Reputation

Our society in America is broken. You can see this everywhere in any number of ways, but one of the most obvious ones is in the area of Politics. Our government is formed on the idea of representational democracy where we the people elect congresspeople to discuss and enact laws that (for the most part) reflect what we Americans want. As we all know this isn’t happening. I can point to many examples and I’m sure you can as well.

The overall idea is that in this nation of free people with free speech, we the people can achieve almost anything. But in practice, that’s not working out very well. I frequently point to the fact that money has corrupted government but at a more fundamental level, the real issue is that we the people are not exercising our free speech. We are not communicating well at all. Large media and tech companies are stifling our ability to organize and communicate and effect change.

Please take a few moments to read this article in Wired Magazine titled “It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech” by Zeynep Tufekci. The central argument here is that Facebook, Twitter, etc. with their super algorithmic feeds do a disservice to gathering attention and consensus. I believe that It’s actually even harder now for people to discuss things then it was 15-20 years ago.

This is a solvable problem. Its my view that we simply need to make a tool that will enable and foster quality conversation and debate in our society. I alluded to this in my last post when I talked about “Conversation Rank”. It’s an idea that has stuck with me for many years and one I can’t shake.

I haven’t started building this yet, but I plan to very soon. I don’t claim to have it all figured out. My hope is that it will grow and crystalize as I make more and more progress. And I also hope that others will help me by commenting or contributing effort to building it with me.

Here are some general ideas (note that I’ve changed the name of the CR to “Reputation Level”)

Reputation Level

  • Your reputation level is everything
  • You can tie one reputation to one email address. I’m not sure how to make it so that one person is forever tied to one RL but it’s something I plan to build out more.
  • Levels are incrementally harder to achieve.. Each should be one order of magnitude harder than the last
  • You can go up and down in reputation
  • People with higher reputations carry more weight when determining ‘quality’ of posts
  • Any user can set their ‘read level’ to whatever they would like and the site will filter out all content by people of levels below that ‘read level’ thus the site won’t become cluttered with crap for users who care about serious things

Posts

  • Posts are collected in topics (like sub-reddits) which are created by users. Every topic has a ‘write level’ and the topic creator (who becomes the topic ‘owner’) can decide the minimum write level. It can’t be higher than his/her reputation level. Not sure if this level should be allowed to change
  • Posts can contain any content (scripts, binary data, text, etc)
  • Posts can be upvoted/downvoted by all users with reputation weighting the power of their votes

Gaining Reputation

  • People can upvote/downvote any post (like reddit). Their weighted votes have an effect on your reputation
  • We publicize how we compute reputation so people can hopefully act the way we want them to
  • One shouldn’t be able to gain a lot of reputation from just one super popular post. We need to make a formula that takes into account the quality of all of their posts.

Conversation

I used to blog a lot. The reason was simple. I felt I had something important to say and blogging seemed a good way to get it out ‘into the world’. Writing my thoughts and sharing them publicly was a way to get them out of my head, but more importantly I did it because I wanted my words to start conversations. I had hoped that my friends would comment and share my posts to their friends and maybe they would comment and we’d start a conversation of some kind about the topic. I had hoped that maybe I could spark some change in the world. That rarely happened in any meaningful way.

So I thought, let me give up on the blog post and then post things on Facebook and maybe in that small format we could do the same thing. There I had a little more traction and once and a while a conversation in the comments would start and I would think : “Oh, I’ve gotten people to think about things a little bit, maybe they will extend that out to their friends and family”. But again, I never saw the success I’d wanted to see.

And it wasn’t about me at all. I didn’t want any credit for anything. I just want to make the world a better place and so getting a conversation started seemed good enough. I truly believe that all of the problems we face today as a society (nationally and globally) stem from the fact that people simply don’t spend the time and effort to try and truly communicate with each other. It’s ironic, but this wonderful tool called the internet has effectively destroyed conversations. The reasons are myriad: Comments are ruined by trolls, we have too many places to discuss things and none of them keep your identity from one place to another, we have language barriers, we as humans have bias against those who are in different groups than we are, etc.

I’ve written about this before somewhere. Sadly, I can’t find it now. But an idea I had was for the nation (and maybe the whole world) to take time to discuss topics. My original thought was for us to have a national topic of discussion every month and have the media and the schools promote discussions around the topic. I still like the idea but I want to see it work on the internet as well. So I’m going to start building a software service/platform called Conversation where everything is about your Conversation Rank. This is a number that will stay with you all the time and one that is constantly being updated based on the quality of your comments. It will be optionally anonymous but you will only be allowed to have one account/identity with my service. The thought is that you have it for life and you spend time commenting and talking on the internet and others will help determine if your rank goes up or not. Some of the most important and influential discussions will maybe be limited to only high ranking identities, while comments about cat videos are open to everyone, etc. There is nothing like this, but there should be. I think it will spawn apps and discussions on social platforms that are meaningful, that are valuable. Maybe we can make the world a better place after all!

Fixing our Voting System : part 1

Whether you were happy with the results of the election or most likely you weren’t (like most of the people who may read this) one thing I think we all can agree on is that the way we vote in America is terrible. And this, this is one of the few ways as citizens that we get to participate in our government. I mean, of course, if we don’t like how things are going, we have the ability to vote out the people who are governing. Right?

But how fair is our current system of representation? How easy is it for us to vote? How fair is the math involved in counting our votes? Hopefully I can show that the answer to all of those questions is : not at all. And hopefully I can motivate you to do something about making change in our system of voting.

Let me get an easy one out of the way right off the bat. It is hard for most Americans to vote. We have to Elections are held on work days. Elections are held during (mostly) working hours. We have to register to vote which in some states only happens at an office that is also open during working hours. Registration deadlines vary by state. Sometimes you need to get registered 90 or more days before election day. Once we are registered and finally get time to to the polling place to actually vote we find huge lines awaiting us.

None of this needs to happen this way. There should be little or no hurdles to voting. We should be registered automatically when we turn 18. The state knows who we are when tax time rolls around so they should know who we are when we vote. For national elections we should have a federal holiday. Why don’t we?

And now for something that I spent a lot of time studying and talking about voting systems. If you do any amount of research in this area you soon learn that everybody who studies voting agrees on one thing : Plurality Voting (our current system) Is The Least Fair System We Could Choose to Use. And I know you’re going to get bored fast so I will try to explain this simply. If a group of people have to choose someone from another group of people (more than 3) there are many ways they can do it. Currently we give each person (each _elector_) a vote for one of the candidates and the person who has the most votes is the winner.

At first this seems fair and in the field of voting theory there are many ways to define and measure “fairness” but I’m not going to go into them here. But at first, this seems a fair method because clearly the candidate with the most votes is the one the group prefers. But do they? A simple example would prove this wrong right away:

In this election there are 3 candidates: A, B and C. (You can substitute in whoever you’d like for those letters). A is hated by most of the electorate, B and C are universally liked by the group that hates A. If I can show you a case where A wins would you be convinced that plurality is bad? Ok. Here you go:

Election Results: A gets 100 votes, B gets 99 votes, C gets 99 votes.
Out of the 298 voters this means: A gets 34%, B and C each get 33%

Candidate A is the winner even though they did not gain a majority of the votes. Is that result fair? Is it acceptable to you if you are a B or C voter? Of course not. But variations of this effect occur all the time. Look at any primary that Donald Trump won in the very beginning of his campaign. As an example look at South Carolina

Election Results: Trump 32.5%, Cruz 22.3%, Rubio 22.5%, Bush 7.8%, Kasich 7.6%, Carson 7.2%

Could you tell me that all of the supporters of Cruz, Rubio, Bush, et. al would have preferred Donald Trump to be their nominee? What if they knew the eventual outcome of the presidential election? Would the Bush, Kasich and Carson voters have banded together with some of the Rubio voters to defeat Mr. Trump?

In what world can we say that someone who gets ⅓ of the vote should be the winner of an election? But we do it all the time. Shouldn’t elections strive to reflect the wishes of the voters?

There is a number of ways to run elections that are more fair and more accurately reflect the will of the people. One is Ranked Choice where you list who you prefer to win in order of preference. This is often combined with Instant Runoff where the votes are counted in successive rounds. Another is called Borda Count where you assign points to various candidates. There are countless systems that mathematicians consider to be more fair but my preference is one that is simple, fair and easy to implement with our current voting machines.

It’s called Approval Voting and it’s so perfect that a number of scientific and math societies use it to elect their leadership. Here is how it works : When you go to vote, you vote for _all_ of the candidates you ‘approve’ of and the candidate with the most votes wins. How amazing is that?

Let’s apply it to my hypothetical ABC election above. I said there was a large number of B and C voters that hated A and were equal in their like of B and C so they would vote for B _and_ C so the totals could be something like this:

Election Results: A gets 100 votes, B gets 198 votes, C gets 198 votes.
Out of 298 votes: A gets 34%, B and C get 66%

Of course this is not considering that some of the A voters would maybe approve of B or C and some of the B and C voters may have just voted for B or C alone. But what you see here is that A wouldn’t win and B or C would. Most importantly B or C would also have a majority of the votes in the election! This would mean that the candidate elected would more likely be the will of most of the electors! Wouldn’t this be an amazing system?

Having a system like this would also minimize the effects of strategic voting and reduce our chances of voting for ‘The lesser of two evils’. Imagine if we used this in just the 2000 presidential election: The ‘Nader effect’ would not have mattered and Al Gore would have won. Imagine we used this in our primaries. If we did and we had these huge fields of candidates we would more accurately see who the people would be happy with instead of seeing who can just convince 20-40% of them.

These changes I’m proposing make great sense so why don’t we have them now? I would say that there are a lot of reasons but the main one is that the two dominant political parties don’t want them. They right now control everything. The Democratic and Republican parties (which are not government institutions but private entities) enjoy enormous power in keeping things as they are. They can dominate the message, they can consolidate the power and they effectively make elections feel like we the people have a say when in fact we don’t.

Letting more poor and working people vote, and making election day a holiday would add more control of the system to more of the people the system is aligned against. Changing the voting counts would allow other parties and other candidates a chance to be counted which would dilute the power the D and R’s have over the system.

But we can pressure for change here. We as citizens can and should study up and learn that there are other ways to elect our leaders. We can and should advocate for a system that puts the control over who is elected back into our hands. It is our moral imperative.

All of the things I’m talking about start on the local level. You need to go visit the office of State Senator and go visit the office of your State Representative. You need to talk to them and find out how you can physically help make these changes happen. You need to talk to your friends and convince them of the changes I’m proposing here.

What is happening is that we as a people are being distracted by these huge important issues that we have little direct control over. This is by design. Please understand that making change starts with this simple, wonky boring changes. We need to get control over our government.

There is a lot more I want to say about our electoral system and I will be talking about gerrymandering, primaries and the Electoral College in later posts so please stay tuned.

Ad-Tracking is fine, but I want to pay to not have it

It’s no secret that we are being tracked by our phones and that people

have a sick amount of data on our whereabouts and our habits and everything else we like to keep private in our lives. Interestingly, it’s not just the govt. tracking us. We all know (and for some reason are ok with) that companies are doing the same thing.

I read this article about ad tracking and, frankly its kind of scary to me. I mean, I totally knew this was possible and I frequently say that I am happy to trade some privacy for some convenience but the amount of power these companies and techniques have is out of control.

Personally I feel that the FTC needs to step in and start trying to limit some of this but where would they even begin.

I know what you’re saying : If you don’t like it than don’t use your phone, get rid of all the apps.

But that’s kind of dumb isn’t it? There is so many cool apps and so much cool functionality that I get from using my phone. What can I do though? It seems that in this world I have no other option but to give myself in to the ad tracking.

There is another option and I wish that I could do it. Paid apps. For games we seem to have this cool economy where you can play for free (and submit to ads and tracking, etc) or you can spend some amount of money to get the app ad-free. Why is this not an option for the apps I use as well? Why is this not an option for my phones location services and how they are sent over the browser that’s built in?

I would totally pay for un-tracked and un-ad supported versions of Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and Uber and my browser. I would gladly pay extra for amazon not to share my  purchases and for google not to share my data.

Yes I know it’s anonymous but the way it’s done they know everything about me but my name. They know that person X123 bought all this stuff and went all these places and did all these things. How hard would it be for someone like the govt. or some interested party to have the company that has the super profile of X123 to add a name to that profile?

Let me pay for my apps. I’m tired of this ‘free’ technology economy we have. You should be as well! I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Am I?

The Next Big Idea : a data clearinghouse

(note : I touched on this idea a few years ago, nothing has really changed since then)

Idea : A data clearinghouse with public/open APIs. This would be the bridge between people like you and me and our ‘home’ data warehousing needs and the public at large.

Example 1: Billers, Banks, anyone who may send you a statement or bill : Instead of paper bills mailed to your home, they could use the standard API on the ‘outside’ of the clearinghouse to send you data about your bank account transactions, credit card bills, etc. On your side you can choose what to do with that data : feed it into your home version of quicken, file it away as a PDF in dropbox, do nothing, etc.

Example 2: Electronic Media you may buy (books, music, movies) can be delivered in a standard way through the clearinghouse to the storage back end of your choice : dropbox, your home NAS, itunes, etc. No more worrying about where your music is and what device can play it. All media players can support the standard API and they are in. Presto.

Example 3: Sharing data with friends and families : you choose the sharing rules, access, etc with your own API scheme and they do the same on their end but the public side of the clearinghouse uses a standard API to transfer the data and meta data.

The possibilities are endless and anyone could start this project and have it turn into something huge. If someone wants to start a company with me I’m in.

Some App Ideas

Feel Free to make these.. I am just an idea man.

Thought #1) In my favorite car service app (Uber) one of the best features is that when you order a car, it shows you a map and the car on the map as it weaves its way through the city to your location. There’s even an ETA.

Now, imagine that you had a similar app but for you and whoever else wants to know where you are. Lets call it : AlmostThere. You have a party or a dinner and your friends all link into the location and you get this map of all of them as they are heading to you. No longer do you wonder “where is Dave?”, “should we order? or wait?”, etc.

Thought #2) How many times did you want to show someone a photo from your phone but you are worried they may see something else on your phone or another photo in your gallery that you don’t want them to? There should be an app where you can set up a temporary viewing port on your friends phone and you can choose photos/videos to show them by just checking on them on your phone.

Thought #3) This one is pretty huge and it’s more an idea/vision than an app. So lets go back to Uber and think about how UberX works. UberX allows almost anyone with a car to be a taxi driver but on their own schedule. You sign up with Uber and they verify that your car is acceptable and that you have insurance, etc. and then whenever you want to work (say you have an evening or a free hour) you just sign in and it determines your location and assigns you a nearby fare to take somewhere. You drive the person and drop them off and Uber credits you some amount to your account and you either sign off or take another fare. It’s kind of a new way to think about labor. From your perspective you work when you want to work. From Ubers, they have a pool of people available that they manage. It’s up to them to incentivize drivers to log in and work (by varying fare prices, etc).

Now imagine that model extended out somewhat. Imagine the number of unskilled jobs that could be distributed in this way : delivery services (groceries, packages, pizza), simple clerical tasks, ticket takers at events, messenger jobs, farm laborer jobs, etc. Imagine that there is an app or an ecosystem of somekind where jobs are super temporary and the labor pool is flexible.

Lets take pizza delivery for example. There are 100 or so pizza places in Philadelphia. Maybe even more. All of them have at least one driver on staff and they have to manage that resource : what are their hours? taxes, insurance, etc. What if all the pizza shops were offered an uber like app where they just press a button and a driver shows up to deliver an order for them and they pay some variable fee for that service. The app can up the delivery charge for heavy volume days and lower the charge for slow days, etc. All the labor overhead is managed by the app (who gets to do it in aggregate).

This will happen, and it will happen sooner than we think.

How To Fix The Highways

There is nothing more bothersome to me than people driving in the wrong lane on the highway. In my mind there is one Driving Lane (on the far right) where you drive the speed limit or perhaps you drive more than the speed limit if there is no-one in front of you and you feel like going faster (no comment on what the speed limit (if any) should be). To the left of the Driving Lane we have one or more Passing Lanes which should be used to pass cars that are in front of you in the Driving Lane. An argument can be made that on roads with more than 2 lanes, there is a hybrid of Pass/Drive lanes in the middle of the far right and left lanes in which you may drive in when there is a lot of traffic and you pass when a car is in front of you but that’s for another post or perhaps in some comments somewhere.

Problems occur when we are merging onto a highway (usually into the right lane) or off of a highway (again usually out of the right lane).

I have a better way of doing things that at first seems rather odd so give it some time to sink in. We change the highways in a fundamental way by having all exits and entrances on the left side lane which I think we should now brand the Maneuvering Lane. This will also have the effect of keeping people in the correct lane : The Driving Lane. You won’t want to be lollygagging away in the lane with all the cars coming in and out of the highway would you? No, you would enter the highway and move into the Driving Lane and then simply drive your car and have no more stress until you have to exit the highway. If you want to go fast you simply move into the Maneuvering Lane when you need to pass someone and then you move back into the Driving Lane once the pass is complete (so you stay out of the way of people moving in and out of the highway via entrances and exits).

Of course we would need to come up with some kind of paint scheme in the Maneuvering Lane to indicate entrances and exits but I think this overall will incentivise people to stay in the Driving Lane for most of their trip.

So I know you are saying to yourself : “Well this is great but we would have to rebuild all of our highways to do it!” But I submit that you haven’t thought about this. We have highways already built that mostly follow this structure. They are simply on the other side. So I-95N for example becomes I-95S and vice/versa. See what I mean?