically a pre-requisite for analysis work, the benefit of this argument to intelligence analysts is obvious (coupled with the other known benefits of bilingualism).[5] The traditional view is that an analyst is at an automatic disadvantage when operating in a non-native linguistic domain to conduct analysis, fearing the loss of meaning and context. The argument in this article, however, sheds new light on the quality of the analytic product obtained in a non-native language. Would you make the same decision in English as you would in, say, Chinese? The answer is that you might not, and your Chinese decision just might be more impartial.

[1] Keysar, B., & Hayakawa, S.L. (2012). The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases. Psychological Science, 23, 661-668.
[2] Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 263-292. The bias phenomenon Keysar’s article claims to neutralize is what Kahneman and Tversky call The Framing Effect, and is one of the many known cognitive biases to affect intelligence analysis.
[3] Emotion and Lying in a Non-Native Language (2009). International Journal of Psychophysiology, 71, 193-204. Puntoni, S., Langhe, B. D., & Van Osselaer, S. M.J. (2009). Bilingualism and the Emotional Intensity of Advertising Language. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(6), 1012-1025.
[4] Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness Revisited: Attribute Substitution in Intuitive Judgment. Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, 49-81.
[5] Bialystock, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: The benefits of bilingualism. Canadian journal of experimental psychology, 65(4), 229-235. Though there are many studies that demonstrate the known benefits of bilingualism, this is a recent article that reviews many of these previous articles.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

"MAP": The Secure, Portable, Bio-optical, Knowledge Recording And Dissemination System (COOLINT)

The French have done it!  This new technology is absolutely amazing!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

New Digital Attack Map From Google, Arbor Networks (Extreme COOLINT)

Google Ideas and Arbor Networks have recently made available a very interesting "digital attack map" that provides a live data visualization of Distributed Denial of service attacks around the world.  It is pretty cool stuff and well worth the look! (H/T to Rebeka for the link!  Thanks!)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Additional Language Resources For The Everyday Analyst

Ethnologue is one of additional language resources mentioned in this article

To conclude the three-part Linguistics blog saga, preceded by the Top 11 Online Language Learning Resources and the Top 10 Online Translation Services, here are a few excellent language resources for the intelligence analyst!
  • Linguist or not, this one is important! The Ethnologue is the international authority on living languages, maintained by SIL International, a Christian linguistics group that originally founded the site in 1951 to translate bibles into local (and lesser-known) languages. Oh, how the site has grown since then! Search by language, search by region or search by country and you will find the full linguistic breakdown of almost any geographic area.
  • Note: If you're interested in language mapping, World GeoDatasets provides the World Language Mapping System, the most current and up to date maps and GIS information on international language distribution. It is a collaboration between Global Mapping International and Ethnologue, but be warned, it is not cheap! 
  • The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) is a comprehensive collection of linguistic sources searchable by language (every language you could possibly think of) or by language feature. You can search for Arabic, for example, (but which one? - this site lists 21 different dialects!) or something a bit more interesting, like Achuar or Waropen (they exist, I promise, and they aren't the strangest languages on this website). You could also search for language features like Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order, for example, or optional double negation. Either way, your search output will be a comprehensive list of scholarly sources written and published about the language you select.
  • Omniglot is my third favorite online language resource. It is an encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. For many different languages (yes, all the strange languages you just encountered in the WALS, plus Tengwar (!), J. R. R. Tolkien's Elvish language), it provides the alphabet and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols. In addition to phonetic and transcription information, Omniglot provides a list of links that pertain to information about the language such as resources for learning the language and/or the writing system it employs. 
  •  Voice of America's Pronunciation Guide is ideal if you are trying to learn how to pronounce foreign names and places correctly.  It won't help much with words but if you want to meet the standard for intelligence briefings, you have to know how to say the places and people correctly and the VOA takes away your last excuse.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Top 10 Free Online Translation Services

Ed. Note:  Since last week's language learning resource blog post was so well-received, consider this a second linguistically-inspired and - hopefully - equally well-received post (of which, I have no doubt, there will be many more). 

The reality of the situation is that this is what the world looks like. We live in an increasingly multilingual society and, as analysts, this inarguably affects our jobs. Daily. 

Figure 1: Languages of the World - Source: This wonderful data visualization
So in light of this increasingly multilingual operating environment, how do we make our jobs easier? 

Below is the answer (an answer, at least) to this question: A compendium of (free!) online machine translation services rank ordered by way of a little linguistics experiment!

Top 10 Online Translation Services
(rank ordered by number of languages translated and evaluated on a five point scale in terms of error rate - 5/5 is best)

1. Google Translate. 3/5
  • I would be remiss in this post if I did not include the infamous Google Translate (for all the flack it gets, I really don't think they are too horrible). And besides, where else do you plan to translate from Azerbaijani to English? With 72 languages, they have the largest repository of the online translation services, but... then again, it's Google.
2. Translator. 3/5
  • The translator is a close second with 53 translation languages, Icelandic and Maltese among them. The only downside is that there is a 300 character limit to translation so, if you're planning on dumping paragraphs into the translator (which you really shouldn't do anyway), this one is probably not for you. 
3. Bing3/5
  • The Bing translator maintains a 44 language repository with a user interface (UI) as appealing as Google's, and the recent buzzing in the blogosphere gives Bing the edge over Google when it comes to translation services. 
4. Free Translation. 3/5
  • Free Translation (using SDL translation services) translates from 41 languages (Bengali among them!), but only into the big five (English, Spanish, Italian, French and Portugese).
5. BabelXl. 3/5
  • Babelxl translates 36 languages.
  • This one is my personal favorite! As an avid linguist and frequent translator, I consider to be the most exciting find of the day. This site translates both in and out of 35 languages across many different search engines! Your output is the same translation provided by SYSTRAN, linguatec, PROMPT and others. This allows you to compare translations for greater comprehension and accuracy. Also, the language repository includes unexpected languages such as Breton (go ahead ... look it up), EsperantoKazakh and Occitan.
7. Babylon. 3/5
8. SYSTRANet. 0/5
  • A little history: SYSTRAN is one of the oldest machine translation software (dating back to 1968) and, what do you know, they now have an online translator SYSTRANet. It translates out of 15 languages but only into the big 5. Google used SYSTRAN until circa 2007 and it is the current translation software behind the dashboard translator app for Mac OS X. 
9. Babelfish. 4/5
  • Babelfish (not to be confused with Yahoo! Babel Fish, which is now the Bing translator) translates 14 languages both ways. Again, the 300 character limit applies.
10. Reverso. 2/5
  • Reverso is an interesting site. It makes up for a clunky UI and limited language capacity (9 languages) with the option to have your full translation read to you in the target language simply by clicking a button. 
A Linguistics Experiment

Just in case you were wondering, I didn't arbitrarily invent the number out of five (after all, who am I to judge; as I said before, I use Google Translate...)

In order to evaluate the 10 translation services listed above, I took a snippet from an article written in Spanish and plugged it in to all 10 translation engines. Below are the resulting ratings out of five calculated by subtracting the number of errors from five.

This was a simple example and should in no way preclude you from trying all of these translation services at some point to determine your personal favorites, but based on this experiment, Babelfish returned the best translation.
This is what was translated into English: "Lingüistas de la Universidad de Glasgow han demostrado de que ver la televisión de manera activa puede cambiar rápidamente un determinado acento. Tal y como publican en la revista especializada Language, sus conclusiones se basan en el análisis de los efectos de la telenovela británica EastEnders, emitida por la cadena británica BBC, sobre el modo de hablar de los escoceses."
Common errors included:
  • Failing to translate the infinitive Spanish verb "ver" into the gerund English equivalent watching (as opposed to watch). 
  • Incorrect syntactical word order of adverbs in the first sentence such as actively ("de manera activa") and quickly ("rapidamente"). 
  • No service except for Google Translate managed to successfully translate "revista especializada" to journal as opposed to specialized magazine.
  • Mistranslation of the past participle "emitida" to various other English connotations such as emitted or issued.
  • No service successfully translated the final clause "sobre el modo de hablar de los escoceces," which means "about the Scottish way of speaking" or, more colloquially, "about the Scottish accent." Common translations were: "the way to speak of the Scotts," "the way of speaking about the Scotts," and "how to talk about the Scotts." This is because in this clause, "de" can be interpreted to mean either "of" (correct) or "about" (incorrect); so this error was due to a mistranslation of the preposition.
**Note: Most U.S.-based translation services translate English-Spanish better than other languages because that is the language combination historically in the most demand within the United States. In short, the more obscure the language, the less accurate the translation. This translation experiment is probably a best case scenario.

For those interested in reading the article from which the sample text came, it is from the Muy Interesante (the New Science Magazine of Latin America) titled Ver la television puede cambiar tu acento! (Watching TV Can Change Your Accent). 

Don't speak Spanish? Use one of your new-found translation services!

Know of a trusted translation service not listed here? Leave a comment!

And finally, to conclude this linguistics saga of blog posts, check back on Wednesday for a post containing other language-related resources particularly relevant to analysis!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Top 11 Online Language Learning Resources (Or: How To Make Yourself More Attractive For US Government Intelligence Positions)

In fiscal year 2011, the National Intelligence Program (NIP) made payments to 7,507 government employees within the CIA, DIA, FBI, NGA and NSA for foreign language proficiency (See the Washington Post's breakdown of the so-called "Black Budget"). This is not surprising given the Director of National Intelligence's emphasis on foreign language capability within the US national security intelligence community.

Among the top foreign languages are all the usual suspects - Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese -whereas less common languages populate the "special interest languages" list - Tagalog, Punjabi, Somali and Urdu. 

Figure 1: Snippet of the US Army's Language Payment Incentives

Similarly, the scores on the Department of Defense's DLPTs (Defense Language Proficiency Tests) can earn you pay incentives within government positions and the US Army for each of three language lists - A, B and C - ranked by importance (See Figure 1).

What does this mean for entry-level intelligence analysts? 

It means that being bi- or multi-lingual is practically a pre-requisite for an intelligence analyst position.

Can't afford Rosetta Stone or other expensive programs? No time in a busy class schedule (or even busier work schedule) for a foreign language course?

Don't worry - You don't have to have a BA in Balkan Studies to pass a Serbo-Croatian language exam. There are plenty of (free!) online resources to help you achieve language proficiency levels all on your own. 

Below are the top language learning resources on the web according to the blogosphere:
  • DuoLingo. The absolute best thing about DuoLingo is that it is free! The only downside is that it currently only offers instruction in six languages, all of them European (and four of them romance languages). Of the free resources, DuoLingo's classes are arguably the most structured (and they also have an app!)
  • LiveMocha. A DuoLingo rival is LiveMocha. Though the premium version is not free, the unpaid offering is significantly more robust than a standard trial version (and with 35 languages, their selection trumps that of DuoLingo). An alternative to paying for the premium upgrade is engaging in the LiveMocha social network and tutoring or offering rudimentary language instruction as a native speaker of your mother tongue in exchange for credit, which can then be applied to your language program of choice.
  • OpenCulture, the cultural education blog, features a compendium of resources for language learning in 46 languages. The first suggestion in the majority of the language lists points you towards free iTunes podcasts and downloads for language learning, largely posted by the Radio Lingua Network (entitled Coffee Break) and The Peace Corps. (Also, see OpenCulture's full list of free online courses from top universities).
  • Busuu. Busuu is of the same ilk as LiveMocha - It is interactive with a robust social media component, but also provides limited content with expanded content provided for premium members. LiveMocha, however, provides many more languages than Busuu's limited 12 language offering. Despite these limitations, it remains one of the more highly ranked language learning resources on the Internet. 
  • The US Department of State is also a good place to find language learning resources, though the Foreign Service Institute is likely for the more linguistically-inclined. The FSI posts all its language materials for 45 different languages online in an open source format including student text to audio recordings. Though the content is not aesthetically appealing and no instruction is provided, the resources are professionally-developed and highly useful, especially for those already fluent in the Linguistics vernacular.
  • The Defense Language Institute/Foreign Language Center (DLI/FLC).  DLI is one of the very best language schools in the world.  In addition, it also provides a huge amount of its material for free.  Need a language survival guide in Bulgarian?  Try DLI.  Need a quick series of lesson in Afghan handwriting?  Try DLI. Need to know how to say "Goodbye!" in Balochi?  You guessed it - DLI.  There is a just an immense amount here and in a variety of hard-to-find foreign languages.
  • Lang-8. Lang-8 is an interesting resource that provides a network of native speakers to correct foreign language writing submissions. It's pretty simple - You correct the submissions of others in your native language, and submit your writing to be corrected by others. Lang-8 boasts a network of native speakers from 180 different countries.
  • RhinoSpike. RhinoSpike is a network similar to that of Lang-8 that facilitates the exchange of audio files alongside the text documents.
So now that you've got a collection of language learning resources on the Internet, there are a handful of what can only be considered recreational practice resources also available:
  • iSketch. iSketch is my personal favorite.  I used to play this all the time when I was learning Spanish! It is essentially an online form of Pictionary that can be played in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese with variations in languages such as Turkish and Swedish. It is easy, informal, extremely entertaining and useful for practicing foreign language vocabulary.
  • italki. italki is an online community of Skype users aimed at language learning. Pay for individual Skype lessons, or arrange Skype lessons in your target language in exchange for giving lessons in your native language.
  • Verbling. Verbling operates around much the same concept as italki, but is a bit more structured. You can sign up for an attend group lessons (the schedule for which is broadcasted on the home page) or you can pay for private tutoring sessions (the going rate is typically $25/hr).
When it comes to language, nothing teaches better than in-person interaction. My recommendation is to pick up the basics of whatever language you seek to learn from list one, then do the majority of your language learning on list two connecting with and talking to native speakers of your target language.

My final caveat to this resource repository is that nothing (I mean, nothing) compares to a passport when it comes to learning a foreign language. Though a round trip ticket to Argentina is a lot more expensive than the one-time purchase of Rosetta Stone Spanish (though, probably not by much), the experience (and the language) will likely stay with you a lot longer. 

Do you have a good resource for online language learning?  Leave it in the comments!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Orienting The Intelligence Requirement: The Zooming Technique

In a world where infographics present everything from the world's biggest data breaches to the history of music media to beer varietals, its clear that data visualization has become kind of a big deal. 

But that's not what I want to talk about.

How about an interactive map presenting the age of every building in The Netherlands... or a flavor connection graphic for the more culinarily-inclined... what about a language map of New York City based on recent Tweets...


What about Chaomei Chen, a leading authority on information visualization, and her countless contributions to the field of functional infosthetics (see her paper on the top 10 unsolved problems of information visualization)?

Not even that.

For me, even more interesting than how to present information visually, is how to visualize information mentally.

All too often, analysts are given an intelligence requirement which they attempt to answer by searching for a specific answer or number or outcome, what I call working downward. What they forget to do is to take a more macro approach, to zoom out, if you will, and put the question into a broader context - to orient the intelligence requirement in its problem space. 

Figure 1: Working downward

Interesting.  How does this work? 

For this, I turn to Enrico Fermi... 

Fermi was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project.  He loved to ask his students to try to solve seemingly intractable problems using only thought experiments.  For example, Fermi would ask, "What is your best estimate for the number of piano tuners in Chicago?" Don't run to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website... as a matter of fact, don't even use a computer. 

These broad questions, known as Fermi Questions, are difficult or tedious to answer by only working downward (quick! pull out your phone book, flip to 'musical instruments' and start counting!), and almost impossible to answer without access to the internet (See Figure 1). But by zooming out, orienting yourself within the problem's scope and starting more broadly, you can actually drill down to a reasonable estimate of the number of piano tuners in Chicago in a matter of minutes. Here's how:
  • Start with the approximate population of Chicago, 3 million. 
  • On average, there are four people in a family, meaning that there are approximately 750,000 families in Chicago (3 million / 4) (See how general we are being?)
  • Not every family owns a piano, though. A high estimate could be 1 in 5, which means that there are approximately 150,000 pianos in Chicago that need tuning while a low estimate might be 1 in 50 which would mean there are only 15,000 pianos in Chicago.   
  • If each piano tuner works on 4 pianos per weekday, the average piano tuner will work on approximately 100-1,000 pianos per year. 
  • Pianos need to be tuned about once a year, therefore there should be approximately 15 to 150 piano tuners in Chicago. 
Now, I have no idea how many piano tuners there are in Chicago (Won't sleep tonight unless you know? Go to Wolfram Alpha and find out.  Once you realize that not all instrument repair people are also piano tuners, you will see that the Fermi estimate is pretty darn good!), but you can see where taking a more broad approach produced at least a viable estimate. 

This rough order of magnitude estimate is actually very useful.  First, if that is all we need, then we are done.  No money, little time, and just a bit of thought and we have an answer that fits our needs.  

Second, it helps us identify potentially wrong answers more easily.  Say we really need to know and we send someone out to collect this information and they come back as say 10,000 piano tuners work in Chicago.  Our Fermi estimate should cause us to question that number and the methods used to derive it.  

Finally, it allows us to know where we can get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of collecting additional information.  For example, we can get a more precise estimate of the number of people who live in Chicago but unless we are off by millions, it probably wont make much of a difference.  Getting more information on the number of pianos sold and to whom, might, on the other hand, really help our estimate.

Figure 2: Working on a sliding scale
This technique may seem trivial when we are talking about piano tuners but it comes in real handy when we are trying to get a rough estimate on "unknowable" numbers such as how many Taliban there are in Paktia Province or how many spies there are in the US government.

Figure 2 presents the mental image of this problem. Think of this mental image as the order of magnitude scale for any intelligence requirement (or any problem, for that matter). The red line is the starting point, or where the problem is oriented within the problem space. See how much you would miss by only working downward?

The first (and most important) step is visualizing where your problem is in the problem space, thereby determining how much you are able to zoom in or zoom out. This oftentimes helps analysts put the problem into both perspective and context. (If you have an MBA, this technique might seem similar to PESTLE or STEEP  - analytic methods designed to analyze the macro environment to put a smaller intelligence requirement into context). 

Second, it is important to zoom out and think to yourself what is "above" your problem, what is the next step up, conceptually from your problem?  For example, if you are analyzing a specific company, you will want to step back and look at the industry as well.  This zooming out exercise is also very useful at helping you spot assumptions you are making about your target.  For example, it is very easy to make a number of assumptions about the dictatorship in North Korea.  Stepping back and looking at China's interests in the region, however, adds a whole new level of nuance.

Finally, Fermi estimates are most helpful at the beginning of an analytic process, when you don't have lots of information, or when gathering the detailed information is expensive and time consuming.  But be careful!  Fermi estimates are just that - rough order of magnitude estimates that help you orient yourself and focus your collection and analysis activities.  If the situation warrants, more detailed estimates based on additional information may be required.

Independent of the intelligence requirement, the zooming technique is a beneficial way to visualize a problem space, identify information gaps, contextualize information, recognize assumptions and, above all, approximate and approximate quickly, a skill highly relevant to an intel analyst in any field.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How A Course In Early Christian And Byzantine Art Saved My Life (Or: Why Intelligence Belongs At A Liberal Arts University)

It was 1994.  I had just been sent to the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia (FYROM to
everyone in the government at the time and Macedonia to all the Macedonians) by my new boss, a one-star general by the name of Michael Hayden.

Macedonia had just declared its independence and the US had  deployed a handful of soldiers in isolated outposts up and down the Serb-Macedonian border. They were part of a UN mission to lessen some dangerous tensions brewing between the new Macedonian state and Serbia.  The Macedonians called us "saviors."  The US soldiers, in their highly visible outposts and facing a robustly armed and equipped Serb army, had another name for themselves - "speed bumps."

I was the liaison between the US diplomatic mission (we didn't have an embassy there yet) and the US European Command. What this meant in practice was that I had a beat up old rental car and lots of freedom to go where I thought I needed to go and see what I thought I needed to see.

It was great.

One day, I was driving northeast of Kumanovo (see the map).  This area had a large concentration of Serbs, Serbs who had been cut off from Serbia and from their extended families who (now) lived right across the border.  Like everything in the Balkans, this one wasn't easy but it also wasn't out of control yet.  

GPS was still a couple of years away and I was finding my way around the area the old fashioned way - with a map.  The only maps we had were 1:50,000 scale maps that had actually been given to the US by the former Yugoslavia (before the break up) and local, highly inaccurate, tourist maps.

I say I was finding my way around the area but actually I was just plain lost.  Not so lost I had no idea where I was, but lost enough to feel like I had to pull over and talk to someone.  My Serbian was good enough in those days to communicate but my accent marked me hopelessly as an American.  

The locals I spoke with were none too happy to see me and one made a point of letting me see the shotgun he was carrying.  Pointedly, they asked (demanded, really) to know what I was doing there.

Well...I wasn't doing anything.  I was just driving around.  I didn't know if anything was going to happen on the border but if it did, I didn't want to have to describe what it looked like from a desk in Skopje.  I wanted to have seen the terrain before it became famous.  

But there was no telling that to my new-found "friends", though.  An American with passable Serbian running around in civilian clothes and a rental car just had to be a spy, didn't he?  So I said the first thing that came into my head: "I'm here to see the frescoes."

Because I had excellent instruction in early Christian and Byzantine art while attending Florida State University for my masters degree, I knew that was actually a pretty safe answer anywhere in the Balkans.  You are never too far away from a stunningly beautiful Byzantine era church usually decorated with frescoes or mosaics from the 1100's or earlier.

My escorts may have thought the same thing because they made sure I got to the church (less out of courtesy and more as a way of testing me).  It was not until the local priest and I became involved in a rather lengthy discussion of the Passion Cycle depicted on the walls of the nave, pictures of which I had also seen repeatedly in class from a wide variety of Byzantine churches, that these nervous Serb townsfolk began to drift away. 

I'll never know for sure if that art class saved my life of course, but, to me at least, it does prove a point.  Intelligence is the most interdisciplinary of disciplines.  Analysts are routinely expected to understand data from diverse fields such as economics, politics, cultural anthropology, military affairs, history, public health, the hard sciences and, yes, even art.

A good liberal arts university provides the kind of depth and breadth that intelligence analysts need.  When Bob Heibel started the program at Mercyhurst over 20 years ago, I know he saw the need for analysts to have a wide range of experiences and knowledge ranging from language and rhetoric to statistics and computer science.  Today, it is easy to see that Bob's vision was correct.  As counter-intuitive as it may seem to some, the applied discipline of intelligence studies is most at home in a liberal arts setting.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Seven Secrets To Creating A Cohesive Team

We have all been on a team with people we dislike; those who do not pull their weight, those who never show up to team meetings and those who simply refuse to delegate. 

What, then, is the equation for the perfect team; the recipe that most homogeneously combines talent, direction, innovation and leadership such that what comes out of the oven is cohesive, inspirational and fully baked?

The best, single, all around resource for this kind of advice is, of course, Richard Hackman's Collaborative Intelligence (One of the top 5 books every intel professional should read but has probably never heard of).  Beyond Hackman is the kind of research developed by the University of Melbourne's Dr. Fiona Fidler  and recently presented by George Mason's Dr. Charles Twardy at the Global Intelligence Forum on how to make decisions in groups.  

Beyond these authoritative sources, there is lots of other advice and research within the flourishing domain of the blogosphere - some good, some bad.  Evenly balanced between team composition (how the team is assembled) and team action (how the team interacts), the following seven broad guidelines represent a quick overview of the current expert opinion on achieving the ideal team chemistry:

Team composition:

1. Social skills. 

Both SciBlog's 10 Keys to Building Great Teams and's follow-on 3 Scientific Secrets to Great Team Chemistry agree that balancing the social skills of a group is a key element of team success. The 2010 ScienceMag article features an interesting study Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups in which researchers found that it is not the average intelligence of group members that most closely correlates with group performance, but social skills. Within a group dynamic, social skills influence group communication, tasking, constructive criticism, feedback and flexibility, so it is really no wonder it is a better predictor of group success.
The study tested 699 participants over the course of two experiments with the ultimate conclusion that a) Group collective intelligence is a phenomenon that exists (which the researchers call "c") and b) The average intelligence of group members is not significantly correlated with c (r = 0.19, ns). When working individually, intelligence is a predictor of success (r = 0.33, p<0.01); within a group dynamic, however, c turned out to be a better predictor of group success that individual intelligence. More telling still is that statistically significant correlates of c were found to be "social sensitivity" (r = 0.26, p<0.01), more participation and conversational turn-taking and the number of "females in the group" (r = .23, p<0.01). In other words, social skills are a better predictor of team success than intelligence.
2. Gender ratios.
This final finding from the ScienceMag article ties team-building recommendation #2 back to the first. Females conclusively score higher on social skills assessments than males, signifying that the easiest way to improve the collective social skills ability of a team is to have an equal balance of male and female team members. Several studies also find that mixed gender teams tend to outperform all-male or all-female teams (such as this 2011 study and this report from Credit Suisse).
The Harvard Business Review blog caveats social skills by indicating that "emotional intelligence" (EI) is "the biggest predictor of team success" (citing Emotional Intelligence and its Role in Collaboration). Their three-step program to ensure maximum EI within a team involves a) Becoming aware of each fellow team members' skills, b) Establishing structured ways to disagree and c) Taking the time to celebrate success. 
3. Interdisciplinary approach. 
The first of the three-step process for promoting a team's emotional intelligence touches on an interesting point: Becoming aware of and capitalizing on team members' skills. While compiling a multi-disciplinary team creates challenges, it also provides distinct advantages. Team members that come from different backgrounds - Computer science, Linguistics, Intelligence, Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, etc. - come with different perspectives on issues and different approaches to problems. The multidimensionality this adds to the end product is indispensable. 
4. Conceptual alignment.
An interdisciplinary team, however, adds complications in terms of getting everyone on the same page. With everyone viewing the problem from a different vantage point, there will likely be discrepancies in team members' mental  representations of the problem and what I call 'the lexicon polemic', i.e different names for the same concept between disciplines.
Note:  Bracken and Oughton do a good job of explaining the three ways in which language is important to interdisciplinary research.  
Both SciBlog and propose to resolve this by "sharing the story," or combining the mental models of all team members. A glance over to pedagogical practice provides a technique ideal for achieving this.
Nominal Group Technique (NGT) is a strategy that works as well in a classroom as it does as it does in a professional environment. Literature on teaching strategy has long since concluded that individual brainstorming is more effective than group brainstorming. 
NGT is an approach that requires team members to brainstorm solutions to a problem on an individual basis, record their solutions, then combine all solutions and group them according to similarity (the most salient solutions will, in effect, appear more frequently).
This achieves two main purposes: 1. It aligns the group conceptually by revealing the overlap of key concepts between and among disciplines and 2. It aligns the group linguistically (resolving the lexicon polemic) by revealing the overlap of key vocabulary between and among disciplines.
For example anchoring bias sounds a lot like what linguists call "semantic priming".  This technique could help a group of linguists and analysts realize that they are actually talking about the same phenomenon but using different words.
Team action:

5. Define goals.
This seems like a fairly obvious step for a team to take (sometimes so obvious that each member assumes a mutual understanding of the goal and it is never explicitly discussed). I think it goes without saying that clearly stating what the end result of team collaboration should be is of inarguable importance to success. Beyond a mutual understanding of the goal among team members, Shteynberg and Galinsky show that "sharing intentionality leads to implicit coordination," meaning that those who explicitly share goals with others are more likely to instinctively act in the same way (actions that invariably trend towards achievement of the shared objective). 
6. Define roles.
Equally as important as defining the goal of the team, according to SciBlog's article, is specifying how it intends to get there (who is responsible for what, when and how). Clearly defining roles, expected contributions and individual deadlines for team members keeps the team on track and reduces collaborative ambiguity. Project management tools such as DropTask (which we have recently been using) can greatly assist in the process of tasking individual team members and managing deadlines (some are better than others, more professionally-focused, more academically-focused, more focused on budget management, more focused on timeline management, more visual). 
7. Communication.
Finally, though seemingly the most hackneyed piece of advice for team building, project management and leadership within both professional and academic domains, communication is key! The comprehensive article Teamwork: Emerging Principles, highlights this facet of collaboration among many others. The best advice for effective communication is defining your communication space and contact points, whatever those may be. Weekly in-person meetings, an e-mail group where everyone gets CCed, a project management tool, Google Docs... it doesn't matter. Define your space and make sure everyone on the team knows how to communicate everything from criticism to congratulations.