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Monday, June 27, 2016

Integrated interfaces and their discontents

One thing that's been fascinating about teaching kids technology is to see how different their experience of technology is than mine was as a child.

The overall way I'd characterize their experience of technology is technologically integrated. They expect an iPhone-like minimal interface to be the window through which you perform all technological tasks; even a distinct UI like a TV remote control has been becoming more and more of a simple thin window into a complex on-screen interface.

Whereas my generation's technologies were technologically separate--each had its own distinct interface, physical location, and rules, often quite obscure and complex: the Nintendo required fiddling and blowing, TV and video cords needed to be switched in and out, videogame controllers for different systems had different layouts, cameras had a dozen quirky physical options and switches.

The telephone was such a fundamental communications medium that it became native to me and my siblings at a very early age. Same with keyboards and mice: I vividly remember going through the introductory exercises on the first Macintosh my family got in 1988, and learning what dragging and keyboard shortcuts were.

The seven- and eight-year-olds I teach are very unfamiliar with physical keyboards, mice and even touchpads. There's all sorts of elementary concepts that I have to specifically teach them, like:

  • how to anchor the position of a mouse with the fingers that touch the table so it doesn't move when you click it
  • the existence of different mouse buttons
  • the fact that you can lift your mouse or finger up and bring it down further away to give yourself more room
  • the idea that the meaningful area of the on-screen cursor is the tip of the arrow or finger and not the center
  • the role of the shift key and the need to hold it down while briefly pressing another key rather than pressing both at once
  • common keyboard shortcuts.
Meanwhile, my daughters, who are pretty computer savvy, have a hard time communicating on the phone because they do it so seldom. We actually have a landline in case we or a babysitter needs to call 911 and our cellphone isn't charged, and it's turned out to be a useful tool to teach technology to my kids! Since the design hasn't gotten much easier in two generations, they have to really adapt to its technological assumptions in a way that modern friendly app interfaces generally don't require. They love to call my wife and me on the phone randomly.

I've been seriously thinking about getting a typewriter!

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My encounter with the EU: appeasing Putin while Europe burns

With Britain leaving the EU, I'm reminded of my own experience seeing just how differently Britain handles things than the EU does, and why some smart and sober Britons might see the EU as having failed them internationally -- not that these few were a significant part of the vote for leaving.

Ten years ago, I spent a year in former Soviet Georgia working for their president, mostly organizing international conferences.

Our big enemy was Russia: Georgia sees Russia as an eternal imperialist antagonist, and Georgia was a totally independent republic before Russia swallowed it up in like 1921 or so.

Russia was totally spying on the administration--the intelligence services actually caught the president's (totally inept) press director passing information to the FSB, and Russia tried to derail the conferences we were organizing by announcing their own competing conferences and demanding that European countries choose one of the other.

The whole experience made me agree with the Georgians that Russia is unabashedly arrogant, vindictive, and proudly destructive. one small anecdote from that period: At the time I was there, each winter there had been blackouts because of the poor energy infrastructure, but in the winter of 2005-6 it looked like the infrastructure was ready for the first winter without blackouts in as long as anyone can remember. But then there was an explosion in southern Russia that destroyed a section of natural gas pipeline that fed into Georgia, so there were blackouts and homes without heat for weeks anyway. The explosion was mysterious and seemed clearly like an intentional sabotage in a region with lots of Islamic terrorism, and yet no group claimed responsibility.

So basically there was a mysterious act of terrorism that destroyed a crucial piece of Russia's energy infrastructure and cost Russia tens of millions of dollars in damage and lost revenue, as well as incalculable damage to their ability to assure other countries that they can rely on energy supply from Russia. which is a huge deal because without their incredible energy deposits and energy traffic fees, Russia would be a destitute nation.

One of the great foreign correspondents of the last generation, CJ Chivers, met with us when he was in town and told us that he had been hanging out in a mountain cabin with a bunch of FSB guys nearby in southern Russia when word came of this attack.

Consider how the FBI or CIA might respond to hearing about a successful terrorist attack on America's energy infrastructure. Chivers said that instead, their response was to laugh heartily at how much pain this was going to cause Georgia. (Georgia has plenty of its own sins, including oppression of ethnic minority minorities, but absolutely no one thinks they're any kind of threat to Russia.) In short, a big part of the ruling class of Russia -- Putin's FSB and kleptocrats -- is happy to watch their own country burn if it makes other people feel like you don't fuck with Russia. (The Moscow opera hostage blitz is a great encapsulation of this... the Russian response to terrorists taking Russians hostage is to just kill the hostages and then kill the terrorists, which does make a certain horrifying sense.)

It's no wonder that Trump is such a fan of Putin. Putin is exactly the kind of ruler Trump wishes he could be: one who has the military power and resource wealth to support casual braggadocio, so he can sort of do whatever and have it work out in his favor, who isn't afraid to blow up things within his own country or impoverish it if it means proving a point.

Now, back to the EU! I'm saying all this because one of the shocking things about these conferences I organized was seeing EU leader after EU leader lie in service to appeasing Russia. The energy conference I organized came just a few weeks after Russia shut down natural gas pipelines to pretty much all of Europe just to spite Ukraine.

You would think this would give a perfect opportunity for EU countries to say we need to demand that our energy supply not be subject to political whim; Russian energy supplies only accounted for something like 15% of EU usage, while that output was something like 50% of Russian energy output, so the EU had plenty of negotiating leverage, and it's not like lives were in danger if Russia got so mad it cut off more supply. But instead the EU people gave speeches that said things like "the supply of energy from Russia to the EU is the very model of a successful free market".

The only Europeans who would talk frankly about what was going on were the British contingent, whose main academic representative spoke in such forceful terms that it was a minor scandal. (I wish I could say the US presented a similarly clear voice, but unfortunately, the Bush administration sent a complete idiot with zero knowledge of energy policy or international relations, a Moonie who bought her way into what was obviously supposed to be a meaningless and cushy superficial role in foreign service, which insulted all the other countries who took this seriously, and is SO TYPICAL of the corrupt and stupid Bushies)

Europeans absolutely know Putin is a bully who wants to get away with his much as he can, but no individual country wants to risk standing up to him. But rather than the EU granting bargaining power that lets each country collectively stand up to Russia, it has served as a pass-the-buck bureaucratic apparatus unable to take steps for the long term that might risk disrupting the short-term status quo. It seemed to me (here i'm giving a pretty uninformed, vague opinion) like anyone in the EU bureaucracy who would push for any sort of ultimatum on Russia's policies would be seen internally as a disruptive wild card, the sort of person who belongs in America and not Europe.

If there was sense to the EU position, it was that Russia is so crazy that you cannot get it to back down by taking aggressive measures. My allies and I (everyone else more important than me!) argued instead that there had to be pushback, that Putin would take the lack of resistance as a signal that he could keep pushing, and that it was better to have the pushback earlier than later, when the stakes would be higher. Since then, Russia has invaded two other European countries, though thankfully both times the invasion was pretty restrained from how aggressive and violent it could've been. I think you can fairly analyze the EU approach as having failed, and the EU structure might be part of why it failed.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Proposing a plan for integration in NYC schools