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How Bitcoin Could Be Key To Online Voting

TopherC How about a partial-representative democracy? (480 comments)

This got me to thinking: if we can invent a "good enough" electronic voting system, and in an age where communication is cheap and easy, why not go farther and consider a democratic system where every citizen is allowed to vote on any issue directly, if they choose, or a person could elect their own personal representative. So there would still be room for professional politicians. But some people would prefer to read blogs containing oppinions on issues, or decide on a per-issue basis to cast their vote independently from their chosen representative. Representatives would probably have a maximum limit of representees to avoid over-concentration of personal power. Political parties would either have no legal support or might even be legislated against. I don't know, I'm just thinking out loud so to speak.

For me, the two biggest problems with US politics are (1) lobbying and campaign finances and (2) the effectiveness of propaganda. The power of lobbying would be weaker if citizens retained their right to vote directly and independently on any issue they choose to. That would also encourage legislators to blog about what they are supporting and why. This might help them gain representees as well as swinging independent votes. The effectiveness of propaganda is a much tougher issue to deal with, but I believe that disrupting a two-party system would help, as would the teaching of propaganda analysis as part of the standard curriculum at the high school level. Hopefully others have better ideas.

And before you say "That'll never happen!" let me agree on that point but then refuse to let that stop me from dreaming. In modern times, what would a more effective democracy look like? The foundation of democracy is that people are intelligent and capable of self-government. Is that even a valid principle? If so, how could we implement it better?

about two weeks ago

Education Debate: Which Is More Important - Grit, Or Intelligence?

TopherC Re:obligatory /. car analogy (249 comments)

This hits the issue on the nose. Thanks!

I was reading Kohn's article on this just a couple days ago, and thought he made a lot of good points. It might help to know that one perspective of Kohn's is realizing the limitations and over-utilization of testing, and standardized testing in particular. "Grit" may be, in proper moderation, a good thing. But the positive feedback cycle that relentless accountability and academic assessment provides can go haywire here, rewarding students for being persistent to a fault and rewarding teachers and schools for producing such students.

The main difficulty with testing in schools, AFAICT, is that the skills, character traits, and knowledge that are most worth teaching are generally not ones that are easy to assess. Combine this with the fact that all teachable test outcomes become their own measure of success, regardless of their inherent value to a person. This makes it easy for us, as a society, to lose sight of what's really important in education.

about two weeks ago

Google Throws Microsoft Under Bus, Then Won't Patch Android Flaw

TopherC Re:Makes sense. (629 comments)

I agree this article is mostly foolishness, but underneath this is a substantial issue with Android. It would be much easier for a provider to push a security patch if it were backported from the latest-greatest release to some of the still-active prior releases. Even then there would be a substantial time delay. The manufacturers do some initial porting of newer Android releases to their hardware, and then the providers take that software and customize it further. Most of what the providers add is best described as bloatware (and some spyware like carrierID), but some of this is network-specific support. Lots of testing happens at each stage, especially by the manufacturer.

Porting to a new Android platform actually requires a lot of additional work as often the hardware interfaces (HAL) are modified and expanded. In addition each manufacturer has a highly customized version of Android at various levels, and porting all of this takes significant effort.

Because of all this, there is no quick way for Google to "release" a patch to people's phones (except for the Nexus phones). Google could help to hurry some security patches by backporting them, but manufacturers could also do the same. It is not, technically, Google's job to do anything but support their Nexus line. They also keep most of the platform code open (publicly available anyway), allowing other manufacturers to follow along or do as they please. And because porting does require such effort, Google also needs to continue to find ways to provoke the major manufacturers into keeping up the work.

This model for Android platform software has been successful, but is obviously flawed when it comes to distributing prompt security patches to users' devices. It's easy to gripe about this but difficult to come up with practical solutions.

about two weeks ago

EFF: Apple's Dev Agreement Means No EFF Mobile App For iOS

TopherC Re:Principles vs Practicality (220 comments)

Well, I'm sorry for the EFF, then, but everyone knows what the terms are to get an app in the iOS App Store.

This sounds, to me, like the EFF allowing slavish adherence to their principles to prevent them from doing something that might actually help real people in the real world advance those principles in meaningful ways.

Their specific complaints about Apple's license agreement make it sound to me like a practical, real-world problem. I don't think the petition will garner any response from Apple directly, but it's useful for educating people who don't bother to read carefully the entire agreement before signing up. There are certainly a lot of things in that agreement that will cause me not to click Agree.

Their first objection alone makes it obvious why the EFF cannot provide the equivalent iphone app: "Ban on Public Statements" is a promise not to publicly discuss the license agreement itself. It's a recursive problem. It they intend to raise issues with any of the license agreement, they cannot agree to it in the first place, which is part of what makes it objectionable, which is why they are compelled to raise issues with it.

about three weeks ago

Possible Dark Matter Signal Spotted

TopherC Re:Whence Occam's Razor? (66 comments)

Oops wish I could self-edit. The paper is short and easy to read. It answers pretty much all these questions.

about a month and a half ago

Possible Dark Matter Signal Spotted

TopherC Re:Whence Occam's Razor? (66 comments)

I think sterile neutrinos are among the least-exotic explanations that hasn't been ruled out yet. Still, I'd love more information here: Why hasn't this been seen before? What theories predict x-rays at these energies? What kinds of confirmation are feasable?

about a month and a half ago

The Failed Economics of Our Software Commons

TopherC Re:I am no economist, but as a geek ... (205 comments)

I think what you're pointing out is really important from a broad economic perspective, since it's not always money that motivates us.

But I also think that TFA calling the software economy a "failed" one is technically accurate. One perspective on this that I've been pondering for a long time is the idea of Pareto optimality and the free market hypothesis. The hypothesis is that a free (unregulated) market economy becomes Pareto-optimal. A market segment that becomes sub-optimal is called a "failed" market. I think it's by that definition that the software market fails. Not that it's completely broken, just sub-optimal. Traditionally this defines where a government can step in to impose regulations to, for example, deter monopolies or prohibit cartels.

I am not an economist, and I cannot prove this, but I think that one of the assumptions underlying the free market hypothesis is that any good has a non-zero production cost. In hand-waiving terms, the concept of scarcity underlies economic theory. But a lot of our economy today is in goods that have either zero production costs, or production costs that are dwarfed by development costs. Software is the prime example, but music, movies, news, and more are also examples of this. There are other industries that are in a gray area, like microchip manufacturing, where development costs and capital investments are huge.

Pareto efficiency, as I understand it, can be thought of as a test of whether or not at any snapshot of time a redistribution of goods could theoretically be made in such a way as to make folks, on average, happier. Again I'm hand-waiving, and IANAE, etc. But if software is produced and distributed at nearly zero cost, then by giving more people who want the software, but not badly enough to pay for it, a free copy, or a free site license, we make some people happier without taking away from anyone else. Remember this is a momentary redistribution-thought-experiment, not a sales model. So any kind of commercial software, it seems to me, fails the test for Pareto optimality, and therefore the software market has "failed."

I'm not saying that commercial software is bad or evil or even unhelpful, just that a traditional free market economy does not, can not, regulate the software industry in an efficient way. We can do better. I don't know how, but I'm pretty sure there's significant room for improvement. In a sense, the success of free software (forgive the sloppy term) is a proof of this. I also tend to think of software that's paid for by advertisement revenue (free apps, web sites, all of Google) as another case study of a failed market. But that's a tangent.

I really like the idea of Snowdrift.coop. I like that they take a game theory approach to this problem and have what seems like a reasonable solution. I don't, however, think it solves the problem entirely by recovering an efficient software market. Their primary case study, OpenSSL, is not the kind of software that is by itself innovative or disruptive. It needs to work and work well, but it is a solution to a common and well-known problem. One of the key features of a free market is that it allows and even encourages failure. I don't (yet) see how the Snowdrift.coop concept will similarly encourage experimentation and failure.

To touch back on your point that we are not entirely motivated by money -- Yes of course that's true and it's important to not feel governed by the economy. If our basic needs are met then often we can focus on higher goals and motivations. But I'd still like to see a world where software and other industries like news media can thrive on equal footing with the more traditional industries. As these newer industries continue to grow, I think we need for them to be efficiently regulated.

If I were clever enough, I would like to be able to propose some modification to a market economy that can generalize to industries with zero production costs. I've thought a lot about this in spare moments here and there, but I haven't gotten anywhere. Has anyone else?

about 1 month ago

Interviews: Malcolm Gladwell Answers Your Questions

TopherC Re:Divisions (48 comments)

Well said.

This and the original question Gladwell was answering reminded me again of a basic question I've had since youth: why a political dichotomy anyway? Why not three types of people, or just individual issues that we have independent opinions on? Haidt explains some of this from the perspective of personality traits, but I wonder if another part of the answer lies in the most common voting system in the US: plurality voting. That system has the feature of a 3rd-party-spoiler effect, where a 3rd political party worsens the election chance of their most closely-related parties. Okay this is a bit of a stretch, but my reasoning is that this causes a two-party system to be a kind of stable equilibrium. This shapes the political landscape and makes things like mud-slinging propaganda to be unusually effective. With a simple conservative-liberal dichotomy, politicians (and advertisers to a lesser degree) can speak in terms of belonging to one group or another, about us-versus-them, and who-you-are rather than what-you-think.

Granted, Haidt does have some good points. But when Gladwell pointed out that Canadians aren't so obsessed with the liberal-conservative dichotomy I started to wonder. ... Okay, I see that Canada also has a plurality voting system, so I'm likely full of ... it. Eh, I'll post this anyway. :)

about 2 months ago

Ask Slashdot: Professionally Packaged Tools For Teaching Kids To Program?

TopherC Re:Don't teach them to "program" (107 comments)

About design patterns: In my own experience, I learned about design patterns only after many years of programming experience. I had already encountered and/or invented all the patterns I later read about. But reading about them was good because it allowed for a common language to communicate with other programmers as well as a kind of self-reflection and ability to think about design patterns more conscientiously and methodically. I'm glad to have learned about these when I did, and not sooner.

It's just fine, IMO, to teach programming as a self-discovery, unguided hacking, kind of thing. This is a "constructivist education" approach, and works extremely well in many cases.

The same comments apply to a lesser degree about teaching multiple languages and general programming language concepts. I would not teach a second programming language before a young student had the chance to explore and get comfortable with their first. That may or may not take long.

about 2 months ago

Pope Francis Declares Evolution and Big Bang Theory Are Right

TopherC Re:Tip of the iceberg (669 comments)

There's actually a lot of potentional scientific correct stuff in the Bible. Yet, discussing them usually gets frowned upon by either team - it seems (for atheist scientists) a lot easier to discard the bible as 'rubbish' instead of an historical document - where the religious camp tends to take this same history book too literal, despite all translation issues.

I need to disagree with your referring to the Bible as a "history book." Even though it contains a lot of historical narratives (combined with folklore), the purpose of the authors never (?) seems to be to document some piece of history but rather to highlight some moral idea, to explore our relationship to God, to help a nation have hope and stay together in times of exile, to stir up questions and provoke thought, etc. The stories told are never recent events at the time of writing, but reflect strongly and relate to the political landscape of the times they were written in. Also the style of writing is generally distinct from the style of other ancient-contemporary documents that were written to preserve history.

What I feel is a more helpful approach to the Bible is to read it like it were poetry. What analogies are being used? What is this really about? How does this change my ideas or motives? I know this conflicts with a "literal" interpretation, so I know many will violently disagree with this idea, but I can't fathom why. The Bible contains a wide range of conflicting theological opinions. We don't read cookbooks like they are philosophical treatises, and we don't read science fiction like a newspaper. Why do so many people ... Okay I'll stop. No, I won't. Consider for example the book Job, a non-historical narrative, that challenges the theology of divine retributive justice, and how that relates to the new-vs-old thought in the New Testament. Then think about the two creation myths in Genesis not as right-or-wrong histories but as stories that provide windows into human nature and the human condition.

I like the rest of your ideas. It's important to keep an open mind. Just make sure you're equally open to conflicting ideas and avoid falling into the trap that because something's possible, or because you believe it for some reason, it's true. Every good theorist hopes for the day their theory gets taken seriously enough to be experimentally proven false. Maybe in religion we should all hope for a time when we understand things well enough to realize our former beliefs were all poppycock. It's hard to find a higher (philosophical) aspiration than that.

about 3 months ago

Debate Over Systemd Exposes the Two Factions Tugging At Modern-day Linux

TopherC Re:How about we hackers? (863 comments)

I've been running Gentoo on a few boxes at home for many years. Very often I need to restart a service. It often goes along these lines:

# /etc/init.d/someservice restart
Stopping ... error.
# /etc/init.d/someservice start
I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid someservice is already running.
# /etc/init.d/someservice stop
# /etc/init.d/someservice zap
Well okay then. Whatever.
# /etc/init.d/someservice start

about 3 months ago

Ask Slashdot: Dealing With an Unresponsive Manufacturer Who Doesn't Fix Bugs?

TopherC Re:Stop paying until the bugs are fixed (204 comments)

I like this advice, but in the case at hand -- it's been two years! -- I doubt it's worth wasting any more time trying to get your issues resolved by that vendor. You'll have to eat some costs one way or another.

This is probably a textbook case for promoting free software. That has to be said. And since you'll need a replacement VPN solution, it's not just a pedantic argument.

about 4 months ago

Why Atheists Need Captain Kirk

TopherC Re:And that is why the Spock/Logic way is incomple (937 comments)

I like that quote, even though it was a bit difficult to digest. The English language has evolved in the past century in a way that demands much less of the reader and conveys much less complexity and accuracy.

I wanted to add, somewhere, my $.02 about "faith." I'm told that early (1st century) Christians used what-we-translate-as-faith to be a kind of radical trust. More verb than noun. A trust in an idea, not fully understood or rationalized, that allowed them to lead lives that were unselfish, bold/foolhardy, non-violent extremists, anti-establishment, share-the-wealth sorts of people. The idea is that for them, faith was incompatible with certainty. Conviction deletes the possibility of faith. They did not have proof of deity, a consistent doctrine, etc. Reason was encouraged and appealed to, but knowledge was known to be incomplete.

What most people think about religion is that it is a doctrine (teaching or authority-based knowledge) that requires unwavering belief without question or reason. (My perspective here is Christianity rather than all religion, but I suspect that most major world religions are similar in this way.) Yet this is probably not a genuine or original form of any given religion but instead what human nature and politics have deformed religions into over time. People want to be told what to believe, and people who desire power cannot help but use fear and shame to great effect. I think modern-day Christianity is more about manipulating people and in most respects is the exact opposite of its earliest incarnations.

Science today has some of the same struggles. Science itself is an art, since the more precisely one tries to define it, the more inaccurate that definition becomes. Scientific knowledge is a little bit of an oxymoron since science can be described as a tool for disproving what is not true more than it is a means of proving what is true. This is true on all scales of complexity, but it's most evident at the reductionist frontier of particle physics and cosmology. The standard model is not logically consistent with general relativity, yet both theories are spectacularly successful. And there are problems of naturalness, etc. It is not tenable, not reasonable or scientific, to think that our most successful scientific theories are set to last. Modifications need to be made, and probably in big, fundamental, philosophically-challenging ways. The history of the development of physics is full of cases like this and physics is by no means "done." But people are eager to philosophize based on "what scientists know", and they are eager for answers from authority.

Authentic science, like authentic religion, is not authority-based. I'm not saying anything negative about consensus, just that there is always room for new theories and new experiments regardless of credentials. Data does not respect authority. And I don't believe there needs to be any contradiction between the two approaches of religion and science, as long as we are referring to religion as a searching process not a placating drug. Both science and religion address the basic problem of doing the best we can today with what little we know. Good scientists know that good questions are better than "right" answers, and good ... what, "religious" folk ??? (atheists included) ... know that it's better to be loving than right.

I suppose most of these ideas come from two books that might seem diametrically-opposed: The Underground Church, and Dreams of a Final Theory.

about 4 months ago

Ask Slashdot: Best Rapid Development Language To Learn Today?

TopherC Re:Python + Qt (466 comments)

A program like the grandparent's "Hello World" is meant as a starting point and not a demonstration of how small a nearly-useless program can be. A GUI program necessarily aims to do more than just print a message, and this example gives you a small glimpse at how you the language could look and feel, and how you might go about doing something more practical. A MessageBox popup is not a good starting point since about all you can change is the text itself.

about 7 months ago

Interviews: Bruce Perens Answers Your Questions

TopherC Re:Protecting the Weak from the Strong (224 comments)

Do you have personal experience with this? Are there any data on that? How many lives are saved per year by the threat of gun violence?

In the absence of a study, imagine a world in which every citizen (maybe older than, say, the legal driving age) is carrying a firearm. Imagine the major population centers like NYC where the statistics would matter. Would there be fewer gun-related deaths in that world than in ours? I can't see it that way. I would feel safer in a world where people are more encouraged to deal with conflict in a nonviolent way.

about 8 months ago

Happy 95th Anniversary, Relativity

TopherC Re:Simultaneity is in the eye of the beholder. (120 comments)

Re: Mercury's precession, I'm still a believer in Vulcan.

Yeah, even the term "disproves" is not exactly correct. Newtonian gravity has a very hard time explaining Mercury's precession and is completely untenable with today's observational evidence. General relativity explains Mercury's orbit without having to invent new invisible planets & stuff. And today General relativity is still doing spectacularly well with many careful neutron star observations as well as experiments closer to home, like Gravity Probe B's measurements of frame dragging and more.

about 7 months ago

Happy 95th Anniversary, Relativity

TopherC Re:Simultaneity is in the eye of the beholder. (120 comments)

Funny, I read that book (which is excellent) but don't remember that analogy. But I think you're talking about special relativity, not general relativity. The best GR explanation I've seen is an article Lost in Hyperbolia. For me that explanation worked perfectly.

Now I remember reading in various places that the solar eclipse data on GR was not actually conclusive. Bad science. The earlier work Einstein did that explained the precession of mercury's orbit was actually the first confirmation of GR. Also, of course, confirmation is not a word that is ever used correctly in science. The precession of mercury's orbit disproved Newtonian gravity but failed to disprove GR. The bending of starlight by the Sun would have been an even more impressive failure-to-disprove GR if the data were actually conclusive.

about 7 months ago

Lectures Aren't Just Boring, They're Ineffective, Too, Study Finds

TopherC Re:I've heard slashdot is behind the times... (166 comments)

I guess I need to read through the studies some more, but I believe that most/many indicators of education show that lecturing is poor (relative to other methods) regardless of the particular talents of the students. Yes, I have felt that I've gotten a lot out of certain lectures. Some lecturers are definitely better than others. Certainly both student and professor abilities can make a huge difference, but on top of that a professor can still do better by adopting a hybrid approach.

Lecture for a bit (less than 10 minutes, maybe 15 tops), then switch it up. Have students work a problem (maybe in pairs) and vote on a solution. With smallish classes you can use simple voting methods, and with 100+ groups you can use electronic voting. Have short, focused discussions. Do a demonstration that includes volunteers. Have students research related topics and present their own mini-lecture (small classes only). And so on. Even if the professor is a great lecturer and the students are all highly disciplined and auditory-sequential learners (almost never true for an entire class), they would *still* benefit more from this kind of approach. It certainly takes more work on the part of the professor and involves some retraining, but students are paying a lot of money for their education and they ought to be treated as valued customers a little bit more. I've tried these approaches myself in undergraduate physics classes of various levels from gen-ed courses to the introductory sequence and up to the jr/sr level. I won't claim to have mastered anything but it quickly became obvious to me that lecturing for an hour is never the best way to teach. There are alternatives and a conscientious professor owes it to their students to pay some heed to the learning sciences and experiment with different approaches. It's not a one-technique-fits-all kind of thing, but anyone can improve upon pure lecturing.

I heard of one professor that met a student wandering the halls at the end of the semester, looking for their professor. He asked him where this certain professor's office was -- they were preparing for the final exam and had some questions. He said "I'm your professor. Have you seen me before?" Obviously this student didn't feel that the lectures were an efficient way for them to learn.

about 9 months ago


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