The Cyber Offense-Defense Balance and Why Technology is Both Cool and Terrifying

On March 8 I attended an event for OU’s annual IAS Symposium. This year’s topic was global cyber trends and I went to a lecture entitled “What is the Cyber Offense-Defense Balance?” that was given by Rebecca Slayton, a professor at Cornell.

I don’t know very much about global cyber trends and had no idea what the cyber offense-defense balance even was when I sat down for the lecture, so I learned a lot in the hour and fifteen minutes I was there. Dr. Slayton began by outlining the conventional wisdom, which is that offense has the upper hand in cyberspace. Basically, first-mover advantages and the cost of attacking vs. defending favors the offensive in cyber operations. She then addressed the minority view, the cyber defense advantage, and proceeded to assert that in reality neither of these are true but that we are simply asking the wrong question. What we should be asking is “under what circumstances do cyber operations favor offense rather than defense?” The cyber offense-defense balance, according to Slayton, is shaped not only by technology but also by the complexity of adversaries’ goals relative to their skills and organizational capacity. In other words, a potential offensive advantage must be defined in relation to specific adversaries with specific goals, in conjunction with skills and organizational context.

In cyber operations, both the offense and the defense want to maximize payoff versus cost. This payoff is shaped by the goals of each adversary and subjective value of their operation. For example, cyber offense is valuable for countries or actors who value covert operations or action at a distance, who don’t have other means of attack, and who have adversaries who rely heavily on cyberspace. Cyber defense is valuable for actors who depend on cyberspace. The cost of cyber operations is more difficult to measure because cyber weapons have very different costs than physical ones. Each code design can only be reused until it is discovered, and costs are dominated by research, development, and testing rather than materials and production as physical weapons are. Maintenance costs are also huge in the software lifecycle.

The lecture also covered the consequences of cyber operations. The example that Dr. Slayton used was Stuxnet, a US-Israeli attack on an Iranian uranium enrichment facility. Over the at least 4 year development period ending with discovery in 2010, hackers took control of the facility’s computers and periodically sped up the centrifuges to damaging speeds without the scientists’ awareness. The costs due to loss of production and centrifuges was estimated to be near 7 million, and the non-monetary payoffs for the offense came in the form of damaged morale, excessive security, and resulting organizational inefficiencies. The perceived value of Stuxnet appears to be 2 orders of magnitude greater than its costs for the US and Israel. Although this may be true, the cost of offense exceeded that of defense and the blowback was that it strengthened the resolve of Iran nuclear power and that Iran was able to use the attack to learn about cyber weapons. Slayton’s final takeaway was that there is no offense-defense balance because cyberspace is not uniform (kind of a cop-out given the title of her lecture, I know).

Overall I thought the lecture was very interesting. As the importance of technology worldwide continues to increase, there are many adaptations we need to make and precautions we need to take, and as the definition of war changes with new developments it is likely that this topic will only become more prevalent in our society.



Exclusion or Inclusion? Disability and Community in Late Medieval France

I recently had the opportunity to leave my comfort zone a bit and attend a history of science lecture. Typically, the lectures that I attend are focused on current international events, so it was an exciting change of pace to attend an event focused more on history.

The talk I attended was given by Dr. Sasha Pfau, an associate professor from Hendrix College. I was not sure what exactly to expect from such a lecture, but I found myself quickly fascinated with Dr. Pfau’s research. Her study’s goal was to investigate the treatment of disability in Medieval France. Whenever I think about disability in the Middle Ages, I, like many people think of people locked away from society in mental institutions or shunned in leper colonies. During this talk, I was surprised to learn that this was often not the case.

Dr. Pfau found her evidence by pouring through thousands of pardon letters. These letters were written to the king of France by either convicted criminals or their families or friends requesting pardon. The king granted these pardons as a show of power; he was above the law, and excused people’s crimes in an attempt to flaunt it. Those seeking pardon worked with court scribes and paid a fee to write the letters, and if the king granted the pardon, they could pay extra to have it transcribed in the official books. These approved, transcribed pardons are all that survive, so today, we have no way of knowing how many pardons were approved or what an unapproved pardon looked like, but the letters give modern historians insight into ordinary life at the time.

Each letter included the story of the crime with a justification. It is these stories that Dr. Pfau was interested in; though the stories may have been embellished, they reflected plausible, normal events at the time. Thus, any treatment of disability that came up in the letters was likely indicative of how disability was regularly treated in those days. Dr. Pfau said that most letters did not contain any mention of disability; she had to read hundreds of letters to find what she was looking for. However, the letters she did come up with painted a picture of disability treatment that looks very different from my assumptions. From these letters, it is apparent that those living in late Medieval France included disabled people as members of society and practiced a great deal of familial care. Rather than casting the disabled out, they were brought into the fold and included as much as possible.

Her case studies varied from a disabled man who participated with his friends in a bar fight to a blind man who was killed by his wife for intentionally sabotaging her work. In each case, the disability was never the focus of the letter, but the reader could see that it was often treated very differently to what many have previously imagined. When the disabled were mistreated, it was due to their own negative actions, rather than their disabilities. Their families felt and upheld the responsibility to care for their disabled family members, and the disabled were as integrated into society as possible.

I was impressed with Dr. Pfau’s ability to make such a strong case for something so surprising to me, as well as her method of obtaining it. Before this talk, I had never heard of pardon letters, nor had I given much thought to the treatment of disability throughout history. The lecture was a fascinating reminder that often, dominant historical narratives are not accurate; they are shaped by biased historians choosing the version of history that they want to pass down. I learned some interesting things about Medieval France and had some of my preconceived notions of history shattered. It was a nice reminder that, while studying current events is immensely important, studying historical events can be equally so.

My Last Semester as a GEF Mentor

As this is my final semester at OU, it is my final semester as a mentor to younger Global Engagement Fellows. Serving as a mentor to some incredible fellows has been an honor for the past year and a half. So far, every new fellow that I’ve met has been incredible – they make it easy to be a mentor because they need very little help! But it has been amazing to be able to share my travel stories with people who can actually find them useful (it’s always nice to have a valid excuse to reminisce about my time studying abroad…). It is wonderful to listen to new fellows speak so passionately about study abroad plans and to hear about all of the awesome things they’ll get to do.

I’m always jealous when I hear about new programs and adventures – I’ve been back in the U.S. long enough that my time abroad occasionally feels like an incredibly pleasant dream, something that I remember but that happened to another person. I have grown up a great deal since that time – during the summer after I studied in Spain, I worked 6-7 8 hour days a week at two different jobs. The next summer, I was rewarded with an amazing 9-5 job that I will continue with after graduation. But I’m also planning a 3 week trip to Europe with my boyfriend after graduation to get another taste of life outside the U.S. and to show him around. I am so excited about the things happening in my life, but I will always miss my time living in Spain. Studying abroad is simply an experience like no other, and one that I hope every college student will try to take advantage of. It is so uniquely wonderful; you’ll never have another time like it.

For this reason, it makes me so happy that this Global Engagement Fellowship that started the year I came to OU is flourishing and attracting so many amazing members year after year. I am honored to be in the first graduating class of this fellowship. I hope I’ve done my small part in building a legacy that will live on for years at OU. GEF is an organization promoting international collaboration and cooperation, learning new languages, connecting people from different cultures, and educating yourself as much as possible on the world outside your home country. I have learned so much as a member of this organization, and I hope that I have helped to pass along some of that knowledge to my mentees. Being a global engagement fellow has been utterly wonderful. I am not yet ready for my time to be over, but I am so thrilled that other new fellows are going to get the chance to study abroad and have their own amazing experiences.

The Iran Nuclear Deal

Hello! It is difficult for me to believe that I’m now in my last semester at OU. As cheesy as it sounds, it really does seem like just yesterday that I was starting up this blog. I’m amazed at how much has happened in under four years – I’ve traveled to eight countries since then, had several awesome internships, developed passions I didn’t know that I had, and come up with a viable plan for my future. None of this means that I know what I’m doing yet, but I’ve had an amazing time finding my way.

Tonight, I had the immense pleasure of going to a talk by Dr. Trita Parsi at the Sam Noble Museum on the Iran nuclear deal. I’ve spoken before about how much I enjoy listening to experts discuss their fields, and tonight was no different. Dr. Parsi was eloquent, engaging, and extremely knowledgable, and I learned a great deal about the intricacies of the U.S.-Iran relationship over the last several decades. Dr. Parsi advised the Obama administration on the Iran nuclear talks and was also in conversations with Iranian officials. If anyone is an expert on this topic, it is this man.

He spoke of the historical roots of the relationship between Iran and the United States, and the complicated role that Israel played in the relationship. It was fascinating to hear about how things have changed over the years: in the 80s, Iran and Israel often worked together against common threats, such as Saddam Hussein and the USSR. However, in the early 90s, the USSR collapsed and the two countries became rivals. Iran refused to recognize Israel and the two countries no longer got along. The U.S. has gained and lost power of influence in the region over the years. As with all international disputes, the situation is complex with no clear solutions.

My two main takeaways from the talk are that effective diplomacy often requires creativity and that this creativity is often impossible without friends. During his time in office, President Obama imposed the harshest sanctions to date on Iran, crippling their economy for several years, in an attempt to get them to stop their nuclear program. These sanctions were only effective because Obama had international clout and got buy-in from many U.S. allies, who stopped buying Iranian oil. When Iran found ways to get around the sanctions, the U.S. then got creative, creating a secret channel to Iran through Oman in order to expedite nuclear talks.

Through this secret channel, American diplomats offered to let Iran keep a certain low number of centrifuges enriching uranium in exchange for their participation in the deal. The U.S. could not write down this offer for fear of upsetting its U.N. allies, who were still participating in the official nuclear talks, and Iran could not take a verbal agreement from the U.S. To get around this, the U.S. got the Sultan of Oman, a close ally to Iranian officials and to us, to personally deliver the offer. The Iranians could not refuse a personal offer from such a close friend lest they appear to be publicly distrusting an ally. Thus, the Iran nuclear deal was born. It would not have been possible without creativity and friends – unilaterally, the U.S. would have gotten nowhere.

In light of this, I am concerned with the U.S. government’s current treatment of diplomacy. An “America first” policy seems to serve only to alienate our closest allies. Additionally, many of our international embassies are currently without ambassadors. We appear to be ignoring attempts at diplomacy in a time when we need them the most; this talk proved that we NEED allies if we have any hope of solving our greatest international problems. During his talk, Dr. Parsi drew alarming parallels between talks with Iran over the last decade and the situation between the U.S. and North Korea now. If we are to look to our past and avoid the same mistakes, the government would do well to keep in mind that creative diplomacy and the curation of strong international friendships will likely be they key to an effective solution.

New Year, Worldwide

Happy New Year! Since it is the beginning of 2018 I thought it would be interesting to look at New Year’s traditions around the world.


Here in America we drink champagne and give each other kisses at midnight, but many countries have very different ideas of ringing in the new year. For example, in Spain it is customary to eat 12 grapes at midnight, one for each chime of the clock, to bring luck. In certain parts of Scotland, people swing large fireballs over their heads in a tradition that is said to ward off evil spirits. In Denmark, broken glass is meant to be a sign of good fortune so people smash china and drop it on friends’ doorsteps to bring them good luck in the new year. People in Colombia and Ecuador make and burn puppets or scarecrows to symbolize leaving bad people or things in the past. Joya no kane is the traditional ceremony of bell-ringing in Japan that dates back to Buddhist beliefs, where the bells are rung 108 times to represent each of the worldly desires or sins. In Greece, hanging an onion in your front doorway signifies rebirth and regrowth. And on New Year’s in Germany, people eat filled donuts as part of their “Silvester” celebrations.


So as you can see, there are many different ways of celebrating the new year. Whether you were stuffing your mouth with grapes, breaking plates, toasting, or getting a New Year’s kiss, I hope you had a fun night and have a prosperous 2018.


Pasko Sa Nayon

Last week, to support one of my friends, I attended the Filipino Student Association’s Cultural Night called Pasko Sa Nayon. The phrase means “Christmas in the village” in Filipino, and the event was a celebration of the Filipino culture through food, songs, and a really interesting traditional dance called tinikling.

Tinikling is one of the oldest and most popular folk dances originating in the Philippines, and is recognized as the Philippine national dance. It means “bamboo dance” in English, and is performed with two large bamboo poles that are clapped together rhythmically as dancers hop and maneuver between them. There are various stories as to the origin of the dance, one of which being that the Leyte people did it as an imitation of the tikling bird’s unique movements as it hops and walks between grass stems and tree branches, and that the dance’s name came from the name of the bird. Another story tells of the Philippine people working in the fields under the Spaniards. According to, when workers were slow, they would be sent out of the paddies for punishment. They were forced to stand between two bamboo poles cut from the grove, sometimes with thorns sticking from their segments. The poles were then clapped together to beat the natives’ feet. By jumping when the bamboo sticks were apart, the natives tried to escape this cruel form of punishment. From there it is said that tinikling evolved into the art form that it is today.

It is a really cool and fun-looking dance, and is very clearly a source of pride and unique part of the Filipino culture. I’ll attach a link below to a video of the dance; the OU students who did it during Culture Night were not quite as talented as these people, but it was still quite impressive.

I am very glad I attended Pasko Sa Nayon; I really enjoyed seeing a new facet of the Filipino culture, and definitely want to try tinikling now. Maybe with bubble wrap around my ankles, just in case…


ISIS/The Islamic State: Some Thoughts on What’s Happening Now

The rise and spread of ISIS* has made international news for more than three years now. This brutal, militant form of Sunni extremism quickly conquered large pieces of Iraq and Syria, and regional forces, with support from a coalition of 68 countries around the world, have been fighting to take back the territory ever since. Meanwhile, ISIS claimed responsibility for horrific terror attacks committed all over Europe and bleeding into the United States.

ISIS attracted many young people into its ranks both in the Middle East and in western countries. Surprisingly to many, ISIS actually attracted many well-educated, economically well-off youth in addition to more traditionally disenfranchised people. As its numbers and territory grew and its terror attacks became more frequent, ISIS inspired a great deal of fear throughout the world. Within areas controlled by ISIS, native people suffered greatly, and in the West, people feared more terror attacks and the organization spreading further.

For years, at least to me, it’s felt as though the international community has made little progress in taking ISIS down. ISIS would lose territory and then gain it back, all while continuing to commit terror attacks. However, there has been a recent turn of good fortune – the leaders of both Iraq and Iran have declared that ISIS has been militarily defeated in both Iraq and Syria. I am honestly skeptical of this; the news is new and in fights such as this, victories are seldom so clear-cut. However, ISIS’s loss of Mosul in July signaled the beginning of significant territorial losses for them, and for once, ISIS really does appear to be losing ground.

I am incredibly pleased that ISIS is retreating and that native Iraqis and Syrians are beginning to get their countries back. However, based on all of the research I’ve done this semester, I think it’s incredibly important that western powers who’ve been assisting regional forces in Iraq and Syria militarily to attempt to solve the root causes of terrorism, rather than just the symptoms. Military victory is fantastic, but because ISIS is just as much an ideology and a rallying cry for many who feel disenfranchised, I fear that military victories will be temporary. Western responses to terrorism often treat the symptoms of terrorism but fail to tackle the larger roots: economic inequality, ineffective and ill-thought-out foreign policy, and social unrest, to name a few. Admittedly, these issues will be significantly more difficult to tackle, but I think this makes them all the more important. Yes, we need to fight back against ISIS with military strength, but I think that we also need to fight back with ideas.

Obviously, I am but an undergraduate biology major with an interest in foreign policy. I fully recognize that my statements above are an oversimplification of these complex, multifaceted international events and issues. I by no means claim to be an authority here; I would simply like to start a conversation about these issues. I think that terrorism has many root causes, and work on tackling those, rather than fighting the fires that emerge as a result, has the potential to affect real, lasting change. The difficulty, of course, lies in figuring out how exactly to go about fighting those root causes.

*There are many names for this organization, and what is most widely accepted continues to change. Throughout this post, I’ve chosen to use ISIS for simplicity and because this term is widely recognizable to the American public.

International Organization Update

This semester has been a little bit of a disappointment in terms of my involvement in international organizations on campus. I am still a member of Spanish Club and OU Cousins like I was last year, but Spanish Club meetings happen to fall on the same night as ASL Club meetings (and I’m the vice president of ASL Club so I’m kind of obligated to be there) so I haven’t been able to go. I also was unable to be matched with a new OU Cousin this semester because of the disproportionate amount of American students wanting to be involved.

But fear not, dear reader, because I have been able to reconnect with Anita (my old OU Cousin) and have a status update on her life since going back to Taiwan. This is what she sent me in her email:

“I graduated from university this June in Taiwan. I went to Spain to visit my bf in July for the entire month. And I started working since September, which makes my life a hectic. I work in a electronics company as an international salesperson. It’s an okay job but the time difference makes my job kind of difficult because sometimes I need to make phone calls out of my business hour to reach customers.”

She also said she misses her time in the US and being a student (except for dead week), and I definitely miss having her here. However, thanks to the miracle that is modern technology, there is a silver lining: even though she’s not here anymore and is now off working in the real world we can still stay in touch. I’m hoping that in the spring I will be able to get matched with a new Cousin; I had such a good experience and learned so much from Anita, and now have a friend 7,600 miles away and a place to stay when I visit Taiwan.

I’m pretty sure spring semester will be better for me and my international organizations because OU Cousins generally has a more even ratio of international to American students in the spring, and ASL Club meetings will be moving to Tuesday nights to accommodate the change in ASL class scheduling so I will be free Wednesdays to actually attend Spanish Club meetings. In the meantime though, I still have Anita to keep my connection to OU Cousins and my Spanish class to keep me connected to the world of hispanohablantes.


Mentoring the Next Generation of GEFs

This semester, I have had the immense pleasure of getting to mentor another new class of Global Engagement Fellows. In meeting new fellows this semester, I was struck by the feeling that I am getting old (okay, I may be just shy of 22, but in the context of the average age of college students, that’s not young). I am a senior this year. At many points over the course of this semester, I’ve found myself thinking “this is my last September in Norman,” “this is my last homecoming as an undergrad,” and, most recently, “this is my last Halloween as an OU student.” To me, these are sobering thoughts – I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at this wonderful university for the past three and a half years, and Norman has come to be my home. I’ve built up a close community of friends, and don’t feel ready at all for that community to split up and scatter across the country. Similarly, I don’t feel ready to leave behind my peaceful afternoons on campus, reading in a lounge in Farzaneh or writing a lab report in the Great Reading Room of the Bizz. Fortunately, I still have several more months of doing all of these things, but in speaking with new fellows, I’m reminded of how much of my time at OU has already passed.

One of my favorite things to talk about with new fellows is their study abroad goals. I love hearing about all of the places that they want to go and the things that they want to do. Once again, I’m frequently saddened that my time studying abroad is over (I’ve said before and I’ll say it again – studying abroad was by far the best decision I’ve made in college), but I love getting to hear about all of the adventures that my mentees will get to go on.

It’s also awesome to get to share some of the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years with the new fellows. After navigating the harrowing waters of trying to find housing for half a year and avoiding paying for the other half, I’ve gained some key insights that I’ve gotten to share. I love knowing that I can hopefully help eliminate some of the only negative parts of studying abroad for new fellows by telling them my cautionary tales.

This program has a habit of attracting very bright and talented individuals, and, truth be told, none of my mentees need much mentoring at all. They are all incredibly capable and driven young women, and I could not be more excited to see where this program takes them. Even so, it still feels good to be a resource for them, and it’s nice to have new explorers that I can live vicariously through.

To sum up, I am absolutely loving getting to be a peer mentor in this program. The Global Engagement Fellowship, and the studying abroad that came with it, has been one of the highlights of my college career, and getting to share my passion for this program with new members is always a treat!

The Portrayal of Muslims and the Iraq War in U.S. Media

This week, I got to go to my first round table discussion of the semester. I always enjoy these talks immensely because I appreciate hearing from experts in different fields related to international current events. Try as I might to keep up with these events on my own, the knowledge that I glean from the news cannot match what I gain from hearing from the experts themselves.

This talk was somewhat different because it related not to a specific current event but to the portrayal of Muslims and the Iraq War in U.S. media over the course of several years. Given my honors research this semester on the fear of Islam in the U.S. and the factors that perpetuate it, this talk was particularly interesting to me. In this discussion, Dr, Kristian Petersen, a professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska, discussed two movies, American Sniper and the Hurt Locker, to highlight common American portrayals of Muslims and the Iraq war. He discussed both specific events from each movie and the ways in which these movies tie in to the predominant media narratives about both Muslims and this war.

The common theme between both movies was a tendency toward a simplistic portrayal of Muslims. Muslims in these films are depicted as a homogenous group, very different from mainstream Americans, predisposed toward violence and radicalism. Dr. Petersen stated that this portrayal, found in movies, TV shows, and the news, creates an atmosphere of mistrust of Muslims and normalizes the mistreatment of members of this faith group. This position is backed up by a great deal of survey data; consistently, surveys show that Americans trust Muslims least of any religious group in the country, and in 2014, 42% of Americans supported the profiling of Muslims. Many Americans view ISIS as what a true Islamic society looks like, rather than an extremist offshoot. As further proof of this mistrust and fear of Islam, hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. quintupled following 9/11, and continue to spike following any terror attacks at home or abroad, regardless of whether or not these attacks are perpetrated by Muslims.

Both movies that Dr. Petersen focused on play directly into this fear of Islam that so many Americans already felt before the movies’ releases. They each depict Muslims as distrustful and uncivilized, and both contain dramatic and stereotypical imagery. These films contribute to the conflation between ethnicity and religion and to the view that all Muslims are extremists who hold radically different views than most Americans. In American Sniper, Arab children are depicted as inherently violent, Muslim homes are depicted as war zones, and Muslim women are dismissed with misogynistic slurs. The film fails to distinguish between Arab and Muslim extremists and between the Arab and Muslim public, contributing to existing American issues making these distinctions.The Hurt Locker employs the same tired tropes; it implies that Muslims are inherently violent and that it is impossible to tell which among them are terrorists and which are peaceful.

This is not to say that there is no violence or extremism in the Arab world today; certainly, these problems exist, and certainly, some Muslims participate in this violence. Dr. Petersen’s claim is that these two films are somewhat problematic because they contribute to the failure of the American public to distinguish between extremism and between the rest of Islam, between terrorists and peaceful citizens, and between Arabs who are Muslims and Arabs who are not. Homogenous depictions of Muslim and Arab society, like those featured in these two films, play into and build upon problems that already exist within American society. They perpetuate negative stereotypes and contribute to the rising Islamophobia within the U.S.

I thought that this talk was extremely interesting because I rarely think about the ways in which depictions of societies outside of my own can contribute to negative stereotypes. Something as innocent as a movie can have widespread societal consequences as it contributes to the collective opinion of a nation that is already afraid. I have no doubt that there is much more nuance to this situation than I have described above; my thoughts here are by no means meant to attack these movies, or to say that they are not valid viewpoints of the Iraq War. I simply seek, like Dr. Petersen does, to shed light on a depiction of a people that may be more problematic than some Americans initially realize.