Great Timing, Dipstick

Terrific — so I spend hours setting up Red Hat 9 on my home system, just in time to learn that Red Hat Linux has been officially discontinued. Now Red Hat is going to split its work into two projects, a commercial effort (“Red Hat Enterprise Linux“, in 3 editions from workstation to datacenter) and an unsupported open-source project (the “Fedora Core“) for the audience that traditionally would have gone for the standard retail-box RH Linux product.

Woo hoo! Yeah, there’s no better feeling than bending over backwards to install software that’s end-of-lifed before you can even get it working 100%. Grrr…


Continually updated weather forecasts in your news aggregator:

More Important Things Than Anti-Aliased Text

Simon Fell: “What is, and why is my XP box talking to it?

This is the sort of thing that has kept me from making the upgrade to XP. Windows 2000 was the last Microsoft OS I’ve trusted wasn’t doing things over the network without telling me — and that’s not blind faith, that’s based on experience and years of ZoneAlarm connection logging. I just don’t have the same confidence about XP, and the fact that Simon Fell — the author of PocketSOAP and a real Windows programming expert — can be taken by surprise by a “feature” in his OS like this is exactly the reason why.

It’s the Little Things

Well, a couple of days ago I took the plunge and did something I’ve been meaning to for a long time: I set up a Linux partition on my home PC. I’ve generally been happy with Windows 2000 for home use, but I’ve been wanting to explore Linux as a desktop OS for awhile (I get plenty to exposure to it on servers at work, but that’s all through terminal windows, not through pretty GUIs like KDE and GNOME), so it just seemed like time to bite the bullet and do it. Thanks to PartitionMagic and Red Hat 9, the whole process was relatively painless and I was up and running in a couple of hours. Red Hat has done an excellent job of taming the Linux install process, that’s for sure.

Anyway, I boot into RH for the first time and what strikes me right away is that everything looks so incredible! It’s the magic of anti-aliased text, which Linux and Mac OS X users take for granted but which Microsoft has decided you have to upgrade to XP to get on Windows — if you stayed on 2000, no soup for you! It’s incredible how much of a difference it makes. Dammit, I’ve been refusing to make the XP upgrade for something like two years now (I hate the whole XP “product activation” scheme, it’s a nightmare for tweakers like me who routinely swap hardware in and out of their box), but I’m posting this from Mozilla under Red Hat and it’s so much nicer looking than Moz under Win2000 that I’m wondering if maybe I should rethink my XP stance. Hmm… principles… anti-aliased text… principles… anti-aliased text…

Next challenge: figuring out how to install the @()# Linux drivers for my video card. This oughta be a hoot…

Dennis Miller for Senate?

Now that Ah-nuld is the Governor of California, it looks like some GOPers out there are hoping to put on a repeat performance, this time starring has-been comic Dennis Miller in a bid to unseat Senator Barbara Boxer:

If Arnold Schwarzenegger can be elected governor of California, can comedian Dennis Miller unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer?
Some Republicans in the Golden State think so, and quietly hope they can persuade the sharp political wit — and registered Santa Barbara Republican — to take on the liberal senator. Variety magazine reported this week that Mr. Miller has contacted California Republican consultants to feel out a campaign.

There’s nothing I can say about this that’s better than what Lewis Black said about Schwarzenegger when I saw him perform last night: that we need a Constitutional amendment stating that, if a state collectively decides that it would rather live in a movie than in reality, it loses its statehood. Makes sense to me 🙂

Buzz for the Tapwave Zodiac

Over at Jupiter, Michael Gartenberg has the first review I’ve seen of the intriguing Tapwave Zodiac PalmOS organizer/game device, and he really, really digs it:

Most converged devices don’t work. The reason is that in the effort for convergence, the sum is often less than the combined parts and each individual part isn’t very good. Look at PDA/Cell phones. You often neither get a great PDA or a great phone. The overall experience is compromised and you constantly face trade-offs in screen sizes and battery life. This is exactly why the Zodiac works. You get a great PDA. All the specs that a cutting edge unit requires; a 3.8 inch transflective display that does 480 x 320 (half VGA) with both portrait and landscape modes. A 200mhz ARM processor, Bluetooth for connectivity. But the Zodiac is also a great game device. In addition to the above features it adds two SD slots for memory, games and peripherals, an ATI Imageon W4200 graphics accelerator (with 8MB dedicated SDRAM), a Yamaha audio chip, an analog joy stick and to power it all two High-capacity Rechargeable Lithium Batteries –1540 mAh so battery life is not an issue. In short, it’s a great PDA and a great game platform.

I have to admit that the Zodiac sure looks compelling to me. It would be awfully cool to have a great organizer that also happened to play some kick-ass games. Maybe that’s my Inner Geek talking, but assuming that they can keep this thing from being an utter disaster a la the Nokia N-Gage, I might be in line to check it out…

Feedback on iTunes

My earlier piece on my first impressions of Apple’s iTunes for Windows garnered a good bit of feedback. Rather than follow up on each bit individually, it struck me that it made more sense to round ’em all up into one follow-up piece; hence this post.

Sandy Smith has had some similar experiences to mine with the iTunes Music Store (only worse, since he’s into progressive rock, which is even more fringe-y than alt-stuff like I prefer is). He counsels patience, saying that Apple will have to pry each new band out of the hands of the RIAA member companies in order to get them into the ITMS, and that’ll take time. That makes sense, but it doesn’t change ITMS’s limited utility for me until that happens. (Also, Sandy does a neat trick in his post that I didn’t know was possible: linking directly into the ITMS. If you’ve got iTunes installed, these links should launch the program and take you to the page for the band:

Nifty! Wonder how long until we see other apps tying into ITMS…)

Joy Larkin left a comment in which she also makes the point that Apple will need ITMS to get some traction before they can really broaden their catalog. She also has some comments on my musical tastes. Joy, you didn’t like Lemon Jelly? Heresy! Blasphemer!! 🙂 I seriously dig Lemon Jelly — very relaxing stuff, the sonic equivalent of a full-body massage. It’s what I always queue up on those days when I find myself wondering what would happen if I picked my monitor off my desk and threw it through the window.

Finally, Tristan Louis dropped me a note pointing to a piece he’d written exploring the potential of ITMS less as a music store and more as a Trojan Horse for creating a robust, cross-platform digital rights management (DRM) system. It’s quite thought-provoking. Of all the DRM proposals I’ve seen floated, though, I must say that I find the ITMS model the most acceptable (or perhaps I should say the least unacceptable) of the lot; it’s relatively open, free of Draconian restrictions, and does not start from the presumption that the consumer is an Evil Pirate, which is more than I can say for schemes like Windows Media. And that’s really the key to DRM; as long as it’s easy to live with, we’re generally willing to live with it (for proof, see the DVD format, which is Macrovision-encrypted and region-coded, but which is also a smashing success). So, if the whole DRM debate finally ends with the world looking kinda like the ITMS, I don’t think that’d be too bad.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to continue the conversation on this one!

Congratulations To Joe & Anne!

The 2003 Virginia Bar Exam results are up, and both my friend Joe Dailey and his fiance Anne Mitchell have passed. Woo hoo! Congratulations to both of them!

First Impressions of iTunes for Windows

Well, what with all the hoopla surrounding the launch of Apple’s iTunes for Windows I figured I should go and check it out, so I downloaded the software and spent a little while browsing the iTunes Music Store. Here’s my first take.

The software itself is well done. There was some noise about it being a resource hog, but it runs snappily on my home PC, which is nothing special — just a homebrew AMD Duron 1200 box (stuffed with 512MB RAM, though, which might be helping). For whatever reason, though, it certainly doesn’t feel like a half-baked port from another OS, at least from a performance perspective.

The UI is another matter — it’s unchanged from the Mac version, so it’s all brushed aluminum and Aqua buttons, which looks kind of odd sitting on a Windows desktop. But then, no two other Windows apps seem to respect the Windows UI guidelines either (even Office XP throws ’em out the window in favor of its own widgets), so you can hardly blame Apple for that.

So, good software. The store, on the other hand…

Well, let me put it this way. I’m sure that for most people the selection in the iTunes Music Store is fine. However, I came away pretty frustrated at how consistently I was unable to find the artists I was looking for. This may be due more to me having weird tastes than anything else, but it’s still frustrating.

Here’s the thing, see. I find out about a lot of new music from XM Satellite Radio. Specifically, one channel, XMU, is very cool about introducing me to bands that I find fresh and interesting. If you want to see the sort of thing they play on XMU, they publish their playlists every week in PDF format, so it’s easy to look up the name of a band or an album you heard.

So, I went through the last few week’s PDFs looking for bands whose albums had been rattling around in my head with the thought “I really oughta buy that when I get the chance”, and ran them through the iTunes Music Store. Here’s the number of albums iTunes returned for each band:

  • GUSTER – 4 albums
  • GUIDED BY VOICES – 2 albums
  • THE RAVEONETTES – 1 album
  • NADA SURF – 1 album
  • VENUS HUM – 1 album
  • DANDY WARHOLS – 1 album
  • LIMBECK – 0 albums
  • LEMON JELLY – 0 albums
  • AMBULANCE LTD – 0 albums
  • GABIN – 0 albums
  • THE MARS VOLTA – 0 albums
  • NEW PORNOGRAPHERS – 0 albums
  • EELS – 0 albums
  • MATTHEW JAY – 0 albums

That’s not a great hit rate — and even that’s a little misleading; for some of those bands that are flagged as “1 album”, the album iTunes has available is not their current release, but rather back-catalog material that’s many years old. For others bands that have released many albums, iTunes inexplicably has huge gaps in their catalogs: the band Nada Surf has released five albums since 1995, for example, but you’ll only find one (1996’s High/Low) on iTunes.

Even more strangely, indie-rock gods Guided By Voices (who hail from my home town of Dayton, Ohio — w00t!), who have released more albums than I can count since 1986 (go ahead, you count ’em), have a grand total of two — yes, two — albums on iTunes: this year’s new release Earthquake Glue and 1996’s Mag Earwhig. Now, I can understand why you’d pick the new release to have available if you were gonna only have one GBV album, but if they can reach back to ’96, where’s last year’s Universal Truths and Cycles or 2001’s Isolation Drills, either of which would be excellent “introduction-to-GBV” material?

And the kicker, of course, is that even if iTunes had the albums, I couldn’t load them onto my Archos Jukebox anyway, since it doesn’t play files in iTunes’ AAC format — currently, only the iPod does that. So it’s either jury-rig some contraption to get the songs from iTunes to AAC to CD to MP3, or bag it and just buy the CD.

So, the conclusion thus far is that iTunes is a nice tool, but it looks like (for the moment, anyway) it’s not the answer to my downloadable-music dreams. Oh, well…

How Not To Do PR

This is too funny…

The Register is running an item with the classic headline “SunnComm CEO demands to be called a ‘laughingstock’ “.

SunnComm is a company that makes software to keep people from copying CDs. It turned out to be absurdly easy to break, though — it relied on Windows’ AutoPlay feature to load, so if you just held down the Shift key when you put the CD in your computer’s drive (which turns off AutoPlay for that CD), the “protection” would be completely bypassed. This was discovered and made public by a student at Princeton, who was then threatened by SunnComm with a lawsuit for having broken their protection scheme! Never mind that the people who broke it were the ones who designed it in the first place. (They eventually backed off the threat after the entire world laughed themselves hoarse at the idea.)

So anyway, there was suspicion abroad in the land that these SunnComm people weren’t the brightest bulbs in the box to begin with. The Reg ran a story to that effect, and got a letter from SunnComm’s CEO, Peter Jacobs, that pretty much removes all doubt. Read the thing, it’s a hoot.

The Real James Bond Is Gone

Patrick Dalzel-Job, a British war hero who was apparently the inspiration for the character of James Bond (Bond creator Ian Fleming was his commander during part of World War Two), died yesterday at the age of 90.

This guy was apparently the real deal:

In one of most daring exploits in 1940, he disobeyed orders to rescue all the women, children and elderly residents from the Norwegian town of Narvik in local boats just before it was destroyed in a German bombing raid.
He only avoided a court martial after the King of Norway sent his personal thanks and awarded him the Knight’s Cross of St Olav.

I’d never heard of him until today. What a shame! His memoir of his wartime experiences with Fleming’s secret unit 30AU, entitled Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy: The Extraordinary Wartime Exploits of a Naval Special Agent, is apparently still in print; I’m gonna have to check it out.

Great, Now Nowhere Is Safe

And you thought you only had to watch out for these )@#()! things on the sidewalks… there’s a new Segway model launching today, the p Series, specifically for use indoors. According to the Segway Web site, it’s “agile, portable and approachable”, not to mention a steal at a mere $3,995. Perfect for the lazy millionaire on your Christmas list!

Seriously, indoors? Do we really need people zipping through hallways at 10MPH on these damn things? I can imagine someone shooting into an elevator on one, trying to beat a closing door, and knocking down the people inside like bowling pins. Yeah, thanks for bringing your new toy to work, Tom Swift.

What A Libertarian Sees In Dean

Over on his new blog, Sandy Smith has an excellent overview of why he, a libertarian, finds himself cautiously leaning towards Howard Dean for President. (He’s not the only one, either.) It’s an interesting read.

The high irony, of course, is that the Democratic Party establishment is apparently not as perceptive a judge of Democratic candidates as Sandy is. Because of Dean’s early and consistent opposition to the war in Iraq, and because he hails from Vermont (“hey, that’s where Ben and Jerry come from!”), the conventional wisdom that congealed around Dean was that he was some kind of born-again, bong-toting lefty, leading a People’s Front against the hated Washington Establishment. Never mind that, if you read his positions on the issues or actually go hear him speak, you find that he’s actually a pretty moderate kind of Democrat, socially liberal but fiscally conservative, or that some of his positions, like his conservative stance on gun control, are notably outside the mainstream of his party; those inconvenient facts don’t fit the storyline, so they don’t get written about much. (Until they can be “discovered” and repackaged as flip-flops: Commissar Dean betraying his loyal comrades.)

The irony comes in because the establishment has swallowed the CW hook, line, and sinker, and are panicked that Dean 2004 will be a replay of McGovern 1972, so they’re frantically looking for a “stop-Dean” candidate. That’s where a lot of the Wes Clark movement comes from; it’s people who think that Dean is too liberal and will lead the Democrats down the path to ruin in the general election. Except, as I noted above — Dean’s not really a flaming liberal. He’s certainly not as liberal as McGovern was in 1972, and certainly not as liberal as he’s been made out to be by the simplistic portrayal of his positions thus far in the campaign.

I think Sandy’s right that there’s room for libertarians in the Dean campaign. The Bush team has done enough to assault individual liberty to make you upset whether you care because you’re a member of the ACLU or the Ayn Rand Institute. There’s a lot in the Dean approach, on the other hand, for libertarians to like. Will they be willing to overlook the party labels when the time comes to pull the lever, though? I suppose we’ll find out!

So Why Care About Mozilla, Anyway?

Whaddaya know — it turns out that spiffy new site design for that I linked to earlier was actually done by Dave Shea, the creator of the brilliant CSS Zen Garden. No wonder it’s such an improvement!

Anyway, Dave’s got a great essay on why he pitched in to help redesign the site, and why anyone who cares about the Web might want to consider helping out the Mozilla Project in whatever small ways they can:

If you have been reading this site for any period of time, you’ll remember various pieces detailing the fall of IE, and what could possibly be done to make things better. Ideas have come and gone. Nothing has happened. Ideas can’t live on their own without a life support system that comes from action.
So action it is. This is my contribution. This is my way of making the world a better place. Some write. Some code. I design.

That’s exactly right. In the modern world, we have become accustomed to hearing that change occurs because of Big Social Forces that are outside our control. We’ve almost forgotten how to think of the world as a place where the quality of life is a consequence of our actions. In this case, Microsoft has decided that they own the browser, and they’re counting on the rest of us to do nothing — to go along quietly. But if enough people like Dave step up and do something, even something little — if we take responsibility for the things we care about, and choose to take action — then there’s no monopoly strong enough to stop us.

So, this is my challenge to you: if you care about the Web and want it to see it continue to advance, do something about it. No more griping about how Microsoft owns the world! They only own the world because we allow them to. If you can code, great — head over to and pitch in on Bugzilla, or go to and whip up a cool extension for people to play with. You’re a graphic designer? There’s always a need for new themes, or even for tweaks on old themes.

Technical skills aren’t required, though. If you’re willing to deal with occasional crashes, the project always needs people to test bleeding-edge versions of Firebird and Thunderbird — just grab the latest nightly build and file any bugs you find in Bugzilla. If you know your way around Firebird or Thunderbird, they need people to pitch in on the Help file — only thing you need to do is write up your wisdom for the rest of us.

And of course, the single best thing you can do requires no technical skill at all — just turn your friends on to Firebird! Spread the good word and feel your karma improve. Write about it on your blog, or burn an install CD and walk it around to your friends’ and colleagues’ PCs. Show them the magic of tabbed browsing and how nice it is not to ever see a pop-up window again. Not all of them will pick it up, but some will, and you’ll have enlarged the community that much more.

Mohandas Gandhi said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s not enough to want a better world — you have to be willing to make it. Are you?

As If The World Needed Another Reason To Hate Consultants

From The Smoking Gun:

Meet Steve Bartman. He’s the poor 26-year-old Chicago Cubs fan who last night got his hands on that foul ball headed for outfielder Moises Alou’s mitt. Bartman, who attended the University of Notre Dame, works for a Chicago-area consulting firm

Ouch! I hope his clients don’t lynch him the next time they have a meeting…

EasyGestures Makes Browsing As Easy As Pie

Easygestures is a thorough overhaul of the old RadialContext extension for Mozilla Firebird, allowing you to navigate menu options using easy-to-use “pie menus“. They sound complicated, but their big advantage is that they take advantage of something called muscle memory: in a pie menu, gesturing in a certain direction with the mouse will always produce the same effect, so eventually you can swiftly do things like open new tabs, save items to your desktop, and add a page to your bookmarks without even having to read the menus at all. Once you get used to that, old-fashioned menus are hard to go back to!

RadialContext was good, but EasyGestures makes a good thing even better by providing much better tool tips to help you learn which gestures do what, and allowing you to completely remap commands to gestures, so that you can tune the menus to do whatever you like. If you’re using Firebird, give it a try, and don’t give up on it right away — take a little time to get used to pie menus, and how completely they can speed up the experience of browsing. You’ll be glad you did.

Release Day Is Upon Us

Lots of news from the Mozilla Project today! First, they’ve finally released the new set of apps based on the Mozilla 1.5 code base. That means that the final release versions of these applications are available for download:

(Note that Mozilla 1.5 is scheduled to be the last version of the old application suite, so if you haven’t tried Firebird and Thunderbird yet, now’s an excellent time to do that — I’ve been using them for months and I can testify that they’ve far outstripped the old suite in performance and usability.)

They’ve also unveiled the new look for the Web site, designed to appeal to end users (finally!). They’ve got some new services to help further that goal as well, like the ability to buy tech support incidents (important for corporate users). Another interesting idea is the option to subscribe to Mozilla — a subscription costs $15.95/year, and subscribers get each major release of Mozilla mailed to them on CD for the term of their subscription, along with e-mail updates of upgrades and other special offers. Not bad, and the price is low enough to make it worth considering even if you could care less about the CDs and all you want to do is support Mozilla. (They’re also selling Mozilla CDs with the latest version of the browser, if you don’t want to subscribe — $3.95 for a single CD or $14.95 for a 5-pack, plus S&H.

Of course, if you want to, you can still always just donate to the Mozilla Project as well. I mean, think of all the great software they have given you over the last few years, all for free! The least you could do is throw them a couple of bucks, ya cheapskate 🙂

This is great news and a testament to the continuing vitality of the Mozilla Project. Now that they’ve finally shaken loose from AOL and don’t have to worry about stepping on Netscape’s toes anymore, here’s hoping we keep seeing more good work like this from them in the future!

Send the Expos South

I was watching the Marlins-Cubs game tonight when my memory was jogged about something I’d meant to blog a couple of weeks ago, and then completely forgotten to follow through on. So, I figured I’d better jot it down before it slips my mind again.

There’s been a lot of talk about what’s going to happen to the Montreal Expos, now that they’re searching for a new host city. One of the strongest efforts to land the team has been mounted by the D.C. area, which actually has two horses in this particular race — there are separate proposals for D.C. and Northern Virginia. I’m no expert on how these decisions get made, but people seem pretty optimistic that Major League Baseball might be ready to bring pro ball back to D.C.

Up until recently, I thought that was a great idea. I like baseball, and I’d certainly attend more games if doing so didn’t require a schlep up to Baltimore. It wouldn’t even bother me too much if the team sucked — like, say, the Expos do; I spent enough years going to Cincinnati Reds games to be well armored against caring too much whether the home team wins or loses.

But then I heard about an alternate proposal that’s been floated for the Expos, and frankly I think it’s head and shoulders better than bringing them to D.C. The idea is to move the Expos down to Monterrey, Mexico, making them the first MLB team to play ball in Latin America. The idea was dreamed up by a Monterrey businessman who played left field on that city’s Little League team in 1957, when it became the first non-U.S. team to win the Little League World Series; now he dreams of bringing major league ball to his hometown.

This is an amazingly good idea. Even though we still think of baseball as our national game, the truth is that much of the vitality and talent in baseball today has come from Latin America. (Heck, just look at the Marlins’ starting lineup.) It only stands to reason that the untapped Latin American market, then, is a natural home for a homeless team, especially when compared to the idea of a team in D.C., a city which has demonstrated multiple times that it doesn’t have enough interest in baseball to support a local team and which would split its business with the Baltimore Orioles anyway. Plus, it’s a great symbolic way to help draw together America and Mexico, two countries whose destinies are intertwined.

In short, it’s a no-brainer — but then, the brass at Major League Baseball have repeatedly demonstrated that brains are not what you would call their strong suit, so we’ll see if they see the merit in the idea.

Tom DeLay Gets His Way

It looks like the third time really is the charm: after being foiled in two previous attempts to force a partisan redistricting bill through the Texas Legislature, the GOP has managed to get it through after trying for a third time. This is the bill that the Democratic lawmakers were fleeing the state to prevent the formation of a quorum on, remember? I guess the message here is that compromise is for wimps and wusses.

Opposition to this effort should go beyond partisan carping. Districts are only supposed to be rearranged every ten years, to reflect the results of each new Census. This isn’t the law, but it’s the custom, and for a good reason — precisely to try to keep redistricting from becoming a never-ending political turf war that’s reopened every time the majority changes hands. The Texas districts were just redrawn in 2001, as required by the Census, but the GOP’s got the majority now and waiting until 2011 — the next time the districts were supposed to be redrawn — well, why let little ol’ things like that get in the way when you’ve got the muscle to get what you want now, right?

The Washington Post’s op-ed page hailed the action, referring to the state in their headline as “The Soviet Republic of Texas“. They’re not far off. Congratulations to the Texas GOP for reminding us all of how ugly power without responsibility can be.

MT-Blacklist: Let The Comment Spam Smackdown Commence

Jay Allen has become my new hero. In an heroic feat of coding, he has created MT-Blacklist, a Movable Type plugin to implement real-time blacklisting to stop the plague of comment spam that’s recently been all over MT-based blogs.

You’ve gotta love any piece of software where the first line of the documentation is “I’ve not slept for the last 40 hours.” 🙂

I’ve installed MT-Blacklist on my server, so let’s see if this puts an end to the comment spamming once and for all. Here’s hoping. Congratulations to Jay for getting this out the door!

The Ten Geekiest Hobbies

Seanbaby presents Dorkstorm: The Annihilation — a roundup of the top 10 geekiest hobbies you can have. It’s a riot.

Trust The Computer, Citizen

You know, after the whole vote-counting debacle in Florida in 2000, you would think that one thing you could probably count on would be that managing the voting process in one of the most prosperous and well-educated counties in the United States would be a responsibility that would not be completely turned over to drooling idiots and morons.

Well, in Fairfax County, Virginia, at least, you’d be wrong!

The new touch-screen voting machines that Fairfax County and other jurisdictions have spent millions of dollars to acquire are hailed by elections officials for their speedy tabulations, their wireless transmission capability and their simplicity for voters.
But recent warnings from computer scientists at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere that the new equipment is vulnerable to viruses and other electronic attacks have some officials acknowledging that they did not completely understand what they were getting into when they signed the purchase orders.
“The technology changes so quickly that we are finding it a challenge trying to stay on top of security,” said Jean R. Jensen of the Virginia State Board of Elections. “We are just trying to keep up with the game.”…
The state hired Britain J. Williams, a professor emeritus at Kennesaw State University and longtime election consultant, to ensure that the devices complied with state codes. Williams said he did not study their vulnerability to hackers, nor was he required to do so.
Fairfax elections officials said the system won them over with its sophisticated, convenient and easy-to-use features. “Security wasn’t really the deciding factor,” said county election manager Judy Flaig. [emphasis mine] The system has some high-tech features: Blind voters, for example, can put on headsets and have the ballot read to them by a digital voice. The WINvote machines tally votes in seconds, using a wireless network protected by a security program known as Wired Equivalent Privacy.
But the program is easily hacked, said Johns Hopkins computer scientist Aviel Rubin; how-to instructions are available to the public, he said. And even if the wireless system is used only after the polls close, viruses can be made to wait until the network is turned on and then wipe out or tamper with the numbers…
“They keep saying, ‘Well, in theory you can do stuff,’ ‘Well, in theory you can this or that.’ It makes good John Grisham novels; it makes good spy stories. But to do this stuff on a large scale is nearly impossible,” Flaig said. “You have to trust the system at some point.” [Again, emphasis mine]

OK, so let’s review. First thing: unless she has been flagrantly misquoted, Fairfax County election manager Judy Flaig is a dangerous incompetent who should be removed from office immediately. How the hell can you be in charge of a balloting process and say that the integrity of the ballots is isn’t a priority? How can you dismiss the concerns of experts in the field of computer security with a wave of the hand and a tart remark about John Grisham fantasies when you freely admit that you know nothing about the issue yourself and have done no research of your own? And when confronted with her own ignorance she just retreats back into some kind of bizarre faith-based fantasy where if we all just “trust the system” then everything will all just be all right. Yeah, because nobody has ever tried to stuff a freaking ballot box before.

Ms. Flaig sounds like someone who got dazzled by a nifty PowerPoint and didn’t bother asking too many inconvenient questions afterwards, like “Does your product make it possible for a pimply fifteen-year-old with an iBook to change the results of an election?” You know, little things like that. Jesus, what a moron.

(If you live in Fairfax County, you can get phone numbers and e-mail addresses for Ms. Flaig’s bosses, the County Electoral Board and General Registrar, from their Web site; I encourage you to give them a call and ask them to inquire with Ms. Flaig what “features” she finds more compelling than being able to guarantee the accuracy of election results. I’m sure they’d be as interested to know as we would be.)

Second, the Fairfax County election board just spent $3.5 million of the taxpayer’s money for a system that they cheerfully admit they don’t understand. The Post article made me curious about whether this company, Advanced Voting Solutions, is as big a collection of ripoff artists as they seem, so I took a look at their site to see what they had to say about their WINVote product — the one Fairfax County just bought into. They’ve got four pages describing the benefits of the WINVote system, but not a single mention of any security measure — except for some hand-waving about how the wireless networking feature means that you don’t have to rely on poll workers to set the damn things up, which they contend somehow makes the system more secure (which is, of course, nonsense).

I have a feeling that the “features” that got Ms. Flaig so hot and bothered are the ones they spend much more time concentrating on, such as:

For the administrative staff it simplifies and reduces the process of election preparation so that the myriad of labor intensive tasks, both in the pre-election and election-day environments become a thing of the past.

These guys clearly know their target market — if they’re all as rock-stupid as Judy Flaig, odds are they’re pretty damn lazy too, so anything that means they don’t have to brush the Chee-tos dust off their shirts and do some work is gonna go a long way towards closing the deal.

What the Post article tells us that the AVS Web site doesn’t is that the WINVote machines rely on a standard called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) to keep hackers out. This is, quite frankly, a joke. Thanks to some fundamental flaws in its design, WEP was cracked wide open over two years ago and is now widely considered to be nothing more than the barest of fig leaves, useful only for keeping out casual snoops, useless for blocking any kind of determined attack. Depending on WEP for wireless security is like depending on chanting “no baby no baby no baby” for contraception — it might work for a while, but do you really want to bet on it over the long haul?

If this is the way we’re going in this country, I predict that we will have a complete breakdown in our democratic process sometime in the next fifteen to twenty years that will make Florida 2000 look like a day at the beach. If you thought hanging chads were bad, wait until we have to “audit” a voting system that leaves no paper trail, can be hacked silently from a remote location, and that nobody responsible for the election system even understands — all because some idiots in the local government thought they could trust the system because it’s on, you know, a computer.

Horrific Halloween Memories

Anyone like me who was a kid in the 70s has probably got many, many Halloween memories of dressing up in foul-smelling, mass-produced “costumes” that were really just (highly flammable, I’m sure) plastic sacks with the logo of a TV show or movie stamped all over them. It wasn’t so much that you looked like Luke Skywalker, but you were wearing an Official Star Wars Plastic Sack with the words “Star Wars” and “Luke Skywalker” on it, along with a cheap plastic mask featuring oddly shaped eye-holes and a stripe of yellow paint across the top to indicate Luke’s blond hair, and that was all that mattered. (UPDATE: Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture of a vintage Yoda “costume” from the company that was the biggest seller of these vinyl monstrosities, Ben Cooper, that oughta show you what I mean.)

So, as Halloween approaches and in the spirit of those fond memories, here’s an appropriate link: the worst Halloween costumes of all time. Enjoy!

Give the President a Helping Hand

Boy, this whole Valerie Plame matter sure has gotten pretty serious, hasn’t it? Even President Bush says so:

“If there’s a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush told reporters at an impromptu news conference during a fund-raising stop in Chicago, Illinois. “If the person has violated law, that person will be taken care of.
“I want to know the truth,” the president continued. “Leaks of classified information are bad things.”

Whew! Glad that’s been said for the record!

But the thing is, the only people who could have committed the leak in question are all on Bush’s staff. So, if he really wants to get to the bottom of this — if he really wants to know the truth — all he has to do is call each of his senior people, the ones who are privy to national security secrets like this one, into his office and ask them to sign an affadavit that says something to the effect of “Under penalty of perjury, I affirm that I did not disclose the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to Robert Novak or any other members of the press.”

If anyone refuses to sign it, you’ve got your man (or woman). Right? Hell, even Encyclopedia Brown could have figured that out (without even having to turn to page 34 for the solution).

But Bush won’t do it. He won’t ask his staff the $64,000 question. Why? Who knows… maybe he’s still a little shaken up from when he fell off his Segway. Hey, these things happen.

So, the nice folks at figure this means that we’re gonna have to do this the hard way — if Bush won’t call his people and have them affirm that they didn’t spill the beans, we’re just gonna have to have everybody else in America sign that affadavit. Sure, it’ll take a little longer, but since the President’s not gonna help us out, what else can you do? Sometimes you’ve just got to take the long way home. According to the Census Bureau, the estimated U.S. population is 292,293,131; that’s a lot of signatures to gather, but hey, we’ve gotta hit the one person who won’t sign eventually, right?

Now it’s time for you to go do your bit to help smoke out the bad guy — go to’s Affidavit Campaign page and put in your name. It’s quick and easy, and once you’ve done it your name will be sent to the White House as one more American who definitely did not commit this crime. Until the President decides to step in and help resolve this the easy way, that means we’re one down, 292,293,130 to go! So get signing!