The current trend towards touch screen voting, which was touched of by the 2000 presidential election debacle, appears to have peaked, but without anyone actually having learned anything. I figure that by the time the New York times runs an article on why touch screen voting is a bad idea the whole thing has peaked.

Although the article correctly notes that touch screen voting sucks for all of the reasons computers suck — they don’t work — it doesn’t even consider that problem is really with what we want. In other words, like the couple that wants to live near a train station but not near train tracks, what we want is stupid.

Consider this example from “The Limits of Software: People, Projects and Perspectives” by Robert N. Britcher. While designing an air traffic control some ninny thought it would be a good idea to allow controllers to customize their font sizes. Sounds like a good idea at first blush — you want controllers to be comfortable, right? Well, it turns out to be a really bad idea with unintended complications. In air traffic control software it turns out to be really important to know what can be seen by the controller. If you don’t know how large the font is in advance it turns out to be really hard to ensure something can be seen.

What Americans want with their voting system is pretty similar; a nice idea at first blush, but in reality, stupid. We want to know the election results instantly, to make sure that every vote counted matches the intent of the voter, and no fraud. That’s what we want, right?

Well, yes, it is what we want, and it is pretty stupid. For starters, the 2000 election demonstrated that we can do just fine not knowing who the president will be until December. Somehow we survived.

Asking for absolutes in a country with 170+ million registered voters is foolish. Even trying to make sure every votes matches voter intents is stupid — on the order of trying to move a mountain with a teaspoon. It would be better to specify a percentage.Trying to remove all fraud is stupid — we should try to minimize it instead (after all, what would Chicagoans do as a hobby without voter fraud?)

So, what’s the solution? It’s pretty simple.

Simple, arbitrary standards for counting votes. We don’t have to agonize over dimpled or hanging chads, or agonize over how optical ballots are counted.

We don’t agonize over the 18 years who missed voter registration by a day, do we? Or the 17 year olds who would do a better job voting then some 60 year olds. No, we set a simple standard and stick to it.

For punch cards the “system” would involve very large posters at polling places that say:

  • Hanging chads count as votes.
  • Dimpled chad’s don’t count as votes.

You could throw some pictures of bad ballots up too. It doesn’t really matter what the rules are, so long as they are clear and formulated before the election.

Yes, this would disenfranchise some people. I don’t care — the rest of us have some right to an orderly election too.

Occasionally on The 12 Angry Men, we will post rants from invited guests. In lieu of our normally scheduled segment, today we feature an invited rant, from an Angry Guest Woman. You may remember our current guest from her previous appearence when she ranted about poor service, and tipping. – The Staff of The 12 Angry Men

My company, like many others, decided a few years ago to outsource all IT-related work in an effort to “save money” and have more “effective” business practices by limiting the people who worked on our IT systems to “specialists.” Of course, in reality, we ended up with the opposite situation.

Sure, there were the comical incidents associated with initial setup. Like the time I ordered my first Linux box through the new IT contract. It arrived, carried by a teen-aged-looking guy with slicked-back hair, wearing chains, presumably required to keep his pants covering the bottom half of his boxer shorts, whose cologne I started to smell about 10 minutes before he entered my building. He had a set of Linux CD’s in his hands and absolutely no clue how to use them. I ended up giving him a lesson on how to install Linux. (He had never done this before whereas I had trouble remembering how many Linux boxes I had installed.) He insisted on driving the entire time because he was the “specialist” and I was not. Incidentally, upon completion of my setup, several key settings needed to be fixed. Yet I was not allowed to have the root password or su power on my box so I had to keep calling the teenager and his associates to do things like set the correct date on my box. Each time he had to call me to ask how to do this; or just give me the password and then change it again when I was done. Apparently setting the date and time is not intuitive to some IT professionals.

Since then, I have taken the company’s system administration certification exam, applied to administer my own box, and have had relatively few problems, except having to re-negotiate my status every time someone new sees I’m defying the system. But, my boxes have consistently worked, no thanks to our IT contractors.

Well — until the *only* thing of mine over which IT has control, my email, stopped working yesterday. I kept getting weird server errors whenever my email program attempted to connect to the server to send/receive messages. After we went through the normal process of me calling; getting someone who has never heard of email but promises to have someone else call me back; and 5 different people calling me back with different reasons why it didn’t work AFTER insisting that clearly their server errors must be caused by the fact that I’m running Linux and my telling them they’re full of it because server errors occur *on* the server, we have the problem solved. Despite the fact that I was told that IT did not know they were going to start expiring passwords, apparently my email password had expired. But they couldn’t tell this had happened and they couldn’t notify me of the status of my email account because… get this… (this is my favorite IT excuse EVER) they didn’t have my email address!!!!! I should win an Oscar for making it through two phone calls this morning without bursting into laughter while two different men explained to me in very serious voices that my email address was not in their system (the system of the people who CREATED and ASSIGNED my email address and who RUN the email servers!) and that they needed to enter it. The first guy called to inform me of this epiphany. The second one called to check that they had entered my email address correctly. I presume both of them found my phone number in our company directory. (Incidentally, my copy of the company directory also lists email addresses.)

My sides hurt now.

When I stopped laughing, I was still unable to change my password because the web interface, which is the only way to do this from Linux, was broken. In response, IT has just released a statement saying that all of their problems are being caused by people running non-standard desktops and has issued a ruling that everyone must now use the same standard Windows desktop, with a few exceptions for Mac. I have been ordered to give up all of my boxes and replace them with one Windows box, which will have exactly the same installation as every other box at the company, including the machines running specialized equipment in the research labs and the box they give to our secretary. Did I mention that my job is to do research? I write experimental software for a living. On a machine with no compilers (because why does the secretary across the hall need a compiler?), this should be very interesting. Then there’s the issue that a lot of the software is written for operating systems that are not Windows… I complained to the decision-making head of IT about this change and he didn’t see a problem. Why am I not surprised? Probably because the person I spoke to didn’t know what a compiler was.

I’m off to fight again for the right to have a computer I can use to do work on. Please, if you’re a manager out there, think long and hard before outsourcing your IT department to another company. Each year or three we change IT contract companies, but they’re all the same: they charge you too much; pay their employees so little that none of them stay to complete the “training” process; and waste your employees time while contributing to your IT problems instead of solving them. Then they fill out their own “customer reviews” instead of sending them to the employees, like they’re supposed to, so they insure they will keep the contract. I’ll hold out as long as I can in an effort to be able to effectively do my job. Each time our entire building is taken down by a computer virus and my Linux box is one of the few machines left standing, I’ll take the time to smile and feel vindicated.

– Angry East Coast Guest Woman