Voting Should Be Easy

 

Over 75 percent of the American people have smartphones, and since voter participation in elections hovers around 50 percent of eligible citizens, the idea has come around to increase voting by making it possible for people to use their smartphones for that purpose. This year, West Virginia is trying out smartphone voting on a limited basis. The biggest concern with this practice is ballot security from smartphone to tabulating facility, usually a government office such as in a county courthouse. The medium used for that transmission would, of course, be the internet.

Smartphone Zombie Girls (15773553090)
Pedestrians in the Rahova neighborhood of Bucharest, Romania, on October 27, 2014, days before the first round of the Romanian presidential election on November 2. Photo by J Stimp.

 

Now the internet is many wonderful things, but numbered among them is not airtight security for the general user. Some users haven’t the faintest idea about or concern for the security of their system, whether it be on a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet or a smartphone. It’s clear that the integrity of internet voting by smartphone or any other device would need to be maintained by a third party, since the users themselves are unreliable.

The voting system would have to be capable of freezing out “man-in-the-middle” hacks, which have historically been the greatest vulnerability of internet communications and the most commonly exploited by hackers. Think of it as the postal system, in which Party A mails a letter to Party B by entrusting it to Party C, in this case the United States Postal Service, with the understanding that in between point A and point B no one will intercept and read it, save perhaps a Postal Inspector who can show probable cause.

 

The internet has never been even as secure as the postal system. More often it has been like the party lines that used to exist on some phone systems around the country. Until the security problems can be fixed, smartphone voting is unlikely to see widespread use. The safest system for voters is still paper ballots filed either by mail or in person at a polling place. Voting should be easier, not more difficult, as all the voter suppression laws passed by Republican controlled state legislatures have made it, with the idea that low turnout favors their candidates.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in the US presidential election in Philadelphia 14200A
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in the U.S. presidential election in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 8, 2016. Note how some are looking down at their smartphones, a common sight in public places now. Photo by Voice of America News.

Relatively few people are motivated to spend a long time waiting to vote in a queue that may keep them outdoors in bad weather, though some do appear willing to endure similar conditions in order to purchase the latest iPhone. Smartphone voting is a great idea for increasing participation in elections, but sadly it is one that needs work before becoming wholly viable, if it ever does. Until then, voters can still bring along their smartphones to their polling places to keep themselves entertained while they wait.
โ€” Techly

 

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Straining to See

 

Many folks may remember that as children they were admonished by their elders not to sit too close to the television because they would strain their eyes. If a child was a reader, a parent or other elder would express concern that the reading light wasn’t bright enough. If a child read in bed after lights out, then a concerned elder would issue a warning of punishment for staying up too late, in addition to concern about eye strain. Of course, this scenario is dated because children today may be reading from a backlit screen instead of a paper book. New technology, same worries about eye strain.

Looking at computer and phone (Unsplash)
View from a street in Toronto, Canada, into a building where a woman looks at her laptop computer and smartphone. Photo by Tim Gouw.

Asthenopia is the medical term for eye strain, and in a chronic case the condition can be a concern worthy of a visit to a doctor. With the prevalence of computer, tablet, and smartphone use now, adults are as apt to have asthenopia as children who don’t heed their parents’ warnings. Few people admit to reading from their smartphone or tablet in bed after dark, but most probably do it, because for one thing it’s an easy way to read without disrupting a partner’s sleep, even if it may disrupt their own sleep habits. Looking for hours at a time into a relatively bright light from a foot or two away, or perhaps mere inches, is a sure path to eye strain.

Other than changing behavior, the solution starts with turning down the brightness on all those screens, including the television. Most devices now come with sensors that detect room brightness and adjust the device brightness accordingly. A darkened room will require less brightness from the device in order for the user to comfortably view the screen. Find that control and use it. Next, devices made specifically for reading at close range, such as smartphones and tablets, may have a “Reader” mode in the display settings. Find that and turn it on. Some internet browsers also come equipped with a “Reader” mode.

Finally, if those native adjustments are insufficient to tone down the blue part of the spectrum, which is the part most responsible for causing eye strain, then seek out a third party application for computers, smartphones, and tablets that will shift the color temperature from blue to red, with many degrees in between. Such applications have timers built in order to shift the color temperature gradually as day moves to night, and vice versa. They take some getting used to, but after a day or two the warmer color temperature will feel natural and less noticeable. Your eyes will sense the difference, though, since they will no longer be asthenopic, a word which is such a strain to pronounce it’s just as well you no longer have to deal with it.
โ€” Techly

 

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Nothing to Lose Sleep Over

 

Technology for helping people sleep appears to be a booming business, with everything from machines that mimic ocean wave sounds to sensors built into mattresses to adjust the sleeping experience for maximum comfort. Technology also is ushered out of the bedroom, in the form of light temperature filters for smartphones and electronic tablets. Sleep difficulties, especially for older people, are nothing to be taken lightly since lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can lead to all sorts of problems in the larger society, some of them dangerous, like driving a motor vehicle while deprived of good sleep.

 

One of the factors often ignored in discussions of sleep is how the natural sleep cycle of our species appears to broken up into two, and often three periods. The natural cycle seems to drop into the background during most of maturity for many people, giving rise to the common illusion that eight hours of continuous sleep from late evening through the night to early morning is the norm. Nothing could be further from the truth. The true sleep pattern for our species makes itself known in youth and in old age, when work schedules are less demanding. The young and the old typically sleep several hours from evening into the night, then are up for an hour, maybe more, and then back to sleep from late night into the morning. They also often partake of a midday nap.

RBunny21
Asleep, a 1904 painting by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947).

The introduction of widely available electric lighting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played a part in resetting humanity’s internal clock, particularly for those living in industrial societies originating from northern Europe. Southern European societies retained a more relaxed rhythm and honored the tradition of the siesta, or midday relaxation. But in industrialized England and America the norm became 12 to 16 hours of work during all of daylight and into twilight at both ends of the day, followed by 8 to 12 hours of some sort of relaxation and sleep at home before getting back at it the next day. Sleep had to be concentrated in those hours, or foregone. Sleep at home when you got the slim chance, or fall asleep at the wheel of some dangerously unprotected machinery, risking death, maiming, or at the very least loss of employment.

To have been an insomniac working in a factory of the last centuries in the industrial north must have been utter hell, as it must be today for those working in the garment and electronics sweatshops of southern Asia. Some of the devices advertised for sale to help the sleepless may seem ludicrous or indulgent, but for those afflicted it may not seem so. The question is whether those who truly need those devices can afford them or are even aware of them. Probably not.

Madeline Kahn, as Lili Von Shtupp, sings “I’m Tired” in the 1974 Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles. Warning: foul language.

The sound of waves crashing, the gradual transition of blue light to red on electronics invited into the bedroom, and the monitoring of sleep quality, as far as that may be possible, all are geared toward the middle class and above, the office workers who have followed the 9 to 5 mold set for their kind one hundred years ago. Many work more hours than that, usually appended to the end of the day. All the same, sleep for them is crowded into the overnight hours, and if they don’t get it then they will miss out. There’s nothing wrong with them if they can’t sleep all 8 hours in the time allotted; it’s the mold that is broken and needs remaking.
โ€” Techly

 

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Open Sesame

 

The latest crisis in computer security comes from news of the Meltdown and Spectre Central Processing Unit (CPU) exploits. Nearly all desktop and laptop computers are affected, and most tablets, smartphones, and other small devices are also affected.* The difference is on account of the types of CPUs used for the various computers and devices. Since home users usually access password protected accounts like email and online banking from smaller devices as well as larger computers, they could see their privacy and online security compromised across platforms. In other words, hackers can exploit a hardware flaw in the CPUs of home computers, and then hackers could use that vulnerability to access private email and banking passwords in software that crosses platforms.

 

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In the story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, Ali Baba overhears one of the thieves say “Open Sesame” to open the entrance of the cave where they store their loot. Illustration by Rena Xiaxiu.

CPU makers like Intelโ€  are racing to fix the problem, which was first discovered by Google security researchers last June, and internet browser makers, where many users store passwords, are hurrying to tighten security on their end. In the meantime, people need to be vigilant about email and banking security themselves, starting with changing their passwords if they suspect unusual activity in their accounts and running a full suite of anti-virus, anti-spyware, and anti-malware programs on their computers. Those are routine security measures that people ought to be taking already, but unfortunately some folks don’t even do that much. When their computers are compromised by hackers, those home users are often as not completely unaware they are being used as part of a rogue network, called a botnet, to spread spam and other nasties throughout the internet. When everything is linked as with the internet, the weakest links are the easiest targets of hackers.

Even after tightening up individual computer security by using strong passwords and storing them securely, by not clicking on links in untrusted emails, by surfing the web safely using the anti-phishing feature built into most browsers, by regularly updating a security suite and running scans with it, even after all that a careful home user can still have difficulties, whether it’s because of something completely out of their control in the so-called cloud, such as when credit reporting agencies got hacked, or simply because their Internet Service Provider (ISP) momentarily gives them the Internet Protocol (IP) address of a blacklisted spammer, causing their email provider to block their account.

Since the majority of IP addresses are dynamic rather than static, meaning that each time a computer user connects to the internet the device that user is on, or possibly a larger network it is part of, is assigned a different IP address rather than keeping the same IP address from session to session. Because dynamic IP addresses are recycled, it’s a wonder that the unfortunate coincidence of being assigned a blacklisted address does not happen more often than it does. It’s impractical to remove a bad address from the rotation entirely because spammers can jump from address to address so quickly that soon all of them would be blacklisted, or the addresses would have to be prohibitively long.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film The Wrong Man explores the nightmare of mistaken identity.

The other way to get blacklisted as a spammer is to get hacked as described earlier, either through negligence or bad luck, and end up an unknowing part of a botnet distributing spam to friends and strangers alike. The use of biometrics like fingerprint and iris scans are no better a solution to account security than passwords since hackers have been at work on spoofing mechanisms for biometrics. Police can also compel people to grant access to their computers and other devices when they are locked by biometric measures, whereas they cannot compel people to divulge their passwords. There is no single, simple solution to keeping private data entirely secure on any computer or device as long as it is connected to the internet. It’s like the locks on doors and windows, which ultimately will keep out only honest people. Dishonest people will find a way in if they are determined enough, but it’s better for everyone else if it’s not too easy for them, and if they get caught sooner rather than later.
โ€• Techly

*Post updated to enlarge number of devices affected.

โ€ In November, long after he had learned of the vulnerability in his company’s products, but of course before the flaw had become general knowledge last week, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich sold almost all of his stock in the company for $39 million.

 

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10 Reasons Your Mind Is Not a Waste

 

“When you take the UNCF model that, what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.”
โ€• Vice President Dan Quayle, speaking at a luncheon for the United Negro College Fund on May 9, 1989, mangling the Fund’s slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

 

Is the internet making us dumber? stupider? how about less bright? Listicles like this one could be one reason why we might not be that smart anymore. Maybe they’ve helped make us smarter than we used to be. Did listicles ever exist outside the internet, meaning a long, long time ago? Maybe in magazines, most of which were not meant for serious people, the way newspapers were, way back when.


Mel Brooks shows us an alternative past involving lists and tablets in his 1981 movie History of the World – Part 1.

Anyway, enough history. Here we go โ€•

  1. Before the internet, you needed to know and remember stuff, because you couldn’t just look it up online at the drop of a hat. You maybe could find out from a book, if you knew where to find one.
  2. Because you can look up practically anything now on the internet, some people think it’s making us smarter, especially about what our favorite celebrities have been up to lately.
  3. Without the internet, we couldn’t check on what our friends had for dinner and all the cool places they’ve been out to eat, unless we called them, which we don’t want to bother with, just text. Everything would have to be texts, which is probably okay.
  4. Spending lots of time playing computer games is good because it trains you for a good job with the military remotely piloting drones to drop bombs on terrorists over in their country from an undisclosed location somewhere else, and that’s really smart because otherwise they’d be over here blowing themselves up.
  5. Knowing a lot of internet and computer stuff is also a smart way to get a job with the National Security Agency (NSA) looking into everybody’s business.
  6. There’s no need to develop social skills when there are social media networks like Facebook and Twitter around.
  7. The internet is also good for getting things off your chest by commenting online, and you don’t have to worry about being nice about it, because on the internet no one knows who you are, unless they’re with the NSA.
  8. It used to be that before the internet you could be bored a lot. Now with smartphones and tablets that you always have with you, you don’t ever have to be bored and think about stuff, because you can do other things online, like Facebook or Twitter again.
  9. According to Hebb’s Law, which you can look up online, when your brain spends a lot of time doing something, it gets smarter doing that thing. Even though the brain is mostly fat, it’s like a muscle that way.
  10. Your brain is wired just like the internet. Well, actually, since your brain was here first, especially if you were born a generation or more ago, the internet is wired like your brain. Not that any central authority planned it that way, it just happened. If you’re an old person, that’s probably why you might not understand everything about the internet, because you have to think about it, instead of being wired up ready to go from early on.


Mike Judge shows us a possible future in his 2006 movie Idiocracy. Okay, it might be more than just a possible future and might be closer to now than is comfortable. Warning: foul language.

Okay, that pretty much wraps it up. It was fun. Now you know the internet isn’t necessarily making us any dumber, just different, but don’t think about it too hard or your brain’ll seize up and crash like you drank something really cold really fast. You can’t email Microsoft tech support about that.
โ€• Techly

 

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Don’t Call Me “Stupid”

James Madison by Gilbert Stuart 1804
James Madison, portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
โ€• James Madison

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes in his latest book, Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White, that low information voters would do better to stay away from the polls on election day rather than cast their vote based on an inadequate understanding of the issues. This is sensible advice and in an ideal world those low information voters would heed it in order to benefit everyone. No one buys a car, after all, without at least kicking the tires and pretending some knowledge of what’s under the hood. But aside from safety considerations on the public roads, buying a car is largely a personal choice, affecting solely the owner. The effect of a person’s vote, however, amounts to a civic responsibility because it is a decision which affects everyone. This much seems obvious, yet it is amazing how much more effort some people will invest in researching a car or stereo system than in how politicians stand on the issues. In that case, Mr. Abdul-Jabbar makes a valid point.

Are low information voters stupid? Not necessarily. Some feel obligated to vote yet lack the time or desire to get up to speed on the important issues at stake. Others are deluded by questionable sources for their information, such as major media outlets which give a one-sided slant to the news and are often obsessed with sensationalism and trivia. Still others are blinded by party loyalty to information about defects in their preferred candidate. If anything, all of these attributes describe laziness rather than stupidity.

In this age of Standards of Learning testing in the public schools, it appears social studies education generally, and civics education particularly, are getting squeezed in favor of the three Rs, which are more readily documented to show results. Elementary and secondary school education in civics instills in future voters not only knowledge of the structure of government and how it works, but more importantly why that matters to them in their daily lives. That is the vital aspect of civics education which needs to remain with people throughout their lives, and which they are apt to lose sight of in the noise and confusion of earning a living and raising a family.

This is also the Age of Information, when sources of information are more widely available to the common person than they have ever been. Some sources are worthwhile and some are not. Some people view sorting through it all an engaging experience and some view it as drudgery. But it is there for people if they choose to look for it and choose to exercise a capacity for critical thinking which they ideally would have learned from their civics education. Today, for most people in a relatively affluent society, there are fewer excuses than ever for ignorance when easily the equivalent of the ancient Library at Alexandria is available to them in their computers, in their tablets and smartphones, or in the computers and book stacks at an institution usually somewhat less grand than the Alexandria Library – their local public library.

โ€• Ed.


Ancientlibraryalex

The Great Library of Alexandria, drawing by O. Von Corven.

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