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

When Will Women Have a Constitutional Right to an Abortion?

by James Wallace Harris, 6/25/22

Predicting the future is impossible, but we can speculate. The Supreme Court just changed its mind about how it interprets the Constitution regarding a woman’s right to an abortion, so can we expect it will change its mind again? Congress could pass a law giving women a right to an abortion but the Supreme Court could knock it down. The most lasting solution would be ratifying an amendment to the Constitution. That probably won’t happen anytime soon. But when might it be possible?

Anti-abortionists fought to reverse Roe v. Wade for half a century, will it take that long for the political pendulum to swing back? Polls show that a majority of Americans want abortion to be a legal right for women, so how did anti-abortion voters win? The common answer is they joined forces with the conservatives. The conservatives have also worked for decades to get what they want, and are succeeding because they have formed a tight coalition among several special interest groups.

I would assume feminists would have to join several other special interest groups and work with the Democrats to get what they want. Is that possible? What alignment of special interests would beat the alignment of specialist interests the Republicans have formed?

We must admire the conservatives for their dedication, focus, and work to get what they want. Are liberals willing to make an equal effort? Will liberals make a more significant effort to join school boards, get elected in city and state governments, work to influence law school curriculums, and do everything else the conservatives have done since the 1970s?

I have read many books about how conservatives have achieved their political goals over the last fifty years. Many of their tactics have not been honest or ethical. Will liberals go to such extremes? We are currently watching the conservatives subvert democracy to game the system. They have been sowing doubt on all the tools liberals would use to get what they want, especially science, education, medicine, journalism, and common sense.

Liberals have always relied on intellectual proof to fight for what they want, and conservatives have completely undermined intellectualism. Liberals can’t rely on logic to get what they want. They will need to build a coalition of passionate wants. Conservatives have won what they wanted with well-managed minority interests. Can liberals find enough minority interest groups to create a larger coalition than the conservative groups? They have the feminists, LGBTQ+, some minorities, environmentalists, and anti-gun, but who else? They used to have labor, but that’s not so anymore.

It would be great if the liberals could claim the scientists, but scientists are often people first and scientists second. The Republicans have done well with certain religious groups, are there other believers that would passionately support the liberals?

Are there interests that liberals could take back from the conservatives? The core driving force of conservatives has been anti-taxes. Greed is the most powerful political interest of all. If the Democrats could find ways to solve social problems by spending less money it would be a huge factor. If Democrats could find ways to improve the financial health of families and individuals without increasing taxes it would also help. Voters want security, stability, and law and order. Republicans have always been able to capitalize on that more than Democrats. If liberals want to swing the pendulum back their way, they need to change that.

I doubt I’ll live long enough to see the political pendulum swing back to the liberal side. The conservatives are still gaining momentum. I’ve seen a lot of change in my life, and if I live another ten or twenty years I expect to see a lot more. I never imagined that Roe v. Wade would be overturned. But then, the future has always been everything I never imagined.

JWH

Just Who Slept With the Pods?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/14/22

In the 1956 film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dr. Miles Bennel (Kevin McCarthy) realizes his friends and neighbors are changing. One by one they all start thinking alike and that worries him. If you haven’t seen this famous film about the pod people you should. It’s based on a 1954 Collier’s serial by Jack Finney called The Body Snatchers, which was then published as a book in 1955.

The story is about an invasion of pods from outer space that transform people if they sleep in the same room with one. Back in the 1950s, the story was seen as an allegory about communism. Finney has said he didn’t target communism specifically when he wrote the book, but most readers and moviegoers did back then.

In 1951, Robert Heinlein had published a similarly themed novel called The Puppet Masters. In that story, flying saucers land with creatures that attach to our backs, and take over our bodies and minds. Heinlein was an arch anti-communist, and his story was intended to imply the evils of a commie takeover.

In 1953 Robert Sheckley’s story, “Keep Your Shape” reflected a liberal’s paranoia. It appeared in the November issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Sheckley rewrote the story for his collection Untouched by Human Hands and gave the story a much more elegant ending and a different title, “Shape.” It’s a humorous story told from the aliens’ point of view, about how they invaded the Earth twenty-something times and always failed. The aliens come from a rigid society of shape-shifting creatures whose God dictates that everyone has to maintain a certain shape. On Earth, the aliens are corrupted by our freedom when they see that we take so many different shapes. Sheckley’s story was anti-establishment and anti-conforming.

My point in mentioning all these stories is I feel like the conservatives have been sleeping with pods or have an alien riding on their backs. I feel this because they all seem to speak the same way. It’s kind of creepy to see political ads for Republicans because they all claim to toe the party line better than any other Republican. They all claim to hold the same beliefs. And their followers all repeat the same soundbites. I’m sure conservatives feel the same way about us liberals.

A couple days ago The New York Times ran a book review called “Where Have All the Liberals Gone?” The conservatives have made the term liberal such a dirty word that liberals are now calling themselves progressives. Conservatives have aligned themselves so tightly with Donald Trump that it reminds me of the fanatics who follow Putin and everything he says.

It makes me feel like the Kevin McCarthy character wondering when I will fall asleep and wake up a pod person. I no longer think of communism when I watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I think of everyone following one leader, one strong man’s view. If you look at history, the dangerous horrors of the past didn’t come from ideologies, but from single men pushing their view of reality onto everyone else.

I no longer understand what conservative or liberal philosophies means, even if they ever had a consistent description of their goals. I’m now thinking it’s always been individual men pushing their own philosophy onto other people. (I use the word men because I can’t think of any women dictators in history. I hope women won’t mind me being sexist in this instance.) That’s why Trump is so popular – people resonate and relate to him. He is their political philosophy, no matter how you label it.

I want a true democracy. But I don’t think it will ever work when winning is defined as a 50% majority. I think it needs to be at least 60%, and better yet, a winning majority should be defined at 75%. I want to live in a society where we work to compromise and create laws that attempt to make 100% of the population happy. It will always fail to reach 100% agreement, but if we could work out compromises where 60-75% of the population come to some kind of agreement, then I think we could escape our never-ending political polarization.

Right now we vote for our self-interests. And we vote for candidates that come closest to those self-interests. I have to accept that Trump is a beacon shining on what a lot of people want. But as long as half the country wants something different we’re going to have a miserable society.

When 50% is the finish line for any political agenda, we’re going to be ruled by pod people. I think real democracy begins when 75% of the population hammers out good compromises. I don’t think one politician with one point of view could ever find that many followers. Maybe we should move away from politicians and have referendums on everything. If we can’t find ways to get three-fourths of us to agree, then we should do anything.

It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you live on, if we have minority rule, or even 50% majority rule, half the country will always feel they are living with pod people.

JWH

Back to Normal?

by James Wallace Harris, 2/7/22

Every time we live through an extended power outage I learn something new about myself. Our power is back on. Our electricity was restored on the fourth day after the ice storm. There are still over 61,000 people without power in Memphis on the fifth day. I feel very bad for those people because I know their misery. I know some of their thoughts and anxieties, their inner pleas, and prayers for utility restoration.

We are back to normal, but this time I’m questioning my normalcy.

We lose electricity once a year or more, sometimes for 2-3 days. Last year I wrote “Cracks in My Comfort Zone” about the 2021 ice storm. I wrote “Thrown Off the Grid Kicking and Streaming” in 2017. In 2011 I wrote “Blogging by Candlelight and Paper” and in 2008, wrote “Living Like Jane Austen.” There were many outages in between those years, but not long ones. Sometimes it’s in the heat of summer, like Hurricane Elvis, when we went 13 days without power. But more often, it’s in winter, after an ice storm, or in the spring or fall from weather fronts colliding.

Each time I learn something philosophical while living without electricity. This ice storm wasn’t as bad because we never approached zero degrees like last year. The worst was 17 degrees. In both situations, my biggest fear was bursting pipes. This year my friend Leigh Ann had a supply shelf, a color laser printer, and her studio floor ruined by two burst pipes. Last year Mike and Betsy had a flooded bathroom from one burst pipe. Laurie told me about a neighbor that once had a tree fall on her house and do $200,000 worth of damage. But then I think about those people in Kentucky hit by a tornado. We’re all lucky.

After last year’s ice storm, I made several preparations. I had the gas fireplace I was too afraid to use last year cleaned and checked for safety. I had the pipes in my crawlspace insulated. I bought a Jackery to recharge the cell phones. That was a tremendous purchase. As were two battery-powered LED lanterns Susan and I carried with us at all times. I also had our trees thinned of dead branches, but it wasn’t enough. During the ice storm, we kept hearing the crack and crash of falling limbs. It felt like it was raining limbs on our roof. One huge limb came down in front of our house and our neighbor called and said we should rush to the casinos with that luck.

Being without heat and hot food is miserable, but what we suffered mostly from was boredom. That’s a pitiful problem of privilege that I hate to admit. The only time I’m bored is in a power outage. Ditto for Susan. That shows just how pathetically addicted we are to our TVs and computers. These power outages reveal our dependency on screens. I know that’s not good, but I don’t know if I’m going to change either.

We hunkered down and endured. While some of our friends got out and still did fun things. But those friends aren’t as addicted to screens as we are. This year I tried to get up and do more things around the house, like wash dishes by hand, clean out closets, fold clothes, even vacuumed with my battery vacuum. One day I went out and filled our tires with the proper amount of air pressure. That made this outage much better than last year.

However, one thing that made last year very miserable was my prostate problems. This year I had two temporary crowns the cold annoyed but that wasn’t so bad. Obviously, health and vitality are a factor in enduring power outages. It must be torture for people with acute and chronic health problems to go without power.

Last year our phones ran down quickly. We charged them a tiny bit in the car, but it wasn’t a practical solution. This year, we charged both phones with the Jackery several times, and the Jackery still had enough juice left for several more charging. Also, we have new iPhones with 5G and we were able to play Google TV on them – that lessened our boredom. I also listened to audiobooks and read using the Kindle app on my iPhone.

The small iPhone screens gave us most of what our big TV and computer screens give us in our normal lives. That was interesting. I’m thinking an iPad with a keyboard could do everything we wanted if it had broadband access. For next year, I want to check into getting a broadband hotspot that would work with our existing tablets and Susan’s laptop.

I often read fiction and nonfiction about life in the 19th century. Those people had to live with the cold all the time and didn’t have electricity. In adapting to future power outages I need to plan for ways to follow our normal routines and be just as active.

Susan and I wore lots of layers and snuggled under three Afghans each in our recliners. That essentially solved the cold problem. The gas fireplace helped some too, but not as much as I had hoped. The temperature in the house was 50 degrees. It was 44 degrees last year and falling. It was 57 degrees in the living room near the fireplace. That made a difference. Three days living at 50 degrees wasn’t horrible, but 44 degrees was just miserable last year. Overall, we handled the cold well. I have a few tweaks to try for next year. I’m assuming that bad weather will become more common.

We were better prepared for food this year. I had bagels and cream cheese, cheese sandwiches, and protein bars. Susan had tuna fish and peanut butter and jelly. We ordered pizza one night and got Burger King one lunch. I’m a vegetarian, so I had their Beyond Burger. It was good but cold. I heated it up on the gas fireplace.

Next year I know to get a healthier supply of food that can be eaten cold. I’ll investigate camping food. Also, if I know a storm is coming I should wash all the dirty clothes and dishes ahead of time. Slowly we’re getting better at adapting to short periods of living without power.

Susan’s folks went ten days without power in this house after the 1994 ice storm. I was afraid we might have to go that long again. Some people in Shelby county might have to go that long now. Being prepared for 1-2 weeks is important.

Susan wants to get a gas stove and maybe a gas oven. Eating hot food would have helped, especially for a longer outage. I could have heated up soup on the gas fireplace but just didn’t. If the outage had lasted longer I would have.

I want to buy a generator. Last year I pondered getting a generator but decided I didn’t want to mess with a portable gasoline generator and thought a permanent fall-over natural gas generator was too expensive for outages that only happen a couple times a decade. Now that it’s two years running I’m rethinking that.

The main lesson I learned this time is I need to become more active in my retirement life and less dependent on screens. The key is to be prepared for outages, but try and live as normal as possible while the electricity is gone. We tend to just sit and wait for the power to come back, and that’s not good.

I need to work on a new normal.

JWH

2022 Book #4 – The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/22

Reading about the past is calming my anxieties about the future. The Horse The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony is not a book I recommend to the casual reader. I expected it to be a popular science book about archaeology, but it turned out to be something much heavier. It’s a scientific work, probably used as a supplemental textbook. I found listening and reading the book to be rewarding and inspiring but it’s not fun. However, it has caused me to do a lot of philosophical pondering.

I won’t try to describe the book, Wikipedia has done an extremely detailed job with hyperlinks. If you want to know what the book is like, here is Anthony giving a lecture. This is exactly like listening to the audiobook.

I bought this book years ago and never read it and gave it to the library book sale. Then I read a popular article about linguistic anthology and decided I wanted to try it again and found a used copy. Still, I didn’t read it. Finally, I found an audiobook version that made it more accessible. I’m glad I had the physical book to refer to, because of its many complex charts and illustrations. This was a rewarding read, but I just want people to know it’s real science, not even popular science, and the going is tough. It took me weeks to listen to it all. Mainly, I want to talk about how I reacted to the book.

For years I’ve been troubled, even disturbed that our species lack real effort to combat climate change. For almost thirty years I’ve been waiting for governments and citizens to change their ways. I now realize that was naive of me. People don’t change. Not that I’ve given up complete hope, but all the evidence tells me our global civilization will never do anything significant about climate change.

That has inspired some existential insights. I expected humanity to grab control of reality and do everything it could to freeze the environment to its 1850-1950 weather patterns and maintain that as a steady-state forever. Once I started studying archaeology I realized that weather has always been changing over our species lifetime, and even for the whole lifetime of the Earth. Humans have always adapted to new weather patterns. It’s probably too fantastic to think we’ll control the weather.

Reading The Horse The Wheel and Language showed that humans have never stayed the same either. We’re constantly changing. Civilizations come and go all the time. Reading and watching documentaries about history and archaeology is teaching me that change is constant. That old saying, “the only thing constant is death and taxes” is true.

On its own specific subject The Horse The Wheel and Language is fascinating, but like I said, I not going to recommend you run out and buy it. Most of it is one giant infodump describing several societies around the Russian Steppes from about 4000-1200 BCE. The most interesting chapters were the early ones about the Indo-European languages and how linguists infer what the Proto-Indo-European language was like, and more specifically to this book, where in the world did the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language lived.

Anthony claims by looking at the array of words in an ancient language and comparing it to the array of objects that archeologists have unearthed, we might pinpoint where those people could have lived. For example, if a language has the word for a wagon, but no wagons are ever found, it’s a not likely match. Or if a language has a lot of words for raising sheep, and lots of sheep bones were found, we might be getting warm. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. For example, linguists can show how words from adjacent civilizations have passed into a language. I found all this fascinating, but overwhelming.

This is why the words Horse and Wheel are in the title. Only certain early civilizations had horses and wheels. For a long time, horses were only hunted for food. Then they were domesticated for food. Then came riding horses, and finally using horses to pull carts, then wagons. This made me think about how we’ll adapt to climate change. We’ll invent housing, clothing, lifestyles, jobs, political parties, etc. to adapt.

One thing I was amazed to learn was just how many different groups of people existed in a small area in prehistory that we know about. Most people when they think of ancient civilizations think of Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and a few others. To me, the Russian Steppes and nearby lands sounded like North America before Columbus with countless tribes of nomadic and agrarian peoples.

For a while when reading the book I thought of making a timeline/list of civilizations to memorize but I soon realized that could become a lifetime project. I’ve ordered an archaeology textbook to help me get a bigger picture, but I’m not sure how big of a picture I can manage. Reading this book also made me crave maps, so I ordered a couple of atlases.

Many of these early civilizations lasted hundreds or even thousands of years. That made me think about how often world maps have changed in my lifetime. If the United States of America doesn’t make it to its 300th birthday it won’t be alone. All the descriptions of past changes of civilizations due to climate change, war, technology, disease, etc., make me wonder about what America might be like in the 22nd century. I now understand we can’t keep the weather of the 1950s forever, or the politics of the 1790s, or the technology of the 2020s.

About 85 million people died in the decade before I was born due to WWII, or about 3% of the world’s population. We’ve already put enough CO2 in the atmosphere to kill that many or more by the end of this century. Since we’re not going to stop adding CO2 anytime soon, billions will probably die in the 22nd century. Percentage-wise, civilizations have seen that kind of population reduction before.

I believe conservatives wanted to preserve the social climate of the 1950s, while liberals wanted to keep the weather environment of the 1950s. Neither will get what they want. All the demographics on Americans and America will be so much different in the 22nd century that we wouldn’t recognize either.

I need to stop speculating or worrying so about the future. Studying the past is philosophical liberating for me, but I’m not sure how much I should pursue it either, but I will. Living in the now is what’s important. And that’s why most people don’t worry about the future. I doubt for most of humanity’s existence the future was even a concept. I also assume the reason why so many people embrace various forms of denial is they don’t want to know the future because deep down they fear change. But change is coming. We can’t stop it.

JWH

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