Malcolm Gladwell's Ridiculous Attack On Ed Snowden Based On Weird Prejudice About How A Whistleblower Should Look

from the you-don't-get-the-whistleblowers-you-want dept

There was a time when I was a fan of Malcolm Gladwell. He's an astoundingly good story teller, and a great writer. But he's also got a pretty long history of... just being wrong. Over the years, Gladwell's willingness to go for the good story over the facts has become increasingly clear. Famously, Steven Pinker ripped Gladwell's serial problems many years ago, but it hasn't really stopped Gladwell since then. If you've ever quoted "the 10,000 hour rule" or suggested that someone can become an expert in something if they just spend 10,000 hours doing it, you've been fooled by Gladwell. Even the guy whose one study Gladwell based the idea on loudly debunked the claim, and just this past year put out his own book that is basically trying to rectify the false beliefs that have spread around the globe from people believing Gladwell's incorrect spin.

So, suffice it to say I was already skeptical of Gladwell's recent piece attacking Ed Snowden as not being a "real" whistleblower. But the piece is much, much worse than even I expected. The short, Gladwellian-style summary of it might be: real whistleblowers have to look the part, and they need to be part of an Ivy League elite, with clear, noble reasons behind what they did. Here's how Gladwell describes Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and to whom Gladwell has given his stamp of approval as a "Real Whistleblower™"
Ellsberg was handsome and charismatic. He had served in the Marine Corps as a company commander in Korea. He did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard, where he wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on game theory and collaborated with Thomas Schelling, who went on to win a Nobel Prize. He took a senior post in McNamara’s Defense Department, represented the State Department in Vietnam, and had two stints as a senior intelligence analyst at the rand Corporation. Ellsberg knew about the Pentagon Papers because he was a member of the select team that wrote them, working on the section dealing with the very early nineteen-sixties. Before he approached the Times, he went to the Senate, where he tried to get someone to release the documents formally and hold public hearings. He walked the halls and dropped in on people he knew. “I had Senator Mathias in mind, and Senator Mike Gravel,” who, he notes, had “written me a letter congratulating me on my New York Review of Books article,” about the bombings in Laos. (It seems safe to say that the subject, verb, and object here—“Senator,” “written,” “New York Review of Books article”—may never again appear together in a sentence.)
See? To Gladwell, Ellsberg "fits the part." But that's not how whistleblowing often works. And here's how Gladwell describes Snowden, who apparently doesn't look the part:
But Snowden did not study under a Nobel Prize winner, or give career advice to the likes of Henry Kissinger. He was a community-college dropout, a member of the murky hacking counterculture. He enlisted in the Army Reserves, and washed out after twenty weeks. He worked at the C.I.A. for a few years and left under a cloud. He learned about the innermost secrets of American intelligence-gathering and policy not because he was personally involved with that intelligence-gathering or policymaking but because he was a technician who helped service the computer systems that managed these things. The élites, Snowden once said, “know everything about us and we know nothing about them—because they are secret, they are privileged, and they are a separate class.” Had Snowden been a whistle-blower in 1967, at the launch of the Pentagon Papers, he would have blown the whistle on Daniel Ellsberg. The whistle-blower as insider has become the whistle-blower as outsider. That is a curious fact, and, as we come to terms with the consequences of Snowden’s actions, it may be an underappreciated one.
Gladwell's gentlemanly view of whistleblowing as an elite pasttime is historical fiction. It's not how whistleblowing usually works, and completely ignores how the government has regularly gone after and punished whistleblowers time after time. Gladwell, somewhat ridiculously, creates a fictional composite he calls "Daniel Snowberg" and suggests if the following had happened, that would have made Snowden an acceptible whistleblower:
Imagine a young man called Daniel Snowberg. He has a doctorate in international relations, and once spent a summer interning at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the think tank specializing in digital freedom. He gets a job as an analyst at the National Security Agency, and while there he runs across a copy of the infamous Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (fisc) authorization, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. This is the order that led Verizon to hand over its telephone records to the N.S.A.

The order troubles him. The Patriot Act allows the N.S.A. to obtain phone records and the like if it provides “a statement of facts showing that . . . the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation.” But this isn’t a search specific to an investigation. It appears to be a fishing expedition. He surreptitiously copies the authorization: it’s not that long. He sends it to his old colleagues at the Frontier Foundation. They share his alarm: the legal opinion in the fisc order looks unconstitutional to them. They set up a meeting with Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wyden, too, is troubled. He encourages them to leak it to the Washington Post. And they do. That is the leaker as insider.

Edward Snowden took a different path. He used a Web crawler (a search engine preprogrammed with key words) to roam through the N.S.A. files, “touching” as many as 1.7 million of them. Among those files was the fisc order. But Snowden also accessed, and ultimately passed on to journalists, thousands of files concerning activities that had nothing to do with domestic surveillance.
But that final paragraph also bullshit and a misleading myth pushed by the intelligence community, and has since been debunked. Even James Clapper admitted two and a half years ago that Snowden didn't take 1.7 million documents, and that it was a much more curated list of files that he felt actually showed serious problems. And, while Gladwell keeps trying to suggest that Snowden "flooded" documents, rather than "leaking" them. That's ridiculous.

As the EFF has written in response to Gladwell's piece, Gladwell seems to be troubling rewriting history to suit his narrative, rather than actually stating facts, noting that contrary to Gladwell's claim, both Ellsberg and Snowden did essentially the same thing -- taking a large number of documents but not all that they had access to -- to the press, and allowing them to sort through what was newsworthy.

Also, the EFF notes that the "Daniel Snowberg" hypothetical is ridiculous, because that description matches exactly what happened with Mark Klein, the former AT&T tech who blew the whistle on the NSA's upstream tapping of AT&T backbone cables. And it didn't work the way Gladwell thinks it would work:
Mr. Klein was in tech support at AT&T. Like Snowden, he didn’t go to Harvard, pal around with Kissinger, or serve in the intelligence services. But he had real documents and direct testimony demonstrating that, at the behest of the NSA, AT&T was (and still is) making illegal copies of Internet traffic through key network junctures. This includes the juncture in a building on Folsom Street in San Francisco. After copying, searching is conducted through the full content of much of that information, especially messages going to and from abroad but including millions of Americans' communications. We now know that the government calls this program “UPSTREAM,” and calls its searching through the actual content of messages “about” searching, but we didn’t know these names in 2006. This was a big, new program with profound legal and constitutional implications. It deserved (and still deserves) serious public and judicial consideration.

So what happened? Mr. Klein went to the press before coming to EFF, but a Los Angeles Times story about his discoveries was famously spiked by Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte who intimidated now New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet out of running it. Finally, the New York Times did publish a story but the government just kept issuing carefully worded denials.

During this time Mr. Klein also came to EFF and we tried to do what Ellsberg did. We approached several U.S. senators about the information, including Mr. Klein’s own Senator Dianne Feinstein. We were, to put it kindly, strung along. We never even got a meeting with a senator. EFF also filed a lawsuit against AT&T based on Mr. Klein’s information, but we had to keep the actual evidence under seal for a long time, making it easy for the government to largely ignore us and, when pushed, dismiss Mark’s claims as unfounded since he was just a lowly technician.

We tried another part of the “Ellsberg” strategy. We took Mark to Washington to try to increase the chance of Congressional assistance as well as to try to bring more public attention to what his evidence revealed. We even managed to have a press briefing on Capitol Hill and a few meetings with staffers.

But we couldn’t get a hearing on Mark’s whistleblower information, couldn’t keep the press on it, and couldn’t penetrate the assumptions and elitist narrative about whistleblowers.
But, honestly, beyond the ridiculous hypothetical, the pure insanity of claiming that Snowden can't be a whistleblower because he isn't elite enough, and the factually incorrect statements (which were shown to be factually incorrect years ago), the best evidence that Malcolm Gladwell is (once again) full of shit comes from none other than Daniel Ellsberg himself who explained how Snowden made the right call in doing what he did, and happily comparing Snowden to himself:
Yet when I surrendered to arrest in Boston, having given out my last copies of the papers the night before, I was released on personal recognizance bond the same day. Later, when my charges were increased from the original three counts to 12, carrying a possible 115-year sentence, my bond was increased to $50,000. But for the whole two years I was under indictment, I was free to speak to the media and at rallies and public lectures. I was, after all, part of a movement against an ongoing war. Helping to end that war was my preeminent concern. I couldn’t have done that abroad, and leaving the country never entered my mind.

There is no chance that experience could be reproduced today, let alone that a trial could be terminated by the revelation of White House actions against a defendant that were clearly criminal in Richard Nixon’s era — and figured in his resignation in the face of impeachment — but are today all regarded as legal (including an attempt to “incapacitate me totally”).

I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado.

He would almost certainly be confined in total isolation, even longer than the more than eight months Manning suffered during his three years of imprisonment before his trial began recently. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture described Manning’s conditions as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” (That realistic prospect, by itself, is grounds for most countries granting Snowden asylum, if they could withstand bullying and bribery from the United States.)
Snowden is every bit the "whistleblower" that Ellsberg was -- and perhaps moreso, seeing as he did what he did knowing (unlike Ellsberg) that he needed to leave his home country to do so, and that he might never return. Gladwell tells a good story, but it should be left on the fiction pages.

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  • icon
    Tim R (profile), 3 Jan 2017 @ 12:03pm

    Well, THERE's your problem....

    "Imagine a young man called Daniel Snowberg. He has a doctorate in international relations, and once spent a summer interning at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the think tank specializing in digital freedom."

    Okay, let's face it. If he had even so much as had a bookmark in his browser pointing to the EFF, he'd have never even been allowed in the building at the NSA or CIA.

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  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 3 Jan 2017 @ 12:08pm

    That's the problem with snowbergs.

    80% of the analogy is all wet.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 12:26pm

    >Community college dropout

    Which clearly had bearing on why the most powerful country on earth gave security clearance to access some of its most closely-guarded secrets.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 12:26pm

    Does Whistblower mean Whistle-blower?

    Does Whistblower mean Whistle-blower?

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 12:27pm

    Malcolm Gladwell's an astoundingly good story teller

    Too bad his stories aren't true.

    I'm surprised that Gladwell hasn't been flagged as part of the crackdown on "fake" news...

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    • identicon
      Christopher J. Millensifer, 5 Jan 2017 @ 12:20pm

      Re: Malcolm Gladwell's an astoundingly good story teller

      No, no, no. You're not getting the story straight on the "fake news" crack-down. Anyone that spouts the currently accepted narrative, no matter HOW absurd, insane or utterly ridiculous it may be, is fine. Everyone else can go straight to jail and is not allowed to pass "GO" or call an attorney, friends or family!

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 12:35pm

    Can you clarify a claim you made?

    What precisely in "that final paragraph [is] also bullshit..."? Is it that Snowden apparently only touched 1.5 million documents? You seem to be claiming that Gladwell claimed that Snowden took those 1.7 million documents, but the quote you provide clearly says touching. Do you feel he should've been more explicit with that distinction.

    Or do you disagree with the claim that thousands of the files passed on to journalists had nothing to do with domestic surveillance?

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    • identicon
      kallethen, 3 Jan 2017 @ 1:07pm

      Re: Can you clarify a claim you made?

      It's misleading because it was his actual job to move files from one location to another. They basically spouted out a number of all the files he had access to.

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    • icon
      John85851 (profile), 4 Jan 2017 @ 10:42am

      Re: Can you clarify a claim you made?

      I agree. What does "touching" mean? Did he take those documents, even though multiple people have said he didn't take that many? Or is this phrase meant to get the readers upset?

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  • icon
    BentFranklin (profile), 3 Jan 2017 @ 12:48pm

    Prosecutor: "Please show us on this doll where Mr. Snowden illegally touched your data."

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  • icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 3 Jan 2017 @ 1:04pm

    Gladwell is just providing more proof

    ..of the distinction between the laws for the Wealthy, Good-looking Proper schooled "Elite ruling class" and the laws for the rest of us.

    We can tell from the articles here on TD who is "in" the club and who isn't. Let's see... Petraeus was in... Aaron was out...

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  • identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 3 Jan 2017 @ 1:48pm

    10,000 Hours “Debunked”?

    Looking at that article, it hardly reads as “loudly debunking” the 10,000-hour claim. For example:

    To notch up 10,000 hours [playing a musical instrument] would require about 90 minutes of practice every day for 20 years.

    But to become a professional musician, you would need more like 8 hours of practice a day. Which would reduce the interval to a much more achievable 4 years or less. And for the 25,000-hour figure for international competition winners mentioned later in the article, that would still be manageable over, say, 10 years.

    Ericsson is also on record as emphasising that not just any old practice counts towards the 10,000-hour average. It has to be deliberate, dedicated time spent focusing on improvement. Not all the examples in Gladwell’s book qualify as such deliberate practice: writing computer programs and playing ice-hockey matches, for instance, may not count.

    Why not? The thing with computer programming (at least as I find it), is that every program I write is different. Every one solves a new problem--after all, if the problem is not new, I can simply dig up an old program already written to solve it. Every new program--whether one I write or somebody else’s that I come across-teaches me something more about the art of programming.

    And those who are good at ice-hockey would no doubt say the same about the matches they play.

    Maybe the good ones are those who can learn things from an activity that the not-so-good ones don’t.

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    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 9:13pm

      Re: 10,000 Hours “Debunked”?

      After reading Gladwell, I worked more than 10,000 hours trying to grow tall enough to make the NBA. I wasn't able to grow even one more inch.

      Gladwell is full of it.

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  • icon
    Peter (profile), 3 Jan 2017 @ 2:38pm

    It is amazing how much faith Gladwell and others before him still have in a system that has failed miserably to hold the NSA and other US government agencies accountable:

    Thanks to Snowden, all the people Gladwell thinks would have changed something have had the relevant information for several years now, and managed to change - nothing at all.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 2:50pm

    same reasoning exactly that initially denied james langley dalton the victoria cross at rorke's drift. it was dalton who knew how to keep those men alive, but, not only was he not an active officer in the army, he was a retired enlisted man who was hired back as a civilian shopkeeper. the crown could not accept that it wasn't the commanding officers who saved those lives.

    the british military set up such a howl that the crown belatedly honored dalton. no doubt with nostrils pinched tight.

    same snobbery exactly. we haven't learned a thing.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 3:24pm

    gladwell, huh?

    hmmm . . . lessee. writes well and knows to preen the feathers of the established.

    that describes someone whose name escapes me. i'll shake a spear and see if that jogs my memory.

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  • icon
    Dave Cortright (profile), 3 Jan 2017 @ 3:45pm

    Ad hominem. Also, ad hominem. And did I mention...?

    Ad hominem! Come on, people. (and yes, I'm including you in that group, Mike). Every time someone in the media talks about Snowden's personality or education or background or any other irrelevant attribute, the only appropriate response is AD HOMINEM.

    It doesn't matter who he was, what his background was, or any of that. He could have killed everyone in his building as he was absconding with the information. And yes that would have been awful. But all of that is ENTIRELY SEPARATE FROM THE FACTS OF THE SECRET PROGRAMS THAT HE GAVE TO JOURNALISTS WHO THEN CHOSE WHAT TO REVEAL. It doesn't matter who Snowden was. It matters what the government was doing. And to continue writing articles that accept this premise only serves to reinforce their distraction tactics.

    Ad hominem.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 4:00pm

    Speaking of Snowden

    Snowden denies that the DNC email leak was from the Russians. Yet the media still focuses on that as a smokescreen for their involvement with the DNC, HRC and election rigging.

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    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2017 @ 12:12am

      Re: Speaking of Snowden

      No, Snowden has said the one thing the NSA's all-seeing eye is really good at is tracking dataflows and so could know with very high confidence if the Russians did it. Not the NSA is going to give the public that level of detail though.

      It is Assange who denies it came from the Russians but he's a little squirrely about his denial. He claims Obama is lawyering his language in blaming the Russians, but Assange's own language seems like he's lawyering it to say it wasn't the russians directly, leaving the door open to wikileaks receiving it from a cut-out.

      Assange also seems really miffed that everybody is talking about the russians and nobody is mentioning wikileaks. He's right, you never hear the press talk about wikileaks anymore. But complaining that wikileaks isn't basking in the limelight is kinda petty.

      Assange did an interview about the DNC and Podest email dumps with Hannity on Fox, Hannity has literally campaigned for Trump - so much that Fox told him to cut it out. I'd like to see Assange do an interview with a less credulous interviewer.

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  • icon
    HegemonicDistortion (profile), 3 Jan 2017 @ 4:17pm

    Harvard harder, Snowden!

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 4:30pm

    not angering the master

    What I'm surprised about is that media isn't more interested in push the truth of snowden and the nsa. I would think for someone that relies heavily on whistle-blowers for info and a legal restrictions on government to protect their sources and material, they would be more supportive of exposing and pushing the truth.

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    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 5:20pm

      Re: not angering the master

      The media is not interested in exposing the truth about the Dems. Wait until Trump is in office and they will welcome all leaks with open arms.

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      • identicon
        Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 3 Jan 2017 @ 5:37pm

        Re: The media is not interested in exposing the truth about the Dems.

        Not Even Fox News?

        Or doesn’t that count as “media” nowadays...?

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        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 5:43pm

          Re: Re: The media is not interested in exposing the truth about the Dems.

          You libs don't watch Fox news so you get one view only, no matter which other news show you watch. Just look at the surprise on the left that Trump won. Leave your bubble and you will see what is really happening.

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          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 3 Jan 2017 @ 8:30pm

            Re: Re: Re: The media is not interested in exposing the truth about the Dems.

            You didn't answer the question.

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            • identicon
              Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 3 Jan 2017 @ 8:48pm

              Re: You didn't answer the question.

              They never do.

              The whole of reality has a liberal bias, don’t you know?

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            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2017 @ 4:12am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: The media is not interested in exposing the truth about the Dems.

              I watch local news and a little national news. Off I watch a cable news program, which is rare, it is Fox. Sho my point still stands, all your news comes from one source no matter the outlet except Fox. You only ever get one view that reinforces your own. Now go back to your bubble.

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          • icon
            Uriel-238 (profile), 4 Jan 2017 @ 6:15am

            "Fox News is the only true news source!"

            You libs don't watch Fox news so you get one view only, no matter which other news show you watch. Just look at the surprise on the left that Trump won. Leave your bubble and you will see what is really happening.

            Implication much?

            This liberal doesn't regard Fox News as anything but corporate propaganda, but it's the same for CNN, MSNBC or any of the US-based mainstream media channels.

            Case in point, Ferguson neighborhoods were being saturated in CS gas and journalists wrangled into fenced first-amendment zones and not a peep.

            If you rely on Fox or any MSM it's not that you're only getting part of the story, you may not be getting the story at all.

            Back on subject, the NSA mass surveillance program is an atrocious violation of the constitutional rights of US citizens, not to mention the rest of the world. That's the story. The details of who Snowden was or if he did it right are incidental to the ongoing operation of a government mass surveillance program in violation of human rights.

            If you're arguing about Snowden, you're missing the story.

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      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2017 @ 10:08am

        Re: Re: not angering the master

        > The media is not interested in exposing the truth about the Dems.

        Yeah, the media totally brushed all that email stuff under the rug. It should have been the opening story on every network news show for the entire fucking election.

        Oh, that's right, it was.

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  • icon
    Aaron Wolf (profile), 3 Jan 2017 @ 8:12pm

    He's bad here, but the 10,000 hours thing, well…

    This characterization of Snowden is unfair and unhelpful and Gladwell has made errors before…

    But the 10,000 hours thing he gets right — because he DOESN'T claim the stuff this article claims. Just check out http://freakonomics.com/podcast/malcolm-gladwell/ for a clear, unambiguous interview where Gladwell emphasizes that hours of practice must be *quality* practice and *still* some people have talents and potential that others lack. In other words, he doesn't at ALL believe the nonsense attributed to him here in trying to discredit him overall.

    (I'm not defending anything he said in the Snowden article though)

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    • icon
      Wyrm (profile), 4 Jan 2017 @ 10:18am

      Re: He's bad here, but the 10,000 hours thing, well…

      Except that is still wrong.

      Depending on what you're talking about, you might not need 10k hours. Or you might need more. The study he based this claim on was about violin. More accurately, the average time violin students in an elite school practiced by the age of 20... not even by the time they "mastered" playing violin.
      Then, other claims were made based on the same fallacy: looking through lots of numbers for the very few ones that match your point.

      The article links to a detailed explanation of all this already. It explains that Gladwell started the fallacy here, handpicking a round number from the study (the average of 10k hours of practice by the age of 20) to show a point, although that doesn't make for a clear landmark of "mastering a skill". (You probably need to double that according to one of the authors of the study.)

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      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2017 @ 3:19pm

        Re: Re: He's bad here, but the 10,000 hours thing, well…

        I believe Snowden has well over 10 000 hours as a whistle blower and should therefore be classified as a professional whistle blower.

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  • identicon
    Pseudonym, 4 Jan 2017 @ 12:03am

    Now you know

    Now you know, people. If you see your organisation engaging in rampant illegal acts, keep it to yourself unless you're a decent respectable kind of chap who can hold his own at a nice cocktail party.

    (Yes, using the word "his" deliberately.)

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  • identicon
    Anon, 4 Jan 2017 @ 7:09am

    Not Hard To See...

    Obviously Gladwell's next book requires some government agency cooperation, and being their toady is the price he must pay for that information.

    10,000 hours - I think a major point missed is that time spent "practicing" during formative years counts a lot more for developing talent than time spent later. Many of the stars and prodigies from Wayne Gretzky to Tiger Woods to the Beatles got their 10K early in life; making it almost an innate part of their brain wiring.

    Fox News and Reality? The biggest problem with the internet, is it exacerbates a problem that has been developing as mass media began fragmenting in the 1980's and beyond. We used to have 3.5 networks; they tried to be balanced to appeal to everyone, and people had to make do with whoever they could socialize with physically - meaning a much more diverse group of people. Anyone too seriously nutbar stewed alone. Thanks to specialty channels, internet chat, and cheap interactive technology birds of a feather flock together, unhindered by geography or social distinctions, and block out everyone else. Since democracy is the art of compromise, people locked in their own social silo are a danger to democracy.

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  • identicon
    Anon, 4 Jan 2017 @ 2:29pm

    Did you actually read Gladwell's article?

    Gladwell is trying to make a distinction between a "classic" or ideal whistleblower - a person given a set of possibly illegal orders who objects through the proper channels and, when rebuffed, then carefully and surgically digs for evidence of wrongdoing to present to a (hopefully) equally careful media outlet for mass dissemination vs the "hacker" or "flooder" - a person given a similar set of orders who, instead of voicing dissent, indiscriminately casts a wide net to steal any and all related information, relevant or not. The point I think he's trying to make is that the ideal whistleblower carefully collects evidence and crafts a narrative to expose the wrongdoing without threatening the entire organization - the "hacker" is less careful because the motivation is different.

    The character descriptions attempt to provide a background to justify the potential whistleblower's character, credentials and/or capability.. which may have some bearing into the means used; it has nothing to do with morality - Gladwell never claims that the leaks were not warranted.

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    • icon
      The Wanderer (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 8:56am

      Re: Did you actually read Gladwell's article?

      Without attempting to take on your entire argument: is it possible that the difference in this case is that the wrongdoing is so pervasive that to expose it without threatening the entire organization is impossible?

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      • identicon
        Anon, 6 Jan 2017 @ 9:49am

        Re: Re: Did you actually read Gladwell's article?

        It's certainly possible but, as with many of his articles, I think Gladwell is just making a very narrow point about the evolution (I think he'd argue it's actually a degradation) of the motivation, means and methods of whistleblowers.

        If a black hat hacker indiscriminately steals a bunch of information which happens to contain evidence of illegal activities and then publishes the stolen data, would this hacker be a whistleblower?

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        • icon
          Uriel-238 (profile), 6 Jan 2017 @ 10:45am

          The black-hat whistleblower

          The initial intentions of the hacker are irrelevant once he decides to publish incriminating data. He's at that point a whistleblower, and it's the data that matters.

          American mobsters became heroes in the 1930s for uncovering Nazi spies, sometimes because those spies came to the mob expecting them to not have much loyalty to the state. Black-hat hackers can, too, be principled.

          Regardless, the credibility or culpability of the acting whistleblower only detracts from the greater crime being uncovered. Snowden shouldn't be the story, and no-one who uncovers a crime should be criminalized for the uncovering...well, to do so delegitimizes the legal system.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anon, 6 Jan 2017 @ 12:17pm

            Re: The black-hat whistleblower

            So, in your view, the ends justify the means. Totally fine up to a point, I think, but that point varies from person to person. I think Gladwell is making the case that the coarse means can throw the baby out with the bath water and we should encourage whistleblowers to follow the "classic" model and be more selective and attempt to work within the system.

            Allowing citizens to selectively break laws and norms for the "greater good" might sound good conceptually but is probably not sustainable. My definition of "greater good" and "breakable nuisance laws" may not exactly match up with yours.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Uriel-238 (profile), 7 Jan 2017 @ 11:55am

              Re: Re: The black-hat whistleblower

              If the black-hat robbed the system of fifty million dollars and then published their criminal evidence, he should still be convicted of robbing fifty million dollars. He might be convicted of hacking, if for some reason using a computer to commit a crime makes it a greater crime (I'm not sure why that should be the case, though. It's not justified the way gun-crime laws are. It would be like making it criminal to use glass cutters to cut glass in the commission of a crime.)

              But if he went in, didn't rob the system and just published the evidence of crime, then he shouldn't get jail time for using a computer to commit a crime. Well, he could if we were to criminalize whistleblowing efforts, but if we want to encourage whistleblowing, then no.

              So yeah, I guess you're right. When the end is revealing information important to the public (e.g. the evidence of a crime) then the means (using a computer to penetrate a security system and access that evidence) is justified.

              The FBI certainly thinks so, even to the point of damaging the systems in question. That might go to far.

              So, this isn't to say I believe that the end justifies the means in all cases, but certainly, this hypothetical one.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anon, 9 Jan 2017 @ 10:32am

                Re: Re: Re: The black-hat whistleblower

                I _might_ agree in this limited case but it's totally subjective and I don't think you're seeing the bigger picture.

                Would you say that, generally, breaking and entering or otherwise trespassing on private property is ok? Does it matter that the would-be whistle-blower (or, more generally, let's call it what it is - a thief) has access to take information above and beyond his, hopefully, specific goal?

                What I think your line of reasoning leads us to is that any drive-by black hat/thief can randomly penetrate whatever system/building he'd like as long as, at the end of the day, he's granted immunity as long as he finds something sufficiently dirty and posts it for all to see. Would you be ok with that standard of legality if it were your own home or business?

                Maybe you think you're beyond reproach.. and maybe you are. But the casual attitude toward an invasion of privacy feels dangerous. Even if you're beyond reproach, you wouldn't want the government to do it to you -- which is, ironically, the uproar caused by the Snowden leak.

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                • icon
                  Uriel-238 (profile), 9 Jan 2017 @ 1:12pm

                  Tresspassing vs. Stealing property

                  Would you say that, generally, breaking and entering or otherwise trespassing on private property is ok?

                  But breaking and entering doesn't make a thief. It makes a trespasser. We conflate the two specifically because in most of our narratives one follows the other. If a guy were being chased by a lynch-mob, and cut through someone's backyard, entered his house from the back and exited the front, would he be a thief? Would he be guilty of a crime?

                  Unlawful access to a computer system -- the digital version of breaking and entering -- is grossly inflated as a crime here in the United States thanks to the CFAA. We have plenty of hacktivists in prison for longer than we put our thieves (and some rapists and murderers) for the crime of unlawfully accessing a computer, and that's before considering what they actually did when they got there.

                  This is before we get to the way we regard the lives of the impoverished as worth less than the belongings of the wealthy. But our entire society seems to be fixated more on property law than it is on human rights. But this is a separate issue that is worthy of volumes (some of which have been written).

                  But what's crazy (and has been discussed here on TD often) is that we all are (even you) guilty of the CFAA, if someone in power wanted to remove us from free society. The typical internet end-user averages three felonies a day.

                  That hasn't changed, and in the new administration can only be expected to get worse. And more lives will be ruined for it.

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                  • identicon
                    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2017 @ 1:59pm

                    Re: Tresspassing vs. Stealing property

                    Are you arguing that there should be no private property? I'd imagine that even the impoverished that you rightly sympathize with have some sense of personal property - it may not be much but if they don't want to share, then they shouldn't necessarily have to.

                    You're taking this way beyond the point that I think Gladwell was trying to make: a whistle-blower should seek impartial and capable legal advice on a questionable action, report the potential crime internally (through as many channels as possible) and use legal means to obtain relevant evidence. As a last resort, illegal action (such as breaking and entering and outright theft though probably not battery/murder) MAY be necessary but, regardless, the whistleblower should be willing to submit himself to the law to face the crimes he committed - for which he could be found guilty but may be exonerated. The focus is on the whistle-blowing process and why/how it's changing.

                    Stealing (property, money, data, etc.) from someone for the greater good might indeed be justified - but the thief should still be held accountable for his actions.

                    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                    • icon
                      Uriel-238 (profile), 9 Jan 2017 @ 5:57pm

                      Re: Re: Tresspassing vs. Stealing property

                      I don't know. Am I taking it too far?

                      Lately, whistleblowers have been revealing to the public state policies such as our mass surveillance programs, or how the CIA massacres towns with drone strikes on the pretense of targeting single individuals who may be there, or police black sites, where suspects can be extrajudicially detained and tortured either into a confession or to implicate others.

                      These are not even programs that are closed. They're just programs that we've learned to ignore. They're still active. Let's face it, the United States has completely lost its moral high ground already.

                      We the people are no longer governed by consent, but at gunpoint. No agent of the state is in a position to judge anyone else except by force. And the barrel of a gun doesn't know the difference between the crime of rampage murder and the crime of attempted sedition.

                      The crap that is being done by agents of the United States has exceeded my imagination of what we were morally capable of justifying. I don't know what to expect from the next whistleblower, and it's going to be harsh to discover we've been massacring a demographic or forcing their children into labor camps by the millions, and have been doing so for the last ten years.

                      And so, I'm going to find it difficult to judge what atrocity a single person had to commit in order to make public a state program that is heinous on a massive scale.

                      In Snowden's case, what he did isn't even that terrible. Nor is it for the many whistleblowers we have in prison for decades, many of whom we've tortured or disappeared into black sites. It's really not like they shanked a guy during their run to get their data to the press.

                      No, what they did was embarrass important people, and that got them more time, and worse time than serial murderers.

                      And no I'm not arguing against private property as a concept, but I am arguing that we protect the rights of the rich to keep massive amounts of private property from others than we protect the right of the poor to eat, have shelter or medical care (e.g. to be alive enough to enjoy having the shirts on their backs) And that seems to me to be an inappropriate prioritization.

                      You seem to want to shape things to fit absolutes. If I allow for small crimes in the process of whistleblowing, I must allow for holocaustic crimes as well. If I believe too much wealth is a problem I must believe any wealth is a problem. That doesn't seem to be logically necessary.

                      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                      • identicon
                        Anonymous Coward, 10 Jan 2017 @ 10:46am

                        Re: Re: Re: Tresspassing vs. Stealing property

                        I think you're only taking it too far in the context of this particular article. We won't get very far if we have to boil the ocean when we're looking for a cup of coffee.

                        Do we agree that crimes committed in the pursuit of whistleblowing should be punished? For "large" crimes, I think we do (you appear to draw a line at assault/battery+ at least). For "small" crimes, we appear to differ.
                        Do we agree on what crimes are "small"? Maybe.
                        Do we agree on how much wealth is "too much"? Less certain.

                        Do we agree that the government has overreached in its zeal to protect itself and us from ourselves? Probably. But that has little to do with how a responsible whistle-blower should act.

                        If Snowden had stayed in the US to answer for his actions, I doubt Gladwell would've felt compelled to write this article. Perhaps he would have intead written a sympathetic article about how a well-meaning whistle-blower was disproportionately punished for some minor transgressions committed while collecting evidence.

                        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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