Saturday, January 28, 2006

Microsoft's Incompetence

I think it may be time to move to Linux.

Two weeks ago, I turned on my Windows 2000 computer and was greeted by a blue screen saying the "registry could not load the hive (file)". The usual startup modes like Safe Mode and Last Known Good gave the same error, and I was locked out of Windows.

40 hours' work and a new motherboard later, I cannot emphasize enough how moronic Microsoft is. Windows has amazingly little tolerance for failure or hardware changes.

There were at least three showstopping problems I encountered. Firstly, I had a perfectly good Windows 2000 installation on a broken computer; I tried to boot from this hard disk, but got INACCESSIBLE_BOOT_DEVICE error early in the startup process. Some research revealed that Windows keeps only a single hard disk driver installed. Because of this, if you change to a different kind of motherboard, or move a hard drive from one computer to another, Windows 2000 will be unable to access the hard drive from which it was booted. Of course, it would have been extremely easy for the Windows development team to avoid this problem, by loading a generic IDE driver to use as a fallback in case the regular driver doesn't work. By the way, there is a way to install multiple drivers, but it can only be done before changing to a new motherboard. Here you can see Microsoft's unhelpful instructions:
"Although Microsoft does not support this method, you can import or merge the required registry entries, and copy the drivers beforehand to support all IDE controllers that are natively supported by Windows XP."
It never seems to have crossed their minds that "copying the drivers beforehand" might not be possible.

Secondly, Windows 2000 (or XP) offers no command prompt or built-in repair services if something goes wrong. Since the registry appeared to be corrupt, I needed to reach a console in order to attempt to restore an old registry (assuming I had one, which I wouldn't be able to determine without a console). The "Recovery Console" can be used for this purpose, but for some reason my computer could not boot from a CD-ROM (it's a long story). Now, the Recovery Console can be installed on the hard disk (as described here) so booting from the CD is unnecessary, but that is a little known fact (I never even heard of the Recovery Console before my computer broke), and of course it can only be installed before Windows breaks.

The Recovery Console, by the way, is usually fairly useless because it has very little functionality and contains severe restrictions on what you're allowed to do. Arbitrary security restrictions are not welcome when your computer is broken and you have no other recourse. Linux can be used to get around Microsoft's silly restrictions, but even after I convinced CDs to boot, my Linux live CDs were unable to mount themselves.

Thirdly, the Windows 2000 CD has a Repair option, but (surprise!) it refuses to work without an Emergency Repair Disk, and of course, you can't create an ERD floppy unless Windows 2000 is working! This is the ultimate in stupid design because
  1. Most home users like myself don't prepare in advance for Windows to quit working, not least because we don't know how. It requires research, which doesn't feel worthwhile when your system is working fine.
  2. Many people don't have floppy drives (I still do, though.)
  3. Most importantly, the ERD is mostly unnecessary. The ERD contains three small files from your C: drive which the Win2K CD can restore if they turn out to be corrupt. However, if those three files are fine, then there is no need for the ERD. In addition to checking those three files, the repair process checks the system files on your hard disk against the correct version of the files that are on the Windows 2000 CD; this second process has no need for the ERD.
My computer still isn't fixed but I believe I will be able to repair it soon. Good night.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I'm out of commission

Eight days ago my main computer stopped working, and I've been unable to fix it despite valiant efforts that might make for an amuzing geek story. Meanwhile, school work is piling up and I won't have time to blog this coming week unless I use my time foolishly.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Coming of Age

This post is rated P for Personal. You might find it B for Boring.

I think it's really happening in earnest now: I'm really starting to appreciate that "the more I learn, the less I know." I can see now that I'll never have more than a smidgen of knowledge in every area of human endeavor; indeed, there will doubtlessly be important aspects of life whose very existance I will never hear about.

I chose to pursue the world of computers when I was younger, but the computer world grew faster than I did. I used to think I was a brilliant with computers (the grown-ups all said so); now I'm merely an above average programmer, and only in certain areas of computer science, with specific programming languages.

I started out writing programs in BASIC on the Commodore 64 and Apple II, and as far as I knew, that's what programming was. A compiler? What's that? The internet? Never heard of it.

Today, my list of things-I-wanna-learn grows ever longer--or it would, if I wrote the list down. As it is, I suspect I've forgotten more items than I remember.

In the programming field, I can write programs in C, C++, C#, VB6, Java, and as of December, Ruby. I've also had a little exposure to Pascal, MATLAB, Verilog, gnu make, and VB.NET. But I had planned to learn Python for a couple of years now and still haven't done it. There are other interesting languages I would like to learn: Perl, Lisp, Dylan, Eiffel, and conceivably Smalltalk or Objective C. But now, knowing languages is just the tip of the iceberg. Look at all the other stuff there is to learn about:
  • Libraries: Most languages now have enormous standard libraries, and every language has a community around it that produces an endless barage of useful libraries, each with its own bafflingly unique and quirky API.
  • Paradigms: Aspect-Oriented Programming, Functional programming, Parallel & distributed programming, Metaprogramming, Service Oriented Architectures, Test Driven development, Extreme programming, Design patterns...
  • Fields: Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Search technology, Desktop Publishing, Multimedia, Games, Scientific Computing, Embedded computing (with an endless number of sub-fields) and so forth.
  • Databases: These have been important for decades, yet I still lack basic knowledge about installing and using them.
  • Internet stuff: Unfortunately I don't have enough knowledge to make a big list of internet stuff, but I know enough to know that the list could go on forever. It's tough to get started in practical web programming because you have to learn at least five languages (although the first three aren't true programming languages, nor very hard): HTML, CSS, SQL, Javascript, and a server-side language of your choice; plus, you have to find a service provider that will let you use your chosen language, and figure out how to install your code on their server. Either that, or you have to figure out how to set up your own web server. It is mainly this last issue (installation) that has discouraged me from learning web programming.
All of this constitutes merely the field of software development; the field of "computers" in general is even larger, and I can't keep up with it, although when I fad lasts long enough I do eventually try to figure out what all the commotion is about. For example, after seeing terms like blog, RSS and, it was several months before I found out what they meant, and by the time I had a blog of my own, I could point people to it without even explaining what a "blog" is. But I think I've learned my lesson; I now read a social software blog and eagerly track the progress of the peoples' revolution on the internet.

Looking beyond computers, I can see many other big fields: oil & gas, food, construction, politics & civil service, management, marketing, real estate, entertainment, education, health care, and so forth.

If I assume that other industries are as vast as the computer industries, then clearly there's no hope I'll ever know much about most of them.

I suppose it's good to know how small I am in the scheme of things, but it's a scary thought. Perhaps it's best to forget about it.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


A formerly monochrome family (American Nudist Leader, 1960).
Here's a really fun program. You can use Recolored to colorize black & white photos with relatively little effort (or selectively remove color from a color photo.) Get it while it's still freeware!

It's really useful already, but for certain situations, it would be really handy to use a customized coloring method. For instance, I've found that in several situations you might want to automatically vary the color according to the brightness of each pixel. This would be useful, for example, when coloring a tree with dark leaves against a bright sky background, when coloring certain breeds of cats, or when coloring a chain-link fence in front any colored surface. In these cases multiple colors are mixed very closely, and manual coloration is very tedius.

There are other tweaks to the algorithm that would be useful also; for example, coloration based on texture, or varying the color saturation according to brightness. A quick preview or quick color test feature would be extremely handy.

Which brings me to my talking point... if only the program were open-source, one could make the changes one wants all by oneself. One could also take the very cool coloring algorithm and insert it in other programs such as Photoshop, Paint.NET or The Gimp. Now, the wonderful world I've described before in which almost everything is open source won't become reality any time soon, but here's an idea for getting specific programs to go open source.

There is a website somewhere where people can make proposals with a monetary requirement (such as "release Recolored under the GNU GPL for $20,000") and other people can pledge money to it. But, er, I lost the address of the web site. Anyway, I wonder how many products could be coerced into freeness in this manner. If it's practical, maybe we could make a movement out of it. The movement's job would be to negotiate prices and terms with software vendors, and then to create awareness and convince people to make pledges.

Mind you, it would probably work only with a whole ton of pledges, so we'd have to rely on non-geek support. It would also require that many people who would otherwise just buy a licence be convinced to make a pledge instead (or in addition)--a tough sell, for the most part, I think.

There are other problems. Merely open-sourcing a program doesn't yield the desired features, of course. And the code quality of a closed-source app is inestimable. Are there a good set of code comments? Function- and class-level docs? It the code structured like a house drawn by Dr. Suess? There are a lot of open-source programs that don't get touched due to such issues.

In summary: this idea might suck. Still, there are probably situations where this could work.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Looking for a girl

Would you like to hook up with me? I'm quite available. I'm looking for a girl
  • Who wants to get married and have kids someday.
  • Who appreciates mathematics and logic, and if I'm really lucky, computer programming and linguistics.
  • Who is interested in learning about technology or is already a geek.
  • Who wants to make the world a better place.
Here's some information about me:
  • I decided to become a naturist (yeah, not a naturalist) three years ago. Now I'm 25.
  • I'm studying 4th year Computer Engineering.
  • I have been programming since I was ten.
  • I like to sing. People tell me I have a good voice. I would like to learn to play an instrument, but can't yet.
  • I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a Mormon).
I am interested in several causes, including
  • Fighting poverty
  • Electoral reform
  • Major and minor reforms to copyright law
  • Banning software patents
  • Eliminating language barriers in the world by taking steps that will lead to the eventual adoption of an easy and useful universal second language, also known as an international auxilliary language (IAL)
I really want to find people in my area (Calgary, Alberta). I'd like to make friends of any gender, too. If you're interested, contact me at

Friday, January 06, 2006

How to achieve true freedom of information

An earlier article received criticism from someone who felt that (paraphrasing) "it is wrong to get something for free when the material was not meant to be free." He gave the example of a painter who wants only a certain number of prints to be available. But, I asked, why would it be inherently pleasing to a painter for copies of his painting to be scarce?

Now, he didn't answer, and I'm not a painter, but I will venture anyway to respond that scarcity is not something that normally brings satisfaction to a creative worker. Normally, if I wrote a book, I would be glad if millions of people read it. If I were a painter, I would be glad if each of a million people hung a copy on their wall. As a programmer, I would be glad if a million people used my programs.

Indeed, nothing could make me happier than to write a program that millions of people use and find useful. Nothing, that is, except to live in a house, eat food, and someday in the future, provide for my wife and children. The problem is that these desires are at odds with each other in our present system of intellectual property.

Most people don't even realise there is a problem. They take for granted that they have to pay for books they read (unless they get it from a library); that cable costs a lot, yet is still saturated with advertising, and sometimes has nothing worth watching on 50 channels; that music comes on discs, and starts at $10 new; that some software is utterly unaffordable, yet a lot of software is free; that they can't simply watch any movie on their computer that came up on a Google search; and that if they can't afford a creative work, they have to do without, or break the law and pirate it. Most of all, they take for granted that they can't enjoy all the works they want to, even though doing so would have no negative effects beyond wasting time.

Meanwhile, authors take for granted that they have to charge money to make money, and that free use of their work can only be allowed at the expense of their own bottom line. Even the most idealistic free software developers take for granted that by giving away their source code, they cut off potential revenue sources (though often not all of them.)

Yes, these are the facts of our world as it is now. But we should realise that these things are a result of our laws and of the power structures in our society. And, thanks to the efforts of misguided diplomats, big corporations and WIPO, similar structures are in place all over the world. However, none of these things are inherently a part of the human condition, so with enough will, they can be changed.

In this article I won't try to say how to change the system, but rather how a hypothetical system might work, because right now we are stuck so firmly in the status quo that alternatives never even cross our minds. Hence, education is the order of the day. My goal is to convince you that another way is possible, so you can stop seeing the intellectual property system as a fact of life, as "a necessary evil", or as related in any way to real property.

As you read this, if you feel it is unrealistic, keep in mind that it is only one of many possible implementations. Forgive my shortcomings, as I'm studying to be a computer engineer, not an economist.

Imagine that the U.S. federal government were to create an institution in charge of managing a "pseudo-public domain" (PPD). Authors and artists (including programmers like me) would have the choice to place their works in this domain or to use the standard IP system that we have now. Most likely this choice would be on a per-work basis.

I'm gonna call this institution the financial institution for information freedom (FIFIF) because its objective is to provide financial support to people who wish to allow everyone to use the products of their creative efforts, which, for the sake of a cool acronym, we will refer to as "information".

The PPD would have most of the freedom of the public domain (PD), but with added measures to reward authors and artists who place their work in it. These rewards would come from the public purse, and reward ("payout") calculations would be based on free market principles.

Residents of the U.S. or people who pay U.S. income tax would be "PPD benefactors" (PPDBs.) PPD works would be sold or otherwise provided under the regular IP system elsewhere in the world. People and companies who are not PPDBs would be legally subject to the terms set forth by the artist/author of the work for non-PPDBs. The enforcement of these terms would probably be more difficult than for non-PPD works, because piracy of PPD works would be easy and widespread (due to the freedom of the system), but I won't spend time speculating about that in this article except to note that many kinds of piracy are easy and widespread already.

I think that the FIFIF (not to be confused with the FFII) could actually grow the market for creative works. Consider the fact that I don't listen to very much new music, that I don't try mixing my own music tracks (though I would like to), that I'm not using MacOS X (though I've heard it's great), that I rarely read scholarly journals (even though they are packed with things I want to learn), that most of the video games I play are old ones I've played before, and the fact that my walls are devoid of paintings or posters. The main reason for all of this is that I'm not willing to pay the prices for the media I want. There are other reasons, too. I usually don't have free time to dabble in music creation, for instance. But the biggest reason is financial. I'm a student, and I don't think I can afford to buy new music, MacOS X (with a matching new computer), or paintings or posters. Some students will buy what they want anyway, but I'm a cautious person, and I'm not the only one.

So I have a hypothesis that people would use more creative products if they were free. If this is so, then in at least one sense, free access to creative works results in a larger creative market. It does not follow, however, that this would cause the size of the creative industries, in terms of number of artists and/or per-artist revenue, to increase. On the other hand, I wouldn't predict shrinkage either (see the sidebar.)

The FIFIF would be tax-funded. It would pay artists using public money, and the public, in turn, could freely use any and every work in the PPD. A direct consequence is that the size of the PPD market equals the total budget of the FIFIF. By law, this budget should depend on the demand for the works offered, rather than being set to a fixed value by congress. However, the size and nature of per-work rewards may be determined in any number of ways. More on that later.

The obvious and key benefit of the PPD is the personal freedom it grants to every citizen:
  • The freedom to make copies and share them with others
  • The freedom to search and view works on the internet (all PPD works could be expected to appear on search engines--books, lyrics, TV shows and movies with transcripts, academic papers, and so forth)
  • The freedom to create derivative works: considering songs, for instance, anyone could legally make remixes, versions with changed lyrics or karaoke versions.
Furthermore, most "source" material of PPDs could be expected to be made available, if the law (in lieu of any contract between the creators of original and derived works) favors giving the financial benefit of derivative works to the original author. So anyone would have access to:
  • Source code of computer programs
  • Components of movies, such as audio tracks, and the components of visual effects (e.g. 3D models, animation source files, and so forth)
  • The component tracks of musical recordings (to facilitate remixing)
  • The original documents from which books are made (e.g. Microsoft Word files)
In my opinion, these benefits are huge, and well worth the disadvantages of using public money.

Economically speaking, I believe the PPD could function better than the "free" market we have now. To work well economically, the FIFIF would need to rely on massive-scale distributed decision making to distribute funding--in other words, it would use some kind of free market.

Regardless of the details of the funding distribution system--details which hopefully would be chosen by some democratic means, to encourage fairness--part of the funding decision would doubtlessly be calculated from the popularity of a work. Authors and artists should be paid more for popular works, and less for unpopular ones. Therefore, some means is needed to asses popularity.

Rather than creating laws to punish citizens for accessing or copying information they aren't supposed to, as the DMCA does, and rather than codifying copy prevention in law, the economic goals of the PPD could be served by laws designed to track usage of creative works.

For instance, web sites that provide a large amount of PPD content could be required to keep logs of PPD content downloads, and send the logs to FIFIF periodically for aggregation. Cable providers could be required to implement some kind of ratings system (you know, like Neilson ratings, but more accurate.) Google Print would doubtlessly provide entire PPD books online for free, so some kind of law would require them to measure what's being read.

Additionally--and this is optional, but may be demanded by those who want to offer valuable PPD content--the government may require that major PPD content providers not send PPD content to non-U.S. IP ranges, unless the license on a particular work allows it.

Of course, such laws would have to be written carefully to balance security, privacy, freedom, the cost burden to distributers, and measurement accuracy.

The wealth should probably not be distributed quite proportionally to popularity. For instance, if a book sells a million copies, the author shouldn't be paid one thousand times more than the author of a book that only sells a thousand copies. That's not how the record industry works even now, as the RIAA says:
Another factor commonly overlooked in assessing CD prices is to assume that all CDs are equally profitable. In fact, the vast majority are never profitable. After production, recording, promotion and distribution costs, most never sell enough to recover these costs, let alone make a profit. In the end, less than 10% are profitable, and in effect, it's these recordings that finance all the rest.
The RIAA is implementing its own subsidy system, you might say; they pay utterly unprofitable artists for their work, but they also get a huge part of the revenue from immensely popular artists.

The PPD could work similarly. For example, paperback authors could be paid proportionally to the three-quarter power of the number of copies consumed, with a certain minimum threshold, below which there is no payment. In that case, payouts might look something like this:
  • 100 copies => $0
  • 101 copies => $20
  • 300 copies => $1,064
  • 1000 copies => $3,286
  • 10,000 copies => $19,850
  • 100,000 copies => $112,384
  • 1,000,000 copies => $632,408
The payout calculation could vary depending on the type of work, and the formula could be decided by votes from consumers, votes from artists, and/or decrees by FIFIF or congress. It's hard to say how these formulas should be determined exactly, as there are many groups that need to be appeased.

Insofar as the payout depends on the type of work (e.g. novels would be worth more than novellas, and textbooks more than novels), an impartial categorization procedure would be required. I don't have a proposal for that right now.

A system like this would hopefully provide enough incentive for authors to write, and enough reward to keep popular authors from complaining.

It would also lessen the need for middlemen in creative industries. This is desirable, as one gets the impression that the big middlemen such as RIAA and MPAA companies create a lot of economic deadweight in the form of advertising, stores full of CDs (an obsolete and relatively inefficient medium), rich executives, lobbyists, and packs of ravenous lawyers. Besides that, it seems like everyone hates them.

The system would not provide up-front payment, nor pay the cost of production; content companies like the RIAA and MPAA member companies would be needed for this purpose. However, hopefully the PPD system would allow authors and artists to reject the more oppressive terms that have are now found in contracts made with RIAA and MPAA companies.

I know I haven't provided a convincing case for this last point, but I have limited knowledge of how the TV/movie/music industries function. Hopefully I can revisit the issue in the future in more detail.

The system has some disadvantages, by the way.
  • Payouts could not be sufficient for some works. All works that are expensive to make and target a small audience could not make money in this PPD framework. Works of this nature include air traffic control software, banking system software, certain esoteric technical books, and anything that is custom-made for a single company. Such works would have to be sold under the old IP system.
  • The system would have difficulty measuring the actual value to consumers, i.e. answering the question "how much would a typical consumer be willing to pay for a certain work?"; so if two pieces of software each have a million users, for instance, it would be hard to say which developer should be paid more. This effect could be mitigated with policies designed to measure this value.
  • Software is extremely malleable--in the world of open source, the distinction between one program and several programs working together is often of little practical relevance. Additionally, software is always built on top of other software, so in one sense, all software is a "derivative work". Since software can be put together in an infinite number of ways, it would be hard or impossible to determine automatically how payouts should be distributed. Also, "number of copies downloaded" isn't always an accurate measure of popularity for software. Often, one copy of a program serves thousands of users, as on a web server. I'm optimistic that these problems could be overcome with special rules designed especially for software; unfortunately, these rules may need to be continuously updated to keep up with the changing ways that software is written and used, and to combat abuses of the system caused by loopholes in the rules.
  • Derivative works in general are problematic because it's hard to figure out how payouts should be distributed. How should the payout work for a TV show that uses clips from 20 other TV shows?
  • This proposal does not attempt to address all problems caused by current IP laws, such as high drug costs and secrecy in medical research.
  • Did I miss anything?
Earlier I mentioned most of the advantages I could think of. Leave a comment if you can think of any more. Also, please let me know about about any other aspects of the problem or solution that you think must be considered. I do believe the relevant issues could fill a book, but so far I have no reason to write that book.

Remember the fundamental problem I'm trying to solve: the perversity that authors who provide freedom are impaired in their ability to make money. Ideas for smaller-scale solutions to the problem are welcome. For example, one partial solution I've discussed earlier is micropayments, a system which (if standardized and universally available) is a good solution for works that are primarily distributed via the internet, and whose cost of production is low.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

I Just Joined the EFF

With my $65 donation (low, I know, but forgive me, I'm a student) I would've liked to become a card-carrying member, but apparently they don't offer membership cards. Which, my friends, is the Electronic Frontier Foundation's only shortcoming. I've never seen the EFF support any cause that I didn't. As well as supporting freedom of speech and civil liberties, the EFF is at the forefront of advocacy of all digital freedoms:
  • the right to record and copy,
  • the right to write software without the threat of lawsuits,
  • the right to be anonymous and speak freely online, and
  • the right to invent, give, and sell technologies that facilitate these freedoms.
The EFF defends the rights of the individual at a time where big business dominates government policy decisions. Current causes include: I may not get a card, but my donation was enough for an EFF T-shirt, which I will wear proudly.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Is better government structure possible?

George Bush said things would be a lot easier if he were a dictator. But it's a wrongheaded idea, and not just for the obvious reasons. Being a dictator means personally making decisions that affect millions of people, and it can only be easy if you make bad decisions. Good decisions must be carefully reasoned and planned, and given the sheer diversity of the decisions a government must make, a dictator is incapable of doing an effective job of making them all. It is not a matter of benevolency or malevolency; it is a matter of human computational ability.

But if one person is incapable of making many diverse decisions that impact all facets of society, then 300 individuals separately asked to do the same will also fail at the task. But in a democracy, our governments are designed to work in just this way. Every legislator that we elect is expected to review and consider and deliberate over every proposal in the legislature, in order to make an informed vote. But for legislators to do this thoroughly and effectively is impossible. In order to make decisions, the effects of those decisions must be predicted in advance, and to make predictions, the person requires specific knowledge and experience related to those facets of society to which the proposal applies.

But rarely does any given legislator have that necessary knowledge and experience.

We expect our legislators to vote on every bill as though they had done this careful deliberation themselves, but they rarely do. Any given legislator rarely has the education and experience to grok the impact of any given bill; therefore, they must turn to other people to help them decide.

Now, here's where my understanding of government gets a fuzzy, but I'll say what I think typically happens. Firstly, subsets of the legislators form multi-partisan comittees to make decisions on individual issues. These comittees make their decisions based on a comittee-distilled version of their own understanding, combined with advice from people who they believe to be experts. After deliberating for awhile, each party represented in the comittee decides what it wants and then the comittee members inform the remainder of the legislators (who were not in the comittee) what the party's decision will be. Then, for most bills, the legislators in each party vote on the bill as a bloc.

Now, I may have some details wrong, and I expect it differs between governments somewhat, but what I want to point out is that our "democratic" decision-making has a strong dependence on 3rd party input--lobbyists and experts in various fields.

This is a systemic weakness which bypasses the intended democracy of the system. As an ideological democratic principle, the lawmaking power of individuals who are not elected should be limited as much as possible. But as a practical matter, the important thing is what kind of influence these third parties are having--whether they are contributing to good governance or detracting from it. It seems to me that many of them--most obviously the ones we spitefully call "lobbyists"--are having a negative impact on our countries. Now, when I say countries I mean all representative democracies; as far as I know, pesky lobbyists are a common trait among all of them.

Now, let us define lobbyists in this article as people whose interest is not in the common good, but rather in some minority within society, such as drug companies, specific churches, or gun associations. It may happen that lobbyists push for something that is good for society, but this is coincidental. Some lobbyists actually believe they are working for the common good, but their vision is limited by their affiliation with a group; other lobbyists just do as they are paid to do.

Theoretically, lobbyists should be unnecessary and ineffectual in a democracy, since it was the people who elected decision-makers. Practically, lobbyists should not be trusted, since their agenda is based neither on the will of the people, nor on common good. To the contrary, it is to be expected that lobbyists' agendas often deviate from both. Indeed, everyone reading this has probably noticed this to some degree.

Therefore, I believe a country would work more effectively if lobbyists, or their effects, were minimized.

Last night a little idea came to me. There exist "think-tank" organizations that analyze aspects of our society and make recommendations to government through lobbying and other means. For example... er, I don't have one, dammit. But what if the government itself were a think-tank? What if the elected legislators actually had the education and smarts to resolve tough problems without much external input? It would be improve democracy and the functioning of the government by reducing the influence of paid lobbyists.

So how could we ensure that politicians are experts in the fields in which they must make decisions? I haven't quite figured that out, but right now it's not humanly possible, a fact I find distressing. Our governments would work better if they accomodated human limitations.

Now I'd like to point out one of the reasons democracy can't work as well as some think it ought to. Democracy is about decision making by the people, but what if the people aren't prepared to make the decisions they are given? I think this is a common case. Most commonly, the people are asked to choose a candidate, but the information they have to go on isn't very good. I have an "average Joe" point of view, as I'm not politically active, and what I see is that:
  • The media doesn't usually provide easily-comprehended information about candidates' or parties' platforms. It focuses too much on the race itself, and on "strategies" of candidates rather than on the issues or on important attributes of the candidates, such as integrity.
  • The candidates' and parties' often do a poor job of expressing their own platforms, and cloud the issues using negative campaigning, which boils down to "vote for me because the other guy sucks."
  • Televised debates are often amazingly uncivil, with candidates talking over one another and usually not answering the questions actually asked by the moderator.
I keep hearing people encouraging people to vote, and some even go so far as to claim that everyone should be required to vote. But this plea isn't accompanied by a desire for voters to know what the heck they're voting for. Uninformed decisions are bad decisions. I strongly think that people shouldn't vote unless they have a half-decent knowledge of the parties and candidates.

I suppose that's why I'm not planning to vote in Canada's federal election on Jan. 23. I don't have any knowledge about the local candidates beyond their names, although I just found CBC's Canada Votes web site, which has basic information about all the local candidates, along with riding boundaries... it's interesting how blogging leads me to find stuff out. If I stumble upon a little more info, maybe I'll vote after all. Of course, our retarded electoral system doesn't encourage me at all.

Anyway, my point is that the quality of our decisions depends in large measure on the quality of our knowledge. We shouldn't vote, and our politicians shouldn't vote, unless and until they understand their choices, and perhaps a different government structure could enhance politicians' understanding.

Basically, the idea I had was to create several sub-governments--several elected bodies, each of which serves a different function. One group would be in charge of health care, another education, another communications, another intellectual industries. There would be one "meta" or "master" government, whose responsibility would be to determine the divisions of power between these groups, to resolve disputes about scope of power, and to set ground rules that all the sub-governments must follow. In case of disputes, one possible resolution would be to allow joint decisions between multiple sub-legislatures. Major changes to the distribution of power would require an election. In essense, the meta government would act more like a set of elected judges than a normal legislature.

Each of the sub-governments would hold an election on a regular schedule, perhaps every three or four years. For convenience, all the sub-governments would hold their sub-elections at the same time. Normally, citizens would not vote in every sub-election, because citizens would not be familiar with the issues in every sub-election. To work properly, this system would require a cultural shift in thinking. Citizens would need to realize that good decisions come from good knowledge, and that they should not vote in a given sub-election without familiarity with relevant issues, parties and candidates. Perhaps the system could remind voters of this by prohibiting anyone from voting in every sub-election. So if there were 10 partial goverments, citizens could vote in up to 9.

The determination of budgets needs careful consideration, though I may be ill-equipped to do so. The master government could sets the budget of each sub-government, but there is some question as to how informed their decisions would be. The sub-governments could set their own budgets, but I suspect that they would tend to continually revise the budget upward in order to get a bigger piece of the overall "pie". Overall, the former seems more promising.

To a limited extent, we already have sub-governments. For example, public school boards have power to make decisions about education, and they are usually elected. I bet this works better than if the legislature itself took on the responsibilities of the board. And when there is a school board election, only those people who have a specific interest in schools will take part in voting or running for office.

Doesn't this improve the quality of school-related decisions? If not, then I suppose my multi-government idea wouldn't work very well either. If so, perhaps it deserves your consideration.

One more interesting and potentially useful property of this structure is that is dynamic. The structure of a normal government is fixed--typically it is set forth in the constitution, where it is almost impossible to change. A meta government, by contrast, is specifically elected to determine how government functions, so it could actively address systemic problems that would otherwise plague the country. The only thing that would be unalterable might be the structure of the meta government itself (were the meta government allowed to change its own powers and structure, the risk arises that it would continually grant itself more power.)

Of course, my idea falls clearly into the "dreaming" category. So if you're only interested in pragmatics, don't bother to read this post. What, you already did? Ha! Gotcha!