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The devolution of voting technology

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I just voted. I drew thin little lines with a generic black ballpoint pen on a paper ballot resting on a cardboard tableâ''I wouldnâ''t go so far as to call it a booth. Then I slipped the ballot into a large paper folder (for privacy), walked across the room, and put the ballot into a big cardboard box. It didnâ''t feel very official; certainly it lacked ceremony. (At least, however, itâ''s fully recyclable.) In fact, the only reason I really feel like I voted is the oval sticker Iâ''ll be wearing on my sweater the rest of the day.

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It made me nostalgic for the 80s, when I voted using New York Cityâ''s mechanical monsters (and envious of those who still use them today) When I walked into the boothsâ''and they were really boothsâ''and pulled the curtain closed, I felt like the Wizard of Oz, all powerful. You flipped switches to make your choicesâ''good-sized switches, you moved them with your whole hand, not just a finger. And then, after checking over the big board in front of you, making sure you got it right, you pulled the big handle with both hands, to lock in your vote and open the curtain; it took a little effort, it made you feel like you were really registering your vote.

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Moving to California I left big mechanical voting machines behind. I voted paper ballots for a while. Still, these were more satisfying than todayâ''s paper ballots; you marked them with a fat black marker, not a little pen line. And then you handed them to a poll worker and watched him feed it into the scanner right in front of you; again, you had this sense of closure, that your vote had been recorded. I moved on to punch card ballots, long before I knew that the little punched out pieces were called chads, I thought of them as confetti. The little tool used to punch the cards was a little hard to handle, the circular handle not very ergonomic, but still, when you made a selection it poked through the ballot with a satisfying thunk.

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And then came touch screen. We were early adopters here, and found out early that touch screens had problems. My first couple of touch screen elections were only mildly annoying; the systems kept trying to get me to go back and vote for more judges, more city council members, when I was trying to target my votes to a select few. In the 2006 election, though, the touch screen system turned my polling place into election night chaos, as the new printers, designed to provide a paper trail and make the systems more reliable, ran out of paper, locking up the voting machines. Sometime after the polls officially closed, poll workers scrambled to rip sample ballots out of voter information guides, and handed those out to people in line, reassuring us that we just needed to mark our choices and they would, eventually, be counted.

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So I wasnâ''t surprised to find that touch screen voting is over in my district, and weâ''re back to paper ballots. I just wish there were a way to make these little marks on paper feel more official.

Share your election 08 experiences here.

Extremist Engineers, Election Day Edition

The story starts out the usual way: political lawn signs are secretly stolen and replaced with the opposition's political lawn signs.

Shawn Turschak, the owner of the pilfered signs, decides to fight back: he runs wires from his house and hooks the signs into a power source for an electric pet fence. The goal being to deliver a shocking surprise to the next person who tries to steal his political signage.

The problem is, the next person is a 9-year-old boy. Enter angry parents, police, and media.

No harm done, in any case--the little boy was fine and probably learned an important lesson about other people's property that day. But am I wrong to think it seems a little, um, extreme to booby-trap a $1.10 corrugated lawn sign with a $200 pet fence?

Well:

Turschak, who has a degree in electrical engineering, said he tested the shock on himself while wiring the signs, and did so again while a reporter watched Wednesday, touching both signs repeatedly without flinching.

A while back we ran a story on extremist engineers; political scientist Steffen Hertog and sociology professor Diego Gambetta analyzed the records of 404 people from 30 countries who had engaged in political violence between 2005 and 2007. The academic pursuit most represented in this batch was engineering, of the electrical, computer and civil varieties.

â''Engineering," Hertog said by way of explanation, "seems to attract a larger share of people drawn to rule-bound systems.â''

Carbon Nanotubes for Loudspeakers

Nanotechnology labs around the world do love to experiment with carbon nanotubes, often offering up some rather peculiar contraptions made out of the wonder material like the â''Nano Radioâ''.

But these lab curiosities are often just examples of what can be done with carbon nanotubes, theyâ''re not really intended to lead to commercial products.

But the latest one described in the October 29, 2008 online edition of Nano Letters and further detailed over at Nanowerk does seem to have commercial aspirations.

Dr. KaiLi Jiang, an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics & Tsinghua-Foxconn Nanotechnology Research Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and his collaborators see commercial possibilities for the carbon nanotubes loudspeakers they have developedâ''a demonstration of which can be seen in the video below.

While Jiang believes that the technology might create applications not yet considered, one that has been proposed would "be laptop computers where the current audio system could be replaced simply by putting a transparent loudspeaker film over the display area".

Unfortunately, in the same Nanowerk article in which this application is proposed the next sentence offers up â''application in revolutionary new design concepts for tomorrow's electronics such as the Nokia Morph mobile phoneâ'' as a viable commercial usage.

Iâ''ve heard on fairly good authority that few involved in the Morph project were looking at a commercial product as much as they were looking for a way to demonstrate the advancements in plastic electronics. Better to leave that particular â''future applicationâ'' off your list.

Hubble Telescope Back in the Photography Business

The Hubble Space Telescope has winked back to life and resumed sending images of the universe never seen before.

NASA announced last week that its engineers had successfully revived the control computer onboard the orbiting science platform and pointed its far-seeing camera at distant galaxies to capture an astounding photo.

The Hubble had been out of commission for a month before the complicated workaround succeeded (see NASA: Hubble Telescope Fixed and Ready to Perform).

Last Thursday, the vehicle's Wide Field Planetary Camera transmitted an image of gravitationally interacting galaxies back to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., proving that the Hubble was back in working order. Astronomers believe the two galaxies, known together as Arp 147, some 400 million light-years away, at one time collided with one another. The photo from the Hubble was assembled from images collected by the camera's blue, infrared, and visible light filters.

According to a BBC article online, NASA has decided to postponed its shuttle mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble back to April at the earliest, in order to work on a control unit held in reserve since 1990 in storage. The servicing mission, known as STS-25, was originally to have launched this month aboard Atlantis. Instead, NASA will push ahead on 14 November with its next flight to the International Space Station, STS-126, aboard Endeavour.

"Our plan overall takes something on the order of about six-and-a-half months from now," said Preston Burch, the Hubble's manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "There's about a month or so devoted to inspecting and resolving any of the performance issues associated with [the spare unit]; about three months for environmental tests; and then about two to two-and-a-half months to do final testing and shipping down to the Kennedy Space Center and getting it installed on the orbiter."

In addition to swapping the reserve Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit for its balky original, the STS-125 crew will need to perform a long list of upgrades to the Hubble to keep it as a viable observatory for years to come. These include: replacing batteries and gyroscopes; installing the new Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph; and repairing the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.

With the retirement of the shuttle fleet in the next few years, it will have to be a well-prepared and executed mission to serve as the final chance to rejuvenate a science platform that has made so much history in its lifetime.

Indian Space Program Rockets Into the Future (Part 2)

India's Chandrayaan-1 science probe is closing in on the moon.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) reports that its ground controllers in Bangalore have successfully tested the lunar probe's Terrain Mapping Camera (TMC) and that its image analysts in Byalalu confirm that the first photos (of the earth) were received in good order.

The TMC is one of 11 scientific instruments aboard the Chandrayaan, according to the Indian space agency. ISRO has a payload description index on its Web site--with this page devoted to the TMC.

The Indian newspaper The Hindu reports online today that ISRO's leaders are satisfied with the first test of their nation's first probe into deep space.

"Although we tested all the 11 scientific instruments of Chandrayaan-1 on the ground, we wanted to cross-verify, after the launch, the entire chain of its instruments, data storage, data handling systems, downlinking and radio frequency systems including the antennas at Byalalu village, near Bangalore and the ground processing of the images," M. Annadurai, the Chandrayaan-1's project director, told the paper. "The entire system is ready now."

He concluded that: "This shows that the instruments on board Chandrayaan-1 are ready to image the moon after it goes into the final orbit around the moon."

If all goes as planned, the probe should attempt to enter a polar orbit around the moon about six days from now.

Indian Space Program Rockets Into the Future (Part 1)

With the launch of a space probe to the moon last week, India has taken another important step in its quest to become a major space-faring nation.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired an Indian-made rocket carrying a probe called the Chandrayaan-1 on a two-year science mission to moon on 21 October. It was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh.

The Chandrayaan (a name that means "lunar-sojourn" in many Indian languages) is tasked with studying the surface of the moon for its mineral and chemical composition. The mission, which will cost about US $80 million, is India's first to reach beyond the orbit of the earth.

"Our scientific community has once again done the country proud and the entire nation salutes them," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a message from Japan, where he was making an official visit.

The craft is currently over halfway on its flight to a lunar rendezvous, according to a press release yesterday from ISRO.

Nanotechnology: Backlash against the Word

Last year, I suggested on this blog that maybe manufacturers employing nanomaterials would prefer not to mention the word â''nanotechnologyâ'' in their marketing rather than promote it.

Even earlier this year, I offered the opinion that perhaps companies trying to engage in reasonable debate on the safety of nanotechnology might be taking a big risk since there are so few â''reasonableâ'' people with whom to carry on the debate. Better just to keep your mouth shut.

This all seems to have been confirmed in a recent article entitled â''The New Plasticâ'' authored by Alex Schmidt that shows that in fact a PR firm specializing in nanotech advises companies to cut â''nanotechnologyâ'' out of their marketing lexicon.

The article is peppered with phrases like â''This dearth of information prevents consumers from making informed decisions.â'' One feels compelled to take the author aside and point that itâ''s sort of like the dearth of information we have on the hazardous materials used in making our mobile phones, no?

The article concludes with the ominous prediction of a future world where PR flaks are the ones determining what the consumer knows about nanotechnology-enabled products not government bureaucrats. Question is when has this ever not been the case for just about every consumer product?

Digital Railroad Derails

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Digital Railroad's goodbye message will be taken bitterly by most.

Todayâ''s collapse of Digital Railroad is making me think about the value of Internet-based storage. Digital Railroad, until this morning, billed itself as a web-based archiving tool for photographers. Not only could you house your entire archive, but you could also tag images with keywords â'' allowing Photo Editors such as myself to search them and purchase image rights. While they did announce a week and a half ago that they were in trouble, trouble tolled a sudden-seeming death bell this morning with an announcement that site users have 24 hours to retrieve their data or lose it forever. Yes, thatâ''s the sound of thousands of photographersâ'' screams echoing in their homes. No, that sound is not heard in the forest of the Internet.

Iâ''ve always been a proponent of backing up your back-ups. (All it takes is for one photographer to not back-up their files and then lose everything from a one-time only shoot). And surely some people have done that and wonâ''t be struggling. A lot of people use the site for more than storage â'' they use it for their business model. All of those keywords will be gone, as will the ability to quickly sell pictures. It wasnâ''t just photographers who used DRR, though. I often buy images from Redux Picturesâ'' stock arm. They re-sell images from their wealth of photographers and from The New York Times. I just talked to Lori Reese there and she said that they are actively working right now to switch over to PictureMaxx. A visit to the venerable VII archive looks normal though I donâ''t know what will happen tomorrow â'' if the sites will just cease to function. People who remain faithful to the idea of Internet archiving will likely trudge over to competitor Photoshelter now. They have until November 4th to get a 3 month free addition to the yearly subscription. I just had my first real interaction with them earlier this month, buying an image through their now defunct stock-selling division. Looks like they decided to focus on the personal archive just in time. This disaster may lead people to keep their own archives where they can see them. Iâ''m sure the pie chart of a photographerâ''s time just slid a few extra percentage points into the business side of things. And as with any company downfall, competitors that can manage to survive this recession will surely benefit.

While Photoshelter is well known, I think working photographers should consider Digitalfusion. I heard Art Streiber sing it a love song last week at Photo Expo and I have to admit that it was pretty convincing at the time. Not only do they store everything, theyâ''ll process it, host sites for clients to see edits and do your retouching. Of course in this age of economic chaos, even the best deals make us weary.

Big Blue Combined with Nanotech Reassures Newbies

There use to be an old business adage: â''No one ever got fired for hiring IBM.â'' I guess that phrase was popular about the time that IBM ruled the roost for electronic typewriters.

But ever since Microsoft did there little end around on IBM and got the whole OS and software business while IBM--with egg dripping down its faces--was left competing with the rest of the world on the production of metal and plastic boxes, itâ''s not so clear cut that IBM is still such a reliable business decision.

But nations new to nanotechnology and eager not to screw up are somehow assured by calling upon IBM to answer all their nanotechnology anxieties.

Case in point Saudi Arabia are calling upon IBM to help sort out how nanotechnology can be applied to improving water desalination, solar energy and petrochemical processes.

Oh yes, IBM has a storied history in nanotech, no doubt: Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer and the creation of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), and then Don Eigler using an STM to spell out IBM with xenon atoms. Great stuff, ground breaking.

But nanotechnology for water, for solar power and the petrochemical business?

I am not sure I would be banging on IBMâ''s door for advice or solutions on nanotechnology for these areas, but I have to confess the incantation of the acronym â''IBMâ'' sounds a lot more impressive than the names of companies that are actually focused on these areas.

NASA: Hubble Telescope Fixed and Ready to Perform

After four weeks of head scratching and trial and error, NASA engineers have finished a workaround on the electronics onboard the Hubble Space Telescope that should enable the science satellite to resume observing the universe.

The space agency posted a statement yesterday saying that the Hubble's crippled control and communications backup unit finally responded properly to instructions sent to it by ground controllers. This clears the way for handlers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to initiate the first of the Hubble's science instruments tomorrow.

The orbiting platform went dark on 27 September when a component known as the Science Instrument Control and Data Handling system failed after 18 years in service in the cold of space. That left NASA with the problem of starting up a parallel version of the control system for the first time by sending a complex series of commands from the ground. It took the agency's engineers a couple of weeks to figure out how to get everything working fully (please see NASA Ready to Reboot Hubble Telescope), but they seem to have now overcome some initial setbacks.

The proof will come when the Goddard team instructs the platform's Wide Field Planetary Camera to begin aiming at a distant object and transmitting images on Saturday. If that goes well, the second test will come next week when they attempt to restart the Advanced Camera for Surveys for solar observations.

A committee quickly assembled to study the Hubble failure reported its preliminary findings to the space agency yesterday, as well. The review group, headed by the chief of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, John Campbell, issued the following analysis:

Regarding the sudden halt of the spacecraft computer, the team concluded that three separate events occurring with near-simultaneity were responses to a single triggering event. The triggering event was most likely caused by a self-clearing short-circuit, or a transient open-circuit, in the Science Instrument Control and Data Handling system. One or more such events would not be highly improbable in hardware inactive since 1990, and will not harm the telescope, although it could cause another interruption of science operations.

If all goes well over the next week, the Hubble should be able to resume a portion of its historic observations of the cosmos. NASA, which had been planning to send astronauts to the telescope this month to upgrade its equipment, will then proceed with a shuttle mission early next year to replace the compromised control system along with new parts for other aging components.

Wish them luck.

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