Sunday, May 30, 2021

A modest proposal to reform online "star" product ratings

Star ratings suck. They are next to useless. 

In my years of online shopping, I've noticed something interesting: pretty much every product I look at on (for example) Amazon is rated close to 4.5 stars.

How is that helpful? 

People talk about "grade inflation" at colleges. Now let's talk about "rating inflation" in online stores.  

  • Why should a product that simply does what's expected of it get the highest possible rating? 
  • How can you accurately rate a product without using it for a while? 
  • Why should a product be rated "1-star" because you didn't understand what you were buying?

Here's my proposal for a "New Star" rating system. (And if you use it, you should identify it as a "New Star" rating to distinguish it from the bad old system.)

Here's what I think New Star ratings should mean: 

  1. Terrible. Avoid this product. It completely fails to do what it's supposed to. (Don't assign this rating just because you're a little disappointed.)
  2. Flawed. The product works, but has some significant problems. Buy at your own risk. 
  3. Satisfactory. The product performs as advertised, possibly with some minor flaws. You won't go wrong buying it.
  4. Excellent. The product performs better than expected and is a superior value. I'm glad I chose it over alternatives.
  5. Awesome. The product is close to perfect. It surprised and delighted me with how good it is. (Don't assign this rating just because the product, you know, works.)

In this scheme, few products would get a 5-star rating. A rating of 3 stars would be the norm for products that simply do what they're supposed to. An average rating of 4 stars would indicate a superior product.

And, folks, don't rush to give something a rating the minute you take it out of the box. Many (if not most) products can't be accurately rated until you've lived with them for a while. Especially things where longevity is a key attribute (like, say, batteries). 

In my perfect world, whenever you you try to assign a star rating on a website, it should pop up a reminder to observe the "New Star" guidelines. Unlikely, I know, but I can dream. Taking this further, sellers could go through a transition phase where they display both New Star and old star ratings. And perhaps New Stars should be visually distinct from the traditional ones, for example with 4 points instead of 5. 

What do you think? Wouldn't it be great if star ratings were actually helpful?

Saturday, September 26, 2020

What if the government was run like a private insurance company?

We're all familiar with how insurance companies, being smart, will invest a little money as a hedge against a big claim. They'll pay for a free flu shot rather than incur the risk of having to cover the much more expensive treatment of a flu victim. They'll waive the deductible to get your chipped windshield fixed before it turns into a full-on windshield replacement. 

What if the government operated this way? Prime example: we have plenty of evidence that pre-K education pays big dividends in later life, in the form of higher productivity and income, and even better health. It's not even close. If government was run like a private insurer, it would insist on funding preschool because the return on its investment would be so great. 

Some other areas that a rational insurer would want to cover: 

  • Climate mitigation and resilience. Much cheaper than ever-increasing expenses for disaster recovery. 
  • Clean energy. As has been noted, the health benefits alone would deliver a big payoff for getting rid of fossil fuels. And what rational businessperson wouldn't want to invest in virtually unlimited free energy? 
  • Drug development. What if, instead of granting patent monopolies and then struggling to insure the spiraling cost of extortionate drug prices, the government simply invested in drug research and made the results available as cheap generics? The savings to Medicare and Medicaid alone would be massive. 
There are many other areas that a rational private insurer would want to invest in, in order to lower its future payouts and drive down the cost of premiums. But when it comes to government, the anti-tax crusaders view every expenditure on social welfare as a net loss to the economy. Since most of these people claim to be fans of business, how can they oppose the government operating more like a private insurer?

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Sunday, August 30, 2020

Yes, Trump is inarguably a psychopath. And a dangerous one.

Note: this post is based mostly on a long article by Dr. Vince Greenwood, a clinical psychologist who founded the site because he is alarmed by Donald Trump. Greenwood directly addresses the so-called "Goldwater Rule"—you can't diagnose psychological disorders without interviewing the subject personally—and why it doesn't apply to Trump. I highly recommend the entire article, but this post covers the key points about Trump. 

Thesis: The 45th President of the United States has a disorder that conveys danger to all those in his orbit.…There is no cure for this disorder. Nor do there appear to be any effective measures to curb it. The best we might do is diagnose the disorder and warn others.

Psychopathy has received more attention and research than any other personality disorder, with over 3,300 studies to date. One can predict with a high degree of confidence that a person diagnosed as a psychopath (about 1% of the population, 75% male) "is destined to inflict significant harm and mayhem on many that cross his path." 

The standard Hare Psychopathy Checklist consists of 20 traits, each to be scored a 0 (not present), 1 (data unavailable or inconclusive), or 2 (definitely present). Traits include the following (see the article for the complete list): 

  • Egocentricity/grandiose sense of self-worth 
  • Pathological lying and deception/gaslighting 
  • Conning/lack of sincerity 
  • Callous/lack of empathy 

A "perfect" score on the checklist is 40. Different researchers have used either 25 or 30 as the threshold for a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy. The average score among the general population is 5. Among imprisoned criminals (male), the average is 22. Greenwood calls a score of 30 or more "extreme and dangerous".

He gives Trump a score of 32. 

To a significant degree, psychopathy is inherited, suggesting that Trump's parent(s) may well have suffered from it. As to what exactly is being inherited, recent research has established that it's a different brain structure than most people have. Briefly, psychopaths process emotionally-charged situations in the part of the brain responsible for language and problem-solving, not the part that handles emotional regulation. "They simply do not experience the appropriate emotional reactions to moral wrongs." When you think of a "cold-blooded killer", he's almost certainly a psychopath. 

The psychopath's brain also doesn't respond normally to things like fear of violating acceptable rules and boundaries, and the regions responsible for impulse control are smaller.

In a nutshell, then, Donald Trump inherited a brain that doesn't work the way most of ours do. He is literally incapable of caring or empathy

These brain anomalies "help explain three fundamental traits that appear to be foundational to the condition" of psychopathy: 

  1. lack of conscience 
  2. inability to process emotions that foster empathy and human connection
  3. inability to control impulses

Author Martha Stout paints this picture of the psychopath in her 2005 best-seller, The Sociopath Next Door

Imagine—if you can—not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, harmful, or immoral action you have taken…Now add to this strange fantasy the ability to conceal from other people that your psychological makeup is radically different from theirs. Since everyone simply assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, hiding the fact that you are conscience-free is nearly effortless…You can do anything at all, and still your strange advantage over the majority of people, who are kept in line by their conscience, will most likely remain undiscovered.…you pursue your career with a cold passion that tolerates none of the usual moral or legal encumbrances. When it is expedient you doctor the accounting and shred the evidence, you stab your employees (or your constituency) in the back, tell lethal premeditated lies to people who trust you, attempt to ruin colleagues who are powerful or eloquent, and simply steamroll over groups who are dependent and voiceless… You have a special talent for whipping up other people’s hatred and sense of deprivation… And all this you do with the exquisite freedom that results from having no conscience whatsoever…You become unimaginably, unassailably, and maybe even globally successful. Why not? With your big brain, and no conscience to rein in your schemes, you can do anything at all.

Greenwood continues (emphasis added): "It’s hard to imagine having no fear about being found out for moral transgressions, no compunction about lying, and no gut-level reservations about acts that might harm others.…Conscience is the glue that keeps the social fabric from unraveling. It undergirds the social contract that promotes decency, safety, and trust. Yet there is that small percentage that live outside that social contract… Is it not desirable to identify those without a conscience, particularly if they are in a position of power over others?

And "the psychopath has plenty of emotional fuel. Admittedly, not the animating force that flows from love, compassion and empathy; but emotions associated with the drive to dominate such as anger, glee, resentment. envy, consternation, jealousy, and contempt. These emotions are shallow and often fleeting, but can be intense in the moment, and typically drive the psychopath’s behavior." 

Sound like anyone we know? 

A few additional points gathered from the text: 

  • For the psychopath, life is ruled by impulse. 
  • When an impulse is triggered, the deficiencies in higher-level mental functions means there is no counterweight to it. 
  • The calls most of us make every day between “l want” vs. “l should” just don’t take place with a psychopath. He has only one play available to him: the short game of winning the moment. 
  • Elizabeth Stout emphasized the psychopath’s inability to develop a loving bond with another. David Shapiro would argue there is a more fundamental inability to develop any deep allegiances: to a significant other yes, but also to friends, the community, even ideas and values. 
  • The pathological liar often contradicts himself within minutes (but shows scant concern for the contradiction). The psychopath is not interested in what is being said, but how it works for him.
  • He is at the mercy of saying quickly whatever meets his egocentric needs of the moment. 
  • Psychopathy is a unique form of psychopathology in that it does not involve suffering by the psychopath himself. The main consequence of the condition involves the danger it poses to others.

"For a psychopath who is in a position of significant power and authority, other manifestations of his condition bode ill for those under his sway. These would include the inability to act predictably, the inability to react calmly and without aggression, the inability to examine his own behavior and accept responsibility, the inability to respect boundaries and limits, and the inability to place the interests of others or the common good above his own." 

This is getting long, but I want to mention a few additional points Greenwood addresses: 

  • Trump is often called a "malignant narcissist" (combining narcissism, sadism, paranoia and psychopathy). While this may be an apt description of him, it is not a formal, accepted diagnosis, and is unnecessary. 
  • Trump is often called a "sociopath", a term often used interchangeably with "psychopath". The latter is the correct scientific term. 
  • While Trump exhibits narcissistic behavior, there is a difference. Narcissism is “hot” (the heat of feeling vulnerable) underneath, psychopathy is cold. One is an insecure peacock, the other a snake. The narcissist breaks rules because he feels special and entitled. The psychopath breaks rules because he wants to secure an advantage. 
  • There is one feature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder that applies to Trump and may contribute, at the margins, to his dangerousness. Narcissists are triggered by perceived criticism, which they view as attacks on their self-esteem or status. That can lead to aggressive outbursts and rash decision-making.
  • Psychopaths are extremely good at hiding their condition and making others believe them. They exploit the human tendency to accept what others tell them at face value. 

There is much, much more in the article. The conclusion is inescapable: Donald Trump is a psychopath, and he is very dangerous.


Saturday, August 01, 2020

The crypto technology that prevents counterfeiting mail ballots

A chorus of Republican politicians, from President Trump on down, are trying to cast doubt on the security of vote-by-mail elections. Here's why one of their biggest "concerns" is completely wrong.

First, I'll note that 5 states use mail ballots exclusively: Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, Oregon and Washington (where I live). As far as I know, there have been no credible allegations of election fraud in these states, and in fact mail ballots are in important ways more secure than the widely-criticized voting machines. I'll leave it to others to list the many advantages of voting by mail. My purpose is to show you that the "threat" of nefarious parties flooding an election with counterfeit mail ballots is bogus.

The basic solution is to use well-known cryptographic techniques and bar-coded ballots. In fact, a reasonably bright Computer Science undergraduate could design a hack-proof system with these tools.

I'm not an expert in cryptography, but I've used it for years and understand enough to realize how it can make counterfeit ballots effectively impossible. I'll describe a couple of basic ways, and an actual expert could refine them even further.

Both of these schemes start with printing a unique, random bar code number on every ballot that's sent to voters. So every voter knows what their unique ballot number is (it would be duplicated on a tear-off stub that the voter could retain). We wouldn't use sequential ballot numbers because they could potentially be matched with a list of voters, allowing individual voters' ballots to be traced to them.

Technique 1

A list of these random ballot numbers is put in the registrar's computer. Every time an incoming ballot is tallied, its number is "checked off" in the computer. If another ballot with the same number is submitted, we know it's counterfeit. Likewise, if a ballot with a number that's not in the list comes in, we know it has to be bogus. Simple as that: only legit ballots can be counted.

Technique 2

This technique is a bit fancier, but doesn't require keeping a master list of valid ballot numbers. Each ballot is "self-validating".

The basic idea exploits a cryptographic technique called "hashing". Starting with a number, or a chunk of text, or any other block of data, it's easy to compute its hash—which looks like a big, completely random number. But this is a "one-way" process: if you know the hash, it is virtually impossible to discover the data that was used to create it. And if the tiniest change in the source data is made, the new hash will come out completely different, making it easy to detect tampering.

Each time we tally a ballot, we enter its number into a database, so if someone tries to submit an exact duplicate, we'll know and can reject it. The problem arises with hackers trying to create totally new ballots with unique new numbers, and that's where hashing can stop them.

Here's a simple version of how it works; I'm using small numbers to illustrate the process, but in practice really big numbers are used to make it impractical to guess them.
  • To begin, we need to choose a secret number, the "key". Let's pick 391.
  • Now take a ballot that has a unique random number, say 742.
  • Multiply the ballot number by the secret key: 742 x 391 = 290122.
  • Now take the hash of this answer. Let's imagine that the hash of 290122 is 6704. And remember, there's no way to recover the number just by knowing the hash, except to compute the hash of every possible number until we happen to hit on the one that produces the hash value 6704. With really large numbers, this is impractical to do in the time before the election.
  • When we print each ballot, its bar code consists of 2 parts: the random ballot number (here, 742) and the hash we just calculated (6704).
  • To validate the ballot, we multiply the ballot number by the secret key (391) and check that the hash of the answer is indeed 6704.
  • If the hash in the bar code doesn't match the hash we just computed, it means that we used the wrong key to generate the bar code—and the ballot is rejected as a fake.
  • Bottom line: you can't create valid counterfeit ballots without knowing the secret key.
This is a very basic system and there are many ways of making it even more secure. But the point should be clear: IN A PROPERLY-DESIGNED SYSTEM, THERE IS ZERO RISK OF BALLOT COUNTERFEITING.

No matter what Bill Barr may try to tell you.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Trump has a tactical role model: Karl Rove

In the furor over Trump's brazen lying, we forget that there's recent precedent: Karl Rove, once affectionately known as "Bush's Brain".

Trump may come by it naturally, but it sure looks like he's adopted Rove's Three Rules of Politics (I got them from Jeffrey Davis, whose blog is here but I can't find the relevant comment). The rules are: 
  1. Attack your opponent's strength from your weakness. When Trump talks about "crooked Hillary," this is of course an extreme case of the pot calling the kettle black. Trump obviously knows he is vulnerable to this charge, but by throwing the same accusation at his enemies he muddies the waters and plants the idea that he is no worse than everybody else. The media and its "professional centrists" actively assist in this deception with their obsession with false equivalence—the "they're all equally guilty" trope. 
  2. Accuse your opponent of doing what you're doing. One of Rove's most gag-inducing claims was his assertion that Democrats are the party of special interests. Today we have Trump claiming that it's not the Russians who meddled in our elections, it's actually the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller! Again, this is an attack on the very concept of truth and deflects the focus away from his own culpability. 
  3. Be worse than anyone can imagine. This is a particularly diabolical stratagem, since it essentially hijacks human psychology to the benefit of the perpetrator. We know from studies of human cognition that the brain first attempts to understand a statement by making it true. We are wired to expect most people, most of the time, to tell the truth. So when we hear a particularly outrageous whopper, even if on reflection it's obviously false, our inclination is to think "I can't imagine anybody saying something that awful if there wasn't at least some truth to it." This resonates with the famous discussion of the Big Lie in Mein Kampf, wherein Hitler observes that most people tell small lies and literally can't imagine a really big one.
Anthropologist Joe Henrich describes in his great book The Secret of Our Success how language can be a fantastic communication tool—but only if most people are truthful. If you can't trust anything anybody says, then the whole system breaks down and language itself becomes useless. Think about that in the context of Trump's war on the media: the main tool that journalists have to ply their trade is language, and if Trump can rob them of that tool, he wins. As Hannah Arendt noted, the goal of propaganda isn't to sell an alternate version of reality, it's to create a distrust of all descriptions of reality.

In this, Trump has succeeded brilliantly among his base of supporters, making him a worthy heir to the legacy of Karl Rove.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

A modest proposal to improve the Senate

Notice: I didn't say "fix" the Senate. That goal is probably out of reach. But my idea would take a significant step toward making it more representative of the U.S. population.

We all know the absurd situation we're currently stuck with: Wyoming, with about 580,000 people, gets the same two Senators as California, with close to 40 million—meaning that a Wyoming resident enjoys a sixty-eight to one edge in upper house representation over a Californian. By what possible stretch of the imagination is that fair?

Put it another way: with the filibuster rule, 41 Senators can stop a bill from passage. If the Senators from the least-populous states teamed up for a filibuster, it would mean that Senators representing just 11% of Americans can effectively frustrate the will of the other 289 million.

In practical terms, this means that the interests of residents of mostly rural, mostly western states are vastly over-represented in the Federal government.

So here's the proposal:
  • The 17 least-populous states get 1 Senator. 
  • The 17 most-populous states get 3 Senators. 
  • The middle 16 states get 2 Senators.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A letter to Republican Congress members

Dear _____________:

As this is written, President Trump has just—again—openly threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation, in a puerile boasting contest with Kim Jong Un over the size of their "buttons". He also asserted that the job of the Attorney General is to protect the President from accountability for illegal acts.

By the time you read this, he will no doubt have done several more outrageous things, any one of which would have led to the speedy exit from office of any prior President.

And yet, you do nothing.

We are told that virtually all Congressional Republicans agree privately that Donald Trump is spectacularly unfit for office.