Reaping the social whirlwind

Astrid Fritzsche

As is generally the case during the last few days of a visit to Vancouver, everything has been reduced to an untidy but highly enjoyable attempt to see as many people as possible before I am dragged across town to the plane ride east.

Today, I am to see my first ballet (The Nutcracker at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre) before attending a gratuitously carnivorous New Year’s party. Tomorrow will be my last chance to meet up with anyone. Posts with substantive content will resume when I have more time to devote to such things.

Veggie day

Today involved a visit to a Hindu temple that serves free vegetarian lunches and dinner at Darma’s Kitchen: a vegetarian restaurant at Broadway and Alma. The latter looks like a Yaletown version of the Naam; the former had markedly better food.

If there are things out there better than tasty free curry and Naan bread, I have yet to discover them.

First photo in a book

Graffiti in North Vancouver

After asking my permission, a group of authors used one of my photos in their book Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies: Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior. The photo in question is of a Soviet automobile in the Occupations Museum in Tallinn. I am not sure of the precise context in which it was used, but they have offered to send me a copy.

I will post a photo of the page including my photo when the book arrives. I am generally happy for people to use my photos with permission and proper attribution. The pleasantness of this experience stands in contrast with the unauthorized publication of one of my photos in The Oxford Student.

History in the news

North Vancouver ducks

The Bhutto assassination and the ongoing instability in Pakistan provides one of those situations where we see history unfurling hour by hour in front of us. At one level, it sharpens one’s appreciation for how one action or one individual in one situation can alter outcomes. At another, it reminds one of how dynamic history is, in broad sweeps.

Inheriting the world and beginning to understand it is one thing – having the imagination to anticipate the ways in which whole societies and groups of nations will evolve and interact is quite another.

An orderly transfer of power

When I saw a camera markedly superior to the one I have been using for the last two years on sale for about $150, including a 2GB memory card, it seemed that the time to upgrade had arrived. I was drawn to the Canon Powershot A570 mostly because of the image stabilization, which allows sharper photos in lower light. It is also nice that it has ISO ratings going up to 1600 – compared with 400 on my old A510. It remains to be seen how the graininess of the two cameras compares at fast speeds. The controls on the new camera are nearly the same as the old, though it will take a while for them to become as utterly intuitive as the A510 was after its years of valued service.

What surprised me most about the A570 is how pleasantly quick it is. The time lag from pressing the shutter to taking a photo is much shorter. All sorts of other camera operations are faster too; transferring photos to my computer is about three times faster. The Digic III processor is probably responsible for most of that. As you can see from the two linked images, the A570 also seems to blow out highlights less than the A510. Those frequent white patches were one of the most substantial failings of a camera that is excellent overall.

The old camera remains perfectly serviceable. Virtually every picture posted on this blog has been taken with it. It will probably be available at low cost to a friend who will use it well.

[1 January 2008] The camera has passed to Emily Horn. May she use it well.

Fibre jam

Jonathan Morissette and Oleh Ilnyckyj on Grouse Mountain

Some people are predicting that 2008 will be the year when the internet slows down. The cause is expected to be massive amounts of video traffic, partially driven by social networking sites. All those voice-over-internet phone calls will naturally add to the flow of packets that need to be routed around the world.

All this makes me wonder whether it might be better to allow a bit more discrimination in routing. Sending and receiving video is fun, but rarely essential. Having the more prosaic uses of the internet suffer unduly because of such things seems improper. I could probably surf text all day using the bandwidth required to watch a few minutes of television online.

I don’t really know enough about internet architecture to be able to say whether such filtering could be accomplished, whether it would be cheated very easily, or whether it would cause additional problems. That said, you can certainly expect such questions to get asked more often if predictions of slowly loading websites and jerky video calls prove correct.

Photo archives

This afternoon, Emily and I were looking through photo albums from when I was a young child. One of many thoughts that occurred to me during the course of flipping through photos nearly a quarter-century old is the enduring quality of such media. Digital photography is a lot cheaper and more convenient, but it is also likely to be more ephemeral. Who has confidence that their digital photos will endure for twenty or thirty years? Who has the backups, and on media with that kind of lifespan? Neither burned CDs nor hard drives can really be counted upon for such a duration.

People may age may be the last generation to commonly have baby photos to look at in old age. Someone should offer a service where digital files are pressed onto bronze in file formats that will still be readable decades or centuries hence.

An idea for reducing electoral fraud

Sasha Ilnyckyj, Mica Prazak, Alena Prazak, Oleh Ilnyckyj, and Milan Ilnyckyj

When it comes to elections, there are a number of different kinds of attacks against the voting process that should concern us. Excluding things like bribing and threatening voters, we need to worry about votes not getting counted, votes getting changed, and votes being inappropriately added. In the first case, an unpopular government may remove opposition supporting ballots from ballot boxes in marginal constituencies. In the second, they might alter or replace ballots, converting opposition votes to government ones. In the third, they might simply add more ballots that support the government.

A relatively simple measure could protect against the first two possible attacks. When a person votes, they could be given a random string of characters. One copy would get printed on their ballot, another would be theirs to keep. Then, once the ballots had been tabulated, a list could be posted on the internet. Sorted by electoral district, it would list the various options people could have chosen, the total number of people who chose each, and a list of the random strings that each person brought home. The importance of the random string is that it preserves the integrity of the secret ballot. Because each string is generated using a random number generator, no string can be tied to an individual. Only the copy given to the voter allows them to check that their vote was properly counted.

Under this system, if I voted for Candidate A and got the string “GHYDMLKNDLHFL,” I could check the list under Candidate A on the website and ensure that my vote was counted for the right person. If my vote hadn’t been counted, my string wouldn’t be anywhere on the list. If it had been miscounted, it would appear in the wrong place. People who found themselves in that situation could complain to the electoral authority, the media, and foreign observers.

The system remains vulnerable to an attacker adding new ballots in support of their candidate, but only to a certain degree. Provided there are some independent observers watching the polling station, the approximate number of people who voted can be pretty easily determined. If the number of votes listed on the website is well in excess of that number, it can be concluded that fraud has occurred.

None of this is any good against a government truly committed to rigging an election; they will always be able to brush off complaints from foreigners and the media, and they will rig the electoral authority. At the same time, it would make rigging more difficult and increase public confidence in the electoral system in any state that implements it. Being able to see your vote listed in the appropriate place may also make elections feel more concrete and personal.

The system does create some new risks. Attackers might force voters to share their random string. If they did so, they could determine who an individual voted for: a worrisome prospect in situations where people could be threatened to vote in one way or another. Likewise, having confirmation that a vote went one way or the other could make vote-selling a bigger problem. With a standard ballot, there is no way to know whether a paid voter actually voted the way they were paid to vote. These additional risks should be borne in mind in the context of any particular election or state. In some cases, they could make the dangers of this approach outweigh its benefits. In most places, however, I suspect it would be beneficial and relatively inexpensive.

Some previous posts on electoral security:

Be grateful for bees

Sasha Ilnyckyj

My favourite reading snack these days is soy-covered almonds. They have lots of delicious umami flavour. Recently, I was surprised to learn that 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in a 600,000-acre section of California’s Central Valley. Since almonds need to be pollinated by honey bees (apini apis) and there is only nectar available in that area when almonds are in bloom, the bees need to be trucked in from elsewhere. Every February, more than a million hives – containing 40,000 bees – get trucked in. By 2005, it proved necessary to import a 747 full of bees from Australia for the ‘pollination event.’

The mutual exposure of those two distantly separated bee populations results in the exchange of microbes and parasites. Therein may lie the cause of the North American Colony Collapse Disorder outbreak that began in 2006. Honey bees are also used to pollinate peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and strawberries. There are dozens of others, ranging from those that simply benefit from the availability of pollinating bees to those (such as squash and vanilla) where the bees are absolutely indispensable.