[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum

In an article called "The increasingly lonely hope of Barack Obama," the The New Yorker showed that it belongs to the increasingly lonely class of educated people who still imagine that if they ever allowed an adjunct to separate infinitival to from the plain-form verb of the infinitival complement that it introduces, demons would break through the walls and floor and drag them down to hell. The article, by Vinson Cunningham, contained this passage:

The President thanked his Vice-President, Joe Biden, and the rest of the people who had made possible his time in office. And here, too, was a contrast with Trump, who has yet to demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly to praise a person other than himself.

To demonstrate an ability ardently and earnestly? Vinson, are you quite sure you didn't mean that what Trump hasn't yet demonstrated is that he can ardently and earnestly praise a person other than himself?

I'll bet you did. In which case ardently and earnestly should have nestled up to the left hand side of the verb praise. The word order as it appeared in the magazine suggests a totally wrong meaning.

But you probably aren't the guilty party here. I think you have probably been shafted by a copy editor. Let me mentor you, Vinson.

You're a relatively young African American writer, a former staff assistant in the White House under Obama, hired by The New Yorker only last year. And you've published in the Magazine and the Book Review of the New York Times, and in Vulture, The Awl, the FADER, McSweeney's — these are cool and trendy places to publish. You're hotter than a two dollar pistol. You know where to put the modifying bits and pieces in a sentence. Don't let the old fuddy-duddies at The New Yorker push you around!

If you need a modifying adjunct like ardently and earnestly to be immediately adjacent to a certain verb (like praise or any other), you damn well have a right to have your modifier where you want it, and not shifted off to the left like a car that couldn't get in the main parking area but had to be shunted off to a vacant lot down the street.

An ability to ardently and earnestly praise is not ungrammatical. Putting adverbs after infinitival to has never been ungrammatical in English. All the finest writers do that sort of thing ("splitting the infinitive," as it is wrongly called) whenever they damn well please.

You're the writer; the copy editor isn't! Don't be bullied, or tampered with. Walk to the desk of the offending editor, pound on it with your clenched fist hard enough to make a coffee cup bounce, and say something like this (though of course the exact choice of words would be a matter for your discretion): "Listen" (and you can insert an abusive epithet here): "You can either keep my goddamn adverbs where I damn well put them or you can kiss my ass! Which is it gonna be?" Something roughly along those lines. Diplomatic, but forceful.

I'm telling you this because I hate to see an interesting article messed around with by a pusillanimous copy editor who thinks incorrectly that there is something wrong with placing a modifying constituent between infinitival to and the following verb. There isn't. Trust me, I'm not from the government, I'm from Language Log and I'm here to help.

[Tip of the hat: thanks to David Evans for pointing out the example.]

How to catch a cheat

Feb. 22nd, 2017 01:39 pm
[syndicated profile] tim_harford_feed

Posted by Tim Harford

Undercover Economist

Should the rules and targets we set up be precise, clear and sophisticated? Or should they be vague, ambiguous and crude? I used to think that the answer was obvious — who would favour ambiguity over clarity? Now I am not so sure.

Ponder the scandal that engulfed Volkswagen in late 2015, when it emerged that the company had been cheating on US emissions tests. What made such cheating possible was the fact that the tests were absurdly predictable — a series of pre-determined manoeuvres on a treadmill. VW’s vehicles, kitted out with sensors as all modern cars are, were programmed to recognise the choreography of a laboratory test and switch to special testing mode — one that made the engine sluggish and thirsty, but that filtered out pollutants.

The trick was revealed when a non-profit group strapped emissions monitors to VW cars and drove them from San Diego to Seattle. In some ways, that’s a crude test: outside the laboratory, no two journeys can be compared precisely. But the cruder test was also the test that revealed the duplicity.

The VW case seems like a strange one-off. It isn’t. Consider the “stress tests” applied by regulators to large banks. These stress tests are disaster scenarios in which a bank calculates what would happen in particular gloomy situations. But, in 2014, US regulators started to notice that banks had made very specific, narrow bets designed to pay off gloriously in specific stress-test scenarios. There is no commercial logic for these bets — but they certainly make it easier to pass the stress test. VW all over again — with the difference that what the banks were doing was apparently perfectly legal.

If tests and targets can fail because they are too predictable, they can also fail because they are too narrow. A few years ago, UK ambulance services were set a target to respond to life-threatening situations within eight minutes of receiving an emergency call. Managers soon realised that they could hit the target more easily if they replaced a two-person ambulance with an independent pair of paramedics on bikes. And many responses were written down as seven minutes and 59 seconds, but few as eight minutes and one second — suspiciously timely work.

Perhaps we’d be better off handing over the problem to computers. Armed with a large data set, the computer can figure out who deserves to be rewarded or punished. This is a fashionable idea. As Cathy O’Neil describes in her recent book, Weapons of Math Destruction (UK) (US), such data-driven algorithms are being used to identify which prisoners receive parole and which teachers are sacked for incompetence.

These algorithms aren’t transparent — they’re black boxes, immune from direct scrutiny. The advantage of that is that they can be harder to outwit. But that does not necessarily mean they work well. Consider the accuracy of the recommendations that a website such as Amazon serves up. Sometimes these suggestions are pretty good, but not always. At the moment, Amazon is recommending that I buy a brand of baby bottle cleanser. I’ve no idea why, since all my children are of school age.

A teacher-firing algorithm might look at student test scores at the beginning and end of each school year. If the scores stagnate, the teacher is presumed to be responsible. It’s easy to see how such algorithms can backfire. Partly, the data are noisy. In a data set of 300,000, analysts can pinpoint patterns with great confidence. But with a class of 30, a bit of bad luck can cost a teacher his or her job. And perhaps it isn’t bad luck at all: if the previous year’s teacher somehow managed to fix the test results (it happens), then the new teacher will inherit an impossible benchmark from which to improve.

Just like humans, algorithms aren’t perfect. Amazon’s “you might want to buy bottle cleanser” is not a serious error. “You’re fired” might be, which means we need some kind of oversight or appeal process if imperfect algorithms are to make consequential decisions.

Even if an algorithm flawlessly linked a teacher’s actions to the students’ test scores, we should still use it with caution. We rely on teachers to do many things for the students in their class, not just boost their test scores. Rewarding teachers too tightly for test scores encourages them to neglect everything we value but cannot measure.

The economists Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström have been exploring this sort of territory for decades, and were awarded the 2016 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for their pains. But, all too often, politicians, regulators and managers ignore well-established lessons.

In fairness, there often are no simple answers. In the case of VW, transparency was the enemy: regulators should have been vaguer about the emissions test to prevent cheating. But in the case of teachers, more transparency rather than less would help to uncover problems in the teacher evaluation algorithm.

Sometimes algorithms are too simplistic, but on occasions simple rules can work brilliantly. The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has assembled a large collection of rules of thumb that perform very well in predicting anything from avalanches to heart attacks. The truth is that the world can be a messy place. When our response is a tidy structure of targets and checkboxes, the problems really begin.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times.

My book “Messy” is available online in the US and UK or in good bookshops everywhere.

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NSA Using Cyberattack for Defense

Feb. 22nd, 2017 12:21 pm
[syndicated profile] bruce_schneier_feed

Posted by Bruce Schneier

These days, it's rare that we learn something new from the Snowden documents. But Ben Buchanan found something interesting. The NSA penetrates enemy networks in order to enhance our defensive capabilities.

The data the NSA collected by penetrating BYZANTINE CANDOR's networks had concrete forward-looking defensive value. It included information on the adversary's "future targets," including "bios of senior White House officials, [cleared defense contractor] employees, [United States government] employees" and more. It also included access to the "source code and [the] new tools" the Chinese used to conduct operations. The computers penetrated by the NSA also revealed information about the exploits in use. In effect, the intelligence gained from the operation, once given to network defenders and fed into automated systems, was enough to guide and enhance the United States' defensive efforts.

This case alludes to important themes in network defense. It shows the persistence of talented adversaries, the creativity of clever defenders, the challenge of getting actionable intelligence on the threat, and the need for network architecture and defenders capable of acting on that information. But it also highlights an important point that is too often overlooked: not every intrusion is in service of offensive aims. There are genuinely defensive reasons for a nation to launch intrusions against another nation's networks.


Other Snowden files show what the NSA can do when it gathers this data, describing an interrelated and complex set of United States programs to collect intelligence and use it to better protect its networks. The NSA's internal documents call this "foreign intelligence in support of dynamic defense." The gathered information can "tip" malicious code the NSA has placed on servers and computers around the world. Based on this tip, one of the NSA's nodes can act on the information, "inject[ing a] response onto the Internet towards [the] target." There are a variety of responses that the NSA can inject, including resetting connections, delivering malicious code, and redirecting internet traffic.

Similarly, if the NSA can learn about the adversary's "tools and tradecraft" early enough, it can develop and deploy "tailored countermeasures" to blunt the intended effect. The NSA can then try to discern the intent of the adversary and use its countermeasure to mitigate the attempted intrusion. The signals intelligence agency feeds information about the incoming threat to an automated system deployed on networks that the NSA protects. This system has a number of capabilities, including blocking the incoming traffic outright, sending unexpected responses back to the adversary, slowing the traffic down, and "permitting the activity to appear [to the adversary] to complete without disclosing that it did not reach [or] affect the intended target."

These defensive capabilities appear to be actively in use by the United States against a wide range of threats. NSA documents indicate that the agency uses the system to block twenty-eight major categories of threats as of 2011. This includes action against significant adversaries, such as China, as well as against non-state actors. Documents provide a number of success stories. These include the thwarting of a BYZANTINE HADES intrusion attempt that targeted four high-ranking American military leaders, including the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the NSA's network defenders saw the attempt coming and successfully prevented any negative effects. The files also include examples of successful defense against Anonymous and against several other code-named entities.

I recommend Buchanan's book: The Cybersecurity Dilemma: Hacking, Trust and Fear Between Nations.

[syndicated profile] dinosaur_comics_feed
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February 22nd, 2017next

February 22nd, 2017: Today I've got jury duty! Will I be selected? Will my EXTREME THIRST FOR JUSTICE disqualify me? FIND OUT IN A FEW DAYS!!

– Ryan

[syndicated profile] slatestarscratchpad_feed

Remember that post discussing signs that Trump might be a time traveler?

A few days ago: Trump said we needed to be more concerned about Muslim immigrants because of “what’s happening in Sweden right now”. Everyone made fun of him because nothing was, in fact, happening in Sweden at the time.

Today: Muslim immigrants riot in Stockholm, set cars on fire.

The moral of the story is: if you value your life, get out of Bowling Green, Kentucky right now.


Feb. 21st, 2017 01:09 pm
[syndicated profile] thatbadadvicetumblr_feed

Posted by thingsthatareawful

It’s BAD ADVICE TUESDAY over at The Establishment!

“I have a 19-year-old granddaughter who has three tattoos and now a ring in her nose. Any suggestions as to what I might say to her to stop the destruction?”

The Bad Advisor takes on this question-asker and two other people who will drain your will to live >>>> here.

[syndicated profile] thefoodlab_feed

Posted by J. Kenji López-Alt

As a born-and-bred Boston kid, chowder holds a special place in my heart, and fish-based chowders doubly so, as a fish chowder was the very first dish I ever got to stick on a real restaurant menu. It was creamy, rich, and satisfying, and totally impractical for any kind of home cooking. At home, I take a much more traditional one-pot approach to chowder-making. While the resulting dish it may not quite reach the lofty heights of fine dining, the results are still creamy, satisfying, delicious, a great use of leftovers or inexpensive fish, and—most important—really, really easy.
Read More

Easy, Creamy One-Pot Salmon Chowder

Feb. 21st, 2017 12:55 pm
[syndicated profile] thefoodlab_feed

Posted by J. Kenji López-Alt

As a born-and-bred Boston kid, chowder holds a special place in my heart, and fish-based chowders doubly so, as a fish chowder was the very first dish I ever got to stick on a real restaurant menu. It was creamy, rich, and satisfying, and totally impractical for any kind of home cooking. At home, I take a much more traditional one-pot approach to chowder-making. While the resulting dish it may not quite reach the lofty heights of fine dining, the results are still creamy, satisfying, delicious, a great use of leftovers or inexpensive fish, and—most important—really, really easy.
Read More
[syndicated profile] slatestarscratchpad_feed


Hell is a town in Michigan. Even having lived in the state a long time, it can be jarring coming across the road sign telling you how to go to Hell.

The road to Hell is apparently going to the left and following Darwin. That is not a metaphor, that is the turn off Dexter-Pinckney Road.

K and I went there last year, can confirm. Here are some of our pictures:


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February 2017


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