Monday, May 31, 2004

NYT Calls for Open Source e-voting machines

Here is the original article . The author pays the Open Source community quite a complement in their brief summary of the process and its potential merits as applied to e-voting. I am happy to see this in the mainstream, both Open Source and the snags surrounding e-voting today are key issues that deserve a lot more attention than they are currently getting.

Having said that, I fear the article is missing some key points necessary for a complete discussion of the problems we are facing today.

How will the user know the software running on the machine they are using is the same software posted openly for all to see?

To me, this is a pretty big deal. No matter how secure the system ends up being, the user cannot ever really know for sure that system is the one handling their vote. I have the highest respect for the Open Source process and values, but without means for user verification, the efforts would be largely useless.

How does the user know the vote cast is the vote recorded?

Again, this is a matter of representation. We can mitigate this problem with a paper record of the votes cast that users can examine before they are stored for potential recounts later. Please do not call these reciepts because they are not. They are records, a receipt is something the user would keep. We cannot have an anonymous vote if the user keeps their voting records, so we need a record of the vote cast, not a reciept.

A vote cast could be recorded for accurate count later, yet still be misrepresented in ways subtle enough to throw an election without ever triggering the recount. Even though an accurate record is kept, the lack of visibility in the electronic collection and tally processes, makes them subject to manupulation. Such manupulation could easily lie below levels that would trigger audits, yet still have an impact on close elections.

Voting with a machine is like voting by proxy.

When we use a proxy for something, two things happen:

- we are placed in a position where we must trust the proxy,

- others are in a position to manupulate said proxy without our knowledge.

This is where the electronic methods break down. The voting process is a fragile one. We need to be aware of the simple truth about voting, largely missed by the media so far; namely,

there is only one chance to capture the voters intent and that is at the moment they cast their vote. Unless that record is directly used for the tally, corruption and error can and will occur.

Voters that cast their vote using traditional human readable media, such as optical paper and punch cards, for example, see their vote recorded, moved, counted and reported to others for the final count. All of these actions can, and should mind you, be observed and verified using simple human means of communication and observation. This is democracy in its purest form. We should respect this above all else because our very nation is founded on its principles.

Performing our civic duty is a very American thing to do, why are we working so hard to replace that process with one that breaks the very line of trust our founding fathers worked so hard to secure in the first place?

The problem with e-voting is in the tally of the votes cast. Electronic media is not human readable; therefore, we cannot ever be sure the tally reflects the vote cast, unless we place our trust in another party to collect and tally the vote. How do we trust these third parties? Who shall choose? Why are we even following a path laced with doubt at its very core?

Here in Oregon, we decided to improve the voting process using the mail in ballot system. We still have paper, and the exact record of the vote cast is used for the tally. We can have recounts if we want to and people can still cast votes on election day and watch another person put their vote into a ballot box, if they so choose. What's wrong with that?

We should work hard to ensure our future voting systems feature at least these attributes:

- the record of the vote cast needs to be human readable on media that can survive a number of audits and that is difficult to change,

- the record of the vote process needs to be complete enough to know who voted and insure no over voting happens, but no vote shall be personally identifiable,

- those putting together the final tally should do so in a public manner, using human readable intermediate records for later observation and trust,

- the record of the vote cast must be directly used for the tally,

- aggragation of the vote, for the tally should be public as well.

None of this fits any electronic voting system we have on the table today, all of it is necessary to preserve the line of trust so important to the voting process.

I embrace technology in all parts of my life, with mostly good results I might add. No matter how hard I try to get around the matter of trust in this process, I cannot.

Is it really so hard to gather and tally a human readable record of the vote a few times a year? Is it hard enough to erode the core values our nation was built on in order avoid doing so?

I will gladly step up and do my part because my freedom and trust in my government demand it, shouldn't you?

Friday, May 28, 2004

Has IT lost its strategic advantage?

Just had to comment on this story posted on /. today.

Today, IT has more potential for strategic advantage than it has in a long time. Hardware is cheap, networks are mature and there is a *lot* of Open Source software free for the taking. So, what is the problem?

The problem is threefold:

- many folks today think they can spend their way out of a problem instead of working through it,

- software companies know this and cater to that at the expense of everyone else,

- many fail to consider the process related nature of their problems and end up brute force automating their poor processes with bland software following well established trends.

Just about everyone computing today is on the upgrade treadmill. If you happen to be using closed proprietary software, which most of us are, most of your spending happens to fuel the upgrade process. The problem with this approach happens to lie in the nature of regular upgrade schedules. The pressure to provide regular releases is the same pressure that prevents the application from truly evolving as it could potentially do. Instead we get lots of quick fix type features intended to show value and improve the application in ways that easily justify the dollars spent year over year on improvements. The result being that we have huge applications today whose core functionality has changed little, if at all, over time. Do these features really address core problems, or do they simply make dealing with an existing solution better/easier/more fun somehow?

In most cases, I don't think they do. All of this spending and upgrading does sharply limit the number of people you can put directly on a problem. Instead of people who know your business, you end up paying for a small amount of the software producers people time in the hopes their general case solution better fits your business needs. (Not terribly likely.)

Here is a simple case to present my ideas in context.

Word processing.

Comparing early versions of Microsoft Word with later versions is interesting in that most of the features address very specific problems with the core word processing solution put forth years ago. Some features, such as the spell check and grammar check, do provide some real improvements, but all in all it is safe to say Microsoft Word is still Microsoft Word. The solution is a more refined one today compared to a few years ago, but the core problems still remain. People still have to open files, type stuff, decide how it should look, save them, and print them. This basic process brings with it all the problems inherent in file based systems today. (Locating files, overwriting important files, corrupt files, etc...) The same can be said for printing and formatting tasks as well.

How does this relate to strategic advantage?

The first on the block to make use of word processors enjoyed a significant advantage over those that didn't. Over time as more people joined the bandwagon, that advantage has diminished because everyone now has the same toolset. Ironically, those that could take advantage of the gains paid the most for the option of doing so through the upgrade cycles. Hopefully, this extra expense and time translated into bigger marketshare or some other similar core business gain for them.

Does this mean that IT no longer matters? Not at all. IT users today can still enjoy significant advantage over their peers today in the following ways:

- reduce overall IT cost (Open Source, Extended Upgrade cycle, Resource Management),

- address core issues (File Management, Printing, Automation)

- re-evaluate both process and toolset to improve productivity.

Business today should be asking these kinds of questions:

"Does everybody need a word processor?"

"How can be better manage our data?"

"Can we improve our process with different tools or procedures that depend less on current tools and methods?" Put another way: "How can I make my people, not only work faster, but better as well?"

"Do the advantages other environments and methods available today outweigh the traditional advantages common toolsets provide today given the emergence of Open Standards for communication?" -- "Maybe my process is unique enough to warrant a specific tool for the job..."

"How can I better leverage the networked and multi-user computing environments in my process to improve productivity and reduce errors?"

You are not going to find the answers to a lot of these questions in a new software box. Open Source tools are not going to provide easy answers either, so what will?

Invest in people who understand the complex nature of both your business and the technology available today --all of it. Give these people the funds and authority necessary to map your existing processes to potential technology solutions. Then let them build it out of the tools that make sense for your enterprise and needs.

My overall message here is to fight the trends. The safe buy won't get anyone canned, but also won't gain you any advantage either. There is no free lunch. Either you are paying to use a one size fits all solution, or you pay to form your own. A smart investment in people who can take advantage of all technologies, both proprietary and open, will yield over time just the right solutions to your problems.

It's a safe bet their ideal solution won't come in a box, and that speaks to the core of the problem inherent in IT today. Perhaps this will change as people begin to really wake up and understand the problems inherent in one size fits all closed software solutions.

Here is another simple way to look at it. When manufacturing firms want to gain the upper hand and distinguish themselves from others, what do they do? Buy better machines? Sure, but they also look hard at their process year after year to learn how it can be improved. They also build their own custom solutions to tough problems when called for. Why aren't IT people doing the same? It seems simple really.

Before paying again and again for the same software box year after year, consider a real investment in people who can learn to understand your business and relate that to technology. There are an awful lot of smart people out of work right now that would gladly help improve what you are doing year after year with your interests firmly in mind given the chance.

There is more than closed packaged software out there free for the taking, why not let somebody put it to work for you and your business and begin to gain some real advantage over those who choose to continue to pay for the same box year after year...

Sunday, May 23, 2004

What is it with baseball Parents?

Before I write anything else, just know that I do love kids baseball. Really, it's a lot of fun for both the kids and the adults, well maybe just for the kids, or maybe just not at all...

Seriously, just what is it about baseball parents that seems to bring out the worst in everyone? Perhaps it is the game. Lots of rules combined with high tension are likely contributors for sure. The length of the game, various positions and their status, coaches...and, let's not forget the umpire. With all these plot elements present, maybe the whole thing is a bit like the bread falling butter side down when dropped thing. (Yes, somebody did analyze that and concluded that we are screwed from the get go.)

My kids have tried a number of sports. None of them has been as mentally draining as baseball has. Soccer, football and wrestling all have their moments that pale in comparison to what you typically see near the end of a long baseball season.

So, why bother?

First and foremost, it is all for the kids. They come to play because they love the game. Are you a coach, team parent, vicarious father or mother? Please remember that. I know, I forget too.

It is also for the parents as well. In this modern age of television, movies, video games, music, computers and such, we often forget what real entertainment is about. Think back to an age before licenses, tickets, glowing tubes and wonder at the simple, often profound, pleasure shared experiences can bring. Here is one of mine that speaks to the very best of baseball, my misgivings aside:

It's a wide open park, surrounded by dogwood trees in full bloom. Four recently worn baseball diamonds rest back to back, all empty, but for one. Anyone walking the park late in the day would hear the excited voices easily from far away, cheering words of encouragement to the one at bat. The rest of the park is quiet. Most of the cars are gone.

Down a few runs at the top of the last inning, first place still within their grasp, a struggling team begins to bond. Not one of the kids is sitting at the bench. Hands on the fence, eager faces toward the batter, all doing what they can to keep the momentum building.

I was helping coach that year. Kids were kind of down after a long weekend of baseball, but they still wanted to play. Earlier, things were quiet. Quiet enough you could hear the rustle of the Dogwood trees being tickled by the light wind. Now, everyone knew, win or lose, both teams had plenty to celebrate, but our team had not yet won a weekend tournament.

Somebody said it, "This game will go to the team that wants it the most." Even though the game got off to a rough start for us, the kids powered through with emotion and support throughout. On that day, we all were a team. Nobody talked about rules or calls. Nobody was angry. Nobody wanted to lose, and we didn't actually. That game came down to a final hit and runs scored to win right at the end, as so many games seem to do.

I believe we won on that day, not because some part of the game was in our favor, or because our kids were better than theirs (they were pretty well matched), but because we all really wanted to win. Few games have moved me the way that one did. My mind was filled with the emotion of the day, as we walked up the gentle hill to our cars. I could see it all as if I were watching from afar. Light beginning to fail, cool breeze pushing the dogwood blossoms across the field, and the voices cheering. We literally shouted them home that day, not in a bad way mind you, but in the very best way.

The image in my mind will linger for a long while yet before it really begins to fade. Why can't we all work hard at building more of those experiences? That was better than even the best hollywood can provide! Isn't that worth working for? Seems we all benefit when it happens, so why all the hassles huh?

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Randi Rhodes on 620 KPOJ

Here in Portland, conservative talk radio has pretty much dominated the AM band, until most recently. The arrival of 620 KPOJ is, quite frankly, a welcome breath of fresh air to a stale radio market.

Most of the programming is well done and as informative as it is entertaining. Clearly, Randi Rhodes is the star. Her honest brand of talk brings a new light to the issues of the day. Relevant, factual commentary backed up with solid facts and obvious radio talent make for an addicitive commute home. You can hear her show here in Portland from 3PM to 7PM every weekday.

Tired of the same bland fare? Give this show a try --it will grow on you.

Can liberal talk radio survive in what has traditionally been a conservative dominated market? God, I hope so, because I am pretty sure I cannot go back now. Randi, you are fantastic and you know it, of course! Thanks for being here in Portland!

KPOJ AM 620 is owned and operated by Clear Channel communications. (If I happen to be wrong on this, don't sue me, just let me know to make the change! --Thanks!)Randi Rhodes, along with others are carried by the Air America Radio Network with additional content from the Jones Radio Network.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Why do so many software producers insist on Big Ass Splash Screens?

Lets face it, big splash screens are lame. Sure, it's nice to know an application is going to start. In this age of bloatware, this is likely an important feature. Given the user might not know they are going to wait 10 or more seconds, splashing them is likely a good idea;

the first time, that is.

After that, why bother?

We have all paid for expensive hardware with multi-tasking capabilities, yet many of the new tasks we start all want to own our desktop for a while. Why not, provide more reasonable application startup feedback instead of wasting a lot of collective time every day?

We should be giving feedback to the worst offenders, letting them know they are wasting our time. The amount of useful information provided via splash screens does not justify the time wasted dealing with them.

Many FS/OSS applications include a -nosplash option. This could be in the form of an actual command argument, or a little check box that says something like: "Don't show this again"

Don't take the top window focus, let the user bury, or work over the splash, if you are going to insist on a splash screen.

Consider other more creative launch feedback options, other than the splash screen. Users will appreciate it more than they know.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The growing value proposition of Open Source

Well what do you know? Just as I decide to build a blog, I find this. Thank you Google.

So, what does this have to do with Open Source Software?

The growing avaliability of this, and other online services, clearly demonstrates the value Open Source Software brings to the table. Open Source means the freedom to innovate on your own terms. Those that choose to innovate do so on the shoulders of others trying to do the same. The end result is a growing number of services and software open to anyone willing to learn to use them, at a price anyone can afford. --Powerful Stuff.