Saturday, August 4, 2007

Voting Machine Security

California has decertified several models of voting machine because of security concerns. The problem is that there were several potential holes in the software that made them vulnerable. Some of it seems to be a no-brainer:

The additional requirements she imposed included banning all modem or wireless connections to the machines to prevent them from being linked to an outside computer or the Internet. She also required a full manual count of all votes cast on Diebold or Sequoia machines to ensure accuracy.
Um, yes. Wireless-programmable voting machines seem to be problematic. More of a bother to upgrade the software? Undoubtedly. But low cost isn't the only relevant factor.

It seems to me that regardless of your political affiliation or inclination, you have an interest in making sure the count is as accurate as possible, if only to ensure that those vile partisans on the other side (whichever side happens to be 'the other') don't rig it in their favor. (And a bias of 1 vote per precinct would be enough to throw an election. It doesn't take much.)

I'd rather be too careful than not careful enough, and security for something like this is difficult to get right. Must there be a zero error rate? No. There is an error rate, greater than zero, for every voting method. The most reliable method is hand-counting paper ballots, and even then, there are errors. This is why many states have laws requiring a recount if the outcome is within a certain narrow range, say 1% or less. If it's within the error bounds, you don't know for sure.

And if the machines were quietly set to disregard x% of the votes (those machines would be placed in precincts likely to vote heavily the 'wrong' way), or quietly record one or 2 extra votes one direction, no one would know. Thus, the need for caution.

If the totals are questionable, the legitimacy of the entire system comes into question. Unfortunately, the immortal wisdom of Boss Tweed may still apply: "As long as I'm counting the votes, what are you going to do about it?"

Saturn's Rings Giving Up Their Secrets

And another mystery provisionally solved.... It turns out the G ring, which hangs together a lot more tightly than it apparently should, is in a 6:7 resonance with Mimas.

The photgraphs of the alien orbital base, of course, have been highly classified and will not be publicly available until after they've been suitably doctored...

Where to begin...

A judge in Brazil has made a fool of himself with his comments about a lawsuit centered on whether a leading Brazilian football (soccer) player is gay:

In reaching a decision to effectively set the case aside, Judge Manoel Maximiniano Junqueira Filho said football was a virile masculine sport and not a homosexual one.

If you were a homosexual, it would be better to admit it or to conceal it completely, the judge was reported as saying.

However, if that was the case, it would be better to abandon the playing field, he added.

So in short, stereotype now has the force of law; if he's gay, either stay in the closet, or admit it and get off the playing field, leaving it to the manly men, because....

It was not shown to be reasonable to accept homosexuality in Brazilian football because this would damage the equilibrium and uniformity of thinking of the team.

That's right, the "uniformity of thinking" is vital.

The judge seems to be making a big fat assumption, that there aren't gay athletes already. That there haven't been in the past. And that "gay" is equivalent to "swishy nelly drag queen," that you can just look at video from the golden age of Pele and see they're not gay.

Still so far to go....

Friday, August 3, 2007

Micro(soft) Economics?

Am I missing something here? Microsoft is cutting the price of Vista for the Chinese market. Cutting it half.

They say they're doing it "to meet market demand." Now that phrase could be taken any of several ways, and they're obviously trying to spin it as positively as possible.

But cutting the price strongly implies they're not able to charge as much as they'd like, that the market isn't bearing the original, higher price.

So either their anti-piracy efforts aren't working, there's not as much demand as they'd anticipated, or both.

Couldn't happen to a nicer company.

A different kind of church-state situation

Some of the churches in rural Kentucky are dispatching volunteers to keep an eye on court proceedings, especially in drug court.

They report they've had a few questions about church-state separation, but those questions are misguided. The Establishment Clause limits what government can do. If people are attending court as private citizens, aren't being disruptive, and the church as an organization isn't being given an official role in court proceedings, then there really isn't an issue. If a church is concerned about a proposed highway bypass by its front door and encourages its members to attend city planning meetings, that's not church-state interference, that's citizenship.

The actions arose out of frustration with courts being what they felt was too lenient with drug offenders. The story points out one of the frustrations of drug ministries, particularly in rural areas where the problem is overwhelming the resources available:

[Rev. Doug] Abner said his church hasn't neglected its prison ministry or other counseling programs. Still, he added, "we believe in giving people chances, but how many chances do you give them?"
And that's the problem. And it is a tough question. Some people will "get it" with outpatient treatment; some after a weekend in jail; some not until they've done hard time; and some, alas, never do.

In some cases the program was helpful. Officers weren't turning up to testify? It turned out they weren't being subpoenaed properly; problem addressed. Judges report they don't feel intimidated by the volunteers' presence. (Nor should they, in my view.)

Still, it's a bit surprising to see churches taking a "get tough" approach:

"The churches have traditionally been the humanitarian influence in society," said the Rev. John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.

Churches should focus on drug counseling and ministering to inmates, he said, citing part of the Gospel of Matthew (25:36) concerning the final judgment: "When I was in prison, you came to see me."

"It isn't 'I was up for charges and you made sure they threw the book at me,"' Rausch said.

I shouldn't complain....

One advantage of teaching at the university level is that there isn't as much pressure to pass students no matter what. Grade inflation is a problem, certainly. And the parade of students who want to know if there's "something I can do" after the semester's over (and they've received grades reflecting the assignments not turned in and classroom quizzes not taken) is a perpetual end-of-semester ritual. And in one case I was asked to change a fail to a withdraw when it came to light that there were medical issues involved (and yes, I granted the request). But I've never had a grade changed over my objections after I turned it in.

In part, this is just an example of the eternal principle that what gets measured is what gets done. If we decide that graduation rates are the most important metric, then by golly, they're going to find a way to get that graduation rate up. If it means graduating students who are illiterate, well, we do what we have to do.

It sounds like there was some acting out on both sides--I'm not sure the correct response to something like this is to stay home from work for a couple of days--but a policy that a student gets 45 points on a 100-point scale (20 points short of a passing grade) just for showing up in class at least one time during the semester is ridiculous.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

This Just In...

The Village People's song "Y.M.C.A." was, as it turns out, not about homosexuality.

That's a new one on me.

[Hat tip: Pam's House Blend]

A useful feature comparison

Comparison of accelerometers: The iPhone, the Wiimote, or an infant.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Quote of the day

"Films and television may come and go, but there will always be some geezers in armour running around a wet field in England."

--Alan Larsen, historical re-enactment specialist

Well, whaddya know...

It turns out that the rich can be just as much sloppy drunks as the rest of us...

Real problem, stupid solution

Amazingly, there's a bit of educational insanity that appears to be the brainchild of a teachers' union (no surprise there), but it's not one of the teachers' unions in America.

In the UK, the Professional Association of Teachers note that bullying is not just a schoolyard phenomenon, that it goes on after hours and on weekends, and that the internet makes it even easier. Such "cyberbullying," (ugh, what a term) can take the form of abusive blog posts, threatening emails, doctored photos or videos, etc. They argue, and I agree, that this is a Bad Thing.

Their solution: Shut down YouTube.

That's right. Don't deal with the problem directly. Just take the electronic toys away and those darn kids won't get into trouble.

Of course, why stop there? Text messaging and cell phones can be used for bullying, too. Ban cell phones! And what about email? In fact, let's just shut down the whole darn Internet, and the problem will go away, right? After all, we never had any problems in schools at all until that nasty YouTube showed up!

[set snark=OFF]

Look, it's not difficult. E-bullying leaves an E-trail. Threats and harassment are already dealt with in the legal system, especially in the UK with its 'Anti-Social Behavior Orders' (ASBOs) that allow cops to harass teenagers pretty much all they want. Shutting down YouTube to deal with school bullying (in one country) is just stupid, and misses the point. Obtusely, painfully misses it.

But griping about that darn internet that we don't understand is soooo much easier than actually, you know, doing anything about the problem directly.

Addendum: If it weren't for YouTube, we wouldn't know about racist, foul-mouthed priests. And though this incident apparently happened about a year ago, it wasn't until it hit YouTube (and thus publicly embarrassed the Church) that anything was done.

I'm just saying...

Cooperation as an evolutionary strategy

Interesting article over at NYT about how cooperation can lead to more adaptive behavior across a population, even (if I'm not reading too much into the article) if it sometimes leads to individuals being taken advantage of. Add in reputation effects, and the effect becomes more pronounced, and you get small tightly-knit 'communities' of cooperators, even if there's also a lot of noncooperation going on around them.

It's an interesting idea, and it certainly makes sense. (It also explains, to a degree, how cooperation breaks down during periods of strife. The risk of being taken advantage of is greater, and the payoff doesn't increase correspondingly. Thus you arrive at Hobbes' state of nature.)

Fascinating stuff.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Of all the things to find common ground on...

It's a truism of diplomacy that one of the best ways to defuse tensions between nations is to find points of agreement, to build a common framework.

Well, as it turns out, we have one with Iran. We're also opposed to going on record saying women deserve equal rights.

But really, this regime Administration has no room to use "it'd usurp the Constitution" as an argument against it. After all, their own record on that score is abysmal.

Reality is starting to sink in

As it turns out, businesses are thinking twice about charging off to install Vista. Something about slower performance and no better security, not to mention various compatibility issues.

Monopolies result in poorer products, higher prices, and slower innovation. That's a basic law of economics, and it was not repealed for the benefit of Messrs. Gates and Balmer.

It's nice to see that the triumph of marketing over quality (Microsoft's basic business strategy) has some finite limits after all.

Monday, July 30, 2007

And thou art commanded, go forth and make a buck.

So we're about to see a range of "faith-based" action figures hit the store shelves....

"If you go in a toy aisle in any major retailer, you will see toys and dolls that promote and glorify evil, destruction, lying, cheating.

"In the girls' aisle where the dolls would be, you see dolls that are promoting promiscuity to very young girls. Dolls will have very revealing clothes on, G-string underwear."

Given that the book of Genesis, by itself, contains a disturbing amount of violence, with murder, rape, girls seducing their father while he's drunk, lying, treachery, obliteration of entire cities, etc., etc., I'm not sure it's such a great comparison.

I particularly like the illustration with the story, showing a smiling Daniel-action-figure and smiling lion-action-figure. Obviously, we're not going to tell the kids how that little episode ended, with the accusers (who accurately reported Daniel was breaking civil law, which he was; a stupid law, maybe, but the law all the same), and their wives, and their children, were tossed into the lion's den, where they were promptly killed and devoured. Wheee! What a wonderful story for the kids!

Oh, but we don't tell the kids that part of the story, because they're not old enough to understand. Apparently not old enough to understand what cruel, sadistic, semi-pornographic documents the holy books are.

No, I'm not an atheist; not entirely. But I'm no literalist, and don't see how any thinking or feeling person can read those texts and not be repulsed.

I've got a few other reservations as well... what's going to happen when Daniel moves in next door to Barbie, and how Ken's going to feel about it...

Who Made Steve?


[Hat tip: Pam.]

Creation, Evolution, and the Definition of "Truth"

Re: Creation/Evolution in Schools

An example, I think, of two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. One sees "truth" as something contingent, provisional, observation- and fact-based, and multifaceted. The other sees "truth" as something unidimensional, fixed, unchanging, and revealed from some authority. Because the assumptions are different, so are the conclusions.

Thus one side argues that "evolution is really another religion," refers to "DarwinISM," etc. The other wonders how otherwise-intelligent people could possibly believe such irrational nonsense. Both end up talking past each other. But the religionists try to see "Darwinism" as a religion, because to them, truth is a matter of revelation. Therefore, someone who believes in the "wrong" truth must have been duped by a false prophet. The possibility that they're using a different reasoning process is very difficult one to grasp.

I see some of this in my freshman courses, and more in the junior-level ethics course I teach. Some of our students are deeply religious, and feel, quite correctly, that the academy is hostile to that. Not because of any supposed "We Hate Christians" mentality; most of the things that get the "Persecuted Christians" rhetoric going are simply people of other religions (or no religion) speaking up and having the temerity to think they have the same rights as Christians do. Which often leads to a class discussion of privilege, but that's another subject for another day.

But the academy is hostile to religion in general, and rightly so. The foundations that religion uses for credibility--revelation, intuition, revealed wisdom that is to be accepted and not questioned, individual insights based on meditation not subject to skeptical inquiry--are outside the academic framework. Not only are the "truths" of religion not accepted, but such methods are not even recognized as a valid means of knowing. No wonder, then, that religionists sometimes feel under siege.

The solution is not, however, to compromise the goals and purpose of the academy for the sake of sparing their feelings. The argument made in the court brief, that students have some sort of "right" not to be exposed to arguments they disagree with, is ludicrous. Such exposure is precisely the point of academia, to present multiple arguments, to hash them out, confident that in the end the "truth" will emerge, as best we can see it at the time. And yes, "the academy" includes public schools, the purpose of which is to prepare educated citizens. Such citizens will have to deal with situations and conditions we can't predict now. Therefore, they will have to know how to think, how to evaluate evidence, how to reason about that evidence.

Yes, the academy is firmly on the contingent-provisional side of the question. (Or should be; certain Marxist & deconstructionist faculty may be excluded from that. Again, that's another rant for another day.)

The intellectual poison of creationism isn't that it disagrees with evolution, or that it's mostly associated one particular brand of one religion. It's that it's not only irrational, it's antirational. And schools that teach children not to think are doing a disservice to everyone.

Quote of the Day

"Moreover, the congressional indecision reveals that behind all of the arias being sung, there is a basic consensus on Iraq: the United States should not have gone into Iraq and now that it is there, it should leave. There is more to it than that, though. The real consensus is that the United States should not simply leave, but rather do it in such a way that it retains the benefits of staying without actually having to be there. "

--George Friedman, Stratfor