February 25, 2024

Archives for November 2004

New Study of E-Voting Effects in Florida

Yesterday, a team of social scientists from UC Berkeley released a study of the effect of e-voting on county-by-county vote totals in Florida and Ohio in the recent election. It’s the first study to use proper social-science modeling methods to evaluate the effect of e-voting.

The study found counties with e-voting tended to tilt toward Bush, even after controlling for differences between counties including past voting history, income, percentage of Hispanic voters, voter turnout, and county size. The researchers estimate that e-voting caused a swing in favor of Bush of up to 260,000 votes in Florida. (A change of that many votes would not be enough to change the election’s result; Bush won Florida by about 350,000 votes.)

No e-voting effect was found in Ohio.

The study looks plausible, but I don’t have the expertise to do a really careful critique. Readers who do are invited to critique the study in the comments section.

Regardless of whether it is ultimately found credible, this study is an important step forward in the discourse about this topic. Previous analyses had shown differences, but had not controlled for the past political preferences of individual counties. Skeptics had claimed that “Dixiecrat” counties, in which many voters were registered as Democrats but habitually voted Republican, could explain the discrepancies. This study shows, at least, that the simple Dixiecrat theory is not enough to refute the claim that e-voting changed the results.

Assuming that the study’s authors did their arithmetic right, there are two possibilities. It could be that some other factor, beyond the ones that the study controlled for, can explain the discrepancies. If this is the case, we can assume somebody will show up with another study demonstrating that.

Or it could be that e-voting really did affect the result. If so, there are several ways this could have happened. One possibility is that the machines were maliciously programmed or otherwise compromised; I think this is unlikely but unfortunately the machines are designed in a way that makes this very hard to check. Or perhaps the machines made errors that tended to flip some votes from one candidate to the other. Even random errors of this sort would tend to affect the overall results, if e-voting counties different demographically from other counties (which is apparently the case in Florida). Another possibility is that e-voting affects voter behavior somehow, perhaps affecting different groups of voters differently. Maybe e-voting scares away some voters, or makes people wait longer to vote. Maybe the different user interface on e-voting systems makes straight party-line voting more likely or less likely.

This looks like the beginning of a long debate.

TiVo to Display Fast-Forward Banner Ads

TiVo has announced that it will overlay banner ads on viewers’ TV screens when they fast-forward while replaying recorded shows. Many commentators (such as Cory Doctorow) have criticized this move, though Kevin Werbach says it’s no big deal.

As a TiVo user, I’m not sure what to think about this. I would be happier if TiVo didn’t do it, but I’m not surprised that they’re trying to sell the ad space available to them.

There are actually two reasons I want to skip ads. First, I don’t want to wait around while the ad is on. Second I sometimes don’t want to see the ad content at all. (This is especially likely if there are kids around.) If TiVo’s new ads are only shown while I’m fast-forwarding anyway, then they won’t make me wait any longer than I would without the new ads. But they’ll still push the banner ads in my face, which might be annoying, depending on the nature of the ads.

I wonder, though, whether TiVo isn’t interfering with its customers’ viewing more than it thinks. Savvy TiVo users who are sports fans know that there’s a lot of dead time in televised games, even beyond the ads. For instance, fast-forwarding between batters of a baseball game (and between pitches if the pitcher is slow or the batter steps out of the batter’s box) can cut the viewing time for a game in half. Things are still happening during those periods, but they’re perfectly visible on fast-forward. If TiVo starts slapping banner ads over parts of the screen during these periods, this will interfere with the viewing experience.

The biggest question, I think, is whether the introduction of these ads is a single step, or the first step in a systematic redesign of the TiVo interface. The latter would be a mistake. Many TiVo users (including me) have already paid for the service, having bought a TiVo recorder and a lifetime subscription to the service, and they won’t take kindly to any reduction in the quality of the service. And TiVo will face more competition in the future as MythTV gets closer to being consumer-ready.

Online Lecture

The video of my Princeton President’s Lecture, “Rip, Mix, Burn, Sue: Technology, Politics, and the Fight to Control Digital Media” is now online. The lecture, which lasts about an hour, is a layperson’s introduction to the technology/copyright wars. I gave it on October 12. The first six minutes of the video consists entirely of introductions, which can safely be skipped.

UPDATE (Nov. 22): This entry has been updated to point to a new page for the lecture, which includes a Creative Commons license for the lecture video, and will eventually link to the lecture in more formats.

Princeton offers a great set of lecture videos on the net.

Copyright, Copynorms, and Plagiarism

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting piece in the Nov. 22 New Yorker, reflecting on the discovery that Frozen, a Broadway play, included language lifted from an earlier Gladwell article.

Equally interesting is the reaction of Dorothy Lewis, a New York psychologist who was the subject of Gladwell’s earlier article. One of the characters in Frozen is very similar to Lewis, to the point that Lewis’s friends and colleagues see the character as being Lewis. Lewis may or may not have a legal remedy, but she feels violated, especially since the character commits an indiscretion that Lewis herself did not.

And yet the public outcry over Lavery’s copying, such as it is, points to the copying of wording, rather than any of the other copying that occurred. Why? Gladwell’s exploration of this question is worth reading.

Gladwell correctly separates questions of copyright law from those of plagiarism.
Perhaps this is what distinguishes his view from the conventional wisdom that he describes and then ultimately rejects.

Little by little, the legal rules of copyright are infecting our understanding of plagiarism. Kids, who used to be taught that certain kinds of copying are wrong, or at least disapproved by adults, are now taught about copyright instead. Last year a third-grader told me that it’s wrong to copy a friend’s homework, because the homework is copyrighted.

Adults make the same mistake too. High-profile plagiarism accusations usually point to textual similarities, as if the underlying sin could have been blotted out by a bit of rewording.

This is a shame. Our plagiarism norms exist for a good reason. Intellectual life is about more than copyright.

[link credit: Joe Gratz]

Spam Kings: Mini-Review

I just finished reading Brian McWilliams’ new book Spam Kings. It’s an entertaining read that offers an interesting, nontechnical peek at some of the personalities behind the spam wars.

The book’s central figure is Davis Hawke, an amoral character responsible for most of the spam promoting male anatomical enhancement products. (The only thing that these products have reliably expanded is Hawke’s cash flow.) Hawke turned to spamming after the failure of his first career as a neo-Nazi leader, and he displays all of the class and moral judgment that one would expect given this background. His (financial) success as a spammer is due to his gift for writing persuasively sleazy ad copy, his persistence, and his willingness to do anything to make a buck. One almost wonders whether such a character could really exist outside of detective fiction; but apparently he does.

The anti-spammers, while somewhat more conventional in personality (but then again, who isn’t) also make interesting character studies. Some are system administrators whose jobs are complicated by spam, but many are like Susan Gunn (a.k.a. Shiksaa), an ordinary netizen who transformed her anger at spammers into a crusade to unmask and frustrate them.

When these personalities collide, the result is a kind of online trench warfare, involving technology, old-fashioned detective work, lawsuits, and occasional threats and intimidation. The spammers are far from unified, double-crossing each other like Elmore Leonard villains. The anti-spammers are at most a loosely organized coalition. Both sides are plagued by leaks and defections. The anti-spammers occasionally break the law; the spammers routinely hide in the quasi-legal murk.

When things heat up, a veteran anti-spammer asks an insightful question: Are we fighting against the spammers, or fighting against spam? Sometimes it does seem that the whole exercise has turned into an elaborate capture-the-flag game between the two communities. Yet despite the occasional excess, one ends up admiring the determination of the anti-spammers, and happy about the results they have achieved. Even as spam multiplies, the life of a spammer is not a happy or comfortable one.

(O’Reilly, the book’s publisher, sent me a free copy of the book. Thanks! Hint to other publishers: I’m more likely to read and review your books if you do this too.)