Tablet computing

Tablets remove the meditative input devices from between us and our gadgets. That is to say we no longer have a keyboard and a mouse as such. This is a blessing and a curse: The most revolutionary text input solution we’ve come up with is to re-create the hardware keyboard as a software keyboard. This isn’t revolutionary or even revolutionary. This is backwards.

The soft keyboard is less useful than a hard keyboard. There’s a backwards step (and a large one) in usability there. And the only reason it exists is because no-one will think outside of that box. Certainly there must be a better way. One day when we’ve removed the entire computing experience from the realm of hardware (no keyboard, no mouse, and no screen as such) we’ll have to figure out something better than simply moving the keyboard to a new medium. Might as well start now.

Tablet computing is more approachable but less useful. At once more and less tactile. They are the cradle of computing. But perhaps one can not stay in the cradle forever.

Be open.

When I was a kid, my parents did their fair share of arguing in front of me. At least I remember it as arguing. They could have just been talking and my child-brain amplified it, as child-brains will do.

One thing they didn’t do often was go somewhere else and argue. “Not in front of kids!” and all that. I wasn’t very often in the dark that they were arguing. Or discussing. Or whatever.

This is probably a good thing. Because kids aren’t stupid. People aren’t stupid.

You go into the next room and do your arguing there, the kids know it. They may not know the content or the context, but they know what’s going on.

Now, I don’t argue with my wife a whole lot. We agree most of the time, and we’re wildly passive-aggressive the rest. But when we have kids, and when there’s something we need to discuss, I’m going to go ahead and discuss in front of the kids.

I don’t like the message that arguing somewhere else sends. I speak from a place of no experience, but still. If you have to go scream at each other in another room, you’re doing it wrong. You’re modelling a broken family dynamic. You’re teaching something about the way you think groups of people should function, and you’re teaching this to a bunch of little people who, frankly, don’t know their arse from a hole in the ground.

They will, of course. Eventually. Their peer groups will eventually take over teaching them things where you left off, and you’ll find that all your painstaking parenting really didn’t mean a whole lot. And they’ll probably come to look at you with contempt until they go ahead and repeat your mistakes.

But think about what this tells them about family, about friendship, about community, about church, about government. It’s okay to abuse each other, as long as you do it in private? Not a fantastic message.

Let your children see you disagree. Let them see you in your imperfections (they will anyways, so let them know that you know that they know). Let them see you try to inject grace into your dealings with other people. Especially family. Let them see you at least try to come to an agreement, or find a middle ground, or acquiesce without a lot of grumbling and hurt feelings.

This is truly impossible. I know it. I’ve been there. In front of our dogs, because we don’t have any children yet, but I’ve been in a place where Laura and I disagree and during the course of our disagreement it’s tempting to get angry, or withdraw, or do any of those horrific passive things humans do to each other. And I’ve done them.

I’m not perfect. (You already know that. I’m just saying. I know you know.)

One last thing before I end: Non-Christians aren’t stupid either. If you’re trying to give the impression that Christians never disagree (even on the smallest, least-essential things), you’re going to run out of whitewash really quickly. You may want to give some thought to how you’re trying to present your faith.

We’re not perfect. They know that. They’re so very aware of that, you wouldn’t believe it. And when you try to look like you are, they know that too.

A quick note on mobiles…

I’m a bit of an Android fan. I like the customization ability, the tweak-ness of it. I like that there it has its own “distros” like CyanogenMod (full disclosure, I run CM7 and love it). I’m (hopefully) not a typical Android user, though. I’m what they call a super-user, or an early adopter, or a technology maven. A one-man Lifehacker. Be that as it may.

The worst thing that ever happened to the personal computing market is Microsoft. Their monopoly (however it developed) changed the market, and Microsoft itself. It changed the market by inhibiting innovation (real innovation, not slapping a shiny new interface on an old hunk of crap) and preventing many potentially wonderful products from catching on. Microsoft’s monopoly made it into a giant bureaucracy that could only produce good, solid products by painstaking evolution (Microsoft Excel being one of these products) or by buying startups. Google is on its way to becoming this sort of lumbering giant as well.

Look, instead, at the console market. There are a bunch (and have almost always been a bunch) of competing consoles. And they’ve figured out how to gain the lead, to gain mindshare: rapid, disruptive innovation. Not just the generative, evolutionary advance of processing power and better graphics (boring!) but new game-play modes and methods (interesting!). The Wii and Kinect are examples of the latter. The PS3 is an example of the former. The Playstation team needs to (and hopefully knows it needs to) do something, anything wonderful and different to gain that mind-share back. Otherwise they’ll lose their place in the market. While everyone else is having fun making a fool of themselves with a motion-sensing controller or an infrared camera and some neat AI… PS3 owners can sit in the dark and shoot every-more-realistic zombies.

I don’t ever want Android to become like Windows. I don’t want it to have 90% market share. I want it to do well (after all, getting stuck in Apple’s gilded prison shouldn’t be something anyone wants), but not too well. I want Android to excel, but not dominate. There’s a place at the table for everyone. As there should be. Apple can have their shiny, crippled products for those who want such things. Android can have its tweak-able, customizable guts and interface. WebOS can have… whatever it has. And Windows Phone can pick up the scraps that fall off the table.

This way there’s competition. This way there’s innovation, disruptive change. This way there’s benefit for the customer, no matter whose customer you might be.

Choosing Your Views To Fit Your Biases

Tyler Cowen makes a good point about bias:

People who believe that ethics is objective and intuitive are often quite keen to make a lot of detailed pronouncements about the content of those ethics. The agnostics tend to be relativists or subjectivists. It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood. I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning. (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

I think this is fairly robust. But not just in economics or picking what you think is common sense, but also in things like Calvinism vs Arminianism, choosing between different types of eschatological viewpoints, adult or infant baptism, etc.

I wonder how often we choose our views based on our existing biases. Am I the type of person who is inclined to believe in free will? Excellent, Arminian I am. Am I the sort of person who likes an ordered universe with no loose ends? Calvinist all the way.

Mind you, I’m not saying that no-one comes by their views honestly. That very well may happen. What I’m saying is this: No one thinks they arrived at their views dishonestly, because everyone has this inherent mental bias that prevents them from seeing their own motivations.

After all, no one operates under the assumption that they’re wrong. Even if they say they do. They don’t. And no-one operates under the assumption that they stumbled lazily into their philosophy.

The problem with nuclear power…

It’s the lottery problem. There’s a huge payout in the lottery, so people buy tickets, hoping they’ll get a huge payout. Almost no-one gets a huge payout. The chances of winning a large amount of money is vanishingly close to zero. But people play anyway.

The human mind is far too tuned to all-or-nothing scenarios. Lotteries are a positive all-or-nothing, nuclear power is a negative all-or-nothing.

You won’t win the lottery. Statistically. You won’t. It’s almost impossible.

And you won’t die from a nuclear power plant. Statistically. It’s, again, almost impossible.

But the human brain is silly. We buy lottery tickets, and we fear nuclear fallout. In Japan right now, 20,000 or so people have died from a very, very nasty earthquake and tsunami. That’s a lot of people! But a large chunk of the media attention has been devoted to the nuclear situation.

Consider this: If there had been an earthquake and tsunami and there had been no nuclear power plants in the vicinity, the same number of people would have died.

There’s your brain making you stupid. You pay attention to the all-or-nothing threat, while ignoring the (much more real) constant threat.

If the media was really concerned about people dying, they’d be recommending moving everyone on the Pacific rim to, say, France. Living on the Japanese island is foolhardy in the long term. The city of Tokyo is simply waiting (placidly) to die.

Nuclear power, on the other hand, is safe. It’s the safest kind of power. Period.

Your brain, on the other hand…

Yes. I want an election.

The media (pardon the pejorative) has been going into “Wah! No-one wants an election! It’s expensive! Wah!” mode lately. Sometimes I (unfortunately) listen to 680 News in Toronto, or read the Toronto Sun (mostly to see if they can continue their record streak of taking truly horrific photographs of truly undesirable women in bikinis). This is their dominant theme right now. Which, I mean, I understand. They’re both right-leaning hack-or-faux-journalism outlets, and if an election takes the focus away from talking (ad nauseam, for years on end) about how the Toronto Maple Leafs/Toronto Raptors/Toronto Football Club suck at their respective sports, or what reality television show cast member has been ousted (for being a giant douche-bag) or which reality show cast member has “won” (by being a giant douche-bag), or which hare-brained scheme out local gas-bag politician, Giorgio Mammoliti, wants to use to make some quick cash for the city… well, anything else is bad for business.

Okay, so the above paragraph is just a little P. J. O’Rourke impression. Pretty unbearable, right? But, seriously folks:

I want an election. I really do. I get to voice my opinion on the state of the country, have my voice heard, and cast my ballot. This doesn’t happen often. In fact in this country I very rarely get to be involved in the political apparatus. In an election, I can. And I will.

Canada has one of the most fair and one of the cheapest elections in the world. Did you know that? It costs roughly $8.50 per person per Federal election. That’s less than the price of a (cheap) movie ticket. That’s the price you pay for our kind of democracy. And the media would have you believe that’s too high a price to pay.

It’s really, really not.

This year I’m going to be reading the positions papers of all the parties. I’m leaning toward voting NDP. As far as I can tell the Conservatives (not the Progressive Conservatives of years past, but a new name on the Reform party, the most wretched of far right-wing, reactionary, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-union, pro-gun, Leave It To Beaver trips back to the Fifties (ten points if you get the reference)) are in the pocket of business, of at least consider “the economy” as a whole more important than individuals as people who need to be able to afford to live. The Liberals are something, but no-one is quite sure what that thing is; they had a pretty good run under Jean Cretien, who was a decent leader, but they seem rudderless at the moment. The Bloq doesn’t have an candidates in my riding, so I can’t vote for them (though if there were an Ontario party looking to excise my province from the rest of the country, or at least expel Alberta from the Confederation, I’d vote for that). The NDP though, despite it’s union roots, seems focused on the plight of the everyman, which is a good thing. Plus they’re the only party to have a decent tech platform. And they’re not beholden to the titans of industry. And Jack Layton seems like pretty upstanding and principled guy.

That said, I’m going to figure out who I’m voting for, and then vote. I’ll add my voice to the pack. I’ll be happy to do it. An election every 2 years is a small price to pay for the democracy we all seem to take for granted. Imagine the people of Egypt looking down on you when you complain about the cost. At least you didn’t have to have a revolution.

Counter-Culture

I’m almost glad I wasn’t alive in the 60s. I mean, it was an exciting time, full of promise and change, but also a fairly confusing time. It’s nice to have 50 years or so in between myself and those years, if only to sit down and take a good look at what happened.

There was a lot of stuff going on then. A lot. Too much to examine at one time, I think. There’s an entire sea change that took place, apparently overnight. And for better or worse, we live in the shadow of the 60s even today.

What interests me more than anything else about the 60s is how the culture shifted. Or more to the point, how a counter-culture developed (for good reasons; the culture of the 20s-50s was pretty corrupt under its gloss of flag and family), and then how the counter-culture became the culture.

At some point, the rebels won. No-one realised it at the time, but they won.

But at the same time, they lost. Perhaps the rebels and hippies and whatever else managed to inject a bit of their ethic into society at large, but what they got back was more than they could bargain for. I should mention that at no time do I think the culture co-opted the counter-culture. No, I think they are one and the same. Or at least at some point they became one and the same.

It helps to imagine the counter-culture as a consumer class. Because above all else, they defined themselves by what they wore and what they bought. There’s a reason the VW van took off (hopefully not too literally, not too often). They appealed to the counter-culture.

And when the counter-culture bought it, those symbols became the currency of the new economy. Instead of standing apart from the culture, the counter-culture bought a bunch of stuff, created their own culture, and when you do that, people try to sell you things.

So began the cycle of “rebellious” fashions. Why sell a man three suits, a bunch of shirts, and some under-shirts that will last him years and maybe decades, when you can find the next big thing next year and have him cycle his clothes regularly?

Even better than that, have him believe that he’s going against the Man by wearing stuff his parents or his parents parents wouldn’t approve of. Who cares, as long as you sell him something.

This puts the lie to counter-culture right there. Every movement begins as an underground thing, moves mainstream, and then falls out of fashion. This isn’t because the lean, mean capitalist machine is co-opting all the good stuff (most companies couldn’t make something cool if they tried), but because the counter-culture is (as the culture was) inherently capitalistic. It defines itself with things, with fashion, with hair, with jewellery, with music, with anything that can give you some sort of cache, some sort of cool.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the most rebellious thing you can do in today’s society is opt out of that. Opt out of the cycle of cool. Opt out of the business of status symbols. Opt out of keeping up with the Joneses, but also opt out of the cutting edge.

Materialism comes in all kinds of forms. For me, it used to be chasing cool. Comparative cool, I’d hasten to add, but cool nonetheless. Now I think it might be the desire to be at the forefront of technological churn (as of me writing this, I very much want an iPad 2; someone slap me please). For you it might be something else.

The real insight in all of this is to stop defining ourselves with things. Or, at least, with things you can buy. If you’re looking for a thing to define yourself with, try an empty cross. Try an empty tomb. No-one’s ever going to try to get you to opt out of love. No-one’s going to try to get you to opt out selflessness. Chase qualities. Or, if you want to say it the way Jesus would have said it, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. There is, after all, no property crime in heaven. The kingdom doesn’t rust. And the kingdom is now.

There’s that.

30 Things We Need / 30 Things We Don’t

I don’t usually like lists, but here’s one I can get behind:

WE NEED LESS / WE NEED MORE
Information / Wisdom (It’s better to understand than to know)
Shallow billionaires / Passionate teachers
Self-promotion / Self-awareness
Multitasking / Control of our attention (Can’t do two things at one; no-one can)
Inequality / Fairness (Income springs to mind)
Sugar / Lean protein (yes!)
Action / Reflection
Super sizes / Smaller portions (I need a smaller coffee cup)
Private jets / High-speed trains (Ontario especially suffers from a lack of transit)
Calculation / Passion (in the movies especially)
Experts / Learners (experts make problems worse)
Blaming / Taking responsibility
Judgment / Discernment (Judging is easy; discernment is hard)
Texting / Reading (Or long-form writing)
Anger / Empathy (Politics especially floats on a shallow sea of outrage; it’s so tiring)
Output / Depth (Don’t pay writers by the word!)
Constructive criticism / Thank-you notes
Possessions / Meaning (Memories and good friends don’t clutter up your house)
Righteousness / Doing the right thing
Answers / Curiosity (Yes! Don’t settle for the answer you get: Dig deeper)
Long hours / Longer sleep (This morning says yes)
Complaining / Gratitude (This is hard to do)
Sitting / Moving (Everything is built around sitting; moving a lot is difficult)
Selling / Authenticity (Although seeking authenticity is the opposite of authenticity)
Cynicism / Realistic optimism
Self-indulgence / Self-control (Ouch. This one’s for me. And banksters)
Speed / Renewal
Emails / Conversations (I remember the last really good conversation I had. It was with a stranger. I don’t really converse with my “friends” who on second though don’t really seem like friends at all)
Winning / Win-win
Immediate gratification / Sacrifice (This is starting to look like the New Testament in bullet points here)

Detroit

In The Case Against Economic Disaster Porn Noreen Malone takes issue with photos of crumbling Detroit. They’re presenting the city as static, something that can’t be saved. (Read the article for yourself; it has that snivelling snark only TNR can really pull off.)

The question is, of course, why bother? The market has spoken. Why try to save Detroit? What great value does The Rusty City have that we all need to band together to resuscitate its mouldy corpse?

The people living in Detroit will eventually move away until it finds its equilibrium. It might not be a pretty place at the end of the day, or a prosperous one, but it will exist to remind us that not everyone can be prosperous forever.

When Genius Failed

I don’t claim to be a financial wizard, or even understand most of what goes on in the financial world. But it seems to me, after bombing through the book “When Genius Failed”, that LTCM’s failure wasn’t due to the arrogance of its partners, or the hubris of the professors. It was due (like, if would seem, every other big crash) to faulty assumptions and ridiculous amounts of leverage.

It doesn’t seem to me that LTCM would have survived if they’d kept to their core competencies. The book seems to suggest that their many positions outside of bond arbitrage did the fund in. But at the same time, at the end, the bond market was behaving badly too. Maybe if they’d sat on some of their capital and waited for volatility in the bond market to make money off spreads, maybe then. No matter.

The faulty assumption that underlies every forecast, every prognostication, every simulation, and every model, is that what happened yesterday is what will happen today. Or that what happened on average over the period we’ve chose to model will on average happen today.

Which of course is mostly true most of the time. Except when it’s not, and then you lose your shirt.

The market isn’t like a physical system. There are limits on a physical system. The limits create a log-normal distribution. This isn’t true in markets. At all. Supposedly one-time, “unforeseeable” events happen with alarming (and seemingly increasing) frequency.

When you’re massively leveraged and something goes wrong, you can’t hold your position and wait out the market. You can’t even take advantage of new opportunities. You have to liquidate, and fast. You have a lot of people who want their money back.

So you have a “liquidity crisis”, where everyone wants to sell, no-one wants to buy, and so prices crash. They crash harder and fall further with increased leverage.

The book seems horribly prescient. Reading a book written in the year 2000 that seems so applicable to our current economic downturn is revealing: The same thing that happened to LTCM seems to have happened to the entire system of mortgage-backed securities.

The big, unforeseeable event happened: the housing bubble popped. The banks started to fall one after another. The Fed tried to prop them up with TARP but then finally did the only thing left to do: it bought all the securities no-one else would buy. Which is course how you solve a massive liquidity crisis.

The solution to all of this, I think, is pretty obvious. The financial instruments themselves may be exotic, but the basic problems aren’t. Financial innovation is fine, but unchecked, unregulated, and massively leveraged innovation is not.

We can’t regulate people’s assumptions. (Imagine, for instance, if interest rates were to climb, even a little; it would be completely catastrophic, world-wide.) But we can help smooth over the bumps by reducing our exposure. Reducing leverage and increasing margin to sensible levels would help. The market seems bent on teaching us again and again that regulation is the only way to do that.