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The scarcity of Talent

At Supernova 2007, several of us engaged Andrew Keen over his controversial book "The Cult of the Amateur." I will admit to not yet having read the book. Reviews in the blogosphere are scathing, but of course the book is entirely critical of the blogosphere so that's not too unexpected.

Zapmeals for real?

At the recent Supernova 2007 conference, they did a session where startups presented, and to mix things up, at the end they told us that one of the companies was fake. Most people clued in, because the presentation had been funny, and had a few obvious business mistakes, but at the same time many commented that it was chosen well, because they would like it to exist. The fake company, ZapMeals claimed it would let you order delivered food from quality at-home chefs and caterers, with a reputation system that helped you choose them by quality. GPS-enabled delivery companies would show you where your meal was as it drove to your home.

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Whoops on task list

Whoops, sorry. I was playing around with a shared to-do list manager in drupal, the software that runs this web site, and it seems to have poorly configured security defaults, so the test entries showed up on the home page. I've made them unpublic now.

Giant victory for E-mail privacy

For some time I've been warning about a growing danger to the 4th amendment. The 4th amendment protects our "persons, houses, papers and effects" but police and some courts have been interpreting this to mean that our private records kept in the hands of 3rd parties -- such as E-mail on an ISP or webmail server -- are not protected because they are not papers and not in our houses. Or more to the point, that we do not have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" when we leave our private data in the hands of 3rd parties.

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Mutliple candidate voting

Continuing our discussion of the goals of voting systems, today I want to write about ballots that let you vote for more than one candidate in the same race. Many people have seen Preferential voting where you rank the candidates in order of how much you like them. This is used in Australia, and many private elections such as for the Hugo Awards. The most widely known preferential ballot is Single Transferable Vote and its cousin the instant-runoff. Many election theorists, however view these as the worst possible system. I prefer the Condorcet method with the modification that the cases where it fails, it is declared a tie, or a second type of election is used to break the tie. While it has been demonstrated that all preferential ballots have failure modes where they choose somebody that seems illogical based on the voters' true desires, this does not have to be true when a tie is possible.

Multiple candidate votes would provide a dramatic improvement in the US -- they are already used in many other places. They would have entirely eliminated the question of minor candidates "splitting" or spoiling the vote. There would have been no question in Florida of 2000, with Al Gore defeating George W. Bush (and at least by the popular vote, some feel that Bill Clinton would have lost to George Bush the elder, and there's strong evidence the electoral margin would have at least been smaller.) This is in fact what prevents them from being used -- there is always somebody in power who is going to conclude they would have lost has there been a multi-candidate ballot in place. Such people will fight it harder than advocates push it.

Small party candidates want it because it gives them a chance to be heard. Voters who like them can safely express that preference without fear of "spoiling" the race among the frontrunners. Given that, small candidates can eventually become frontrunners. In the 2 party system, as we've seen, any time a minor candidate like Ralph Nader gets popular enough that he might actually make a difference, the result is cries of "Ralph, don't run" and a dropping of support from those who fear that problem.

Selling ads on URLs

Recently, Lauren Weinstein posted a query for a way to bring a certain type of commentary on web sites to the web. In particular, he's interested in giving people who are the subject of attack web sites, who may even have gotten court judgments against such web sites to inform people of the dispute by annotations that show up when they search in search engines.

I'm not sure this is a good idea for a number of reasons. I like the idea of being able to see 3rd party commentary on web sites (such as Third Voice and others have tried to do) and suspect the browser is a better place than the search engine for it. I don't like putting any duty upon people who simply link to web sites (which is what search engines do) because the sites are bad. They may want to provide extra info on what they link to as a service to users, but that's up to them and should be unless they are a monopoly.

In addition, putting messages with an agenda next to search results is what search engines do for a living. However, in that may be the answer.

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Orwell could answer the cell phone driving question

From time to time I come up with ideas that are interesting but I can't advocate because they have overly negative consequences in other areas, like privacy. Nonetheless, they are worth talking about because we might find better ways to do them.

The price was right

The radio had a tribute to Bob Barker, who retires today after 35 years hosting The Price is Right. I always admired the genius of that show in making product placement an essential part of the show -- the show was about the advertisers and made the audience think about how much the product was worth and remember it. I'm surprised we didn't see more copycat game shows. There's plenty of product placement today, but it's largely gratuitous, not integral as this was. The fans on the radio said that while the show was gone, they could always watch reruns.

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How valuable is voter turnout?

In my series on the design of new voting systems, I would now like to discuss the question of high voter turnout as a goal for such systems.

Everybody agrees in enfranchisement as a goal for voting systems. Nobody eligible should find voting impossible, or even particularly hard. (And, while it may not be possible due to disabilities, it should be equally easy for a voters.)

However, there is less agreement about trading off other goals to make it trivial to vote. Some voting systems accept that there will be a certain bar of effort required to vote, and don't view it as a problem that those who will not make a certain minimum effort -- registering to vote, and coming down to a polling station -- don't vote. Other systems try to lower that bar as much as possible, with at-home voting by mail, or vote-by-internet and vote-by-phone in private elections. And many nations, such as Australia, even make voting compulsory, with fines if you don't vote.

What makes this question interesting is the numbers. With 50% voter turnouts, or even less if there is not an "interesting" race, not having trivial voting "disenfranchises" huge numbers of voters. The numbers dwarf any other number in election issues, be it more standard disenfranchisements of minorities or the disabled, or any election fraud I've ever heard about. A decision on this issue can be the most election-changing of any. Australia has 96% voter turnout, and it had 47% turnout before it passed the laws in 1924 compelling voting.

When will the google street view easter eggs and spam appear?

Everybody's been discovering things in Google Street View. While Microsoft and Amazon did this sort of thing much earlier, there's been a lot more publicity about Google doing it because it's Google, and it's much more high resolution among other things.

But now that it's out, I expect we'll see web sites pop up where people spot the Google camera-car and report on its location in real time. Allowing people to prepare for its passage.

I expect we'll see:

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Giving up the unprovable ballot

Yesterday, I wrote about election goals. Today I want to talk about one of the sub-goals, the non-provable ballot, because I am running into more people who argue it should be abandoned in favour of others goals. Indeed, they argue, it has already been abandoned.

As I noted, our primary goal is that voters cast their true desire, independent of outside pressure. If voters can't demonstrate convincingly how they voted (or indeed if it's easy to lie) then they can say one thing to those pressuring them and vote another way without fear of consequences. This is sometimes called "secret ballot" but in fact that consists of two different types of secrecy.

The call to give this up is compelling. We can publish, to everybody, copies of all the ballots cast -- for example, on the net. Thus anybody can add up the ballots and feel convinced the counts are correct, and anybody can look and find their own ballot in the pool and be sure their vote was counted. If only a modest number of random people take the time to find their ballot in the published pool, we can be highly confident that no significant number of ballots have not been counted, nor have they been altered or miscounted. It becomes impossible to steal a ballot box or program a machine not to count a vote. It's still possible to add extra ballots -- such as the classic Chicago dead voters, though with enough checking even this can be noticed by the public if it's done in one place.

The result is a very well verified election, and one the public feels good about. No voter need have any doubt their vote was counted, or that any votes were altered, miscounted, lost or stolen. This concept of "transparency" has much to recommend it.

Further, it is argued, many jurisdictions long ago gave up on unprovable ballots when they allowed vote by mail. The state of Oregon votes entirely by mail, making it trivial to sell your ballot or be pushed into showing it to your spouse. While some jurisdictions only allow limited vote by mail for people who really can't get to the polls, some allow it upon request. In California, up to 40% of voters are taking advantage of this.

Having given up the unprovable ballot, why should we not claim all the advantages the published ballot can give us? Note that the published ballots need not have names on them. One can give voters a receipt that will let them find their true ballot but not let anybody who hasn't seen the receipt look up any individual's vote. So disclosure can still be optional.

Goals of Voting Systems

This week I was approached by two different groups seeking to build better voting systems, something I talk about here in my new democracy topic. The discussions quickly got into all the various goals we have for voting systems, and I did some more thinking I want to express here, but I want to start by talking about the goals. Then shortly I will talk about the one goal both systems wanted to abandon, namely the inability to prove how you voted.

Many of the goals we talk about are actually sub-goals of the core high-level goals I will outline here. The challenge comes because no system yet proposed doesn't have to trade off one goal for another. This forces us to examine these goals and see which ones we care about more.

The main goals, as I break them out are: Accuracy, Independence, Enfranchisement, Confidence and Cost. I seek input on refining these goals, though I realize there will be some overlap.

E-mail programs should be time-management programs

For many of us, E-mail has become our most fundamental tool. It is not just the way we communicate with friends and colleagues, it is the way that a large chunk of the tasks on our "to do" lists and calendars arrive. Of course, many E-mail programs like Outlook come integrated with a calendar program and a to-do list, but the integration is marginal at best. (Integration with the contact manager/address book is usually the top priority.)

Fixing Proposition 13

Even people outside of California have heard about proposition 13, the tax-revolt referendum which, exactly 29 years ago, changed the property tax law so that one's property taxes only go up marginally while you own a property. Your tax base remains fixed at the price you paid for your house, with minor increments. If you sell and buy a house of similar value (or inherit in many cases) your tax basis and tax bill can jump alarmingly.

The goal of Prop 13 was that people would not find themselves with a tax bill they couldn't handle just because soaring real estate values doubled or tripled the price of their home, as has often taken place in California. (Yes, I can hear your tears of sympathy.) In particular older people living off savings were sometimes forced to leave, always unpopular.

However, there have been negative consequences. One, it has stopped tax revenues from rising as fast as the counties like, resulting in underfunding of schools and other public programs. (This could be fixed by jacking up the rates even more on more recent buyers of homes but that has its own problems.)

Two, it generates a highly inequitable situation. Two identical families living in two identical houses -- but one has a tax bill of $4,000 per year and the other has a tax bill of $15,000 per year, based entirely on when they bought or inherited their house. I would think this is unconstitutional but the courts said it is not.

Three it's an impediment to moving (as if the realtor monopoly's 6% scam were not enough.) There are exemptions in most counties for moves within California by seniors.

Here's my fix: Each house would, as in most jurisdictions, be fairly appraised, and receive a tax bill based on that. Two identical houses -- same tax bill. However, those who had a low basis value in their home could elect to defer some of that bill (ie. the difference between the real bill and their base bill derived from the price they paid for their home) until they sold the home. There would be interest on this unpaid amount, in effect they would be borrowing against the future equity of the home in order to have a lower tax bill.

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A Linux takeover distro pushed as anti-virus

Here's a new approach to linux adoption. Create a linux distro which converts a Windows machine to linux, marketed as a way to solve many of your virus/malware/phishing woes.

Yes, for a long time linux distros have installed themselves on top of a windows machine dual-boot. And there are distros that can run in a VM on windows, or look windows like, but here's a set of steps to go much further, thanks to how cheap disk space is today.

  • Yes, the distro keeps the Windows install around dual boot, but it also builds a virtual machine so it can be run under linux. Of course hardware drivers differ when running under a VM, so this is non-trivial, and Windows XP and later will claim they are stolen if they wake up in different hardware. You may have to call Microsoft, which they may eventually try to stop.
  • Look through the Windows copy and see what apps are installed. For apps that migrate well to linux, either because they have equivalents or run at silver or gold level under Wine, move them into linux. Extract their settings and files and move those into the linux environment. Of course this is easiest to do when you have something like Firefox as the browser, but IE settings and bookmarks can also be imported.
  • Examine the windows registry for other OS settings, desktop behaviours etc. Import them into a windows-like linux desktop. Ideally when it boots up, the user will see it looking and feeling a lot like their windows environment.
  • Using remote window protocols, it's possible to run windows programs in a virtual machine with their window on the X desktop. Try this for some apps, though understand some things like inter-program communication may not do as well.
  • Next, offer programs directly in the virtual machine as another desktop. Put the windows programs on the windows-like "start" menu, but have them fire up the program in the virtual machine, or possibly even fire up the VM as needed. Again, memory is getting very cheap.
  • Strongly encourage the Windows VM be operated in a checkpointing manner, where it is regularly reverted to a base state, if this is possible.
  • The linux box, sitting outside the windows VM, can examine its TCP traffic to check for possible infections or strange traffic to unusual sites. A database like the siteadvisor one can help spot these unusual things, and encourage restoring the windows box back to a safe checkpoint.

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HTTP headers to indictate side-effects of forms

You've all seen it many times. You hit the 'back' button and the browser tells you it has to resubmit a form, which may be dangerous, in order to go back. A lot of the blame for this I presume lies on pages not setting suitable cache TTLs on pages served by forms, but I think we could be providing more information here, even with an accurate cache note.

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Where to look in a videoconference

In a chat I had recently with another communications geek, we talked about the well known problem of videoconferencing systems. You look at a person on the screen, and the camera is not where you are looking, so eye contact is not possible.

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ICANN Has Cheezburger?

Ok, I couldn't resist. If this makes no sense to you, sorry, explaining isn't going to make it funny. Look up lolcats.

Thanks to David Farrar for the original ICANN board picture.

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Unique Pseudonyms: QID

I wrote recently about the paradox of identity management and how the easier it is to offer information, the more often it will be exchanged.

To address some of these issues, let me propose something different: The creation of an infrastructure that allows people to generate secure (effectively anonymous) pseudonyms in a manner that each person can have at most one such ID. (There would be various classes of these IDs, so people could have many IDs, but only one of each class.) I'll call this a QID (the Q "standing" for "unique.")

The value of a unique ID is strong -- it allows one to associate a reputation with the ID. Because you can only get one QID, you are motivated to carefully protect the reputation associated with it, just as you are motivated to protect the reputation on your "real" identity. With most anonymous systems, if you develop a negative reputation, you can simply discard the bad ID and get a new one which has no reputation. That's annoying but better than using a negative ID. (Nobody on eBay keeps an account that gets a truly negative reputation. An account is abandoned as soon as the reputation seems worse than an empty reputation.) In effect, anonymous IDs let you demonstrate a good reputation. Unique IDs let you demonstrate you don't have a negative reputation. In some cases systems try to stop this by making it cost money or effort to generate a new ID, but it's a hard problem. Anti-spam efforts don't really care about who you are, they just want to know that if they ban you for being a spammer, you stay banned. (For this reason many anti-spam crusaders currently desire identification of all mailers, often with an identity tied to a real world ID.)

I propose this because many web sites and services which demand accounts really don't care who you are or what your E-mail address is. In many cases they care about much simpler things -- such as whether you are creating a raft of different accounts to appear as more than one person, or whether you will suffer negative consequences for negative actions. To solve these problems there is no need to provide personal information to use such systems.

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How well do university reunions work?

I've just returned from the 25th reunion of my graduating class in Mathematics at the University of Waterloo. I had always imagined that a 25th reunion would be the "big one" so I went. In addition, while I found myself to have little in common with my high school classmates, even having spent 13 years growing up with many of them, like many techie people I found my true community at university, so I wanted to see them again. To top it off, it was the 40th anniversary of the faculty and the 50th anniversary of the university itself.

But what if they had a reunion and nobody came? Or rather, out of a class of several hundred, under 20 came, many of whom I only barely remembered and none of whom I was close to?

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