Sunday, November 26, 2006

A vote of no confidence

The 6 November 2006 issue of eWeek magazine has an article titled "A vote of no confidence" about the mess created by the rush to computerize voting systems in the US. One of the people they interviewed, Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, says "Election officials...didn't even consider huge issues such as the lack of audit capabilities [or] the security implications. The result was the adoption of a bunch of half-baked solutions that by no means can be considered a reasonable way to conduct trustworthy elections. If you were in charge of a private-sector project like this, you'd get fired - it's that simple."

But although the officials responsible for the e-voting snafu could not see the problems with the systems they purchased, there is no such excuse for the computer professionals who developed these flawed systems. The lack of any form of audit trail in these systems was an intentional design decision - but why? The most benign interpretation I can think of is that the designers don't want anyone to know when their systems malfunction. Obviously, much more sinister interpretations are possible. And that's before we consider the ease with which these systems can be compromised (hacked), and the apparent links between
one of the manufacturers and a foreign government critical of the US.

The question that puzzles me is why any kind of machine is needed to hold an election. Here in Canada I have worked as a poll official on federal and provincial elections. My poll clerk and I seal the empty ballot box at the start of the day, and never leave it unattended. Each ballot has a serial-numbered stub. In federal elections I sign the back of the unmarked ballot to prove its authenticity. The voter marks it with an X, folds it and brings it back to me. I detach and retain the stub, and the voter puts the ballot in the box. Due to our constant surveillance it's impossible to stuff the box, but even if that were to happen, it would be obvious since the number of ballots would exceed the number of stubs; and in a federal election the false ballots would lack my signature.

At the end of the day my poll clerk and I open the box and count the ballots, under the close scrutiny of the candidates' representatives. We immediately give the results in writing to the candidates' representatives and telephone them to the central reporting office for the district. Because the information is made public as soon as it's available, there's no point in tampering with the ballots after that time except perhaps in very close races that require a recount. To prevent that, we immediately seal the counted ballots and courier them to the central office, which locks them up in case a recount is ordered.

This system, using nothing more complex than a pencil, produces results quickly and transparently - everyone can see how it works, so they have confidence in it.

Getting voters registered also seems to be a big issue in the US, but not in Canada. The reason is that we register simply by putting a check mark on our income tax returns. And in Canada everyone submits an income tax return; even teenagers and those with no income submit a tax return, because that qualifies them for a quarterly payout that's advertised as a rebate of the federal sales tax, but is really a come-on to get people registered as voters and taxpayers. And for those who somehow contrive to miss getting on the voter's roll, we sign them up at the polling station and seal their vote until their eligibility is confirmed, at which time we add it to the pool of votes. Nobody gets turned away on election day!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Canada Post allows workers to discriminate

Yesterday, Canada Post gave its delivery workers in Vancouver permission to refuse to deliver a paid advertising flyer that some of them found offensive.

This is a dangerous precedent, and one that should be reversed immediately. As long as the material is legal, Post Office workers should have no right to refuse to deliver it.

If individual posties can decide which mail is fit to deliver, we could see, for example, Muslim posties refusing to deliver ads for winemaking shops, Jewish posties refusing to deliver ads for restaurants that serve shrimp and pork, posties who are members of the United Church refusing to deliver ads for bottled water*...where would it all end?

The Post Office has a legal monopoly on mail delivery, making it a public trust that must serve all Canadians who have information to convey. It cannot be in the business of censorship, or allow its workers to determine what mail is fit to be delivered.

A few years ago our courts decided that a private business person in Ontario, Scott Brockie, had no right to consult his own conscience in deciding which organizations his company would work for. The decision was firmly upheld on appeal, at considerable cost to Mr. Brockie**. If that is the law for a private business -- which had plenty of competition waiting to accept the work it refused -- then surely it must also be the law for a public monopoly like the Post Office.

If the printed material itself is legal, then the Post Office must deliver it. Postal employees who refuse must be disciplined or dismissed. Nothing else meets the test of fairness.

(* When I posted this, the United Church of Canada was campaigning to get people to stop buying bottled water and donate that money to third world water projects.)

(** There is a lot of information about the Scott Brockie case on the web. If you have time to read only one article, see

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A conspiracy or just a bug?

My son showed me that if you save a text file containing the sentence "bush hid the facts" (typed exactly like that, without the quotes), and then open it in Windows Notepad, all you see is a row of 9 rectangles. At first glance this looks like an "Easter egg", a surprise planted by programmers, like the flight simulator game in Excel 97. But hiding Easter eggs in a Microsoft program will get you fired these days.

It turns out that the explanation is more mundane, and there are many sentences that will do this to Notepad. It's all explained (to programmers, anyway) at:

What's really happening here is that Notepad examines every text file it opens to see if it was written in Chinese (or some other non-Roman alphabet). But text files don't actually contain anything besides the text -- certainly nothing that could indicate the language or font used. So Notepad simply assumes that if the order of bits in the file matches a string of Chinese characters, then that's what it must be. And if Notepad isn't configured to display Chinese, it displays a rectangle instead of each Chinese character.

Besides "bush hid the facts", here are some other sentences that behave this way in Notepad.

"this app can break"
"What are you doing"
"Matrix can not lie"
"Osamabin laden leading all terrorist"

and my favourite,

"We can blast Microsoft for a new bug"

If you're observant, you'll notice that there are exactly half as many rectangles as the number of letters in the English message Notepad should be showing. You can even make up your own messages that break Notepad -- if you can understand the instructions at the blog post linked above.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

End of the line for camera makers,,1690893,00.html

This is a real tear-jerker. I remember how in the 1950s, getting into serious photography was a "rite of passage". And while there were all sorts of cameras, those that used 35mm film were the clear choice of photo enthusiasts and professionals alike.

It really felt like 35mm photography would be here forever. Originally created to take advantage of the low cost of 35mm movie film, 35mm cameras survived the rise and fall of Polaroid's instant pictures, Kodak's Instamatic format (size 126) which (despite the name) did not create instant pictures but only simplified loading the film, Kodak's Pocket format (size 110), Kodak's Disc format, the Advanced Photographic System (APS), and many other formats and innovations. Most of these were not really needed, but were created because market research showed that people took the most pictures in the first two years after getting a new camera. In other words, new formats were invented to help sell film, paper and chemicals -- and, of course, cameras.

And through it all, the skills we learned in our high school days (in the 1950s) about exposure compensation and darkroom work (dodging and burning, solarization etc.) were still valid and valuable -- until now.

But in just a few years, digital photography has decimated sales of film and traditional film cameras, and now after sustaining huge losses Konica-Minolta (the two companies merged just 3 years ago) has announced it is getting out of the twin businesses of making cameras (of all types!) and film, to concentrate on making photocopiers and its other "imaging businesses" that are still profitable. To see Konica-Minolta reduced to taking this action is a blow close to home, because back in the 1970s when our children were small and we took a lot of pictures, many of them were taken with our Minolta Hi-Matic F and our Konica C-35, little gems of rangefinder cameras that did everything well. So this announcement is a bit like hearing about the death of an auntie you were once close to, who spent her later years in "reduced circumstances" as the British say.

Oh, and I hear Nikon is also dropping almost all of its film cameras. Who's next? To borrow Alvin Toffler's phrase from Future Shock, the future has arrived awfully fast for some of these companies.

On the digital front at home, we recently got our second digital camera (a Canon 620) after our Fujifilm 2600Z (about 3 years old) suddenly lost its ability to focus. By today's standards the Fuji is obsolete, so it's not worth repairing. The Canon is vastly superior to the old Fuji -- some review sites call it simply one of the best digital cameras available -- yet it cost about the same as the Fuji did 3 years ago. I'm impressed by the Canon's solid feel, its even illumination on flash shots, its intelligent autofocus system that seeks out -- and marks on the screen -- the key objects it has decided to focus on, and the way it applies just enough processing to each picture that you could use it without retouching, but still have room to enhance it to your own taste. Oh, and the quality of the lens.

Still, in a sign of the times, although I got the Canon 620 at a rock-bottom price at a Boxing Day (December 26) Sale, I recently saw it advertised for $20 less than I paid for it just three weeks ago. I suppose in another three years it will be obsolete again. So although today's cameras are great bargains compared to camera prices in the 1960s and 1970s, over time today's cameras may cost us more than our 35mm cameras ever did.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Vegemite not emigrating

From Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 14, 2006

Kraft assures Australians that Vegemite is staying put

Global food giant Kraft moved to assure Australians yesterday that production of the famous Vegemite savoury spread would not be shifted overseas...

Kraft this week announced it would move its biscuit manufacturing business from Melbourne to China...The announcement had sparked fears that Kraft's Vegemite would meet a similar fate.

First produced in 1922, the thick brown paste with a strong, salty flavour is regarded as an acquired taste and is accorded the same status in the Australian national psyche as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the United States.

- - - - - - - -

The Observer says:

Vegemite is a yeast extract, rich in natural glutamates that stimulate the "umami" or savory taste receptors on the tongue. Since it isn't synthetic like MSG, it doesn't contain the indigestible left-handed isomer that is thought to cause "Chinese restaurant syndrome" and may contribute to glaucoma in people who regularly eat foods containing MSG.

Personally, I find Vegemite to be too bland and prefer the original British product, Marmite, which is over 100 years old. They are both yeast extracts, but Vegemite is flavoured with malt, whereas Marmite is flavoured with carrots and onions. A little goes a long way: a teaspoon is enough to impart a rich, meaty flavour to a pot of homemade soup.

Marmite is made all around the world. Most Marmite sold in North America comes from the UK through the "official" wholesaler. But some Chinese groceries import Marmite from Hong Kong, and I get mine from the South African Sausage Company which imports it from Durban.

Although most Americans and many Canadians claim to dislike Marmite, they buy lots of ready-made snacks, soups, and meat products in which "yeast extract" is a prominent ingredient. Ironically, some of our popular brands of sliced roast beef are flavoured with "yeast extract" to make them taste meaty!