Three Questions to Ask When You Vote

IMG_1306.JPGTomorrow is Election Day here in Richmond, and in the name of helping us move toward a voting process where the vote you cast can actually be verified, I'll suggest these three questions to ask when you visit your friendly local computerized voting center. You may not get the answers you want, but the people who oversee the process will not know that changes are desired unless they hear from you:

  • Can I please have a paper record of my vote? The answer will likely be "no." In Indiana, there is no way for you to have a written record of your vote. The state would like you to trust that it has properly received and counted your vote in its computer system. If there were a need for a recount, the state would use the computer record of your vote, not a paper trail that humans can look at. But hey, who ever heard of an election that was close, or one where a recount really mattered?
  • Can you please show me a copy of the software source code that powers these voting machines? The answer is probably "no" again. The software that runs on the voting machines we use was developed by for-profit corporations, and the contract that your lawmakers typically make with them is that the source code won't have to be available for the public to see. We just have to trust that they haven't made any mistakes that might affect vote counts, or worse, any intentional changes that might alter the outcome of the election. But hey, who ever heard of someone trying to change the outcome of an election for their own benefit?
  • Can you please provide me with a copy of the testing procedures to insure that my voting machine has not been altered or compromised? Many officials will provide you with a copy of the procedures if you ask in advance, and sometimes copies may be available onsite at the voting center. You may be charged a reasonable per-page copying fee. If you can't get your verbal request fulfilled, submit your request in writing, which creates a legal duty for your public officials to produce the documents. Once you have them, you can decide if they're sufficient for you to trust the democratic process to the integrity of the machines and the companies that make them. But hey, who ever heard of a government-managed process that wasn't totally comprehensive and in the full interest of its citizens?

You can learn more about verified voting at and their page on Wayne County's voting equipment. If you'd like to take further action on this issue, there's a Citizens Tool Kit available that includes notes on how to raise awareness and make change in your community.

My VOIP home phone setup using trixbox

004 1I've generally been content not having a physical phone line at home and using my cell phone instead. I'm not much of a phone person anyway, my back yard looked a lot nicer when Verizon cut down the unsightly cable, and it's certainly a cost savings. But sometimes, I still long to have a regular old phone sitting on my desk that I can pick up and make a call on. Recently, for various reasons, I've been playing with having just that setup, but with a twist: my new home phone setup is run on open source software, and the conversations are carried over my broadband Internet connection.

Here's my configuration (perhaps mostly for geeks, but hopefully also for anyone who's interested):

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Live Chat Room for Richmond, Again

IMG_2256.JPGI'm trying out a concept for a new local website,, and I want to get your feedback.

The main point is pretty simple: provide a real-time discussion room for Richmond/Wayne County citizens to talk about the issues of the day, chit-chat, and whatever else seems useful, any time, day or night. The way it's set up now, a "robot" will periodically insert a headline, weather report, event, etc. from local sources into the room for those joined in to talk about. Users can carry on private chats with each other if they choose. Real names are encouraged, relative anonymity is certainly possible.
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Live chat for and about Wayne County citizens

I spent some time tonight getting a live chat feature working on the website. I believe it might be the only live chat room up and running that exists for Wayne County citizens in general...correct me if I'm wrong.

Hmmm, I wonder if we're ready for that. There's been some demand for it over time. On other community websites I've been involved in, it was quite a useful way for folks to connect, but that's often over a geographical distance. I don't want to make it any easier than it is to isolate ourselves from each other when we don't need to be, but for those who might not have time or inclination to meet in person about the issues at hand, an online chat can sure be handy. We'll see.

Homegrown RSS feeds for local news sites

I recently wrote in the Summersault weblog about how website content syndication is changing the way we use the web. Of course, if the sites you care about aren't syndicating their content, the phenomenon is a little less exciting. For me, the only ones I cared about that were in this category were local news sources. For a few years I'd been running hacked up Perl scripts that tried to retrieve headlines from the sites of local papers, but it tended to be hit and miss and I never really took the time to take a more structured approach until now. Using the Template::Extract Perl module and a handy article from Simon Cozens about spidering hacks, I was able to formalize and simplify the creation of custom RSS feeds scraped from sites without them built-in. So, here are the first few, to which you are welcome to point your own newsreader:

Please avoid refreshing these more than once an hour. If there are other feeds you'd like to see, let me know. I'll add new ones on my feeds page as they come. Enjoy!

Read your congressperson's blog

The eminent and celebrated E. Thomas Kemp points us to a wonderful and clever use of news aggregation and weblog technologies, Plogress. Using Perl and WordPress, the apparently anonymous administrator has created a site that sucks data out of the Library of Congress and displays a blog of the doings of individual Senators and Representatives. Now I can keep an eye on Mike, Richard, and Evan through my RSS newsreader! I'm sure they all read my blog, right?

Switchers Everywhere

There's a whole lot o' switchin' going on. I spent some time last night helping one of my recently-moved-in housemates, Damon, set up his new PowerMac G4, which is his first real experience with Mac and OS X, coming from the world of Windows. I was able to re-live my own excitement of that first switching boot-up a few years ago, and as I took him on a tour and showed him New Ways of doing things (including the Firefox browser) our session was filled with Damon exclaiming things like, "you mean, that just works?" and "oh my gosh that's pretty" and "I'll never use another f#@$@! PC again". Okay, so maybe I said some of those things too. 🙂 And then this morning as I was listening to NPR, the 7:50 story was about the increasing popularity of Apple, Macs, and the rumors that bubble up around the forthcoming Macworld Expo. The 7:56 story was about Firefox, the browser that I use exclusively these days because it is faster, better, and helps me browse really does everything I want it to (a surprisingly recent development in the world of browsers from my standpoint). The NPR story used the key phrases: "open source movement" and "eating away at Microsoft's market share". It's fun to see smarter/faster/better at work and taking hold in a world that often prefers mainstream-but-broken.