Crowds are Wise – But not when it comes to Voting

In 1907 there was a very interesting article in the Nature magazine called Vox Populi (The voice of the people) written by Francis Galton. It starts with the following words:

In these democratic days, Any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgement is of interest. The material about to be discussed is a small matter but is much to the point

He went on to state (in a later comment) that the mean of all the guesses made by an 800 strong audience for the weight of a cow (or some such animal) was closer to the real weight than the weight guessed by a set of experts. He implied that that 800 non-experts may give you a more correct answer than a couple of experts. There have been plenty of experiments since that prove the wisdom of crowds but in one very important aspect I believe crowds have failed.

If ever man devised a system which so wholly depends on the wisdom of crowds it is democracy. Early democracy was very different to what we see today – in some senses it is closer to an Oligarchy – where there was a central group and there would be a vote on a number of issues. Only those above a certain age (always much greater than 18) would have a chance to vote. And even so there would always be a central structure (elite group, king(s)) who could quash legislations which were deemed not right. Ostensibly this elite group of decision makers were ‘learned’ men or at least experienced in whetever it is they did (science, society etc) and the king trusted their opinion. The common man – the peasant, the blue collar worker had no real voice at all. He/she was seen as uneducated (and in most cases they were) and incapable of understanding the complexities of the problems that needed solving.

Over time people started to see chinks in this method of governance . The disenfranchised sections of society started to feel their grievances being neglected. They all felt that they too were suitably qualified to take part in the governing process. So after much struggle, we came to the point – where we are now – where we have universal voting. Any human being who has the qualities of staying alive till the age of 18 can play his/her part in choosing who runs the country.

This brings us to the wisdom of crowds. Once you have a crowd so diverse, doesn’t there arise the question of bias? On the basis of mental capacity, upbringing, race, religion, understanding? People don’t vote for the candidate that they believe will govern them well any more. They vote either for personas or for pre-disposed political or social biases.

“I’m voting for him because I’ve always voted for Tories” (Is “he” any good? I don’t care.)

“I’ll vote for the BJP because I’m Hindu and they will do a better job of upholding my values” (Will BJP’s budgetary goals ruin your trading business?

“I’ll vote for Obama because he talks well”

Going back to the “Wisdom of crowds experiment”, think of a situation where the cow being weighed was co-owned by 50 of the 800 people stating the weight and they all knew that the weight would be decided based on what final value comes up as a mean of their guesses. I’m sure the 50 would have stated weights on the higher end thus making a mockery of the exercise.

The underlying question at a vote, I think, should be, which of these guys will manage and run a district/state/country the best. The people who are voting lose track of this question. They vote for people who don’t have a vision and if they have a vision they don’t have the tools to make it work. And no – corruption doesn’t cloud the idea of the democracy as much as badly informed voting in my opinion. In fact – some say that corruption could help democracies work better.

In Sparta, you had to be 30 years old and male to play a part in governance. I feel that 18 is too young an age to start playing a role. At 18 most people don’t have a wholistic idea about life. They have rarely ever worked and even if they have, they have a hollow education lasting only upto school.

On larger issues, like climate change, fracking, communal harmony, benefits and so on – can we expect an 18 year old kid or for that matter a grown adult with a mediocre intellect to make the enlightened choice to change the status quo? This becomes even more difficult and improbable if making such a choice for change has a direct and negative impact economically on the said person. A car mechanic, an oil worker, a rich taxpayer and a defence contractor  would all find it extremely hard to make a choice which would directly affect their livelihoods negatively however much good it might do for the nation or the world.

With that in mind, what is to stop our world from going the way of the Rapa Nui at Easter Island? I don’t think we can trust people who make choices based on bias, people who elect leaders who unabashedly lie to their country and take them to war, people who elect leaders who think it important to raise statues of themselves.

Churchill backs me up with this one “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” But of course, Churchill himself was the first to state that democracy is the best system we’ve got.

Le Piratage en France – From Liberty to Tyranny

I’ve been closely following the anti-piracy drive thats going on in a number of countries around the world after the trial against the cocky Piratebay owners. In many places around the world the “bad-guys” in the discussion – the MPAA (Motion Picture Assoc. of America) and other bodeis like them have succeeded in bringing stricter (bordering on draconian) laws.

One such country is France. In the spring of 2009 a Creation and Internet Bill was put to vote and after a month of haggling and obvious lobbying, it was made a law. The law was nicknamed the HADOPI law – after the organization which it set up. The supporters of the bill claimed that it was godsend for the high number of artists in France. But there were a number of very troubling clauses in the law.

The most scary clause in the bill, and one which the pro copyright groups were lobbying for, was giving the watchdog body the right to cut the internet connection of users accused of copyright infringement. Thankfully, the Constitutional Council of France saw it as against the basic principle of the presumption of innocence (which is a human right) and struck the clause out of the bill.

In its current form the bill gives an infringer 3 chances after which his internet connection is suspended for a period of upto 1 year during which he will still have to pay the bills. I think it is the strictest law of its kind anywhere in the world, though the removal of the ‘accused’ clause has made it quite blunt.

Yesterday I came across this article in the Ars Technica where they’ve checked out some of the studies on internet piracy after the law came into effect.I wasn’t surprised by the findings.

The number of pirates has only increased since the law was passed, though it is not yet enforced. The number of pirates moving to online media which isn’t covered by Hadopi has gone up as the P2P piracy has reduced ever so slightly. The studies also looked at the breakup of which media were being used by the pirates and that made for interesting reading as well.

The law cannot cover YouTube, music streaming sites and direct download sites like Rapidshare – and so the number of users of those media have gone up.

Pirates will always be pirates. Unless the watchdog bodies can come up with an alternative which is as convenient, easy, inclusive and free as downloading a movie you want to watch within a couple of hours – Piracy is here to stay.

Simple Financial Planning for the Poor

Since I am, now, an earning person – I thought its time to start budgeting and calculating where money is spent. I considered the manual method of keeping a log, but its very tough to check back or do analysis on the total spend in the month passed.

So I started looking for budgeting – or ‘personal finance’ – software that can do the basics well while not overloading me with jargon and overkill. As of now I’m on the Ubuntu OS – so open source and cross platform tools are what I looked for. There was only one which was really all of those things.


Buddi’s features include budgeting, tracking accounts, personal finance report, and an envelope budgeting feature called Prepaid Accounts. Free plug-ins can be downloaded to add more features, like a financial dashboard & balance sheet. I haven’t tried all of it out yet.

It runs on any operating system running Sun Java Virtual Machine 1.5, including Windows, Mac OS X 10.4 and Linux.

Here are a few screenshots which I’m plugging from their site for now – since I haven’t used it enough to have any screens to shoot!

You can draw pie charts to show your data

You can draw graphs to compare the spend across the weeks which is very cool for a non-finance guy. Its an easy interface and has a few cool addons as well.

Any opinions about better planners?

Ecosia – Saving the World (For Dummies)

This has become quite a common find on the web. Ever so often a new website comes up claiming to be good for the environment. Of course, in many cases there is no doubting the good intentions behind the initiative. But I always end up questioning the real reason behind launching such sites. Are they just trying to drive traffic by using your inherent ‘love’ for your planet? Do the creators of such sites drive cars that give them only 17 miles/gallon?

Recently, there was the launch of the Ecosia search engine. The website itself has been up and running for a while now, but a launch (conveniently) timed to coincide with the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit ensures maximum coverage. This site (unlike so many other ‘green’ish sites) has some credibility in that it is endorsed by the WWF.

They claim (through a very amateurish YouTube video) that you can save a few cubic metres of Amazonian rainforest with every search you do. Don’t worry, they have done all the math already. Fact is, you don’t save the Amazon at all by using this search engine, since the math they present is an average. Unless you click on some of their ads and (literally) donate money, you’re better off using your old search engine since the results are powered by Yahoo! & Bing.

The man behind the project – Christian Kroll (who doesn’t have much of an online presence) has already had one flop Eco-search idea called Forestle which didn’t really click outside of his native Germany.

I have to admit I am not a fan of such convoluted ways of making yourself feel good about saving the environment when at the same time you are driving gas guzzlers & buying GM crops grown in Brazil’s cleared forest area. It is initiatives like this that absolve the common man from their duty of recycling and taking care of their immediate surroundings because “oh… I saved half a square meter of rainforest!”.

I expected better from WWF, but what the hell, all everyone wants is money isn’t it?