Conversation

I used to blog a lot. The reason was simple. I felt I had something important to say and blogging seemed a good way to get it out ‘into the world’. Writing my thoughts and sharing them publicly was a way to get them out of my head, but more importantly I did it because I wanted my words to start conversations. I had hoped that my friends would comment and share my posts to their friends and maybe they would comment and we’d start a conversation of some kind about the topic. I had hoped that maybe I could spark some change in the world. That rarely happened in any meaningful way.

So I thought, let me give up on the blog post and then post things on Facebook and maybe in that small format we could do the same thing. There I had a little more traction and once and a while a conversation in the comments would start and I would think : “Oh, I’ve gotten people to think about things a little bit, maybe they will extend that out to their friends and family”. But again, I never saw the success I’d wanted to see.

And it wasn’t about me at all. I didn’t want any credit for anything. I just want to make the world a better place and so getting a conversation started seemed good enough. I truly believe that all of the problems we face today as a society (nationally and globally) stem from the fact that people simply don’t spend the time and effort to try and truly communicate with each other. It’s ironic, but this wonderful tool called the internet has effectively destroyed conversations. The reasons are myriad: Comments are ruined by trolls, we have too many places to discuss things and none of them keep your identity from one place to another, we have language barriers, we as humans have bias against those who are in different groups than we are, etc.

I’ve written about this before somewhere. Sadly, I can’t find it now. But an idea I had was for the nation (and maybe the whole world) to take time to discuss topics. My original thought was for us to have a national topic of discussion every month and have the media and the schools promote discussions around the topic. I still like the idea but I want to see it work on the internet as well. So I’m going to start building a software service/platform called Conversation where everything is about your Conversation Rank. This is a number that will stay with you all the time and one that is constantly being updated based on the quality of your comments. It will be optionally anonymous but you will only be allowed to have one account/identity with my service. The thought is that you have it for life and you spend time commenting and talking on the internet and others will help determine if your rank goes up or not. Some of the most important and influential discussions will maybe be limited to only high ranking identities, while comments about cat videos are open to everyone, etc. There is nothing like this, but there should be. I think it will spawn apps and discussions on social platforms that are meaningful, that are valuable. Maybe we can make the world a better place after all!

Fixing our Voting System : part 1

Whether you were happy with the results of the election or most likely you weren’t (like most of the people who may read this) one thing I think we all can agree on is that the way we vote in America is terrible. And this, this is one of the few ways as citizens that we get to participate in our government. I mean, of course, if we don’t like how things are going, we have the ability to vote out the people who are governing. Right?

But how fair is our current system of representation? How easy is it for us to vote? How fair is the math involved in counting our votes? Hopefully I can show that the answer to all of those questions is : not at all. And hopefully I can motivate you to do something about making change in our system of voting.

Let me get an easy one out of the way right off the bat. It is hard for most Americans to vote. We have to Elections are held on work days. Elections are held during (mostly) working hours. We have to register to vote which in some states only happens at an office that is also open during working hours. Registration deadlines vary by state. Sometimes you need to get registered 90 or more days before election day. Once we are registered and finally get time to to the polling place to actually vote we find huge lines awaiting us.

None of this needs to happen this way. There should be little or no hurdles to voting. We should be registered automatically when we turn 18. The state knows who we are when tax time rolls around so they should know who we are when we vote. For national elections we should have a federal holiday. Why don’t we?

And now for something that I spent a lot of time studying and talking about voting systems. If you do any amount of research in this area you soon learn that everybody who studies voting agrees on one thing : Plurality Voting (our current system) Is The Least Fair System We Could Choose to Use. And I know you’re going to get bored fast so I will try to explain this simply. If a group of people have to choose someone from another group of people (more than 3) there are many ways they can do it. Currently we give each person (each _elector_) a vote for one of the candidates and the person who has the most votes is the winner.

At first this seems fair and in the field of voting theory there are many ways to define and measure “fairness” but I’m not going to go into them here. But at first, this seems a fair method because clearly the candidate with the most votes is the one the group prefers. But do they? A simple example would prove this wrong right away:

In this election there are 3 candidates: A, B and C. (You can substitute in whoever you’d like for those letters). A is hated by most of the electorate, B and C are universally liked by the group that hates A. If I can show you a case where A wins would you be convinced that plurality is bad? Ok. Here you go:

Election Results: A gets 100 votes, B gets 99 votes, C gets 99 votes.
Out of the 298 voters this means: A gets 34%, B and C each get 33%

Candidate A is the winner even though they did not gain a majority of the votes. Is that result fair? Is it acceptable to you if you are a B or C voter? Of course not. But variations of this effect occur all the time. Look at any primary that Donald Trump won in the very beginning of his campaign. As an example look at South Carolina

Election Results: Trump 32.5%, Cruz 22.3%, Rubio 22.5%, Bush 7.8%, Kasich 7.6%, Carson 7.2%

Could you tell me that all of the supporters of Cruz, Rubio, Bush, et. al would have preferred Donald Trump to be their nominee? What if they knew the eventual outcome of the presidential election? Would the Bush, Kasich and Carson voters have banded together with some of the Rubio voters to defeat Mr. Trump?

In what world can we say that someone who gets ⅓ of the vote should be the winner of an election? But we do it all the time. Shouldn’t elections strive to reflect the wishes of the voters?

There is a number of ways to run elections that are more fair and more accurately reflect the will of the people. One is Ranked Choice where you list who you prefer to win in order of preference. This is often combined with Instant Runoff where the votes are counted in successive rounds. Another is called Borda Count where you assign points to various candidates. There are countless systems that mathematicians consider to be more fair but my preference is one that is simple, fair and easy to implement with our current voting machines.

It’s called Approval Voting and it’s so perfect that a number of scientific and math societies use it to elect their leadership. Here is how it works : When you go to vote, you vote for _all_ of the candidates you ‘approve’ of and the candidate with the most votes wins. How amazing is that?

Let’s apply it to my hypothetical ABC election above. I said there was a large number of B and C voters that hated A and were equal in their like of B and C so they would vote for B _and_ C so the totals could be something like this:

Election Results: A gets 100 votes, B gets 198 votes, C gets 198 votes.
Out of 298 votes: A gets 34%, B and C get 66%

Of course this is not considering that some of the A voters would maybe approve of B or C and some of the B and C voters may have just voted for B or C alone. But what you see here is that A wouldn’t win and B or C would. Most importantly B or C would also have a majority of the votes in the election! This would mean that the candidate elected would more likely be the will of most of the electors! Wouldn’t this be an amazing system?

Having a system like this would also minimize the effects of strategic voting and reduce our chances of voting for ‘The lesser of two evils’. Imagine if we used this in just the 2000 presidential election: The ‘Nader effect’ would not have mattered and Al Gore would have won. Imagine we used this in our primaries. If we did and we had these huge fields of candidates we would more accurately see who the people would be happy with instead of seeing who can just convince 20-40% of them.

These changes I’m proposing make great sense so why don’t we have them now? I would say that there are a lot of reasons but the main one is that the two dominant political parties don’t want them. They right now control everything. The Democratic and Republican parties (which are not government institutions but private entities) enjoy enormous power in keeping things as they are. They can dominate the message, they can consolidate the power and they effectively make elections feel like we the people have a say when in fact we don’t.

Letting more poor and working people vote, and making election day a holiday would add more control of the system to more of the people the system is aligned against. Changing the voting counts would allow other parties and other candidates a chance to be counted which would dilute the power the D and R’s have over the system.

But we can pressure for change here. We as citizens can and should study up and learn that there are other ways to elect our leaders. We can and should advocate for a system that puts the control over who is elected back into our hands. It is our moral imperative.

All of the things I’m talking about start on the local level. You need to go visit the office of State Senator and go visit the office of your State Representative. You need to talk to them and find out how you can physically help make these changes happen. You need to talk to your friends and convince them of the changes I’m proposing here.

What is happening is that we as a people are being distracted by these huge important issues that we have little direct control over. This is by design. Please understand that making change starts with this simple, wonky boring changes. We need to get control over our government.

There is a lot more I want to say about our electoral system and I will be talking about gerrymandering, primaries and the Electoral College in later posts so please stay tuned.

Ad-Tracking is fine, but I want to pay to not have it

It’s no secret that we are being tracked by our phones and that people

have a sick amount of data on our whereabouts and our habits and everything else we like to keep private in our lives. Interestingly, it’s not just the govt. tracking us. We all know (and for some reason are ok with) that companies are doing the same thing.

I read this article about ad tracking and, frankly its kind of scary to me. I mean, I totally knew this was possible and I frequently say that I am happy to trade some privacy for some convenience but the amount of power these companies and techniques have is out of control.

Personally I feel that the FTC needs to step in and start trying to limit some of this but where would they even begin.

I know what you’re saying : If you don’t like it than don’t use your phone, get rid of all the apps.

But that’s kind of dumb isn’t it? There is so many cool apps and so much cool functionality that I get from using my phone. What can I do though? It seems that in this world I have no other option but to give myself in to the ad tracking.

There is another option and I wish that I could do it. Paid apps. For games we seem to have this cool economy where you can play for free (and submit to ads and tracking, etc) or you can spend some amount of money to get the app ad-free. Why is this not an option for the apps I use as well? Why is this not an option for my phones location services and how they are sent over the browser that’s built in?

I would totally pay for un-tracked and un-ad supported versions of Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and Uber and my browser. I would gladly pay extra for amazon not to share my  purchases and for google not to share my data.

Yes I know it’s anonymous but the way it’s done they know everything about me but my name. They know that person X123 bought all this stuff and went all these places and did all these things. How hard would it be for someone like the govt. or some interested party to have the company that has the super profile of X123 to add a name to that profile?

Let me pay for my apps. I’m tired of this ‘free’ technology economy we have. You should be as well! I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Am I?

The Next Big Idea : a data clearinghouse

(note : I touched on this idea a few years ago, nothing has really changed since then)

Idea : A data clearinghouse with public/open APIs. This would be the bridge between people like you and me and our ‘home’ data warehousing needs and the public at large.

Example 1: Billers, Banks, anyone who may send you a statement or bill : Instead of paper bills mailed to your home, they could use the standard API on the ‘outside’ of the clearinghouse to send you data about your bank account transactions, credit card bills, etc. On your side you can choose what to do with that data : feed it into your home version of quicken, file it away as a PDF in dropbox, do nothing, etc.

Example 2: Electronic Media you may buy (books, music, movies) can be delivered in a standard way through the clearinghouse to the storage back end of your choice : dropbox, your home NAS, itunes, etc. No more worrying about where your music is and what device can play it. All media players can support the standard API and they are in. Presto.

Example 3: Sharing data with friends and families : you choose the sharing rules, access, etc with your own API scheme and they do the same on their end but the public side of the clearinghouse uses a standard API to transfer the data and meta data.

The possibilities are endless and anyone could start this project and have it turn into something huge. If someone wants to start a company with me I’m in.

Some App Ideas

Feel Free to make these.. I am just an idea man.

Thought #1) In my favorite car service app (Uber) one of the best features is that when you order a car, it shows you a map and the car on the map as it weaves its way through the city to your location. There’s even an ETA.

Now, imagine that you had a similar app but for you and whoever else wants to know where you are. Lets call it : AlmostThere. You have a party or a dinner and your friends all link into the location and you get this map of all of them as they are heading to you. No longer do you wonder “where is Dave?”, “should we order? or wait?”, etc.

Thought #2) How many times did you want to show someone a photo from your phone but you are worried they may see something else on your phone or another photo in your gallery that you don’t want them to? There should be an app where you can set up a temporary viewing port on your friends phone and you can choose photos/videos to show them by just checking on them on your phone.

Thought #3) This one is pretty huge and it’s more an idea/vision than an app. So lets go back to Uber and think about how UberX works. UberX allows almost anyone with a car to be a taxi driver but on their own schedule. You sign up with Uber and they verify that your car is acceptable and that you have insurance, etc. and then whenever you want to work (say you have an evening or a free hour) you just sign in and it determines your location and assigns you a nearby fare to take somewhere. You drive the person and drop them off and Uber credits you some amount to your account and you either sign off or take another fare. It’s kind of a new way to think about labor. From your perspective you work when you want to work. From Ubers, they have a pool of people available that they manage. It’s up to them to incentivize drivers to log in and work (by varying fare prices, etc).

Now imagine that model extended out somewhat. Imagine the number of unskilled jobs that could be distributed in this way : delivery services (groceries, packages, pizza), simple clerical tasks, ticket takers at events, messenger jobs, farm laborer jobs, etc. Imagine that there is an app or an ecosystem of somekind where jobs are super temporary and the labor pool is flexible.

Lets take pizza delivery for example. There are 100 or so pizza places in Philadelphia. Maybe even more. All of them have at least one driver on staff and they have to manage that resource : what are their hours? taxes, insurance, etc. What if all the pizza shops were offered an uber like app where they just press a button and a driver shows up to deliver an order for them and they pay some variable fee for that service. The app can up the delivery charge for heavy volume days and lower the charge for slow days, etc. All the labor overhead is managed by the app (who gets to do it in aggregate).

This will happen, and it will happen sooner than we think.

How To Fix The Highways

There is nothing more bothersome to me than people driving in the wrong lane on the highway. In my mind there is one Driving Lane (on the far right) where you drive the speed limit or perhaps you drive more than the speed limit if there is no-one in front of you and you feel like going faster (no comment on what the speed limit (if any) should be). To the left of the Driving Lane we have one or more Passing Lanes which should be used to pass cars that are in front of you in the Driving Lane. An argument can be made that on roads with more than 2 lanes, there is a hybrid of Pass/Drive lanes in the middle of the far right and left lanes in which you may drive in when there is a lot of traffic and you pass when a car is in front of you but that’s for another post or perhaps in some comments somewhere.

Problems occur when we are merging onto a highway (usually into the right lane) or off of a highway (again usually out of the right lane).

I have a better way of doing things that at first seems rather odd so give it some time to sink in. We change the highways in a fundamental way by having all exits and entrances on the left side lane which I think we should now brand the Maneuvering Lane. This will also have the effect of keeping people in the correct lane : The Driving Lane. You won’t want to be lollygagging away in the lane with all the cars coming in and out of the highway would you? No, you would enter the highway and move into the Driving Lane and then simply drive your car and have no more stress until you have to exit the highway. If you want to go fast you simply move into the Maneuvering Lane when you need to pass someone and then you move back into the Driving Lane once the pass is complete (so you stay out of the way of people moving in and out of the highway via entrances and exits).

Of course we would need to come up with some kind of paint scheme in the Maneuvering Lane to indicate entrances and exits but I think this overall will incentivise people to stay in the Driving Lane for most of their trip.

So I know you are saying to yourself : “Well this is great but we would have to rebuild all of our highways to do it!” But I submit that you haven’t thought about this. We have highways already built that mostly follow this structure. They are simply on the other side. So I-95N for example becomes I-95S and vice/versa. See what I mean?

 

Supercart – repost

The following is a repost of something I wrote about 10 years ago in 2005. Still relevant today!

You heard it here first! I’ve got this idea for a RFID/GPS shopping cart. So, here it is..

So, this is for a shopping cart to be used in a supermarket, but it can be adapted for other uses. But I’m going to explain my idea in the context of a supermarket.

First the simple specs. The cart has RFID readers on the edges so anything dropped into the card can be read. Secondly the cart will have some type of way to determine it’s position in the store. I say GPS, but obviously that won’t work since the cart will be used indoors. thirdly the cart will be able to connect to a central server in the store with some networking protocol (I guess TCP/IP over wireless can work). Lastly on the cart is a touchscreen LCD mounted in the child basket.

Ok, so why do we need all this? Simple.. to make shopping fucking cool as hell AND to make more money for the store.

Here’s my vision:

You’ve just moved from San Francisco to New York and you need to go to the supermarket. When you were in SF you used the Supercart service and you hope that there is a supermarket here that has it.

You log on to the Supercart website. Since you’ve used the site before you’ve got your shopping lists already entered into the system. If you were a new user, you would be able to set up any number of shopping lists online using either the highly intuative and simple visual list entry system (photos of each item along with text details) or the ‘pro’  entry system which allows you to upload your list as an excel file or text list.

You are able to have multiple shopping lists stored in the system and they are stackable. For instance, you may have one that is your “basics” list that is stuff you buy every time you go to the market, then perhaps you have a few others that are for specific meals you like to eat. When you decide to use a list, you can have something like “basics + beef fajita + seafood salad + 2 apples + 1lb spaghetti” (with the apples and spaghetti added a la carte)

(note, the Supercart website has a bunch more functionality, but it’s not germane to our conversation here)

So, you logged on to the site, chosen/editied/created your shopping list and are ready to go to the store. (There is a link on the site that would check for home delivery services, but you don’t need the extra charge today to have something hand complied and delivered). You click on ‘Find a new Supercart store’, put in your zipcode, and up pops a list of stores in your area. Also noted on the list is the percentage of your list that is available at the stores. You pick the closest one with 100% of your items and off you go to the store.

You get to the store and find a Supercart. You push the cart into the store and as you are entering, you place your key tag under the scanner on the cart and it immediately recognizes you. On the screen pops your shopping list. Neat huh? Well, it gets better.

Since the cart knows where it is, it can tell you the best way to collect your items. It plans a path for you and guides you through the store on its small LCD screen. (note, the cart could be configured to walk a user past certain aisles or special displays, etc. but that’s up to the store owner).

When you encounter the item on your list, you simply drop it in your cart. The RFID reader recognizes the item and checks it off your list, or adds it to your list as an ‘extra item’. If you chose something close to an item on your list, the cart alerts you that you may have chosen the wrong item. There is also a running total so you know how much you are spending.

The cart, is smart however and it can help you shop. If you are a frequent user of this store (have a shoppers card, etc.) the cart will know this and can alert you to items that are similar to ones on your list that are on sale. Since it knows where it is, it can also point you to the similar items along the way.

Ads can also be included for special items. The applications are endless.

So, how does this help the store? It adds goodwill, its an enhanced experience and users will more likely support a store that has carts than one that doesn’t. It also allows the store the opportunity to directly target sales. It’s like you handed your list to the manager and he personally is walking you through the store saying “I know you like Barilla pasta but our store pasta is freshly made.. why don’t you try it? I’ll give you a dollar off”, etc.

How does this help the shopper? Are you kidding me? If you can’t see that, you have no reason for living… seriously , it’s faster, more accurate, more efficient and just kicks ass!

So, yea.. if you are a supermarket or software company and you want to use the idea, feel free.. kindly offer me a job along the way if you could.. There is a lot more in my head here..

Go California

voterCalifornia is a kind of a cool state when it comes to Democracy. Unlike every other state, the voters there have the ability to propose referendums and then vote them into law – totally skipping their representatives. In 2010 they made two very significant changes to the electoral system.

The first was that all districts were drawn up based on geography and they were made by unaffiliated professionals. This contrasts almost everywhere else in America where the politicians get to draw the lines of their districts which has led to districts where the politicians almost cannot be removed from office. See this from 2010 as an example of the gerrymandering I’m talking about.

The second change was that the state primaries were to become non-partisan where everyone regardless of party could vote for anyone running in the primary and the two top vote getters (regardless of party affiliation) would face off in the general election.

These two changes are HUGE and will go a log way to making elections more fair in California. This year there are a number of candidates running for congress there that would never have had a shot otherwise. I urge you to read this short article from Time magazine explaining the current election cycle there.

Before I tell you what else needs to happen I want to take a second to applaud the voters of California for these changes. They are game changers and they need to be implemented universally across the country and I urge all of you to publicize these changes and write to your representatives to beg them to make these changes. Sadly we won’t see this happen almost anywhere else because the people able to change things are the ones who benefit the most from keeping them the same. There’s always revolution…

Anyway, California needs to go further and I’m going to take a second to tell you why. For years now, mathematicians and others have studied voting and have pretty much unanimously decided that plurality voting for more than 2 candidates in a field is the worst system one could possibly use . The reasons are many. But they mostly boil down to the fact that not all of your wishes as a voter are being counted in the math deciding the winner. If you simply choose who gets the most votes, that candidate may very well not be the one most people would choose.

For example, lets take an election with 3 candidates. One (candidate R) is a hard core Right Wing candidate, another (candidate D) is a hard core Left leaning candidate and one (candidate M) is right in the middle. Say that many of your voters are strongly biased towards candidates R and D and that all of those strongly biased voters would gladly vote for M if they knew that R or D would win.

 

Say that after the results are in the voting comes out to something like : 40% R, 30% D, and 30% M. Is this a fair result? Is it the right one? The only happy voters are the R voters. The D voters are thinking “we would totally have taken M, we hate R”, the M voters could be thinking the converse “if we had chosen D instead of M we’d be in great shape” (remember the Nader voters who swung Gore out of the presidency?).

A system like this leads people to strategically vote : They vote for a candidate they don’t really like much because they think they have the best shot at beating a candidate they hate. This is called Tactical Voting and it pretty much kills third party candidates that would have a legitimate shot if people had a way to say “I want D but I’d also accept M.. just not R!”

Here’s another example that’s illustrative. Imagine if there are 10 candidates and they get 11%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, 10%, and 9% of the vote. Who should be the winner then? Would that be fair?

There are many other problems with plurality voting, just do a tiny bit of research and you will see what I’m talking about. This is the problem in California that they need to fix and there are many ways to do it.

The way I propose is called Approval Voting and it’s so fair that the American Society of Mathematicians use it for their elections (at least they did last time I checked). The way it works is simple. You vote for all the candidates you like and you don’t vote for the ones you don’t and the one with the most votes wins. It’s not perfect, but it’s 100 times better than what we do now.

There are other systems like the Borda Count and other Ranking systems, but in terms of simplicity and ease of implementation Approval is by far the clear winner. So California, you are almost there, just change your primary voting system and I will move there!

 

BusCam

I ride on Septa busses a bunch and one of them goes down 8th Street into South Philly from Center City and every day its another adventure. There is always something interesting to see or hear on that bus. It’s always an experience for me.

Which leads me to my next great idea.

There are a number of cameras in the bus (see the photo below) and of course they are used for security purposes, however I think they should be used for more than that.

2014-04-29 17.03.59

 

My idea is that Septa should pick a bus line and they should broadcast on the web a feed of all the cameras in real time. With sound. The page should have a real time comments section as well.

This all could be supported with ads and I would imagine that it would be an instant hit. Not only in Philly, but all over the place.

And before you start saying that Septa is taking advantage of it’s riders, forget it. The cameras are already there and people already are used to them and don’t expect privacy on the bus.

In fact, more and more companies should broadcast on the web their cameras for money. Septa is just one example.

The Cool Job Vacation

Wouldn’t this be cool? You pay to take a week vacation to try out a bunch of cool jobs. Each day a new job (subway train conductor, pit crew helper, fireman, etc.). I would totally do it. Wouldn’t you?