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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: November 2011

Doge of Venice

Everyone who ever helped setting up a voting system for the class president selection knows that aggregating people's opinions - which is what election really is - is an ungrateful and deeply ambiguous undertaking. We all have our little internal preferences and opinions, but compounding them into a meaningful ranking that would reflect everyone's opinion is where the trouble lurks. Do we just take the person who is favored by most, or do we select the person who generates the least amount of opposition. Should it be winner-takes-all or should we give some points also to people on lower rungs of individual preferences? And how about people who exclaim: I like candidate A, except if he can't win I'd prefer C over B, unless A endorses B or B stops wearing those horrible purple shirts with yellow flowers. Aggregate that!

A little research on "voting systems" reveals a hopelessly muddled jungle swelling in the midst of human efforts to govern themselves - a timeless arena for mud slinging, palace intrigue and dirty politics of all kind. Yep, voting is a mess. A royal mess to be exact. There is in fact a precise mathematical proposition (google "Arrow's Theorem") which may give your foggy doubts about the whole system an elegant quantitative skeleton.

The other day, while poking my wikipedia stick at this sagging underbelly of democracy, I unearthed an archaic system that almost made me laugh. It pertained to a very peculiar and time consuming procedure that was devised for the election of the Doge of Venice in early Middle Ages (apparently the elders in this part of the Mediterranean did not have access to cable or an Xbox in those days). Without going into gory details of the mindbogglingly elaborate routine, one thing worth mentioning is that the multiphase operation contained a great element of randomness. It was essentially a sequence of filters which alternated selecting candidates and casting lots - all designed with the aim to level the playing field and prevent the largest families from having an undue influence.

Not that I would want to implement such monstrosity in our modern and highly efficient times - after all reducing the primary season in the US to merely ... well... some 18 months is an achievement well worth preserving - but it did make me think that maybe introducing a bit of randomness into the way we choose our representatives would not be such a bad idea.

Let's consider a hypothetical voting system in which the candidates are chosen randomly with a dice which is biased according to the election results - which means that those who command higher support of the electorate will be given better odds. As a simple example let me use an urn with colored balls as a random number generator. So let us suppose that the election results are in and they read as follows (in parenthesis I'll show the resulting bias):

1. candidate A - 60% (gets 6 red balls in the urn)
2. candidate B - 30% (gets 3 green balls in the urn)
3. candidate C - 10% (gets 1 yellow balls in the urn)

Now under normal circumstances the candidate A would get the position, period. But not with our brave new randomized system. We will just record the preferences and place the colored balls in the urn accordingly. The candidate A will still be the most favored to win the election - after all, six balls out of ten are his - but the other candidates now have a fighting chance as well. Ready? OK, now let an innocent child draw a ball from the urn and voila - your new senator is born.

We hear a number of complaints about too much money in politics these days. Many are quipping that elections have been effectively replaced by auctions. The underlying statistics of this new system would make it harder for corporations to buy candidates since they would be reluctant to waste money on people who might not make the random stage. It would also allow voters to make more honest decisions. Many people are afraid to vote for their true choice because they worry they would have wasted their vote on someone who does not have a chance against the perceived front runner. Introducing randomness would thus support non mainstream candidates who could still win in the random stage.

(one technical detail: we don't really want people who got say only 10 votes to have even a minuscule chance of taking the big prize - so to prevent obvious risks lets say that there would be a 5% minimum to qualify for the urn stage)

If you are still puzzled why we would let randomness enter the fragile world of our democracy, think about how many times we discovered things randomly - penicillin, chocolate chip cookies, teflon, brandy, microwave come to mind - even America herself was stumbled upon when Columbus searched for a different route to India. Or think about how many times you took a random turn in an unknown city and discovered a great photo op that wasn't mentioned in any of the glossy brochures. How many times did you slip into a great pool of fun just following a friend's hunch? The point is that our world has become so complex that it isn't easy even for experts to figure out what the correct form of governance should be. Do we loosen our immigration policy or do we tighten it? Should the central bank increase the interest rates or slash them? Who can really fathom all the implications of potential tax hikes? The labyrinth of causes and effects had long ago grown beyond the comprehension limits of a single mind. So maybe letting a little randomness in would make us realize something new. Something that would make our society happier in the long run.

Oh, and one more advantage. If a Doge of Venice ever discovers the time machine, he will feel right at home in our beautiful 21st century.

Florida Keys

If Florida were a lizard, the Keys would be its master tongue probing the warm waters of the surrounding oceans for juicy morsels. Strung on the US Highway 1 like Caribbean pearls, the Keys are an elongated archipelago gently arcing in the southeasterly direction and reaching the farthest point some 100 miles away from its entrance. Despite the common origin, each individual island maintains a unique character so that the whole necklace offers a little bead of fun for everyone.

At the very beginning, you'll find a colorful coral reef accompanied by a series of fishermen's havens and heavens. And as you drive inwards you discover other hidden gems - secluded marina here, a thick coppice of mangrove trees there, a herd of dwarf deer, maybe a quaint backyard cluttered with tropical bric-a-brac or a family restaurant where you can have a fish a thousand ways and the obligatory Key Lime Pie to boot. You won't find many beaches here, but the ones you do find are so shallow that you can wade amazingly far from the shore and still be only knee deep in the water. And if you make it all the way to Key West, you can roam its narrow colonial streets with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway or just hang out at the Mallory Square and enjoy the streaming sunset.

But my favorite place in the Keys is the Old Bahia Honda bridge. A structure no longer used, but elevated high enough to give you a different perspective. As we were climbing an old wooded trail to the remainder of the bridge, I was puzzling why these islands were called keys in the first place. Only when we entered a small concrete platform, did the answer materialized in front of my eyes. These were the Keys to Paradise.


Larry, Moe and Curly

Every so often I run across a public pronouncement which makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland, fleetingly pondering if I am still on the right side of the Looking Glass. Today, Yahoo Finance served one such piece of wisdom straight from Obama's top economic adviser Larry Summers.

"The central irony of financial crisis is that while it is caused by too much confidence, too much borrowing and lending and too much spending, it can only be resolved with more confidence, more borrowing and lending, and more spending."


That is like saying - while your plumbing problems were caused by too much hair, too much trash and too much gunk in the piping, the solution is to dump more trash, more gunk and more hair into your sink.

Or it is like saying - while your camel is slowing because it has too much stuff on its back, the way to make him go faster is to tie more junk to its hump. I would actually love to see a dramatization of such scene starring a retired camel in the role of the ailing economy and the three stooges as Wall Street Maestros - three buffoons running in circles around the poor animal, frantically pushing their belongings on top of its cargo area, and punching each other in the process.

But the moral of this parable is really simple - people can't drink themselves sober. It does not work. The mindset which caused a problem is not usually conducive to solving it. Summers' argument sounds like a desperate plea for a continuation of the same old Ponzi scheme which nearly crashed the system to begin with. And even if we could find the new suckers, eventually it will run aground again, except this time with a much larger bang.

Sure, there is one group of people who would profit greatly from the never ending expansion of credit, from driving more and more people into deeper and deeper debt. That would be bankers. They surely would love to pile more debts on top of the old ones - as Larry Summers is undoubtedly well aware. But his point sounds about as sincere as McDonald's spokesman hypothetically claiming: "The central irony of our obesity problem is that it can only be resolved with more hamburgers, more French fries and much fatter mayonnaise".

Albert Einstein allegedly authored the famous quote about insanity - which is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Too bad Larry Summers never heard of it.

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