Democracy and Faith

Not the pulpit and pew kind of faith. The ideas-have-utility kind. That the basic promise of science and reason and democracy are strong enough that you don’t have to pack the court to make it work. That you don’t have to rig elections, gerrymander, or shoe-horn racist questions into the census to get your way. That kind of faith. Faith that your positions are meaningful, and generally right, and if they turn out to be wrong, you’ll change them rather than changing the subject.

Faith that we don’t have to be 100% on the first draft of a law. That we can use statistical process control to make our systems work better than trying to thread the needle. We are not Luke Skywalker, and we don’t need to be.

Faith that the people want change. And that change is easier when it’s a step at a time. That we don’t start walking. We crawl first. We can be guided by the wisdom of evolution, of experimentation.

This is a starting-point problem, in many ways. That there is a false premise that’s been introduced to our collective system. The false premise is that we should ever be acting like someone like Trump acts—not his biting insults, not his bravado, but his mere conviction is his greatest flaw. His idea, and the idea of anyone, who says they hold some special key, some Rosetta Stone. Be it the wall, or tariffs, or whatever it may be.

And that is exactly what makes Trump so sad to a majority of the nation. He rejects our system. He acts as though he has joined a dictator’s club, believes in winning at all costs, believes in none of the things most of us spent at least twelve grades learning about. The American system, imperfect, seeks out perfection. The Trump system, fatally flawed, seeks nothing beyond the next win, the extra scoop of ice cream, the adoring headline. And then lashes out when it doesn’t get it.

We should all reject that, whether it’s in the guise of a golf resort and luxury brand heckler extraordinaire or whether it’s those who say that the GND is the only and holiest of grails rather than a sketch of some things that might work. Or those who say Medicare for All, rather than let’s figure out this healthcare thing, and if it is Medicare for All, great, but if not, great. The important thing is the result and not who had the idea or that it conformed to some chant or slogan or fever dream.

Faith in democracy means pain. It meant pain when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, signing their names and risking their lives. It meant pain for generations who endured slavery waiting for the country to wake up and have a war to put an end to it. More pain struggling to gain the vote. The pain of forever knowing we hesitated in answering the call, turning away refugees and interning citizens, while Hitler took power and took land and took lives. Our nation is founded upon pain, but of faith that that pain will not be for naught. We may be stupid and slow, but we will arrive.

That’s not to say no action is necessary. Just the opposite. But it does underline the type of action. Reform does not mean retaliation. It means girding the system against wrongdoing no matter who would enact it. If the courts do become rotted by neglect of the Senate, rather than packing them, enact reforms on the nomination and confirmation process, enact changes to court procedure, and impeach any judges (and only those) who are not well-behaved.

Similar reforms in other areas, always following the lodestar of a better system and not naive interests of the moment. The destination in our common sight is not “Democrats win” or “Republicans win,” but remains “America wins, and in doing so, earth and humanity win besides.”

Evolution versus Tower of Hanoi

The Tower of Hanoi (Wikipedia: Tower of Hanoi) is a neat little stacking game. The rules are simple:

  1. There are a number disks of varying sizes.
  2. There are (typically) three slots the disks can sit on.
  3. Only one disk may be moved at a time.
  4. Only the top disk of a stack may be moved.
  5. No larger disk may be placed atop a smaller disk.

The goal is to get the entire stack of disks from one slot to another.

In this arrangement, it would be sensible enough to call out a natural ordering of the disks, from largest (bottom) to smallest (top). You could create a sensible narrative where the smaller disks are more fragile, or more exalted, or whatever.

The problem with many laypersons’ accounts of evolution (particularly those portrayed as deniers, e.g., in documentaries) is that they attempt to impose this sort of narrative where one doesn’t belong. In large part this may be due to the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” But regardless it is demonstrably false and it undermines any attempt to actually understand evolution.

Let’s start with that phrase. You have many animals or creatures in an environment, and suddenly food becomes scarce. The pressure on these animals causes some to starve, others to fight, &c.

What fitness means, and all it means, in that context is that those animals who happen to be best able to cope with the pressure will survive. That may be due to them hiding, running away, being lazybones that happened to sleep through a catastrophe, &c.

Fitness is being used very loosely in that phrase. It doesn’t mean the one that can run the 100 meter dash the fastest, nor the one that can bench-press n times its own body weight. It lends no credence to eugenics, for example, unless your idea of eugenics is letting random chance determine the gene pool.

They happened to survive, and that’s all that was required for them to be called fit. If you repeated the event 1,000 times, and some subset of the population portrayed a similar tendency to avoid the catastrophe in a large set of those trials, that would be a measure of fitness. But even once, even a fluke, still imbues them with some level of fitness.

When creatures or animals change from one species to another, it means there has been enough genetic change that they can no longer reproduce with their ancestors’ other species (be they the old species or other derived ones). That doesn’t mean the other species are extinct, nor does it mark them as inferior. It’s just a statement of biological fact.

The notion that we, as humans, are superior to all the other species is a common human belief. It may bear out in certain contexts, but it fails in many as well. For example, we cannot survive by swimming around in antarctic waters, eating krill. No, we are adapted to particular environments even if we may possess the intellect to adapt to a wider range of environments than other species.

Do us a favor, documentarians. When you wish to produce a documentary about those who deny evolution, please make sure they first take a class that dispels such fallacies, both ubiquitous and idiosyncratic.

If they still choose to disbelieve the science based on an understanding of it, fine. But calling them disbelievers when they don’t even have the correct picture to disbelieve reads as disingenuous. More akin to telling a joke poorly, and then when they don’t laugh writing it off to their poor sense of humor.

Why the Large Don’t Lead

Big companies in the technology sector have apparently decided to stand against the N.S.A.’s overreach. Once it began to harm or threaten their profits and reputations, that is. They could have moved years ago, though. Why not?

Hollywood calls out against social problems of various sorts, such as the soon-to-screen The Wolf of Wall Street, but they stand fast as ever to their antiquated distribution model.

The big companies don’t take big risks. They fear losing their primacy. This reflects, once again, the exceptionalism bug. The notion that we are the ones, the only ones who can do what we do, we do it better, we do it right. Or else why would we be here? Why aren’t cockroaches the dominant species?

That seems to be at least one explanation for the U.S.’s decline in certain areas. Why we are playing catch-up in healthcare (again, the health insurance industry could have spearheaded reform efforts decades ago, but failed to bother), haven’t upgraded our train systems, and, yes, why our credit cards (see recent news on the Target store breaches) still use half-century-old technology (magnetic strips instead of smart cards).

When things seem to be going so well, we are awfully reluctant to change. What if it makes things worse? What if that worsening leads to systemic decline? What if we have to eat the grandkids just to stay afloat?

Worse, a dominant force may suppress up-and-coming competitors through anti-capitalist activities. It may prevent competitors from gaining a foothold long enough to displace the dominant institutions.

It took Mozilla to change the browser marketplace for the better. Internet Explorer might as well have been the tombstone of the web, and look at the relative vibrancy of the web today! We need these disruptive forces, at least so long as market leaders cannot lead.

We see the same trends in politics. The head of the party, as in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, “How we gonna run reform when we’re the damn incumbent?” We’ve seen a shift in House Majority Leader John Boehner of late. But only because he is facing his political future. He is not sitting pretty, but must make some waves to stay afloat.

We saw the same thing with Microsoft’s browser. Only after they were behind could they actually move ahead. Much of Apple’s innovation comes because of their market position (strong, but not the lead). They have a loyal customer base (not every iThing owner, of course) that supports their vision. But even Apple follows on things where they are leaders, such as removing anti-consumer locks from music.

It’s amazing how twisted our language is. Leader seldom means that. It mostly means the king of the hill, too large to easily be pushed off. But the leaders remain. They go find new hills, they carry scars and blisters.

The renewable energy sector today leads us to a better tomorrow, while the entrenched energy interests (who could make major investments, both speeding the process along and positioning themselves for the next generation) sit atop the hill. Sure, they might buy some wind or solar on their way down. But they seem too scared to lead, just like the rest of the “leaders.”

Redesign the World

One of the habits of my brain is looking at the design of things in the world and trying to improve them. It does this as a thought experiment; I seldom attempt the actual inventions it comes up with. But it’s fun as a mere thought experiment. So today I thought I’d throw some of my (unworkable) designs out here just for posterity.

Before that, though, I should be clear that designs aren’t always about replacements. Sometimes they’re just recognitions of the problems that replacements should solve, with either existing alternatives or unknowns being the replacements.

Doors and Keys

Keys

One of the things that’s bothered me over the years has been keys. You have these little fixed bits of metal, and they are supposed to provide you secure access to their corresponding locks. But if you lose them, you’re calling a locksmith. If you break one, you’re calling a locksmith. And then you have to carry them around and match them to the correct lock.

The solution will be electronic locks of some sort, but my favored solution was universal keys that could open any lock. They would have interchangeable teeth with varying numeric or alphabetic annotations, and so even if you never visited a building nor had direct contact with the owner, they could say, “key number 3F8JLM42” and you could set your key and get in. The other benefit would be that it would make re-keying locks a much simpler matter, as if keys were easily changed, the locks could be too.

The necessity of universal locks/the inertia of existing systems means this idea would take a long time to institute. Even if there were a spectacular example of this idea, before it would be instituted electronic locks would win out. The other major downside is that easily-changeable locks doesn’t mean often-changed locks. It’s a common vulnerability for office buildings and the like that use doors with keypad locks that people can guess the lock code by the wear on the keypad.

You also hear stories about people returning to visit such buildings years later, and on a whim they try the old code only to find out it still works.

Doors

Every summer when you go outside, you’re losing a bit of energy in the cool air escaping/warm air entering. Same thing in winter, the cold gets in and the warm gets out when you break that door seal.

Large buildings recognize this; they have what I’ll quaintly call airlocks. According to Wikipedia: Airlock: Similar mechanisms, they are also used in buildings holding wealth to slow thieves, and in aviaries to prevent the ingress/egress of species.

But the question is, how difficult would it be to add some semblance of an airlock to other doors during frequent use? How much energy could be saved? If they were common enough, it wouldn’t be very difficult or expensive. But for the most part, the buildings that should have them do and the ones where the savings don’t warrant the feature lack them.

Screen Grid References

Screens could have grid references along their sides (or added via software), so that someone can say, “click the red icon at C3” (where C is the horizontal and 3 is the vertical). As a practical matter, there may already be some screens that have these where they’re really needed, and most people aren’t spending too much time telling others where to click without just pointing to the spot.

Cellphone Booths

People don’t complain about people talking on phones all over the place as much as they used to, but probably because they know it won’t stop. But there used to be phone booths because the lines were wired. Still, there would be some opportunity to have booths set up for people to use for mobile conversations without disturbing others. There could be other benefits built in to these booths, such as signal boosters, or dedicated screens, keyboards, and mice for using them as work stations. Wireless providers could give discounts on usage from these booths.

But the convenience of being able to use the mobile device wherever you are probably outweighs any desire to stand in a booth. And people seem to be gradually adjusting to the expectation that everyone around them is talking to someone that’s not there.

Calendars and Time

Good luck with these. You could have the greatest idea ever, but these are so entrenched in the cultures of the world that they are extremely hard to change. I guess we can say the various places that enact Daylight Savings schemes have crashed a barrier, but the feature of those schemes is that they’re periodic and only require minor adjustments (and yet they are harmful (in that they serve no benefit and cause a loss) and do receive resentment).

But they are fun to think about.

Pushing the Envelope

Most inventions only push the envelope (the phrase arrives via aviation, where it means roughly to exceed the known flight parameters of an aircraft). Those that break the damn thing into pieces and use them with mortar to build a mosaic pattern must have large benefits.

Even the big changes mimic the old where they can. That’s why the varied icons on computers are largely analogs of the real world. Radio buttons are based on the old car radios and light switches that allowed you to press any button causing the others to become unpressed.

The default terminal width comes from punched cards (Wikipedia: Punched card: IBM 80-column punched card formats and character codes).

The design of compact fluorescent lightbulbs owes itself to the need to fit in the standardized, legacy bulb sockets.

And so on. We continue to make adaptations based on existing technologies. It does make things easier, but harder too. People get used to particular patterns of reality, and inertia prevents bigger changes from happening quickly. This gives rise to problems like wide-spread obesity. To problems like climate change. To vast overspending and undercoverage in health care. To entrenched corruption in government and banking and other institutions.

Designing for the Future

Between the death of one world-renowned designer and one tech-world-renowned designer (Steve Jobs and Dennis Richie, respectively), the world needs to keep thinking about design. While I’ll be the first to admit that the final word in design is evolution, that doesn’t mean we can’t design for evolution, rather than simply waiting for it to decide our fate.

I’ve been reading Just for Fun, a book co-authored by Linus Torvalds (who started and maintains the Linux Kernel, which is the piece of software that bears a fair share of responsibility for re-democratizing the UNIX-type operating system).  In the chapter on the future of technology (Part Three, Chapter Three, The Amusement Ride Ahead), he states:

[…] What everybody wants is this magical toy that can be used to browse the Web, write term papers, play games, balance the checkbook, and so on.  The fact that you need a computer and an operating system to do all this is something that most people would rather not even think about.

And that’s true for a lot of things, so today I’ll throw out a few ideas along those lines.

Chewing your teeth clean

Although this idea had floated around before that time, it’s actually come close to a reality: from back in 2005, we have cosmeticsdesign.com: US army develops tooth-cleaning gum.  The article discusses the concept and invention of a chewing gum that is enhanced to clean teeth.  This just makes sense: the food particles get onto your teeth from eating, not by brushing them on.  Thus, using the same mechanism for cleaning should provide for a more thorough and less cumbersome process.

Not only is this a great idea for soldiers that can’t spare the water or the time to practice traditional hygiene, it could also improve dental health in the developing world and other low-income areas.

Automatic detergents (etc.)

When you load a dishwasher or clothes washer, you have to add detergent.  This extra step is likely due to lobbying by the commercial cleaning companies that want every load to cause you to have a nervous fit trying to decide which of their brands will do what you want.  But 99% of the time you’re using the same detergent repeatedly, so it would make a lot more sense to have an attachment-area where you would attach the entire container of detergent, bleach, etc.  You could then either let it automatically decide how much to dispense or still set an amount manually.

The idea here is one of minimizing interactions.  As with the chewing gum, it simplifies things, but it also reduces the likelihood of spills or other user error, and it dispenses with a moving part that the user must interact with.

Redesigning the Jump Start

When a combustion vehicle has a dead battery, it often needs a jump start to allow it to operate until it can be recharged or replaced.  The problem here is that it’s more complicated than needed to perform a jump.  That creates a case where people are reliant on the experienced to operate what’s considered a ubiquitous technology.  In the same way we don’t want to necessarily think about our computers or operating systems, why should we need clamps to jump-start?

So, having a new interface would be useful.  It would consist of a special pair of plugs that would have forcing-functions built-in to make the process simple enough for anyone to perform.  It would also ensure that the process occurred in a way that prevented damage to the good battery.

The actual design would take time to be certified and adopted, but would basically consist of two three-prong plugs connected by a wire, with each plug having a switch to engage it.  It could be designed so that the positive would need to be engaged before the negative, and so that the switches of all the prongs would need to be disengaged before connecting/disconnecting.

The Human Microphone 2.0 and Goes to Congress

Down at the Occupy Wall Street protest, they are forced to use the Human Microphone, which is a process whereby the speaker yells a short phrase, which is then re-yelled by one or more groups of people, to allow the manual/collaborative amplification of the speech.

Foremost, a system could be devised, in order to improve coordination between the speaker and the microphones.  That might simply be hand signals, or it might be lights or even appending a specific word like the telegrammatic stop bit (ie, each phrase would have “STOP” appended to it, and no further progress from each side would be made until that part was spoken.

But the other idea here would be to actually require that the legislative bodies begin using the Human Microphone.  That would mean that they would have to pay enough attention to the speech in order to repeat it.  That might actually cause them to think about it a bit, in order that they should actually have conversations and thus enable progress.

To some extent the Human Microphone makes communication a scarcer resource, which means that what’s said can tend to be more important.  If you’re relying upon 30 people to repeat your speech, I’d think you’d be less likely to waste their time by spouting bullshit, lest they shut your mic off.

In the former case, this probably still constitutes a design of the sort being discussed.  In the latter case, this represents a much-needed regression.  Congress currently revises and extends its comments on everything under the sun by shoving it into the record without ever needing to let it pass their lips.  I’m pretty sure that group of monkeys has successfully recreated the works of William Shakespeare, and if I was bored enough I’d dig through to find out.  This regression would mean they had to start synchronizing their brains with their mouths again.

URI Extensions

This is the last of the batch today.  I’d like to see some form of extension to the URI that makes it easier to create groups and hierarchies for things like links, bookmarks, tabs, etc.

The tab I write this post in currently has five other tabs that pertain to it.  Websites like Reddit have a comment link and a content link, which get separated as things currently work.  When you pull some research out of the web, you often want to keep it together for later, which means either tagging it or creating a folder.

I’m honestly not sure if this should entail extending the URI Specification, or simply creating some new HTML element or just shoving it into some JSON that can wrap the URIs together in various ways.  But I am pretty sure that this shouldn’t be continually handled by humans when our benefactors (ie, the computers) could handle it.

In the case of Reddit, the workaround is to use their iframe feature, which loads the content in an iframe below a little bar that contains the submission information and links.

But the basic paradigm of design that is unearthed every time is to take what exists and look at the extra, repeated steps around it, and try to pull another step into the design itself.