Archive for the 'Geekology' Category



Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Last January I said that ‘No rational person can have any confidence in unauditable game console voting machines‘.

Today I find out that these horrible voting machines are even worse than I thought. Calling them ‘game consoles’ gives them too much credit.

I find it staggering that these voting machines are running Windows, and predictably, have problems with their antivirus software!

Every politician involved in buying these devices is an idiot. Period. You with the tinfoil hat, don’t tell me that this is the result of some kind of diabolical conspiracy to change the outcome of elections. These devices are too unreliable to be used by even the most dim-witted evil mastermind.

A better word for these devices would be ‘election randomizer’.

Let me say that since 1994 I have made my living writing programs that run on Windows. Windows is a great operating system for a general purpose computer. If you want one computer for word processing, internet surfing, networking, graphics, games, etc then you can’t beat windows.

The problem is that Windows must make many compromises to ensure that it can support all these different type of applications. Windows is pretty much a monolith. Unlike most other computer operating systems end users of Windows cannot remove many of the parts of it not required for their applications. Windows is pretty much a take it or leave it OS. The monolithic property of Windows is the result of a sensible design decision by Microsoft that every flavor of Windows will run just about every application ever written for Windows, and that one Windows machine can run many different types of applications. Microsoft did a great job writing this multi-purpose OS. It is the software equivalent of a Leatherman Tool. It can do lots of things decently, but almost nothing as well as a tool designed for a single purpose.

You don’t do brain surgery with a Leatherman!

Using any flavor of Windows for a single purpose application like voting is totally insane!!!!! Making a single purpose console like a voting machine run windows is like using a locomotive to push a shopping cart!

The ‘designers’ (I use the word laughingly) of this ‘Premier Election Solutions’ outfit would have been far better off using an X-Box, Wii, or Playstation for their voting device. These game consoles have strong security to prevent the running of unauthorized software. Compared to Windows, they have cleaner and much simpler operating systems.

Of course a sensible, responsible software engine would never use Windows for a single purpose dedicated console type application requiring high security.

Again, I’m a 14 year windows application developer. I like Windows a lot. But Windows is not suitable for this kind of single purpose device!!! Words cannot describe the horror of these types of voting machines. It takes an artist:


The next time you vote, see if you are using a ‘Premier’ or ‘Diebold’ device. If so, then accept that your vote is meaningless.


Austin Electronics Retailer Misleads Customers

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

Sorry for the poor quality, but I took this picture to show what in my opinion is a typical unethical display practice that I often see at a big local electronics retailer in Austin.

The display offers a DVD/RW Pioneer drive for $39 after rebates. Fair enough, that’s not a bad deal.

But be careful! See the gold colored boxes at the front of the display. Those are Pioneer DVD/RW drives. But if you compare their stock number to the one on the sign, you find the numbers differ by 2. The gold drives are $59 with no rebate. Besides the color of the box and a slightly different stock number and model number there appear to be no other differences between the gray box DVDs and the more prominent gold box dvds.

The drives with the rebate are in the gray boxes, located behind and under the gold non-rebate drives.

This isn’t an isolated case in my opinion. I see this tactic almost every time I visit their Austin store.

This national retailer could make plenty of money using honest signage. Walmart, Best Buy, CompUsa, even Circuit City manage to make money without this kind of blatant dishonesty. It’s really sad that this particular store makes this ‘mistake’ far too frequently.

In my opinion this display constitutes a ‘bait and switch’ scam, and if it’s not illegal it should be.


Does Twitter Violate Gresham’s Law?

Monday, March 26th, 2007

Twitter, we hardly knew ye.

I joined Twitter about a week before SXSW, and have been using it a few times a day. It’s fun, and nice when you want to share a thought or make a note in a simple, easy way.

Post SXSW Twitter is getting a lot of press attention. I’ve been wondering when spammers would take it over. I just checked out the public timeline, and this is what I saw. ‘Bargainist’ posting dozens of spam entries. I don’t see anything in Twitter’s current architecture that would preclude a tragedy of the commons.

Particular self-selected groups will be able to use twitter, but it will probably soon cease to be place to find new, interesting people. I strongly suspect that Twitter will be destroyed by spammers in exactly the same way that Yahoo Chat has been destroyed by literally tens of thousands of porn spambots. By having such ease of entry both Yahoo Chat and Twitter violate the network version of Gresham’s Law. The bad twitters well may drive away good twitters by taking over the public area and eating all the bandwidth.


Unhelpful Microsoft help denies helpless millions help

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

As a general rule, I get bored quickly with Microsoft bashing. It’s really tiresome, and so much of it clearly due to jealousy on the part of the whiner.

    Image by caseyhelbling.

Still, MSFT isn’t a perfect company. One area where they could do better is to provide better documentation. So much of the document for the Microsoft Operating system basic application programming interface (API) consists of tautologies. For example, after years of neglect Microsoft has released an API for developers to use to control 801.11 wifi devices. This API is long overdue and gratefully appreciated by many developers whose products involve WIFI.

The name of this API is the ‘WLAN’ api. Lets look at one of the functions in the WLAN API, the one called ‘WlanSaveTemporaryProfile’. What is this function you ask. Here is the answer:

“The WlanSaveTemporaryProfile function saves a temporary profile to the profile store.”

What, you ask, is a Temporary Profile? Don’t look in the documentation, it is silent as to what a temporary profile exactly is, why you might want to save one, and (since it is apparently temporary) how long it stays around after you save it temporarily.

This kind of thing occurs all over the place in the Windows API documentation. Microsoft has ten gillion technical people, they are hiring everyone who can fog a mirror. With all those thousands of people, why can’t they put an intern to go through the documentation and beef it up a little. In particular a sentence telling you the main purpose of the api and an example would be really helpful. And don’t tell me to go to google and paw around trying to find some MSDN article from 3 years ago that discusses it. I need the context for the api in plain English!

Verity Stob says it much better than I can in this article:

Unhelpful Microsoft help denies helpless millions help

Recommended reading for everyone at MSFT, especially Bill and Steve.


BSTR Semantics (warning: EXTREME GEEK CONTENT)

Friday, February 23rd, 2007
turbo medical form

If you write computer programs that run on windows you will benefit from reading this article on BSTRs:

Fabulous Adventures In Coding : Eric’s Complete Guide To BSTR Semantics

Even if you use BSTRs every day this is a good review. If you’re new to BSTRs its a must-read.

Blogged so that I’ll have a link to it.

Hat Tip: The Old New Thing


I’m Surprised It Took This Long

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

Blu-ray, HD DVD DRM Reportedly Bypassed

After posters at the Doom9 Forums unveiled title keys for Blu-ray and HD DVD discs — which was confirmed by AACS LA on Jan. 24 — members have now claimed to find the processing keys for all HD DVD and Blu-ray discs.

Doom9 poster arnezami, who found the HD DVD processing key, explains that no real “hacking” was involved — just recording the processes that happen when the software boots…

AVS Forums

Digital Rights Management are a chimera. They reduce the value of entertainment media for honest people, and do nothing to deter anyone determinded to copy the content.


Vista Security

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

I’ve been doing some work converting client side applications to run on Vista. I can tell that this commerical hits the nail right on the head!

Vista is an endless parade of modal dialogs asking for persmission to do things, then asking again, one after the other.

One example is removing a USB memory dongle. In Windows 2000 when you selected remove from the tray icon menu you had to click ‘ok’ on a modal dialog. In Windows XP MS greatly improved this use case by just putting up a tray icon ‘flag’ that didn’t require the user to stop and click something.

Vista leapt backwards 7 years and brought back a modal dialog to click after you remove a memory stick.

In Vista these dialogs pop up all the time, and all are modal. It’s easy to get a bunch of them stacked one on the other, especially with a laptop.

Geeze, what were they thinking in Redmond?


Dueling Keynotes

Friday, January 12th, 2007

This week we in the great unwashed have been gifted with Keynote speeches from the two titans of the microcomputer world, Steve Jobs at MacWorld, and Bill Gates at the Consumer Electronics Show.

I admire both these men, say what you will about them they both changed the world.

Jobs seemed very fired up.  He had lots of genuine good news, especially in the area of iTunes and iPod market shares.  He got two digs in at Microsoft.  He quoted Windows Architect Jim Allchin as saying “If I didn’t work for Microsoft, I’d get a Mac”, and he ridiculed the Microsoft Zune for its tiny market share.

Strangely, he had very little to say about Mac computers.

The meat of the Jobs keynote was a masterful sales pitch for his new iPhone.  The details of this device are available all over the net, it seems like a real top of the line smart phone.  Jobs’ presentation was enthusiastic and compelling.  Steve’s famous ‘ reality distortion field’ had me trying to make excuses for Cingular’s lack of of the high speed network that the iPhone clearly needs to have.

I came away from Steve’s keynote thinking that ‘Apple Corporation’ as he is now calling it has a very bright future, and that Jobs himself is still at the top of his game.

Gates CES keynote started poorly I thought.  He broke one of the cardinal rules we learn in Toastmasters.  He started with something close to an apology, saying if he spoke next year he’d probably talk about ‘infectious diseases’.  It was a very negative message to send.

It was kind of sad to see Bill and some of his managers still demonstrating Vista.  Vista is going to be a good operating system, but its not quite out yet, and how many years has this been going on? 

The XBox seems like a real success story.  They had solid numbers showing its dominance of the console market, and a strong argument that the XBox can be very useful for purposes well beyond just playing games.

Bill brightened up when talked about the new ‘home server’ product (note: I could find no link to this product using Microsoft’s search engine, that was sad). 

At first I asked myself “why would I need a server in my home?”  Bill made a good case that his product would be very useful. I particularly liked the idea that it would do a full backup of all my computers every night.  And I could see why Gates liked it, the server is another OS sale, and to get the full benefit the user needs one of the higher levels of Vista.  The MS home server seemed like it might do everything that Apple’s Apple TV box does, plus giving you whole house backups and remote access.

Bill kind of lost me when he demoed the ‘kitchen of the future’.  The idea of saving recipes in a home computer was really radical back in 1976, but its not what you call a killer app these days. 

The ‘ bedroom of the future’ had a video wall.  I’ve heard that Bill’s house has video walls, but I really think it’ll be many years before many other people get such things.  And while Bill may put the aquarium screensaver on his wall, I bet most video wall early adopters will use it for porn.

Bill kept talking about the ‘digital decade’, and I kept wondering if he was talking about the 80s, or the 90s.

The Gates keynote was workmanlike, but it seemed to lack the passion of previous years.  I came away thinking that maybe Vista was so stressful on Bill that he’s mentally moving away from computers.  I think his heart is elsewhere these days.

My gut feel is that Apple is a company still on the ascent, still striving to be insanely great.  Apple has figured out that they can’t beat Microsoft in a head on battle of personal computers. Instead they clearly plan to keep the pressure on Microsoft’s computer business, while surrounding the home PC with Apple streaming media and consumer electronics devices.  There could come a tipping point where a critical mass of people are getting their media from iTunes, talking on iPhones, and playing their media on Apple TVs.  This mass of people may just decide that having a Microsoft powered PC in the middle of all this Apple equipment no longer makes sense.

The high prices Microsoft intends to charge for Vista will further erase the price difference between PCs and Macs.

Microsoft is more like an old line manufacturing company, content to stay in its comfort zone, developing incremental improvements in the familiar old products.  In their heart of hearts, I don’t think that Microsoft really believes that anyone could compete with them.

I think Microsoft is wrong about that.


No Code

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

The FCC has eliminated the requirement for Amateur Radio Operators to know the Morse code.

It probably seems a small thing to most people, but to many hams its a big deal.

I became an Amateur Radio Operator sometime around 1970, when I was in high school. I had to drive to Houston from Austin, and took the test directly from the FCC.

My first callsign was WN5ISP. My first radio was a code only Heathkit radio, the HW-16. I enjoyed the code, it was kind of fun. Code is a slow way to communicate, but it really does get through the QRM (interference) better than just about any other technology. Even back then the code requirement was controversial.

I had a number of periods of activity over the years. I was very active when I was stationed in Okinawa in the late 70s. I used the military issued callsign KA6JH.

It’s hard to imagine now, but back in the 70s an overseas military base was almost cut off from the world unless you had a shortwave radio of some kind. Long distance calls to the states were fantastically expensive, and required a trip to the post office. There was in the world something called ‘DARPANET’, a computer network run by the military for use by major defense contractors and big universities. Nothing like it existed in Japan.

There was one English language radio station, and one TV station. Both were operated by the military and heavily censored. I used my first microcomputer, a Digital Group, to pick up shortwave radio teletype news feeds. This was terrific. I was one of the few people on the island getting uncensored news!

My last period of active operation was in Virginia in the late 80s. By then we had computer-to-computer protocols such as AX.25. I used my Mac SE to send what we now call email to and from other hams.

I’ve been using a little of my very rusty Morse Code lately. I’ve been watching the lame TV show ‘Jericho‘, a post-apocalypse soap operate set in Kansas. It starts every episode with a short Morse code message, which I have almost copied on several occasions.

I still have my ticket, N4WBO. One of these days I’ll get active again.


I Voted – I Thought

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

             Photo by ihorner.

As a software developer I’m scared to death of electronic voting machines. I don’t know what it is about government people, but it seems they tend to be suckers whenever some vendor shows up with a handful of magic beans.

Paperless electronic voting machines have a lot of the same problems as civilian unmanned aerial vehciles. They are a bad solution to a non-existant problem.

I’d don’t subscribe to the moonbat “Dibold Steals Elections” school of non-thought. I do subcribe to the “writing software for use by millions of people is very, very , very hard” school. I know how hard it is, because its what I do in my day job. On first glance one might think that voting machine software must be the simplest thing in the world, nothing like so hard as something like Photoshop. But that’s wrong.

Photoshop has an undo. Voting machines don’t. Voting machine software is in the same class as Space Shuttle flight control software! It has to be perfect! In fact, at least the Space Shuttle’s software developers can count on their code be used by trained people. Voting machines have to work perfectly when set up and used by any random person!

A voting machine must be taken out storage, set up by a person of uncertain training, and must operate correctly the first time. There is no ‘undo’. Most of these voting game consoles provide no audit mechanism.

It certainly should be mandatory that all voting machine source code be provided to the customers (i.e. you and me). If you can’t audit the code, you can’t audit the election.

What if an exception is thrown during the voting process? Does that voter get to vote again on another machine?

On election day I chatted with my fellow developer Todd about voting machine software. I think it’s fair to say that both us are very concerned about these closed box paperless ballots.

Todd votes in Travis county, which has gone whole-hog for the unauditable magic box game consoles/voting machines.

I was a little smug when I explained to Todd that I live in Williamson county, a much more conservative place, not given to grabbing the latest new gimcrack being hawked out of a trunk by itinerant salesmen salesmen for the Uneeda Biscuit and Software company.

I was very pleased that I voted on an old fashioned #2 pencil fill in the oval paper ballot. I’m still pleased about it, but apparently I was lucky. It turns out that Williamson county is on the road to game console voting also. And they got bite bigtime:

The Williamson County Elections Department said in a press release Tuesday there was an error with Nov. 7 election results in the number of votes calculated. The press release stated that election results were not altered because of the error.

The problem occurred in the Election Systems & Software (ES&S) software, which tripled the number of electronic votes submitted. The elections department said the same percentage was submitted for Republicans and Democrats, therefore the results were not affected. (Ha! The software has bugs. They have no idea what really happened! – Jim)

Voter sign-in sheets showed that approximately 84,500 people cast ballots, but the computer software that counted both paper and electronic votes recorded more than 91,000 votes.

“We are currently reviewing our process in order to make recommendations to the commissioners court for changes that would prevent this problem from occurring again,” said Debra Stacy, county elections administrator, in the press release.

A second press release said canvassing of the results will be postponed until Nov. 20 at 10 a.m. Some election judges raised questions about the vote counts in the precinct-by-precinct tallies, according to the press release.

“It’s to make sure everyone feels very comfortable with the election results before they’re canvassed,” said Connie Watson, county public information officer.

Hill Country News

This just turns my stomach.

We don’t need electronic voting. File in the circle paper ballots can be recounted. Game console touch screens can’t.

The government pisses away zillions of dollars on all kinds of wasteful pork. It can afford to buy paper to use for ballots!