Friday, October 31, 2014

The Day of the Dead and Halloween

I have many memories of Halloween as a child. I was Spiderman, Frankenstein, Dracula and even Superman. My mom made many of those costumes, and I recall the thrill of wearing them. As I grew older, I guess I became more jaded and kind of forgot about Halloween. I became too old for trick or treating and just lived vicariously.

For many of us, there is an all-too-commercial aspect of Halloween. The candy, the franchises for our heroes on the big screen and the movies that come out to scare us. It seems unfortunate that, like many of our days of celebration, Halloween has been converted into commercial success rather than a day to be together and enjoy for what it is.

One thing I find interesting is how different cultures have come to celebrate October 31st. While we celebrate by dressing up as someone else here in the US, many societies around the celebrate this day as the Day of the Dead. This is not just a fad, this is something that has been going on for decades and is gaining in popularity.

The Day of the Dead is one or more days dedicated to remembering the fondest memories of those who have passed on. Wherever the Day of the Dead is celebrated, people remember that we are born and we die, and that's OK. We are reminded once again that everything is temporary and passing. The only thing that is permanent is change. The Day of the Dead is not a somber event, it is one of celebration and joy. Just like Halloween is for us.

Tonight, we will be handing out candy to the kids who come by. It's such a treat to see what they're wearing and how excited 4, 5 and 6 year olds are when they see me open the door. They exclaim, "Trick or Treat!" and hold out their bags, ready for we bear at our door. They will be out there tonight, enjoying the jack-o-lanterns and the haunted houses and of course, the friendship with the other kids.

Have a happy and safe Halloween, kids!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

How do you know your ideas really have support when districts are gerrymandered?

It would seem that one side is not listening to the other and is doing everything they can to keep them quiet by gerrymandering districts. It is no secret that after the last census, while Republicans held majorities in their state houses, gerrymandering became a popular fad in many Red States.

But consider what is happening as a result of gerrymandering. When districts are drawn to marginalize the opposition, they have some interesting effects. For one, when one faction is marginalized by the other, the marginalized faction loses their right to representation in their government. The second is that when representation is denied to one faction or another, the dominant faction in a district can impose their will upon the other with impunity and can pass laws that affect the other faction more so than the dominant faction.

Obviously, asserting power over others is very cool if you're say, very well to do. But if you're on the receiving end of that assertiveness, it's not very fun. And if you have no one there to represent your interests when it comes to writing and passing laws, there is only one thing left to do: protest.

I think it was Howard Zinn who said that protests are what happens when legislatures and courts are inadequate or unresponsive to grievances. I guess that's what we can expect when better than 80% of the seats in the US House of Representatives and the Senate are deemed to be safe. It has been well documented that we have a safe seat problem in our elective offices. Safe seats arise from gerrymandering.

According to PBS, about 48 seats in the House and 12 seats in the Senate actually have a contest. The rest of the seats are considered safe. I know of a couple of House districts in Utah, for example, that don't have a Democrat running against the Republican incumbent this year. What are Republicans saying in those districts? "Democrats? There's no one here but us Republicans!" But the Democrats in those districts are living in a district that simply cannot be flipped, which means that the sitting Republican doesn't have to listen to the other guys, now, does he?

I'm not rooting for either side here, but I want to point out that as soon as one party or another rises to power, they suddenly change from underdog to dictator. This trend can be arrested by drawing the districts so that no party is favored. Given the technology available today, with help from Google (j/k), we can draw districts that are even.

But there is one other thing that we can do that I don't see anyone suggesting at the national level. Give 3rd parties access to the debates. 3rd parties are willing to address issues that the Donkey and the Elephant are not willing to discuss on TV. As we saw during the campaign of Jesse Ventura, he ran against candidates who at times refused to debate him on television. The two dominant parties seem to take a certain pride in keeping 3rd parties out of national politics and that is very anti-democratic.

As we can see from the various protests around the country, we have a two-party system that does not have the capacity to address grievances posed by those who protest. Perhaps if there were some real competition for seats, we can keep our so-called leaders intellectually honest.

I want to close on one last point. A candidate who says he's Democrat or Republican, but only represents members of his own party in his seat when he votes, is not doing his job. The job of a Congressman, Senator or a member of a state house, is to represent everyone in the district. It is not his job to vote only for what he likes or is consistent with his party's platform. He must take all sides into consideration of his votes. That's what it means to represent a district.

Perhaps if we had legislators who agreed with that job description, we'd see fewer protests.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Voting machines that flip the vote are non-partisan

Truthout has an interesting article on some recent examples of voting machine problems. Both Democrats and Republicans are reporting that their votes are being flipped. They note in their article that voting machines are still counting the votes in secret and that we are well advised to take pictures of our results with our phones if we want to verify our votes. That might be a problem because then people might be tempted to sell their vote by proving who they voted for to someone with money to buy it. I don't know if that will ever catch on, if it's happening now, or if anyone that regulates voting systems has thought about it.

I can remember the days of the punch card. It was simple and effective, but not too great for the environment. At least we could verify where our votes were going. There's nothing proprietary about punch card systems other than the code that they run on.

But as before, one thing remains clear: creating an open voting system based on open standards and open source code will help us to ensure that our voting systems are working as advertised. In order for any democracy to work, we need to know that our votes are going to the people that we think are representing our interests. With what is called, "Black Box Voting", we have no way of knowing for sure if our votes are not flipping after we have verified the vote on the screen. You know, when it's counted on the servers that collect and tabulate the votes.

To put this in perspective, consider the fact that what we think of as computers are really just machines that record 1s and 0s. The computers use protocols and formats that are arbitrary, and the memory system is volatile, such that if you disconnect the power, you lose whatever was in memory. The file systems on the disks are arbitrary, yes they are logical, but humans had to start somewhere, and that is with an educated guess on how to build a file system. Once you find something that works, you stick with it. Computers are fickle. They don't always do what you want them to do when you want them to do it. I know, I've been working with computers for about 30 years.

Voting machines are built out of arbitrary choices and demands. All concerned have some idea of how it should run. But the problem is that not all who are concerned have a voice in how they should run. From what I can gather so far, we are using proprietary systems running some form of Windows. The source code for these systems is proprietary and if there is any oversight at all about the code running on these systems, it is done by a very small and privileged group. The rest of us have no way of knowing for sure if the code will accurately record the vote.

I'm not just talking about the voting machine you see in the booth. I'm also talking about the machines that collect all the data from each voting machine, the servers that do the heavy lifting of counting the numbers and tabulating the results. Yes, those machines. Those machines are hidden from public view and they too, are probably running a proprietary operating system like Windows.

This is why I advocate a completely open system for voting. We have open source hardware systems that can be integrated into a voting machine design. We have open source operating systems that are used by businesses all over the world, one of them is called Linux. We can create boards and committees that have broad oversight over the production and operation of open source hardware and software for voting systems. Those boards and committees can be held accountable for the operation of open source voting systems.

Why do we need open source voting systems? Because we can't completely trust the voting systems we have. If votes are being flipped right before our eyes as some report, that might be intentional, but that we saw it, that's an accident. Yeah, that's probably my paranoia, but I'd rather be using an open system that most programmers can review and check for flaws, submit corrections to fix the flaws, and that has hardware that most electrical engineers would know how to fix.

A completely open source system can be verified up and down to do the job it was intended to do. The system can be protected from tampering through open source design practices and philosophy. Machine images (the operating system and application code) can be checksummed to ensure they have not been tampered with. The hardware can be tested, locked and deployed to ensure it runs properly in the voting booth. With open systems, anyone who wants to know how it runs, can find out, but security is not maintained by obscurity. We've tried that and failed. Security automatically improves in the crucible of transparency.

Why should we be dependent on a few private companies, with interests that may not coincide with our own, for our right to vote? No democracy will survive if a handful of private companies can steer an election their way. Not even ours.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

If you believe you are right, Mr. Conservative, open up the vote

The debate over voter ID laws has been heating up in recent weeks as election day draws near. The argument, boiled down to basic elements is this: Conservatives maintain that having a valid ID is a requirement of modern life and should be required for voting. Liberals say that the requirements to get valid ID cost money that many people don't have. I can see merit on both sides of the argument. But one thing that seems consistent across the board is that recently enacted voter ID laws will ensure that fewer people vote.

As I've noted previously, the conservative push for voter ID laws is a straw man, a distraction from the real goal: preventing any discussion of the voting systems and their flaws. It is well documented that certain voting machine manufacturers, such as Diebold have pledged support for past conservative candidates, but it is not well known. Diebold, among a few other manufacturers, has built voting machines based on Windows Embedded, complete with the security problems that come with Windows. Until we open source the hardware and software so that everyone who wants to know can find out how these machines operate, we may never know for sure if we're having elections we can trust.

While the integrity of the laws that qualify voters and the machines that count the votes are both issues worthy of discussion, I think there is a broader point to be raised, one that requires urgent debate. If conservatives truly believe that their ideas hold popular support, then they should be willing to pass laws that increase voter turnout, not reduce it. Why?

It is also well documented that most ordinary citizens have next to zero influence on public policy in the United States at the national level. Congress and the president, from all appearances, simply do not listen to ordinary citizens and their opinions. Rather, they patronize the wealthiest among us, discouraging input from everyone else and they limit the debate to the scope desired by the wealthiest among us so that alternatives to their solutions are not considered. To put it concisely, most of the power is held by about 150,000 people who think their ideas are best. As Larry Lessig puts it, they live in Lesterland. At this point, voting is probably the best chance for many Americans to be heard by those in power.

That tiny minority with all the power appears unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that subjecting their ideas to votes that require maximum participation. They are probably afraid that real democracy is like two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for lunch. We know who will win that vote now, don't we?

This is what appears to be the mindset of the most conservative and wealthiest among us. To put it a bit differently, they appear to be afraid that with maximum voter participation, we will become a lot more like Sweden and Norway than like the United States that we knew in the 1950s, in the most nostalgic sense.

Conservatives may be right about voter ID, and they may be silent on the integrity of our voting machines and tabulation systems. But almost certainly, they don't believe their ideas have national support or they would be doing everything they can to increase voter turnout. They might consider the ideas proposed by fairvote.org, as solutions to increasing voter turnout.

But if conservatives consistently harp on voter ID as a problem, despite the well documented dearth of actual voter fraud (unless you're Republican), then liberals can rest assured that conservative ideas do not have the popular support claimed by their proponents.

Friday, October 24, 2014

GMO's aren't worth the fight without patent royalties

It's interesting to see the debate around GMOs these days, centering on food safety and consumers knowing what's in their food. Those are important issues, but it's equally important to understand the motivation of the adversaries, Monsanto, ADM and Dow. They are spending millions to defeat local ordinances and state laws that require GMO labeling of food that contains GMOs. They are also spending millions to keep any federal law that requires labeling from ever passing, despite the fact that 64 countries around the world already require labels on GMOs in our food.

GMOs are genetically modified organisms, where a gene from one organism is transplanted into another. In one example, there is the humble tomato. In order to help the tomato survive cold snaps, they have transplanted a gene from a fish that can survive in freezing water into tomatoes to help them deal with the cold. We have very little idea how the gene is expressed in the plant, whether or not the result is toxic, and whether or not such a change reduces the nutrition value of the tomato.

They are also putting insecticide in the food so you can't even wash it off. The New Leaf Potato is a great example. The modified potato has a gene from an organism that causes a beetle that eats the potato leaves to starve by altering the digestive system of the beetle. While we know what it does to the beetle, we don't know what it does to the people who eat the potato. Maybe the harm done to us is not immediately apparent, and it may be years before we find out.

Companies like Monsanto like this arrangement because they can get a patent on the modified plant and sell seeds to farmers. The pollen from the plants that result from the seed can then pollinate non-GMO plants downwind. If a farmer is found to be growing a crop with that gene, he can be sued for patent infringement, even if he doesn't know what happened when he saves the seed from the last crop. GMOs are the perfect legal playground for lawyers who love them.

The primary motivation, above all else, IS NOT FEEDING THE WORLD. The commercials that air during Meet the Press on Sunday morning from ADM are hiding a thinly veiled motivation for money. Lots of money. In one year alone, Monsanto earned more than $2 billion from GMOs. They have a near monopoly on GMO soy, a variety of soy that is resistant to Monsanto's Round Up herbicide. Monsanto owns more than 90% of the soy seed market, that's what we call a monopoly. Lucky for them, this monopoly has government protection built in.

Patents seem nice and dandy until you realize that they are a government intervention in the market. Whenever you hear conservatives moaning and groaning about welfare queens, remember, they won't utter a peep about patents. They don't want you to know that they prefer public policy that makes money move up, not down.

We were originally sold on the idea of GMOs as herbicide and insecticide resistant plants that would feed the world. They don't. We were told we would need less herbicide with these genetically modified crops. Unfortunately, as Forbes reports, we are using more herbicide, not less. In fact, it may be that it was Monsanto's plan all along to sell more herbicide, too. Now, because we're using more herbicide, we're creating superweeds, weeds that are resistant to herbicide.

There are many who complain that our patent system is broken, and I agree it is broken, for many reasons. But one of the reasons it's broken is that we do not see patents in the holistic sense. Patents for GMOs are granted without taking their effect on the environment and our behavior in context. The superweeds, the effect on our digestion, the effect on how we use herbicides and insecticides - they're all factors that patent examiners are not trained to consider.

That's why there is such an overwhelming political response to GMOs. States are not passing laws against GMOs because Monsanto spends the money to convince state houses to look the other way. But county after county, city after city, upon looking at the problem, they are starting to wake up. Some states are starting to talk about it, too, as they see their member cities pushing for bans. Even Bill Nye, the Science Guy, offers a sobering look at GMOs.

Can we at least do the research on food safety? Or are we going to wait 20 years before we finally discover that we made a mistake, as we did with artificial sweeteners? While we're waiting for that to happen, we need to reframe the debate to include the patent royalties as the reason why Monsanto and their ilk defend their crops. Feeding the world just isn't a factor in their math.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Income inequality forces people to work for free

I just read a fascinating article by Paul Petrone, Communications Director at VoiceGlance, on LinkedIn.com. He's written a great piece about free internships, you know, working for free to get that first job. There is at least one billionaire who supports the idea that if people really want a job, they should be willing to work for free to get it. That would be Mark Cuban, investor extraordinaire.

What is interesting is that I don't see too many billionaires willing to offer their services for free. Sure, they may do volunteer work, but if it came down to their financial survival, they're going to find a way to get paid for their work. Besides, no one gets to be a billionaire without being willing to at least ask to be paid for their work.

Bernie Sanders has been quoted as saying, "The top 1% owns 41.8% of the wealth in this country, while the bottom 60% owns just 1.7%". The 1% own 40% of the wealth in this country, but at least some of them think it's pretty cool to have other people work for them for free. Few of them are willing to admit that with 41% of the wealth, they have enormous power and influence over public policy. Such a concentration of wealth can allow a small minority to essentially buy laws that create advantages for them, while putting everyone else at a disadvantage.

When given the opportunity to talk about the state of the economy, the same 1% will blame the government on the state of the economy without mentioning their influence on government and public policy. If the economy is great, hey, the 1%, the captains of industry have steered us in the clear. But if the economy is bad, then it's the government's fault. This is a very discrete form of cognitive dissonance.

But as Mr. Petrone notes, when corporations take advantage of an economy that is so bad that people are willing to work for free, that says a lot about how they perceive their employees or even future employees. If a company is not willing to pay for work, does it really value that work? If an employee is willing to work for free, what does that say about his or her other options?

This reminds me of an argument against pirating software. It goes like this: if you pirate Windows, then you never really know the true costs to you of pirating the software. When you pirate Windows, you invite all sorts of vendor lock-in onto your computer. This is because Microsoft is aware that piracy is a problem, so if they can't make you pay for the license, directly, they can at least impose costs on the use of the software. These costs come in the form of vendor lock-in over communications protocols, file formats and digital rights management. Eventually, you become dependent on Windows and when you need to upgrade, you will pay. That's what Microsoft is counting on.

A similar situation exists for free work. If someone decides to volunteer for a charitable cause, he understands the transaction very well. He is in a position to donate the time and effort to the cause. he understands that all service is spiritual. The charitable organization is committed to directing that effort to the benefit of the less fortunate, the people who really need the help. Everyone involved understands the transaction as well as the value of the same.

Now contrast that with a company that is using the dearth of jobs in a bad economy as an excuse to offer free internships to college kids who want to get their first job. The company is using this effort to extract a profit. The same company may not get the quality of work they want for free, and since nothing is paid for the work, the true cost of the work to the company cannot be easily assessed. The same is true for the employee. This activity perverts economic incentives on both sides and creates vagueness in the relationship between the company and the intern.

Sometimes, a paying job can be setup so that an employer can extract free labor from employees. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has an interesting labor arrangement at the warehouses he maintains for his customers. His employees at the warehouse are contractors, which places some legal distance between him and them. Them employees are paid, but not for all of their time at the warehouse. Why? Employees must endure a 20 minute search to ensure that nothing is stolen from the warehouse. There is a class action lawsuit happening right now, winding it's way through the courts. It is such a contentious issue, that Amazon is willing to fight all the way up to the Supreme Court to win.

Yes, my dear readers, Amazon.com, that imaginary place of wonder, where many of us have shopped, and will shop again sometime soon before Christmas, believes in slavery. They are willing to fight this battle up to the Supreme Court to maintain their right to unpaid employee time. Remember, the economy is still pretty bad, but Jeff Bezos, also a billionaire, thinks its really cool that he can get employees to wade through a 20 minute search without being paid for it, after a long day at work. Every day of the year, for hundreds of employees.

Remember Ronald Reagan's campaign for president? They weren't kidding when they called it "Trickle Down Economics".

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Interferometry must be a pretty good idea. Everyone does it.

Many years ago, I read a cool article about very long baseline interferometry (VLBI). This is a technique where very sensitive radio telescopes are positioned on opposite sides of the world and are trained on a powerful and very distant radio source, such as a quasar. Quasars are thought to be some of the oldest and brightest galaxies in the universe. They're in the same position in the sky throughout the years because they're so far away.

VLBI is used to image very distant sources. As the entry for the subject in Wikipedia says, "This allows observations of an object that are made simultaneously by many radio telescopes to be combined, emulating a telescope with a size equal to the maximum separation between the telescopes." The idea is to simulate the biggest telescope in the world by using the size of the world to do it.

The article that I read years ago taught me that VLBI can be used to measure the rotational speed of the earth, that the speed of the earth's rotation changes with respect to the speed of the global jetstream, and that the shape of the earth can be measured very accurately with VLBI. The example in that article used two telescopes.

What I find interesting is that, as far as I know, all vertebrate animals have two eyes. Two eyes use a form of interferometry. The brain takes two simultaneous images or streams of images that can be used to calculate it's relative position in space and time. Somewhere, long ago, I learned that the brain uses two eyes to calculate distance within about 10 feet. For everything beyond that the brain uses one eye.

By the same token, many years ago, Scientific American ran an article about how owls hear. Owls are nocturnal creatures and have each ear pointed in a different direction. They can use their ears to listen for their prey and pinpoint it's location in the dark. This again, is a form of interferometry. The brain uses two different signals to determine the location of an object, like a mouse.

We have been graced with two eyes and two ears, probably for redundancy just so that we can see and hear if we lose one. But as we have evolved, it seems Nature has found unique benefits to having two ears and two eyes. One of them being a way to fix the location of things we see and hear. Nice work, Mother Nature.