A Spam Filter for America?

How unusable would your email be if you didn’t have a spam filter? Would you even bother with email? Like spam, Russian attacks don’t have to be that successful if they are high-volume. Facebook estimated that Russia’s attacks reached over 100 million accounts. That would mean a lot of money if it were spam instead of influence campaigns.

The main impediment to spam filtration on these platforms is the control held by the operators, especially in the context of mobile apps, which are not readily extended or modified by third-parties to filter out nefarious posts. You cannot directly insert a Bayesian filter into the Facebook app, for example, even while you could probably whip something up in a webextension for the Facebook desktop website.

Another issue is that Russian attacks are not the only notable sources of spam in the American media diet. Television and radio platforms are not amenable to spam filtering, and overall the prospects for cutting down on those sources of spam are slim. You have something we haven’t seen with email: an entire class of media consumer dedicated to eating spam.

One important part of the spam filter model is that it is voluntary and transparent. You can always look at the crud filling up your spam folder. You can shape the filter to include items of annoyance or exclude items that you wish. It’s a tool to be used to improve your life and save you the aggravation of unwanted email.

Browser vendors and the W3C should work on implementing changes to the web that make filtration of unwanted content easier. This may include the introduction of an ad HTML element, with the design including a way to easily remove or block it from view. Vendors should block-by-default ads from sites that continue to display ads through other HTML elements. The ad element should include properties that make it easier to identify who paid for the ad, whether it tracked the user, and any keywords associated with the advertising that might become associated with the user.

Overall, it’s time for the online ad industry to step up its game in policing itself, or like many industries before it, it will face regulation that it does not like.

But while we’re at it, maybe we need to install a spam filter on the doors of the capital. A lot of lobbying goes on, and currently our nation is being sold a lot of boner pills and bad advice.


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.


Would You Rather? Politics

Brexit, the Turkish Referendum, and even to some extent Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton.

During the 2016 Republican Primary, Lindsey Graham said choosing between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz was like asking would you rather be shot or poisoned.

“Would you rather…” a party game that, in its darker incarnation, poses two abhorrent options and participants must choose.

It seems that modern democracy has become a variant of this game. Instead of the pair of equally horrible, though, it is either a choice between one extreme and another, or at best, between the status quo and the extreme.

On Brexit, the choice was stark. All-or-nothing. Either leave entirely, or stay. No possibility of offering a chance to renegotiate the points of pain for the lean-leaves. Same with Turkey. Either Erdogan got his shiny new toys of doom, or he didn’t. They weren’t given to the people to say, “Well he can have this one, but not that one.” It wasn’t a gradient vote.

Would you rather… have a democracy that gives more moderate options, or watch the whole world spiral down the drain, one extreme choice after another?

This one-way mess is getting us into trouble. It’s turned our self-governance into a game of WYR? rather than a mechanism for compromise. I would much prefer the pendulum became a plumb bob, pointing at the earth we all must share. We badly need to stop giving into every fear.

And, of late, it’s all conservative extremism on parade. In Russia, in Turkey, you have conservatives seeking to pimp out their states, to make them prostitutes for personal enrichment. In Britain, no longer great since it turned its back on shared-responsibility in Europe, you have May hoping that the people are dumb enough to increase her majority at a time when the conservatives have already blundered their future in a fit. In France… we shall see.

But at some point this all has to swing back to the other extreme. Not equally bad, but still not measured and incapable of producing the sorts of long-term planning we need.


That Whole Trump Thing

The reason I oppose Trump is the very reason Trump has any headroom to run for office. The people supporting Trump aren’t solely racists, and anybody who thinks it’s just racists should pay more attention. More importantly, racism isn’t some social disease. It arises from very specific conditions, just like Trump himself has.

Those conditions are ones of apparent marginalization of a formerly privileged group. Of apparent loss of income and mobility. And so on. In other words, the undereducated white men that support Trump feel trod upon. Some of them may be racist, but most are just scared of losing out.

That’s why the whole “Stop Trump” movement, facing down a beast of its own creation, sounds a bit out of tune to me. You don’t defeat racism with a fist. You defeat it with a smile and a helping hand (same way you defeat most other social problems). The government has an empathy problem: if you can’t muster lobbyists, the government doesn’t give a damn about you.

So Trump is now lobbying for all those folks, because there’s a loophole in the Constitution: the people, including undereducated white males, elect the government.

Historically, a large share of Trump’s voters would have been helped by the Democrats. That all changed in the 1960s, when the Democrats moved to help black folks in the civil rights movement. The Trump folks all migrated to the Republicans, who continued to not give a damn about their real problems and mainly focused on social issues to win their votes.

The Democrats continued to not do much for the Trumpites. For one thing, they’ve had to struggle to push their agenda against the Republicans, and since Trumpites didn’t vote D, they had no quarter on the D agenda.

But sooner or later such a bloc will tend to foster movement.

To stop Trump, the platform has to be inclusive. The safety net has to be strengthened and lengthened and broadened. Those poor dumb crackers need some help, too.

The Republicans won’t do that, of course. Trump voters by-and-large lack the main attribute the Rs care for: deep pockets. That leaves the Democrats to fight harder to help people who vote against them. Of course, that would eliminate the Trump problem, but would also make the Rs more competitive.

In that, the Democrats have a free-rider problem. The Rs need the Ds to be their welfare sugar daddy, taking their trash out while they sit on the couch and yell about how they want the trash left alone. It is a conundrum.

Main point being, sure, tirade against his racism, pull whatever stop Trump rabbits out of all the hats in world, but for God’s sake, also address the problems that allow a Trump to even exist. Fix the broken employment system. The broken healthcare system. The broken immigration system. Fix it all. Anything less, and you might scare away the Trump, but there will always be another one lurking, ready to try to steal a system that doesn’t give a damn.


Mandatory Voting and Automatic Registration

Oregon is moving to automatic voter registration, and President Obama has mentioned, in the context of making it easier to vote in the United States, that some countries have compulsory voting (as far as I can tell he didn’t actually call for it here, just for better access to voting).

But we have a host of issues around voting, including candidate ballot access and gerrymandering. How much difference would a 10% increase in turnout across the board make versus some other change like moving to a preferential, ranked-voting system?

Like anything in politics, these issues are complicated. They are complicated to study, and even more complicated when you look at what is politically possible at various levels of government. You basically have to either have a hegemony that favors a better system (i.e., puts the true interest of the system at-large ahead of any naïve self-interest) or an idea that sells so well that it cannot be denied by the powerful.

Ideas abound, but few get sold, and it’s a non-market.

A few things are clear enough. Simply enfranchising a group isn’t sufficient to change politics. Non-land-owners, black people, women, and 18-20-year-olds all got their voting rights late, but it did not significantly change the political system directly. Interesting that the Civil Rights Movement did cause a major political shift, but not from voting. Its mere enactment was the mover.

If everyone did vote, or at least if every demographic voted in proportion to their population, it would change things a lot. But that’s exactly why Republicans fear expanding voter access. Of course, a mere political shift on their part would make them a much more popular party, but they’re afraid it would scare away donors.

Could compulsory voting help? The first bar is its chances of being enacted. They are slim, and even slimmer if such a change would require Constitutional amendment. More likely is a system like Oregon is moving to, and Oregon will give some evidence in the future.

It’s clear that their existing vote-by-mail system does improve turnout, so while expanding their rolls by 10% or so will probably see increased turnout, it is unlikely to raise the percentage of registered voters who vote.

Compulsory voting with fines for failing to vote likely would. A lottery system (where you would be entered to win a monetary prize if you voted) might work, too. But the horizon does not show these coming to America. Right now the best hope for expanding access is vote-by-mail expanding beyond the few states like Oregon who have it or something like it (open absentee processes).