An Immodest Proposal

Many in the United States of America are disturbed about how two recent Presidential and Vice Presidential elections failed to mirror the popular vote.  Some are calling for the abolition of the Electoral College.  Yet others wish to retain it.

The reasons for keeping it include the very same reasons that our Founding Fathers argued for its original form, to keep popular but incompetent or selfishly ambitious and dangerous ideologues from reaching this our highest office.  But, it obviously failed most recently.

But the reason it failed is because the method of selecting our Electors has changed and not for the better.  We used to vote directly for these people, by name.  Now, they are the tools of partisanship, a party slate, voted not by name, but by party affiliation.  This is what must change.

Further, we must not be slaves to the past.  (Allusion intended.)  We must not continue to live with the compromises made in the late 18th Century with those elements that would own human beings as though they were draft animals.  The Electoral College must be apportioned by population only.

The easiest way of achieving both ends is to set the Electoral voting system by districts, in fact, the same districts as the House of Representatives (providing that gerrymandering has been eliminated).  This will allow voters to size up the potential Electors and weed out those who would fail to vote their conscience.  It won’t totally eliminate party influence, but it will eliminate winner take all by states.  It will eliminate the overweighting of low population states, giving back equal representation to the populous states.

There is one other proposal I would make… and that is that the Electors should be voted upon in the mid-term elections so as to allow a two-year period in which the Electors may confer among themselves, hear from their local constituents, to select the best candidates for the offices of President and Vice President.  This will have the effect of eliminating the “horse race” public campaigns that are so divisive of our nation.

Sexual Politics

I earlier discussed my radical thoughts on how the lower house in both state and federal legislatures should be selected by gathering proxies at large, as being truly representative of the population in a modern, aviation and internet connected, world.  Now, thinking about the upper house, the U.S. Senate, I believe, strongly, that it is time for better represenation for all humans… and especially for the half of the citizenry that has been historically under, and at one time, completely un-represented, women.

Each State of our Union sends two Senators to represent that state.  That should continue.  But they now should send one of each sex.  I call for a Constitutional Amendment for this requirement.

Before I hear that this would be “undemocratic”… think.  Only 96 years ago, our Constitution failed to protect the rights of women to vote at all… and though there are at any one time fully 100 Senators serving, now that there are 50 states in the Union, in all of our nation’s history, less than half that number have been women, TOTAL !  This is NOT representative democracy.

Join me in calling for Constitional Amendments; one to require that the state elect one Senator of each sex; the other that Representatives to the House be selected by gathering proxies at large across the nation.

No Legislation without REAL Representation!


Modernizing the US Treasury

During George Washington’s first term, Alexander Hamilton, serving as the Secretary of the Treasury, turned a serious liability into an asset, when he organized the first Bank of the United States.  The Continental Congress and the various states had run up debts during the War for Independence.  Hamilton recommended, and acheived, legislation to fund the debt using taxes on imports and simultaneously exchanging all of the IOUs to stock in the Bank, thus making that ‘paper’ an asset against which the bank could issue currency.  Hamilton also established the US Mint, denoting the currency as ‘dollars’ and that coinage would use a decimal system.  All in all, Mr. Hamilton brought the US Treasury into the modern 19th Century.

In the early 20th Century, the United States Federal Reserve Banks were established, modernizing our banking system.  The US Treasury still printed and minted our currency, but the Federal Reserve issues it.  Check a US paper bill.  You will see that it is labeled at the top, “Federal Reserve Note”  You will also find the seals of the Federal Reserve Bank that issued it and The Department of the Treasury.  There are also fascimilies of the signatures of the Treasurer of the United States and the Secretary of the Treasury.

But the 21st Century economy is moving toward a cashless society.  Just as the Federal Reserve and the Treasury print and issue paper currency and mint coins, absorbing the cost of their production, the two together should issue Cashless Currency, with the full faith and credit of the United States backing them.

I propose that the US Federal Reserve and the Treasury, produce  cash and debit cards tied to Federal Reserve bank accounts.  A percentage of the float that results from deposits would be used to buy US Treasury securities.  The interest earned from the securities would offset the costs incured in the operation of the cash cards.

I envistion two forms of the cards, one would be anonomous cash cards with a maximum amount allowed to be associated with them.  The other form would be tied to a given individual US citizen or legal resident.  These cards may be additionally tied to other banking accounts of member banks.  These cards would have photos and up-to-date biometric security features as the technology improves.

Why do we need the the Fed bank cards?  Because far too many people are ‘bankless’, as the conventional banks have abandoned the poor.  They are ‘ripped-off’ by unscrupulous “check cashing” businesses.  With federal bank cards in universal use, employers would directly deposit pay into individual debit accounts instead of issuing paychecks.  Senator Warren has suggested that US Post Offices provide some banking services to this population.  This concept could be tied into the Fed cash cards and debit cards.  Government services such as Social Security and welfare / food assistance can also be directly deposited into these accounts.  The modern cashless society is creating two classes of people, the “banked” and “unbanked”.  The governent can and must address this urgent and growing problem.

Another benefit of the Fed issuing these cards and accounts is that a universal electronic funds transfer system would be available for all transactions on the internet, including micro-payments.  Given that all transactions are “free”, this will reduce transaction costs, reducing friction in the economy, helping everyone.

Finally, I recommend that the cash card carry the image of Elinor Roosevelt, who tirelessly endeavored to lift our nation, especially the poorest, out of poverty during the Great Depression,while the debit card carry the image of Alexander Hamilton.  The cards should be the same color and design scheme as our present currency to foster trust through brand recognition.

This is an idea whose time has come.  It’s time that the US Department of the Treasury join the rest of us in the 21st Century.

Please forward this link to your US Senator and Congressmen.

Representitive Government

In a republic, the people are supposed to elect those among them to represent them in legislative bodies.  In the United States, much of the form of our government was crafted by people who understood the practicalities of travel and transportation in the late 18th Century, when people, goods, and even news all travelled at the same speed, a horse at a walk.  Perhaps its time to rethink how we elect our representitives?

Consider also that our representitives were elected for two legislative bodies that were in theory to provide some checks and balances even within the legislative branch by using differing methods.  Our Senate was to be selected by the States to represent the State as whole, often by that State’s government, rather than by direct vote of the citizens of that State.  But that has changed to direct vote, and now those Senators are subject to the same political forces that select the Representitives.

Or do they?

In many House districts, political party machines have been able to adjust the boundaries, ‘gerrymander’, the districts to rig the districts to favor one political party over another.  Within each district, a simply majority, or even a plurality, gives that seat in a ‘winner-takes-all’ manner, thus reducing the real value and meaning of “representitive government”.

Every “crank” has an idea to fix the problem… so why not me too?

Here’s my personal crack-pot idea:  Eliminate districts and allow citizens to chose their representive directly using proxies.  Each two years, candidates for the House of Representitives (and the lower houses in State legislatures) may canvas citizens across the country (or State for State legislatures) to secure a minimum required number of proxies to hold a seat in Congress.  There would also be a maximum number of proxies that any given Congress Member may hold, to limit the power of any given Member.  In session, during floor votes, the Member votes their proxies.  Obviously, those who hold more proxies wield more votes in Congress, as I believe they should.  On the flip side, this means that smaller minorities may select a Congress Member whose voice is at least heard during debates and as members of committees.  I would suggest that committee votes are one member, one vote, unlike floor votes.

The canvasing period would be divided into two phases, the first to select the Members, the second to allow those citizens who had proffered their proxies to candidates that had failed to gather enough proxies to qualify as a Member, to proffer their proxy to another who had, to ensure that they still have real representation.

This new system gives a voice to even the smallest group, as they find and support their representive with their proxies, unlike our present system which gives inordinate and very undemocratic advantage to the majority, or even to just a united plurality.

During the troubles that led to the War for Independence, forward thinking citizens put forth the notion of “No Taxation without Representation”.  I believe the new mantra should be “No Legislation without REAL Representation”.  It is time for a rethink of our electorial processes.  Please join me in calling for reform in both State and Federal Constitutions giving a REAL voice and REAL Representation in our government.

Past and Future of Education

When I was a freshman in high school, I sat chafing at the horribly slow pace of droning lectures on material that I had already read in the assigned textbooks.  I would often find myself nodding off to sleep (teenagers’ circadian clocks are time shifted such that early morning classes are too early) or day dreaming.  I still got near perfect scores on exams.  I had, after all, read the textbooks cover to cover at the begining of the term.  In my day dreaming, I often envisioned my ideal university experience.  Mine were always in ‘Ox-bridge’ like settings, where tutors who sat in cozy wood paneled rooms with floor to ceiling bookshelves guided one’s reading lists while serving ‘tea & bisquits’, lectures were always optional, and neither were part of a set course, but were meant to provide opportunities for learning to prepare one for comprehensive exams to demonstrate competence in the material.  I took the phrase, “reading for the exams” literally.  You can imagine my disappointment to learn that university was the same as high school, but with bigger lecture halls.

But I took a different route.  I earned my lower division general education requirements from part-time attendance, and occasionally challenging courses, at community colleges, but earned the lion’s share of my college credits entirely by comprehensive exams after self-study.  I bought many of my text books at the Stanford University bookstore, others I borrowed from my roommate who had gone to CalTech before Stanford Med School.  I got very decent scores on the exams.  After earning my BS, I was admitted to Stanford Graduate School as a part-time (Honors Co-op) student, sponsored by my employer, Fairchild Semiconductor, to take or audit classes on semiconductor device theory and fabrication.  (I audited more than I took, as I needed to learn fast for my job, more than I needed the credit hours.)  I was looking forward to graduate school at Stanford, having projected my high school vision of what a graduate level education would be like.  Sadly, graduate school was very like undergraduate, but with smaller lecture halls.

OK, for a bit of honest self-disclosure.  I was born hard-of-hearing.  I get almost nothing from lectures.  Yes, I wear hearing aids… but they amplify noise just as well as voices.  The background noise of hundreds of other students squirming in the seats partially masks the teacher’s voice.  When s/he turns his/her back to write on a board, I can no longer augment my hearing with lip reading.  Oh and that sound of nails on chalkboards that can make one cringe(?); that’s what ordinary chalk on chalkboards sound like when amplified.  What I hear is, “Now, ‘ooking a’ ‘is equat’n, it is obvious ‘at mmff..mmm {sskrsksk} and thus we have proo’ ‘at mmff.n..mmm.  Any questions?”  Although my hearing problem made it harder for me, the lecture method of instruction given our modern technology and tools, is perhaps the most antiquated and least efficient means of delivering needed information.  Can there be a better way?

But first, let’s look back at history to learn why we do this?

In pre-historic times, much of instruction came in two forms, one was oral tradition the other was direct.  Studies of hunter gatherer cultures have documented that a pre-literate society depended upon story telling to pass down history, culture, and lore.  They also pass on skills by direct demonstration and correction of mistakes by younger members of the group.  One could say that the lecture method of instruction is the direct descendent of the campfire story.

But that’s not the whole story.  As population density increased, people gathered in ever larger settlements.  With these came the need for a means of communications over both distance and time.  This lead to literacy.  But oral culture continued in full flower along side written accounts.  Further, literacy was far from universal.  It was dependent upon class and in places even gender.  Instruction in literacy was private, handed down within families or exclusive institutions.  As cities became civilization, higher education was often conducted in small group settings, again limited by class and often gender.

During these times, the written corpus was expensive.  The materials upon which they were written were either time consuming to manufacture, in limited supply, or both.  Consider the problem for the European scholars in the Middle Ages.  Their prefered archival material was parchment, which was sheepskin that had to be laboriously processed.  It was so valuable that, to us, priceless texts from the ancient world were scraped off to provide a surface for religious texts.  These palimpsests occasionally yield historically important texts as modern methods to recover the original writing have become available.  Also consider the means by which one published a new or repuplished and old work.  The handwritten manuscripts had to be hand copied by caligraphic copyists.  This was manpower intensive work that could only be done by skilled workers.  It meant that books were horrendously expensive and not easily obtainable.

So, higher education was limited to those who could afford first to be privately tutored to become literate, and then rich enough to afford either a library of their own, or to travel to that innovative institution of the late-middle-ages, the university.  But even at the university, access to the limited supply of books was effectively metered and controlled.  Their value so high that they were seldom allowed outside of the library walls.  This meant that much of the instruction from the university professors was still given orally, during lectures.  This established a tradition that continues today.

But things did change.  The introduction and rapid evolution of the printing press brought the end of hand copied manuscripts.  The mass manufacture of paper to replace the far more expensive parchment lowered the cost of the media.  The combination dramatically increased the availability of books.  This meant that university libraries burgeoned and reading for one’s exams became a real activity.  But it did not eliminate the cost and cultural barriers to education.  Enrollment in ‘public’ schools took money that working class people simply had limited access to.  Higher education at the universities was out of the question for the vast majority of working and even the middle-classes as they developed from first expanded mercantile trade and later the early industrial revolution.

Around three hundred years ago a new institution began to change all of that.  The grammar or elementary school began to be introduced, increasing literacy rates.  The introduction of the “lending library” wherein one could check out the now lower cost book increased access to scholarly (and not so scholarly) materials.  Benjamin Franklin said, “The public library is the people’s university.”  Many people, Franklin included, obtained the equivilant of a univerisity education nearly exclusively by extensive reading.

But somehow, our universities continued their tradition of mass lectures, despite that fact that reading was more instructionally and cost effective.  When our high schools were instituted, they slavishly copied the format.  Tradition dies hard.

Which brings us to today.  A recent innovation in universities is to record lectures and make them available online (MOOCs).  This extends the cost effectiveness of lectures, as more students view them per lecture.  But this is still a lecture, with an even bigger (virtual) lecture hall.

But with technology, the cost of books have come down as well.  Not only is the printed codex, or random access paper books, so cheap that paperbacks are more often thrown away after reading than stored, we now have means to provide digital electronic materials that make the nth copy of the book essentially free.  Our textbooks should be all available on our tablets (using a PenTile Matrix high resolution display, of course!).  Every reference book, every text book, that one will ever need for school from elementary through graduate school and beyond, should be instantly available and essentially free to all.  But they’re not.

Why aren’t they?  Part of the reason is again historical.  While many advanced textbooks are written by university professors, they are published by traditional hardcopy publishers.  Indeed, there is such a cachet attached to hardcopy, that people are willing to pay high prices… partly because they have no choice.

How can we fix this?  First, we should recognize that it is a national (if not international) imperative that such materials be freely available, as the new “people’s university”.  Second, we should have our universities work together to create national course curricula and materials for use in digital form.  Digital media, as opposed to the printed word or photograph, can directly meld text, diagrams, photos, video, and even interactive tutorials.  Consider the educational value of simply producing and maintaining these materials by the various university departements involving their students in the endeavor.  These should cover material from early elementary school to graduate school, in nearly all of the basics of a modern education.  This does not mean the end of the specialized text book.  These will always be with us… and yes their authors should be compesated by the reader.  But the core materials and textbooks should be universally available at no cost to the student.

Secondly, we need to have a national (if not international) means of educational measurement and evaluation.  This means a series of comprehensive examinations that are also available free.  They should be proctored at public schools, accessable to all by being local.  It should be possible to earn diplomas, certificates, and degrees, entirely by examination.  Admittedly, many professional degrees (e.g. nursing, medicine, etc.) cannot be truly earned entirely by autodydactic means, but a basic undergraduate and some graduate liberal arts education with most majors / concentrations should be.

Online discussion fora can take the place of classroom discussion.  Indeed, among many lifelong learners, social media often becomes such (when self-selected to eliminate the anti-social “troll” element).

This does not mean the end of traditional campus life.  Universities will still be needed.  Research graduate degrees, preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers will still require lab classes and R&D facilities to conduct doctoral work.  Advanced studies in the performing and fine arts will still want and need hands on instruction.  Many people will still want the on campus experiences that help take callow youth into adulthood.

However, it should be the job of every high school to prepare every student to become an autodydact for life, by using and encouraging these new digital course materials.  Every human being should have access to higher education at any point in their life.


Thinking Big

For the past seventy years, our greatest inventions and innovations have been realized by thinking ever smaller.  No, that’s not meant as a criticism, merely a witticism.  Back in the 1950s, Richard Feinman gave a lecture at CalTech entitled, “There’s Always Room at the Bottom”.  In it he extolled the virtues and opportunities of minaturization, of making things ever smaller, presaging Moore’s Law of exponential increase in transistor number in microelectronic integrated circuits.  He also talked about making miniture machines, challeging his listeners (and readers of his lecture series, of which I have the full set in our library) to build a motor only one sixtyforth of an inch.  He was far too modest in his challenge.  We long ago acheived motors measured not in fractions of an inch, but in nanometers.

While I don’t want to state anything so silly as to prognosticate the end of Moore’s Law (too many have done so and been wrong) I do lament that we as a world culture have seemingly abandoned the big.  For decades, our buildings and bridges have seemingly inched their way to larger sizes, but once upon a time, in the 19th and early 20th, we thought big and built big.  Collectively, we dared build projects so big that they staggered the imagination.  Sullivan built new skycrapers.  The Victorians built the Crystal Palace.  Paris built the Eiffle Tower.  All of these stretched and challenged both the imagination and the engineering skills of our best and brightest.

But as I described in my previous essay on the lamentable slowdown of development in the late 20th Century, it seemed to me that we abandoned the ‘big’ challenges.  Oh, we still build “big”.  But they aren’t amazingly big and audatious, not like the first Panama Canal was audatious.  With the possile exception of the Chunnel, the tunnel under the English Channel, we just don’t seem to think BIG anymore.  Consider, where are the domed cities we dreamed of in the mid-20th Century, the cities floating in the sky, the underwater cities?

So, purely as an excercize in creativity, lets think BIG for a brief moment, throwing out ideas, both good and bad:

Ever watch the awsome power of a thunderstorm?  Ever think about how much energy is being released?  Could we not capture and use some of that energy?  Consider building a several tens of thousands of feet high chimney that is a thousand feet wide.  When conditions in the atmosphere approach those conducive to generating thunderstorms, when the lifting index is high, a contained and sustained mini-thunderstorm will develop inside of it.  The air will rise inside of the chimney driving huge wind turbines.  Sized and positioned right, the mini-thunderstorm will be self-sustaining over long periods of time.  There are places in the world where this might be an excellent means of providing renewable energy.  The American South, especially Florida, would seem to fit the bill; imagine dozens of them along the Florida penisula.

Ever watch the tides move in and out of a bay?  In some places the amount of water and its speed could easily be harnessed to provide huge amounts of renewable energy.  Already, small scale tidal power projects have been or soon will be built.  But we should think BIG.  Consider the Sea of Cortez.  There are amazing tides there.  More interestingly, there are several islands mid-way that nearly block the northern and southern portions from each other.  The water moving here could be easily harnessed.  Imagine huge underwater turbines between these islands, providing power for the growing cities of Mexico.  There are other places in the world where these underwater turbines may be placed.

For decades, I’ve day dreamed of how to build floating cities above our already crowded city real estate, places that would probably welcome a bit of shade to reduce the thermal island effect.  Imagine huge blimp like bags of hydrogen lifting lace like lattice structures dotted with lightweight housing.  Anchoring guywires and cables carrying power, water, and sewage would tie them in place.  Gondolas would provide transporation to and from the floating city.  Imagine living in an apartment thousands of feet above the city, with panaramic views that stretched for miles.  The walls and furniture would be lightweight polymer foam to keep the lifting requirements minimized. Oh, and before you complain that hydrogen is dangerously flammable, you might want to read up on how HARD the British Royal Aircorp found it to ignite the hydrogen in German dirigables during WWI.  And about the Hindenburg disaster… that almost certainly was sabotage.  But in the case where no one trusts hydrogen as a lifting gas, we can always punt and use low pressure heated air.  It would cost more in terms of energy to maintain, but would be completely safe from fire.

So, its your turn.  Think BIG !!

How to Build a Creative Team

Executives of Fortune 1000 and start-up companies alike are asking, “How do we build a more creative company?”  Here I hope to share some insights I’ve gained doing just that.

I’ve previously written about how to be more personally creative and how to encourage creativity in one’s children.  Here I explore what team leaders and executives can do to encourage creativity, inventiveness, and innovation in one’s organization.

Obviously, it starts with hiring.  The organization that makes a commitment to hiring creative people will have creative teams.  But how do you recruit and select for creativity?

There is a problem in recruitment in that the best way to attract creative talent is to already have creative teams.  Creative people love being around other creative people.  If you are working to change an organization that is not already recognized as creative, it is time to change the organization’s ‘brand image’ for creative thinking.  Getting professional advice on brand messaging is essential.  The start-up company has the advantage here because they don’t have to undo a previous message.  But even a staid Fortune 500 company can change the way that potential talent views their opportunities inside of the firm.  A bit of warning though, saying it isn’t the same as doing it.

One of the ways to become a creative team is to start with a seed of creative types with which to encourage others to join.  Get the ball roling, and change will come.  Thus, it may be a very good idea to recruit senior executives known to be inventive and innovative.  In such a senior role, the qualities one is searching for are similar to those of other executives, but with the added requirement that they be skilled and diplomatic “change agents”, able to earn and hold the respect of both old guard and newly hired creative talent.

How does one recognize creative talent?

An easy answer is that prior demonstrated creativity is a good predictor of future creativity.  Candidates that have previously been granted patents is an obvious indicator, but not the only one available.  Asking candidates interview questions that are open ended regarding their prior experiences solving problems creatively should be a part of the hiring process.  Research has found that the psychological trait of “openess” is highly correlated with creativity, while “conscientiousness” is mildly correlated.  A good sense of humor, especially using puns demonstrates creativity.  Interestingly, a keen interest in music, especially music performance, is also correlated with creativity, or at the very least, the ability to become creative in the right enviroment and encouragement.  As I pointed out in my previous essays, creativity is a learned skill.  Employees who are open to learning to be more creative can do so.

The key is creating the right environment and providing encouragement.

The first thing I did when I founded Clairvoyante in 2000 was to order Patent Notebooks and issue them to each new hire, not just the technologists, engineers, and technicians, but the sales, marketing, finance, and yes… even the administrative staff, including the receptionist.  I made it very clear that EVERYONE was capable of being creative, in both their own spheres, and any other sphere.  I made it clear that they should document any ideas that they have, good or bad, and that I personally would be available to review and discuss them.  Now, admittedly, the CEO of a far flung multinational corp could never personally review every idea, but it should be made policy that someone in the managerial chain responsible for creative review will do so.  I know that this would be a radical move in a large traditional organization, but consider the message it would send when even the night guard and janitorial staff know that their ideas have value and will be heard.  Consider the message to middle management when they know that they are entrusted to encourage creativity, not dismiss it.

Training is essential.

Even the best and brightest from our leading universities have rarely been instructed on how to be creative.  Our engineering schools teach convergent thinking skills, but rarely teach, or even acknowledge the value of, divergent thinking.  Consider that each and every class assignment that they have likely ever work on had a single “right” answer and no other.  But novel problems require novel solutions.

A good training series for all employees would include the three basics, divergent thinking skills, convergent thinking skills, and continuing self-education skills.

Brainstorming kills creativity.

Really?  Yes, really.  Brainstorming only works in environments where already proven, self-confident, and often extroverted staff are involved.  But even then, the divergent ideas will tend to be self-censored because they will likely be judged too soon.  True creativity is not performed under pressure, but within relaxation and thoughtful… OK, I’ll say it out loud, day dreaming.

But if brainstorming is bad, what does work?

Have you ever heard the oft repeated phrase, “Think outside of the box?”  Phooie!  That’s also a very bad notion.  The right way to go about finding novel, useful, and economically successful ideas is to find the right box and think inside of it.  While brainstorming new ideas doesn’t work, collectively finding the right box does.

The right box is formed by finding and defining the desired boundaries to the solution space.  The more and better defined this solution space becomes, the easier it is for the human mind to couple divergent and convergent thinking skills to finding an optimal solution.  In mathematics, an ill posed problem is like a multi-equation problem with more variables than equations.  To find a solution, one must constrain the problem.  So, don’t brainstorm solutions, brainstorm the box.  Then tell everyone to go home, take a long walk or bath, watch a sunset, relax  Day dream.

Day Dream.