Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Don't Be Cruel

The first day of the annual convention of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia (VRAV) ended last night with a performance by an Elvis impersonator -- one of the lamer Elvis impersonators I have ever seen (with a huge universe of lame Elvises to choose among) -- who, inexplicably, roused the crowd out of their chairs and on to their feet. Jean Jensen, secretary of the State Board of Elections, was among those grinding their hips and clapping in delight to the fake Elvis' serenading.

The Elvis performance was preceded by a production of an Anton Chekhov one-act, A Marriage Proposal, directed by Cathy Hendereson of Attic Productions, a community theatre in Botetourt County, Virginia. This is an amusing trifle of a play, and the cast -- Rick High, Joann Hoyt, and Dan Naff -- did some ad-libbing specifically aimed at pleasing the audience of registrars and other election officials. Upon seeing the play, I was struck by how much librettist Joseph Stein aped Chekhov's style in some scenes in Fiddler on the Roof -- indeed, it occurred to me that Chekhov, the Russian playwright and humorist, was as much an influence on Stein as Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish short-story writer and humorist.

All has not been fun-and-games, however, at the VRAV meeting (which continues through tomorrow). About 200 election officials (mostly registrars, but some Electoral Board members) are gathered here in Roanoke for professional development training and the exchange of ideas.

The group heard a presentation from SBE Secretary Jensen, who described how she was able to audit and clean up the agency since her appointment as Deputy Secretary by Governor Mark Warner in early 2002.

One problem Jensen cited, for instance, was that she discovered early on that the SBE was paying a telephone bill of $38,000 per month. One reason? There were almost a dozen telephone lines the agency was paying for, even though they were not hooked up to any telephones. Another reason? There were several unaccounted-for, state-issued cell phones. The phantom lines and unauthorized cell phones were cancelled, resulting in a savings of over $7,000 per month.

She also found out that SBE personnel had not been subject to performance evaluations in at least five years, although state law requires such evaluations be done on an annual basis. Jensen insisted on a thorough audit, and after three years, instead of running a $900,000 deficit, the SBE is working with a balanced budget and a debt of $0.00.

In another well-received presentation, Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, delivered the keynote address early Monday afternoon. He remarked, as everyone in the room knew, that there are "people who think the [electoral] process is broken," some of whom "distrust us [election officials] under any circumstances." Still, he said, there is less distrust of the process in the general public now than there was in 2004; there was less distrust in 2004 than there was in 2002; and there was less distrust in 2002 than there was immediately after the 2000 elections.

He predicted that, although there have been some bills submitted in Congress to amend the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, "I don't think Congress is going to do anything -- at least until this election cycle [2006] is finished." When Congress passed HAVA, he said, "they wanted 2006 to be the test year" for new equipment and procedures that the 2002 law requires.

He also made some predictions of what sort of recommendations will come out of the Carter-Baker commission on election law reform:

First, he said that "most election officials are not going to agree" with the Carter-Baker recommendations. He predicted the commission will endorse VVPT (a voter-verified paper trail), it will recommend that voters be allowed to change their address or other information on the voter registration rolls up to 15 days before the election, it will endorse the idea of a "national voter ID" card, and it will call for election day registration everywhere in the country (something available in only a few states now, like Wisconsin and Minnesota).

One of the most important issues Lewis talked about in his keynote address was the problems we might face nationwide if, as is likely to happen, a large number of voting jurisdictions decide to buy new optical-scan voting machines as a result of pressure for a VVPT or because state legislation mandates that specific kind of equipment.

He said that the vendors who supply that equipment may, when faced with an unprecedented upsurge in demand over the next 12 to 18 months, have fewer technicians available to advise localities -- in other words, reduced availablity of technical support. While the companies will be able to find factories to produce the machines themselves, and will be able to make deliveries of the equipment to buyers, there will still be a "strain on the vendors" in such a sellers' market. (This may also include, although Lewis did not mention it specifically, a price rise for such equipment.)

On the technical-support side, Lewis suggested that vendors may end up hiring recent graduates of ITT- and DeVry-type programs to assist customers -- customers who actually will know more about the product than the newbie tech-support staff does. (Considering that opti-scan technology is highly favored by the self-described computer "experts" who oppose DREs, this is an ironic potential outcome -- that's my comment, not Doug Lewis'.)

And here's an issue that most people don't think about: The type of paper used in optical-scan machines must be of a particular quality, called "ballot stock." The type of printing must also be highly specialized and refined -- you can't just take a copy of the ballot to the local Kinko's and have them run off 1,000 ballots. Consequently, with a sharp rise in the number of jurisdictions using optical-scan machines, there will be a shortage of qualified printers (not printing machines, but printing shops) who can produce enough ballots to meet the sudden demand. The ballot-stock paper may itself be in short supply.

Because of these strains on the market, we are likely to see more "hiccups" in the 2006 elections, because election officials, technicians, and even voters are not going to have enough time to test out the equipment through mock elections or just normal practice (dry runs). Lewis pointed to the experience in Florida in 2002, when the vast majority of voting districts there adopted new equipment in the wake of the 2000 election debacle there: "Jurisdictions that got their equipment early," Lewis said, "did fine" in the November 2002 elections. "Those with later deliveries had problems" because they had not been able to learn the new equipment and practice on it and educate the voters about how to use it properly.

Lewis said that, given the combined pressures of HAVA and anti-DRE activism, "the process is going to be strained at every level."

Lewis made some common-sense recommendations, most of which we already follow in Charlottesville, to reassure voters, elected officials, candidates, and the media about the integrity of the electoral process:

For example, logic and accuracy tests (L&A tests), in which voting machines are tested before each election to show that they do what they are designed to do (count votes accurately), "have to be more public than they have ever been." (In Charlottesville we always invite candidates, representatives of the political parties, the news media, and the general public to attend L&A testing and the lockdown of voting machines that follows.)

He said that "careful preparation will take care of most issues" and that election officials should not "deviate from written procedures." This includes having a written record of every time the voting equipment is accessed, and by whom, and providing proof that unauthorized individuals do not and have not had access to the equipment.

There may be more to report from the VRAV convention tomorrow. At least there won't be a repeat of the fake Elvis performance tonight.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Gaudeamus Igitur

Three Virginia colleges are among "20 schools that create a campus culture that fosters student success," according to a story in USA Today. The list was compiled by the authors of a new book, Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. The lead researcher and co-author of the book, Indiana University professor George Kuh, said of the twenty chosen that "they all add value to the student experience."

The three from Virginia that made the list are Sweet Briar College, Longwood University, and George Mason University. USA Today notes:

Though every college has a mission statement, for these 20 schools it constitutes far more than just words on paper, Kuh says. The schools translate their words into practice. For example, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., a philosophical commitment to innovation translates into extensive use of technology to foster collaborative learning among undergraduates.
It doesn't hurt that George Mason also has two Nobel laureate economists, James Buchanan and Vernon Smith, on the faculty. Talk about role models!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Blues Cycle

Word comes, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that playwright August Wilson has liver cancer and doctors give him no more than a few months to live. He learned the news just as the last play in his epic cycle of plays about the African-American experience in the 20th century is about to have its second production.

According to the Post-Gazette:

"I'm glad I finished the cycle [of plays]," Wilson said, referring to his famed Pittsburgh Cycle. An unequaled achievement in American drama, it chronicles the tragedies and aspirations of African Americans in 10 plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century.

The final and chronologically latest in the cycle, "Radio Golf," set in 1997, takes place, like all but one of the other nine, in Pittsburgh's Hill District. It premiered at New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre in April and is currently having its second production at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum (through Sept. 18).
The newspaper rattles off the list of prestigious prizes Wilson has received:

Wilson's plays include "Fences," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson" and "Jitney." Together, the 10 of the Pittsburgh Cycle have won him a Tony Award, Olivier Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, five New Play Awards/Citations from the American Theatre Critics Association and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards. He also was nominated for an Emmy award.

His many other honors include honorary doctorates (from the University of Pittsburgh, among others), Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships, a National Humanities Medal and the 2003 Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities. He is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

One additional honor of which Wilson is especially proud: He has the only high school diploma issued by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, testimony to his experience of leaving school at 15 in disgust at being accused of falsifying a paper he wrote on Napoleon Bonaparte and then educating himself in his local Carnegie Library.


Nearly ten years ago, early in my career as a drama critic, I was able to review a production of Wilson's Two Trains Running at Washington's Studio Theatre. Here is my review, more or less as it appeared in The Metro Herald in February 1996:
Two Trains Running: A Marvelous Ride
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

August Wilson is one of America's most distinguished playwrights. If his two Pulitzer Prizes for drama (Fences, 1987; The Piano Lesson, 1990) are not enough to convince you of that fact, then go see Two Trains Running, extended through February 11 at the Studio Theatre in Washington.

Wilson understands the natural cadences of the English language, like David Mamet, but without Mamet's rough edges. He draws deeper and more complex characters than Terrence McNally. And, like Neil Simon, he seems to approach a play like a piece of music, with internal rhythms and harmonies, crescendos and diminuendos. He can be tender or harsh, raucous or philosophical.

August Wilson is most of all a storyteller. In a series of plays, including this one, he chronicles the black experience in 20th century America. (Each play is set in a different decade of our century; Two Trains Running is set in May 1969, barely a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and coinciding with what would have been Malcolm X's 44th birthday.) The story he tells and the approach he takes parallels, remarkably, the short fiction of Sholem Aleichem from turn-of-the-century Russia.

Although Wilson and Aleichem wrote on different continents and in different languages, their themes share strong similarities. Both chronicle self-contained communities (Russian Jews and African-Americans) set apart -- by race or religion -- from the surrounding majorities. Both communities are repressed by law or custom. Both communities cling proudly to their traditions and identities in the face of adversity. And, in the later stories and plays, the writers address the problem of the breakdown of community, the collapse of the self-contained systems. For both East European Jews and African-Americans, identity is contained in a fragile vessel -- the slightest cracks allow "the others" to seep in and "our own" to seep out.

Two Trains Running is about choices. Wilson suggest it is the age-old choice between assimilitation and separation (again, a theme of Aleichem's), but he underestimates the power of his own voice. Two Trains Running is about the choice between love and death; it's about the remembrance of things past and the yearning for what might have been.

Director Thomas W. Jones III has assembled an immensely talented cast, one of the best I've seen on a Washington stage in many years. Each actor evokes a warm sense of identity and identification -- one feels, sitting in the audience, that one knows each and every one of the characters: perhaps a grandfather, or the girl next door, or the swaggering cut-up from junior high. All the performers added true dimension to the characters Wilson has created.

Because it is a genuinely ensemble cast, no single actor stands out. All deserve mention equally: Elliott Hill (Wolf), Michael W. Howell (Memphis), Donald Griffin (Holloway), James Brown-Orleans (Hambone), Lester Purry (Sterling), Kenneth W. Daugherty (West) and -- on the night I saw the play -- understudy Samarra Green as Risa. It is clear from their performances that the actors understand the interrelationships of people who have lived among each other for decades -- and how they relate to newcomers, to strangers, and to loss.

The heavy dose of death imagery -- much of the conversation revolves around funerals, caskets, embalming -- could be off-putting. Wilson handles it agilely, treating it as naturally as a discussion about cooking. As the deaths of individuals are discussed, we learn how a neighborhood -- a community -- is also dying. Set in 1969, this play deals with the "urban renewal" and "slum clearance" of that era -- programs that promised prosperity but instead destroyed stable black communities, scattering the urban middle class and displacing successful businesses. Our cities have not yet recovered, and Wilson reflects this loss in Two Trains Running.

Yet loss is not inevitable. If one stands up for oneself, if one believes in the future, if one has hope -- then loss can be overcome. As Memphis says: "You're born free. It's up to you to maintain it."

I hope that some smart TV or movie producer has plans to film Wilson's complete chronicle of the 20th century. The series deserves a permanent record. In the meantime, run, don't walk, to the Studio Theatre.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Light My Fire?

Once this story appears in print, somebody has to send it to Jay Leno. It's one of those little ironies that belong on his weekly "Headlines" segment.

WINA-AM
radio in Charlottesville is reporting that there was a fire at 4:30 this morning at a business on Route 29 North in Albemarle County. Foul play is not suspected, but "total damage is estimated to be approximately $25,000." The business? Badger Fire Protection.

Well, I'm off to the Virginia bloggers' conference, sponsored by the Sorensen Institute. As WINA News describes today's event:

UVA's Sorensen Institute is hosting a convention of bloggers this weekend. Bloggers, or web loggers, maintain a form of online diary that often contains criticisms or comments about political candidates and allows the posting of responses. Sorensen Institute Executive Director Sean O'Brien says those attending will be discussing the hobby and its future. Saturday's blogger convention will be held all day Saturday at the Doubletree Hotel on 29 North.
Given the list of people who said they plan to attend, this plans to be an interesting, informative, and perhaps even provocative day.

Friday, August 26, 2005

What's the Buzz?

Do you ever do a series of sums on a calculator, but because you're dissatisfied or unsure of the results, redo your arithmetic with pencil and paper? Or, alternatively, do you ever work out some figure using pencil and paper and then, to doublecheck your results, use a calculator to confirm your arithmetic was correct?

If you answer yes to the first question, you are very rare indeed. If you answer yes to the second question, you are typical -- indeed, one might say, normal.

My posting about electronic voting machines from Monday, which was both a response to Charlottesville City Councilor Kevin Lynch and a partial report from a legislative hearing in Richmond that same day, has generated a number of responses around the blogosphere, mostly from people who, it would seem, answer "yes" to that first question I posed, and who disagree with much of what I had to say.

Commonwealth Conservative
, One Man's Trash, and Bearing Drift each linked to my original post. George Loper was kind enough to reprint it in full. He also published responses from Rich Collins, who has been in the news himself this week, and Justin Moore, a computer science graduate student at Duke University who also testified before Delegate Hugo's subcommittee on Monday. Other responses that I have seen came from the Jaded JD and from Waldo Jaquith (with a comment from Janis Jaquith)

I provided a partial response to Rich Collins and to Justin Moore, to which Mr. Moore also responded. And Jim Heilman, former General Registrar of Albemarle County who now hops around the world helping to organize elections in emerging democracies (the last I heard he was in Mindanao in the Philippines, after stints in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, among other exotic locales), offered some words of support for my position:

The to-and-fro over the safety and security of voting machines has been interesting, even though the arguers and arguments are a bit long-winded. If I may throw in a bit more pithy two cents of my own…..

Rick Sincere is right on in his defense of our voting systems for two major reasons that are continually overlooked and ignored by some of the voting machine naysayers:

(1) You can't hack in to something that has no means of electronic communication. You can't hack in to a typewriter unless you have the typewriter in your lap. As Sincere says, electoral boards with brains would never adopt any of the systems whereby results are directly communicated from machine to some central location. We get results election night by telephone from an election official, and that's the way it should stay.

(2) To "fix" a system, you've got to bribe a whole bunch of people along the machine "chain" and count on all of them keeping their mouths shut. In our day and age, it's hard to count on anyone keeping his/her mouth shut - even Deep Throat.

I hope Sincere keeps calling it like it is.

For the record, here is what I sent George Loper under the subject heading "A Partial Reply to Justin Moore":
While I appreciate Justin Moore’s detailed reply to the piece I wrote about Charlottesville’s electronic voting machines (the Hart eSlate system), which you kindly reprinted, and while I hope this debate continues to take place on a civil and fact-based level, I am afraid that the article he cites as refutation to mine is lacking.

Mr. Moore writes:
Mr. Sincere testified that an attacker would have to bribe nearly a dozen people -- if not more -- to hack into a voting system. This shows a lack of imagination as to how hackers actually get into computer systems. Last summer I created a write-up of how one might break into a voting system, with only modest means.
Upon reading his article, which he calls “President Nader, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love DREs,” it became clear that his plan of “modest means” rests upon an assumption that there are no security procedures associated with elections that could prevent his imagination’s attacker from achieving his goals. It betrays a surprising lack of familiarity with how elections are organized and the hierarchy of responsibility that gives different election officials, from the State Board of Elections through the local Electoral Board to the Chief Election Officers at the precinct level to all of the other officers of election, specific duties designed to ensure the integrity and security of the electoral process. This hierarchy of diversified responsibility entails a system of checks and balances that places a series of nearly insurmountable obstacles in the way of Mr. Moore's phantasmagorical scenario.

Take this sentence from his 2004 essay, for instance:
Less obvious (and more difficult to trace) is an outsider who has access to a DRE machine and can reverse-engineer the data storage format.
An “outsider,” by definition, cannot get access to a DRE – certainly not in Charlottesville. The only people who have access to the DREs are election officials. Except on Election Day itself, the DREs are kept in a locked room inside the inner office of the General Registrar. Even City cleaning staff are not permitted to enter that room or the room immediately outside its door.

Moreover, Mr. Moore’s entire argument rests on the assumption that the electronic voting machines are connected to a central tallying location via a modem or some other telecommunications link.

George, let me assure your readers: No voting equipment used by the City of Charlottesville is ever connected to any telecommunications device, either by modem, over a telephone line, via a wireless modem or radio signal, or through a link to the Internet. All voting equipment in Charlottesville is stand-alone and secure.

On election night, results are called in by Chief Election Officers to the Electoral Board by telephone and delivered orally. The tallying devices (what we call “JBCs”) are sealed several days before the election and carried by hand, with seals intact, by Electoral Board members or the Board’s officially designated representative, to the Registrar’s office, where the seals are broken in the presence of the Electoral Board and other witnesses. (The unique identification number on each seal is matched to the number recorded when the seal was made and only if the numbers match can the seal be broken.) Then the Mobile Ballot Boxes (MBBs) are removed and inserted into a stand-alone computer that is used for only one purpose, to tally votes.

When those votes are tallied, the unofficial results of the election are reported to the press and public on the night of the election. The next day, the Electoral Board convenes for a canvass of the vote. Like every other formal meeting of the Electoral Board, this canvass is open to the public for observation. (Seldom, however, does any member of the public, or even the news media, come to observe the canvass.)

At the time of the canvass, the Board reviews the results from the night before, double- and triple-checks the arithmetic, counts any provisional (paper) ballots that may have been cast and adds them in to the totals, and prepares an abstract of the vote that is returned to the State Board of Elections in Richmond. All records of the election – including any paperwork produced at polling places on Election Day, all poll books recording who voted that day, all paper ballots (used and unused), and all Mobile Ballot Boxes – are turned over to the Clerk of the Circuit Court for storage for a time specified by the Virginia Code. All those records are available for review during the period they are stored by the Circuit Court.

Mr. Moore’s musings about the ease of hacking into an electronic voting system may apply to other systems used in other states or by other localities in Virginia. Since he was present at the August 22 hearing in Richmond, he knows that several speakers warned against the use of modems or other telecommunications devices for transmitting vote totals. There is general agreement within the elections community that using telecommunications tools for this purpose is, frankly, a dumb idea and it should be rejected out of hand. Mr. Moore’s elevation of this avenue of attack as something deserving of concern is a red herring.

Let me remind your readers, Mr. Moore included, that in my testimony on both July 19 and August 22, I stated that while we have concerns about how a VVPT or VVPAT – a paper receipt showing how an individual votes – might be implemented, because of technical, cost, and other problems, we have no objections to the concept in principle, and the Charlottesville Electoral Board is on record as inviting the State Board of Elections to use our city as a test site, if and when the VVPT technology available for the Hart eSlate system is authorized for testing and certification in Virginia. We have no wish to be obstructionist but we do want to work out the kinks before we decide to rely on what is an essentially untested system that could cause more problems than it solves.

Permit me to comment briefly on Rich Collins’ response to my article. I am grateful for his thoughts and agree that the situation in Maryland is worth looking at – as a salient example of what not to do. My concern about Maryland is that it uses the same kind of voting equipment everywhere in the state. There is no diversity among counties and cities. This is a dangerous situation, because it makes the job of Mr. Moore’s hackers that much easier.

The more various the types of voting equipment there are, the harder it is for even the most determined conspirator to disrupt an election or alter its results. Virginia uses more than 20 different types of voting equipment, from paper ballots to touch-screen machines to optical scan machines to old-fashioned lever machines (which will soon be retired) to the Hart eSlate. Even in a state Senate or House of Delegates district, unless that district is wholly contained within a single city or county, voters are likely to encounter two, three, or four different voting systems. This is a vital measure to assure the security and integrity of our elections.

One final note of reassurance for your Charlottesville readers: In discussing electronic voting machines, or DREs, such as those that concern Mr. Moore and others, the Wall Street Journal's John Fund, who is highly critical of election security procedures and greatly concerned about election fraud, notes in his 2004 book, Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy, that “in the twenty-plus years that these machines have been used, in many counties all across the country, there has never been a verified case of tampering.”

We are about to use the Hart eSlate system, on November 8, for the eighth time in Charlottesville. In the seven elections since May 2002, not only has there never been "a verified case of tampering," there has never even been an allegation of tampering. The record speaks for itself.
Next week I will be attending the annual convention of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia (VRAV) in Roanoke. I suspect that the questions raised in these discussions will be a major topic of conversation among the elections professionals attending that confab.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

I'm the Greatest Star

Last week, when Waldo Jaquith and I appeared on the "Charlottesville Live" program guest-hosted by Coy Barefoot on WINA-AM radio, I noted somewhat ruefully that, after blogging a few months, I was surprised about which topics attracted the most readers. "When I began blogging, I thought that I would get a lot of readers interested in Stephen Sondheim," I said. "Instead, my most popular posts are about pop stars and teen idols like Aaron Carter and Dave Moffatt."

Now I find that I am not alone in this situation. In last Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, regular columnist Joel Achenbach observes in an article called "The Tail That Wags the Blog":

As an artist, my normal impulse is to write things that people don't care about and, ideally, can't even understand. Gibberish. But my freedom of expression is hampered by the blogging software that tracks every page view. In the old days, the age of print, a journalist had very little data on how many people read a particular story. Now I can track readership second by second, eyeball by eyeball. It's obvious what people want: political screeds and celebrity gossip. A few weeks back, I blogged three paragraphs on Karl Rove. Someone at Google News linked to the blog, and a Rovestorm erupted, a festival of vituperation, with a commensurately outstanding number of page views. Now I pretty much have to write about Rove all the time. (Contrary to what you may have heard, my blog item "Karl Rove Linked to Hoffa Disappearance" was completely fair.)

The continual focus-grouping explains why most bloggers write as though their primary goal is to rise in the Google search results. The more you mention people like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the more readers you will have, and the more links, and the more you will rise in Google's estimation. I have nothing really to say about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and am not even remotely interested in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but I know that my blog will be read by more people if it mentions famous celebrities who might be secretly boinking, such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

And let me just add, purely for the sake of Google: sex, alien abduction, Oprah, Tom Cruise, Lindsay Lohan, jumbo hooters the size of watermelons, Dick Cheney, Mark of the Beast, Armageddon, free money.

I haven't written about Brad and Angelina -- or even Brad and Jennifer, for that matter, though I may have once mentioned what a rotten movie Troy was -- but I'm glad to know that I am not the only blogger who attracts readers who are most interested in celebrity gossip. I just hope that that once here, they linger to read other posts on other topics. There's a lot to choose from, and I have nothing against cherry picking.

Chattin with Chet

On yesterday's edition of "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" on National Public Radio, after an interview with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, television critic David Bianculli reviewed a newly released set of DVDs featuring some of the Dick Cavett TV programs from the 1960s and early 1970s, with the shared theme of rock stars appearing as Cavett's guests.

Bianculli highlights one program among three that featured Janis Joplin, in which she was paired "with fellow talk-show guests Chet Huntley, the soon-to-retire serious half of the Huntley-Brinkley Report anchor team on NBC, and Raquel Welch, the sex symbol whose infamous Myra Breckinridge movie had just staged its grand opening in Hollywood."

He is particularly amazed by Chet Huntley's response to a question from Cavett about Huntley's personal political beliefs:

CAVETT: You know, your leaving will unbalance the news world in one sense, because you’re known to be conservative on some things that your colleagues are not. What are some of those?

HUNTLEY: These labels [that] get thrown around – they’re unfortunate, because I look at myself and I don’t know what I am in terms of “conservative” and “liberal.”

I suppose economically I’m an archconservative. My attitudes toward the federal government, the federal structure -- I’m disenchanted like so many other Americans with that. It’s getting too big and cumbersome and unmanageable, filled with self-serving and self-perpetuating bureaucracy and accomplishes too little for our money.

In terms of humanity, in terms of human beings and the racial issue, I suppose I’m a screaming liberal.

In terms of conservation of our natural resources, now here we get into the ultimate confusion. “Conservation,” “conservatism,” coming from the same root word: What are you if you believe in the conservation of our natural resources, are you liberal or conservative? I don’t know, so we get into terrible confusion here with these words.
Bianculli comments:
He may as well have been talking about red states and blue states, and he was doing it 35 years ago, and given the time to make his point in full. That’s what I love most about this DVD set and why it’s definitely worth watching and owning.
Was Huntley a conservative, a moderate, or a libertarian? It's hard to judge from his brief remarks here, but his words point us toward a type of conservative that is not too prominent these days. (Notice he uttered not a syllable about what we now call "social issues," like abortion, gay rights, marriage and divorce, and so forth.) In 1970, "conservation of natural resources" implied a preference for government action -- the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air Act, for instance.

Today, however, we can turn to decades of studies that support free-market environmentalism, using market-based solutions relying on property rights and sound economics to achieve the same aims that the environmentalists of the 1960s and '70s assumed could only be achieved through legislation and regulation.

So if Chet Huntley were alive today, would he be a free-market environmentalist who proudly wears the libertarian, rather than "archconservative," label? Given his stated preference for limited government and "conservative" economics, he would surely be happy to have a market-based alternative to government action for preserving natural resources, especially what he cherished in his beloved Big Sky Country of Montana.

When I Found You, Part 2

Here is another of what will be periodic -- but mostly irregular -- postings about the odd, off-color, and inscrutable search terms that some people have used on Google and Yahoo and other search engines to find their way to this blog. In the past few weeks, people have come here while seeking:

16% of americans do this on a daily basis

75 academy award prediction penguin

ayn rand christmas tree ornament

best endowed men

charles barkley
libertarian

drinking age
north korea

exercising the highest level of professional leadership and ethical behavior in achieving zero

living a sexless life

sermons on laborare est orare

tommie lee's penis

tony the tiger gay

video clips of teenage lesbian girls asking each other to dance at the senior prom

was adam smith gay

we all jumped in the pool
Sometimes you just have to ask: What in the world were they thinking?

Monday, August 22, 2005

(It's Only a) Paper Moon

Earlier today, I attended a meeting of the Virginia General Assembly's Joint Subcommittee Studying the Certification, Performance, and Deployment of Voting Equipment, chaired by Delegate Tim Hugo. I was the fifteenth of sixteen scheduled speakers during the public comment period, and the only member of a local Electoral Board to present views at this particular hearing.

I had testified before the same subcommittee on July 19, more than a month ago. So it came as some surprise to be awakened this morning by the beeping of my Blackberry, announcing the arrival of an email from Charlottesville City Councilor Kevin Lynch, who asked that his message be forwarded by General Registrar Sheri Iachetta to the Electoral Board. (He also sent copies to all of his fellow Councilors and to the City Manager.) The original message was dated Sunday, August 21, and sent at 10:50 p.m.

The issues that Councilor Lynch brings up in his message are important and timely enough to require an immediate response. So here it is.

Councilor Lynch writes:

Earlier today I viewed a video of individuals giving testimony to Senate HRJ371 committee on voter system security.
There is no official video record of the subcommittee meetings. The only person recording the proceedings on video was Charlottesville resident Don Wells, who must have, directly or indirectly, provided his recording to Mr. Lynch. Since I have not seen that recording, I do not know whether the recording Mr. Lynch saw was complete or redacted. Given that, later in his message, Mr. Lynch takes some of my comments out of context, I suspect that he did not see a complete record of the hearing or of my statement before the subcommittee.

Mr. Lynch goes on:
Mr. Sincere stated that Charlottesville voters were generally not concerned with the integrity of the computer systems used in voting in Charlottesville because they were confident in the level of review that that the systems had been put through, noting that the Hart system had gotten good reviews from every segment of the community. He noted that there were many other opportunities for voter fraud which would not necessarily be solved by a verifiable paper trail and stated that when speaking with citizens who had concerns about voter verifiable paper trails, he sometimes felt as though he we was "stepping into an episode of the X-files".
I did, indeed, say this. The context was this: One voter, in bringing his concerns about the Hart eSlate voting system to the Electoral Board, suggested that a wireless device could be secretly installed in the eSlate components, and that someone outside a polling place could use radio signals to change the results of an election unbeknownst to election officials. It was precisely this sort of "phantom menace" that inspired me to use the X-Files reference.

The problem with conspiracy theorists is that, whenever you give them a calm, rational explanation for what it is they find disturbing, they ignore or dismiss such reasoning and move on to some other outlandish claim. For conspiracy theorists, the absence of evidence of a conspiracy is simply evidence of the success of the conspiracy's cover-up. As Peter Schaffer put it in his play, Lettice and Lovage, "Fantasy floods in where fact leaves a vacuum."

Councilor Lynch continues:
Mr. Sincere stated that that there was no motivation for a hardware or software engineer from another state to interfere with a Charlottesville election and that any suggestion that such motivation might exist is "in the realm of science fiction".
I did not say that there was "no motivation" for a software developer in another state to interfere in a Charlottesville election; I did say that such a motivation was highly unlikely, and that the scenarios for doing so -- by, for instance, manipulating the ballot through unauthorized code embedded in the software months or years before the candidates in a given election are known -- are so outlandish as to be in the realm of science fiction.

When I testified on July 19, Delegate Melanie Rapp perspicaciously noted that "money is a very strong motivation," which is true. But the transaction costs for rigging a local election by a distant and malevolent force are far to steep to make such manipulation likely.

In today's testimony, I gave the example of the 57th House of Delegates district, which has a rare open-seat election this year. Because of the way the district is configured, whoever wins on November 8 is likely to hold the seat for 20 years or more, making the stakes very high for those interested in the outcome of the election.

The 57th District consists of eight precincts in the City of Charlottesville and eight precincts in Albemarle County. About 60 percent of the voters in the district live in Charlottesville and about 40 percent in Albemarle County.

In order for a sinister force to manipulate the outcome of the election through outright bribery of a software engineer for Hart Intercivic, he (or she) would have to: (1) find out who designs the software for Hart; (2) seek that person out; (3) discover that software is created by teams of designers, not individuals; (4) pay off the supervisor of that software engineering team, who would approve any product before it goes to the customers; (5) pay off the State Board of Election certification specialists who must approve all software upgrades before they can be installed in Virginia-certified equipment; (6) pay off the Charlottesville-based technicians, General Registrar, and Electoral Board members who must approve and supervise any software or hardware changes to the equipment used in Charlottesville elections.

And then that same sinister manipulator would have to go through all six steps, if not more, with Sequoia Voting Systems, the company that provides voting equipment for Albemarle County, and the Albemarle election officials.

This would entail a conspiracy involving dozens of private individuals and public officials. Is it realistically possible to sustain such a conspiracy, short of using the Bilderbergers as a model and supporting device?

Is it possible that a potential election-rigger could do this? Yes, I told the subcommittee today, anything is possible; it is just as likely that Star Wars fans would vote for Jar-Jar Binks as their favorite character. (In other words, not likely at all.)

That's what I mean by "the realm of science fiction."

In offering this example to the subcommittee today, I provided them with a copy of an article I wrote last October, which was published in The Hook, The Free Liberal, and The Metro Herald (and perhaps other newspapers), arguing that diversity of election systems -- each jurisdiction using different types of hardware and software, from paper ballots to lever machines to optical-scan devices to DREs -- is our strongest defense against electoral fraud and manipulation. I urged the subcommittee , whatever it ends up recommending, to avoid imposing a single system on Virginia localities. "Uniformity," I said, "is an invitation to fraud."

More from Mr. Lynch's Sunday email:
He [Mr. Sincere] also stated a concern that with a paper trail system, a voter could disrupt balloting by claiming that the paper trail did not match his/her intended vote.
This is a real concern. There is no provision in Virginia election law for allowing a voter to cast a second (or third) ballot if he believes that his first (and only legal) ballot was cast incorrectly. If a voter claims that a paper receipt does not reflect his actual vote, the only recourse election officials would have is to take the voting machine out of service until it can be determined what was "wrong" with it.

In a jurisdiction like Charlottesville, with just eight precincts, it would only take a half-dozen or a dozen people determined to make mischief, to time their visits to polling places and create havoc by claiming, correctly or not, that the machines are not recording their votes properly and forcing the machines off-line. Other voters would find themselves standing in line for long periods of time while election officials deal with the problem; some would choose to leave without voting; others would find plenty to complain about after the election about "inefficiency" and "unprofessionalism" on the part of election officials who are, in fact, doing their best to make a bad situation bearable.

This kind of mischief is not so different from that documented in Milwaukee during the 2004 general election, when it was discovered that partisans of one presidential candidate had slashed the tires of vans owned by the other candidate's local party, vans intended to carry voters to the polls. (I am purposely leaving out the names of the candidates and parties to avoid charges of partisan incitement.) Such actions are intended simply to disrupt the electoral process and prevent some people from voting, undermining confidence in the democratic process and corrupting the system in a direct and palpable way.

Mr. Lynch continues:
Mr. Sincere is of course entitled to his opinion and to give testimony as he sees fit. However, I am concerned that he was speaking as Chair of the Charlottesville Electoral Board and furthermore stated that his Democratic colleagues were "on the same page" as the testimony that he gave.
In its wisdom, the Virginia Code insulates Electoral Board members from partisan political pressure. We are appointed by the Circuit Court Judge for our jurisdiction, after being nominated by political party chairs. Our duties are defined by the state and, being independent, we are not answerable to elected officials at any level. The views expressed by an elected official carry no more (or no less) weight, as far as we are concerned, than the concerns of any other voter. Our "clients," such as they are, are voters, and we try our best to deliver election services in a fashion that serves them with both efficiency, trustworthiness, and integrity.

I have no inside information about how other local Electoral Boards operate, but the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville is characterized by what some might perceive as an incredible lack of partisanship. The three members of our Electoral Board reach consensus on something like 95 percent of issues that come before us, and on those few issues on which we disagree, the disagreement is seldom -- if ever -- along partisan lines. So when I say that the three of us are "reading off the same page," I can do so with full confidence.

More from Mr. Lynch:
Sheri, you will recall that on March 7, 2005 a member of the public requested that Charlottesville make accommodation for a verifiable paper trail, and as this is a frequent request and you and Mr. Sincere were in the audience, I asked that the Electoral Board investigate whether this feature could be added to the Hart eSlate systems that we have. I believe that the ability to produce a verifiable paper trail, in the event of a recount, or a problem with one of the machines is a concern that is shared by most, if not all of the Councilors, as no one objected to me asking the Board to make this inquiry.
Both the General Registrar and I were, indeed, present at that meeting of City Council. The request Mr. Lynch refers to was generated by an afterthought in a public comment presentation by a voter who was primarily concerned about another issue. Mr. Lynch requested information about a verifiable paper trail, which we promptly provided.

I find it puzzling that Mr. Lynch reads the lack of objection to his request for information as agreement by other Councilors that a verifiable paper trail is desirable, or that they share his concerns. City Councilors frequently request information, individually, from city or state agencies, and no one raises objections because information requests are a basic part of any legislator's job. If other legislators raised objections every time they failed to share the aim of an information request, little legislative business could be conducted.

Perhaps Mr. Lynch has independent knowledge that his colleagues share his concerns -- from, for instance, conversations outside of Council meetings -- but to say that their lack of objection to his information request indicates such a shared concern is disingenuous, at best, and presumptuous, at worst.

Now comes a key paragraph in Mr. Lynch's missive:
Following my request, I got a letter from Mr. Sincere, stating that the Electoral Board's "hands were tied", because the Commonwealth of Virginia had not yet certified any equipment with the paper trail function for use by local governments in elections. However, his testimony in front of the State Senate committee seems to be actively discouraging them from taking steps to certify such equipment.
It is true that Virginia has not yet certified for use any VVPT (sometimes rendered as VVPAT) equipment. There is, in fact, a lack of national standards and guidelines, something learned too late by some states (such as California and Nevada) that passed legislation requiring such equipment before such standards were in place, leading to, if not chaos, then at least some very dicey situations in various polling places in those states during the 2004 elections.

By saying I seem to be "actively discouraging" the state from certifying VVPT equipment, Mr. Lynch utterly mischaracterizes my position.

In my testimony before the Hugo subcommittee on July 19, and again today, I said quite clearly that I have no objections in principle to the use of VVPT, but that there are a number of very serious issues that must be resolved before VVPT should be mandated by legislation or regulation. For example, the League of Women Voters -- one of America's oldest and most admired non-partisan voting-rights organizations -- says in a FAQ about DREs and VVPT:
There are a number of problems with requiring a voter-verified paper trail as part of DREs. The most significant is that the VVPT does not provide a safeguard against the supposed problem: a machine that is programmed to record the incorrect vote. If the machine can be programmed to record an incorrect vote, then it can be programmed to print out a misleading confirmation, which would give the voter a false sense of security. Advocates for the VVPT say that the individual ballot paper confirmations can be recounted, to guard against this problem. However, a very important problem remains: The VVPT paper records from add-on printers are difficult to recount consistently, leading to inaccuracies. The VVPT system has all the problems inherent in a paper ballot recount. These include questions about mutilated or hard-to read ballots, the possible loss or manipulation of the paper ballots, and the fact that no two recounts yield the same result. VVPT advocates also say that voters do not have to verify the paper records; however, unless each voter verifies each record, then the paper records are not reliable. Thousands of unverified paper records add neither accuracy nor security. In short, the voter-verified paper trail does not provide a real safeguard and it has significant operational problems. The best safeguards are those discussed above – certification, testing and management systems for DREs, as well as all other voting systems.
The League of Women Voters adds:
The voter-verified paper trail adds costs and complications to the voting process, does not add significant security, and undermines disability and language access. To summarize: First, the voter-verified paper trail does not provide the security its proponents suggest. Other mechanisms can provide necessary safeguards against security concerns. Second, the voter-verified paper trail has not been demonstrated to work. The individual paper records produced by add-on printers on DREs are not reliable and accurate for a recount. Third, the voter-verified paper trail requirement undermines access for persons with disabilities and limited English skills. Fourth, the voter-verified paper trail doesn’t add reliability to the system at the polling place. It complicates the polling process while the monitoring of machines during Election Day provides a similar safeguard. And fifth, the voter-verified paper trail does not address the real election system problems that caused nearly six percent of votes to be lost in 2000, including registration database failures, ballot design problems and polling place operations.
Consider just the question of cost, something that legislators, both in the General Assembly and at the local level -- with fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers -- should always keep in mind.

In Charlottesville, retrofitting the Hart system with VVPT add-ons will cost approximately $100,000, just for hardware. That does not include the cost of training, maintenance, storage, and security for the new equipment. That price is equivalent to the cost of running three local elections in the City of Charlottesville. And those costs are not reimbursable by the federal government under the Help America Vote Act, as our original purchase of the Hart eSlate system was, because the add-ons are not considered "new" equipment designed to replace unacceptable voting technologies that will become illegal as of January 1, 2006.

In a statement before the joint subcommittee today, Judy Flaig, the Election Manager for Fairfax County, noted that the cost of retrofitting for Fairfax would be at least $4 million. She also said that after a typical election using proposed VVPT technologies, the Electoral Board would have to turn over paper ballot records weighing 8 tons to the Clerk of the Circuit Court for storage as required by Virginia election law. (In the car on the way back to Charlottesville, Sheri Iachetta and I did some quick figuring and concluded that, in a Charlottesville election with 50% turnout, we would end up with 20 reams of paper ballots -- the preferred VVPT system, according to proponents who testified today, produces an 8.5 by 11 inch paper receipt -- to be turned over to the Clerk's office, in addition to all the paperwork that must also be stored by the Clerk for a specified period after each election.)

Mr. Lynch acknowledges, to his credit, that such problems exist:
I dont dispute that there may be some unresolved issues with voter verified paper trails, however I believe that this is something that Charlottesville voters and City Council generally support.
Councilor Lynch may, as I suggested, have independent knowledge about the views of fellow City Council members, and they can speak for themselves, but he has no evidence that this is something that "Charlottesville voters ... generally support."

We have just over 21,000 active voters on the registration rolls in Charlottesville. We have been using the Hart eSlate system in every election since the May 2002 City Council contest. Prior to the selection of the Hart system by the Electoral Board, Charlottesville citizens were given many opportunities to test the equipment and to offer comments, either praise or objections.

In every election, Chief Election Officers are required to keep a list of "incidents" that occur during the course of Election Day. Incidents are anything from "voter did not have identification" to "air conditioning system was not operating" to "there was a fire in a waste basket." But most incidents that are recorded involve complaints or concerns of voters brought to the attention of Election Officers.

In seven elections using the Hart eSlate system, not a single incident report has included reference to a voter's objection to the lack of a voter verifiable paper trail.

In fact, out of more than 21,000 registered voters in Charlottesville, precisely three have come to the Electoral Board to express concerns about the lack of VVPT. Aside from those three individuals, who take their civic responsibilities seriously enough to meet personally with the public officials in charge of elections, the Charlottesville Electoral Board has received no letters, no phone calls, and no email messages regarding the lack of a VVPT system associated with the Hart eSlate currently in use.

That said, we have made it clear to those concerned voters, and anyone else who asks, that if the state decides to certify VVPT equipment for the Hart eSlate, we want Charlottesville to be a test location for the equipment.

Mr. Lynch says:
If the Electoral Board believes paper trails to be a bad idea, I would like to request that you and the Board come to a Council meeting sometime in the near future and explain to the voters why this is not a good idea - rather than saying in a letter that "our hands are tied" and then testifying to Senate subcommittees in a manner that seems to me to be asking for stronger rope.
Charlottesville has been on the cutting edge in making improvements to the delivery of election services to voters. We were the first jurisdiction in Virginia to use high-school pages in polling places on election day. Although these students are not eligible to vote (because of their age) and therefore ineligible to serve as Election Officials, they are able to help out on Election Day, learn something about the electoral process, and perhaps find out that they want to be Election Officials once they reach the age of 18 and they register to vote. (And, since the average age of Election Officials in Virginia is 73, it is immensely important for us to recruit more workers who will be able to serve their communities for years to come.)

Another example of Charlottesville's pioneering experience in election practice is our early adoption of the use of "split shifts" for election officials. Until recently, pollworkers -- that is the term used in other states for what we call "Election Officials" -- were required to work the full day, from 5:00 a.m. to the close of polls at 7:00 p.m. and beyond. This made it difficult to recruit workers, who often cannot give up a full 14-hour-plus day because of job and family demands, or because of health considerations. The "split-shift" system permits some officials to work from 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and others to work from 12:00 noon to 7:00 p.m. without jeopardizing the integrity of election record-keeping and the smooth operation of election procedures. Most voters are probably entirely unaware of a shift change during the noon hour, one of the busiest times for voting.

A third, and more salient, example is that the Charlottesville Electoral Board realized early on that the punch-card voting system that had been in use for decades was inadequate for the demands of the 21st century, and recommended moving to a DRE system even before the troubles in Florida during the November 2000 election and before passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) by Congress in 2002. Charlottesville has been pro-active in making elections better for its citizens, and other communities throughout the state look to us as a model to emulate.

So for the Charlottesville Electoral Board to say, as I am saying now, that we know there are potential problems with verifiable-voting technology, but we want to make ourselves available as a test site to overcome those problems if the state decides VVPT is necessary, is neither uncharacteristic nor contradictory.

It is simply churlish of Mr. Lynch to suggest that we are looking for "stronger rope" in preventing the adoption of VVPT technologies. As election professionals, we have a responsibility to voters, candidates, and -- yes -- even elected officials to state the truth about technology and processes as we see it, to warn when necessary and to praise when warranted. To allow political or commercial pressures to influence our decison making ill-serves voters and jeopardizes the integrity of the electoral process.

Mr. Lynch offers an example from his own experience:
Being a software engineer myself, I am concerned that it is just not hackers that could pose a problem with an all electronic system. Bugs can also cause problems. Sheri, you will recall at Fridays after Five a few years back when the Hart system was being demonstrated to the public, I subjected one of the machines to the standard "monkey test" - randomly punching all of the keys. And you will recall that the system locked up completely.
I am puzzled again. The Hart eSlate does not have any "keys." The Hart eSlate uses a wheel that voters turn to choose letters or numbers or names of candidates. (There are three buttons on the machine, one for "Cast Vote," and one each for "Forward Page" and "Back Page"; but there are no "keys" in the sense of typewriter or computer keyboard keys with letters and numbers.)

He goes on with his anecdote:
The Hart salesman could not get it working again, even after he pulled the battery out to completely reset it. He had to take it back to his car and get another one. He was very embarrassed and said that this was the first time a system had broken like that. While I dont expect people to go into a voting booth and randomly bang on the keys, the fact is, if this machine had been in use all day and someone had done that, it might not have been possible to get the votes out of it afterwards.
The Hart salesman should not have been embarrassed, even if this incident happened as it is recounted by Mr. Lynch. The Hart salesman did exactly what he should do, and what any Election Official should do, in the event that a machine fails to work properly: He took it out of service.

As to whether it would have "been possible to get the votes out of it afterwards," the Hart eSlate is designed with multiple redundancies, so that votes can be retrieved from at least three separate and unrelated memories. The primary memories are in the device known as the JBC, or Judges Booth Controller, which contains the Mobile Ballot Box ("MBB," essentially a removable disk). But the eSlate itself also has a memory, so that in the event of an emergency, the votes cast on an individual unit can be retrieved. In addition to a cumulative total of votes cast for each candidate or referendum, the unique combination of votes cast by each individual voter is retained as a photograph called a Cast Vote Record (CVR), which can be examined after the election if there is a need for an audit or a recount.

Mr. Lynch offers this:
It's software. Bugs happen. Sometimes your computer locks up and you lose a few hours of work. In mission critical applications it is important to have a backup.
Indeed, and we do. The Hart eSlate system can operate under hugely adverse conditions. During the November 2004 election, for instance, we lost electrical power at two polling places. The lights went out, but the voting continued -- because every piece of voting machinery comes with a portable battery back-up for use in precisely those circumstances.

It is condescending of Mr. Lynch to suggest, even in such a backhanded way, that the Electoral Board somehow abdicates its responsibility to pay attention to these issues.

Mr. Lynch concludes:
Sheri, I understand that you will also be testifying at the Senate hearing, which is continuing tomorrow. I would appreciate it if you would keep in mind the sentiments of voters who have spoken at Council meetings, my previous request to you and the Board, and please send Council a copy of your statements
Actually, I was the person scheduled to speak at today's hearing. At the request of Mr. Lynch and Mayor David Brown -- who followed up Mr. Lynch's email with a telephone call to the General Registrar, as did City Manager Gary O'Connell -- I told the subcommittee, as a courtesy to the two Councilors who have expressed a view on this issue, that they did have some disagreements with me and the Electoral Board.

As I had no written statement to present to the subcommittee -- I hate it when people read a speech off a typewritten script, it lacks spontaneity and flexibility -- but spoke largely off-the-cuff, I would like Mr. Lynch to consider this to be "a copy of [our] statements" to be sent to City Council. In addition, I plan to address these issues in the public comment period of the City Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday, September 6, hours after the regularly scheduled Electoral Board meeting on the same day.

In her testimony today, Fairfax County Election Manager Judy Flaig said:
... let me point out that over 430,000 Fairfax County voters used the touch screen [N.B.: Charlottesville's Hart eSlate system is not a touch-screen system] machines last November, with only a handful of complaints. We received more complaints about waiting in long lines because there weren't enough machines as opposed to concerns about the accuracy of the machines. Nationally, voter registration issues and the lack of a sufficient number of voting machines were more of a problem than the accuracy of the voting equipment. As a taxpayer, I'd hate to see a lot of money wasted on VVPAT to satisfy a few vocal complainers who are attempting to solve a perceived problem that has an extremely low probability of occurring.
Well-said, but in all modesty I think I put it more succinctly in my testimony to the subcommittee on July 19: the proponents of VVPAT have "a solution in search of a problem."

Given the undisputedly high levels of voter satisfaction with Charlottesville's eSlate system, and the lack of complaints from voters at large, the burden of proof is on Councilor Lynch and others who insinuate that the system is untrustworthy or inadequate. They, too, are suggesting a solution in search of a problem.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

We Are Family

Incest. Bestiality. Coprophilia and coprophagia. Golden showers. Adult-child sex. Pornography. Obscenity. Raunch. Vomit. Anal sex. Oral sex. Mothers and daughters. Bizarre fetishes. Fathers and sons. Dismemberment. Granddad and the family dog. Exploding penises. More incest and more bestiality. Side-splitting laughter.

What do all these words have in common? Well, for one thing, they should drive traffic to this blog through the roof, thanks to Google searches by 15-year-old boys and the Bedford County sheriff. But, more to the point, they all accurately describe The Aristocrats, perhaps the funniest movie of 2005, if not of the 21st century (at least to date).

The Aristocrats is a documentary film directed by stand-up comic/actor Paul Provenza and produced by magician/libertarian agitator Penn Jillette. In it, about a hundred comedians, actors, monologuists, impressionists, and even mimes tell a joke that has been shared backstage by comedy professionals -- but not with, generally, their audiences -- for a hundred years or more. The joke is known by its punchline, "The Aristocrats!"

The form of the joke is fairly simple:

A man walks into a talent agent's office and says, "I have a terrific act for you."

"What's the act?" asks the agent.

The man goes on to describe a vaudeville act made up of a family -- mother, father, daughter, son, sometimes adding grandparents or a dog -- that does unspeakably obscene, gross, and unrepeatable things on stage.

The agent, shocked, says, "I've never heard of such a thing. What do you call the act?"

The man replies with a smile, "The Aristocrats!"
(The slimmed-down version of "The Aristocrats" joke can be found in Gershon Legman's book, The Rationale of the Dirty Joke. Some versions use as a punchline "The Debonairs" or "The Sophisticates.")

The point of the joke is to extend and expand the middle section, adding the most imaginative (and even more unspeakable) elements to it. There are claims that some comics have been able to extend the joke to as long as an hour or more, adding subtle (or gross) details, including extra family members, more explicit sex acts, more suggestions of scatological material, and so forth. The process is an elaborate version of "Can You Top This?" (And, speaking of that classic TV show, wouldn't it have been interesting to have the human joke machine, Morey Amsterdam, tell his version of "The Aristocrats" -- not to mention Redd Foxx or the recently departed Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield?) It comes as no surprise that the movie is dedicated to that patron of stand-up comics, the late Johnny Carson.

The movie attempts, in part, to dissect the humor. In most cases, trying to explain a joke renders it lifeless and dry. In the case of The Aristocrats, quite the opposite is true. Each comic offers his or her own take on how and why the joke works, and their explanations themselves are hilariously funny. The idiosyncrasies are telling: As Penn Jillette (with his silent partner, Teller) puts it so succinctly, like jazz music, this joke is "more about the singer than the song." Indeed, some sequences, which switch back and forth from one comic to another as each tells the joke in his own way, are fuguelike in their construction.

Clearly a labor of love for the filmmakers, The Aristocrats nonetheless is not for everyone. I saw it at an art house theatre, the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., and the auditorium was quite full, but a few people walked out a few minutes into it, even after buying a ticket and -- presumably -- knowing in advance what the movie is about. (The directors smartly move into the dirty talk almost immediately after the metaphorical curtain comes up, so that the shock wears off quickly and the participants can march swiftly into the funniest bits.)

Still, if you can stomach jokes that include a good deal of bodily fluids, taboo acts, and a tour of Joe Franklin's office (which looks like a proposed set for The Dazzle, Richard Greenberg's play about the pack-rat Collier Brothers), you should go see The Aristocrats -- not to be confused with The Aristocats, a feline film of a different ilk -- and laugh loose various body parts.

Or, let me put it this way -- if you loved South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, or if you adored Team America - World Police, you will like The Aristocrats. (In fact, one sequence in The Aristocrats features Cartman telling the joke to Stan, Kyle, and Kenny.) If you're the sort who just does not "get" the facile potty-mouth humor mixed with sophisticated social/cultural commentary that made the reputations of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, you won't "get" The Aristocrats, either, so don't waste your $9.50 at the box office.

Epater les bourgeois!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

I Want a New Drug

A couple of articles published during the past week point to the failure of the drug war as policy.

In Tuesday's Washington Times, A. G. Garcanski reviewed a new book from the conservative American Enterprise Institute entitled An Analytic Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy, by David Boyum and Peter Reuter. He begins his review:

There has always been a certain resistance on the right to the war on drugs. One of the most persuasive texts on that front came in 1972, when the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse put forth a report entitled "Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding." This document recommended decriminalization on the grounds that marijuana and its users did not sufficiently endanger the public safety to warrant criminal penalties.

President Nixon had no apparent use for the findings of his own commission's study as he ran for re-election. But the report was not without its executive influence. President Carter, early in his term, referred to it when he argued that "penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to the individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use."

Despite these strong words, Mr. Carter accomplished precious little on the national level in stemming overzealous enforcement of marijuana prohibition. His successors took a different tack than the one-term Democrat recommended, increasing penalties on drug users and helping the prison-industrial complex grow at nearly-exponential rates to house those caught in the web of illicit narcotics. But despite these efforts, America's drug problem is legendary around the world. With that in mind, as Congress wrestles with the specter of twained budget and trade deficits, it is fair to ask: Why does it seem like the war on drugs is not simply a failure, but the kind of failure that seems more egregious with each passing year?

Many conservatives have wondered the same thing, and have condemned the inefficacy of the effort, especially regarding cannabis. But their often emotional appeals have yet to resonate with national policy leaders. In that context, the utility of this slender volume becomes clear. Using arguments rooted largely in cost-benefit analysis, the authors neatly debunk the drug war as it is currently fought. Decrying the lack of "strong empirical evidence of substantial effectiveness" of the effort, the scholars suggest that the drug war's advocates be charged with providing said evidence.
This is not the first time the Washington Times has published a conservative critique of the war on drugs. I replied to one of those, by the Times' police-beat columnist Fred Reed, on May 17, 1996:
Columnist Fred Reed is right on target when he says "Legalization of some drugs is worth a try" ("Police Beat," April 29). Like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and 30s, drug prohibition has been a miserable failure, bringing in its wake pain, suffering, and the enrichment of gangsters and hoodlums.

Mr. Reed joins a chorus of conservative voices who have identified the drug war's futility, including Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, former Secretary of State George Shultz, and commentator William F. Buckley, Jr.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, Buckley's magazine, National Review, which almost singlehandedly buoyed the conservative movement through the dark days of the Great Society, featured a cover story proclaiming the failure of the drug war.

If we really want to end the killing in the streets, if we want to preserve what is left of family and community values in our inner cities, if we want to pull the rug out from under wealthy criminal drug dealers, we must end drug prohibition. Why should conservatives assume that the government can succeed in the drug war's social engineering, when it fails in its every other intervention in the economy, from minimum-wage laws to welfare to farm subsidies?

Let's be consistent: To reduce the size and scope of government and to protect our constitutional rights to life and liberty, end the drug war before it's too late.
Meanwhile, last week in the Roanoke Times, Ronald Fraser of the DTK Liberty Project, a civil-liberties group, reported on a study released by Jon B. Gettman, a senior fellow at George Mason University's School of Public Policy in Fairfax, Virginia, which notes, among other findings, that (in Fraser's words):
Virginians spend about $99 million each year to enforce state and local marijuana laws. What are taxpayers getting for their money? Not much, according to a recent study.
Fraser adds:
Virginians are, in effect, paying for Washington's marijuana prohibition policies. "The use of criminal law to control the availability and use of marijuana," says Gettman, "is a federal policy that is dependent on local law enforcement for its implementation." And state and local costs quickly add up.

A Boston University economics professor, Jeffrey A. Miron, estimates that state and local officials spend about $5 billion a year enforcing marijuana laws. Virginia's share is: $31 million for police services; $56 million for judicial services; $12 million for correctional services.

The thousands of persons arrested on marijuana possession charges in Virginia each year -- especially teenagers -- pay extra. "Marijuana arrests," Gettman stresses, "make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Indeed, the primary consequence of marijuana arrests is the introduction of hundreds of thousands of young people into the criminal justice system."
The costs to taxpayers and the Virginia economy are high, with few positive returns to show for it. Fraser explains:
And what do Virginians get for these financial and personal costs? In 2002, there were 12,798 marijuana possession arrests in Virginia, but the number of users keeps going up. While 4 percent of Virginia's population was estimated to be monthly users in 1999, in 2002 the estimate stood at 6.4 percent. Nationally, monthly users went from 4.9 percent in 1999 to 6.2 percent in 2002.
An alternative to the current system would be to legalize marijuana, regulate it, and tax it, so it can become a source of revenue rather than a drain on the state treasury. Fraser writes:
By shifting to a policy that treats and taxes marijuana like tobacco and alcohol, Virginians could gain the following benefits: a decrease in illegal activities surrounding drug sales; government control of marijuana quality; better control of underage access to marijuana; and removal of the profit motive that attracts sellers, including a substantial number of teenage sellers who, most frequently, supply other teenagers.

On top of that, Miron estimates a marijuana sales tax would replace the $99 million a year Virginia taxpayers are now spending to enforce unenforceable laws, with a new revenue pipeline bringing in $20 million a year.
I can't think of a Virginia politician who is courageous enough to question the wisdom of the drug war in such a clear and concise manner. There is no Gary Johnson (the former Republican governor of New Mexico) here to argue on behalf of Virginia taxpayers that (in Johnson's words):
The nation's so-called War on Drugs has been a miserable failure. It hasn't worked. The drug problem is getting worse. I think it is the number one problem facing this country today . . . We really need to put all the options on the table . . . and one of the things that's going to get talked about is decriminalization . . . What I'm trying to do here is launch discussion.
Johnson also said, in June 1999:
Common sense or logic would dictate that when you take this issue on, when you talk about legalization or decriminalization, if you are going to talk about that, you are going to talk about taking it in steps, and certainly the first step would be marijuana.

All of us can make a list out of friends that have used drugs. Are our friends criminals for using drugs? Yes, they are today given the laws that we have. Should they be criminals? Are they criminals? For the most part, no they are not.
What Virginia politician, either Democrat or Republican, elected or aspiring to elective office, will step forward to say that, in both moral terms and according to a cost-benefit analysis, the war on drugs is a failure and should be replaced with something more sensible? As Goethe said, "Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid."