How Could We Maximize Democracy?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/15/22

What if we had the perfect voting machine – how would it change politics?

What would make the perfect voting machine?

  • It would only allow one vote by each registered voter
  • It would block any illegal votes
  • It would block tampering
  • It would be trusted by all
  • It would make vote tallying easy
  • It would allow for easy recounts
  • It would be easy to use
  • It would be easy to access

Let’s imagine a perfect machine. Let’s imagine its impact like we were plotting a science fiction story about the future.

What if the government issued every registered voter a tablet that had limited internet access and could only be used for one function: voting. The tablet would be configured:

  • Fingerprint recognition
  • Faceprint recognition
  • Voiceprint recognition
  • Eyeprint recognition
  • Had a unique physical ID number in a chip
  • It will only work with the .gov domain

To register to vote and get one of these machines you’d have to prove your identity to the government. It would link your machine ID and identity to the voter registration system. It would register your encrypted biometric data. You will be given a voter registration card with your name and machine ID.

When you vote it would only accept one vote from your machine’s ID and only if your machine has validated your biometrics in four ways. This is far more secure than any online banking system or financial investment system. No one but yourself should be able to use this tablet. If it was stolen it would be useless.

Whenever a vote is taken the results should be tabulated nearly instantly and the results put online. Anyone could validate their vote by looking up their machine ID in the voting results. It’s not likely anyone will know this number unless you tell them. If you think your vote was changed you can register a protest.

This method would allow any individual to conduct a vote recount. The data file from a national election would be large, but probably smaller than a downloaded song. Voters could be given software that would allow them to drill into the data and analyze the results. Everyone should get the same totals. If needed, a vote could be retaken to validate the process. And countless checks can be added to the system to automatically look for fraud.

Right now we have a representative democracy. We vote for people we want to vote for us. With this system, we could vote directly. Our elective representative would prepare possible laws but everyone would vote on them. Of course, not everyone would vote on each issue, but the numbers would be huge. Far greater than any valid statistical sample. This would eliminate more forms of current corruption.

To make this system even more effective, we should set the winning majority higher than 50%. This could solve our current political polarization. We should aim to make more people happy with our government and laws. We should aim for a two-thirds majority or 66%.

That would push out the extremes of the political spectrum and create a purple party in the middle. Our representatives would have to work up laws based on compromises that would appeal to a wider majority.

Right now we’re getting minority rule and citizens are becoming unhappy. There’s talk of civil war. Extremists on the left and right want things that the majority of Americans don’t. Our political system is corrupted by political parties and their shenanigans. If we maximized democracy it would eliminate the need for political parties. Everyone would vote for their own unique platform. But to achieve a two-thirds majority would require voting with the aim of making the most people happy rather than just ourselves.

I doubt this will ever happen, but it’s a kind of science fictional speculation of how we could change things if we tried. Human nature pushes us to keep doing the same thing until everything breaks and we’re forced to start over. Some people are advocating starting over now, but that will only make even a smaller percentage of people happy.

If we had such a maximized voting system it would be important to elect politicians that tried to make the majority happy rather than just special interest groups.

JWH

Why We Can’t Trust Digital to Remember

In The Map of Knowledge Violet Moller describes how the works of Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy were collected, translated, transcribed, and preserved over over the centuries. Most of the works from the ancient world have been lost. We have the Arab civilization to thank for preserving much of what we have from ancient Greece after the fall of Rome, and before the emergence of the modern western civilizations.

When humans first develop writing we wrote on stone, wood, clay, wax, and metal, but eventually invented the more convenient papyrus and paper for scrolls and books. We’re still finding ancient works of papyrus like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and we’re still translating steles from antiquity that archaeologists unearth. In other words, our data can potentially last for thousands of years.

On the other hand, it’s surprising how quickly it can disappear. Since the dawn of the internet age how many digital content providers have gone bust leaving their customers without access to the works they bought? Remember Microsoft’s Zune player? Microsoft phased it out which is okay, but they also turned off the servers handling the digital rights, meaning owners of that content were locked out of their digital libraries. Over the years I’ve bought books, movies, television shows, songs, albums, etc. from various online sellers that have disappeared. Much of it was without DRM, but I didn’t back it up. Since then most of that content has been lost between all my computer upgrades.

Today I only buy digital content from Amazon because that company is so big I hope it will never go out of business. But it if did, I’d lose thousands of ebooks, audiobooks, movies, television shows, songs, and albums. So far it appears that Amazon (and their company Audible) have saved everything I bought, even when the work went out of print. But sometimes I think I owned something I can’t find in my Amazon library. So far I think it’s me because in the early years I bought so much from other companies that I now misremember what I bought from Amazon. But I never can be sure.

Many years ago I decided to go paperless and scanned my files to .pdf documents. My mother had saved all my report cards and I scanned those too, throwing away the originals away. I can no longer find those files. I thought they were on DropBox. When you have hundreds of thousands of digital files it’s hard to know when a few thousand disappear. I’ve been putting everything on Dropbox for years, and they’ve always seemed very reliable. Again, I can’t tell if I could have accidentally deleted those files, or something in their system ate them.

I recently discovered my Yahoo email has all disappeared. I used Yahoo to save backups of important emails, but I seldom went to the site to look at these old emails. I just discovered Yahoo deletes your content if you haven’t access your account for one year. Dang. Also, I used to have access to all my oldest emails at Outlook. But now Outlook only shows recent years. If you get to the bottom of a folder you can request Outlook to show more, but I’m not sure if they save everything anymore.

What’s needed is a program that catalogs all my files and tells me when some go missing. I don’t do backups because I assume I have my files locally and on Dropbox and that’s good enough. I used to save backups to external hard drives, but keeping up with such backups is a pain. I recently threw out six hard drives. They had been sitting in my closet for years, but when I checked them they no longer worked.

I also worry about all my financial records. All the companies I do business with begged to stop sending me paper copies so they could go digital. Now I wonder about the wisdom of that. I realize if I died I’m not sure if my wife would know where all my 401K savings are located. But if I only saved on paper and my house burned down, where would we be too?

I’ve read a few articles in the news lately saying if you read the fine print we don’t own our digital content. We can’t resale it or lend it, but what about accessing our purchased content forever? What if a publisher goes out of business? What if a publisher selling through Amazon goes out of business, is Amazon responsible for maintaining that digital content forever for its customers?

And what happens to my 1,400+ essays if WordPress shuts down? One of my blogs, Lady Dorothy Mills, is about a woman writer from the 1920s whose work is almost completely forgotten. I started a website about her decades ago, and I used to get 1-2 emails a year asking about her. It’s been years since I’ve had a query. Only a handful of her books come up for sale every year. Even printed books have no guarantee of surviving. If I really wanted to save my essays I should print them out. I don’t though. I hate saving paperwork.

We are becoming completely reliant on saving data digitally. After our civilization collapses, and they all do, how will future scholars like Violet Moller write about us? A book from this century could last a thousand years. But even if a hard drive could last a thousand years, would people in 3019 have a PC to run it?

Or will future civilizations carefully preserve our digital data someway? For years I tried to save the files I created on my Commodore 64 or Atari ST to my early PC programs like WordPress. Even as late as 2013 when I was still working I’d get requests to convert 1980s Apple II discs so the files could be read on Macs. It was seldom possible.

We talk about plastics surviving for thousands of years. I wonder if it’s possible to produce a new kind of paper that’s nearly indestructible, including fire and water proof? That way, anything we really wanted to save we’d print on the new DuroPrint format. Or can we design solid-state drives that can hold their bit positions forever?

I’m at an odd point in my life. I have a lifetime of books I’ve collected that run in the thousands. They included printed books, ebooks, and digital audiobooks. I’ve actually saved too many books. I figure I might live another 10-20 years and I want to thin out my collection to just what I need as I fade away. I also want to start deleting digital files and paper files of things I no longer need. What a huge task. I’ll probably delete 99 out of a 100 items, but for that one, I’ll want it to survive no matter what, and be discoverable by someone after I die.

I feel like I’m moving towards an Omega Point where I will die with just the exact books and documents I need. It’s the opposite of building a library or filing system. I’m not sure I need to leave any of my books or papers to anyone. I’ll give away my books before I die, and my wife will need only a few papers. But I do worry about a few rare objects I own, like the Lady Dorothy Mills books, or rare science fiction fanzines. I’ve been scanning the fanzines for the Internet Archive. I should probably scan the Mills books too.

The Map of Knowledge by Violet Moller

JWH

 

 

Email Management = Mind Management

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 15, 2016

I’ve helped hundreds of computer users with their email. There’s probably a correlation between how a person organizes their email and how they think. Now, I can’t be the person who casts the first stone because of my own sins. I do better than most, but it’s a never ending war. Sometimes I lose battles and even ground, but over time I progress from chaos to order.

I know very few Zen Masters of the Inbox. The trouble is most folks don’t even know they have an email problem, or how they handle email reflects how they think. It’s like that old belief, a messy desk means a messy mind. Most people I helped are embarrassed to let me see their email program. Doctors see you naked, computer guys see your desktop and how you manage folders and email. That can be just as raw.

Email can be a treasure trove of history, just like old letters used to be. Unfortunately, few people make an effort to save them. Also, your email folder organization can mirror your interests in life. Finally, how you process and save emails can reveal how you categorize subjects in your mind. We all have a limited number of interests in life, If you have an email folder for each suggests a kind of mental orderliness.

email-logo

I learned this week that an email account I’ve been using for over twenty years is going away. I’ve been dreading that because I use email servers as external memory dumps. I’ve had email accounts in various forms since the mid-1980s, and I was on the internet with email years before the web. I’ve had to migrate email a number of times to new servers. I even ran an email server for a while for a couple hundred people. Each time I closed an account I saw evidence of my activities and thinking for a period of years. Moving this 20+ year account is a massive task because I have tens of thousands of messages stored in a hierarchy of folders.

Because I correspond with many internet friends those messages represented my only connection with them. Plus, my sent folder documents everything I’ve written in email since the mid-1990s. In six days it will all be gone. I’ve frantically been going through the folders looking for messages I think worth forwarding to my new account, but I’m sure I will miss thousands of emails that I will one day want to remember. I suppose I could do something wild like moving them all into the inbox, mark them unread, and then set up a POP3 client, put I won’t. I’m using this experience to clean out the past.

I wished I had moved to a large international email provider sooner. Maybe I’ll get to keep this account until I die. It’s a shame our society doesn’t have some way of archiving email history for the long term.

I am learning a lot about what I really need to keep. For example, I have folders for my mother and father’s side of the family, with emails from cousins and aunts. Like old letters, they represent a series of events we all shared. If I was to ever write a family history these emails would be invaluable documentation. I moved very few of those emails. That knowledge will now be lost. When my mother died, I had to decide what paper records to keep. I didn’t keep many. It’s just too hard to drag the past along with us. If it was easier, future historians would love us.

Under my old email account, I had numerous folders for organizing my personal interests and business connections. Plus, I used email as a way to remember things I wanted to read later. Whenever I read something on the web that I want to write about I’d send the URL in a link to myself in an email, and then file it by topic in my email folders. Now that I’m being forced to recreate my folder system I’ve decided it’s time to reduce my interests in life. I only forwarded a fraction of these “memory” emails to the new server.

In recent years I’ve canceled most of my email subscriptions. It’s best to avoid email whenever possible. In this current migration, I canceled all the rest, and only signed up for few of those under the new account. I love reading blogs, but easier to let WordPress manage my favorites. For favorite websites, I rely on bookmarks.

I’m making a top level email folder for all my main interests in life, but I’m learning that some of my interests might need to be forgotten. For example, I collected links to photography how-tos and DIY Raspberry Pi projects, two hobbies I wish I had the time to pursue more, but only piddle with from time to time. I might need to just delete those folders.

Whenever I read an essay that inspires me to write I save the link in an email to myself and file it in a folder. These are the hardest emails to delete. Deleting them is like deleting ambitions. But I need to Marie Kondo them too.

Email clutter is harder to manage than household clutter because we only see it when we open our email programs. Otherwise, it’s all shoved under the rug. Some web based email programs don’t even tell you how many messages are piling up in the folders. They seem to expect everyone to be bad at managing their email.

When I had to consciously decide what sparked joy, and what to delete, I realized just how many connections to the world I’m trying to maintain. Doctors, dentists, banks, retirement investments, warranties, repairs, service shops, taxes, library, streaming subscriptions, shopping accounts, etc.

Email represents our connections to a larger world. We used to keep such business relationships in file folders and then clean them out every seven years. Being forced to change email servers is forcing me to clean out over two decades of files. The trouble is I can’t look at most of them. I just have to hunt for the vital files and hope the thousands that get deleted aren’t that important.

It troubles me that most of my business interests have gone paperless and saved emails might be my only proof of transactions. I’m rethinking going paperless in some cases. If I died my wife might not even find some of my retirement accounts.

When I retired I was told I’d have my email account for life, and I organized my files thinking that would be true. That email life only lasted less four years. I hate having this done to me but I’m trying to look at it positively. Yes, tens of thousands of messages are being lobotomized from my virtual brain, but I can also see it as weight being lifted from my shoulders.

It also means I can redesign my email filing system again to match my current thinking. This might be v. 5. I’ve already thought of one innovation I wished I had made. It has occurred to me that I should have separate email accounts for my personal business and writing activities. And maybe even have different accounts for my personal life and my internet life. Would using multiple email accounts lead to a multiple-personality syndrome?

Some people leave all their email in their inbox and just use search to find old emails. If you don’t remember what you have you can’t search for it. Going through folders and looking at old emails reminds me things I’ve forgotten. Often that’s cool, but other times it’s wonderful to be reminded.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rethinking Going Paperless

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 12, 2015

Back in 2008 I started a series of essays about Going Paperless. I cancelled the paper, let all my magazine subscriptions run out, worked hard to convince junk mail senders to stop sending me crap, got off mailing lists, and did whatever I could to stop the flow of paper into my house. I greatly reduced my usage. It made me happy. My paper recycle box usually takes weeks to fill.

Then about a year ago, I got a couple magazine offers so cheap I couldn’t resist. Then I got more. Who wouldn’t want The New Yorker for $25 for 52 issues? After years of reading free on the web, I kind of missed the magazine experience. Now I’ve got piled of unread magazines sitting around again. I hate that. I hate to throw them out unread. I feel an obligation now to save those magazines and read them so the sacrifice of all those trees won’t have been in vain.

goingGreen

Having this clutter again annoys me. I do love reading magazines, but I hate their clutter. I won’t renew any of my paper subscriptions or make new ones. I actually do 95% of my periodical reading off the Internet, or from Next Issue, a digital subscription library to 140 magazines for $15 a month. I was almost paper free and I had a relapse. Sorry about that.

Annoyingly, our local paper has decided to give everyone weekly special issue. I tear out the crossword puzzle and put it in the recycle box. What a waste. I feel sorry for newspapers, but how many of their pages are actually read?

In the seven years since I started this project, my bank, credit card, retirement account, health insurance, car insurance, utility all wanted me to go paperless too, and I have. But it feels strange not having any paper proof of my savings and debt. I’m having to invent new routines to handle living in a digital world.

I still have plenty of paper books, but I don’t really like buying them anymore. I buy printed books when they are cheaper than Kindle books. For example, a recent book club read was $9.70 Kindle and $4.00 for a used printed copy. I went the cheap route. I’ll read the paper copy and then give it to the library. However, if I had bought the Kindle version, I’d have it for keeps.  I would have saved some trees and the fuel it took to ship it to me. I would have opted for the ebook if it had been $5.99 or lower. I think it odd that publishers price their ebooks so close to printed editions. Why aren’t electrons cheaper than ink and paper?

For the last two decades we’ve been going through a digital revolution, and it’s affecting more than just paper. I’m phasing out CDs, LPs, DVDs, cassettes and even hard drives. I recently switched to a SSD drive (solid-state drive). When I cleaned out my closet I found six internal SATA drives and one external USB drive, all 500GB to 2TB. My new SSD is only 250GB, and so far I’ve only used about 70GB. Because of cloud drives and digital content providers like Audible, Spotify, Next Issue, Amazon, Scribd, etc., many books, songs, television shows and movies I used to horde on mechanical drives now reside in electronic libraries.

I wonder if by 2020 if I will own any content on physical media? Not only will I have gone paperless, but I will have gone disc-less too. Did anyone imagine how the smartphone would bring about a paperless society? Now that Apple is joining the Spotify revolution, how many people will keep their old CDs, or even their iTunes songs. When I set up this new computer I intentionally didn’t install iTunes, or copy my 25,000 MP3 files to my Music folder.

I’m currently reading Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert, a novel from the early seventies about a secret branch of humanity that models their society on insect societies. Is the Internet creating a hive mind? Now that we store our libraries of knowledge and art online to share, doesn’t that radically change how we live?

Where does paper still get used? Packaging. Way too much of that. And what about school work. Do kids still turn in all their work on paper? Receipts are a big source of paper for my recycle box. And I still get too much junk mail – not anything like before, but still a good bit. For some reason every charity I contribute to feel the need to send me a regular magazine. I need to write them about that.

Of course, in the future when anthropologists unearth our civilization, they will only find dead smartphones and tablets. I wonder what they will make of that?

JWH

Next Issue: Can Magazines on Tablet Computers Replace Printed Magazines?

Years ago I gave up subscribing and buying paper magazines in hopes of going paperless.  Oh, I’d break the rules and buy a magazine now and then.  Then recently a guy a work started giving me his magazines after he read them with recommendations of articles to read.  I started discovering that some articles found in magazines are vastly superior to most of the free articles I was finding on the web.  I guess it’s a case of getting what you pay for.  I also discovered for some subjects its much more fun to browse a magazine than the web.

So I started back on a couple of paper magazine and quickly discovered I really don’t like them piling up.  Once you go paperless, it’s hard to go back to paper.  Then I discovered Next Issue.  For $15 a month I got digital access to a library of magazines.  (There’s also a $9.99 version with fewer magazine.)  I quickly rediscovered just how much I love magazines.  The only trouble is they don’t look very good on my iPad 2.

next-issue-sample

That’s not completely true.  Some look much better than others.  For the most part the magazines look like their paper versions – I see all the editorial content and the ads.  Some even have extras, like animations, film clips, and multiple view of photos, so in a sense they are super-magazines.  And some magazines actually reformat their content slightly to take advantage of tablets.  So when you get to an article you page down to read it, rather than page right, for a few pages, and then skipping to page 79 to finish the thing.  The magazines that use this feature tend to format their content in a larger font that’s easy to read without magnification – and that looks best on older tablets like the iPad 2.  Other magazines just give you two views of a static page, one that fits the screen on the tablet, and another brought up by double tapping that is greatly magnified that you slide around with your finger to read.

I’ve been reading for weeks with my old iPad 2, and getting into this new method of magazine reading, all the while thinking about how it could be better.  Mostly I thought about having to buy an iPad Air.

I then borrowed my wife’s Kindle Fire HD with a 7” screen and spent an evening reading my favorite magazines.  The Kindle HD has much better resolution than the iPad 2, a pre-retina display model.  Switching between the two  devices, taught me something about reading magazines on  a tablet, and made me realize that Apple no longer has a lock on tablet computers.  Here’s what I learned:

  1. Resolution matters – the more the better.  Sometimes it’s nicer to read small fonts than to tap and magnify
  2. 7” tablets are much easier to hold and read for longer periods of time
  3. 10” tablets make the photos pop out more, so it’s more fun to look at pictures with a larger screen
  4. If the magazine formats for the tablet, it’s much easier to read on a 7” screen
  5. If the magazine doesn’t format for the tablet, it’s much easier to read on a 10” screen
  6. An aspect ratio of 4:3 is probably better for magazines than 16:10, but not always
  7. I have to use a reading stand with the larger tablet for long periods of reading
  8. A 7” screen is more conducive of carrying around
  9. I’d love to be able to print a whole article, or clip it to Evernote.  The iOS version of Next Issue will let me AirPrint a page at a time.
  10. If I could clip an article to Evernote (or .pdf) I could print it from Evernote
  11. Tablets offer a way for magazines to offer more creative layouts, and even multimedia

Next Issue is far from perfect, but I still feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.  I would be happier if I could find just the right tablet, if I could save articles, and if I could get a few more magazines.  Of course this is dealing with two different issues.  One, can I enjoy reading a magazine exclusively on a tablet and give up print copies?  And two, does Next Issue offer everything I want to read?

Next Issue is a disruptive technology in the same way Netflix was a game changer.  I essentially stopped buying videos after I adapted to Netflix.  Will I give up buying magazines too?  Next Issue has a nice selection of over 125 magazines, but it doesn’t have The Atlantic, Scientific American, Discover, Sky and Telescope, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The New York Review of Books, Linux Journal, and others that I like.

next-issue-sample2

But like I said, that’s two issues when regarding whether can I give up paper magazines for reading magazines on a tablet.  If I had a Kindle Fire HDX, either 7” or 8.9” screen, or an Apple iPad Air or Mini with Retina Display, or a Nexus 7 or 10, or Samsung Note 10.1 2014, I might be able to conclusively answer the first part of the question.  They have the dots per inch resolution that will make tablets sharp enough to read small print.  And they might even make photography stand out more.  However, paper still wins on some factors.

If I can’t clip to Evernote or .pdf, printed magazines win on the “tearing an article out to save” factor.  Also, for “making a photocopy” factor.  They also win on “lending/giving to a friend” factor.  But tablets win on “these magazines are driving me crazy piling up around the house” factor.  Tablets also win on the “where the hell did I put that magazine” factor.  They also win on the “I wish I had that magazine with me” factor because Next issue works from the smartphone and iPod touch.

It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall.  Paper and printing will eventually go away.  Whether magazine library subscriptions like Next Issue will become standard is still to be decided.  Netflix hasn’t killed the DVD buying business, but it’s changed it.  Netflix did kill off the local video store, and I wonder if tablets will do that to newsstands?

JWH – 1/5/14

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