Settling the “Yanny” vs. “Laurel” Debate

The internet has been on fire this week about a recording, in which some people heard “Yanny” and others heard “Laurel.” I was in the “Yanny” camp when I heard the original recording, but now, thanks to a tool made by some folks at The New York Times, it is possible to hear both versions by dragging a slider.

The screenshot below shows roughly where I was able to hear both “Yanny” or “Laurel,” depending on how I primed my mind: if I thought I was about to hear “Yanny,” I would hear it; if I thought I would hear “Laurel” next, I would. It was weird.

 

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Where do you hear “Laurel” vs. “Yanny”?

 

 

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The “It Almost Worked” Billion Dollar Bank Job

This is a fascinating story in The New York Times of how some clever hackers/thieves were almost able to infiltrate the global banking system and get away with stealing nearly a billion dollars through a Bangladeshi bank:

Until about a decade ago, Bangladesh’s central bank was stuck in the analog age: Staff members sent international payment instructions via a teleprinter, an electromechanical typewriter that sent and received messages over standard phone lines and other channels. But since a new bank governor took over in 2009, the institution had gone digital. Its international transfer orders are now dispatched via Swift, the Brussels-based electronic network used by 11,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries and territories. Inside a 12-foot-by-8-foot glass-walled chamber, under the scrutiny of closed-circuit security cameras, staff members log into Swift and dispatch the payment orders with encrypted communications. With a few keystrokes, a complex process is set in motion that sends millions of dollars zipping across continents.

On the sophistication of the Bangladeshi job:

The hackers’ approach was masterly in its foresight and complexity, and the malware they used, or variations of it, later turned up in several of the other bank breaches. The intruders most likely entered the bank’s computer network through a single vulnerable terminal, using a contaminated website or email attachment, and planted malware that gave them total control, even a view of the screens they were manipulating. There, hiding in plain sight, they waited for months to gain an understanding of the bank’s business operations. They harvested employee passwords and worked their way to the most tightly guarded corner of the network: the Swift server. Despite Swift’s warnings, the bank had not segregated its Swift server from the rest of the computer network. 

The major reason why the funds didn’t get completely transferred (“only” $81million of the nearly one billion dollars went through) was because the word “Jupiter” was flagged as a suspicious entity in one of the transfers, a huge coincidence.

Yet when it came to the Bangladesh heist, transferring the cash was only the first part of the scheme. It was one thing to use malicious software to tunnel into the bank’s Swift network and send out dozens of phony transfer orders to banks around the world. It was quite another to turn that digital cash into real money and then make it disappear.

Definitely worth reading the entire story. The illustrations accompanying the piece are also great.

The Quest for a Billion Dollar Red

This is an interesting piece in Bloomberg on Mas Subramanian, “the biggest celebrity in the uncelebrated world of pigment research,” and his quest to find a safe and stable red pigment:

The world lacks a great all-around red. Always has. We’ve made do with alternatives that could be toxic or plain gross. The gladiators smeared their faces with mercury-based vermilion. Titian painted with an arsenic-based mineral called realgar. The British army’s red coats were infused with crushed cochineal beetles. For decades, red Lego bricks contained cadmium, a carcinogen.

More than 200 natural and synthetic red pigments exist today, but each has issues with safety, stability, chromaticity, and/or opacity. Red 254, aka Ferrari red, for example, is safe and popular, but it’s also carbon-based, leaving it susceptible to fading in the rain or the heat. “If we sit out in the sun, it’s not good for us,” says Narayan Khandekar, director of Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation & Technical Studies and curator of the Forbes Pigment Collection. “That’s the same for most organic systems.” One red is stable, nontoxic, and everlasting: iron oxide, or red ocher, the ruddy clay found in Paleolithic cave paintings. “It’s just not bright in the way that people want,” Khandekar says.

Among Subramanian’s 50+ patents is this one:

Patent No. 8,282,728 is for something potentially far more valuable than YInMn itself. In fact, it only briefly mentions “intense blue color.” Subramanian’s true invention was the crystal structure—or the atomic arrangement—of the material, called trigonal bipyramidal coordination. The manganese imparts the blueness, and by adjusting its proportion in the compound, you can lighten or darken its tint. But, as Subramanian’s jars of lilac and mossy green demonstrate, the structure is also capable of absorbing (and, conversely, reflecting) other colors. This discovery was like finding a hidden door in a bookshelf.

Below is a video of how the famous YInMn (pronounced “yin-min”), the bright blue pigment, was accidentally created in Subramanian’s lab (starts at about 3:35 in the video):

Another fact of the day: titanium dioxide accounts for almost two-thirds of the pigments produced globally; valued at about $13.2 billion, it’s responsible for the crisp whiteness of traffic lines, toothpaste, and powdered doughnuts.

Gary Shteyngart Goes Deep on Hedge Funds and Bitcoin

I really enjoy all that Gary Shteyngart publishes (see here and here, for example) . In his latest year-long project, Shteyngart has been researching finance, bitcoin, and has written an interesting article about Michael Novogratz for The New Yorker:

I like how Shteyngart brings his own life events into the story:

As a hungry, insecure kid growing up in eastern Queens, I remember watching the movie “Wall Street” and fantasizing about how I would look in suspenders and a contrasting collar. The men on the big screen did not have to understand themselves; the money made them understood. Although my greed had been expunged at Oberlin, and the financial crisis of 2007-08 had left me with a more or less permanent view of finance as an industry built on fraud, I found it hard to dislike some of my new acquaintances. The more intellectually vibrant ones came with backgrounds in advanced math and physics; they approached their trades like a puzzle, albeit one they were increasingly unable to solve. Others seemed to be flirting with the edges of sociopathy, or, at least, an inability to pass “Blade Runner” ’s Voight-Kampff empathy test.

Reflecting on the competitive nature from high school days:

At Stuyvesant High School, a competitive math-and-science school in Manhattan with a high proportion of first-generation immigrants, my classmates and I would get up every morning to wage battle over a hundredth of a percentile on our grade-point average; my new friends were fighting over so many basis points on their Bloomberg monitors. When we failed, we failed in front of our families, our ancestors, our future and our past.

Novogratz on Bitcoin:

He doesn’t think that cryptocurrencies will replace the dollar or the yen, but he believes that they will be a boon to countries in the developing world, where people don’t have trust in their fiat currencies, and that blockchain can revolutionize the way information is logged and shared and, in our age of data breaches, protected. “I’m good at selling the dream,” he said. “I can get onstage and get people to start saying ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ ”

Perhaps the most cogent piece of wisdom comes near the end of the piece:

After six years of exploring finance, I concluded that, despite the expertise and the intelligence on display, nobody really knows anything. 

Worth the read if you enjoy Shteyngart’s writing and/or are curious about the evolution of bitcoin and what some hedge fund managers are trying to do in the space.

Cal Newport on Social Internet vs. Social Media

I’ve been following Cal Newport for a number of years online. Cal Newport has a polarizing stance in that he is NOT on any social media channels (he even wrote a New York Times piece titled “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It” illuminating his view.)

In two of his most recent posts, Cal Newport outlines the distinction between social internet and social media. “On Social Media and Its Discontents,” Newport explains:

There’s a distinction between the social internet and social media.

The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.

I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.

Continuing:

If we fail to distinguish the social internet from social media, we’ll proceed by attempting to reform social media through better self-regulation and legislative controls — an approach I believe to be insufficient on its own.

On the other hand, if we recognize that the benefits of the social internet can exist outside the increasingly authoritarian confines of the algorithmic attention economy, we can explore attempts to replace social media with better alternatives.

In my opinion, any vision of a better future for the internet must include this latter conversation.

Cal Newport then offers a couple of suggestions on how social internet can be implemented, including a social protocol built on the blockchain.

In a subsequent post, Cal Newport offers two solutions on how to embrace the social internet today. The first option is to slow down (in other words, practice slow social media consumption):

  • Only use a given social media service if it provides valuable benefits that would be hard to replace. Use these services only for these purposes.

  • Delete all social media apps from your phone. (Few serious uses for social media require that you can access it wherever you are throughout the day.) Instead, access social media through a web browser on your laptop or desktop, once or twice a week.

  • When logged onto a social media service, don’t click “like” or follow links unrelated to your specific, high-value purposes — these activities mainly serve the social media conglomerate’s attempts to package you into data slivers that they can sell to the highest bidder.

The second option, perhaps even more important, is to own your domain. If you want to connect and express yourself online, the best way to do so is to own your own website. Cal Newport admits that owning your own domain is…

“harder than simply setting up a Twitter handle and letting the clever hashtags fly, but it’s immensely more satisfying to produce things when you’re not a data point in some Silicon Valley revenue report.

It’s also, however, humbling.”

The challenge, of course, is that if you start blogging and offering your thoughts online, it is increasingly difficult to find or build an audience. However, if you have something substantial to offer by sharing your thoughts online, eventually people online will find you and they will respond with much greater authenticity than what you could ever get via immaterial Facebook or Instagram “likes”. Just consider how much more effort it would take for someone to write a thoughtful comment or an email to a post that has resonated with the reader.

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Related reading: Cal Newport on building a remarkable career.

Facebook is a Surveillance Machine

I’ve been increasingly weary of posting status updates on Facebook over the last few months, and the latest revelations of the data harvesting by a firm Cambridge Analytica only heighten my anxiety about what Facebook is becoming: a massive surveillance machine. From a recent New York Times piece by Zeynep Tufekci:

This wasn’t a breach in the technical sense. It is something even more troubling: an all-too-natural consequence of Facebook’s business model, which involves having people go to the site for social interaction, only to be quietly subjected to an enormous level of surveillance. The results of that surveillance are used to fuel a sophisticated and opaque system for narrowly targeting advertisements and other wares to Facebook’s users.

Even if you aren’t a user of Facebook (or have ever had an account), facebook may have built a “shadow profile” of you. That’s kind of frightening.

Tufekci is mindful that it isn’t as easy as just deactivating Facebook for many users—it is the de facto internet in portions of the world, to others it is a place to organize civic events or protests, and for the rest of us, it is still a useful tool to keep up with friends and family. The point is: before you make your next social media update, be mindful of what you are sharing and that for every incremental post you make on Facebook, you provide additional data on which some (unbeknownst to you) third party will build an extensive profile of you.

Paul Ford on Bitcoin

Paul Ford has written an entertaining essay on Bloomberg, in which he shares his thoughts on Bitcoin:

Whenever I hear people talk about Bitcoin’s limitless future, I think about Dow 100,000. I first saw it in the old Borders bookshop at the World Trade Center. A few years later, the store was destroyed, and the book title was a sad joke. The markets lost interest in tech for years. Today all the Borders are gone, too.

I loved this sentence:

Consider Bitcoin a grand middle finger.

Ford’s view on how monetization can possibly happen:

Here’s what I finally figured out, 25 years in: What Silicon Valley loves most isn’t the products, or the platforms underneath them, but markets. “Figure out the business model later” was the call of the early commercial internet. The way you monetize vast swaths of humanity is by creating products that people use a lot—perhaps a search engine such as Google or a social network like Facebook. You build big transactional web platforms beneath them that provide amazing things, like search results or news feeds ranked by relevance, and then beneath all that you build marketplaces for advertising—a true moneymaking machine. If you happen to create an honest-to-god marketplace, you can get unbelievably rich.

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Also worth reading is Paul Ford’s 2015 Bloomberg piece on “What is Code?”