Thursday, 26 April 2012

Korea

A former colleague of mine from IBM is now a senior executive at Samsung and offered to have them sponsor me in a visit to Korea, to talk about mobile Web browsers and Tizen. I thought it would be interesting, and it was.

The main part of my time there was Monday, when I spent nearly all day giving presentations of my thoughts on various aspects of Mozilla's mission and work:

Samsung's campus in Suwon is quite fabulous and their people were very good to me.

However, the most interesting part of my trip was Tuesday. I got up before 6am and made my way to Seoul to pick up a tour of the North Korean border area. This tour stopped at Imjingak park first, then Infiltration Tunnel #3. This is a tunnel North Korea dug under the border, later revealed by a defector --- one of four found so far, but up to twenty are speculated to exist. It's made for short, non-claustrophobic people. Walking 500m hunched over is no fun, but the place is amazing.

After the tunnel we visited Dorasan Station, just outside the DMZ. It's a very impressive and almost entirely symbolic train station --- there's nothing around it, it symbolizes the desire to keep the train line running north into a unified Korea. A passionate desire for unification among many South Koreans was evident. Our tour guides spoke forcefully about Korea's troubled history in the 20th century and their desire to see a unified and independent Korea reemerge. (Our first guide was quite frank about the atrocities of the Japanese colonial period, which was a bit awkward since there were a lot of Japanese tourists on our bus.)

They had a North Korean refugee with the tour to talk first-hand about the horrors of life in the North. I've read some of the stories of refugees and defectors, and those stories make me sad and angry, but actually meeting a refugee was mostly humbling. This was a middle-aged woman who'd escaped across a frozen river on the Chinese border in the middle of winter, and then for two years worked her way to South Korea through China, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, on the run from the authorities the whole time --- just a few years ago.

The best part of the tour was the Joint Security Area. That's the village right on the border where soldiers of both sides are stationed and where officials meet. There have been all kinds of crazy incidents there (check Wikipedia), and I find it incredible that they allow lots of tourists to visit it. You can stand close to the border and take pictures of the soldiers and buildings on the other side (but not the south side!). You can go right into the building where officials meet, where the border runs right through the table in the middle of the room, and even walk around the table to the North Korean side. (The North Koreans and South Koreans have a sort of protocol for taking exclusive access to the building for their tour groups.) While we were in there, there was a group of North Korean soldiers right outside the building windows, inexplicably taking photos of each other posing in front of the border. Towards the end some of them took photos of our group through the window, no more than an arm's length away.

There are all kinds of interesting facts associated with the DMZ and JSA, too many to go into here. I'll mention that the South Korean guards stationed at the JSA border are the best of the best --- must have a black belt in taekwondo or judo, university education, speak a foreign language, sufficiently handsome, sufficiently tall, parents not divorced, etc. While tour groups are present, they stand completely motionless and silent in carefully designed poses. Wearing dark sunglasses, in immaculate uniforms, they all look identical. Some people had their photos taken standing next to the guards in the meeting room (but not too close, we were repeatedly warned). It's surreal.

In fact the whole scene is surreal. I find it a little disturbing that the elite soldiers of perhaps the world's most repressive regime, and the contested border they guard, have been turned into a tourist attraction. I suppose we should hope it stays that way. At various points I prayed that before too long the border will be a relic, as is the Berlin Wall.

I got back to Seoul around a quarter past five, and learned something else about South Koreans: they work hard. Samsung had sent a car to take me back to their Suwon campus for a few more hours of meetings. It didn't bother me, since I wasn't going home to my family that night anyway, but a fair number of people were still working by 9pm, and I was told that most of them had arrived early that day. Impressive work ethic, and I suppose it's a partial explanation for South Korea's remarkable rise, but I think a bit unbalanced for healthy family life.

I really enjoyed my short visit. I found the country fascinating, and the people were very friendly and polite. I was surprised by the amount of English signage; even a little snack shop in Seoul had English I could point to to order. All the food was excellent --- now I finally have some idea of what real Korean food is like :-). I have to say though, that living there would not be attractive to me; the landscape is too relentlessly urban, and I cherish my New Zealand lifestyle.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Internet Experiment Has Failed

I'm worried about the Internet. Not about the usual Mozilla stuff, although there's a lot of challenges there too. I'm worried that the Internet, the way we use it, is bad for people; bad for individuals, and bad for society.

One reason is security. We do not have the technology to build systems with strong behavioral guarantees; there are always bugs, and always exploitable bugs. The contest between attack and defense is vastly asymmetric; defenders must get everything right, attackers only need to find a few mistakes. Yet we keep bringing more of our world online. Even keeping systems away from the Internet becomes infeasible as mobile Internet-connected devices become increasingly pervasive.

Another reason is our brains. It seems obvious to me that the Internet is a lousy medium for human interaction (beyond people you already know well). There are lots of negative effects at work, and better-informed people than I have much to say about them. "Filter bubbles" are one concern. The accessibility of support groups for every kind of dysfunction (e.g. pro-anorexia or racist groups) is another. My biggest worry is the lack of empathy we experience when interacting with others online. The online comments of almost any major public Web site are toxic, especially on controversies. I've behaved badly online in ways that I never would have in "real life". In the incoming direction, the core Mozilla community is great, but random abuse and conflict from the Internet takes its toll. There's a lot more to be said about what's going wrong, but suffice it to say I'm an optimist about different kinds of people being able to get along in real life; I'm a decided pessimist about them getting along online.

(Even while I'm writing this, Christian Heilmann has posted about problems on Twitter.)

Let's not even talk about privacy and oppressive actors.

I'm fed up with techno-optimists who claim the march of progress is inevitably beneficial and we're just having some teething problems. Techno-optimists had big dreams for the Internet; that it would bring people together (see people yell at each other on Twitter), that bad information would be cured by more good information (see filter bubbles), that all knowledge would be universally available (OK, they got something right; thanks for Wikipedia). Not good enough.

So what should we do? For security, we need to increase the distance between important systems and the Internet. We need to steer towards technologies with provable properties (and somehow escape our dependence on C/C++ code). But that's weak sauce and I don't see our way clear. Human factors will let us down and there are hard limits on technology.

The human interaction problem is even tougher. Maybe we can find technical solutions to reengaging empathy. Providing voice and video interaction everywhere might help; WebRTC could save the world! (Probably not, but we'll try.) Individuals can opt to reduce their online presence and refocus on offline relationships. To some extent that's what I try to do, and in a low-key way I'm discouraging my kids from being online and engaged with computers (mainly by giving them more interesting alternatives).

What about the mass of humanity? Do we just keep accelerating and hope everything works out? Do we form a neo-Luddite action group and sabotage the Internet? Do we figure out some alternative approaches to using the Internet that limit the damage? I wish I knew.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Retrospective On Our Trip To Europe

When I'm traveling I try to avoid spending too much time moving from place to place. I want to spend enough time in each place I visit to get a feel for it. My goal for this trip was to get a bit of a feel for London, Paris, and rural villages in England and France. In England we chose Willersey in the Cotswolds, and in France we chose Lutzelbourg in Alsace (well, technically Lorraine).

It all went very well. We had only a few days of rain in more than three weeks, pretty good considering it was winter. It was good to alternate city with rural, because the days in the cities were hectic. In London I visited Imperial College for the ECOOP PC meeting, the Mozilla office, friends in Highgate, the Museum Of London, St Paul's, Westminster Abbey, the Monument, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Eye, and a lot more. In Paris, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Mozilla office, and the Arc de Triomphe. In the Cotswolds we explored Oxford and took a day trip to Warwick Castle, and otherwise rambled around the countryside, visiting the villages for Broadway, Snowshill, Stanton, Saintbury and thereabouts. From Lutzelbourg we walked to Pharlsbourg and Saverne, and took a train trip to Strasbourg.

Like most of our holidays there was a lot of walking and eating, hopefully waistline-neutral. We tried to eat local, of course, although it's not clear what that means in London. Food at inns in the Cotswolds was very good. We had a particularly memorable lunch at the Mount Inn in Stanton, in the middle of a long loop walk from Snowshill past Buckland and back; we were a bit tired and grumpy and the lunch cured everything. The Alsatian food was quite Germanic, unsurprisingly, and enormous.

It was the first time I have encountered really old cathedrals. I recalled the passage in The Mythical Man-Month where Fred Brooks points out the incredible self-discipline and humility required for a hundred-year building project; what it takes for generations of artisans to submit to the vision of an architect long gone. Those qualities are inspiring.

We attended an evensong service at St Paul's. It was a nice touch that they had separate seating for tourists and worshipers.

We attended an Anglican service at the parish church in Willersey. It's a great old church, dating back over eight hundred years. The congregation was mostly ancient too, and the sermon I felt was weak, but the people were most welcoming. We went to a French Catholic service in Lutzelbourg, which had much better demographics and was very lively. I couldn't understand a word of it but my translator said the sermon was informed and Biblical. Oddly though, when the service was over everyone left immediately with no fellowship.

Even where the people of God aren't doing well, I find it invigorating to see what he's done and is doing in different places and throughout history. Sometimes when I travel I'm lazy and don't bother going to the local churches on Sundays; that's a big mistake.

A great thing about Lutzelbourg and the Saverne area is the number of ruined castles. We explored the Ch√Ęteau de Lutzelbourg just a short walk from the village, and Greifenstein near the road and canal to Saverne. Greifenstein has been abandoned for over five hundred years and looks exactly like I imagined a ruined castle should.

I'd certainly like to spend more time in Europe, but it also made me appreciate what we have here in Auckland, and it's good to be back.