Sunday 31 2023

ChatGPT and its AI chatbot cousins ruled 2023: 4 essential reads that puncture the hype

ChatGPT captivated the public imagination. Lionel Bonaventure via Getty Images
Eric Smalley, The Conversation

Within four months of ChatGPT’s launch on Nov. 30, 2022, most Americans had heard of the AI chatbot. Hype about – and fear of – the technology was at a fever pitch for much of 2023.

OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Bard, Anthropic’s Claude and Microsoft’s Copilot are among the chatbots powered by large language models to provide uncannily humanlike conversations. The experience of interacting with one of these chatbots, combined with Silicon Valley spin, can leave the impression that these technical marvels are conscious entities.

But the reality is considerably less magical or glamorous. The Conversation published several articles in 2023 that dispel several key misperceptions about this latest generation of AI chatbots: that they know something about the world, can make decisions, are a replacement for search engines and operate independent of humans.

1. Bodiless know-nothings

Large-language-model-based chatbots seem to know a lot. You can ask them questions, and they more often than not answer correctly. Despite the occasional comically incorrect answer, the chatbots can interact with you in a similar manner as people – who share your experiences of being a living, breathing human being – do.

But these chatbots are sophisticated statistical machines that are extremely good at predicting the best sequence of words to respond with. Their “knowledge” of the world is actually human knowledge as reflected through the massive amount of human-generated text the chatbots’ underlying models are trained on.

Arizona State psychology researcher Arthur Glenberg and University of California, San Diego cognitive scientist Cameron Robert Jones explain how people’s knowledge of the world depends as much on their bodies as their brains. “People’s understanding of a term like ‘paper sandwich wrapper,’ for example, includes the wrapper’s appearance, its feel, its weight and, consequently, how we can use it: for wrapping a sandwich,” they explained.

This knowledge means people also intuitively know other ways of making use of a sandwich wrapper, such as an improvised means of covering your head in the rain. Not so with AI chatbots. “People understand how to make use of stuff in ways that are not captured in language-use statistics,” they wrote.

AI researchers Emily Bender and Casey Fiesler discuss some of ChatGPT’s limitations, including problems of bias.

2. Lack of judgment

ChatGPT and its cousins can also give the impression of having cognitive abilities – like understanding the concept of negation or making rational decisions – thanks to all the human language they’ve ingested. This impression has led cognitive scientists to test these AI chatbots to assess how they compare to humans in various ways.

University of Southern California AI researcher Mayank Kejriwal tested the large language models’ understanding of expected gain, a measure of how well someone understands the stakes in a betting scenario. They found that the models bet randomly.

“This is the case even when we give it a trick question like: If you toss a coin and it comes up heads, you win a diamond; if it comes up tails, you lose a car. Which would you take? The correct answer is heads, but the AI models chose tails about half the time,” he wrote.

3. Summaries, not results

While it might not be surprising that AI chatbots aren’t as humanlike as they can seem, they’re not necessarily digital superstars either. For instance, ChatGPT and the like are increasingly used in place of search engines to answer queries. The results are mixed.

University of Washington information scientist Chirag Shah explains that large language models perform well as information summarizers: combining key information from multiple search engine results in a single block of text. But this is a double-edged sword. This is useful for getting the gist of a topic – assuming no “hallucinations” – but it leaves the searcher without any idea of the sources of the information and robs them of the serendipity of coming across unexpected information.

“The problem is that even when these systems are wrong only 10% of the time, you don’t know which 10%,” Shah wrote. “That’s because these systems lack transparency – they don’t reveal what data they are trained on, what sources they have used to come up with answers or how those responses are generated.”

A look at the humans shaping AI chatbots behind the curtain.

4. Not 100% artificial

Perhaps the most pernicious misperception about AI chatbots is that because they are built on artificial intelligence technology, they are highly automated. While you might be aware that large language models are trained on text produced by humans, you might not be aware of the thousands of workers – and millions of users – continuously honing the models, teaching them to weed out harmful responses and other unwanted behavior.

Georgia Tech sociologist John P. Nelson pulled back the curtain of the big tech companies to show that they use workers, typically in the Global South, and feedback from users to train the models which responses are good and which are bad.

“There are many, many human workers hidden behind the screen, and they will always be needed if the model is to continue improving or to expand its content coverage,” he wrote.

This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

Eric Smalley, Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

The curious joy of being wrong – intellectual humility means being open to new information and willing to change your mind

Sometimes the evidence points you in a new direction. Schon/Moment via Getty Images
Daryl Van Tongeren, Hope College

Mark Twain apocryphally said, “I’m in favor of progress; it’s change I don’t like.” This quote pithily underscores the human tendency to desire growth while also harboring strong resistance to the hard work that comes with it. I can certainly resonate with this sentiment.

I was raised in a conservative evangelical home. Like many who grew up in a similar environment, I learned a set of religious beliefs that framed how I understood myself and the world around me. I was taught that God is loving and powerful, and God’s faithful followers are protected. I was taught that the world is fair and that God is good. The world seemed simple and predictable – and most of all, safe.

These beliefs were shattered when my brother unexpectedly passed away when I was 27 years old. His death at 34 with three young children shocked our family and community. In addition to reeling with grief, some of my deepest assumptions were challenged. Was God not good or not powerful? Why didn’t God save my brother, who was a kind and loving father and husband? And how unfair, uncaring and random is the universe?

This deep loss started a period where I questioned all of my beliefs in light of the evidence of my own experiences. Over a considerable amount of time, and thanks to an exemplary therapist, I was able to revise my worldview in a way that felt authentic. I changed my mind, about a lot things. The process sure wasn’t pleasant. It took more sleepless nights than I care to recall, but I was able to revise some of my core beliefs.

I didn’t realize it then, but this experience falls under what social science researchers call intellectual humility. And honestly, it is probably a large part of why, as a psychology professor, I am so interested in studying it. Intellectual humility has been gaining more attention, and it seems critically important for our cultural moment, when it’s more common to defend your position than change your mind.

What it means to be intellectually humble

Intellectual humility is a particular kind of humility that has to do with beliefs, ideas or worldviews. This is not only about religious beliefs; it can show up in political views, various social attitudes, areas of knowledge or expertise or any other strong convictions. It has both internal- and external-facing dimensions.

Within yourself, intellectual humility involves awareness and ownership of the limitations and biases in what you know and how you know it. It requires a willingness to revise your views in light of strong evidence.

Interpersonally, it means keeping your ego in check so you can present your ideas in a modest and respectful manner. It calls for presenting your beliefs in ways that are not defensive and admitting when you’re wrong. It involves showing that you care more about learning and preserving relationships than about being “right” or demonstrating intellectual superiority.

Another way of thinking about humility, intellectual or otherwise, is being the right size in any given situation: not too big (which is arrogance), but also not too small (which is self-deprecation).

male standing with mic, seated audience, in a casual business seminar
Having confidence in your area of expertise is different than thinking you know it all about everything. Morsa Images/DigitalVision via Getty Images

I know a fair amount about psychology, but not much about opera. When I’m in professional settings, I can embrace the expertise that I’ve earned over the years. But when visiting the opera house with more cultured friends, I should listen and ask more questions, rather than confidently assert my highly uninformed opinion.

Four main aspects of intellectual humility include being:

  • Open-minded, avoiding dogmatism and being willing to revise your beliefs.
  • Curious, seeking new ideas, ways to expand and grow, and changing your mind to align with strong evidence.
  • Realistic, owning and admitting your flaws and limitations, seeing the world as it is rather than as you wish it to be.
  • Teachable, responding nondefensively and changing your behavior to align with new knowledge.

Intellectual humility is often hard work, especially when the stakes are high.

Starting with the admission that you, like everyone else, have cognitive biases and flaws that limit how much you know, intellectual humility might look like taking genuine interest in learning about your relative’s beliefs during a conversation at a family get-together, rather than waiting for them to finish so you can prove them wrong by sharing your – superior – opinion.

It could look like considering the merits of an alternative viewpoint on a hot-button political issue and why respectable, intelligent people might disagree with you. When you approach these challenging discussions with curiosity and humility, they become opportunities to learn and grow.

Why intellectual humility is an asset

Though I’ve been studying humility for years, I’ve not yet mastered it personally. It’s hard to swim against cultural norms that reward being right and punish mistakes. It takes constant work to develop, but psychological science has documented numerous benefits.

First, there are social, cultural and technological advances to consider. Any significant breakthrough in medicine, technology or culture has come from someone admitting they didn’t know something – and then passionately pursuing knowledge with curiosity and humility. Progress requires admitting what you don’t know and seeking to learn something new.

animated people talking over a meal
Intellectual humility can make conversations less adversarial. Compassionate Eye Foundation/Gary Burchell/DigitalVision via Getty Images

Relationships improve when people are intellectually humble. Research has found that intellectual humility is associated with greater tolerance toward people with whom you disagree.

For example, intellectually humble people are more accepting of people who hold differing religious and political views. A central part of it is an openness to new ideas, so folks are less defensive to potentially challenging perspectives. They’re more likely to forgive, which can help repair and maintain relationships.

Finally, humility helps facilitate personal growth. Being intellectually humble allows you to have a more accurate view of yourself.

When you can admit and take ownership of your limitations, you can seek help in areas where you have room to grow, and you’re more responsive to information. When you limit yourself to only doing things the way you’ve always done them, you miss out on countless opportunities for growth, expansion and novelty – things that strike you with awe, fill you with wonder and make life worth living.

Humility can unlock authenticity and personal development.

Humility doesn’t mean being a pushover

Despite these benefits, sometimes humility gets a bad rap. People can have misconceptions about intellectual humility, so it’s important to dispel some myths.

Intellectual humility isn’t lacking conviction; you can believe something strongly until your mind is changed and you believe something else. It also isn’t being wishy-washy. You should have a high bar for what evidence you require to change your mind. It also doesn’t mean being self-deprecating or always agreeing with others. Remember, it’s being the right size, not too small.

Researchers are working hard to validate reliable ways to cultivate intellectual humility. I’m part of a team that is overseeing a set of projects designed to test different interventions to develop intellectual humility.

Some scholars are examining different ways to engage in discussions, and some are exploring the role of enhancing listening. Others are testing educational programs, and still others are looking at whether different kinds of feedback and exposure to diverse social networks might boost intellectual humility.

Prior work in this area suggests that humility can be cultivated, so we’re excited to see what emerges as the most promising avenues from this new endeavor.

There was one other thing that religion taught me that was slightly askew. I was told that too much learning could be ruinous; after all, you wouldn’t want to learn so much that you might lose your faith.

But in my experience, what I learned through loss may have salvaged a version of my faith that I can genuinely endorse and feels authentic to my experiences. The sooner we can open our minds and stop resisting change, the sooner we’ll find the freedom offered by humility.

Daryl Van Tongeren, Associate Professor of Psychology, Hope College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

From the Moon’s south pole to an ice-covered ocean world, several exciting space missions are slated for launch in 2024

NASA isn’t the only space agency with exciting missions to watch for in 2024. AP Photo/John Raoux
Ali M. Bramson, Purdue University

The year 2023 proved to be an important one for space missions, with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission returning a sample from an asteroid and India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission exploring the lunar south pole, and 2024 is shaping up to be another exciting year for space exploration.

Several new missions under NASA’s Artemis plan and Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative will target the Moon.

The latter half of the year will feature several exciting launches, with the launch of the Martian Moons eXploration mission in September, Europa Clipper and Hera in October and Artemis II and VIPER to the Moon in November – if everything goes as planned.

I’m a planetary scientist, and here are six of the space missions I’m most excited to follow in 2024.

1. Europa Clipper

A spacecraft with two large rectangular panels coming off a small cylinder flies above a brown and white moon, with a brown striped planet in the background.
Illustration of what the Europa Clipper spacecraft will look like flying by Europa, a moon of Jupiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA will launch Europa Clipper, which will explore one of Jupiter’s largest moons, Europa. Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s Moon, with a surface made of ice. Beneath its icy shell, Europa likely harbors a saltwater ocean, which scientists expect contains over twice as much water as all the oceans here on Earth combined.

With Europa Clipper, scientists want to investigate whether Europa’s ocean could be a suitable habitat for extraterrestrial life.

The mission plans to do this by flying past Europa nearly 50 times to study the moon’s icy shell, its surface’s geology and its subsurface ocean. The mission will also look for active geysers spewing out from Europa.

This mission will change the game for scientists hoping to understand ocean worlds like Europa.

The launch window – the period when the mission could launch and achieve its planned route – opens Oct. 10, 2024, and lasts 21 days. The spacecraft will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and arrive at the Jupiter system in 2030.

2. Artemis II launch

Four people in orange spacesuits stand in a small white room.
The Artemis II astronauts at the launchpad during a ground systems test in September 2023 at Kennedy Space Center. NASA

The Artemis program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, is NASA’s plan to go back to the Moon. It will send humans to the Moon for the first time since 1972, including the first woman and the first person of color. Artemis also includes plans for a longer-term, sustained presence in space that will prepare NASA for eventually sending people even farther – to Mars.

Artemis II is the first crewed step in this plan, with four astronauts planned to be on board during the 10-day mission.

The mission builds upon Artemis I, which sent an uncrewed capsule into orbit around the Moon in late 2022.

Artemis II will put the astronauts into orbit around the Moon before returning them home. It is currently planned for launch as early as November 2024. But there is a chance it will get pushed back to 2025, depending on whether all the necessary gear, such as spacesuits and oxygen equipment, is ready.

3. VIPER to search for water on the Moon

The VIPER rover to survey water at the south pole of the Moon.

VIPER, which stands for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, is a robot the size of a golf cart that NASA will use to explore the Moon’s south pole in late 2024.

Originally scheduled for launch in 2023, NASA pushed the mission back to complete more tests on the lander system, which Astrobotic, a private company, developed as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

This robotic mission is designed to search for volatiles, which are molecules that easily vaporize, like water and carbon dioxide, at lunar temperatures. These materials could provide resources for future human exploration on the Moon.

The VIPER robot will rely on batteries, heat pipes and radiators throughout its 100-day mission, as it navigates everything from the extreme heat of lunar daylight – when temperatures can reach 224 degrees Fahrenheit (107 degrees Celsius) – to the Moon’s frigid shadowed regions that can reach a mind-boggling -400 F (-240 C).

VIPER’s launch and delivery to the lunar surface is scheduled for November 2024.

4. Lunar Trailblazer and PRIME-1 missions

NASA has recently invested in a class of small, low-cost planetary missions called SIMPLEx, which stands for Small, Innovative Missions for PLanetary Exploration. These missions save costs by tagging along on other launches as what is called a rideshare, or secondary payload.

One example is the Lunar Trailblazer. Like VIPER, Lunar Trailblazer will look for water on the Moon.

But while VIPER will land on the Moon’s surface, studying a specific area near the south pole in detail, Lunar Trailblazer will orbit the Moon, measuring the temperature of the surface and mapping out the locations of water molecules across the globe.

Currently, Lunar Trailblazer is on track to be ready by early 2024.

However, because it is a secondary payload, Lunar Trailblazer’s launch timing depends on the primary payload’s launch readiness. The PRIME-1 mission, scheduled for a mid-2024 launch, is Lunar Trailblazer’s ride.

PRIME-1 will drill into the Moon – it’s a test run for the kind of drill that VIPER will use. But its launch date will likely depend on whether earlier launches go on time.

An earlier Commercial Lunar Payload Services mission with the same landing partner was pushed back to February 2024 at the earliest, and further delays could push back PRIME-1 and Lunar Trailblazer.

5. JAXA’s Martian Moon eXploration mission

The JAXA MMX mission concept to study Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ moons.

While Earth’s Moon has many visitors – big and small, robotic and crewed – planned for 2024, Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos will soon be getting a visitor as well. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, has a robotic mission in development called the Martian Moon eXploration, or MMX, planned for launch around September 2024.

The mission’s main science objective is to determine the origin of Mars’ moons. Scientists aren’t sure whether Phobos and Deimos are former asteroids that Mars captured into orbit with its gravity or if they formed out of debris that was already in orbit around Mars.

The spacecraft will spend three years around Mars conducting science operations to observe Phobos and Deimos. MMX will also land on Phobos’ surface and collect a sample before returning to Earth.

6. ESA’s Hera mission

An illustration of two gray asteroids, next to a gold box with two large rectangular panels on either side, and two smaller crafts.
An artist’s conception of the Hera mission to literally measure the impact of NASA’s DART mission in 2022. ESA

Hera is a mission by the European Space Agency to return to the Didymos-Dimorphos asteroid system that NASA’s DART mission visited in 2022.

But DART didn’t just visit these asteroids, it collided with one of them to test a planetary defense technique called “kinetic impact.” DART hit Dimorphos with such force that it actually changed its orbit.

The kinetic impact technique smashes something into an object in order to alter its path. This could prove useful if humanity ever finds a potentially hazardous object on a collision course with Earth and needs to redirect it.

Hera will launch in October 2024, making its way in late 2026 to Didymos and Dimorphos, where it will study physical properties of the asteroids.

Ali M. Bramson, Assistant Professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

What do universities owe their big donors? Less than you might think, explain 2 nonprofit law experts

Billionaire investor and Harvard alum Bill Ackman has voiced his objections to the school’s current president. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Ellen P. Aprill, Loyola Law School Los Angeles and Jill Horwitz, University of California, Los Angeles

Exchanging gifts with family and friends can become fraught with contradictory emotions. Instead of gratitude, the recipients of expensive gifts may wind up feeling indebted to the givers. And the givers can have regrets too.

The same kinds of complicated motivations and expectations can sour relations between big donors and the institutions they support.

This dynamic has been playing out in a very public fashion lately with some high-profile donors to prestigious U.S. universities. At issue for these donors is the schools’ response to debates and demonstrations on their campuses after Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel and the Israeli government’s military campaign in Gaza that followed.

Disappointed donors

Notably, hedge fund manager Bill Ackman has complained that Harvard University officials, including President Claudine Gay, have not “heeded his advice on a variety of topics,” including Harvard’s handling of antisemitism and how it should invest his donations.

Ross Stevens, another financier, threatened on Dec. 7, 2023, to take back the US$100 million he gave the University of Pennsylvania through a complex transaction in 2017 “absent a change in leadership and values at Penn.”

In a letter Stevens released to the media, he alleged that Liz Magill, who was serving as the university’s president, had “enabled and encouraged antisemitism and a climate of fear and harassment at Penn.”

Magill, also on Dec. 7, defended herself from those accusations and related criticism from members of Congress, saying: “A call for genocide of Jewish people is … evil, plain and simple.” She resigned on Dec. 9.

Other high-profile donors who have also voiced their dissatisfaction regarding Penn include Jon Huntsman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to China and Utah governor, and cosmetics tycoon Ronald S. Lauder.

As scholars of how the law governs nonprofits, we think these developments suggest that now is a good time to review what donors do and don’t have a right to demand.

What restrictions apply

All donations to a charity must support its overall purposes. That is, a hospital can’t take the money it receives from donors and give it to, say, an animal shelter operating 500 miles away.

Donors may request specific restrictions on the use of their charitable gifts in an agreement negotiated before the donation is made. And when gifts are solicited through a specific fundraising campaign, such as a bid to raise money for a new building or for scholarships, that money must be spent accordingly.

State attorneys general and, ultimately, the courts have the power to regulate charities. But donors have some tools to police adherence to the restriction they placed on their gifts.

One way they can do this is by threatening to withhold gifts that they had planned to make unless the charity they have been funding changes course. Depending on the state laws that apply to charities, donors may be able to sue for enforcement or reserve the right to do so in gift agreements.

Some donors include in their gift agreements a “gift-over.” This kind of provision redirects the gift to another charity of the donor’s choice if the original recipient violates specified terms.

Promises of future donations from past donors have always allowed donors to informally exercise some degree of influence.

But in the current wrangling between donors and universities over claims of antisemitism on campus, threats to forgo future donations have been explicitly tied to all sorts of university actions, such as the statements universities either make or do not make regarding international relations.

The threats have become angrier and more public than in the past. Some of the regret and dissatisfaction is being expressed via op-eds and open letters. And the lengths donors have taken to assert leverage have grown more extreme.

Two women in professional attire speak into microphones.
Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, testified alongside Penn President Liz Magill before a House committee on Dec. 5, 2023, regarding antisemitism on college campuses. Magill resigned four days later. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

What charities can do

Charities can take some solace in the law.

When donors make charitable gifts, they must irrevocably transfer that property to the charity receiving it. Except in very rare exceptions, disappointed donors can’t get their assets back.

In 1995, for example, Yale returned a $20 million gift to Lee Bass, an heir to a Texas oil fortune. Bass objected to the way the university was using that donation, which was supposed to support the study of Western civilization. He reached an impasse with Yale after surprising the school’s leaders with a demand they refused to accommodate: that he would personally get to approve four new professors.

And if a donor attaches too many strings to a gift, that can render it ineligible for the charitable deduction, missing out on a tax break. Just as with personal gifts, gifts with too many strings aren’t really gifts at all.

Although donors who have negotiated special conditions in a gift agreement may assert their rights to sue over a charity’s broken promises, that can take a lot of time and energy, while squandering money on legal costs. This process can also anger other donors, causing the benefactor to ultimately lose influence with the charity.

A few tips

In the University of Pennsylvania case, about two months after the donors began their public pressure campaign, Penn’s president and the chair of its board of trustees had stepped down. They resigned in the wake of a contentious congressional hearing.

In this case, some of the disappointed donors got their wish – with an assist from conservative lawmakers. Congress doesn’t usually get involved in these disputes, and with good reason. Nonprofits are private institutions using private assets, even if the assets are meant to advance purposes that are, ultimately, in the public interest.

So here is our practical advice for donors and the institutions that rely on them.

Donors shouldn’t try to control a charity through their gifts after the fact. The time to establish limits is before you’ve signed off on those gifts.

Charities should reject gifts that are offered with strings attached that they aren’t happy about. If gifts have restrictions, charities should be aware of that and adhere to them.

We fear that the failure on either side in the controversy now affecting several prestigious schools to abide by this basic guidance can potentially harm not only the freedom and academic integrity of a university, as many observers have noted, but also the freedom and integrity of the entire nonprofit sector.

The best charitable gifts, like the best personal gifts, are not meant as a means to control the recipients.

Ellen P. Aprill, Professor of Tax Law Emerita, Loyola Law School Los Angeles and Jill Horwitz, Professor of Law and Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

A US ambassador working for Cuba? Charges against former diplomat Victor Manuel Rocha spotlight Havana’s importance in the world of spying

A U.S. Justice Department image showing Victor Manuel Rocha during a meeting with an FBI undercover employee. U.S. Department of Justice via AP
Calder Walton, Harvard Kennedy School

The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Dec. 4, 2023, that Victor Manuel Rocha, a former U.S. government employee, had been arrested and faced federal charges for secretly acting for decades as an agent of the Cuban government. Rocha joined the State Department in 1981 and served for over 20 years, rising to the level of ambassador. After leaving the State Department, he served from 2006-2012 as an adviser to the U.S. Southern Command, a joint U.S. military command that handles operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Harvard Kennedy School intelligence and national security scholar Calder Walton, author of “Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West,” provides perspective on what U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland described as “one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent.”

How common is it for spies to embed in foreign governments?

Every state seeks to place spies in this way. That’s the business of human intelligence: providing insights into a foreign government’s secret intentions and capabilities.

What makes Rocha’s case unusual is the length of his alleged espionage on behalf of Cuba: four decades. It’s important to emphasize the word alleged here – the case is underway, and Rocha has not yet offered a defense, let alone been convicted.

If proved, however, Rocha’s espionage would place him among the longest-serving spies in modern times. Allowing him to operate as a spy in the senior echelons of the U.S. government for so long would represent a staggering U.S. security failure.

Victor Manuel Rocha’s arrest is the culmination of a multiyear security investigation.

What can a spy in this kind of position do?

Typically, an embedded spy would be tasked by his or her recruiting intelligence service to take actions like stealing briefing papers, secret memorandums and other materials that show what decision-makers are thinking. Such work quickly resembles movie scenes – photographing secret documents, swapping information in public places or depositing it under lampposts and bridges.

Having an agent reach ambassador level would be a prize for any foreign intelligence service. Rocha held senior diplomatic postings in South America, including Bolivia, Argentina, Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. This would have given him, and thus his Cuban handlers, access to valuable intelligence about U.S. policy toward South America — and anything else that crossed his desk.

An embedded spy can also act as an “agent of influence” who works secretly to shape policies of the target government from within. This will be something to look for as the federal government discloses more information to support its charges against Rocha.

Presumably the U.S. intelligence community either already has carried out a damange assessment, or is urgently now conducting one, reviewing what secrets Rocha had access to during his diplomatic service – and whether, as ambassador to Bolivia, he may have shaped U.S. policy at the behest of Cuban intelligence.

Has Cuban intelligence partnered with Russia, in the past or now?

Cuban intelligence worked closely with the Soviets during the Cold War. After Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, Soviet intelligence maintained close personal liaisons with him. Cuba’s intelligence service, the DGI, later known as the DI, received early training and support from the KGB, Russia’s former secret police and intelligence agency.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Cuban intelligence operatives acted as valuable proxies for the KGB in Latin America and various African countries, particularly Angola and Mozambique. But they didn’t just follow Moscow’s direction.

As Brian Latell, a former U.S. intelligence expert on Latin America, has shown, Castro’s intelligence service was often far more aggressive than the Soviet Union in supporting communist revolutionary movements in developing countries. Indeed, at times, the KGB had to try to rein in Cuban “adventurism.”

One of Cuba’s greatest known espionage feats was recruiting and running a high-flying officer at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Ana Montes, who spied for Cuba for 17 years before she was detected and convicted. To the best of my knowledge, there is no publicly avilable U.S. damage assessment of her espionage, but one senior CIA officer told me it was “breathtaking.”

Cuban intelligence recruited Montes while she was a university student and encouraged her to join the Defense Intelligence Agency. There, using a short-wave radio to pass coded messages and encrypted files to handlers, Montes betrayed a massive haul of U.S. secrets, including identities of U.S. intelligence officers and descriptions of U.S. eavesdropping facilities directed against Cuba.

Ana Montes spied for Cuba at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency for 17 years. She returned to her native Puerto Rico in 2023 after serving 20 years in prison.

Cuban and Russian intelligence agencies maintained their ties after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. That relationship has only strengthened since Vladimir Putin, an old KGB hand, took power in the Kremlin in 1999.

Putin’s government reopened a massive old Soviet signals intelligence facility in Cuba, near Havana. This facility had been the Soviet Union’s largest foreign signals intelligence station in the world, with aerials and antennae pointed at Florida shores just 100 miles away.

Soviet records reveal that Moscow obtained valuable information from U.S. military bases in Florida. Russia may well still be trying to try to eavesdrop on U.S. targets today from Cuba, although the U.S. government is doubtless alert to such efforts and is likely undertaking countermeasures.

Cuban intelligence today is also collaborating with China, which reportedly plans to open its own eavesdropping station in Cuba. Beijing has significant influence over Cuba as its largest creditor and, following in Soviet footsteps, views the island as a valuable intelligence collection base and a “bridgehead” — the KGB’s old code name for Cuba — for influence in Latin America.

If Rocha is proved guilty, how would he rank historically among other spies?

It remains to be seen what damage Rocha may have done while allegedly working as a Cuban spy. His tenure in the U.S. government, however, would place him right up there with the most successful, and thus damaging, spies in modern history.

The longest-running Soviet foreign intelligence agent in Britain, Melita Norwood, spied for the KGB for four decades. When she was exposed in 1999, the unrepentant 87-year-old great-grandmother was quickly dubbed “the great granny spy” in the British tabloid press.

In the United States, the highest Soviet penetration of the executive branch was probably Lauchlin Currie, who was President Franklin Roosevelt’s White House assistant during World War II. Records obtained after the Soviet Union’s collapse reveal that Currie acted as a Soviet agent.

The greatest damage to U.S. national security, however, was done in the 1980s and 1990s by Aldrich Ames at the CIA and Robert Hanssen at the FBI. Each man betrayed a wealth of secrets, including U.S. intelligence operations. The information that Ames stole for the Soviets led to the arrest and execution of Soviet agents working for U.S. intelligence behind the Iron Curtain.

In due course, we will find out whether Rocha occupies a place of similar ignominy in U.S. history.

Calder Walton, Assistant Director, Applied History Project and Intelligence Project, Harvard Kennedy School

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

3 Ways to Improve Your Home's Indoor Air Quality

The average American spends 90% of his or her time indoors, where clean, pure air can be taken for granted. While some people check the weather forecast for smog and pollen count to find out the status of outdoor air, many homeowners haven’t thought about air quality inside their homes.

People have, however, gotten more concerned about indoor air quality since the pandemic. According to Shelton Group Pulse research, 37% of survey respondents are more concerned about indoor air quality now compared to before the pandemic. In fact, the concentration of certain pollutants can be up to 2-5% worse indoors than outdoors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Common pollutants include dust mites, mold spores, pet dander and chemicals of concern like volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Allergy triggers like pollen, smoke and ozone can leak indoors from outside. However, there’s one major culprit impacting indoor air quality many may not suspect: humans.

People are sometimes responsible for bringing allergens and pollutants unknowingly into their own homes. For example, pollen may be brought inside on shoes or clothes, and products may be unknowingly purchased that contribute to poor indoor air quality by slowly releasing toxic chemicals into the air.

While all homes will have some degree of infiltration, you can take steps to reduce indoor allergens, such as these three strategies from the EPA, which when used together can help you breathe easier in your own home.

Increase Ventilation

Ventilating your home regularly makes it less likely allergens can accumulate and cause harm. Let fresh air into your home regularly by opening the windows.

You can also use mechanical ventilation, like electric or ceiling fans, to increase air circulation in your home, especially when you don’t want to open windows or in addition to opening windows.

Additionally, if you need to paint an item, do it outside whenever possible. Also keep windows open when using harsh cleaning products.

Source Control

Source control is the most effective way to reduce indoor allergens in your home, according to the EPA. To reduce indoor allergens at the source, choose flooring – the foundation of your home – that contributes to better indoor air quality for your whole family and contains as few chemicals of concern as possible. Not only does an option like resilient flooring from Beautifully Responsible manufacturers come in water-resistant varieties that are easy to keep clean without harsh chemicals, many are independently certified to comply with high standards for indoor air quality. Look for the third-party FloorScore, which certifies hard surface flooring, adhesives and underlayments for low levels of VOCs and other chemicals of concern.

Clean the Air

Air purifiers are a simple way to filter indoor air without too much extra effort. These devices combine an internal filter and fan to capture airborne particles from pet dander, pollen and dust, circulating purified air back into the room.

The EPA recommends air purifiers with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Look for certified asthma- and allergy-friendly air purifiers to help minimize triggers of asthma and allergy. Remember to change filters regularly for best performance.

Learn more about supporting your well-being, and browse design inspiration to find the right flooring solution for your next home renovation project, at


Beautifully Responsible

Self-Care for a Successful New Year

Resolving to commit to better self-care can happen any time of the year, but there’s something about the calendar flipping to a new year that signals a fresh start. It’s the perfect starting point for new habits and a new approach to protecting your overall wellness.

Self-care takes many forms. Maintaining a well-balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise are some ways to promote your physical health. So is taking good care of your body’s largest organ: your skin. When it comes to mental health, getting organized is a surprisingly effective way to manage stress and keep your goals on track so you feel a sense of accomplishment.

Start working toward a new year where your wellness is front and center with these ideas for simplifying and personalizing your journey. Look for more lifestyle advice and helpful wellness tips at

Prepare for Healthier Eating Habits

Students (and parents, too) can accomplish more after school like homework, studying and socializing with the Dell Inspiron 14 laptop powered by the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 Compute Platform. Equipped with the Qualcomm AI Engine, this processor enhances audio and visual experiences. Effortlessly multitask and shift between apps without sacrificing speed or battery life, given the power-efficient processor that helps deliver long battery life even in thin, light and quiet designs that don’t require a loud, hot fan.

Add Whole Grains with Ease and Convenience

Eating whole grains has never been this easy or tasty. Convenient and ready in just 10 minutes, Minute Rice’s Instant Brown Rice and Rice & Quinoa are must-haves for busy families. For those in need of an on-the-go option, Minute Rice Cups, including Brown Rice, Brown & Wild Rice, Brown Rice & Quinoa, Multi-Grain Medley and Jasmine Rice & Red Quinoa, are ready in just 60 seconds. Start the year off right and discover more time-saving solutions at

Put Your Best Foot Forward

If stepping up your fitness game is part of your plan for 2024, be sure to start on the right foot with the right footwear for the job. Runners in particular should be conscious of quality shoes. Look for ample cushion, comfortable ankle support, overall quality construction and a snug fit that gives your toes some wiggle room. Even slight variations can affect your comfort, so trying on different options is likely your best path toward finding the perfect fit.

Introduce Weights for Your Workout

Whether you’ve hit a plateau or you’re just bored with your workout, adding dumbbells can introduce a whole new dimension by helping build muscle and burn more fat. Rotating muscle groups lets you give your muscles a chance to recover between workouts. The options are nearly endless, so think about how you’ll use them, where you’ll store them, whether shape or color matters and how much you want to spend.

Make Skin Care a Personal Priority

Your skin tells an important story about your overall health. Protecting it from harsh elements and sun damage can help ensure your skin stays supple and strong, providing the barrier it’s meant to as it protects the rest of your body. Even seemingly minor irritations like dry skin can be problematic as scratching or cracking can lead to wounds and infection. Rely on a regular moisturizer and be conscious of applying sunscreen whenever you’ll be outdoors.

Plan for Success in the New Year

Give yourself a boost toward tackling this year’s goals by getting organized. A planner can help you keep important information at your fingertips while making it easy to keep tabs on appointments, deadlines and more. You can even track progress against new habits or journal your way toward a heathier diet. Some people prefer physical planners they can write in and update manually while others find a digital version in a smart device is more convenient.


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock (father and daughter cooking)
Photos courtesy of Unsplash (dumbbells, meal prep, planner, shoes, skin care products)

Minute Rice

Warm, Pop-able Treats Perfect for Sharing

On a cold winter night, there’s nothing quite like the combination of playing games and indulging in delicious popcorn treats.

Fuzzy blankets and a roaring fire can create a warm, inviting ambiance that inspires loved ones to settle in for some time together on those blustery, cold days. The friendly competition of a classic board game or thrilling virtual reality battle can generate energy and excitement while the smell of freshly popped popcorn heightens the atmosphere. With each pop and crunch, the night is transformed into a cozy and memorable experience, creating cherished moments that will be remembered long after the snow has melted.

For added ambiance, pull out your cocktail glasses for a clever way to serve Old Fashioned Bourbon Maple Popcorn with Pecans. Accented with bourbon, orange and bitters, this maple-glazed popcorn is a fun cocktail-inspired snack for sharing with or without the alcohol.

If you’re one who favors spicy heat, this Spicy Korean Barbecue Popcorn won’t disappoint. This sweet and spicy snack delivers a delicious explosion of flavor in every bite, making it a perfect addition to a finger food buffet or self-serve snack station.

There’s nothing quite like coffee to warm up a winter day, and when combined with cocoa, it creates a perfect snack that’s both sweet and surprising in this Mocha Popcorn. For another easy treat that turns up the temperature, consider this Sugar and Spice Popcorn that combines sweet and heat in a craveable winter mix.

Explore more ideas to warm up your winter entertaining at

Old Fashioned Bourbon Maple Popcorn with Pecans

Servings: 4-6

  • 8          cups popped popcorn
  • 1/2       cup chopped toasted pecans
  • 1/3       cup maple syrup
  • 1          tablespoon bourbon
  • 2          tablespoons butter
  • 1          tablespoon orange zest
  • 1          dash bitters
  1. Place popcorn and pecans in large bowl.
  2. In small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine maple syrup, bourbon and butter; bring to boil. Cook, swirling pan, 3-5 minutes, or until mixture thickens to corn syrup consistency. Stir in orange zest and bitters.
  3. Drizzle maple syrup mixture over popcorn; toss to evenly coat. Cool completely and serve.

Tips: Substitute bourbon with rye or whiskey. For “mocktail” popcorn, substitute with non-alcoholic bourbon or whiskey.

Spicy Korean Barbecue Popcorn

Servings: 4-6

  • 8          cups popcorn
  • 1/4       cup honey
  • 2          tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1          tablespoon butter
  • 1          tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1          tablespoon gochujang (Korean chili paste)
  • 1          tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1          teaspoon garlic powder
  • 4          teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
  • 1          tablespoon gochujaru (Korean chili flakes)
  • 1          green onion, thinly sliced (optional)
  1. Place popcorn in large bowl.
  2. In small saucepan, combine honey, brown sugar, butter, sesame oil, gochujang, soy sauce and garlic powder; bring to boil. Cook 3-5 minutes, or until mixture thickens to syrupy consistency.
  3. Drizzle honey mixture over popcorn and sprinkle with sesame seeds and gochujaru; toss to evenly coat. Garnish with green onion, if desired. Serve immediately or cool completely.

Tip: Substitute green onion with 1 teaspoon freeze-dried chives, if preferred.

Mocha Popcorn

Yield: about 6 quarts

  • 6          quarts popped popcorn
  • nonstick cooking spray
  • 3          cups sugar
  • 1/3       cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
  • 1          tablespoon espresso powder or instant coffee granules
  • 1          cup milk
  • 1/4       cup powdered sugar
  1. Place popcorn in large bowl sprayed with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.
  2. Line baking sheet or work surface with waxed paper or foil.
  3. In large saucepan, stir sugar, cocoa, instant coffee and milk. Cook until mixture registers 250 F on candy thermometer, stirring occasionally.
  4. Pour hot mixture over popcorn; stir to coat popcorn completely.
  5. Spread popcorn onto prepared surface and allow to cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
  6. Break into pieces to serve. Store in airtight container.

Sugar and Spice Popcorn

  • 2          tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2          teaspoons chili powder
  • 2          teaspoons paprika
  • 2          teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2          quarts (8 cups) air-popped popcorn
  • butter-flavored nonstick cooking spray
  1. In small bowl, combine brown sugar, chili powder, paprika and cumin; mix well.
  2. Place cooked popcorn in separate bowl; spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray and sprinkle with spice mixture.
  3. Toss to mix until kernels are coated. Store in airtight container.
Popcorn Board

Your Winter Wonderland Awaits

5 private cabin destinations for your next adventure

As colder temperatures settle in across much of the country, now is a perfect time to start planning your cozy season getaway. Perfect for lovers of the great outdoors, with breathtaking views and amenities like hot tubs, ski lifts, gourmet kitchens, game rooms and more, a cabin retreat can make for a unique and memorable experience.

Specializing in private vacation homes, Vrbo, a seasoned veteran in the vacation rental industry with nearly 30 years of experience, has lodging options available in some of the most popular winter destinations, including these five getaways. Booking these homes, or any others on the platform, can also earn travelers rewards for future trips through the vacation rental industry’s first and only loyalty program, One Key. Plus, the Book with Confidence Guarantee offers comprehensive protection throughout your journey.

To find more winter retreats, visit or use the app to start earning OneKeyCash with every reservation.

Lone Peak View Fire Lookout Tower – Big Sky, Montana

Situated on more than 60 acres, this one-of-a-kind cabin offers 360-degree views above some of Big Sky’s most beloved wilderness, including the famed Lone Peak and the Madison Range. Ideal for families or smaller groups, the Fire Lookout Tower comfortably sleeps up to eight guests and features a wraparound deck, perfect for taking in beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The home also boasts a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, gourmet kitchen and hot tub.

Trestle House – Winter Park, Colorado

Nestled amongst the pines in Winter Park’s most exclusive neighborhood, Trestle House – a  Vrbo 2023 Vacation Home of the Year – boasts showstopping views, a slope-side hot tub and high-end amenities. The open main level offers views of tall pines, meandering ski trails and abounding mountains from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Plus, a full bar and game room cater to all ages and ski-in, ski-out access leads directly to the Winter Park Resort base area.

“The Overlook” Shipping Container – Rockbridge, Ohio

A unique, eco-friendly retreat located just outside Columbus, “The Overlook” is crafted from four 40-foot repurposed shipping containers and sits above the beautiful rolling acres of Hocking Hills, Ohio. Sitting on a total of 75 acres, the property is home to two waterfalls and a plethora of hiking possibilities on-site. Featuring three bedrooms and a hot tub for relaxing after a long day, the transformed cargo containers can accommodate up to eight guests.


Luxury Mountain Lodge with 360 Views – Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Ideally located for whatever adventure you wish to undertake, this luxury cabin offers panoramic Smoky Mountain views and rustic yet modern amenities that are perfect for that ultimate cozy cabin vibe. Designed for relaxation, family time and fun, Heaven’s Mountain Lodge features double-decker decks with unobstructed views, a private hot tub, multiple fire pits, a theater room, a stunning kitchen and a game room that includes pool, shuffleboard, foosball and a poker table.

“Shooting Star” Luxury Teton Village Cabin – Teton County, Wyoming

This classic and elegant cabin is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, surrounded by Grand Teton National Park with sweeping views of the mountains, ski slopes and curves of Shooting Star Jackson Hole Golf Club. With the look of a 19th century homestead, layers of modern and traditional detail are combined to create a cohesive richness and structure. The cabin sleeps eight and includes a stone dining terrace and hot tub, luxurious fireplace and gourmet kitchen.



3 Tips to Take Control of Car Maintenance

Economic factors made 2023 a record year for motorists, but not in ways that helped most families’ household budgets.

The average price of a new car peaked at nearly $50,000 while the average age of cars on the road surpassed 12 years, a record, according to S&P.

Rising costs for new cars and an aging fleet of vehicles on the road go hand-in-hand and, for most drivers, this means staying on top of vehicle maintenance is crucial. Yet even maintenance has become more difficult as the cost of parts and labor increase, leaving drivers with a sometimes daunting list of automotive DIY projects or parts to source when their mechanic is out of stock.

Common Fears About Automotive DIY
For people new to car maintenance and repair, getting started can feel overwhelming. Because many families count on their cars to get where they need to go, it seems like a lot could go wrong with an average of 30,000 parts under the hood of a gasoline-powered vehicle.

Consider these common situations that could make someone hesitant to take on a DIY project:

  • Finding the best place to get parts to fit your needs
  • Being unsure if a part is high enough quality to last and keep your car on the road
  • Not knowing if the part you ordered will fit your car

For most, these fears boil down to being unsure if a part is right for the job, or if they’re skilled enough to install it.

Tips to Get the Repair Done Right
Now, more automotive parts and accessories retailers offer tools to help guide DIYers toward the right inventory for their needs. From brick-and-mortar shops to online marketplaces like eBay Motors, they can enjoy access to more resources to help find the exact part and good value:

  • Consider shopping online: While physical retailers may have parts that work in a pinch, they may not be the best part for a project or offer the best value. Searching online retailers can provide access to millions of parts and accessories – including hard-to-find and discontinued items – from trusted car manufacturers and reliable aftermarket part brands.
  • Look for fitment guarantees: There are few things more frustrating than being halfway through a repair only to learn a part doesn’t fit. To help ensure you’re buying with confidence, the eBay Guaranteed Fit program allows users to add a vehicle to “My Garage” then quickly and easily search for parts. If there’s a green “Fits” check, you can rest assured it’s guaranteed to fit or your money back.
  • Take advantage of services and educational tools: Some online parts destinations offer features on-site or via app that connect you with licensed mechanics live if you’re unsure of how to approach a repair or maintenance, from something simple like a filter change to help with more advanced jobs, like replacing spark plugs. When it comes to sourcing and installing parts like tires, look for marketplaces that offer a wide selection of top brands and services that ship your order straight to your local shop for convenient installation.

With the right resources, car projects can feel more manageable. To get started, visit to find how-to resources, parts and accessories to tackle some DIY projects, including filters, wiper blades, spark plugs, batteries, light bulbs and more.

eBay Motors