Thursday, October 19, 2006

Thoughts Before and After the Election

This was written on October 19, but I never got around to finishing it.


I read a while back that in 1960, President Nixon was well aware that alleged vote fraud by the Democrats in Chicago helped Kennedy win the election. Nixon supposedly chose not to challenge the election because he didn't want to call into question the U.S. system of elections. Now this story may or may not be true, but I do believe that this kind of thing would have happened 40 or 50 years ago.

Nowadays, I wouldn't believe it for a minute. While the controversy in the 2000 Presidential Election took well over a month to resolve, with an army of lawyers and endless discussions of the absurdities of punch-card technology, the election was finally settled, and I believe the Rule of Law was upheld, even if in this case, the law was a poorly-thought-out law made by lazy state legislatures who obviously had never considered what would happen in the case of a close election. Of course, it's a given that the Democrats would bring race into the issue, but the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that while there was widespread incompetence, there was no deliberate voter disenfranchisement, yet another affirmation of the old adage, "Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence."

In 2004, the Democrats again called into question the integrity of the election system when Ohio, whose electoral votes put President Bush over the top, ended up being a close vote. Of course, there were other states where the vote was significantly closer, but of course they wouldn't have changed the election, so, I suppose, it didn't matter whether there were voting irregularities or not.


So now it's past the election and while I can't say I'm happy the Democrats won, I also can't say I'm sad the Republicans lost. Really, the choice it between the party that has 4 bullets in gun pointed at my head vs. the party that has 5 bullets in their gun pointed at my head.

Time to spin the cylinder...

The original piece was supposed to be about Electronic Voting and how flawed and unaccountable it is, something which has been covered in painful detail by people more devoted to the issue than I. My real fear this time around was that some party was going to once again question the legitimacy of the election, which is always damaging, except that this time they would have a good reason. However, I suppose the Democrats aren't going to complain because they won and Republicans aren't going to complain because even they have to admit they deserved to lose. Of course, the issue isn't going away, and if the 2008 Presidential election is again close, we will once again be forced to look at a system that probably isn't more accurate than the typical margin for error for any poll, which is plus or minus 3 points.

In Virginia we use optically-scanned ballots in which you fill in your choices with a black marker. The ballots are roughtly the size of a letter-sized piece of paper, which gives plenty of room to lay out the candidates in a non-cluttered way (none of that "butterfly" nonsense), and to include the entire wording of constitutional amendments, bond referenda or anything else we voters might be called upon to decide. After filling in the little dots, the voter feeds the ballot into a small machine which stores them. Afterwards they can be counted with optical-scanning technology that has been used and relied upon for many decades.

I think this is the most obvious solution as it allows for all the advantages of electronic voting, but there's always a hard copy of the vote to fall back on. Once you've got something in place to help the blind or otherwise disabled who cannot fill out the paper ballot, you have, what I think is a good solution, and I cannot imagine that this technology costs anywhere near as much as those hare-brained Diebold machines that can be hacked 7 ways to Sunday.

The biggest irony of this is that Diebold already manufactures machines that handle electronic transactions and record-keeping in a way that no one seems to have a problem with. They are called Automatic Teller Machines, and you can bet that if there were some question of ATMs being hackable or insecure, it would be big news, because unlike votes, which apparently have little value to most people, we're talking money here, and we all know that's what really runs the show.

Nevertheless, I am happy and relieved that our Great American System survived the election without any serious problems so our legislators can get back to squandering our money, security and future. After all, selling out the U.S. is going to remain a full-time job for quite a few years.

The Secretary of Commerce on Immigration

This is something I wrote on July 10, 2006.

So, I'm riding into work, and when Imus isn't interviewing someone interesting, I usually listen to C-Span. This morning they had
Secretary of Commerce Gutierrez talking about immigration reform and after listening to him I am totally disgusted.

Mostly, he spoke in vague generalities, dodged practically every question and all but said that they weren't going to do anything about the immigration problem. I never heard so many straw-man arguments in a row in my life.

Among his points:

1. The government needs to make it easier for businesses to "enforce the law". He repeated that phrase in the context of "businesses" more than once. How blatant can you be? Here's a Bush representative openly abdicating on law enforcement with respect to immigration. I thought that was his job. Thanks a lot.

2. He claimed that the new biometric cards that are supposed to replace the many different legal forms of identification would be "unforgeable". I give them 10 years to get this in place, if ever, and counterfeit cards will be out in a month. There's too much money involved for it not to be.

3. He admitted that most immigrants are poorly educated, low-wage earners that wouldn't contribute to the government as much as they would consume, but if we let millions more of these folks in, through the "magic" (his word) of the American Melting Pot, they and their kids would become contributing members of society. No doubt this is true for many people, but when you are invoking "magic" to sell your point, you are looking pretty weak, regardless of what you are arguing.

4. He had no specific proposals and only insisted that Congress has to come up with something good. He kept insisting that everyone who thinks the administration is not addressing this correctly is wrong, but didn't really explain why. He insisted multiple times that while the Administration hasn't enforced existing laws, they would enforce the new ones, if they were "workable".

5. He invoked "Jobs Americans won't do", which is the worst straw man argument of all. First off, the vast majority of "jobs Americans won't do" are being done by legal Americans. Second, of course the illegals are going to have an upper hand. Employers don't have to pay taxes, they can skirt OSHA and other regulations, they don't have to worry about Labor laws (how many times do you hear about garment sweatshops being busted up in California)... of course Americans aren't going to want to do the job and employers can undercut them by 50% and lost very little because everything's off the books.

While I generally support the President's foreign policies (even though the "war" isn't being run very well), I can't think of one thing that Republicans have done domestically besides the tax cut (which made their grotesque overspending 10 times worse) that is positive. To make things worse, the Supreme Court, including the guys I support, have basically said it's OK to ignore the "exclusionary rule" for evidence if the crime is serious enough (i.e., "terror"-related), once again throwing Rule of Law in the toilet, which is about the only thing definitive the U.S. Government has achieved in the past 15 years.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A place to vent...

I decided to segregate my rantings, and that this area would be for issues of a technological (and perhaps eventually a political) nature. So, I would like to mention another location I have set up. It's called Disgruntled Catholic, and if you have any interest, I invite you to check it out. But be warned, unless you know me personally, it's almost certainly not what you are expecting.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Time Machine

This is interesting. It's a piece I first posted in May of 1999 talking about Microsoft. It was the advent of Windows 2000 and it's interesting to see how my opinions in those days mirror the kinds of things people are saying now. It's also interesting to see where I was completely wrong.


First off, I think Microsoft has done a number of incredibly unfair things over the years. The very first non-trivial Windows program I attempted to write back in 1990 immediately got me into uncharted waters. I was trying to do something that I knew you could do (Program Manager did it), but it simply wasn't documented. One only needs to read the likes of Schullman to see that Microsoft was unfairly competing against other application makers by using secret features of the OS that were undocumented to the outside world.

I think that this situation has become better, but has probably not gone away entirely.

I also believe that Microsoft has strongarmed hardware OEMs resulting in other operating systems being unfairly shut out of bundling options. The recent Windows Refund brouhaha only demonstrates how pervasive and unfair this is.

I also believe that Microsoft is currently in quality free-fall, which seemed to start about a year or two ago (about the time of NT SP2). There is obviously no guiding principle in the design of the applications or features of the OS. There is incredible inconsistency in the way things work. Almost every application has a muddled, confused designed-by-committee style interface (configuration of the OS being one of the worst examples). Microsoft's products crash easily and with the plethora of service packs and hot fixes flying around, it is almost impossible to get everything to work together. I recently reinstalled NT and had to install the OS, Office and IE 3 times in order to figure out what order to install everything so that it worked (active setup crashes egregiously for me once IIS is installed), I had all the features I wanted (there seems to be no way to get the Explorer enhancements from IE4 in IE5 without installing IE4 first).

I'm told that if you're using SQL Server, and Back Office, et al, it's ten times worse.

I think there is a fundamental flaw in everything Microsoft does these days and it comes down the company being too big and not having a unified philosophy driving software development. Every different piece of the OS or an app (or even the Windows SDK) looks like it was designed by a group that did not communicate with any other group. I read that there were about 8 different versions of Office 97 service pack 1 depending on where you got it from or how you installed it and there were serious compatibility problems with service pack 2 because of it. The only difference between a beta release and an official release these days seems to be the name... and _then_ Microsoft has the audacity to sell beta software. Of course that fact that people are willing to buy it says a lot too.

I and others I knew were doing serious development with Windows NT 4.0 beta 1
and beta 2 with little or no problems. In those days, NT was considered a paragon of stability and typically had rock-solid performance. I don't even plan on switching to Windows 2000 when it comes out for two reasons. One: based on Microsoft's recent track record I'd rather stick with problems I know than problems I don't know. and 2) I don't see a single compelling reason to upgrade, just a bunch of feature bloat. After all these years, NT still has a terrible performance problem multitasking with disk access, and I don't see that going away until the OS is rewritten from the ground up again (NNT, I suppose).

Now after stating a rather low opinion of the company's recent products, I will say the Internet Explorer is generally the best browser, and is certainly far superior to Netscape Navigator. I perceive the whole browser monopoly issue to be a non-issue. Netscape is just whining because, in my opinion, they simply can't write a solid piece of code. Netscape 1 and 2 were absolutely pathetic, Netscape 3 was alright, but by that time IE had surpassed it in quality and features and Netscape 4 is one big bloated mess.

I think the government's persecution of Microsoft's bundling the browser with the OS is patently ridiculous. It's analogous to preventing GM from bundling radios in its cars. As long as Microsoft's competitors have access to the same documentation for the OS as everyone else Microsoft should be able to bundle anything it wants. The government's position seems to hinge on the fact that if something comes with the OS, people are either too lazy or stupid to switch and this is simply wrong (and even if it were true, that's what marketing is for).

Netscape seems to rely on hatred of Microsoft to drive its
market share, whereas I'm more pragmatic. In the case of the browser, I think Microsoft wins fair and square. In the case of office suites the competition is superior.

In summary, I think that Microsoft has definitely competed unfairly in the past and continues to do so today. However, the government's ignorant and laughable case against bundling the browser is a big waste of time and money.

In the meantime, Microsoft better try a new approach: Simple, clean, stable tools that are easy to use rather than an incoherent amalgam of lamely implememented tick items on some marketers dream list, because at the rate they are going, Linux is going to eat their lunch.


So, looking back, my predictions for the upcoming Windows 2000 were way off. Part of the reason is that my perceptions were definitely colored by the train wreck that was Windows 95 and Windows 98. Both were overly ambitious, grotesquely overcomplicated kluges that I wouldn't wish on my enemies. I still feel sad for the billions of productive hours that must have been wasted by people struggling with these awful products. I won't even mention ME, which was supposedly even worse, but I never used it. All along a perfect substitute was available, at least for business users and some home users, which was Windows NT. NT 3.51, the first version I ever used, was extremely stable. NT was Microsoft's attempt to start from scratch and remake Windows the way it should be, and for the most part they did a really good job. NT 4.0 inherited the UI elements, and some of the weirdness of Windows 95, but when Windows 2000 came out, Microsoft hit a home run. It was solid, hard to crash and generally just worked. Despite the fact that it was less secure than the Maginot Line and was still saddled with Explorer, the most consistently horrible piece of crashware ever conceived in the fever swamps of Redmond, using Windows 2000 was a pretty enjoyable experience. Less than two years later, XP came along with a little more of this and that, some basic improvements, but nothing compelling, and it was burdened with the ugliest UI theme since Tandy Deskmate, but that was easy enough to turn off. However, except for the wireless support (which can be a nightmare unto itself), XP didn't offer anything compelling either, and the only reason I use it is because it came with the last 3 laptops I bought.

Of course, at the time, the family computer was running Windows 98, which meant I had to do almost daily maintenance on the thing just so the kids could run their games. I finally broke down and bought a copy of Windows XP Home because I felt too much of their software wouldn't run on Windows 2000. All of a sudden I didn't have to support the computer any more. Of course, the poor 200MHz Pentium Pro could barely browse the Web with XP, but it sure did work. We upgraded the machine to a used 400MHz P3 and XP was happy, if not too perky.

I find it interesting that so much of what I said about Windows 2000 is what people are saying about Vista now. It seems that from an end user point of view, support for new hardware is about the only new thing Microsoft has given us that anyone cares about. In that, they have done a good job, and I suspect that the changes in Vista's architecture will make that even better since hardware drivers won't live so deeply in the kernel. But last time I checked, Moore's Law was taking a bit of vacation, and we all have more MIPS than we will ever need for 98% of what we do anyway. If you don't need a new computer, you won't need a new operating system to run it. I have no plans to upgrade to Vista. In fact, if I change anything, I'll be installing Linux. The only reason I haven't is because of applications like Paint Shop Pro. If it weren't for certain Windows apps I use every day, I'd prefer to use Linux.

Linux just makes more sense to me... although it is definitely not eating Microsoft's lunch... yet.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Microsoft Rules

I wrote this in March of 2003, although I think it still holds true.


These are certainly not real rules, but are rules that Microsoft appears to follow by their actions.

Microsoft Rule #1: Every app must be expanded until it can be used as a vehicle for a virus that can trash the system. (In fact, no app is useful unless it can be used as a virus vehicle. If MS wrote edlin today it would be possible to hijack it through TCP/IP and use scripting to access kernel functions.)

Microsoft Rule #2: Flexibility in UI is acceptable, but defaults must confuse new users and frustrate experienced ones.

Microsoft Rule #3: GUI standards are no longer necessary. Shiny objects are always user-friendly.

Microsoft Rule #4: No useful thing can be designed unless by committee. Consistency and clarity are not signs of maturity. Simplicity is for amateurs. (Breaking up Microsoft would have about as much effect as asking a blind guy if he would not look over people's shoulders during the final exam.)

Microsoft Rule #5: Security has less "gee-whiz" factor than skinning and is therefore a less important feature. (Plus it's just too darn much trouble to check each memory buffer copy, especially when we'd rather spend time making the media player look like eyeballs. 2006 update: Although security is better, I still think I've heard more hype about Aero than Vista's security improvements.)

Microsoft Rule #6: Dominating a market is the same as excelling in a market ("Economic might makes right", or more simply "A monopoly means God smiles on everything you do.").

Microsoft Rule #7: Change is improvement, by definition. (But this is universal among software companies...)


No doubt Microsoft does some good stuff, but they stopped being a software company in the mid 90's. They are now a marketing company that exists solely to maintain their market share. Semantic difference, you say? Perhaps, but a software company exists to write and deliver better software than the competition. Microsoft, as a marketing company, exists to make sure people keep using Microsoft, regardless of what the competition is doing, and regardless of whether their software delivers more value than the competition's, or even their own earlier versions... because we all know the biggest competition to Vista is, in face, XP and Windows 2000.

The irony of the Federal antitrust suit in the late 90's was that the real damage was done in the late 80's and early 90's. Just ask Andrew Schulman. Microsoft had significant functionality in Windows that was undocumented, and therefore Microsoft alone, or whomever Microsoft chose to bless by granting them the boon of the secret incantations, had a significant advantage when it came to writing high-performance software, or software that required low-level access to the operating system. That Microsoft was actually declared by a Federal Court to be a honest-to-John D. Rockefeller monopoly, the Bush administration came along and let them off the hook with a stern finger-wagging. "Look, just don't do it any more", John Ashcroft is alleged to have muttered, still smarting over the fact that he lost his Senate re-election bid to a dead guy.

By the time Netscape started their toddler tantrum over Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, it was more than five years too late to make a difference. Netscape was just whining because their grotesquely bloated version 4 was inferior to Internet Explorer version 4 (whereas prior to that the Netscape browser was much better). I wonder why Adobe didn't have a problem with the fact that Paint is also shipped with Windows. Given Netscape's logic, the Zippo Manufactuing Company should be suing General Motors for putting a cigarette lighter in the Hummer 2.

Internet Explorer is as ingrained into Windows as ever, and that hasn't stopped Firefox from making significant inroads into Microsoft's share of the browser market because Firefox is simply better overall and more secure. More specifically, Firefox probably has the majority of market share for those people who are knowledgeable enough to understand the difference and know how to switch browsers. I haven't played with Internet Explorer 7 yet, but everything I've read indicates that it, at best, catches up with the more modern browsers, and doesn't offer anything significant over software like Firefox and Opera.

Microsoft is at a crossroads. They will either need to make their new offerings relevant and compelling, or will start what will become a long, painful decline. Sadly, Vista seems to offer too little too late. Given that the only thing driving end users to upgrade from Windows 2000, aside from wireless support and a few other small improvements, is that Microsoft will soon discontinue support for Windows 2000, Vista does not offer any compelling "gotta have it" features that make the multi-hundred dollar upgrade worth bothering with for the vast majority of users. I suspect Microsoft will have to rely on Vista being shipped with new machines for the majority of its sales, although that will be a significant amount.

Monday, October 02, 2006


Originally posted 2005-05-07

Among my other wastes of time these days, I've gotten bitten by the Persistence of Vision bug again. I've been playing with POV since version 0.5 in 1992 and it's been a fun ride. Unlike most 3D software POV is basically a ray-tracing engine controlled by scripts. In other words, it's like programming. There are GUI modellers that support POV, but I've only used one once, for the beads in the Mardi Gras flyer on

Anyhow, I've been wanting to do Bender for a long time, because besides being one of the best characters from the late lamented Futurama, he's also very simple, geometrically.

I'm still mad at Fox for cancelling Futurama, which by Season 3 was consistently better than The Simpsons, which has been good, but not great, for the last 3 or 4 years. (The 16th season in particular has been very spotty (some it has been very good, but there are more lame episodes than usual), and from the looks of it, it's going to be the shortest season ever. And is it just me, or has the quality of the artwork gone down a bit?). Among their line-up of about 4 really good shows and another couple dozen that are mostly stupid and/or horrible, can't they have room for a show that is smart, funny and creative? They brought back Family Guy, fer cryin' out loud, and the only thing even remotely funny about that show is the Dad, and he's a complete rip-off of Homer Simpson. Meanwhile, American Idol, the show about mostly ugly people who mostly can't sing, gets an audience in the tens of millions.

Life's unjust, I tells ya...

Um, I'm rambling. Here are some Bender pics. I want to add some props like a beer bottle and cigar, but to do that, I'll have to change his pose. I found quite a few 3D Benders on-line, but in every case, even though some of the artwork was very good, the proportions were usually way off, or the details were all wrong. I tried to get the details as close as possible, although you will notice the lines on his arms and legs aren't there. As soon as I can figure out how to do it, I will.

I also recently viewed the "How to Draw Bender" on one of the Futurama DVDs and discovered that Bender, like all of Matt Groening's characters, is supposed to have an overbite. Shock and dismay! I haven't made a change to reflect this, but if you are interested, here's the source code for Bender so you can stick him in your own scene.