QBism: this changes everything

Originally posted on Wed, 05/22/2013

This month’s Scientific American has an article on Quantum Bayesianism, a re-formulation of quantum mechanics in terms of probability. Apparently physicists hadn’t been using Bayesian statistics in their formulas, and that’s the reason for all the quantum paradoxes. Particle/wave duality? A wave is just a probability of a particle being somewhere; no more, no less. It is so straightforward that my only question is: why hasn’t this been the standard interpretation since the 1930s? This is so much more simple an explanation than the other interpretations.

Here is how Schrödinger’s Cat is viewed in different interpretations of quantum mechanics:

  • Copenhagen: the cat is simultaneously dead and alive, in a quantum superposition which includes both states.
  • Multiple Universes: an infinite number of universes are created, and the cat is dead in half of them.
  • Quantum Bayesianism: the cat is either dead or alive, you just don’t know which.

I think it’s clear which interpretation is both simplest and most intuitive.

Why preaching “love thy neighbor” usually fails

Originally posted on Fri, 05/10/2013

Every social animal has a mechanism for distinguishing an in-group (friends, family, tribe) from the out-group (everyone else.) Ants use pheromones. Primates are more sophisticated: tribes may not be blood relatives, and individuals can switch affiliations. Humans collect numerous in-group affiliations: race, country, religion, schooling, professions, clubs, hobbies, sports teams, and on and on. Virtually every way in which we describe ourselves is also an affiliation with an in-group. That’s why matchmakers and salespeople try to build affinity by comparing even the most random similarities.

As complex as people are, this in-group/out-group distinction is deeply rooted in our primate neurochemistry. I suspect that it’s related to oxytocin, a hormone famously released into a mother’s bloodstream during breastfeeding, and also found in abundance in romantic lovers–thus the nickname “the love hormone.” It is best known for increasing trust. However, more recent studies discovered that it also heightens envy and gloating.

If you just imagine a mother cradling a baby, you are increasing the oxytocin in your bloodstream. You feel more trusting, more compassionate, and more nurturing. But you are also more fearful of danger– and of strangers. Your sense of in-group versus out-group is heightened.

I would argue that any trust building exercise, from boot camp to “male bonding” to discovering similarities with a neighbor, does not simply nurture an in-group affiliation, but heightens the sense of in-group vs. out-group. If this is so, many things we do to build community and esprit de corps also builds distrust of the out-group.

Which brings us to preaching universal love. I don’t know about other denominations, but Unitarian Universalists pride themselves on open mindedness–particularly in matters of theology–yet often have a hard time practicing open mindedness when it comes to Christian denominations. Part of it may be that many people come to UUism after a bad experience with a different church. But even I am susceptible to distrust of other denominations, and I was raised UU.

The paradox is that, in order to promote spiritual deepening, you need to promote a safe, trusting, intimate environment. Soul-searching is all about opening yourself to vulnerability which leads to greater self-understanding. But this sense of intimacy and trust inherently heightens not just in-group affiliation, but out-group awareness as well. To make people receptive to a message of universal love, you heighten the opposite.

If congregants are susceptible to out-group distrust, just imagine the ministers. On top of all the ambient trust-building exercises, they have their own grueling boot-camp-like experience which creates an intense esprit de corps among the ministry. Graduate school, intense self-reflection, hospital chaplain internship, and a grueling final examination don’t just weed out lesser would-be ministers. They also make ordained ministers feel elite. Mind you, elitism is a good thing– when the exceptionalism matches the task at hand. But human emotions aren’t so precise. I once had a Harvard Divinity student tell me that she feared graduation, as she would have to find a job away from the Boston area– and how lonely every other place on Earth would be, without a large and vibrant community of ministers.

This isn’t unique to ministry. Every educated profession suffers from arrogance when they stray from their specific field of expertise. In my own field, you can find countless technologists (Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil for example) who seem incapable of understanding that biology isn’t just engineering with nano-gears. But ministry has an odd double standard: everyone should practice it, and yet there is a need for highly trained experts.

So which is it? Is ministry for everyone, or for the elite trained professionals? The elite training of UU ministers helps to ensure that people who would be in a position to sully the reputation of Unitarian Universalism are either weeded out or trained to act professionally. It guarantees that they have the skills to handle the most sensitive of situations: a highly public off-the-cuff prayer, or the delicate handling of a bereaved family. But ministers need to fight their education in order to listen deeply to the ministry of laypeople. All their training in deep listening, after all, is counter-balanced by subliminal training about the value of the training itself. Could that Harvard Divinity student truly not have a deep, meaningful discussion with a group of highly educated non-ministers? Or with a highly trained graduate of the school of hard knocks? In-group vs. out-group. (I know. I’ve been there. When I was deep in a German immersion program, I felt like I’d never relate to anyone who wasn’t bilingual.)

So how can one learn universal love without falling in the in-group/out-group trap? We know it can be done. People who live in cosmopolitan areas learn coping strategies. It’s not as simple as “drawing a bigger circle,” as some would suggest. It’s a matter of collecting enough in-groups to include whomever you might meet. I’m white and suburban, but you’re a black stranger dressed like a gangsta? Well, we’re both Minnesotans. Or Americans. Or I’ll imagine that you your mother, and that she’s a lot like my mother– at least in some important way. This isn’t easy. We can’t unlearn racism and other biases, as we discover if we take an Implicit Association Test. But we can be aware of our biases, and change our behaviors or trick our minds accordingly.

Right place, right time for mentoring?

Originally posted on Wed, 04/03/2013

A few weeks ago I hosted an extern (a.k.a. intern) from Grinnell College. I’ve also taught sex ed to 8th graders at my church. These are both useful, meaningful, and fun activities for me and the students. However, are they the best use of my time? I ask this in the context of my right place, right time inquiry. The issue is this: all these students are already privileged enough to be in a position to be taught by me, either by going to an elite college or by entering a predominantly college-educated church community. Especially in this time of increasingly desperate income disparities, I could make a bigger difference in someone’s life if I reached out to a young person who doesn’t have a college educated family.

This is a big deviation from my original idea of writing software. But it feels more right, because it is more of a risk and a stretch for me. I’m not giving up on the idea of writing software. For one thing, I may be able to do both. For another, this may lead me to have a different perspective which would put me in a better position to recognize needed software. But most important, I’m still in the idea gathering portion of my project, and I may yet have different ideas.

The right place and the right time

Originally posted on Tue, 02/19/2013

It’s official. Starting this fall, I will be reducing my hours at work in order to work on more meaningful things. (Not that my job isn’t meaningful; but I have the opportunity to take it to another level. And I can do it without hurting the business.)

Previously, I organized my ideas around the notion of a virtual church. While that’s a fine way for me to gather my thoughts, where it points for me is not particularly virtual and, unless you are a devout Humanist, rather unchurchy. What I’m thinking is more along the lines of “software in the service of humanity, to help people be their best selves.” But more important is my line of inquiry.

This is what I am asking myself:

Given what you know about who you are, what motivates you, and what you are capable of,

If you were the right person, at the right place, at the right time in history,
where would you be, and what would you be doing?

Go there and do that.

I had a meeting today with Rev. Jen Crow to discuss my next steps. She has given me some homework related to the Wellspring program I’ll take in the fall to enrich my quest. I am to find a spiritual director. At some point I’ll start a daily spiritual practice of some sort. It may take me a while to find enough of an answer to my questions to get started. Or I might gravitate toward something right away. And it might turn out to be a dead end. But that’s okay. I’ll learn a whole lot less if I don’t try.

More on the Virtual Church

Originally posted on Fri, 02/08/2013

I’m starting to think that this Virtual Church thing has legs. One thing I mentioned several times in my last post was Stack Overflow, a website which uses social science techniques (a.k.a. gamification) to encourage high-quality answers to technical questions. One thing that simplifies this is the decision to make Stack Overflow explicitly not a discussion board. Well, they’ve done it again and introduced discussion board software which encourages civil discourse. They call it Discourse. It’s too early to be certain if it will work, but it’s got an awfully good pedigree.

On Google+, I commented to Stephen Starkey some of the directions that this Virtual Church idea could take. I should add that “any and all, and by people other than me” is a perfectly good option. In fact, human progress tends not to be the work of lone geniuses, but of many people and teams racing to explore a newly discovered scientific or cultural frontier. Here’s what I said:

Right now it’s a jumble of ideas. I can see it going in a number of directions. A few examples, in no particular order:

  • A filter or shell on top of existing social media, to amplify the spirituality and dampen the negative stressors. (This is the least likely, as Facebook, Google, and Twitter want to control the UI. But you can get a similar effect by only friending ministers.)
  • An alternative social media site, highly targeted (like StackOverflow or caringbridge.org) and implicitly encouraging mindfulness and self-health while promoting environmental and social justice.
  • A toolkit for developing social media sites like the one above, or incorporating mindfulness into existing social media toolkits. The latter could be particularly subversive (if that’s the right term) if a suite of general-purpose widgets has defaults that encourage mindfulness, wellness, and enlightened discussion.
  • Out-of-the-box forum software for churches and other organizations.

Some of these may sound distantly removed from the original notion of a virtual church. But for some people, Facebook is their church. It’s where they find words of inspiration and are called into action in the real world. And for others, the physical church is as meaningless as so many cat pictures and links to cheer-our-political-team, shame-the-other-side that get mixed into the Facebook stream.

You’ll notice that if you scale back the explicit mindfulness/spirituality, a number of these ideas start to look like Discourse. And the rest could use Discourse as a component or starting point. (Or not; it could be that voting on comments isn’t the best way to promote spiritual discourse.)

The thing that excites me the most about the Virtual Church is that it ties together so many of my interests. This could turn into a quit-my-job sort of project. Which would be quite something, considering how awesome my job is. But going on my own would involve a ton of things I really don’t like: paperwork, self-promotion, financing, and all the rest.

I encourage anyone to take these ideas and run with them. Anyone else would take them in a different direction. Me, I’m a tool builder, not a moderator, minister, or conversationalist. Here’s how I see things:

  • Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day
  • Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for the rest of his life
  • Open a fishing school, and many will eat
  • Develop a good curriculum, and fishing schools will thrive
  • Develop easier techniques for fishing, or for teaching, and teachers will be able to reach more people– and some will teach themselves
  • Develop tools to make it easier to improve fishing techniques, such as ways to measure teaching success, and the teachers and students will improve the techniques
  • …but success is more certain if you just teach one person to fish.

I am definitely at the more meta end of that list– but you need all kinds.

The virtual church

Originally published on Sun, 01/27/2013

I’ve started connecting a few ideas, and this might turn into a major project, or it might end up as idle speculation. So please excuse this brain dump, and let me know if any of the threads lead you somewhere.

Thread 1: June 1995, Spokane, Washington

I was at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the Internet booth. Ed Krol, author of The Complete Internet User’s Guide and Catalog, was there, along with a few other Internet experts. (Ed’s book had one short chapter on the World Wide Web, which was too new to be considered more than a curiosity at publication time. By 1995 it was starting to dominate the Internet.) There was a PC there with WinSock, a little program for connecting PCs to the Internet, and we were showing off the UUA’s new website. I was also trying to get people in UU young adult groups to give me their groups’ contact information, so I could add them to the directory on my website, uuyan.org. But mainly we were trying to teach people about the Internet, in particular that it existed and that we believed it was the future.

A minister came up to the booth and, with stars in his eyes, he explained his idea for a virtual church, based on a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon, a precursor to Wizards of Warcraft, only with text descriptions instead of any graphics.) People would enter the virtual church, chat with one another, “sit down” in their virtual pews, “listen to” (read) his sermon, and then have a virtual coffee hour. We nodded and smiled and tried not to discourage him too much. The idea of a virtual church was a good one, as was the idea of combining online community with spirituality. But the only thing we knew about doing it was this: every idea out there sounded incredibly dull and completely unworkable.

Thread 2: Today

We’ve learned a lot about building community online. We have yet to build an online community which can replace physical community for most neurotypical people. But we’ve learned how to integrate physical communities with online presences. Facebook is primarily a place for connecting with people you know from the physical world. My church’s CyberCoffeeHour is a valuable extension of the physical church.

We’ve also learned what online communities are good for that physical communities aren’t. They can gather quickly and allow geographically diverse people to work for a common cause. Like real communities, they can be hard to build, but once successful are self-sustaining. And they can allow coordination over both time and space. Consider Wikipedia. Clay Shirky describes it as a coral: the living part is a tiny community of cells living on, and growing, the coral skeleton that builds up over generations. Consider StackOverflow.com, which has quickly grown into the best Q&A site for programming questions. The secret to its success is learning from past online communities to see which behaviors are toxic and which are beneficial. Then they applied techniques from video games and previous online communities to encourage beneficial behaviors and dissuade toxic ones.

Time and space are weird in cyberspace. You can engage and continue small conversations that last years– such as adding the latest information to an old StackOverflow question. You can play a game against a pre-recorded opponent, as if it were happening right now. You can do things that are physically impossible in a real-world collaboration.

Online we have computers to filter and analyze human activity, to provide greater insight and discoverability. Data mining, Page Rank, collaborative filtering. Letting computers do the number crunching and the data visualization, giving the illusion of artificial intelligence by leveraging human intelligence.

Unlike 1995, there is now a great deal of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t online. Not just how to build a thriving online community, but what sorts of things can be done with an online community, and what sorts of things can’t be done.

Thread 3: The Purpose of a Church

The other problem with the man’s vision in 1995 was that his idea of a church was centered around a church service: sitting in pews at a designated time and listening to a sermon. Since then I’ve learned a lot about the purpose of a church. As an atheist, and having grown up in a church full of atheists, I’ve never saw it centered around God. Ever since Darwin, intellectuals have predicted the imminent demise of religion. After all, once you are immersed in a workable theory of bottom-up creation, the notion that the universe started with the most complex, sophisticated being who worked his way down to muck and chaos seems absurd. Right? So clearly, as more people became educated, they will reject religion. Obviously.

Obviously this hasn’t happened in the last 150 years, and it isn’t likely to happen any time soon. There are even (gasp!) religious intellectuals in the world today. And there are even, believe it or not, churches full of atheists. What are they doing?

Rev. John Cummins, minister emeritus at my church, said his job was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. That’s as good a description as I’ve heard. A good church is a self-help group for both the troubled and the complacent. It’s a meta-charity: it connects people to good works, including charities. And unlike a charity, when you tire from volunteering, or the mission is complete, the community is still there. And it’s there to get you ready for the next mission.

Or to put it another way: a church is a self-sustaining way to organize people to be healthy and do good. People join because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and a good church delivers on that promise. It inspires people to be the best people they can be.

Bringing it together: the virtual church

Imagine a virtual community that comforts and sustains people. One that’s organized around the desire to be part of something bigger than one’s self, which engages people and inspires them to be their whole selves. An online community that values introspection, deep listening, thoughtful dialogue, and meaningful action to improve the world. A community that is connected to real-world churches and organizations. Which leaves the things best suited for physical communities to the physical communities. And which lets people do what people are best at, while bringing in computers to do what they are best at.

What would this look like? I don’t know yet. But we have the tools to bring it together in a way that we didn’t used to. This would be something less than an exclusively online community, but something more than an electronic extension of brick-and-mortar churches.

Part of the success of Stack Overflow and Wikipedia is that they have rules to limit their scope. This keeps them honest, and keeps them from dissolving into flame wars. There’s no Stack Exchange site for solving the world’s problems, because Stack Overflow and its sister sites limit themselves to answerable questions. Wikipedia doesn’t need fact checkers with Ph.D.s because it has strict citation requirements. When you open things up too much, it becomes hard to keep focus. And it’s exactly when people open up and let themselves be vulnerable– the time with the most potential for spiritual growth– when people are most likely to misunderstand each other and end up hurting each other. We know how to handle this in the physical world. (Some of us, at least.) We have yet to learn how to handle this online. That’s one reason we haven’t seen a virtual church yet.

I also take inspiration from the Quakers. They make decisions by consensus. This is unwieldy unless you have some ground rules. Rule #1: consensus is for matters of conscience, not opinions. You delegate the decision of what color to paint your church. This is a lot like the limits on online community topics. Rule #2: the spiritual community is more important than the decision. You can’t build consensus if people aren’t willing to listen to one another. Put another way: the decision is the byproduct of healthy spiritual engagement. Just as Wikipedia the encyclopedia is the byproduct of Wikipedia the community. Just as the large coral is the byproduct of the living coral. What open source software calls meritocracy looks a lot like what Quakers call consensus.

So where would we take this? The hard part is taking online tools that work well for limited discussions and focused collaboration (preferably on topics that don’t encourage flame wars) and opening them up to self-sustaining, enriching community organizing. With ties to real-world communities to help people engage each other as people. Allowing collaboration and engagement across expanses of time and space. In some ways we’re no closer than we were in 1995. And yet it might be time.

What do you think? Blog, tweet, post, or email me your ideas (david@leppik.net) for how this could happen– or how this is happening. I don’t have comments up here yet, so comment wherever you found a link to this.

[Update 2/8/2013: I've had some more thoughts.]

The coldest air you can breathe

Originally posted on Sat, 01/26/2013

With all the cold weather, I posed the following question to my siblings:

What’s the coldest temperature air that a human can safely breathe?

Mind you, my sister spent a year at the South Pole, so she knows about cold. If you inhale cold air too fast, your lungs get frostbite– which can kill you. It really does happen when people exercise in extreme cold. (And for those of you in southern California, extreme cold starts somewhere below -10 F.) So I’m assuming you breathe slowly, giving the air plenty of time to warm up before hitting the lungs. I’m also assuming you’re wearing extremely warm clothing, though little more than a scarf over your nose and mouth. No special breathing apparatus.

Here’s what we came up with: Oxygen condenses to a liquid at -297 F. Which is also to say, liquid oxygen boils at -297 F. So anything beyond that and you’re drinking oxygen rather than breathing. At that point, the carbon dioxide has long since solidified and the nitrogen has liquefied, so presumably you can get pure oxygen– so you don’t have to breathe quite so much. Remarkably, the amount of energy needed to boil oxygen is about the same as the amount needed to bring it to body temperature. Assuming you need 6 lbs of oxygen a day, it’s about 5 calories per hour to boil oxygen, plus another 5 calories to bring it to room temperature. If you could figure out a technique for heating it up without getting frostbite, you could actually survive on liquid oxygen. You wouldn’t even lose much weight.

Of course, that’s a big if. You also need to get plenty of water, since there won’t be any in the air, and dry cells are more prone to frostbite. (Water stores a lot of heat.)

What’s remarkable is that, under the right circumstances, a mammal could evolve to live in extreme cold by drinking liquid oxygen. I imagine something like a deer with a very specialized trunk for transferring heat to the oxygen. Perhaps it would even have sacks for storing liquid oxygen. It would have extremely high caloric requirements, not because of the oxygen, but because it would presumably need to melt its water and keep its body warm. (There are actually herd animals in Asia that get all their water from frost.)

12 months of bike commuting

Originally posted on Tue, 12/04/2012

As of today, I have biked to work at least one day in every month of 2012. In Minnesota. What’s more, during the summer I biked to work far more often than I drove. I’d like to say that I’m now officially one of those crazy bike commuters who will bike in all kinds of weather, but that’s not true. I never rode in icy or dangerous conditions, and I only got wet a few times.

The weather was exceptionally warm and dry last winter, with frequent highs in the 40s during January and February. May was the only tricky month, since it was rainy, but then we entered into a drought that is still going on.

I hate SkyNet

Originally posted on Wed, 11/07/2012

Yesterday I put my Terminator 2 Blu-Ray into the player, and it said “SkyNet has detected that you have accessed this disk before.”
30 seconds later: “SkyNet is loading…”
30 seconds later, a map of the Earth, with a bunch of stuff which might have been disabled menu options, or just fake menu options.  It might have said, “SkyNet cannot determine your location.”  Oh, and a “continue” option.
For the next 15 seconds: “SkyNet has detected an Internet connection…”
“Downloading high-resolution media…”

SkyNet did not know where I had stopped playing the day before.  It did not know which version of the movie I preferred.  Out of my 20 minute treadmill routine, 4 minutes were spent just getting back to the right scene.

If only Skynet were a little smarter and a little faster.

A better system of government

Originally posted on Tue, 11/06/2012

I’ve been seeing (and commenting on) a lot of suggestions about how to improve our democracy. It’s been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Winston Churchill is most famous for saying that (“it’s been said” and all), but we’ve over half a century with lots of advances in game theory and psychology, so perhaps it’s time to revisit this assertion.

First we must decide what the purpose of government is. It’s not strictly to enforce the will of the people, for several reasons. Even in a democracy of one person– or a dictatorship– a leader might not know what he wants or be wrong, by later judgement. With more people, there’s even less agreement. What’s more, it’s important for people to have certain rights, regardless of the will of the people.

For the purpose of argument, I’d say that the purpose of government is twofold:

  1. To ensure an equitable distribution of power. At a minimum, to keep tyrants, corrupt officials, invaders, thugs, bullies, and thieves from taking over. Taken to an extreme, this may mean heavy-handed wealth redistribution. There’s a lot of room for interpretation in between, depending on what you consider equitable. My own take is that, in each generation, every person should have a fighting chance to rise to the top of society, and nobody should become completely disenfranchised. (Note that this is aspirational: I don’t know of any government that always succeeds at either.)
  2. To facilitate cooperation, as necessary. That is, to make sure that services that can’t or shouldn’t be provided individually are taken care of, either by providing them directly or indirectly through laws, regulations, and policies. That’s really more of a means than an end, so I’ll append: …in order to sustain the best of human values, for the present and future generations.

That being the case, is democracy the best choice? Many of the biggest problems that face our world are environmental or economic, where experts have a far more nuanced (and often completely different) view than the population at large. Government is most successful when people are intimately involved in measuring outcomes, but don’t necessarily care about implementation details. Sanitation, for example. People don’t know (or care) where the trash goes, so long as they don’t have to care, but will complain immediately if it doesn’t get picked up. Or schooling. School works best when parents complain immediately when things go wrong, and taxpayers are willing to pay to make things go better. But global warming? That takes decades to measure, and few have the expertise to measure it.

Economics is similar. The biggest factors that effect the economy, in my opinion, take 10-20 years to have an effect. Education. Investments in roads and other infrastructure. Cultivating a business community that makes long range plans. And preserving free-market enterprise. (“Business friendly” policies tend to be pro-existing-business, and therefore anti-free-market.)

The biggest advantage of democracy is that it is extremely good at distributing power. Power tends to consolidate. The wealthy and powerful– whether individuals, associations, or corporations– use their influence to gain more influence. It’s a corrosive effect that seeps through the cracks in every society. And once it becomes overwhelming, the disenfranchised try to take back power.

This is not unique to democracy. If anything, democracy works to protect the bullies– by keeping them from getting so powerful that they are overthrown violently. I see society as like a car going down a road. Ideally, the driver keeps the car in the middle of the lane, but at a minimum tries to keep it out of the ditch. The driver, in a democracy, is lazy. People have better things to do than to pay attention to politics. So it’s like a car with a sleepy driver, who wakes up when the car drifts too far, gets back into the lane, and dozes off again. That’s a whole lot better than monarchy and other dictatorships, which is like a bus where the driver doesn’t have to care about staying in the lane. It occasionally crashes, people die, the bus gets repaired, and someone else becomes the new driver. (Or you have a parliament which tries to replace reckless drivers, when the parliament itself isn’t reckless.)

So the qualities that make for a good government are (1) measurable progress toward goals (call it transparency), and (2) responsiveness, which is an antidote to corruption. There are plenty of organizations that do well in this regard that aren’t democratic. Successful, customer-focused companies (such as Apple) make it easy for people to judge them, and people do. They are held to a higher standard, which they don’t always meet. Apple, for example, delights its customers with high-quality products, and is also more transparent than any other electronics company when it comes to fair labor practices in their factories. The irony is that people associate Apple with poor labor practices, because we know more about them. You can be sure that Dell and HP don’t have better practices. Similarly in government, it appears the most corrupt when you hear about every little whiff of potential corruption, which is in fact when it’s the least corrupt.

So is democracy the best? For exposing and fixing corruption, you need activism to come from all corners. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone voting in the way we think of it. Our election cycle is too infrequent to deal with immediate problems, yet too frequent to provide long-term leadership. And yet, because power tends to collect, we can’t afford to have politicians who persist for too long, lest they become too powerful.

Here are a few things I’d like to see for good governance, whether it’s in a democracy as we know it, or not:

  • A democratic process that engages people at the appropriate level. Not asking them to make decisions about technical issues they can’t be expected to become experts in, nor asking them to choose several Soil And Water District Supervisors, and over dozen judges (as I do). But to give them an opportunity to choose a few leaders, whose qualities they can be expected to research and judge.
  • A selection process which promotes consensus builders. So you aren’t choosing between the far left and the far right. Nor are you necessarily choosing the “safest,” most center-of-the-road candidate. I think multiple-choice voting (e.g. instant run-off) would be far better than our current system in this regard. That is, the winner would have to be acceptable to a majority of voters, not simply get more votes than the alternative. But you also need a system for choosing the candidates that’s more flexible than the current party system, where a radical group can overtake the nomination process.
  • A culture of engagement, where corruption is not acceptable. Where diverse opinions are discussed, but lies and distortions are not tolerated. In some ways, the echo chamber of the Internet is a step back from the old days when most people got their news from a few authoritative sources.
  • Resilience against power grabs. Small groups that can take over a nomination process, for one. But also organizations that lobby for tax loopholes that aren’t a big deal individually, but add up to a lot of corruption over time. I’m not sure what the cure for the latter is, except perhaps to limit the complexity of certain kinds of laws. (Referenda aren’t the answer: deceptive advertising influences voters even more than lobbyists influence politicians.)

If you were to design a system from scratch based on these principals, you’d end up with something unlike democracy as we practice it today. But it’s not impossible to get there from within our own system. Like so many things, the theoretical properties (how many legislators, how many parties, electoral or direct elections, etc.) aren’t as important as how well it is implemented. And that implies constant vigilance.