Category Archives: Philosophy

Capitalizing on the Value of the Elderly in Modern Society

As modern societies develop, become richer, and life expectancies increase, the ratio between the elderly, non-working population and younger, industrious population shifts towards unsustainability. In the United States in 2010, for every 100 working-age adults there are 22 non-working elderly. By 2030 there will be 37 non-working for every 100 working age adults. (from census) The increased dependency ratio on the 20-65 age group will slow economic growth and add burden to already strained government support programs.

What seems so backwards is that instead of providing value and filling important roles in society, much of the 65+ age group is filed away in retirement homes. As we age we often become less effective at the kind of social roles that modern society has chosen to put value on like manual labor and creative ingenuity.

What I suggest is that there are in fact important social roles in which the elderly populations can be very effective, but are not currently taking up in a systematic way.

Many grandparents are already playing a small role in the upbringing of grandchildren, but cultural, physical, and economic factors are preventing the full potential for that role to be reached. For every 100 working age adults there are 45 children who must be supported. Why are there so many child care facilities while there are so many able-minded elderly with nothing to do? One burdensome population can actually lessen the burden of the other.

Jared Diamond just gave an eye-opening TED talk comparing the value of elderly populations between traditional, tribal societies and modern westernized societies. Elderly were valued for their wisdom, leadership, craftsmanship, and child rearing abilities, freeing younger populations to hunt and fill other physically intensive roles. Elderly often lived among all ranges of age groups and could provide value wherever able. Responsibilities were shared among a community and not just a single immediately family. Though we live in a very different world now, we would be smart to learn something from historical social structures and see where we may institute programs to make better use of the human resource we collectively share.

Lawrence Lessig’s TED Talk on Reclaiming the Republic

Lessig talks about how the people have lost control of our government to those who have money. He tells stories of politicians and everyone connected to the political and legislative process evolving their thinking to appease their financiers. Deregulation is politically counter-productive because those involved get steady cash from lobbyists to manipulate those regulations. Total reform is nearly impossible because keeping the status quo means keeping your financial backing.

Lessig offers an emotional argument to draw attention to this issue of corruption, a word he uses many times. He reminds us that regardless of how impossible the task of forcing change in the engine of political finance may seem, we must do it because we love this country as we love our child. Lessig gives no path of action or inspirational light at the end of his talk, making it all the easier to push the problem out of our minds. I would at least resolve to keep the issue in the back of my mind in hope of having some small idea to affect change.

Arguments Against Owning a Home: Specialization of Labor

I recently read this article on TechCrunch by James Altucher entitled “Why Entrepreneurs Should NOT Buy Homes“. In discussing the topic with some friends, I was turned on to this article in the Wall Street Journal by economist Robert Bridges showing statistically why home ownership is almost always a poor investment. The idea rings true to me. Altucher focuses on Entrepreneurs, but I believe his argument could be extended to almost anyone and it has to do with specialization of skill.

You could summarize Altucher’s article in two core points:

  1. Entrepreneurs should not own homes because the investment is illiquid meaning you can’t use the money for other things when you need it. In the same sense, when you might need to pick up and move to a new city for a job or your level of income changes it can be difficult and expensive to sell your house.
  2. Owning a home takes time, new skills, and adds a lot of stress that distracts your from things that are most important: being really good at what you do and enjoying your life.

Altucher’s argument is similar to the idea of specialization of skill and division of labor. Economic prosperity and development really took off when people stopped doing everything for themselves and started to focus more on what they’re good at. If you’re good at making furniture it’s more efficient for you to spend your time doing that and investing money in better tools rather than spending half your day farming and investing money in farming equipment. Leave the food to someone who does that for a living and sell him some furniture in exchange. Likewise, leave the property management and investment to someone who does that for a living and focus your time and money on being better at whatever it is you do – be it startups or photography or teaching economics.

If, on the other hand, you really ENJOY fixing up houses and aren’t worried about moving soon, it could make sense to buy a house for personal reasons, but less as an economic investment. Also, this argument ignores the psychological aspects of lack of disciplin for investing controlled by forced mortgage payments, but a similar effect can maxing out your 401k and other investment strategies.

Democracy 2.0 with Micro-voting

The democratic process hasn’t changed much. The public elects a representative, representatives make decisions. The average citizen is essentially limited to three tools for affecting change. First, we elect the politician who best convinces us they’ll make the decisions we would want to make. Second, we can send correspondence to our representatives hoping to influence their decisions. Third we can hold protests and demonstrations to broadcast our opinions.

But there can be a better way. Modern communication tools allow the public better access to government and can revolutionize the democratic process by voting directly on the issues. Using internet, text message, and phone voting systems citizens can be directly involved in the decision making process. The role of the representative is reduced to more of an organizer than a decision maker because constituents decide most of the issues themselves. This is democracy 2.0 not because of the invention of new tools, but because it changes the way people behave. I believe we’re headed in the direction of popular governing, but it’s not a perfect world.

Old school tools of Democracy 1.0

There are three essential tools. Ballot voting is infrequent and highly constrained. Decisions are simply yes/no or choose your favorite candidate. No second choices, no weighted scores.

Correspondence with representatives is a free-form way to express opinions and ideas, but it is usually ignored or not accurately counted because representatives simply can’t handle the volume. It lacks transparency and accountability in that only the representative knows the aggregate opinion. Sending correspondence requires knowledge of the system and time.

Protests show what a sample of the population thinks about an issue. To decision makers it roughly quantifies two things about an issue; proportion of the constituency and intensity of the opinion.

There’s a better way with Democracy 2.0

With more ubiquitous methods of communication we now have the tools for a more involved democracy. One where citizens can become more involved in the decision making process. The ease of arranging “micro-polls” through the web, text message, or telephone is such that we can weigh in on any range of issues. By making these polls open and transparent and frequent, we could have truly participatory democracy. Micro-polls can be used to develop policy decisions with rapid iteration harnessing the “wisdom of the crowds”. Determine weather any actions should be taken, then what kind of action until the constituency arrives at the most agreeable outcome.

Round 1:
Poll: Should the federal government adopt policies to reduce the number of illegal immigrants?

Round 2:
Poll: Which method of reducing the number of illegal immigrants do you most agree with?
— Forced deportation
— Keeping non-citizen status, but documenting and taxing
— Naturalizing to eventually be US Citizens

Round 3:
Poll: As non-citizen, documented workers the following services and taxes should be imposed:
— All normal social services and medicare except social security and impose all normal taxes except social security
— No social services and impose all normal taxes except social security

Public surveys on non-policy issues such as a yearly report card for representatives give feedback so they can do their job better without waiting for the next election cycle. Constituents rate various qualities on their representative on a scale from 1 to 10. Descriptive statistics would provide more valuable information such as standard deviation and a breakdown of ratings by demographics.

Crowd sourced idea generation could lead to novel solutions for hard problems. Anyone can submit ideas and the best ideas are voted up. Discussions revolve around the ideas to help them mature.

The web could be used as an official forum for discourse between a representatives and their constituency where everyone gets a voice. Think of it as a town hall meeting on a national scale. Voting and crowd filtering would make quality questions and comments raise to the top while trolls and inappropriate comments would be voted down and hidden by popular disapproval. The forum also gives the representative a venue for communicating their personal beliefs beliefs on the issues as a well informed, political professional. This is where the organizing and rallying happens.

By being more involved in decisions and having a high frequency of iteration, it strengthens the feedback loop that citizens feel through exercising their rights. Psychologically, many people would feel more connected to the democratic process and would hopefully be willing to contribute a greater amount of mental energy toward the running of their country through greater sense or ownership.

Not without it’s problems

No political system is perfect. While Democracy 2.0 could be a vast improvement, it doesn’t solve every problem of Democracy 1.0 and it also exposes new dangers. People are quick to point out that electronic voting is unsafe and error-prone. There are secure, open source options, but that is the subject of many other blog posts. Some countries like estonia already employ internet voting using the national ID card as authentication. Great care would need to be taken by the election commission to certify any system used.

The general public is often more susceptible to manipulation by persuasive individuals than an elected official would be. News pundits and politically motivated propaganda is no stranger to Americans today, but the effect could be even greater when the people have greater control over more decisions and it could result in a detrimental effect. Democracy depends on a well-informed public and that value is something we need to instill in our culture regardless.

Mob dynamics don’t always result in the best decision. There are numerous studies showing how the sense of moral responsibility declines in groups more than when acting individually. And sometimes the “most agreeable” compromise is worse than either extreme. We’ve all heard the maxim “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” This is where the role of an inspirational representative is so important in getting their constituents behind a cause and guiding the conversation toward an optimal outcome.

The idea of a representative has been necessary because people don’t have time or knowledge to wisely vote on every issue, so they instill their trust in their elected official. That problem is still valid, but there are ways of having it both ways. For example, if a constituent doesn’t vote, their vote could be allocated to the representative. Alternatively, those who care deeply about an issue will be represented and those who care less will not be heard. Voting is and always should be optional.

There is still a lot of thought and experimentation that needs to go into Democracy 2.0, but we can move forward in baby steps.

More Resources

http://usnowfilm.com
http://opengov.ideascale.com/a/dtd/2865-4049
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/12/world/americas/12iht-currents.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_voting_in_Estonia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_democracy#Electronic_direct_democracy

Conficker C and a future with self-evolving computer viruses

I’m absolutely enthralled by the Conficker C virus after reading this analysis from SRI International. The C variant is the third major generation of the Conficker virus and demonstrates the highest level of sophistication found in any computer virus or worm to date. What excites me most about it is the decentralized nature of its peer-to-peer method of quickly propagating updates to itself in the roughly 12 million infected computers around the globe.

Researchers have identified the date of April 1st as when the virus wakes from hibernation. The event has been simulated with a copy of the virus in computer science laboratories, but since the virus gets its instructions through the peer-to-peer network and rendezvous points, it is impossible to tell what kind of code will be executed until it happens. Speculation has ranged from the biggest April Fools Day joke ever to a massive dragnet or “Dark Google” allowing the virus’s authors to search for sensitive information on infected machines en-mass and sell it to criminal organizations or governments. Which is especially worrisome since Conficker has infected many government and military networks.

The authors have demonstrated the most cutting edge knowledge in multiple disciplines so this is not just a kid sitting in his mothers basement. This is a closely coordinated effort between a group of extremely talented individuals and I personally wouldn’t be surprised if the authors, if caught, turn out to be a part of a government initiative. The SRI report says “those responsible for this outbreak have demonstrated Internet-wide programming skills, advanced cryptographic skills, custom dual-layer code packing and code obfuscation skills, and in-depth knowledge of Windows internals and security products.”

Conficker C does a mutex check with pseudo-randomly generated names when it initially installs to avoid overwriting itself. Then it patches the win32 net API to inhibit antivirus software and block antivirus websites. The fact that it patches only in memory DLL files and not persistently stored DLLs means that removal tools can’t simply replace the compromised files with clean ones. It also does a patch of the same windows vulnerability it initially used to enter the system but leaves a back door so that only new variants of Conficker can use it. This prevents other viruses from piggybacking on Conficker and competing for control of the system.

Conficker spawns a thread with the purpose of searching for a static list of known anti-virus applications and terminating them to defend itself from attack and blocks services that allow anti-virus software to auto-update. It also deletes all windows restore points and removed safe mode as a boot option. Conficker uses dual-layer encryption and code obfuscation to hinder efforts at reverse engineering it. Conficker released an update just a few weeks after a new md6 hashing method became publicly available from the original researchers at MIT.

The authors uses two similar methods of propagating updates to infected machines. Previous Conficker variants use a clever “rendezvous” system to randomly generate a huge list of possible locations for rendezvous locations where the authors may have placed a distribution server that changes on a daily basis. The randomized nature and the large number of possible locations make efforts to block those domains impractical. Once a machine has an update it can also assist in spreading it to other machines via the peer-to-peer network. Currently, almost all p2p networks require some kind of “seed” or predefined peer list to be introduced into the network, but Conficker doesn’t. It uses the same kind of pseudo-randomly generated destination list as the rendezvous system to generate an initial peer list, which essentially bootstraps itself into the network. There is absolutely no bottleneck that can be attacked to stop Conficker from communicating with its peers.

Some of my own ideas

Antivirus filters and coordinated strategies that to thwart the spread of viral software utilize patterns to identify uninvited guests. I see future decentralized malware using a randomized approach to avoid detection. If the same application is also capable of virally updating its peers, a system of natural selection will evolve. This is essentially how genetic algorithms work. In this case, the natural fitness function is the ability to infect new systems (spawning offspring) and its defensive ability to ward of efforts of removing it from the host (self preservation). In this sense, randomized configurations (the genetic code) of the virus will be propagated to new systems and over existing instances at a higher rate, and thus the more successful variants would become the most prevalent. And there we have a model of evolution.

The process works the same way as HIV and flu viruses and has the effect of a self-healing, growing network that can autonomously adapt to new countermeasures developed by antivirus companies. A self-evolving computer virus has the advantage over biological evolution of electronic speed. Time is the greatest enemy of evolution. Digital organisms have the chance to excel beyond anything we have observed in nature.

Fortunately, genetic programming hasn’t yet advanced to the stage where the scenario I proposed is practical. Current genetic programming algorithms are limited to a constant set of numerically variable attributes that are randomly modified in each generation. Those attributes could never be complex enough to resemble an actual evolving organism and too much of the logic for a computer virus has to be pre-programmed and static. I expect that to change over the next decade as more work is done in this area so watch out.

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