Think Again, Cyber Weapons, The Irony Of Investing

March 17, 2021

“The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.”

- Winston Churchill

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.”

- Epictetus

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

- Mark Twain

“If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”

- Racing driver Mario Andretti

A. Think Again

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”

- Alvin Toffler

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”

- Often attributed to Charles Darwin

I am fan of Adam Grant, and Think Again is his 3rd book (he co-authored Plan B with Sheryl Sandberg). For those of you new to him, his prior books were Give and Take, and The Originals.

The big idea behind the book (from the inside cover): Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, the most crucial skill may be the ability to rethink and unlearn.

Recent global and political changes have forced many of us to re-evaluate our opinions and decisions. Yet we often still favour the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, and prefer opinions that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.

The brighter we are, the blinder we can become to our own limitations.

The book is split into three sections:

  1. Individual Rethinking: Updating our own views

  2. Interpersonal Rethinking: Opening other people’s minds

  3. Collective Rethinking: Creating communities of lifelong learners

When it comes to your own Rethinking, Adam outlines two cycles of thinking:

Which reminds me of this New Yorker cartoon - how often has this happened to you?

Some of this can be attributed to the now well-known Dunning-Kruger trap. Something I only learnt about in 2019 from WaitButWhy.

Step 1 on the road to thinking better is to be honest about what you really know.

A trick that helps is to focus on finding out what you don’t know vs fixating on knowing, another trick is separating your opinions from your identity.

Ray Dalio said in Principles:

“If you don’t look back at yourself and think, ‘Wow, how stupid I was a year ago,’ then you must not have learned much in the last year.”

The book gets even more interesting when it goes through how to help open other people’s minds, something I’m sure we all true to do ;-)

Adam presents some interesting work done by Neil Rackham in looking at what skilled negotiators do differently to average negotiators.

The big ideas when you want to convince someone are:

  1. Find common ground early and often

  2. Focus on the best reasons, quality not quantity

  3. Ask questions, seek to honestly understand the other side

Questions are critical, because they help you understand the other side, but they also help them understand their own thinking.

After all people are more likely to convince themselves, then to be convinced by you.

This was a useful picture:

Top Tips for Individual Rethinking:

  1. Think like a Scientist

  2. Define your identity in terms of your values, not your opinions

  3. Seek out information that goes against your views

  4. Remember Dunning-Kruger

  5. Embrace the joy of being wrong

  6. Learn something new from each person you meet

  7. Build a challenge network, not just a support network.

When thinking about your life, here is a good way to re-think your past and future:

B. The Cyber Weapons Arm Race

Twenty years ago I graduated with a computer science degree and have been a techie since. Technology has come a long way. It permeates everything we do and our lives are increasingly digital.

This comes with a huge risk.

Let me give you a thought experiment. Imagine that the lights went out tomorrow. Anything powered by electricity or connected to the internet stopped working.

This is not an impossibility, in fact whether in Texas recently or in New York in 2003, this can easily occur.

What would happen if this occurred? How would your life, your family, your finances be impacted? What would you do?

Now imagine that the lights didn’t come back for a few days, even the New York blackout lasted four days.

What then?

Now imagine that this occurred because of a cyber attack where we were targeted by another country, rather than just an accident.

Nicole Perlroth’s new book: This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends, is a history of the cyber weapons arms and the status of the cyber war (mostly silently and daily).

Nicole covers cybersecurity and digital espionage for The New York Times. She has covered Russian hacks of nuclear plants, airports, and elections, North Korea's cyberattacks against movie studios, banks and hospitals, Iranian attacks on oil companies, banks and the Trump campaign and hundreds of Chinese cyberattacks, including a months-long hack of The Times.

Most recently, a group of hackers - now thought to be Russians working for that country’s foreign intelligence service - broke into digital systems run by Solar Winds, an American tech firm, and inserted malware into the code.

When the company sent out its next regular software update, it inadvertently spread the virus to its clients - more than 18,000 of them, including huge corporations, the Pentagon, the State Department, Homeland Security, the Treasury and other government agencies. The hack went undetected for months, until the victims started discovering that enormous amounts of their data - some of it very sensitive - had been stolen.

Solar Winds may have been the biggest cyberattack on the United States in years, if not ever. But it was hardly a singular event. In the last half decade or so, American corporations have suffered billions of dollars of losses in similar incursions. Between 2019 and 2020, more than 600 towns, cities and counties were hit by ransomware attacks, shutting down hospitals, police departments and more.

America’s adversaries - Russia, China, Iran and North Korea - have by now thoroughly infiltrated the computer systems that run some of the United States’ most important infrastructure, including not just power grids and dams but also nuclear plants.

All of which raises the question: Why does this keep happening and how at risk are we?

The core ideas worth knowing from Nicole’s book on cyber warfare:

  1. Software code has flaws and glitches, after all it’s written by groups of humans. The most dangerous of these digital flaws are the unknown ones, or “zero days”, meaning that a) the clock has not even started ticking on measures to deal with them and b) the flaws are so serious that if the software provider knew of the glitch, they would have zero days to patch it. Zero day — pronounced “oh day” 

  2. The US government initially and now many others, have been accumulating these zero days to break into “our enemies” computers. By outbidding everyone else, they have stoked a huge criminal market in computer insecurity and made us all less safe. The bidding war creates inflation, where a previously unknown flaw in an iPhone or commonly used browser such as Safari can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  3. But the sellers’ market that government cash creates is only the beginning of the problem. Because the flaws are not fixed, they risk being exploited by anyone. The spies have tried to rely on “NOBUS”, short for “nobody but us” meaning that only government spy agencies such as America’s National Security Agency (NSA) or Britain’s GCHQ could access the most complex zero-day exploits.

  4. The risks, conflicts of interest and moral hazard endemic in this approach were never discussed publicly. It now seems like NSA’s trove of hacking tools - one of the most closely guarded secrets in American intelligence - was stolen or leaked in the summer of 2016. A group called the Shadow Brokers repeatedly taunted the NSA on Twitter before releasing the details.

  5. While all this cyber warfare is going on behind the scenes, as a society we have been plugging in more and more devices and data into the internet.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the world of cyber weapons, I highly recommend Nicole’s (500 page) book, for those shorter on time, check her out on the Hidden Forces podcast. She also wrote this great NYT article: How the US Lost to Hackers.

I’m worried.

Safety Tips:

  1. Use 2-factor authentication

  2. Use much stronger passwords

  3. Connect fewer devices to the internet - unplug Alexa, Siri….

  4. Update software and install patches asap

Great 30-min interview with her:

C. A Few Things Worth Checking Out

1. The irony of investing is that every past stock market crash looks like an opportunity, but every future one looks like a risk.

This is the market from March 16, 2020:

2. Vitalik Buterin and Naval Ravikant were on the Tim Ferriss show discussing Etherum, ETH vs. BTC, NFTs and Life Extension.

3. Sir Chris Hohn, a billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist, is the CEO of TCI Fund Management, he’s achieved returns of 18% over 16 years, making him one of the most successful hedge fund managers ever. He’s also one of the most generous, with Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) - the TCI Fund linked charity - now the biggest children’s charity in the world.

In this Money Maze podcast, Chris shares his highly impressive career story and investment philosophy. He discusses the work Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) is doing, and explains how its work made him realise the true cost of climate change on global development outcomes.

“People think life is about doing things—what you achieve. But that’s all wrong. The real secret of life is who you become. So my biggest piece of advice: Figure out who you want to become, not what you want to do.”

- Sir Chris Hohn

4. Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook 2021.