The Perils of Electronic Voting

Found a fascinating and scary interview with Bev Harris, author of the book Black Box Voting that investigated the problems with electronic touch-screen voting systems. I don’t think it can be understated exactly how dangerous it is to have our countries electoral process managed by centrally manipulable machines. Where before, if you wanted to rig an election, you had to buy people in many precincts. With electronic voting mahcines, you just have to buy the techs who write the software for the machines. If corrupt people get into office this way, how will we ever get them out again?

Bev Harris’s site, blackboxvoting.org was shut down by Diebold, an electronic voting machine maker using a dubious DMCA complaint, though it redirects to something now. Her publisher’s site, blackboxvoting.com is still up

Automation and Productivity Redux

Last month, in an entry about the jobless recovery, I mentioned that I’d heard my brother predict big unexpected productivity increases from info-tech and automation. He pointed me to the work of Yang and Brynjolfsson, like this The Intangible Costs and Benefits of Computer Investments: Evidence from the Financial Markets, as the source of the prediction.

Also, Alan pointed me to RoboticNation a weblog about robotics, with a focus on job loss from automation, among other things. It’s an interesting blog, though the author has a tendency toward unquestioning reproduction of stories that are obviously just rehashed corporate (or institutional) press releases

Austin City Limits Music Festival Day 3

The festival was exhausting. By Sunday I was happy to stay in one place, even if it meant seeing fewer bands. We also wanted decent seats for R.E.M., a show that was sure to be packed. We parked in the same place as Saturday, arrived at the venue around 12:30, this time with chairs, blankets, rain ponchos and umbrellas and set up camp at the Captial Metro stage, just in front and to the left of the sound board. I stayed there all day, as did a couple of others, holding the spot til R.E.M. and venturing out only for food and beer. It rained some early, and I was glad for my rain poncho, but then it stopped, though it stayed cloudy all day. I might have enjoyed the day’s music better if I’d roamed more, but it was my idea to set up camp there early, and I was tired enough that I was happy to sit. It was an entire day of bands I’d never seen before, and, except for R.E.M., never even heard before. I’m still tired, and I have work to do, so I’m going to keep this short:

12:30, The Shins — We showed up as they were getting started. Good, competent brit-pop. But they’re from New Mexico? The singer sounded exactly like Robert Smith of The Cure. Since the guitarist did all the talking between songs, I have no idea if the singer is actually English, or if it’s just an affectation.

2:30, G. Love & Special Sauce — Fun hip-hop blues. At first, G. Love’s constant smirk was annoying. By the time he closed with The Pussy Song, it was funny.

4:30, Yo La Tengo — I’d been hearing how awesome these guys were since they played at a CMU spring carnival sometime in the early 90’s. I dunno. Yeah, they’re good at what they do. Not sure it’s something I would listen to. Their really soft, mellow stuff was nice, and would be good to nap to. Their loud punkish stuff was just annoying. Whatever. The highlight of the show was when they came out and did an N’Syncesque dance routine to one of their songs playing on CD.

6:30, Ween — For some reason, I’ve always classified Ween somewhere near They Might Be Giants, based, I think on the fact that there are (or were) only two guys in the band, and that their stuff is weird. I like TMBG. The only Ween song I can remember hearing before Sunday was Push the Little Daisies, which I hate. Thankfully, they didn’t play it. Their stuff was much better than I expected, though still weird. David Bowie in blue jeans and T-shirts? Laura said their singer was probably so weird you couldn’t have a conversation with him.

8:30, R.E.M. — The main event, and one of my Favorite Bands Ever. They didn’t disappoint. As I had hoped, they opened with Finest Worksong, and then beyond my hopes, followed it with Begin the Begin. Early on the bass tone was boomy and lacking definition, but it seemed to improve as the show went on. Otherwise, the sound was excellent. The rest of the set was a nice mix of older stuff, newer stuff, and the big hits, including, in no particular order:

  • World Leader Pretend
  • Rockville
  • Fall on Me
  • Losing My Religion
  • Drive
  • Everybody Hurts
  • Man on the Moon
  • Nightswimming
  • The One I Love
  • The End of the World as we Know It

They did a bunch of more recent songs that I’m not really familiar with, as well as some brand-new stuff, including their new single Bad Day, which was the first new thing from them that I’ve liked in a long time.

I was struck, watching them, by how much better a show they put on than most of the bands at the Festival. They didn’t become superstars by random chance. Stipe, who seems from his lyrics like the introverted poet type, roams the stage, dancing, kneeling, gesturing, walking on the monitors, shedding clothing, and singing directly to audience members — giving himself to the audience, and clearly in his element. A far cry from the typical Austin artiste, who thinks the introversion that generated his songs should carry over into his stage act. The only other artist I saw this weekend who gave so much to the audience was Robert Randolph, who is still my festival favorite, after R.E.M.

Java is the SUV of programming languages

So says Phillip Greenspun.

… But the programmers and managers using Java will feel good about themselves because they are using a tool that, in theory, has a lot of power for handling problems of tremendous complexity. Just like the suburbanite who drives his SUV to the 7-11 on a paved road but feels good because in theory he could climb a 45-degree dirt slope. If a programmer is attacking a truly difficult problem he or she will generally have to use a language with systems programming and dynamic type extension capability, such as Lisp. This corresponds to the situation in which my friend, the proud owner of an original-style Hummer, got stuck in the sand on his first off-road excursion; an SUV can’t handle a true off-road adventure for which a tracked vehicle is required.

Gotta love it when someone can bash SUVs and Java in the same article. ;-) Greenspun mentions Perl and PHP in addition to Lisp as good alternatives to Java. Python also fits, of course.

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Austin City Limits Music Festival Day 2

Saturday at the fest it was cloudy and drizzly, but it was warm, and despite our not bringing ponchos or umbrellas there were only a few minutes when I was uncomfortably wet. Unlike yesterday, I got almost a full day at the venue today, and it was all about the music.  We got down to the venue around 1:30. This time Laura, Meghan, Meghan’s friends Des and Katy (Katie?), and I drove in Laura’s car and parked where Katy works, off Mopac at the Barton Springs exit. From there it was a short walk on the greenbelt trails to Zilker and the venue. Much nicer than the shuttles, especially leaving.

We got inside in time to catch the last song of The Old 97s’ set on the Capital Metro stage. As with Al Green last night, the sound was pretty bad again. Luckily they got it fixed, because that’s where I would end up spending a large part of the day. After the Old 97’s we slowly made our way across to the H.E.B. stage to catch the Dandy Warhols, stopping at the craft vendors long enough for me to buy a curl-brimmed straw cowboy hat, thus completing, along with my goatee, my metamorphosis into a true Austinite. All I remember of the Dandy Warhols was a haunting, slow, beautiful cover of AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells.

At 3 p.m. we skipped the Johnny Cash tribute to catch Los Lobos back across the venue at the CapMetro stage. It’s strange, although I’ve known about Los Lobos at least since La Bamba, I had no idea how much they rock! They played a fantastic, energetic set with a nice mix of English and Spanish songs, and their incredible latin rhythms. In a way, I envy them. They have the career I would have liked to have had, if I had made music my career. They’ve been around for 30 years, supporting themselves without burning out, and after all this time, can still come to Austin and blow most of the youngsters off the stage with great, powerful rock’n’roll. The two big stages, the Capital Metro stage, and the Cingular stage, each have a huge video monitor to the left of the stage, and several cameras providing pictures of the band. (The nice thing about a festival spawned from TV show is that they have professional crews available to do the camera work). One thing I was struck by watching the images on the screens was how smart they were to leave the backs of the stages open so the artists are framed (in daylight) by the trees and sky. If they make a TV show or DVD of the festival, it will really give a feel for the ambiance of Austin, and mesh nicely with the faux-foliage in the ACL studio set.

4 p.m. Robert Randolph and the Family Band! Robert Randolph!! Robert Randolph!!! Wow. Whoever missed this missed the show of the festival. Unbelievable. It’s a good thing they take an hour off between sets on each stage, because I’d hate to have to walk out onto there after Robert Randolph and the Family Band. I’m surprised an hour was enough time for them to repair the great big hole he blew in the stage. Dance for Love. I Need More Love Every Day of My Life. Purple Haze. Voodoo Chile. Amazing. Powerful. Inspirational. Here’s If he doesn’t get a closing spot next year, somebody’s done something very wrong.

Worn out from Robert Randolph, we staggered across to the Heineken stage to hear North Mississippi All Stars. Though competent, they were something of a letdown after the Robert Randolph bomb. Also, they seemed to be having problems with their monitors, because their vocals were flat a lot, especially the backing vocal. So we booked early to the Cingular stage to get good seats for California bluegrass kids Nickel Creek. We mercifully found friends with chairs in the crowd and I sat through the whole set, while everyone else stood. Mellow, but fun, with a amazing musicianship, these guys were a great early-evening set. Apparently they’re well respected all around: fiddler Sara Watkins sat in with Los Lobos earlier, and mandolinist Chris Thile sat in with the String Cheese Incident later on.

We closed out the night back at the Cingular stage with a fantastic spot on the railing in front of the sound board for The String Cheese Incident‘s second set. The earlier sound problems at that stage were resolved and the sound was crystal clear and perfect. Someone told me once that Jimi Hendrix said that he rated originality far below musicianship when seeing other artists play. I’d never seen the Incident before, but they’re a great example of why Jimi was right. When they didn’t sound exactly like Phish, they duplicated the sound of the Grateful Dead (circa 1972). Their lead guitarists’s tone, in particular, was copped directly from Phish’s Trey Anastasio. Nevertheless, on freeform Jams they were much better than Phish, who seem to be better at structured compositions than jamming (despite their Jam-band reputation), and they were much more interesting than any but the best of the many Dead shows I attended. Their cover of Ring of Fire was great, and despite all the deadhead jokes flying around our delegation, I enjoyed them thoroughly.

That closed out the night, and now I’m tired and going to bed. Tomorrow it’s Yo La Tengo, and R.E.M.!! (among others)

Austin City Limits Music Festival — Day 1

I was stuck at school until late afternoon, so I headed down to the fest around 6:30 p.m. Meghan was already there, and Laura had been in Dallas for work and was driving back down and we were all supposed to meet inside. ACLfest.com said not to try and park at the venue, I parked in a garage on San Jacinto near 15th street and caught the shuttle at Waterloo park.

The shuttle setup at Waterloo was very nice and efficient. They’d load up the busses 4 or 5 at a time, like a train, and send them off. So far it looked promising. Of course, going to the venue is very different from leaving the venue! But more on that later.

The Zilker Park venue is beautiful. It’s clearly modeled on the New Orleans Jazz Fest: an oblong field with two large stages at the ends, and smaller stages, tents, and vendors in between. It seemed a tad larger than the fairgrounds in New Orleans, but maybe it was just less crowded. The big limestone formation in the middle of the venue was nicely used as a backdrop for one of the minor stages. Late September is a great time to have a festival in Austin, and the weather was perfect, not hot, not cold — perfect weather for girls in shorts and tanktops. ;-) Near the middle of the site there’s a large open field far from any stage where people can walk, chill, play frisbee, and look at the surroundings. Sunset there was fantastically beautiful.

Like JazzFest, they had local food vendors, instead of crappy hamburgers and hotdogs. Lots of Austin restaurants were represented, though the food its self was overpriced and seemed hastily prepared, even from some of my favorite places (like Curra’s 78704). I had a $4 Cajun chicken stick (“it’s chicken. on a stick.”), $3 lemonade, 2 $4 cans of Heineken, and 2 $3 chicken tacos. I skipped the $7 Jambalaya because it didn’t seem to have any rice in it, but hey, it’s Austin, not New Orleans. I didn’t have an barbecue or Amy’s Ice Cream, but I still have 2 more days.

Um… what else… oh yeah, the music! Since I got there late, I didn’t get to see much. Cell phone service was crappy, so I never met up with Meghan, but I did talk to Laura, who was late coming down from Dallas, and she said Meghan was seeing Keller Williams whom I’d never heard of — so I drifted over that way, and was well rewarded. He was awesome. He’s a kind of electronic one-man guitar band: he builds up his backing accompaniment by looping live-recorded samples of himself playing guitar and bass and doing hand-percussion and vocal percussion. I’d seen Mike Campbell from the Heartbreakers do something like it once at a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert years ago, but on a much smaller scale. Keller Williams has made it an art.

After That I went over to see Al Green on the Capital Metro stage (one of the big stages, where R.E.M. will close the festival on Sunday). By the time I got there the crowd was pretty huge, and the sound was terrible. I mean awful. The drums were inaudible, except for the snare, the bass, when audible was booming and farting, and the rest of the band varied between being inaudible or too loud. It seemed to be slowly growing better, but was so bad that I had to wonder if somebody had snuck into the sound booth and twisted all the knobs when nobody was looking. Or maybe they just turned up the suck.

It was while I was watching Al Green that I noticed that ALCFest has more portable toilets than I’ve ever seen. The outer wall of the venue seems to be built from portajons.

Tired of waiting for Al Green’s sound to get better, I went back across and caught some of Dwight Yoakam’s set on the Cingular stage. The crowd was almost equal in size to Al Green’s but everything was audible, even from the back. I don’t know much of Yokum’s stuff, but he seemed to be rockin out when I got there. I hung around til 9:40, then split hoping to beat the rush for the shuttles. My hopes were dashed. The line was at least 1/4 mile long, and when Al Green and Dwight Yokum finished and the crowd came out, everything just stopped. It was like waiting for the Boston Marathon to go by. I finally got on a bus around 10:45 and got back to my car around 11:05. Tomorrow, I think we’re riding bikes. I’ve heard that there might not be enough bike racks, but we’ll see.

Python Robotics Programming With Pyro

I’ve mentioned before that I wanted to rebuild be research infrastructure once I got done with my dissertation proposal. I’ve started rebuilding, rebuilding the still-useful parts of my old Common Lisp codebase in Python. I’ve been helped a lot by Pyro, the Python robotics framework. It’s actually quite a nice framework, handling several popular robots and simulators, including Player/Stage, which I’m using.

The Pyro library and engine handle the work of communicating with the robot or simulator, leaving the robot programmer to concentrate on writing his controller (or “Brain” as it’s unfortunately called in Pyro terminology), as a Python object. The main work of the controller is encapsulated in the its .step() method, that gets called periodically (every 0.1 seconds). This is nice in some ways, although it makes things difficult when the controller/agent has to to perform complex, hierarchical, extended actions with subgoals, since it makes it impossible to use the Python program stack to track the hierarchical stack, since the .step() method presumably must return reasonably frequently. Instead, the controller and any extended actions must maintain their state between .step() calls. On the upside, this architecture allows the Pyro engine to handle GUI functions and any other periodic bookkeeping and communication without requiring the user to write in calls to special functions in the controller.

The other major downside is that, for Player/Stage, anyway, the Pyro developers seem to have assumed that all Player/Stage robots can be modeled as an ActivMedia Pioneer. It’s possible to write modules to support other robot configurations that use Player, but how to do this and get all the Pyro functionality is still mysterious. Luckily, for my work, it’s not that important, since my learning agent assumes very little prior knowledge about the nature of the robot it’s driving, so I can just pass it the raw laser scans from a simulated robot, without having implemented any of the routines that transform the sensors into a uniform system of units, etc.

In addition to just a robot interface, Pyro also has Python wrappers for various useful libraries including a neural net library, Self-Organizing Maps, and other fun goodies. No reinforcement learning, yet. But I’m writing my RL code in Python, so maybe I’ll contribute it.

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