Voting machines: a solution searching for a problem?

Punch voting machine

It's US presidential election time again, and the big story as always in America is long queues at polling places. I don't get it. They have the simplest voting system going, where all you get to do is tick a box for your preferred candidate. Yet it takes ages, despite (or is it because of) the use of the latest voting technology.

Australian elections use a relatively complex system of tabulating votes, yet a clear winner is almost always known within a few hours of voting closing. The most I've had to queue to vote (outside of voting at Australia House in London, which often has queues around the block) in an Australian election is about two minutes.

Computer-based voting machine

So what is it that makes the voting process so slow in American elections? Why are there over 30 minute queues as standard?

So without even going into the serious problems with voting machines, it seems they don't actually solve any actual problems, and I suspect cost a lot more to operate than having a bunch of casual vote counting staff on the evening of the vote. In Australian elections I've been involved in (as a party volunteer) the same staff who operate the polling place all day stay back for the vote count in the evening.

The big question is, given this is likely to be the first election of a non-Republican since Bush stole the vote from Gore in 2000 (assuming they don't pull the same trick again), will the Democrats look at reforming the voting systems to prevent these state-based tricks?

Comfort food: ramen

I've had an upset stomach the last few days, even had yesterday off work. Not very pleasant, and I missed the Melbourne Cup festivities. To help recover, I've been eating quite bland food, without spices or dairy products. Last night that meant some tomatoey broad beans on toast, which went down fine.

Today, back at work and hunting for a bland lunch, I discovered On Ramen on Hay Street, Haymarket. Ramen entered my repertoire of comfort foods on a cold Winter day in Tokyo. One of my colleagues took us down the road from the Spike offices to a tiny ramen joint. The place had about six bar stools and you sat slurping at the bar while the owner cooked up your simple, but delicious, noodles. There were also gyoza on offer.

Behind the owner, a boiling pot of stock looked like it'd been going since the post-war reconstruction, with the occasional onion or pig thrown in and the water topped up each day. The owner would take some parboiled noodles, dunk them in for another boil, then serve them up covered in the amazing stock and whatever meat you'd selected. Even for this simple meal, the presentation was brilliant.

So does On Ramen, Shop 4, 181 - 187 Hay St, Haymarket match up? I think so! Tasty noodles and soup. My pork belly and miso ramen was pretty good, though the pork was probably a bit sweet for my tastes. The salty, rich broth is exactly what my recovering body needs. If chicken soup is Jewish Penicillin, surely ramen is the Japanese version?

Note to Americans: Ramen does not mean instant noodles.

JavaScript gah!

JavaScript bit me again, with its concatenation operator being the same as its addition operator. So instead of the total amount of an order, I ended up with a string of all the prices in the order. Grrr.

I must remember what Crockford says in Appendix A: Awful Parts:

The + operator can add or concatenate. Which one is does depends on the types of the parameters. If either operand is an empty string, it produces the other operand converted to a string. If both operands are numbers, it produces the sum. Otherwise, it converts both operands to strings and concatenates them. This complicated behaviour is a common source of bugs. If you intend + to add, make sure that both operands are numbers.

Dear Anthony Albanese on Internet Censorship

Lots of people are writing to their MPs to explain why the proposed Internet censorship regime, as currently being pushed by Senator Conroy, won't work and is a draconian imposition on the rights of citizens. The biggest issue is that the system won't actually work, as measured against its purported goals, but will have a dramatic impact on the performance of the network and the availability of perfectly-legal material.

So get over to OpenAustralia to find out who your local member is, and get writing! The only language they understand is votes. Here's my letter to Anthony Albanese, who happens to also be Minister for Infrastructure, Leader of the House and a big shaker and mover in the ALP.

Dear Mr Albanese,

I'm writing to express my concern about the proposed Internet censorship regime being promoted by Senator Conroy. He would instead characterise it as a "filtering" regime, but as has recently emerged it will not be optional and so constitutes censorship, in the Great Firewall of China model, used to stifle political speech in China.

Two aspects of the proposed censorship regime concern me most, but they aren't the only problems.

First of all is the fact that it won't work. I'm an Internet technical type, and I've looked through the lab trial report and can't see how any technical approach could possibly work effectively. Regardless of whether or not it will slow down peoples' Internet connections--and it most certainly will--it will not actually be effective in blocking only the targetted material, and nothing else.

Any filtering system will either need to break the security mechanisms used for online commerce, trade and secure communications (like Internet banking and stock trading) or will be trivially easy to bypass. So illegal material will continue to be available to the people who want it. Technically-savvy children will also be able to bypass it, with their parents given a false sense of security that the government is doing their job for them.

A friend of mine lived in China for six months and was upset that he couldn't view sites like CNN, BBC or our own ABC to see what was happening in the world. In about fifteen minutes I set up a method for him to get around the Great Firewall of China and view these sites. This method would be used to get around the Great Firewall of Australia.

My second major concern is the way Conroy is stifling public discourse about his proposal. His office attempted to stop a respected network engineer from criticising the project, by placing pressure on the Internet Industry Association. He has also repeatedly characterised any critics of the proposal as being pro child pornorgraphy. This cheap rhetorical trick conflates the two aspects of the project: one is to "protect children from bad stuff on the Internet" and the other is to "censor illegal material".

The current system of voluntary Internet filtering software, made available for free to Australian households, is flawed but is probably the best approach we have. It means, at least, that parents have control over the level of censorship they want to impose on their children. Otherwise we end up with every special interest group banning their own hobby horses for everyone. That means Steven Fielding wanting to ban the human reproductive system and Nick Xenophon wanting all gambling made illegal.

Education is the key to handling the diverse range of content on the Internet. Families need the tools to make decisions for themselves, rather than having Big Nanny make decisions for them. One of the easiest approaches I've heard of is placing the family computer in a public location such as the dining room, so that everyone can be observed using the Internet.

I'd be happy to meet with you and explain the technical details of the proposal, and why it won't work. I also have some ideas about a face-saving fallback approach that does the maximum to prevent genuinely illegal content (child porn, terrorist material) that can be done by government without imposing draconian restrictions on citizens.

Simon Rumble
Marrickville NSW 2204

Giant CRX City Pro: not happy!

Letter I just sent to Giant Bicycles, who make excellent bikes, apart from this one. Anyone wanna buy a bike that could easily be converted into an excellent single-speed or fixie?

In April 2007 I bought the Giant CRX City Pro from Wooly's Wheels in Sydney. I was quite excited about it. I'd been looking at hub gear bikes for years, enchanted by the elegance of the design. I now realise it was a big mistake and there are good reasons for derailleurs continuing to be popular.

Everything apart from the hub gear on the CRX is excellent. The frame is agressive, really wanting to zip along. It's a brilliant commuting bike, with fast wheels and tyres, ready to go.

Unfortunately, the moment you get a flat tyre you realise how bad the hub gear is. Getting the wheel off requires a spanner and getting your hands covered in grease. Getting it back on requires that you understand exactly how it all fits together, and get the tension on the chain just right or you'll have big problems. I ended up having to constantly take the bike back to the shop to get the rear wheel back on properly.

Next up one of the anti-rotation washers on the hub gear broke, causing the hub gear to rotate when it shouldn't. This was less than a year old, with the bike doing much less than 50km a week.

Then the hub gear completely crapped itself. All the internals seized up. The shop sent it back to Shimano who recommended it be serviced every three months. This is a bike that is pitched as a low-maintenance commuter machine!

Now, a few months but less than 100km later (it's been Winter and I've had some injuries) the hub gear has crapped itself again. Previous times I thought it might have been the way I put the components back together after repairing a flat. This time I haven't had a flat, so it's managed to destroy itself on its own!

In conclusion, the Nexus hub isn't ready. The mechanism of its attachment is vastly overcomplicated, and it isn't durable enough for light use, let alone heavy use. Selling this bike as a commuter machine is a terrible mistake.

The thing about it is I like your bikes. I own a Giant mountain bike that is a spectacular achievment in quality for a reasonable price. I've recommended the non-Nexus CRX to friends looking for commuter bikes, and they're really happy with them. The rest of the CRX is brilliant! I'm tempted to sell the CRX City Pro and buy an ordinary derailleur CRX.

I recommend you stop selling the CRX Nexus variant. It's only going to give your company a bad name and turn people off cycling.

Very disappointed with this bike.

The Grates at the Metro

The
Grates at the Metro Sydney 16th October 2008

Holly and I saw The Grates last night. What an amazing live band! Full of energy and brilliant renditions of their infectious pop tunes.

The support band, The John Steel Singers were fun too. It's clear they share the ability to craft fun pop tunes with The Grates. The other support band, The Vasco Era, were lousy. Clearly they idolise dodgy, talentless junkie Pete Doherty and his overrated Libertines.

IE and multiple identical IDs

It seems Internet Explorer is quite strict about having multiple IDs in a document with the same selector. This, combined with the way I read the Prototype documentation, had me walking around in circles for ages completely unable to identify the bug. How annoying!

So I've documented it here, with a test to demonstrate it. I'll submit a ticket for the Prototype document shortly, as it does give the impression this will work.