The Snappings-back to Come

There comes a time when things get stretched out. And then there is the snapping-back. Expansion and contraction. Not just financial, but ethical, procedural, and on other axes, too.

At some point, the US Congress will find itself overwhelmed with investigating the present and will busy itself enacting new restraints. At some point, online advertising will be regulated, not just against a malignant Russian Federation’s meddling, but against the ordinary scams we see advertised every day on sites big and small.

The bailouts of polluters will come to an end. The protections of financial companies, drug companies, and other overlarge snowflakes, long seen by some as too fragile to have real regulation, will terminate.

We see it now with the public recognition of Harvey Weinstein for the depraved exemplar of power run amok he is. We see shadows of other exemplars coming into focus, yet to be queued for their runs through the wringer. These things take time.

But there are axiomatic protections we should seek out as a society. Diversity is among these, not just of race or sex, but of background and of philosophy. Of saying, even if single-payer might be best, we can still walk calmly into that future rather than leap into what might end up badly. If tax cuts are so wonderful, we can cut taxes a point at a time and see the results unfold.

Why tear the Brexit bandaid off, risking reopening the wound it covers? Why not soak it, loosen the adhesive and then pull it off a bit at a time? The same goes for the Kurds in Iraq, the Catalans, and so on. Rome was not in one day built, and yet so many want to see every imagined panacea poured down the throat of the world at once.

In Colorado and the rest, they have legalized marijuana. The successes there seem destined to spread a new march against a failed war on drugs. And the less slack we leave, the more gradual the expansion, the less severe the contraction when we go too far.

We should reject all the Republicans who want to full-throttle their policies. But we ought also reject the Democrats equally on that measure. If the ideas be good, a pinch should convince before we go for the pound. Any politician that says otherwise is looking to rip us off. And they’re doing it, folks. We should unseat them.

How to Fight Fake News

First, a proper definition of the problem. The problem of democracy is always about the electorate choosing the people who will best-advance government, given the difficulty of figuring who that is, the complex tradeoffs at hand, and limited information.

The Russian Federation Fake News and any other rogue propaganda from any nation state agent are therefore just a subset of the problem of a dirty information stream flowing to the electorate. Trying to solve the de-Putinification of social platforms and the larger web, even if that were possible by itself, would not solve the larger problem.

So, we look to traditional noise problems for inspiration.

From Wikipedia: “Signal-to-noise ratio”: Improving SNR in practice:

It is often possible to reduce the noise by controlling the environment. Otherwise, when the characteristics of the noise are known and are different from the signals, it is possible to filter it or to process the signal.

From Wikipedia: “Combined sewer”:

This type of gravity sewer design is no longer used in building new communities (because current design separates sanitary sewers from runoff), but many older cities continue to operate combined sewers.

From Wikipedia: “Ad blocking”: Methods:

The more advanced ad blocking filter software allow fine-grained control of advertisements through features such as blacklists, whitelists, and regular expression filters.

From Wikipedia: “Bug bounty program”:

These programs allow the developers to discover and resolve bugs before the general public is aware of them, preventing incidents of widespread abuse.

Unless you can eliminate the source of contamination, you must rely on some sort of filter. It can be a complete sequestration of the contaminant (in the case of separating wastewater from runoff) or it can be a processing filter as with ad blocks or some radio noise removal systems.

The platforms that act as inlets of pollution may have their own cases against adopting of appropriate filters here, which makes it a harder problem.

But some combination should work to reduce the noise.

Separate the streams

In the vein of sewerage, social sites can make a hard break between reputable periodicals and up-and-comers. This should not present a barrier to entry, but should be based upon independently-verifiable indicators such as readership, credential-issuance by major organizations, and other factors. They should likely separate opinion and commentary from reporting for similar reasons.

This is in line with what companies often do. Newspapers separate opinion from reporting, and Valve Software, maker of the Steam game platform, separates humorous reviews from serious reviews for similar reasons. It’s something social sites should do, too.


Google and other search engines have long sought to fight against those gaming their rankings. Many of those techniques can be employed to de-rank noise, including looking for multiple, independent submissions that give credence to a source before spreading it. This is also similar to Wikipedia‘s notability requirement for article creation.

While this technique will not eliminate much, it does raise the bar for cranks to inject their swill, as it will be easier to identify when a group is colluding to post noise unless they expend considerable effort to make their fake accounts seem credible.

Check for divergence

Most credibly-sourced news content contains a chunk of background that isn’t new, with a small supplement that is new. Fake news tends not to follow that rule, and looking for that can be useful. Again, the enemies of signal may work to change their formats to avoid this detection, but it raises their costs considerably.

Make ads public

Finally, micro-targeted advertising creates the problem that it is not readily subjected to many eyeballs who can debunk it or call it out. If advertising platforms were required to maintain records of all the ads they serve, allowing for independent review, it would help guard against abuse.

Alternatively, if regulators and advertisers are opposed, browser extensions that automatically upload copies of ads to a non-profit service could enable this practice.

A brand opportunity

Apple has tried to brand themselves privacy-conscious. Google attempts to tout speed and security. Mozilla, openness. Microsoft… has a marketing problem, because I’m not sure what their salespitch even is now.

But the point is that all these browser and OS vendors can work on the problem of fake news and try to brand themselves the one that gives you the tool to quash the invasion.

These are just some ideas of how to combat propaganda in our news feeds. The problem is worth working on. It’s not impossible, as we have had noise problems in other areas and have done a lot to minimize them.

OK Google and Siri, Where is the Gunfire?

The lack of action on… err, on gun violence is stunning. But there’s a ubiquitous technology that can help us respond more rapidly to gun owners that seek to harm others.

The virtual assistant, whether Siri or Echo or Home Assistant or Cortana or whatever, has a basic design:

  1. A recording loop that is checked for a watch-word
  2. Upon hearing the watch-word, recording begins being sent to the cloud
  3. When the audio indicates no more words are coming, or a number of other end-conditions, the device returns to watch-mode

Gunfire has a distinctive enough audio signature (“sound”) that it can be listened-for during the loop phase of operation. Combined with GPS, the data of a gun being fired could be rapidly located.

Some at-risk and chronically violent communities have deployed fixed gunfire detectors, and it would make sense for hotels and other public venues to install them. But given the number of people with mobiles, there’s no reason not to give ordinary folks the tools to help stop violence when it breaks out.

The program would be opt-out for anybody who owns the devices but doesn’t want to listen for gunfire. The loudness of the signals from multiple phones could be quickly correlated with GPS data to give even better precision.

Knowing where the gunfire is coming from means that police don’t have to divert as many resources to checking nearby areas unless a manhunt develops out of a situation. In cases of apprehension, automated gunfire reports are more evidence for trial.

As other technologies co-evolve with mobiles, automated rotary-wing drones might one day respond to reports of gunshots by flying to the best-calculated origin and giving police a much earlier picture of the scene.

Regardless of gun control efforts (or whatever the banned term is) we should still invest in other technologies that will improve public safety. Having mobiles help reporting gunfire (and regular fires, too, and really any threat that’s readily detected) makes sense.

Medicare for All Cometh

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has introduced his much-touted Medicare-for-All bill with a good slate of cosponsors joining the effort. And it sets the opposition out to pick at the draft with calls of calamity.

There are those opposed on principle, but the most common criticism seems to have to do with cost, which is interesting in itself. Basically, if you aren’t opposed to the idea that everybody be covered, and be covered through a Medicare-style system, then all you have left is to say that we need to work out the details (or maintain, farcically, that no iteration can work).

Arguing that a Medicare system isn’t workable, period, doesn’t fly. Medicare itself is strong evidence that it is workable. Other countries have their own systems, too. Universal healthcare is entirely achievable.

Cost is the main target now. How to fund it, and are the benefits correct?

The benefits are possibly too generous, but not by a lot. They would be adjusted down in any serious negotiation to pass this bill. That would lower the costs, at least a little. But serious costs, the bulk, would remain.

To pay for this bill, or one like it, will require new revenues. Primarily, there will be new taxes imposed on some combination of employment and income. The tax increases will be offset by the reduction or elimination of individual and corporate costs for healthcare. There is a reasonable expectation that the tax burden will be less than the current burden of paying for healthcare, as there is widespread agreement that healthcare costs are artificially high.

People don’t want to pay taxes. That’s mostly a function of an anti-American narrative built by the right wing. ‘Taxation is theft,’ and other such nonsense. Taxation is debt. It is owed, not taken. Norquist doesn’t say to the restaurateur after his meal, ‘I want you to sign this pledge saying you’ll never adjust the cost of your food.’

More importantly, within the range of contemplatable taxes (i.e., up to the actual revenue needed to fund government), tax isn’t a problem. It’s a distortion in the minds of the wealthy that has led to such fear of taxes, even to the point where they are happy to overspend on a necessity like healthcare to avoid a lesser tax. That sort of distortion begs correction.

Given the inability of the Republican party to offer an alternative proposal that could even pretend to be universal, Medicare for All or some other system will happen. Taxes will be raised to pay for it. If the Republicans don’t like that, their only possible move is to formulate a state-level plan that ensures universal coverage. They will have to fight like hell, and with haste, to get it enacted in all 50 states before the Democrats have a chance to set up a national healthcare system. They will need to solve portability between states, too.

But they have run the clock out on not moving the nation to universal coverage.

Hurricane Thoughts, 9 September 2017

Superfund and Climate Change

Apologies to federal officials that have had their brains altered so as not to be able to read the words “climate change.” The political correctness on the right has gone too far.

Now, with Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the Texas coast and in Houston, we have renewed insight to the vulnerability of toxic sites being impacted by natural disasters. We surely need to have the EPA prioritize cleanup of coastal sites, of which there are many given the economic gravity of the coastline in deciding where to live and work. As seas rise and as storm surges and tidal flooding become more common, we will see more disturbances of cleanup sites.

Self-Driving Evacuations

As self-driving cars are soon to become reality, and as the electric fleet model will likely dominate the space soon thereafter, there is a need to understand how evacuations and pricing and (battery) charging events will interact. That is, if the normal demand of a city is one car per six people, during an evacuation scenario it will need to become one per three, or whatever the ramp-up is.

In all likelihood, phased evacuations will be needed, with limited ranges and limited charge capacity on the grid. Ground-zero evacuees will be shuttled up to zone-one, and one-to-two, etc. Meanwhile, a flow of excess vehicles from surrounding states will be flowing in to continue moving individuals away from the disaster.

All of this needs to happen as orderly as possible, and it needs to be lotterial, so all in risk areas have equal chance if the number of seats is too low to accommodate demand. In the near-term, pop-up traffic lights could be deployed as drones with some of the existing vehicle-vision technologies to places without existing lights.

The delivery-first commerce model will require other adjustments for the delivery of water and other preparedness items prior to a storm for those not being evacuated.

Social Rescue Communications

One of the stories that kept appearing during and after Harvey was the use of various social platforms to report and organize rescue needs. There needs to be more integration of social sites, or some better way for rescuers and dispatchers to cover the whole spread of such sites, to ensure that signals aren’t getting lost because of fragmentation in that space. Nobody should be left unrescued simply because they didn’t use the right social media platform.

The key issue there is likely portability across platforms. The ability to easily take a post from one site and relay it to the dispatcher or rescuer on another service with full information and return-contact ability needs to happen. Included in that would also be some requirement that sites not block unregistered or off-platform access (while maybe not requiring they specifically accommodate it). If you don’t have a smartphone, but have a laptop, and there’s important information on a smartphone-only service, that could be a real bummer. Sites need to recognize those situations.