Electronic voting machines in Monroe County

I headed up to Medley Centre (N. Goodman St. and Medley Centre Pkwy., formerly Irondequoit Mall) to check out the new voting machines. The first unfortunate thing was that two of the three companies who were to demonstrate their machines were de-certified by The Monroe County Board of Elections (39 Main St. W., #106) yesterday (according to the buzz around the demonstration area, at least — certainly not because of an official announcement by the Board of Elections). The one that remained was made by Sequoia Voting Systems (221 Hopkins Ave., Jamestown).

The person giving the presentation tried to impress upon people the ease of use of the machine. Basically you cast your ballot on a paper ballot (filling in bubbles to indicate your choice). You then feed your ballot into a scanning machine which confirms that it read your choices correctly by displaying back your selections and allowing you to cast your ballot or to reject it — allowing you to fix any errors or to destroy the ballot and start over. Once your vote is cast using the machine, the ballot is digitally scanned then placed in a locked ballot box.

A second, related system allows a person unable to fill in circles on the ballot to use a computerized system to assist them in creating a paper ballot. Various accessible user-input devices are supposedly available to guide a voter to select candidates using visual and audio feedback.

The questions of the group that I was with had to do with assurance that their vote was counted properly. The representative pooh-poohed talk of "security" as a non-issue. I asked where I could see the schematics, engineering drawings, and source code and the representative said that they don't have them available at the time but that I could contact the Board of Elections.

I was glad to see a physical paper ballot system in place but I was concerned about the use of the machine as the source of the primary election totals. If it's true that the Board of Elections intends to use the counts attained by the machine as their first official count, then it would not be difficult to skew the results to favor one candidate or another by modifying the computer code. A manual recount, while thankfully possible under this system, would likely not uncover a problem in cases where two or more candidates were very close in vote totals.

I was very disappointed that the representatives on hand were strongly discouraging people from examining the voting machine on their own. I was told not to touch it, and that I should not be behind the machine. This implies to me that Sequoia has something to hide from the American people.

Sequoia provided information sheets that described the company's "lineage" back to Jacob Myers' United States Voting Machine Company founded in Jamestown in 1896. For anyone who has been with a company that changes names (to Automatic Voting Machine Corporation in 1925) or that has been purchased (by Sequoia Voting Systems in 1984), the concept of "retaining the values of the company" is worth about as much as the bytes to store it.

But let's get to the meat of it: what political parties does Sequoia make donations to? Who do they lobby in the Federal government? How much money do they spend on lobbying? These are the questions that define the values of a company, not its "lineage". And regardless, the mechanical, electrical, and programmatic design of the system should be open-source from the beginning. The idea that an "elite few" people in Sequoia are among those responsible enough to keep the secret data is a recipe for abuse.

And this is about our election system: the very foundation upon which we have a representative government. Once that system is overturned, we will be living in a dictatorship no better than any puppet democracy anywhere else in the world.

Back of the Throat at Geva Nextstage

Ali and I went to Nextstage at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) to see the first screenplay reading of The Hornets' Nest series: Back of the Throat by Yussef el Guindi. In it, a man of Middle-Eastern descent (Khaled) is being questioned by two federal agents (Bartlett and Carl) shortly after September 11, 2001. The agents are not charging Khaled with any particular crime and Khaled — an American citizen — is glad to help in any way he can until the agents start to become suspicious.

Popular media teaches us that police officers know who's guilty and they just need to shake out the right information to catch the crooks. In reality, they are not nearly as prescient as a scriptwriter. When the illusion of prescience is lost, the whole process of open-ended interrogation works only to blur the difference between the innocent and the guilty rather than to help define it.

Regardless of whether Khaled is innocent or guilty, as the questioning continues, he appears defensive which looks both like innocence and like guilt. So as a tool for divining the innocent from the guilty, this is a particularly poor one. Worse, though, is that the agents become more confident in their belief that Khaled is guilty, so they press further, and the more defensive he becomes, the more they feel he's guilty and uncooperative.

In some ways I find the script-in-hand readings more powerful than a performance. When an action or object is described briefly in words, it has a naturally ambiguous realization — whereas in an actual performance, the actions and objects are all specific, concrete examples. So in a case like this, the ambiguity echoed and amplified the overall effect, making for a very disturbing reading.

Seeing Strange Culture and Steve Kurtz at the Dryden

Ali and I headed to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Strange Culture. The movie is a haunting mid-process reenactment/documentary of what has been happening to Steven Kurtz.

Steve is an art professor at SUNY Buffalo (17 Capen Hall, Amherst, NY) and a member of a group called The Critical Art Ensemble. He was working on several projects with his wife, Hope when in May, 2004, she died in her sleep. Steve didn't know what to do so he called 911. When police arrived, they saw the petri dishes of bacteria cultures they were preparing for one of the art exhibits and called in the FBI. Steve was detained for 22 hours and questioned under suspicion of bioterrorism (but not actually arrested — just illegally detained). His wife's body was taken away and the local coroner ruled her death a heart attack caused by a rare congenital condition. The FBI then took her body and did another autopsy coming to the same conclusion.

So when they were unable to bring him up on charges of bioterrorism, the Department of Justice has filed mail fraud and wire fraud charges against him and a scientist (Robert Ferrell) he worked with to obtain the bacteria samples (which are harmless, by the way, and readily available through the Internet). Steve was not able to bring up details of the case but a woman he'd been working with (I can't seem to find her name anywhere) was able to fill in details Steve was not permitted to.

Basically mail and wire fraud is a civil case — one brought by one party against another when they feel defrauded. The Department of Justice is trying to expand their power by bring it to trial as a criminal case: although neither party involved with the transfer of the bacteria feels defrauded, the Department of Justice is charging both parties with willfully violating the implicit contract between them.

Oh yeah, so anyway: the movie. They used a mix of actors performing reenactments and actual participants discussing the facts of the case. Since the outcome isn't yet determined — Steve has not yet gone to trial — as a documentary, it has a, well, "special" feel to it. Ordinarily you'd expect a documentary to be released after the fact; to put a nice bow at the end of the story to say what happened. Well this one didn't. And as such it's rather unique to leave that huge story arc just dangling off the end of the film.

I asked about whether Steve knew that this particular art project would make people so upset — as an artist, I think there's some desire to have an impact, but rarely is it true that jack-booted thugs really do kick down your door. He said they were working on several projects not mentioned in the movie. One of them was about germ warfare (and what the samples were largely for) to help people understand just how ineffective it really is. I mean, if you look at the facts of the anthrax scare from 2001, 17 people got infected and 5 people died — and this was military-grade antrhax. It's a crappy weapon, yet we're conditioned by our government to cower from it — remember all about sealing up a room with plastic and duct tape in case of an attack?

I cannot begin to express how disappointed I am at the United States Government and the people who blindly support it. It's stupefying to me to believe that a few innocent people need to be used as scapegoats so that our laws are stronger??? It is beyond logic and beyond hope to me.

I saw an interview with John Hope Franklin by Charlie Rose and it got me thinking about slavery

I had a hard time getting to sleep and I ended up watching TV for a bit. I stumbled on an episode of Charlie Rose on WXXI re-run from December 1, 2005: an interview with John Hope Franklin shortly after he published his book, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. I caught bits-and-pieces as I went in-and-out of feverish sleep.

I did catch a discussion on slavery, though. Franklin's view is that for America to really get over slavery, we need to acknowledge that it was a pivotal part of building America. He also made an argument for reparations in an intelligent manner. I don't remember it completely clearly, but he said that it wasn't as simple as white people writing checks to blacks. I gathered that his intention was that it was not the monetary compensation that was important — for that alone is meaningless — but that it was the whole process of accepting that it happened, understanding that it was an important part of America's development, realizing the effects that have carried to today, and preparing to heal those wounds and close the gaps.

Here he was a man born 50 years after slavery was abolished and who has grown through the slow process of stamping out the flames of racism. As I drifted off, I recall him talking about how slavery is alive today. All those ideas seem to have stuck with me.

So I got to thinking about slavery: what is it?

Well it's white slave masters with whips in the South beating blacks to pick cotton while they got rich. Something like that, right? I imagine that on average slaves were treated like work animals: they were given minimal-but-adequate food, shelter, water, clothing, and health care, they were forced to work, and they were not allowed to leave of their own volition.

So then I connected that with minimum wage. Consider a married person with 2 kids working 40 hours at New York's current minimum wage of $7.15/hour. Working a full 52 weeks nets you $14,872 a year and at the end of the year, you pretty much pay no income tax. Let's round that off to $1,250/month. You'll need a place to stay, so that's like $700/month, then gas and electric will cost another $250 or so. Groceries for a family with 2 kids you might be able to sneak for $200/month if you're frugal. So that's $1,150/month in basic expenses leaving $100 for "incidentals" like health care, clothing, and, oh yeah: transportation.

Let's say you manage to enroll in night classes for a better-paying job (which is the only "acceptable" way of bettering yourself — unlike a well-paid person who is free to take classes in scrapbooking, for instance, without nearly as much sneering and harumphing: a clear double-standard if you ask me). But then the car breaks down … *whip crack* … or your kid needs a tooth pulled … *whip crack* … or you fall ill … *whip crack*.

Just making it through one year without some "mishap" qua "financial disaster" happening is a lucky year indeed. Add to that that you need to be infallible — for human error is not an acceptable portion of the equation. (But remember also that by the luck of the draw, you're probably somewhere around average intelligence and average skill, not superhuman.)

Oh, you say, but there's a safety net of welfare. Yes, a safety net indeed — wherein you accept your minimal-but-adequate food, shelter, water, clothing, and health care, on the condition that you follow the rules and take any job you're accepted for. Given your skills, the best you can hope for is another minimum-wage job. By the way, good luck paying off that debt you now have too.

But there are people who have escaped the cycle, so it must be possible. Possible, yes, but likely no. It requires determination, skill, and luck to all come into confluence. Without all three, the cycle stays closed.

So in the end, I think that's maybe what we need to realize about America: that it took determination, skill, and luck to get to where we are today. Then perhaps we can admit that "minimum wage" approximates "slavery" well enough to call them equivalent. And then we can look at how America operates today and realize that our present view of "prosperity" is predicated upon owning slaves.

And then, maybe we can start to talk about ending slavery once and for all.

Ali's Mom Visits

Ali's mom came to visit this weekend. They got to spend a lot of time together working on decorating her house. We also hit a couple local restaurants — first-and-foremost was Don's Original (4900 Culver Rd.) as she always makes her way back there any chance she can. We also had an excellent meal at Pomodoro Grill and Wine Bar (1290 University Ave.) There's no surprise why they're still around after all these years.

I spent most of the weekend alternately trying to get things done and nursing a fever. I would have probably given them lots of time anyway (as it's been a long time since Ali's mom has been back in Rochester) but the fever just amplified the situation that much more. (And they did have a nice time, just the two of them.)

Abel Raises Cain at the Dryden

I headed out to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Abel Raises Cain, a documentary about Alan Abel by his daughter Jenny Abel.

Abel made a name for himself by being a professional hoaxer starting in 1959 when he founded "SINA": the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals — their "goal" was to clothe animals but the subversive edge was as a protest to media censorship. He waited for the media to catch on that it was a hoax but they didn't — as he points out, even the name of the group defies its own cause.

I was really inspired by his life and work. Although his overarching message is "don't believe everything you hear," I was transfixed by the manipulation of the news media. For if there's one secret the news media cannot bear to let the public know, it's that they are pretending to be expert authorities on everything they report on — journalism is supposedly this noble profession where hard-working reporters seek out the truth and report it for everyone to see.

The trouble with the truth is that you — yourself — need to do the work of fully understanding what it is you're trying to understand. For the most part, we take it on faith that cold water will freeze before hot water, the interstate highway system has straight sections that can be used as emergency airstrips, or that cell phones can cause a fire at a gas station. We take it on faith that the people reporting the news know what they're talking about — that they found experts and checked sources and did all that important stuff to ensure it's all true.

So I'm thrilled when someone like Abel can come around and show that the foundation for the faith in the news is false. Other people, though [also known as "people I tend to not get along with very well"] are deeply troubled by such exposure. They felt safe and assured that everything they were told was true. But when someone proves otherwise, it is they who make the world less safe by pointing it out.

Bob Spahn Talks About Climate Change and Bird Migration at Thursday Thinkers

I went to The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) to check out the Thursday Thinkers lecture: Bob Spahn was to talk about The Earlier Springs, Later Falls in terms of whether birds are extending their migratory stay in the north owing to a warming climate. He rephrased the question: "do we have bird record data to show changes in arrival dates indicating warming climates?" and to that he said no.

He examined the data from several regional ornithological groups' records of arrival dates of birds in New York State but found no statistically significant difference in dates over 25 years of records. At first I wasn't satisfied with his analysis, but as the lecture continued, I realized it was the data that was the culprit. He mentioned that when you set out to analyze data, you need to carefully specify how to collect the data so it's relevant and useful.

The idea behind the data collection in New York State was to determine the number of each species of bird. As such, there were also notes of the first recorded sightings of each species. Additionally, the state is divided into 5-mile-by-5-mile regions for analysis. The criteria for observation seems specific, but even as Spahn noted: he recorded data for one region for several years until someone else took over and there was a huge disparity between their reports.

An alternative question to ask is, "is there a correlation between bird arrival dates and climate temperature?" The answer is "probably not". Spahn said that it's believed that bird migration is dictated by light levels. According to the WikiPedia article on bird migration, the purpose of migration is believed to do with the longer days in northern climates in the summer (i.e. more hours of daylight than the tropics) providing more hours to feed their young. Thus, even if there were climate change, it would likely not be shown in bird migration.

The Death of Hope

I started thinking about how it's the start of 2008 and what I can be hopeful for. And by "hope", I'm referring to a "belief that things will be better in the future". Not necessarily a specific time period, but I guess "in my lifetime" or "reasonably soon". Something like that.

I watched this video on YouTube called How It All Ends by a high-school science teacher named Greg. In it he outlines the response to the possibility of global warming in terms of risk-assessment. Either global warming is happening and caused by us, or it isn't, and either we do something about it or do nothing. His argument is that there are two positive outcomes: we do nothing and the threat of global warming was false, or we do something and it was true but we fix it. However, if we do something and global warming wasn't happening then — the worst case — is that we have a large economic hit; if we do nothing and global warming is happening, then — the worst case again — is that there are floods, droughts, and famines on a scale humanity has never seen. His bet, therefore, is to just take the economic hit and not worry about it.

But remember the last "catastrophic event" that was to happen?: the Y2K bug. And what happened? Nothing. And why? Because we took the economic hit of fixing everything we could find. And what did people believe? It was all a lie to start with.

So likewise with global warming, if I'm out there saying "travel less" and "use less energy" and that becomes forced upon people and then nothing bad happens, people will simply believe that global warming was a myth. They'll blame us "global warming freaks" for ruining their lives. And then if catastrophe does strike, they'll blame us "global warming freaks" for doing the wrong thing and not fixing everything for them. Therefore, my best bet is to quietly go off and figure out how to live in the catastrophic post-global-warming world without being seen. But that's not really hopeful at all — it's just surviving disaster.

The catalyst for this post, though, was in trying to do taxes. I wanted to get my taxes done early because I'm self-employed and need to hand over checks to the U.S. Government on a regular basis. If I don't estimate correctly, I get hit with a huge fine. But I can avoid it entirely if I file by January 31 and pay everything I owe. The only problem is that the forms I need from my bank and mortgage company won't arrive until after January 31, so it would be essentially illegal to file before January 31. So I've got my fingers crossed that I won't get in trouble.

I really wish taxes were simpler, but it's only me and other small business owners that even see it. I remember puzzling about how bad it really was in the 1990's — after all, the company I worked for handled all the hard stuff, and at the end of the year I'd fill out a few lines on a 1040EZ and get a check in the mail. Awesome! What's wrong with that system?

But worse is that I actually write a check to the government. If I don't, I'd go to prison which I don't want to do. I don't want the government to kill more people in Iraq, but my voice is not represented in the U.S. Government — I still have to pay taxes, though. [And here I thought that's why we fought that big war 230 some-odd years ago against England.] My big lament, though, is that I voluntarily sign the check to pay fund the war. If I were just a regular working person, I could claim that I don't get a choice — that taxes automatically come out of my paycheck.

And it's not like we're getting out of Iraq any time soon. It's a question of "how many Iraqis do we need to kill before they believe in freedom?" The real answer is, "we are the problem," but W. doesn't believe in being wrong. By the way, what ever happened to Osama bin Laden? We apparently failed to hang him, so I can only imagine he's planning another 9/11. I don't see any hope at all on that whole situation.

It used to be fashionable to help the poor — to ensure they have food, shelter, and water. Somewhere along the way "shelter" got eliminated, so it was just to feed the poor, but lately it's food stamps and welfare that are crippling the country. And water? Well if you can't afford to buy the clean stuff in the bottles you deserve what you get. What's next, air?

What about providing youth programs to keep kids off the street? Nah: just get more police to shoot them when they form gangs and start killing people. Health care? Hopeless. Public education? Hopeless.

The other day I was riding home from the Public Market — I took my bike with the trailer to get stuff — and I went to turn onto my street. I had to get into the left lane and I didn't see anyone behind me. As I turned into the turn-lane, someone tried passing me just at that moment and broke off the mirror on my bike. I was less than an inch away from getting knocked off the bike, and barely a foot away from being killed.

But did they stop? Hell no. I was just an obstacle in their way — a nuisance. Probably some worthless beggar who'd be better off dead than alive. I mean, can you believe that I thought I was permitted to ride on the street? That's for cars, moron!

And so goes the last shred of human decency: that nearly killing someone else is okay — in fact, it was my fault anyway for making them decide whether they needed to touch their brakes.

With that goes the last of hope.

Breakfast at the new Flour City Diner

Ali and I headed out to breakfast at Flour City Diner (2500 East Ave., formerly at 35 Chestnut St.) which has moved from their Chestnut Street location to the corner of East Avenue and Penfield Road — the Renaissance Apartments building just off 490. I think it's technically now in Brighton but, like all things suburban around here, it's still named after the city it abandoned.

We've found breakfast at the old location to be hit-or-miss. Generally the food quality was good but frequently the service left a lot to be desired. The new location is more of the same, only farther away [from us, at least, which is all that really matters]. I had the Cowboy Benedict which was eggs Benedict with steak — a good combination although a bit short on Hollandaise sauce.

I asked about credit cards and was told by our server that they are now accepted (they didn't used to be) but that cash is encouraged. I debated whether to go one way or another — I don't tend to carry much cash around, relying instead on moving money through plastic. I decided that if I got my coffee cup filled 3 times I would pay with cash.

Now what ever happened to that? Coffee refills, that is. I've noticed that Mount Hope Diner (1511 Mt. Hope Ave.) is particularly good about it, but other area diners seem to think that two cups is all you need. Well no, ma'am: keep it coming. Ideally, servers should have a coffee pot holster and be at-the-ready at any given moment to "warm up" a cup.

So I did get my 3rd refill, albeit long after we were done and from a different server. I ended up paying cash, but more because our server was so dreadfully slow that I was afraid we'd be there for another half-hour. And, you know — call me old fashioned [again] — but is it really too much to ask to be addressed and to have eye-contact when being spoken to? Our server seemed to always be telling us things while walking away.

So, to be honest, it's not all that different from when they were downtown. There are more seats (but apparently the same number of glasses and ketchup containers). Definitely a better-than-average diner, but I'm not sure if it's worth the trip.

Brand Upon the Brain! at the Dryden

I went to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Brand Upon the Brain!. It was amazing. Afterward I told a guy I knew that I now needed to stare at a blank wall for 2 hours to understand what I just saw.

It opens with a straightforward premise: a man, Guy Maddin (the writer's alter-ego) is contacted by his dying mother to repaint his childhood home — a lighthouse and orphanage — so she can visit it again. But then it was a little odd in that it was essentially a silent film with narration that's divided into 12 chapters. It was also shot on a mix of 16mm and 8mm film then enlarged to the 35mm print we got to see. And it's in black-and-white except for a few splashes of color. And, although most shots run in linear time, some are punctuated with repetition, slow-motion, or brief flash-forward glimpses.

So Guy returns to fulfill his mother's wishes. However, he's overcome by memories and the film flashes back to recall his childhood. The grainy footage, editing techniques, sounds, and narration affect the romantic imprecision of memory: especially the uniquely childhood memories, formed out of imprecise opinions and blended seamlessly with fantasy. His father toils endlessly in the shop while his mother keeps watch on all the children from her lighthouse perch (and through the fanciful "Aerophone" communication device). Guy's childhood proto-sexuality is a mishmash of lust, solitude, and gender ambiguity.

In all, the effect is stupefying, like distilled nostalgia. The discolored, muted memory of living the first time through — of things that were intended to only be experienced for the first time, well, once. So to try and live the emotions again has this dirty, cold grayness — a harbinger to leave … or to paint a new coat on the past to make it go away. It's like our memories are scabs, begging to be picked at, yet punishing us for doing so … until they're ready.

So I left the movie with that feeling. Life in the past, death in the present. Remembering, forgetting. Smells you'd forgotten, the new scent of loss everywhere.

You know … too much beauty to take in all at once.