NYTimes on Diebold

A big-picture look at the whole mess: Machine Politics in the Digital Age [pdf]

Senator Jon Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey, does not buy such conspiracy theories, but he said he was appalled at the situation.

“It’s outrageous,” he said. “Not only does Mr. O’Dell want the contract to provide every voting machine in the nation for the next election – he wants to ‘deliver’ the election to Mr. Bush. There are enough conflicts in this story to fill an ethics manual.”

[…] About 15,000 internal Diebold e-mail messages also found their way to the Internet. Some referred to software patches installed on Diebold machines days before elections. Others indicated that the Microsoft Access database used in Diebold’s tabulation servers was not protected by passwords. Diebold, which says passwords are now installed on machines, is threatening legal action against anyone who posts the files or links to them, contending that the e-mail is copyrighted.

[…] “There’s a feeling in the computer scientist community of utter dismay about the state of voting-machine technology,” said Douglas W. Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and a member of Iowa’s board of examiners for voting machines.

David L. Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford, said: “If I was a programmer at one of these companies and I wanted to steal an election, it would be very easy. I could put something in the software that would be impossible for people to detect, and it would change the votes from one party to another. And you could do it so it’s not going to show up statistically as an anomaly.”

Diebold says there are enough checks and balances in the system to catch this. “Programmers do not set up the elections; election officials do,” Mr. Swidarski said. “All a programmer knows are numbers, which are not assigned to real people and parties until set-up time.”

But Professor Dill says the inherent complexity of software code makes it nearly impossible to ensure that computerized elections are fair. He advocates that machines be required to print out a paper ballot, which voters can use to verify their selections and which will serve as an audit trail in the event of irregularities or recounts.

[…] Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist and president of the consulting firm Notable Software, who has been studying election systems for 14 years, says the trouble with this system is that it is secretive. It prohibits anyone from knowing whether the data coming out of the terminals represents what voters actually selected. If someone were to challenge election results, the data in memory cards and the software running the voting terminals could be examined only by Diebold representatives.

MS. MERCURI ran up against this last year, when she served as a consultant in a contested city council election in Boca Raton, Fla. Her request to look at the software inside the city’s machines, made by Sequoia, to see if there were any bugs or malfunctions, was denied by a judge on the grounds that the technology was protected by trade-secret clauses. Sequoia, ES&S and Diebold routinely include such clauses in their contracts.

“These companies are basically saying ‘trust us,’ ” Ms. Mercuri said. “Why should anybody trust them? That’s not the way democracy is supposed to work.”

A Not-So-New Game, Replayed in a New Market

Although this article is ostensibly about how the industry is learning to convert movies to DVDs, I would argue that it can also be read as the movie industry’s development of a continuous upgrade treadmill. Consider just how many format changes there are between the 17GB of a DVD and the 150+ GB of a raw 2 hour film: When Bad DVD’s Happen to Great Films [pdf]

In June 1999, Warner Home Video issued “The Stanley Kubrick Collection,” a seven-disc boxed set of the director’s films, for $149. Two years later, Warner came out with a remastered edition for $199. The new box had much better picture quality (and two extra discs, for “Eyes Wide Shut” and a documentary about Kubrick), but, again, no refund for the earlier, shoddier goods.

[…] Digital technology seems, on the face of it, a preposterously inadequate medium for storing movies, and we should gape in wonder that DVD’s yield coherent pictures at all, much less the gloriously sharp, detailed images they churn out under the best of conditions. Consider: A DVD stores only 17 gigabytes of data. A two-hour film, transferred to digital data and otherwise untreated, would take up more than 150 gigabytes.

So the data must first be massively compressed, mainly by digitally sampling a frame, then sampling only the information that changes in subsequent frames. This is no big deal for a scene of someone standing still against a blank wall. But it’s a major challenge for a scene of someone running through traffic surrounded by dozens of flashing lights and moving objects. If a film is old and damaged, the compression machine will “read” random dirt and scratches in the same way it reads motion. If the machine’s operator doesn’t pay attention and make adjustments, or if the machine is sub-par, the digitized image will be full of waves, zigzags and other distracting distortions.

Similar problems can plague color or, if it’s a black-and-white film, the gradations of gray. When transferring film from a negative to a print, someone has to practice the fine art of “color timing.” The same thing has to be done, though electronically, when transferring it to DVD. The job can be done well or it can be done badly.

“The main reason a lot of DVD’s are so bad,” says Robert A. Harris, president of the Film Preserve, one of the top film-restoring companies, “is that the people making them don’t know what they’re doing and don’t care what they’re doing.”

Q & A w/ Ice Cube

That’s a (W)rap!. With industry PR like this, who needs enemies?

Which makes you happier, making music or movies?

Making music makes me happier, but the music business doesn’t make me happy. It’s shady. It’s a bunch of talented people surrounded by untalented people looking to take advantage of them. That’s what the music industry is.

And the film industry isn’t just as bad?

They’re both bad. It’s like comparing two glasses of dirty water. One of them is going to taste better than the other. The movie business is more lucrative. The music business is dying because of piracy. There’s more freedom in making records, but you have to deal with the street. In the movie business, you deal with bureaucracy, boards and the stock market, which determines whether or not you are going to make a movie. It’s more political, which is frustrating, but the product is more rewarding.

Which industry are you more comfortable with as a businessman?

I don’t feel comfortable until the check clears in any business. It’s always about them trying to get you for less and you are trying to get more.

A Strange Article In Today’s Globe

This article declares the death of the videocassette recorder and the CD player: CD players, VCRs losing edge in a digital age. In the face of the broadcast flag decision, I can see that, at the current price points, the DVD recorder might be a wise purchase for this Christmas — after all, by next Christmas, these devices will be crippled (a point that this article’s author misses completely) — but I fail to see that the CD is really on the way out, at least not at the rate that the article suggests. But maybe that’s just an indicator of my age — or my fears of what kinds of DRM will be embedded in these “better” formats……

Most music lovers are expected to choose pocket-sized digital music devices, which can store thousands of songs, instead of CD players. And for the first time, the price of DVD recorders is expected to drop below $300, enough to start pushing the devices into the mainstream.

The rise of digital music players and the improvement to the DVD format are part of the technology evolution that disrupts the home entertainment industry every decade or so, enticing consumers to upgrade their entertainment collections. The vinyl record, videocassette, and now discs have all marched music and video toward the next era: digital distribution.

[…] Digital distribution of music will eventually replace CDs, analysts said, because digital music files are becoming easier for more people to buy over the Internet and store on computers.

”In five to seven years the music CD industry could be pretty much eliminated by online music distribution,” said Jonathan Hurd, vice president of Adventis Corp., a Boston technology strategy consultant.

But other analysts said the demise of VCRs and CD players will take longer because many consumers will not trust the new technologies enough to give up physical copies of movies and music.