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Tagg Romney doesn't own Ohio's voting machines. And Joseph Lorenzo Hall, senior staff technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology in D.C., says that a lot of the fears the public has about electronic voting are equally unfounded. The biggest thing to worry about, he tells The Awl's Maria Bustillos, is that we're so busy sending around email forwards about ostensible vast conspiracies that we're not paying enough attention to the very real security and tech problems that do exist in the voting system.
Maria Bustillos: I no longer know what to believe in media reports of electronic election tampering. What are professionals most worried about, at this point, in this election?
Joseph Lorenzo Hall: It's a very complex area and unfortunately one that lends itself to dearths of information and poor intuition… which is how Bello and Fitrakis get way out into left field. Extending email/fax voting to displaced NJ voters is making us very nervous… What I think we expect to see a lot of—and it's not as sexy as conspiracy theory—is the aging of this machinery, as much of it is 10- to 15-year-old computer equipment. Another not-so-sexy source of problems will be from newer online voter registration systems, an electronic version of pollbooks. We may see strange reports of people not being registered or being marked down as already voted. Much of that will seem to some like fraud, but it is more likely poorly checked voter registration rolls. People don't like having to cast provisional ballots, but they need to understand that if you're registered and at the right location, the ballot will count.
Maria: Why do you think we haven't been able to solve these problems, given that we've had years in which to do so?
Joe: Two reasons: 1) no one cares about it until presidential election years, and mostly right before that election; and, 2) there is no regular source of federal funding for elections (when it comes to a state or local government choosing between spending money to fill potholes—which affect people every day—or making elections better, they will fill the potholes).
I'm a nervous flyer. But I'm a lot better at it then I used to be. That's because, a few years ago, I learned that it's actually pretty common to survive a plane crash. Like most people, I'd assumed that the safety in flying came from how seldom accidents happened. Once you were in a crash situation, though, I figured you were probably screwed. But that's not the case.
Looking at all the commercial airline accidents between 1983 and 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board found that 95.7% of the people involved survived. Even when they narrowed down to look at only the worst accidents, the overall survival rate was 76.6%. Yes, some plane crashes kill everyone on board. But those aren't the norm. So you're even safer than you think. Not only are crashes incredibly rare, you're more likely to survive a crash than not. In fact, out of 568 accidents during those 17 years, only 71 resulted in any fatalities at all.
I was talking about this fact with a pilot friend over the weekend, and he mentioned one crash in particular that is an excellent example of the statistics in action. On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 lost all its hydraulic controls and landed in Sioux City, Iowa, going more than 100 mph faster than it should have been. You can see the plane breaking apart and bursting into flames in the video above. Turns out, that's what a 62% survival rate looks like. (All the pilots you can hear talking in the video survived, too.)
In 2007, Popular Mechanics examined 36 years of NTSB reports and found that the majority of surviving passengers were sitting in the back of the plane. But that seems to depend a lot on the specifics of the crash and may not be a reliable predictor of future results.
BURN: An Energy Journal, the radio documentary series hosted by former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick, has a 2-hour election special out. It's the most powerful piece of radio journalism I've listened to since—well, since the last episode they put out. You really must do yourself a favor and set aside some time this weekend to listen to “The Power of One.”
Energy policy, defining how we use energy to power our economy and our lives, is among the most pressing issues for the next four years. In this special two-hour edition of BURN, stories about the power of one: how, in this election season, a single person, place, policy or idea can — with a boost from science — affect the nation’s search for greater energy independence.
The documentary examines how "individuals, new scientific ideas, grassroots initiatives and potentially game-changing inventions are informing the energy debate in this Presidential Election year, and redefining America’s quest for greater energy independence." It was completed and hit the air before Hurricane Sandy, but the energy issues illuminated by that disaster (blackouts, gas shortage, grid failure, backup power failure at hospitals) further underscore the urgency.
Backup generators exist anonymously. They are metal boxes, squirreled away on a roof or near a loading dock. You are meant to not see them. The point is that they are there when you need them and, the rest of the time, they do their best to be unobtrusive.
The problem is that this very job description makes it more likely that your emergency generator won't work in an emergency.
On Monday, New York University's Langone Medical Center lost power during Hurricane Sandy, and ended up having to evacuate 215 patients when the generator that was supposed to keep its charges alive and its critical systems running failed to turn on. Across the United States there are about 12 million backup generators. Most only operate during blackouts — times when a hospital, or a laboratory, or a bank, needs electricity and can't get it from the larger electric grid.
But backup generators aren't 100% reliable. In fact, they won't work something like 20%-to-30% of the time, said Arshad Mansoor, Senior Vice President for Research & Development with the Electric Power Research Institute. The bad news is that there's only so much you can do to improve on that failure rate. The good news: There are solutions that could help keep a hospital up and running in an emergency, even if the emergency power system doesn't work.
Read the rest
America Online has developed a web-based email service called Alto (altomail.com), and early reports sure sound promising. Alto is not a new email provider (no @alto.com email addresses, at least not yet), but an inbox-replacement for your current email address(es). Read your Gmail, Yahoo, Mac, or other accounts; import Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter messages. Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider has a review. Mat Honan at Wired gave it a whirl. Daniel Terdiman at CNET liked it. The service is launching as a private beta, with public availability sometime in Q1 2013. Alto is free for now, but expect ads or a paid "premium" option later on. It's browser-based, and there's an HTML5 version optimized for iPad (and, presumably, other tablets).
(Screengrab from Business Insider's review.)
My second column for the New York Times Magazine went online today. It's about the history of technology and the forces that determine which tools end up in our everyday portfolio and which become fodder for alternate history sci-fi novels.
The key thing to remember: The technologies we use today aren't necessarily the best technologies that were available. We don't really make these decisions logically, based solely on what works best. It's more complicated than that. Technology is shaped sociocultural forces. And, in turn, it shapes them, as well. The best analogy I've come up with to summarize this: The history of technology isn't a straight line. It's more like a ball of snakes fucking. (Sadly, I couldn't figure out a good way to reword this analogy for publication in the Paper of Record.) One of my big examples is the history of the electric car:
There are plenty of reasons Americans should have adopted electric cars long ago. Early E.V.’s were easier to learn to drive than their gas cousins, and they were far cleaner and better smelling. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones. Most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades, says David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” We drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, Kirsch says, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery.
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The Pottstown Mercury, a newspaper in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, recently started posting police mugshots of wanted criminals on Pinterest. Sounds crazy, right? Well, the novel use of a social networking site known best for nail art, cupcakes, and motivational posters with bad typography has become quite a success for local law enforcement. As you can see by scrolling through the board, users are sharing comments on where police might look for each wanted man or woman. Here's an interview with one of the paper's "Pinners," and more context on Poynter. According to an interview with police in the Pottstown Mercury, the project has resulted in a 58% increase in arrests.