Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Spitball and the Touch-Screen Voting Machine

Spitball(n): a baseball pitch in which the ball has been altered by the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance

Touch-screen (n): a device which can detect the location of touches within the display area; highly vulnerable to the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance

Touchscreens are sensitive to foreign substances being applied by accident or otherwise.

Have you ever had to clean your touchscreen phone so it'd work right? Especially if you got something on your fingers, it's easy to mess up a touchscreen so that parts of it don't register, or register the wrong thing when you touch it.

Voting machines that use touch screens must have the same problem. A foreign substance can accidentally or otherwise throw off where the computer thinks you've put your finger.

Think about the reports that touch-screen voting machines are registering votes for McCain when the voting touched the "Obama" box, such as October 18: More W.Va. voters say machines are switching votes. These could be happenstance; they could be coincidence; or they could be the result of deliberate action.

It doesn't really matter whether it's from mistake or criminal action. You and I, as honest citizens, would never ever think of messing up a voting machine's touch screen on purpose, but we could do it by accident. If we touched one candidate's icon with a finger bearing a foreign substance, such as transparent lip gloss or any of the items mentioned by the spitball pitcher in Bull Durham, the invisible residue left might make that spot unusable for the next voter.

What we might do by accident, a criminal can do on purpose and more effectively.

It is impossible to prevent a voter from accidentally or deliberately "throwing a spitter". While a baseball umpire has the right to frisk a pitcher, and the pitch itself is done in public, the act of voting is totally private. Voting inspectors cannot frisk voters, and TV cameras cannot watch the voter pick a candidate.

It might be nice if voting inspectors could test the machines during the voting day, but no machine currently certified for use allows during-the-day testing. (CORRECTION: Sequoia's machines have a Yellow "Manual Mode" Button that lets you vote as many times as you want; this lets you test the integrity of the voting process in the same way that a shotgun lets you test a party balloon ... BOOM!)

Instead, to protect against both accidental and deliberate damage, what we have to do is clean the machine after EVERY voter. Use the alcohol wipes (...or whatever substitute is provided...) to clean the voting machine surface after each use.

There must be no exceptions. If you clean after some voters but not after others, there can be suspicion of bias; it's very important to treat everyone the same; there may be lots of fighting over this election, and it's important to avoid adding fuel to the fire.

Cleaning is probably important for sanitary purposes as well. Imagine the build-up of germ-bearing substances on those things. When you touch a touchscreen, you're touching something that a heck of a lot of other people touched, and you don't know where those hands have been.

Now, a smart voter won't trust a touch screen for many reasons; if you didn't vote on a paper ballot, you are basically trusting software that cannot be inspected. There are also ways to mess up a Touch-Screen Voting Machine that don't involve alcohol wipes, but since I have no solution for them, I'm not going to spread that knowledge. Paper ballots, of course, have their own problems, but these problems are well understood and can be guarded against.

However, due to the misleadingly titled Help America Vote Act, I and other voting inspectors must offer Insecure Touch-Screen Voting as an option equal to the paper ballot - or resign our positions, which would help no-one.

Only a criminal would even consider leaving residue on a touch-screen machine with the intent of making it difficult or impossible to vote for an opposing candidate, but if you were to think like a criminal, you would see that it is very easy to do. And, of course, it could be done by accident as well. Therefore, to truly Help America Vote, every voting inspector will pay especial attention to cleaning machines after every voter. Check with your state or county voting officials to ensure that this is the procedure, and if it is not, ask why not?

Isn't your vote worth a disposable alcohol wipe?
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Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Calm Beside The Storm: the Last Presidential Debate

A fundamental principle of aikido: When you launch an attack, you expose your weakness.
  • Thrust with a spear, and you open your side to counterthrust
  • Invade Iraq, and you cannot hold the Afghan countryside
  • Bring up Ayers, and you invite Obama to talk about the many old-school, irreproachable Republicans that Obama worked with on that same board.
McCain still doesn't know what hit him, because basically he hit himself. McCain got all stormy and mad; Obama calmly put him away.


Every Picture Tells The Story

Turn down the sound, and you saw the basics of the debate. Obama does not have a pretty face; he's gangly (for the love of God, will someone get him a sandwich?) But he's calm, professional, reassuring like a doctor.

McCain looks angry when he's saying "hello!"

Who do you want driving the bus: The calm guy, who thinks it over before making a decision? Or the angry guy, who's just one horn-tap away from epic road rage?


Attack My Opponent's VP? No, thanks!

The moderator asked a clever question: compare your VP pick to the other guy's.

Factually, Obama gave some great reasons why Biden's a good pick and would make a fine president if (God forbid) it was needed. But, more importantly, he refused to attack Palin, saying basically: "The voters will decide that."

This worked on two levels. As a pure matter of salesmanship, you don't always want to tell people what to think. People who draw conclusions on their own are more likely to stick with them than people who are told what to think. Obama's confident that if he lets people draw their own conclusion about Palin, it'll be to his advantage.

But on a higher level, this was another chance to show: Obama really is a uniter, not a divider. He refused to attack the opposition.

McCain made the foolish error of attacking Joe Biden. This was a complete waste of time; no-one is going to vote for McCain because they don't like Biden; if they don't like Biden, they already didn't like Obama and they're in McCain's bag.

In attacking Biden, McCain called Biden's thoughts on it "cockamamie" ... an insult from the 1950s. Does it help McCain to remind people that his thinking dates back to before they were born? Also, thoughtful people will realize that Kurdistan is ALREADY basically independent; the Kurds will never again put themselves under the control of Baghdad. They're just not that stupid. In other words, the Biden plan simply recognizes the obvious; McCain's love for lines on a map drawn up by the British Empire won him no votes among the thoughtful.


"Women's Health? Who cares!"

The Roe v. Wade question could not go well at all for McCain; this is one area where most of America doesn't want change.

The people who do want Roe reversed already heard McCain's attacks on Obama, and by renewing his attack, McCain gave him another chance to answer them calmly. One of the best lines of the night was Obama's "If it sounds incredible ... it's because it's not true."

In other words, McCain invited Obama to call him a liar, and Obama obliged in the nicest possible way. Thanks John! Obama didn't even have to bring up McCain's flipflops on Roe.

Then McCain did what he could to make a bad position worse; he ended his discussion by disparaging the very idea of the health of women ... with "finger quotes". Was that merely callous or outright stupid?


Personal Attacks: "Who cares?" vs. "I'm Angry!"

The moderator brought up personal attacks, and McCain took the bait. After disclaiming crazy people in his audience (...I wonder if they'll still vote for him...) he completely ignored Palin's personal attacks on Obama and started complaining about something someone said about him being too nasty.

This did give Obama a chance to discuss the issue in measured tones, and McCain came out the worse. Most people agree that the nastiness has gone too far, and it really wasn't smart for McCain to give Obama talk it over in the context of a third party's impression of McCain.

But them, Obama hit it out of the park by refusing to counter attack.

I really wanted Obama to bring up all the nasty personal stuff said by McCain, Palin and their ads. It was not at all emotionally satisfying for him simply to point out factually that all of McCain's recent ads are negative. I wanted him to explain the difference between ads attacking policies versus those attacking the person.

That would have pleased me, and it would have put everyone else to sleep for sure! Instead we got
"We all have hurt feelings, but America doesn't want to hear about that; we need to talk about issues."

At one stroke, Obama called McCain a whiner, in a way that all American had to agree with. We all want to hear about the issues, not about the hurt feelings of the candidate.


Twelve Angry McCains

McCain did have one prepared line that could've been pretty good: "I'm not George Bush"

But he blew it by delivering it angrily.

John, you won't listen, but here's some advice. You already have the votes of people who like angry guys. You need some others.

That line could've been delivered, oh, so many ways. Channeling Cyrano de Bergerac, McCain could've delivered the same line, oh, so many ways:

  • John Wayne: "I'm not George Bush. He's from Texas, I'm from Arizona."
  • Sally Fields: "I'm not George Bush; people like me, they really like me!"
  • Jack Nicholson As The Joker: "I'm not George Bush. Wait till they get a load of me!"
  • Heath Ledger As The Joker: "You see, I'm not George Bush. I'm just ahead of the curve."
  • Gandhi "You must be the George Bush you want to see in the world"
  • JFK: "Ask not what our country can do to George Bush; ask rather what our country can do for me!"
  • JFK (again): "Ich Bein Ein Not George Bush!"
  • The Family Circus: "Not Me!"
  • Pontius Pilate: "I wash my hands of this George Bush. Away with him!"
  • FDR: "The only thing we have to fear is George Bush himself!"
  • Pig Latin: "Ix-nay on the Orge-Gay Ush-Bay!"
  • Or maybe like George Bush himself: "I'm not George Bush; I'm a uniter, not a divider!"

But no. McCain chose to deliver his only good line as an Angry Man.

This let Obama come back cooly: "If I mistake you for George Bush, it's because your policies are the same as his."

Attack/Counterattack. McCain falls again.


Who's the Maverick?

The unintentionally funniest part of the debate is where McCain challenged Obama to come up with any instances in which he'd gone against the leadership of his party.

Obama then reeled off at least three: charter schools, etc.

I didn't like his answer; I opposed him in the primary because of stuff like that, and here he is, bringing it up again!

Then I realized: Obama is annoying me because Obama is really a maverick. OMG!

McCain had no comeback; he just repeated his line as if he hadn't heard a word.

Comedy Gold!

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Urban Swirl's take on McCain's anger

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Talk to Your Parents About John McCain!

Talking to your parents about the risks of John McCain isn't as hard as you think. It can be hard for your parents to fight peer pressure, but if you find McCain paraphernalia in your parent's house, you must talk to them, and try to save them from a big mistake.

Learn more at the Partnership for a McCain-Free White House:

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AEG: Incompentent or Malevolent?

When I was foolish enough to attend law school (economically, a poor gamble regardless of the propaganda, but that's a topic for another time) I got a couple of loans to cover tuition. In due course, they came into the hands of a company called AEG: a small loan, costing me roughly $200 a month, and a big loan, roughly $300 a month.

In the spring of 2008 it became patently clear that our economy was in big trouble, and the money I'd saved for retirement wasn't going to do well in the stock market. At the same time, I was pissing away over $500 paying those loans, at let us say 6%.

I figured it'd be worth pulling money from my retirement funds to pay off one of those loans. Although there are big penalties for early withdrawal, the effective 6% return (in round numbers ... the actual return is even better...) is more than the market was going to deliver, and of course there's the matter of conserving the principle.

I had a couple of long conversations with AEG on how to pay off the smaller loan (roughly $9700). They advised me that I couldn't use their electronic system since it would put the money wherever they wanted (obvious code for "not gonna let you pay off the small loan; we want the full $500 every month!")

Instead, AEG told me, I could mail in a check with a cover letter saying thus-and-so. "How much should the check be?" I asked. "Well, you can't send in the amount that the loan is now, because interest will accrue while the check is in the mail," AEG replied, "Send in (some amount over $9700) and we'll refund any overage, eventually". So I did.

And I relaxed. I took a big hit for the withdrawal, but I'm effectively making over $200 a month on roughly $9700 which in this economy is not bad!

AEG cashed the check on June 13, 2008. And ... funny thing: they kept withdrawing for both loans!

I let it pass the 1st month. I figured it was a computer error, or something about the timing of the checks, whatever; surely their eagle-eyed accountants will spot the problem and fix it.

Months go by. I was foolish enough not to look over my credit union statements carefully. Finally I notice they took a payment in OCTOBER. That's FOUR payments, over $800 to which they are not entitled. I call them.

First, AEG tells me they're still debiting my account because I'd sent in only $6000. Heh! No sale!, I say; try again.

Next, they tell me I need to speak to someone else. OK, the cellphone is fully charged, I'll wait some more.

Then, a guy comes on and tells me that, yes, the money went into the wrong account. He assures me they'll fix it, but his supervisor is at lunch and the process will take some investigation. (I do believe this is possible; people still go to lunch; it's one of the few human moments organizations allow their thralls.) Anyway, the AEG guy tells me that I need to send them a fax. Like, everyone has a fax machine sitting around their house because, you know, it's the 21st century and we're all George Jetson.

So AEG suggests an email telling them to stop debiting my account, but I should follow up with a fax when I find a machine. (For me, a followup fax is not a problem; our apartment building management lets us fax out, which is nice & handy. But I can imagine a lot of graduates have to pay a Kinko's or something because, you know, Paper is God and Fax is its Prophet.)

I'm happy that AEG will consider stopping taking money (to which it is not entitled) out of my account, but I sorta want my money back from the four payments to which it was not entitled. When will that happen?

Well, says AEG, I should call back next week. They're pretty busy today because Columbus Day was a holiday. I definitely believe that last part; four-day weeks in most organizations are simply periods of time in which you have to do five days of work to make off for your Extra Day of Rest. It's sort of a Bob Cratchett thing.

And, says AEG, they may require some proof in the form of bank statements. This amuses me. Somehow I'm supposed to prove that they have money that came from my credit union; are they so incompetent they don't know where they are getting money from?

So here we sit: they have my money, and I have to pray for it. My credit union balance is screwed up, and AEG won't give it back until I do a bunch of work for them.

It is possible that AEG screwed up through pure error, with no malice involved. But is it likely? Their error profited them; if they similarly screw everyone who tried to pay off a loan, it would definitely be worth their while. It's also kind of hard to figure out what KIND of error could have produced this result; the loans are different accounts; the check was accompanied by a note worded as AEG specified. Am I supposed to believe that they just incompetently took the money in the only way that would maximally benefit them?

Organizations can be malicious (...I won't say "criminal" because that has difficult technical meanings ...) in many ways. The classic way is for a bad individuals to perform malicious acts; this is relatively easily detected, and the bad guy can be identified and punished in an emotionally satisfying way.

However, this is far from the only or even the most common type of corporate malice. Malicious procedures develop in organizations because of the nature of organizations, and it is difficult for us to perceive the malice, just as it's difficult for a cell of the body to perceive the workings of the body as a whole. We simply accept that that's the way things work, and suffer the consequences.

But, back to today's issue: which would be worse:
That AEG is incompetent?
Or that AEG is malevolent?

"As through this life you travel, you meet some funny men
Some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen

As through this life you ramble, as through this life you roam
You'll never see an outlaw take a family from their home"

---Woodie Guthrie

Monday, October 13, 2008

Imprudent Individuals or Systematic Shysterism?

The financial crisis, in Reichwing world, is due to imprudent individuals who do individual bad things, like ask for a mortgage when they can't even put on a shirt with sleeves.

Reichwingers never ask the question "Why did mortgages lenders make stupid loans to badly dressed people?" because that would mean admitting the problem is the market in unregulated securities.

In Realityworld, no-one would make such a bad loan EXCEPT that an unregulated lender who packs them and sells the lot as securities. The lender's agents are paid by volume, not quality, so there is a positive incentive to shovel out crap.

Even worse, those lenders who WANT to maintain standards are now at a disadvantage. They lose market share every time they demand that their customers show proof of income, proof of assets, proof of ability to pay. After a while, they choose to stay in business, and make lousy loans themselves. After all, they can always securitize them and get a private rating agency to call them AAA.

Now, a million bad loans became the basis of Triple-A rated securities ... and you know the rest.

Reichwingers can't talk about this because the solution is

(A) to regulate securities to ensure they're backed by REAL assets, and

(B) to pay for the regulation and the occasional bail-out by restoring the Securities Transaction Excise Tax ... 25 cents per 100 dollars, which we had until 1966 and most advanced nations still have some form of.

But Regulation and Taxation, in Reichwing world, is worse
than economic collapse.

More information: