Fixing our voting system

It's clear that the two-party system has its disadvantages. Politics aside, I'm sure both major American parties have often wished for an alternative option. Particularly as it relates to a guy whose name rhymes with Tronald Dump.

Voting third party, especially as a liberally-minded person, is (probably correctly) seen as hurting the odds for the Democrat. The two-party system doesn't leave a lot of room for an underdog, regardless of their popularity.

The fix: we adopt the Kickstarter system. Voters are given first and second choices on a ballot. Candidates need to pass a certain threshold in order to get any votes. If that threshold isn't surpassed, they get nothing. They lose. Good day sir.

As it turns out, this isn't a new idea (dammit)! Instant Runoff Voting is already used in Australia, India and Ireland, to name a few. 

Lazily quoting Wikipedia:

The spoiler effect is when a difference is made to the anticipated outcome of an election due to the presence on the ballot paper of a candidate who [predictably] will lose. Most often this is when two or more politically similar candidates divide the vote for the more popular end of the political spectrum. That is, each receives fewer votes than a single opponent on the unpopular end of the spectrum who is disliked by the majority of voters but who wins from the advantage that, on that unpopular side, he or she is unopposed.
Proponents of IRV note that by reducing the spoiler effect, IRV makes it safe to vote honestly for marginal parties, and so discourages tactical voting: under a plurality system, voters who sympathize most strongly with a marginal candidate are strongly encouraged to instead vote for a more popular candidate who shares some of the same principles, since that candidate has a much greater chance of being elected and a vote for the marginal candidate will not result the marginal candidate's election.

Of course, this ignores other issues, like ballot complexity. As noted by, it's much simpler to allow a voter to select multiple candidates on a ballot.

The resulting algorithm ends up being easier to run as well. You simply tally up the candidate with the most votes. Not that we haven't had problems with that.



Fixing audiobooks

Sometimes I read audiobooks. Sometimes I listen to text books.

Here's the thing: occasionally I need to see how a word is spelled. Other times I need to hear it pronounced. Sometimes I'm on a bus, and sometimes I don't have my headphones. So why isn't there an application that tracks progress through both ePub and audiobook formats?

Audiobooks through the years.

Audiobooks through the years.

This would be fairly simple, I think. It's a metadata problem, basically. You would simply treat an ePub file as a video caption file. It simply needs to be mapped to the audio, and the rest is trivial!

Of course, the process of mapping audio to text may need some data-entry types. Unless someone could write some code to sit on a server running speech-to-text. Even it if only mapped words with a high level of certainty, I'm sure this would work well for the most part.

Getting publishers to agree on how to bundle audiobooks and digital text is the real stumbling block I assume.



More with spatial audio

The implications of virtual-audio-reality are huge! Think of all the cool stuff we could do.

  • An installation where everyone is given headphones and walks around an empty room. They all hear the same "objects" in the room, localized in the same place, but there's nothing there. As they wander, they discover the exhibit together.
  • A totally silent dance party, where everyone wears headphones. There are phantom "speakers" at the front of the room, projecting audio that everyone interprets, but is purely virtual.
  • A real-world game where people hunt for treasure based entirely on audio cues.

The possibilities are endless. The AR world can be even more interesting from a pure audio perspective!



Spatial audio

So this falls into the category of things I've actually done some work on.

We hear a lot about head tracking with respect to virtual reality headsets. Watch Johnny Lee hack a Wii IR remote for head-tracking here.

Why save all the cool shit for your eyes? Your ears deserve the same treatment. In the movie biz, they call audio the "heart" of a film. For real immersion, proper audio is invaluable, but occasionally overlooked. So where are we at with 3D audio? It certainly exists, but things aren't perfect by any means.

By the way, ever had a virtual haircut?

Most 3D audio is recorded using what's called a binaural head. This is a special stereo microphone, embedded in the ears of a dummy.

"Fritz" does not appreciate being called a dummy.

"Fritz" does not appreciate being called a dummy.

In humans, audio localization is accomplished by several physical traits. The pinna (the flappy, ear-y part of the ear) changes the spectral content of audio coming from behind you, so you can tell when someone is sneaking up. That's why mutants are actually surprisingly easy to attack: 

"Gaahhh I suffer from auditory localization problems"

"Gaahhh I suffer from auditory localization problems"

In addition, the distance between your ears allows side-to-side localization through ITD (interaural time differences). In other words, if someone is yelling at you from the right, that sound takes a bit longer to go around your head and reach your left ear, which is the "time difference" part of "interaural time difference."

The voice of this irritating person on your right will also have different spectral content by the time it reaches your left ear. The long trip around your big head shaves off some of the high frequencies. This is how humans know where sounds are coming from.

Also, the more I talk about "humans" the more I feel like an alien. Side note: reading the Wikipedia entry on "humans" is super alarming.

So humans (sorry, I can't stop now) made these things called HRTFs, or "head related transfer functions." These are essentially mathematical maps of how the ears interpret sound, and are used to fake audio spatialization. If you ever want to play with this, I recommend downloading soundhack!

It's not hard to see where this is going. Turn a Wii-mote backwards, put some IR LEDs on your headphones, and get tracking. If we can use HRTF in real-time, we can simulate audio spatialization. If the computer knows your head position, it can compensate: turn your head to the left, and it'll "pan" an audio source to the right. In other words, we now have a virtual audio world.

I was able to mock this up using Max/MSP and a Wii-mote, but mine needs work and I'm getting a bit busy. Hopefully I've presented the problem well. Write me if you want to see my work, but I promise it's a bit sloppy for now.



Interactive audio play

Gone are the days of radio dramas. Initially developed in the 1920s, these were the original bits of broadcast entertainment. I don't know a ton about the history and downfall of the audio play, but I presume it has to do with an invention called the "tee vee."

The modern era has returned remnants of this golden age of audio. The artistry and sonic quality being brought forth in podcasts continues to evolve.

So here's what someone needs to do: Picture (is this the right word?) an audio mystery. Perhaps you're solving a murder, a la the classic "murder mystery party." But it's all sonic. Clues are embedded in the sound itself.

The user is listening for clues as they follow the story. They're listening for a wavering voice, a lie stated, a noise in the background. As they correctly navigate the story, more information is revealed. If they misstep, they may never find out what happened.



Hello world.

Hi, how are you?

According to neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, creativity has four stages:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Inspiration
  4. Production

This is important. To create, you must first be prepared. That's obvious. Then you incubate. That means periods of rest, i.e. meditation, recreation, exuberant internet flame wars, etc.

Inspiration is less actionable. It feels like magic when it happens, but is really the direct result of those first two phases. You can't plan to be inspired, but you can plan for items one and two.

Production is also important. How many ideas do you have that haven't been brought to fruition? How big of a genius are you if nothing gets done? The answer is NONE! You are NONE, a.. genius. I guess.

I have a lot of ideas, and most of them I don't pursue. But I want to write them down, and I hope to do so here. And if someone else sees one of my ideas and takes action, thank GOD! One less thing on my plate. Let's open source some ideas. I may have ripped this "ripping ideas" idea from Wired founder Kevin Kelly, but that's fine, now we're getting meta.