Thursday, November 02, 2006

An Open Letter to Jay Nordlinger

(This is in response to Jay Nordlinger's column, in which he complains that if Democrats win, problems with voting machines will not be followed up.))

Though I don't doubt you're correct that the media won't pay attention to voting machine irregularities if Democrats win, that doesn't mean they're not worth paying attention to even if Republicans win. The right to a fair vote is fundamental to our democracy, and if it's abrogated, it will most probably encourage even more people to not vote. I fear that too many people, after reading your column, will dismiss any reports of voting problems as partisan bickering instead of evidence of a real problem with electronic voting machines. Here are a few problems that have already been uncovered with electronic voting machines so far this election season:

  • In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the county Board of Elections commissioned two separate investigations into problems they had during the May 2nd primary. They
    found that the voting machines weren't even internally consistent-- the voter-verified paper audit trail reported one set of votes, the summary printed at the end reported a different set, the memory cards used by the machines reported a third, and the election archive reported a fourth! That's four different totals, from one machine! How can we possibly trust our democratic process to voting machines that can't even agree with themselves?

  • Also from Cuyahoga County: most people aren't aware of this, but it's crucially important that the voter-verified paper trails mentioned above must be marked so that they can be checked against the machine they were drawn from. Otherwise, they're not a meaningful check. But poll worker were either poorly trained or provided with the wrong equipment, because many paper trails were stuffed in random, unlabeled canisters, rendering their crucial use as a check on unauditable databases (see above) meaningless.

  • Again from Cuyahoga (this is the last one, I promise!): after the primary election, 29 machines just vanished. *poof* A few officials took them home with them, but most simply dissapeared. You are likely not aware of this, but a team at Princeton was able to develop a vote-stealing computer virus based on having *one* machine at their disposal-- no source code, no manuals, no documentation of any kind, just the machine. Somebody has enough machines to run an entire precinct election; maybe they don't intend fraud, but there simply aren't any controls in place to prevent that.

  • In Texas and Florida, people have already reported that although they pushed the button on the screen to vote Democrat, the screen showed a Republican being elected. Even though poll workers were called over to help, nobody could figure out how to stop this from happening, so the person in question had to go ahead and vote for the wrong people-- or did she? (See Cuyahoga County, above.)

  • Although Diebold gets a lot of grief over their machines, other vendors are not immune from problems. A voter can vote an arbitrary number of times on a Sequoia voting machine using only a Post-It note. This is not a theoretical vulnerability, this is something easy to do with a pen and a Post-It. I don't know about you, but this scares the pants off me-- imagine what the old Mayor Daley could have done with technology like this!

There are even more examples at Ars Technica if you're at all interested, and I pray and hope that somebody out there is. The root of all these problems is that electronic voting machines are, at bottom, networked computers, and most election boards don't understand this. This is not to their discredit-- they weren't sold a bunch of networked voting computers, they were sold independent machines. They were also under the gun of the Help Americans Vote Act, which encouraged them to buy what was not even beta-tested software, and after they discovered this (and most of them have by now), they had spent so much time and money training volunteers that there was no way they could go back to a non-electronic solution.

As a computer scientist, if somebody asks me if I voted, all I can tell them, at this point is, "I think so." I don't consider it a nice thing if I can say "yes" after the next election; I consider it essential.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Getting more music

I love to confusing people building consumer profiles. I just signed up with BMG in my periodical quest to get more music, and got the following CDs:

1 Queensr�che Operation: Mindcrime II
2 Neville Marriner Mozart, Requiem
3 Iron Maiden Dance Of Death
4 Rush Roll The Bones (Remastered)
5 The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos Noel: Chants for the Holiday Season
6 David Bowie Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust (Remastered)
7 Original Broadway Cast Avenue Q

Okay, I can kinda see Queensryche, Maiden, and Rush, but musicals? Mozart? Chant? WTF?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I'm torn...

On the one hand, I don't agree with a lot of Rick Santorum's positions. His opposition to gay marriage, for instance, is one I have a hard time with. However, it's hard *not* to like a guy who is so geeky:

Embattled U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum said America has avoided a second terrorist attack for five years because the “Eye of Mordor” has been drawn to Iraq instead.

Santorum used the analogy from one of his favorite books, J.R.R. Tolkien's 1950s fantasy classic “Lord of the Rings,” to put an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq into terms any school kid could easily understand.


In an interview with the editorial board of the Bucks County Courier Times, sister paper of The Intelligencer, the 12-year Republican senator from Pennsylvania said he's “a big "Lord of the Rings' fan.” He's read the first of the series, “The Hobbit” to his six children.

("Santorum and Mordor", from The National Review Online)

Okay, so clearly at least some of his priorities are in order.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

SF must be getting better

So, I was thinking; I've read a few really good SF books in the last couple of months. More good SF than I've read in a very long time. Here's my top 3 of the last five years, easy:

1) Old Man's War by John Scalzi -- Sort of like "Starship Troopers", except you get eternal youth, not citizenship, and the volunteers are all senior citizens.
2) Red Thunder by John Varley -- "Rocket Ship Galileo", only they're going to the Moon, instead of Mars. And the NazisChinese are reasonably friendly.
3) Survival by Julie E. Czerneda -- A scientist just wants to be left alone to study genetic diversity in salmon, but is drawn into a galactic mystery as entire planets are stripped bare of all organic life.

I'm not sure it's a coincidence that two of the three are obvious Heinlein homages (to be fair, there's more sex in "Red Thunder" than "Galileo", but the analogies are obvious). Still, they're all fantastic. Heck, I'll even add in another one:

4) Kevin J. Anderson's Saga of the Seven Suns. Definitely fluffy space opera, but Anderson has an extremely sneaky ending to the first book that, while not totally unexpected (to me; a friend was pleasantly surprised), was nicely evil.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Which army should you have fought in?

What can I say; I'm easily amused.

You scored as United States. Your army is the American army. You want your home front to support the G.I.'s in their pursuit to liberate world from more or less evil tyrants.







United States


British and the Commonwealth


France, Free French and the Resistance






Soviet Union


In which World War 2 army you should have fought?
created with

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Traveling Wilburys

Er, I meant Traveling Mercies, a very funny and touching book by Anne Lamott, who no doubt has written other good stuff-- I haven't read anything else by her, but this is well-written enough, I find it hard to believe her other stuff sucks.

I'm much less than halfway through the book, but I had to blog this because of the very funny exchange she has with herself when trying to decide whether or not to let her seven-year-old son go paragliding for his birthday:

So what I needed to know up there in that beautiful valley was would a normal person—if there is such a thing as a normal person—feel that it was a good idea for a seven-year-old to paraglide in a harness with a tandem expert off a mountain fifteen hundred feet up.

Needless to say, there was no one around remotely fitting the description of a normal person; I was at a writing conference.

Lamott, p. 81

While she does write of her experience of converting to Christianity, it's handled carefully and thoughtfully, much more so than many others I've read. Fred Clark says, about writing about conversion experiences,

Stories of religious conversion -- or "testimonies," as we evangelical types call them* -- can be tricky. The convert wants to tell this story because she is convinced that it is important. Very important. But also deeply personal and, at some level, ineffable. Attempts to convey the ineffable often come across as kind of effed up.

He goes on to quote Lamott's description, a very quiet and almost resigned one, of her decision to become a Christian:

I hung my head and said, "Fuck it: I quit." I took a long deep breath and said out loud, "All right. You can come in."

Lamott, p. 50

It was this that made me want to read her book (this scene comes relatively early on in it). As in all effable descriptions of ineffable events, it either grabs you or it doesn't; somehow, for reasons I can't articulate, these two sentences said more to me than C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity or Augustine's Confessions. It's a moment of surrender, of giving in, that touches my heart in places I hoped I still had. Lamott says about her life prior to this moment:

I'd been like one of the people Ezekiel comes upon in the valley of dry bones—people who had really given up, who were lifeless and without hope. But because of Ezekiel's presence, breath comes upon them; spirit and kindness revive them.

Lamott, p.44

This process happens slowly; she doesn't immediately become "saved". I suspect she might claim she still isn't-- she describes continuing her alcoholism and drug use for a while afterwards, and even when she does become sober, she continues having affairs with married and unmarried men, and has a child outside marriage. Nowhere does she claim these are good things, though she doesn't explicitly condemn them as evil; they appear simply as steps along the path she's dimly beginning to see open before her.

I could probably recommend this book highly enough, but I don't think I could maintain my life whilst doing so. Lamott is an excellent writer, able to lay herself bare before her reader, with just enough humor and attention to detail to prevent that reader from feeling uncomfortably intimate with her. She also provides a great counterpoint to a lot of right-wing conversion stories, showing that it is possible to be a liberal Christian-- although she herself says several times that she doesn't consider herself a very good one-- which is something I, as someone who sympathizes more with the right wing than the left, am glad to see out there. Please read it.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

We DO need some education

I wonder, what did they call the classes where you were supposed to do physical activities? Mine were often called "physical education", but I can't think of one time I ever was educated in them. The first time I ever played flag football, the other kids told me to play "safety" (the 'teacher' just said, "you're playing flag footabll today"), but nobody would explain to me what that was; the most advice I got was, "Stay in the back and try to grab somebody's flag if they have a ball." I was 26 before I learned the offsides rule in soccer (known everywhere else as football). Nowhere did anyone ever teach a sport; it was always assumed that everybody knew how to play it already, even a "weird" one like field hockey (at least, to a kid growing up in rural Appalachia, field hockey is a weird sport).

I hated gym class, by whatever name it was called, as a kid, but I think I might have liked it better if someone had actually tried to teach something, instead of having everybody run around and just do something.

Thoughts of sports

I was thinking today of the time when I played Little League as a child, and the transition from T-ball, where the baseball sits on a nice stationary stand, a little over waist-high, and you know exactly where it is, and how to hit it, and even have a reasonable guess as to where it's going, to where the other team starts pitching to you. I had very poor vision (still do), and so I had really poor depth perception as a kid (heck, it's no better *now*). As a consequence, my hand-eye co-ordination was atrocious (except for videogames, but I mostly started playing those after I got glasses).

No matter how hard I tried (or my dad tried), I could not convince myself that the pitcher was not going to hit me with the ball. He was throwing it in my general direction, and I knew if *I* was throwing the ball, there'd be at least an 80% chance it wouldn't go anywhere near where I was aiming. Every time somebody pitched a ball at me, I ducked. I think I may have lasted an entire week after we started getting pitched at.

Even now, I'm terrible at most sports that involve throwing something, though I can essay a passable spiral with a football if somebody held a gun to my head. I'm really worried about if any of my kids (I don't have any yet, but I'm getting married in a couple of months, and so
these thoughts do pop up) get interested in sports, because I actively avoided them as a kid, and as a consequence, I know almost nothing about any of them. I think I was 26 before somebody finally explained the offsides rule in soccer, and while I can explain the icing rule in
hockey, I'm still a bit hazy on the reason for it.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

TV is your friend... you love TV...

I completely agree with The Smallholder about the insidiousness of TV. I finally broke down last year and got cable, and then built myself a TiVO clone, at which point I found out that there is just too darn much TV I will watch out there. And a surprisingly high proportion of it is good. Given the choice, I will watch:

  1. Any show where somebody builds something:

    1. Motorcycle-building shows

    2. House-building shows

    3. Major engineering project documentaries

    4. Monster Garage. Because damn. Seriously.

  2. Any show involving power tools. especially if women are wielding them. This overlaps category A) above, but also includes:

    1. Home remodeling shows

    2. Home decorating shows

  3. Any show which features large, heavy equipment requiring more gallons of gasoline per minute than my car uses in an entire year.

  4. Any show where the cast could conceivably die.

  5. Mythbusters

  6. Almost anything animated, especially:

    1. Avatar, the Last Airbender

    2. Foster's home for imaginary friends

    3. Codename: Kids Next Door

    4. (God help me) American Dragon: Jake Long

    5. Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex

This is the problem: there is way too much good stuff on TV now, and there is even more stuff I want to watch, and further more that I will watch anyway. I found that trying to do so meant only that I got nothing done that I actually wanted to do-- learning woodworking and cabinetmaking, for instance, or practising music, or learning to operate the ridiculously expensive home recording equipment I bought a few years back. In other words, I was sacrificing my life, just so I could watch TV.

As a consequence, in my new house, we are not only not getting cable, or satellite, or HDTV (except perhaps in display-only mode), we are actively eschewing TV as anything other than a DVD playback mechanism. As my fiancee and I both have Netflix, that's a great rate-limiter-- we can never have more than 3 DVDs at a time to watch, so there's a lot of time that we can both use to devote to our hobbies and interests. In other words, to have a life.

Note: I'm not saying TV sucks-- quite the opposite: I'm saying I'm weak. If it's there, I will watch it, so the only alternative that gives me any chance at life is to not allow it there, or to severely restrict it. This doesn't mean that watching TV is evil; it's just not the choice I'm making.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Why I Don't Get Paid to Opine

Cliff May wrote a post on National Review's The Corner group blog that contained a brief note complaining about how hard it is to immigrate to Brazil. I wrote him a brief note explaining why that was the case (as it turns out, he knew this): Brazil has a law that states that whatever Brazilian citizens have to go through to get to a given country, that country's citizens have to go through to get into Brazil. Cliff pointed out in his personal reply, quite sensibly, that Brazil has nothing near the security considerations that the US does, and therefore it can rightly be considered a rather childish tit-for-tat response.

All this is well and good, but here is where I develop a great deal of respect for Mr May: I responded (still correctly) that if security were our reason for implementing those measures, then we needed to take another look at them, because they were (by and large) ineffective at accomplishing the stated goal. Instead of getting tied up in what had become a rather off-topic rant (I tend to get a bit... animated... when it's a subject I care about), he simply (and politely) responded something to the effect of, "Good points."

I wish I had been as courteous in my emails to him.

A similar event occurred earlier, when a now-departed talk show in Denver was hosting a show on the Columbia disaster, and I called to mention that some friends of mine had done the math and proved there was no way it could have gotten to the International Space Station, and that even if they had, it would have condemned them to a slow death instead of a quick one, as we couldn't have rescued them in time anyway. The problem was, all I had was my friends' word on it, and there was no reason for the host to trust them, even if I did. He very deftly let me speak my piece, and then moved on. I can't convey (it's been so long) how classily he did so, but let me assure you that it was very well-handled. This is why I don't get paid to do stuff like that-- I would have gotten into an argument, rather than handled a crank (which is all I was, to him) politely, and moved on.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Godsmack singer ambushed by Arthur Magazine for supporting US military

I found this article via -- Jay Babcock, editor of "Arthur Magazine" basically did an ambush interview yesterday with Sully Erna, lead singer and lyricist of rock band Godsmack. It starts off fairly normal, but quickly degenerates into a nigh-incoherent rant by the interviewer about Godsmack's letting some of their songs be used by military recruiters in TV advertisements.

I don't necessarily endorse a lot of what the US military has done, and especially in cases like Abu Grahib and other sites where our military has tortured prisoners under the pretext of extracting information from them (as if anybody is fooled by terms like "coercive interrogation techniques" or believes that useful information is extracted that way). We've also made some relatively bone-headed decisions in the past. But Erna is, in the interview, being fairly respectful of the military, and acknowledges the existence of some problems (though he wasn't prepared to talk about them, since he thought he was doing some publicity for the band's new album).

A relatively mild snippet (some profanity, but I can understand it, giving the amazingly one-sided interview technique):


Sully Erna: Well, it could be. I don’t know.


SE: Listen. Are you a fucking government expert?


SE: I don’t tell people to go join the military!!

SE: Oh man, are you like one of those guys that agrees with some kid that fuckin’ tied a noose around his neck because Judas Priest lyrics told him to?

The full interview is at:

Read it, and weep.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Review: Dracula [audiobook]

I recently finished listening to Dracula, by Bram Stoker, as read by Alexander Spencer and Susan Adams, released by Recorded Books Company. I'm mostly going to review the audiobook production here, though the book itself is of no small interest in its own right.

First, the voices: As the story is told almost exclusively through increasingly improbable journal entries (given the choice between writing down much of what was written, and getting some sleep, I think I'd almost always get the sleep), there is almost no narration. As a result, both Mr Spencer and Ms Adams are almost always speaking in the voice of one of the characters, and by and large they both do an excellent job with managing the multiple voices, even in heated conversation. There is one glaring exception, however-- the American, Quincey Morris.

Let me be the first to say that, if asked to do any sort of British accent, much less an identifiably regional one (say, Brummie or Cornish), I would do a horrible job. But then again, I'm not an actor, so I wouldn't put myself in that situation in the first place. Spencer's Morris seems to wanter all over the landscape, accent-wise, from Texas (which is where he is supposed to be from) to Georgia, Louisiana, a brief jaunt up the Appalachians to Virginia, and at least from time to time could well have been mistaken for a Yankee. This should just be a minor quibble, but every time Quincey spoke, or wrote, I was hugely conscious of the fact that I was listening to a British actor read the part. I suppose it's a compliment, in a way, that the rest of the readings were so transparent (though, as an American, I cannot comment on the various accents of the British characters, other than to say they were distinct and not obviously bogus) that I found this one exception so jarring.

Next, the presentation itself. I think that, as an audiobook, Dracula works far better than as a book. The book's plotting and pace have rightfully been derided as pedantic and slow, but when read aloud, I got a much better sense of how the characters felt, and the way they missed clues which were obvious to the reader seemed less implausible. The story still lagged towards the middle, and the ending still felt far too abrupt, but overall, the pacing held up better when read aloud, I felt, than when read from a book. Also, several characters felt better-drawn-- Renfield's psychosis, and occasional transformation to sanity were clearer and easier to follow when you heard his voice change from low-class to a very refined RP-style delivery.

If you felt disappointed by the book in the wake of the very sensational movies based off of it, I can wholeheartedly recommend this audiobook version.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Shoggoth Girl

As I'm listening to the audiobook version of Shopgirl, I'm unable to shake the conviction that Steve Martin, as a writer resembles no-one else so strongly as H.P. Lovecraft. In no way is the similarity so superficial as what they write about, their characters, or their language. No, it's something oddly meaningful, and significant only in its absence. This is that they both avoid dialogue in such a way that is can only be deliberate.

Unlike Lovecraft, Martin is actually able to write dialogue, but he does not seem to take great pleasure in doing so, avoiding it in the main. Conversations between his characters are less often recounted as described: "And then he told her about his life", instead of him actually telling her (and the reader) about it. The whole story takes place from an almost aggressively third-person viewpoint, the distance of which seems to reflect the distance all the characters feel from each other. Maybe that was his point, I'm not sure, but it seems at times that every scene, every action is narrated from a curiously personally impersonal viewpoint. Here's a sample:

Where his insight comes from as he courts her, even he doesn't know. It might have been that he was ready to grow up, that the knowledge was already in him, like a dormant gene. Whatever it is, she is the perfect recipient of his attention, and he is the perfect recipient of her tenderness.

I don't want to dislike it-- and in fact, I don't dislike it, not really; I just feel, like the characters in the book, vaguely unsatisfied; not displeased, just not fulfilled. I just wish Martin would show me these things, not tell me. I almost feel as if, listening to the audiobook, that Martin is summarizing the actual story, as if I'm getting the Cliff Notes version of the novel he was afraid no-one would publish. But then he will come up with a small, but simple line that is all too representative of life as some have lived it, a line that rings true enough in its banality that it comes as close to touching something meaningful within me that I wish he'd spend more time exploring it and less time writing it:

How is it possible to miss a woman that you kept at a distance so that, when she was gone, you would not miss her?

A movie of this came out a while back; I suspect I might enjoy it more than the novella it's based on.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Google Maps are SchWEET

I had absolutely nothing useful to do at work today, so I learned something new (always a good thing to do, if you ask me-- a day you learn nothing is a day wasted). I taught myself the Google Maps API, and produced a map of the churches in the diocese of Colorado Springs. The maps API is really easy and fun to work with, and I was surprised at how much it reminds me of X11/Motif programming, both in terms of how you respond to events, and how you create graphical objects.

Lots of fun!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Artificial is sometimes better than Natural

I just read an article at Inside Higher Ed about two sites-- and Rate Your Students. But I'm not interested right now in the article itself, though there is plenty of meat there, both in the use of sites like and in the (perceived) need of professors to respond in kind. No, I'm interested most by this comment, by Larry:

While, indeed, it is pathetic, the combination of these two sites should us the truth about humanity. This is the way most people really talk when they are not forced to pretend to be enthusiastic about everything. Perhaps if people didn’t see the need to be “congenial” or use “social skills” all the time, humans could interact with each other on a much more meaningful level.

This attitude-- that social skills or congeniality suppress meaningful interactions-- is by no means an attitude that is exclusive to Larry, and in fact at one time I shared it. But over time, I have come to the conclusion that those social skills and occasional forced congeniality are precisely what enable meaningful interactions in the first place. It's not by accident that nearly every etiquette manual I've read describe them as social lubricants. They grease the wheels of interaction so that we don't spend all our time fighting about the precise definition of "is", and can get on to the more substantive matters we originally intended to discuss.

This is not a new idea, and I'm certainly not claiming any originalty in expression for myself here. I find it more interesting how my own perspective on this has changed over time than any real or imagined deficits in Larry's argument.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Let the Flamefests Begin! (Firefly vs. Buffy)

So, having just recently finished watching Firefly, I have come to a realization about the fundamental difference between creator Joss Whedon's two major TV creations: Buffy and Firefly. I'm sure this observation has been made many times, but as a semi-determined avoider of some sorts of fandom, I haven't seen it before, so I will dispense my wisdom forthwith:

Buffy is, at its roots, an adolescent show. The characters are adolescents, even when they have putatively become adults, and the problems presented them (and their solutions) are fundamentally adolescent. When Buffy was based at Sunnydale High, it worked pretty well, somewhat less so once it left. Buffy herself did, eventually, learn to work with others, but even in the end, I would argue, her perspective was that of the lone wolf, the single Slayer, who may have used others in her work, but fundamentally did her work on her own. This idea, that one can exist on one's own, even when taken in an admirable direction ("I will suffer so that you don't have to") is an adolescent mindset.

Firefly is, by contrast, a fundamentally adult show, even though some of its characters are more childish than others (I still want to be Jayne when I grow up). The characters are not only interdependent, but recognize that (well, except for Jayne, who is still my hero, but not because of this), and try and live within that interdependence, instead of striking out on their own. Even for Jayne, the most independent of the bunch, independence is largely presented as a weakness, and the one time he tries to exercise it, it almost gets him killed. Life in a relatively small ship like Serenity is almost by definition an exercise in interdependence, and Whedon nails this, both in the attitude of his characters, and in the tone of the whole all-too-brief series.