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Ihab Awad
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Thinking about the current "fake news crisis," I find myself very drawn to an idea from science fiction which I hope will soon become a reality. I'm curious what others think about this idea.

Right now, we live in a world where the sheer volume of information is overwhelming, and it's very hard to tell fact from opinion, hyperbole, or outright fiction. What I think we need is a way for people to vouch for a piece of content and to see a clear summary of what other people think.

So, for instance, I might choose to trust the New York Times, the ACLU, or Elon Musk. Any piece of content I see might get a rating from these entities (or their trusted delegates). When I see the content, I could immediately see how many people have reviewed it, what the general consensus is, and how much controversy there is, both globally and among the authorities I trust. I could even use a filter to hide content that does not meet my threshold for reliability.

This would likely need to be tied to some notion of a "reputation market," that models the trustworthiness of an entity based on their actions in the real world and the collective response of other trusted entities. For instance, if the NYT starts drifting towards leftist propaganda and others who I trust start to "sell stock" in them, I would see this as a dip in reputation for the NYT. My social media platform could push me articles explaining why and ask if my opinion has shifted. Maybe I should start to distrust them, too, or maybe I would instead distrust the folks that criticize them.

Importantly, the sense of authority would need to be compartmentalized. Perhaps for human rights issues I trust the ACLU more than Elon Musk, but the reverse might be true for technology issues.

What's interesting about this model is it does not have any notion of centralized authority. The reputation of an entity is defined strictly in terms of the combined opinion and reputation of other entities. This has both good and bad consequences.

The good side is mostly around robustness and ease of use. If one authority becomes compromised, it doesn't break the whole system. The chore of judging worthiness is distributed among many, and if your trust in one source slips the system itself can automatically readjust the reliability score for any content you read. The system could even resurface content that you might reconsider. For instance, if Musk announces that the best way to combat climate change is to go all in on breeding a race of mole people, I might decide he's a nutjob after all. After changing my opinion of him, my social media platform might remind me of the "boring company" he founded that I thought was a cool idea at the time and ask if I still believe that.

The bad side is mostly around populism and bubbles. A distributed model of authority, by definition, puts more power in the hands of individuals. This means the overall system is more likely to be swayed by surges in emotion and snap judgments, leading to volatility and unreliability. That could be minimized, though, by putting more faith in organizations whose role is to be good and stable judges of content. This could happen through delegated trust. If I trust many individuals who trust the NYT as a source, then perhaps I trust the NYT more than the individuals. A strong and stable support base over time would be a sign that an authority isn't too volatile or inconsistent in its values.

I think this idea would both hurt and help with the current "filter bubble" problem. It would hurt because it'd be quite easy to have totally disjoint sets of authority. I trust the NYT, you trust Fox News. When we look at a piece of content, we get totally different reliability scores. Both of us have our existing opinions reinforced. That's very worrisome, but I think it's also important to allow divergent opinions and let them compete. That leads to the good side: it would become very easy to compare the relative size of bubbles, the key contributors to their authority, and the arguments for or against their authority. So, you'd still be in your bubble, but you could much more meaningfully "peek over the wall" if you ever wanted to understand the other side or reassess your viewpoints. For each piece of content, you would see how folks in other bubbles respond, which could also be a very useful signal.

What do y'all think of this? Good idea? Bad idea? Practical? Infeasible? I'm very interested in other takes.

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A few folks at work have been trying to set up a Jewish/Muslim get-together to try to combat some of the terrible stereotypes we’ve seen. I’ve been reflecting on my identity and politics as a result. I am an atheist secular Muslim married to an agnostic secular Jew. I was inspired to write up what I see as a framework for my thinking in life. Sorry to bore you with it ;) but here it is --

(1) Actions over ideology

I promise never to judge people based on their ideology. If they act in good ways (see below for what is “good”) then I don’t care if they were inspired by their Wiccan witchcraft circle, the Bible, or their readings of Plato. Their ideology is their business.

(2) Actions over identity

Moreover, I promise to look at people’s actions and not their ideological identity. I consider it an act of rhetorical violence to try to group people based on some category, regardless of whether I am categorizing to offer a compliment or mount an attack. It is in my view just as bad to say that Muslims are nice peaceful people (and add that I have eaten “Muslim food”) as to say that Muslims are murderous terrorists. I am not in charge of the category of who is and is not a Muslim. Or anything else for that matter. And even people who self-identify by the same label can have wildly differing perspectives on life.

(3) “Belief” in scientific progress

[ Note “belief” is in scare quotes. ]

Most residents of the United States have used a cell phone or car navigator to navigate to a pizza joint. It is part of our shared national experience. So the question I have for other people is, when you type “navigate to Joe’s Pizza” into your phone, what do you expect will happen?

a. Directions to Joe’s Pizza show up.

b. Directions are missing, for some explicable reason like loss of signal or a drained battery.

c. The phone turns into a purple pumpkin and marshmallows rain from the sky.

d. A dragon materializes out of thin air and eats your cat.

Proper operation of the phone relies on quantum theory (electronics) and relativity (GPS). Both of these are very counter-intuitive interpretations of the natural world. They predict things like the fact that something can be a wave and a particle at the same time, or that electrons can suddenly disappear from one place and appear elsewhere, or that going fast makes you younger compared to someone else, or that heavy objects bend light. These theories were developed as practical answers to real paradoxes raised by actual experiments using commonly available materials and easily observable results:

If you answered (a) or (b) as to the matter of the pizza joint, then you must also concede that these counter-intuitive conclusions are adequate working theories about the world (see below for contrast with “true”). You implicitly put your “faith” in the scientific consensus, to the extent that you rely on it for your daily life until some better explanation comes along. You may hold -- as most scientists do (and all should) -- that these theories are always open to question and improvement, but for now, they happen to work.

It turns out that practically all of us already answer (a) or (b), and not (c) or (d). For us, then, there should be no need to argue about whether the scientific consensus is a useful working theory. We already agree that it is.

I entreat all of us, then, to take this to its logical conclusion regarding other counter-intuitive theories, for example, climate science and evolution. By all means, we should ask questions, learn more, and demand evidence. But to claim that these are merely political fabrications, while answering (a) or (b), is inconsistent.

(4) Agreement to leave “truth” alone

[ Note “truth” is in scare quotes. ]

The scientific consensus of the previous section is the best approximation we have of “truth”. “Science” does not know things -- all we have is the scientific method of inquiry which leads us to successively better working theories, which in turn allow us to build and understand stuff.

What is the true truth? Some of us claim to know. But the key is, we continue to have wildly different answers, and so I think we should agree that none of us should try to impose their truth over that of anyone else.

Personally, I have no interest in pursuing any form of ultimate truth -- it is a barren wasteland where many before me have battled to the death in vain. And I’d be very surprised if humans found a truth they can all agree on. But that’s just me.

That said I am happy to party and, if required, worship earnestly with any religion or denomination as long as there’s food or music or drinking or some other such fun activity. Jewish temple with my wife’s relatives? L’chaim! Catholic church for our choir performance or Christmas sing-alongs? So on top of it. Muslim festivals when I go back to Egypt? Bring it.

(5) Diversity and tolerance are “good”

[ Note “good” is in scare quotes. ]

It is worth asking how the phone, with its cool software and fancy GPS, were built in the first place.

From what I see around me in Silicon Valley, a big part of the answer is that the brightest experts in each field were recruited from all around the world, and brought to a place where they could all collaborate. There an atheist Jewish transsexual woman with purple hair who is married to another woman works side by side in mutual respect with an observant Muslim who ablutes for prayer five times a day in the company bathroom.

This is how all this amazing stuff that we all use and rely on has been built. I can’t see any other way. No closed society of any sort has produced such an explosion of learning and technological progress. What works in Silicon Valley worked in the Andalusian cities many centuries ago when the Arabian empire was at its height. Diversity, cosmopolitanism and tolerance have always produced better, stronger science and technology.

So to me, that which is “good” is anything that supports this. Education for all who are willing to learn, based around our agreed-upon scientific method. Clean, well-maintained roads. Free commerce. Freedom of speech. Religious and ideological tolerance. The rule of law.

And the many varieties of ethnic food. Yumm, food. :)

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" you can move the cursor on Android by sliding left or right on the space bar. THIS NEEDS A SIGNAL BOOST I LOVE IT. So much more accurate than trying to tap the right place on a word."

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+Melissa Blum with cute earrings. <3 <3 <3

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My new 3DConnexion mouse is awesome!

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Thank you +Max Trescott for inviting me to an interview on +The Airplane Geeks Podcast! It was a very enjoyable evening and I'm honored to have been featured.

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