Monday, July 27, 2015

What the Colemak keyboard tells me about my mind

In my long-term fight against repetitive strain injury pain, I've tried many different keyboards and input devices, but I've never really tried abandoning the QWERTY keyboard layout.

Last week I decided it was time. Most of my keystrokes since then have been using the Colemak layout, which was an obscure upstart when I last wrote about alternate layouts (and chose Colemak's close relative, Asetion) but has since moved a few keys around, gained impressive traction, and nearly eclipsed Dvorak in geek street cred.

I'm really liking it and finding it makes a difference for my pain, thanks to how many keystrokes take place on the home row. This seems to allow me to often apply just the minimum pressure necessary to trigger a keystroke, something that is very hard to do when your finger is traveling to another key and has to travel back quickly.

Any kind of mental remapping reveals surprising terrain: solitary notions you assume to be separate which turn out to be conjoined; intimately bound associations that announce they are perfectly happy to go to separate ways.

I use many keyboard shortcuts, both standard and custom ones I create with the excellent Keyboard Maestro. I'm surprised to find that even when the typing circuits in my brain have fully accepted a key's new home, the keyboard shortcuts that used that letter insist they will remain where they are. "Command-e" is not registered in my brain as "Command-wherever-the-e-is". It is registered as "Command-middle-finger-of-left-hand-up". Moving that shortcut is a completely different mental process then moving each of its components.

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Is running a startup (like Uber) comparable to running a country (like Georgia)?

I used to work for a head of state: Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia.

I had done a fellowship over there in 2001 and I had "worked" (with no idea what i was doing, but loving it) in the Ministry of justice under Misha, who later resigned, led the opposition to the Eduard Shevardnadze government, and became president.

My former boss, Giorgi Arveladze, invited me back as a consultant, and most of what I did was organize international conferences that involved bringing in people from several different ministries to cooperate in conducting and chaperoning the whole event. (There had been some pretty disastrous organizational and security failures at previous conferences.)

I tried to do a little policy advising by writing policy memos but I got zero response. I also tried to get them to take up an American company up on their offer to build wimax towers throughout the country for free, and charge subscribers for service month-to-month, but couldn't get it through the bureaucracy.

The experience made me realize how many different kinds of difficulty there are in running organizations. There is the difficulty of making the results be good. There is the difficulty of exerting your will as a leader. There is the difficulty of bringing people together by forging unity instead of disjointed efforts at cross purposes. There is the difficulty of staying in power. There is the difficulty of growing healthy decision making within the organization. And there is the difficulty of getting people to shut up and get on board with the project.

The president was good at some things and bad at others. From a liberal American perspective, he was alarmingly braggadocious, power-hungry and heavy-handed, but from a Georgian perspective those qualities were just fine and the bigger problem was that he got satisfied with his reforms too quickly, chose loyalty over competence and let his ruling party enjoy the spoils of power when there weren't enough wins to justify the largesse.

Georgians really expected that any leader worth his salt would muster the army and march into the separatist regions that are very much controlled by Russia and kick the Russians out. It turned out that the Georgian Army, even equipped and trained for the United States, was completely ineffective. The citizenry also picked up, correctly, that all of the talk of rule of law didn't really apply to the political and economic elite, and they were really disgusted by the mildly thuggish violence that the government used to suppress dissent (which rarely registers here in the US, for reasons I don't understand). Perhaps if the president had been more talented and crafty and in tune with the culture, like Putin, and perhaps if he had been able to achieve military victories, he would still be in power and popular. It's hard to know.

(That last 'if' is a big one... but it's interesting to think about what might have been. Early on it wasn't clear Russia would be such a total opponents; Putin invited them to visit Kremlin, eg. And through diplomacy/strategy/military presence, Georgia did wrest control back of one of the three Russia-aligned separatist regions, albeit the one of the three that was farthest from Russia in every sense. They never had a very effective Minister of Defense. There might have been room for better strategy that aligned politics, strategic diplomacy and military acumen. The current government has been taking a more conciliatory path vis. Russia, though that is unpopular.)

I think in many respects the job of being president seemed like running a unicorn startup like Uber, in that you have to figure out how to juggle a million balls, how to delegate and trust people very fast, how to articulate a vision, how to keep your organization driven and focused.

What was different was that you just have so many more kinds of audiences to please in different ways. And you're almost destined to fail eventually because almost no politicians on that scale are able to maintain a high approval rating for more than a few years; whereas a good startup CEO who grows the company quickly can become a long-term leader.

That is to say, if Apple and Amazon and Google were countries or states or whatever, I don't think the leaders who were in charge 15 years ago would still be in charge. At a company, when you fire a somewhat popular vice pres. who has followers and is embedded in complex ways, it might be messy but when they're gone, they're gone. They don't start appearing on TV and telling everyone what a joke you are on the inside and start an opposition party and campaign against you.

You're also not up against the deeply held moral beliefs of all of the people who do or don't support you in various ways. Maybe you want to adopt some controversial organizational structure or something, maybe sometimes what you're doing seems crazy, but you're basically always trying to grow the company and the business. Other people who agree with those goals are going to agree with you more often than they disagree.

But in politics you have people who have not just differing ideas but fundamentally contradictory values. No one would pick up a gun to defend Uber, but millions of people would pick up guns to defend various rights and principles that they might not even be able to articulate. We are still trying to figure out what motivated hundreds of thousands of Americans who slaughtered each other in the Civil War. Whereas we know the motivations of every single person who works for or uses Uber, and they're all basically rational.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Peril, and potential, in the former Soviet Union

I worry that many ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union, including Russians and Georgians, are at risk of a Weimar-type spiral of ethnic and nationalist shame and prideful defensiveness.

Many of these groups, when in power, have engaged in some form of ethnic expulsion or conquering or cleansing, especially when the state has had weak leadership. Georgia's leadership is incredibly weak right now and no one really knows where Putin and Russian leadership in general are going.

It's a region where the hospitality of individual people is mind-blowing, but the capacity for aggressive nationalism and ethnic exclusion is terrifying.

On the plus side, Central Asia is such a nightmare that there's nowhere to go but in a positive direction! Seriously though, when I was in Georgia I was trying to get someone from the Turkmenistan ministry of energy to attend a conference. The Georgian ambassador to Turkmenistan told me flat out not to bother, because whoever from the Turkmenistan government agreed to attend a conference 10 weeks in the future would be in jail or dead by then anyway. Then the dictator died and things are getting slightly better!

I think there should be way more investment and attention to places, like Georgia, where religious Christians and religious Muslims Live side-by-side in peace. Georgia has Great relations with Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, and also a pretty good relationship with Chechnya and Iran. I taught at a tiny university in Tbilisi that was one third Georgians, one third Turks and one third Azeris. With all the money we spend blowing things up, you would think that we would want to open ten more of those and fund them royally!

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Piketty MUST be wrong

Thomas Piketty recently gave a widely discussed interview to a German magazine, where he mocks Germany for hypocricy about debt repayment.
There is a Business Insider counterpoint which is just so typical. They're basically saying you can't call Germany deadbeats because other people haven't been calling then deadbeats, and besides, they were actually being really dead deadbeats! It's as if they are just grabbing anything they can to use against Piketty, whether it has any significance or not, whether it actually makes Germany look moral or immoral, and hoping something sticks. What they never actually disagree with is what Piketty actually said, which is that Germany had this huge debt and got out of it permanently rather than repaying it, and that no German, Business Insider journalist, or anyone else would rather they have repaid it!
Why not just say that the morality of debt is a complex and relativistic thing and doesn't have any inherent morality,  and that there are good places and times for debt forgiveness, and times  when it just prolongs problems?
That said, I'm always suspicious when I hear critics scoff and laugh at the utter obviousness of some controversial point, like Piketty does throughout this interview. My pop psychological analysis is that they subconsciously doubt their own point, and use eye rolling and condescension as a charismatic signal to other people, but also to themselves, that they should dismiss their doubts without considering them seriously.
Chomsky does this to a pathological degree.
One very helpful resource is this Economist article about ordoliberalism, a German-born economic and political philosophy that is in the background of the current crisis. Of course, right after you default on a ton of debt is a great time to get religion for the purist virtue of debt repayment!

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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

RIP Circa, provider of bite-sized news

RIP Circa... per this analysis by investor Jason Calacanis.
I think calacanis is sort of right that straightforward truth made the product bland. it was certainly bland. the question is, was that accurate because the wold is bland? or was that accurate because it didn't have an opinionated, ambitious, and honest take on news? tha'ts my feeling... look at VICE as a counterexample... interesting that he scoffs at the listicles of buzzfeed et al but doesn't mention VICE. apples and oranges, certainly, but maybe that's part of the problem!
i think there is a philosophical mistake that aggregators make that assumes the trending stories are trending because they deserve to be, or have some deep relevance. sometimes that's true, of course, but often a story -- or a hashtag like #whoisburningblackchurces -- is something that was created and driven by someone who want3ed to *change* or at least affect what's trending. in other words, i think there are many parallel universes where different stories are trending, and there's no good reason to stick so dutifully to those that are trending in this universe.
take a story like this interview with a stabbing victim:
this story is deeply meaningful to me, compelling, shocking, and motivating. it calls into question the assumptions about the role of police that conservative advocates of police point to in their defense: that they protect the public against the inconvenient, but real, forces of evil. it casts them as a sort of Post Office with guns, prone to self-serving inaction and dangerous to trust with anything important.
what if the new york times and the post ran this interview, and follow up stories where they grill the NYPD brass and quote critics of police inaction and training, extensively? it plays into a very hot set of topics and would get picked up and argued about quite a lot, i think. but Circa wouldn't pick up a story like this -- it hasn't proven its widespread relevance yet, and it would seem like they are inserting their opinion.
part of what's going on is that Circa traffics in summaries, not really stories -- and that's also part of the problem. we think in stories; the front page of the times is all big topics distilled through the lens of some protagonist. if you rewrite that story to take out the personal story, it's not a story anymore.
another part is a simple lack of perspective. as i've pointed out before, Circa stories often present some fact or status with no reference to the rate of change involved. "A Greek exit from the Eurozone would not be catastrophic, assures Merkel" or something gives me no sense of whether the gist is that european leaders are suddenly and shockingly reversing course on whether they could imagine an exit, or if this is just the latest manifestation of a slowly growing trend, etc. "Europe promised to keep Greece; suddenly, they shrug" or something would help me much more. i think there is a bias towards inoffensiveness and newspaper-speak that works ok when you have a whole story behind your headline, but not when the headline and first paragraph essentially *are* the story.
Twitter and rss work best for me as news sources because they allow stories with great meaning to bubble up, even if they don't penetrate the mainstream. I don't want to use any aggregator that omits a story like the stabbing victim one!

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