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Letters on voting, science TV and more

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Cosmic Log readers responded to a wide array of subjects in the July 24-31 period. Here is a selection of the feedback, beginning with observations on electronic voting and its potential pitfalls. Additional observations on e-voting appear in an

Name: Rodrigo Gutierrez Sandez
Hometown: Tijuana, Mexico
I have been involved in the design, development and implementation of electronic voting systems in Mexico for the last 10 years. Probably the last place you would hear about this, considering that we have been known for widespread voting fraud in our country. This is precisely why I decided to get into this business a long time ago. The business side has been difficult, but I have got a few projects under the belt. We have developed software and have implemented touch-screen systems with great success, although there is a long road ahead.

In our recent elections of July 6 (midterm federal congress, and five local state elections), I was head of the information system that provided voting results for the election authority in the state of Sonora. This has been called the closest gubernatorial election in modern history (1.1 percent difference between first and second place). It was an incredible project and very tough, politically speaking.

There are very, very few of us in Mexico doing this. I implemented the first system back in 1994, and in 2001 implemented the first electronic voting system that elected a candidate for a political party convention in which the convention was simultaneous in different cities. Delegates voted in five different cities, and the winner was announced soon after the vote. This was for Partido Accion Nacional (PAN), the party that the current president of Mexico belongs to (Vicente Fox).

I am certain that there is material over here to make an interesting story. If you have other information on these systems I would greatly appreciate some sites that I can go and search for.

Name: Peter J.
Seems strange that the computer researcher who is credited with breaking the voting machine ballot fraud story is one and the same board adviser to VoteHere, "the industry leader in developing secure e-voting software through the use of patented security protocols and the world's most advanced election technology. Our technology has been used in over 80 elections since 1999 in the U.S. and Europe, for over 38 worldwide clients and more than 8 million voters."

Go to and look up their board of advisers -- Avi Rubin is listed.

Go to and who is the lead investigator in the article -- Avi Rubin.

I find it exceedingly strange that the U.S. researcher who "broke" the story here seems to be heavily involved in a competitor of Diebold!!!

Name: K. Morgan
Hometown: Tullahoma, Tenn.
I'm not a programmer, but I have never heard of any system code that has not been broken. The responses I have read seem to be concerned with tampering by rival parties, but what about foreign powers? The Chinese have been hacking us left and right for years, so the idea of e-voting seems almost laughable, except it's actually kind of frightening. Some things are best done manually. A mechanical recording device should be developed that makes the whole process unambiguous and should be made universal for all levels of government.

Name: Andy Glassberg
Hometown: St. Louis
There's a fundamental problem with e-voting that has no technological fix. There's no way to ensure the privacy of the vote. One of the major advantages of the secret ballot is that it dramatically reduced vote buying and selling -- not because people suddenly got more honest, but because with a secret ballot there is no way to prove that you voted as you promised. E-voting takes us back to the days before the secret ballot and will eventually bring back the abuses of those days as well.

Name: Michael W.
Hometown: Chapel Hill, N.C.
In 2000, I was standing in line waiting to vote when an older woman in front of me saw my work ID badge and asked what my company did. I replied that we were an ISP, and I worked in network security. Immediately, the woman demanded, "So maybe you'll know this -- why the hell can't I vote online?"

My attempts to explain why I believed online voting to be a very, very bad idea fell on deaf ears. Nothing I said mattered to them -- they just wanted to do it. That's the danger here, that an electorate ignorant of the risks and interested only in making everything easier to do will demand a system which is either secure but introduces so many barriers to convenience that it negates the benefit of making voting quicker and easier, or one which is so insecure that I can never vote again with any confidence that my or anyone else's vote mattered.

I started to send you a link to a story about Diebold and ES&S's roots in nutball right-wing jobbers, and then I noticed you were already aware. :)

Name: Vlastimil Vysin
Hometown: Vista, Calif.
Paper voting worked fine, until we ran out of educated voters. Since that won't improve anytime soon and will get worse, other systems won't "work" either. They just will be more expensive, and like the old ones, unreliable and subject to fraud. Democrats won't get any more votes, so they will reject it. Florida, here we go again!

Name: Paul Vader
There's a very good reason why the e-votes are "under glass" in the Mercuri method, as described in your latest blog entry, and that's vote buying.

If an externally verifiable token is taken from the ballot box, then the voter can surrender this token to a third party, which can then verify it on the Web site and pay for the vote (or not fire you). In any event, in the Mercuri method there isn't two ballot boxes -- the under-glass vote is the document which ultimately gets counted. It could be an OCR ballot, for example, both machine- and human-readable.

You have to watch out when listening to the hype from the voting machine industry -- they do not play fair with the facts. A quick Google search on "Mercuri system" yields a wealth of great information on the subject. Here's a few:

  • Rebecca Mercuri discusses her system.
  • Questions to ask voting machine vendors.
  • Rebecca Mercuri's stand on Internet voting.

Name: Rob Streacker
Hometown: Chicago
The whole electronic voting debate is quite amusing. In an effort to eliminate the potential for election fraud in an electronic voting system, we are in effect advocating a paper-based system that is rife with fraud.

Cosmic Log readers were generally supportive of a proposal to create a "C-Span for science" -- a science-oriented public affairs channel modeled after the successful government-oriented cable channel:

Name: George Murray
Hometown: Baltimore
Great idea! The sooner the better.

Americans are particularly uninformed when it comes to anything related to the sciences.

Yet, science is certainly not boring. I would certainly sign up for a commercial-free 24-hour science/learning channel.

Name: Anonymous
It is something that is needed and should do very well! There is a large segment of the public that spends more time reading due to oversaturation of poor-quality TV programming.

To capture a larger market segment, maybe it should be co-hosted. A well-groomed intellect speaking from a study or lab, and a loon in the field like the Crocodile Hunter. Someone of a similar mind-set should draw the larger demographics sought after!

An item about Internet entrepreneur Joe Firmage's plans to create an Encyclopedia Galactica drew a less receptive response -- not so much because of the EGalactica project, but because of Firmage's background:

Name: Fay Grant
Hometown: Marietta, Ga.
You just lost a daily customer! As a result of what seemed a recommendation from you I visited Joe Firmage's Web site and found nothing more than volumes of vomitous diatribes against the very systems that made this fool incredibly wealthy. His anti-American agenda is disgusting. Wish the aliens had kept him. Guess I can't trust MSN's recommendations any longer.

Name: Michael
Hometown: Oklahoma City
Mr. Firmage's Web site is an interesting amalgamation of science, futurism and fluff. His accomplishments tend to obscure that fact that he remains flaky around the edges at best. I'm not sure how well this touchy-feely stuff serves science nor how well its inclusion on MSNBC benefits anyone. In a word, yuck.

Name: Adam
Hometown: Bendigo, Australia

I followed one of the links you posted to Firmage's Web pages and he is quite a dreamer. I share a lot of those dreams -- especially the agrav, reactionless drives and vacuum energy -- but I don't see why he has to be so keen on UFOs. Personally I think the UFO thing, when "real," is more about the same brain processes that create religious experiences than alien hardware. Too many reports of UFO encounters merge into religious vision than people like Timothy Good, John Mack or Whitley Strieber care to admit. Check out Patrick Harpur's "Daimonic Reality" for more details.

That being said, perhaps Firmage's visions are "for real," in that they are a tapping into the collective mind that underlies us all and is an expression, a prehension of a possible future. Stuart Hameroff's Web site has some interesting data that suggests mental events can mildly reach into the future by a second or so. Perhaps occasionally, thanks to advanced waves beamed back towards our past brains, we see even further forward in time?

Advanced waves are a consequence of the laws of electromagnetics being time-reversible/time-invariant, looking the same forward or backwards in time. We know retarded waves -- regular futureward-traveling waves -- but the pastward-travelling waves we don't regularly observe because they are (almost?) entirely canceled out by their own retarded reflections off charged matter out in the universe.

The theory of advanced waves, developed by John Wheeler and Richard Feynman amongst others, says that they are strongly canceled by re-emission of absorbers out in the wider universe, but that's a thermodynamic averaging effect -- the brain's EM fields might bypass this by a laser-effect. Some researchers have suggested getting more energy out of a heat source than thermodynamics allows by just such an effect - a coherent laserlike emission. Hence, my intuition that a coherent thought pattern can produce a non-isotropic signal that avoids total cancellation.

Advanced waves affect more than electromagnetics. James Woodward suggests that the advanced gravity put out by masses-in-motion creates rest mass via Mach's principle. John Cramer suggests that the weird quantum world is due to advanced signals between particles, creating an apparent non-local "handshake" between them.

P.S.: Johnjoe McFadden has an excellent Web site that discusses his theory of the quantum electromagnetic mind -- he uses Occam's Razor to suggest that the brain's coherent, information-rich EM field is the Mind. His idea could be called physicalistic dualism and he has interesting evidence to back it up.

Name: Joan Hoffman
Hometown: Oak Ridge, N.J.

This is very exciting. I read "A Voyage to Arcturus" in the ’80s at one point and the mental picture never left me. It is a very difficult read, you really must have a vivid imagination to keep it all in place.

As for the Encyclopedia Galactica, does the Foundation Trilogy come to mind!

I will be watching your site from now on and I have added it to my favorites.

Name: Ken Silber
Hometown: New York
Sagan's chapter [of "Cosmos"] didn't really say "the full compendium of human knowledge -- an Encyclopedia Galactica -- would be a masterwork worth sending to the stars." The Encyclopedia Galactica was imagined more as a compendium of alien knowledge, collected from various sources.

Self-appointed radiation sleuth Walter L. Wagner wrote in with an update on a May story about "ticking tiles" -- vintage ceramic tiles with a glaze that contains uranium:

Name: Walter L. Wagner
Just a quick update to let you know about the Health Physics Society conference in San Diego.

My poster presentation was generally well-received. I spoke with about 50 participants during a two-hour time period. All of them were aware of Fiestaware-type usage of uranium glazing. Only two were aware of uranium glazing on floor and bathroom tiles, and the others were somewhat surprised to learn of its extensive usage.

They all seemed to agree that it points up the fact that the nuclear industry (with some 100,000 tons of depleted uranium waste product sitting around at the enrichment plant in Kentucky) does nothing of the magnitude of what was done before the nuclear industry came into existence (1941), compared to what the tiling/ceramics/uranium-glazing industry did, and which is still in place.

Also, I found several buildings in San Diego with uranium tiles, including one that had extensive usage of yellow bathroom tiles on the exterior (though not in that situation causing any undue risk), pointing up again that many of the houses in that area would have those tiles in the interior bathrooms and kitchens.

One correspondent wrote in with some observations about this week's Arecibo Observatory travelogue. The perspective on whether Puerto Rico has jungles may depend in part on what your definition of "jungle" is. And the observatory's official guide indicates that Puerto Rico was selected because it offered a location where the sun, moon and planets pass almost directly overhead, and because "a natural sinkhole south of the city of Arecibo provided an economical way to support the spherical reflector."

Name: Antonio Nieves Torres
Residence: McLean, Va.
I enjoyed very much your piece on the Arecibo Observatory. The fact that the largest operating radio antenna has been operating for a long time leading to a number of key scientific discoveries such as the discovery of the famous "black holes" makes me proud to be Puerto Rican. In the audio caption though you refer to it being located in the "jungles" of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately we do not have jungles in P.R. The radio telescope is located in a valley surrounded by three small mountain peaks. Also, for your information it is not technically located in Arecibo but in fact in an other small town on the island.

One interesting fact that the listeners and readers might enjoy is also why this point was selected from all others in the world. The reason was that this point in Puerto Rico is the farthest point from the center of the earth. This makes the radio signals travel a lot less distance than if placed on a different point on the earth.

Finally, Kris Jackson sent in a review of Carl Sagan's "Contact," which was July's selection for the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club:

Name: Kris Jackson
Web Production Editor, Electronic News

I loved the book "Contact," and although the movie made radical changes, it remained faithful to the book. (The movie had a Christian/Luddite/terrorist derailing things as a major plot device, something that might have even more currency today.)

The notion of the message being embedded in such things as phase shifting of the signal was well-represented in the movie by imagery. When two parts of the message are fitted together on the screen at right angles to form a third, it makes visual sense, although it's a bit shaky in actual terms.

One wonderful but subtle special-effects moment in the movie was Ellie as a child, going upstairs to the medicine chest. The camera follows her going up the stairs, but when she gets there, the image we've been following is her reflection in the mirror, and a different "real" Ellie approaches the mirror. It took me four viewings to really see that.

The book's science was, not surprisingly, very good; as a novel it was surprisingly good. I wish Sagan had had more time to develop as a novelist. (Science fiction is often described as "bad science and bad fiction.") I liked the fact that if you didn't know science at all, you could just bloop over the science, like Linus van Pelt described doing to the long Russian names in Dostoyevsky, and still follow the story.

This strong science carries you right up to the "numinous" stuff at the end, a fascinating concept that no scientist could believe, but by this point you're hooked, so you go along. It causes real cognitive dissonance when reading the book, but could never have been pulled off in a movie.

Not a mass-market movie, anyway. My wife could barely endure it as it was. Her dismay was echoed by Mr. Garrison of "South Park": "I waited the whole movie to see the alien and it was her goddamn father?"

"Saturday Night Live" satirized Sagan as describing us as "standing up to our necks in gasoline lighting billions and billions of matches." Yeah, that's a good description of the nuclear age. And guess what, we're still not in the post-nuclear age. We're just learning to fill in the gaps between the "conventional" and the nuclear range of things. And we don't even have the old Communist/non-Communist dichotomy, we have all these fuzzy categories, all these fuzzy individuals and all these fuzzy thinkers, all armed with more and more spectacular matches. Bunker-busting nukes? Spare me. I mean it, spare me.

My well-worn copy of "Contact" sits there on the shelf, as good a read as ever, and still a prescient warning. But even heeding the warning will likely do us no good. The problem lies in our human nature coupled with the strength of the science we're developing. The fault, ultimately, is not with us but with Prometheus.