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Archive for November, 2006


Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

David Brin opens The Transparent Society by describing two cities of the near future. In City Number One:

Tiny cameras panning left and right, survey traffic and pedestrians, observing everything in open view…In this place, all the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use sophisticated image processors to scan for infractions against public order – or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk the streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.

Over in City Number Two, there are just as many cameras. However:

These devices do not report to the secret police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can use his or her wristwatch television to call up images from any camera in town.

Here a late-evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond the corner she is about to turn.

Over there a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date still waits for him by a city fountain.

A block away, an anxious parent scans the area to find which way her child wandered off.

Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows that the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch intently, lest her neutral professionalism lapse.

Brin closes the thought experiment by asking his readers, given a choice between living in one or the other city, is there any doubt which one we would choose?

I see strong evidence that we are heading for a hybrid of the two.

Both of Brin’s cities resemble practical implementations of the Panopticon. Since a citizen can never be certain that hus actions are not being monitored, hu must assume that they are. Going the way of City Number One, the UK currently sports a ratio of one CCTV camera to every fourteen people. The propagation of CCTV cameras in the United States is far less dense, but is growing in reaction to the July 7, 2005 London bombings.

City Number Two answers Juvenal’s question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who watches the watchmen? We all do. And camera phones and YouTube are making it possible.

Over the past few months we have seen powerful examples of the potential for Sousveillance. Camera phones captured three separate incidents of excessive force on the part of Los Angeles police. A camera phone made Michael Richards’ hate-filled tantrum available for all the world to see. George Allen’s career in politics is probably over because of a single word, and the video camera that recorded it.

In a short while, only the lowest-end mobile phones will come without the capability of recording video, and Jupiter Research estimates that there are 195 million American mobile phone users today.

That’s a lot of eyes and ears.

I am not wild about the prospect (I’d rather we all just let each other the hell alone), but if we’re going to live in a society where the government and the private sector insist on training cameras on us, I prefer for them to know that we’re Shooting Back.

MrPikes, Election Officer Redux

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

You never forget your first time, do you? In my case it lasted 15 hours, and involved nine partners.

My day as an election officer started at 5:15 am. Our precinct was in a multipurpose room/gymnasium at an elementary school. We set up the signage, registration tables, five electronic voting machines and one demonstration unit with no problems, and opened the polls promptly at 6:00 am. Four volunteers worked the tables, one ran the demonstration unit, three managed the voting machines and two (the Chief and Assistant Chief) managed all procedural aspects of the election, and dealt with stuff like drive-up voting for those with special needs. We had good coverage.

I spent most of the day managing the machines. Once voters checked in, they queued up and presented paper tickets to a volunteer who (after giving the voter an “I Voted!” sticker) directed them to one of two volunteers with smart cards (I was one of these). I escorted each voter to an available machine, and inserted the smart card to activate a new ballot (this procedure serves to eliminate overvoting).

Henrico County uses Advanced Voting Solutions WinVote machines, which my friend Gokmop wrote about last year. They are Windows-based tablet PCs that reside in a plastic suitcase that transforms into a booth (pictured below).

AVS WinVote

Around 9:00 am one of the machines was unplugged and taken outside to allow a drive-up voter to cast hus ballot. When the machine was returned to its station its AC jack was not re-engaged fully, and the machine was inadvertently left to run on batteries. The battery backup is supposed to last 6-8 hours. It managed about 30 minutes before shutting down. When we booted the unit back up, it was in a locked state that required a technician employed by Henrico County to come out and deal with. We were without that machine for maybe 90 minutes. It affected the queue, but I don’t think that anyone waited over 30 minutes total. This was the only glitch of the day, and I consider it minor.

Logistically things ran pretty smoothly. There were a few incidents, such as the man standing in line who had a fairly spectacular diabetic sugar crash. He was quickly and competently attended to, and went on to cast his vote. Interestingly, this incident illustrated the extent to which suspicion has come to inform my perspective. Within seconds of assessing that the man was having a sugar crash and that two of my fellow volunteers were already acting on it, I looked over my shoulder to make sure that no one was messing with any of the machines. Now, before any of my gentle readers start planning the menu for the intervention, let me say that I genuinely believe my level of suspicion still places well up in the Healthy quadrant, but it’s a good thing of which to stay mindful. If I end up wearing foil-lined underpants and arguing with mailboxes, then you can have your intervention. Mark me down for beef.

Meanwhile, back on voting day, the mood was generally pleasant. While waiting for a machine to free up, one voter joked that his sticker was not technically accurate, since he had not yet, in fact, voted. I responded that Henrico County was examining the feasibility of providing stickers that addressed the various states of voting – “I Am About To Vote!”, “I Am Voting!”, “I Voted!”. I also pointed out to him that the sticker was in fact technically accurate if he had ever voted before. Good times.

The convivial atmosphere, for me, evaporated at the machines themselves. Over the course of the day, my dismay turned to quiet anger as I saw a meaningful percentage of citizens struggle to cast their votes. The single most important lesson that I learned on election day was that way too often these slick, new electronic voting machines do not solve the problem that they were designed and purchased to solve, while creating a laundry list of new problems.

The WinVote machines are touch screen. The voter is guided through a series of screens, each corresponding to a ballot item. The voter selects hus desired candidate for each election by touching the candidate’s name. At the end there is a summary screen that displays the voter’s choices, followed by a screen that instructs the voter to press a large flashing box labeled “VOTE” to cast the ballot.

Something about the design of that screen confused a lot of voters. When they reached it they thought they were done, and they walked away from the machine without pressing the flashing box. Maybe 25 times over the course of the day, one of my fellow volunteers or I had to chase after voters to ask them to come back and complete the process. We’re not allowed to press the box ourselves – a voter who walks away without completing the final step has hus vote invalidated. During the busiest part of the day we missed one voter. We tried advising people about the final step as we were escorting them to the machines, but one has to be careful not to over inform people who might already be intimidated by doing something unfamiliar.

The entire day, right inside the entrance to the precinct a volunteer offered straightforward tutorials with a working demonstration machine. A lot of people who really would have benefited from this passed it up either because they they were too proud, or too confident, or in too much of a hurry. Whatever the reason, when they got to the actual voting machines they became our problem. Setting aside the observation that any voting system requiring a tutorial needs rethinking, we had an election to run, and we had the equipment that the county provided to run it.

We could spot those who were going to have trouble within a few seconds of them getting in front of the machines. You could see their posture change as they encountered something unexpected. It wasn’t just the elderly voters, as one might expect. Young, old, black, white, hispanic, men, women – I assisted voters across a wide demographic spectrum.

Election officers can assist voters, but there are rules for going about it. I couldn’t just walk up beside a voter requesting assistance and look at the ballot. That requires the voter to fill out a form that both of us sign, which is time consuming and in most cases overkill. I helped two voters that required this level of attention because they were so entirely lost. The rest of the time I would stand beside the machine and ask the voter to describe the screen in front of hum, without telling me how hu intended to vote. I had the screens memorized so it was usually a simple matter of explaining the basics of navigating around. In some cases all that was necessary was to inform the voter that the system was touch screen. I had opportunities aplenty to refine my spiel, seeing as I delivered it around 100 times.

It’s important to make it explicitly clear that I don’t think the people I’m describing are stupid. The impression I formed was that they were just entirely inexperienced with something that I happen to take for granted – the graphical user interface. In one way or another I’ve been dealing with GUIs since Dad brought home Pong when I was five. I guarantee that it was the first time for many of those whom I assisted on November 7th.

This can be a hard concept for people who are completely comfortable with GUIs to grasp. In describing my election day experiences, I’ve heard numerous responses along the lines of, “It was so easy for me. I can’t imagine anyone having trouble.” Allow me to make a blanket response to this reaction:

  1. The world is full of things that you cannot imagine.
  2. Your inability to imagine them does not make them any less true.
  3. Touch screen voting machines were designed and purchased by people who share your inability.

We do an immense disservice to a meaningful percentage of voters by forcing them use these machines. In my precinct, several voters had thoroughly awful experiences. Some felt intimidated, some felt stupid, and some felt just that one more bit detached from a world that they used to get along in just fine. Was their experience so bad that they might not vote in the next election? I certainly hope not, but it is simply wrong to expect voters to learn a completely unfamiliar technology without at having at least one compelling reason to do so.

I will ask again, “What problem were we trying to solve?”

The usual response is, “Florida, 2000.” Much was made about hanging, pregnant or dimpled chads, and the confusing butterfly ballots. A more generic way of stating the problem is to say, “The method for capturing voter intent was flawed,” and I agree completely. The Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 allocated billions of dollars to the states to fix the problem. Setting aside the Pandora’s Box of problems that the law unleashed, its primary objective remains unrealized, and postmortem articles like the Washington Post’s “Voting System Worked, With Some Hiccups” amount to little more than whistling past the graveyard.

I guess it depends on how low one sets the bar for declaring that something “worked.” Did the voting system “work” because most of the machines didn’t visibly malfunction? Did it “work” because people didn’t have to wait that much longer than they used to? Did it “work” because more voters and election volunteers than not were comfortable setting up and operating the machines? Did it “work” because at the end of the day most of the non-auditable black boxes produced totals that added up to the total number of people who checked in?

We can do so much better than this. We can start by demanding that our voting system be great, not merely good enough.

My day as an election officer was highly educational and worthwhile, and I look forward to doing it again. The people with whom I worked were top shelf – genuinely dedicated to ensuring a fair and accurate election. They were also very kind and accepting of me, a first-timer and a snot-nosed whippersnapper. We had opportunities to chat during brief lulls in the day. We talked about how good the turnout was, we compared home addresses and made fun of the new McMansion™ development nearby. We talked about past elections, and our concerns with or confidence in the new machines. Leaving the gym at 8:00 pm, I knew that whatever shortcomings our current voting system has, people like these nine were certainly not among them.

Why I Don’t Say The Pledge of Allegiance

Saturday, November 4th, 2006

In my last post I mentioned that whenever I’m at a venue where the Pledge of Allegiance is recited, I stand with my hands at my sides. I only mentioned it because when I wrote that post I was initially jotting down impressions and recollections while they were fresh. I included it as a detail. One of my gentle readers pointed out that without providing an explanation as to why, people would be left to fill in their own conclusions. Well, we mustn’t have that.

Why I Stand

This started in homeroom my Junior year of high school. Every morning before we went to our first class, we said the Pledge. For reasons that I’ll get to, I decided that I wasn’t going to do it anymore. When everyone else stood, I did not. The homeroom teacher was furious with me, and sent me to the office.

Neither the principal nor the vice-principal was in, but I was a regular and received assurances that one or the other would be in touch. I was on my way to get a smoke over at Chez Boys when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Ms. Henderson, the vice-principal.

Donna was an older, handsome blonde woman whom I had learned not to piss off. We were at present enjoying a shaky detente. She politely asked me what had occurred, and why I no longer wanted to say the Pledge. I explained it to her (I swear, I’ll get to it). She didn’t say anything for several moments and then – it was probably the first time someone addressed me as if I were an adult – said, “I understand. What I would ask for you to consider is that the Pledge is something that some people believe in very strongly. Out of respect for what they believe, maybe you could just stand?” A light went on as I learned that it was possible to be true to my own beliefs without being unnecessarily confrontational.

Thank you, Donna. You taught me something which still helps me to go my own way.

Why I Don’t Sing Along

It would be disrespectful for me to recite it.

Allegiance – The obligation of a subject or citizen to hus sovereign or government.

None for me, thank you. I consider my contract with the United States adequate in its current form. I pay my taxes fair and square and, in exchange, I enjoy access to infrastructure and public safety – no need to get all gushy with a bunch of talk about allegiance. I want government involved in my life as little as possible. I wouldn’t swear allegiance to my bank, so why on earth would I swear allegiance to my government?

If I were to put my hand over my heart and say the words, believing as I do, I would be showing disrespect to those who genuinely believe. It’s the same reason I don’t take communion on those occasions when I attend Catholic Mass. I do not believe in Transubstantiation, so I have absolutely no business taking communion. It would be rude.

It scares the shit out of me.

If you’re a believer, the next time the Pledge comes up, close your eyes and just mouth the words (it’s okay, the Flag will give you a pass) so you can hear what a room full of people reciting the Pledge sounds like. It sounds like a bunch of zombies saying grace before tucking into the buffet. “With liberty and *braaaiiiinnnnnnss* for all.” I’m not kidding, it freaks me out.

Deeds Not Words

Which is more important: That I recite a Pledge in which I do not believe, or that I engage (without irony) in civic-minded activities like being an election volunteer?

Origins of the Pledge

The Pledge is not the Declaration of Independence, is not the Constitution, is not the Bill of Rights. Our founders never heard of it. Wikipedia has a fascinating article on its origins. My favorite bit of history about the Pledge is the Bellamy Salute (pictured below):

Bellamy Salute


Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a group setting imbues the gathering with a solemnity and sense of occasion that works just fine for some. I cannot engage in this ritual honestly, so I simply pay respect and leave it at that.

You got a problem with that?

MrPikes, Election Officer

Friday, November 3rd, 2006

Last night I attended Henrico County, Virginia’s Election Officer Training. It took an hour. I am given to understand that it might have gone longer, but apparently West Virginia was playing Louisville (Go Mountaineers!).

I decided to volunteer as an election worker for two reasons:

  1. Coming from a technical background I thought I might be helpful.
  2. I genuinely want to participate in our election process.

At 34 years of age, I stuck out like a pregnant prom queen – the average age of election workers being 70 – but I was prepared for that. I was less prepared for the Pledge of Allegiance (I politely stood, with my hands at my sides), and was even less prepared for the social aspect of the gathering. A lot of my fellow volunteers knew each other, which makes sense in retrospect, but at the time I would not have been surprised to see people begin producing casseroles.

Around 40 of us went to a separate room to receive training on the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines. Henrico uses Advanced Voting Solutions WinVote machines, which my friend Gokmop wrote about last year.

The fact that they communicate with each other wirelessly for end-of-election tabulation still concerns me deeply. Wireless is inherently more insecure than wired, even with badass encryption, and 128-bit WEP (which is what WinVote uses) is demonstrably lame.

The training was exclusively confined to the setup and operation of the machines. Not one word was spoken about what to do when the machines malfunctioned. Presumably the Chiefs and Assistant Chiefs receive more thorough training on what to do when things go wrong, and there is always the Registrar hotline to fall back on. Still, I felt like the omission had more to do with convincing the poll workers that the machines were reliable. I saw a lot of wide eyes during our training.

Here’s a little thought experiment – imagine overhearing the following at a voting precinct using paper ballots:

Chief, this stylus won’t move. Can you come over here and unbudge it?

Sir, can you help me? I’m trying to punch this hole, but it keeps unpunching itself.

I need another ballot. The one I was using just crumpled itself up, then burst into flames.

Um, what problem were we trying to solve again?

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