An argument for paper ballots in voting, thanks to Apple’s iPhones & billions of dollars

Note: This is basically a long version of this excellent xkcd comic about electronic voting

Voting is the cornerstone of democracy, including the USA’s representative democracy.

If our voting breaks, then our democracy breaks (or at least has a much higher chance of breaking).

If you agree with me on that idea – which I think is uncontroversial – then we want to make sure our voting system stays healthy. There are lots of ways for it to break, but since I spend a lot of my life thinking about computers & technology, I’d like to focus on the ways it could break with electronic voting.

Electronic voting could be compromised in ways that would change votes without leaving any kind of trail.

We wouldn’t even know the votes were changed.

Votes could theoretically be changed by people thousands of miles away.

Someone outside of the USA could change electronic votes cast in the USA. That means law enforcement may not be able to pursue consequences against the person breaking the law, since they don’t live there.

There are lots of other ways electronic voting could go wrong (poor quality or miscalibrated touchscreens, broken physical buttons, confusing user interface design, etc.), but those at least have manifestations that other people can see.

I’m instead going to focus on the much more invisible behavior (but that leaves very lasting changes on a country) of someone changing electronic votes without any record that the votes were changed.

And this, surprisingly, brings me to Apple.

Apple has a lot of money & resources

Apple’s market value is currently the biggest in the world: US$961 billion.

In the third quarter of 2019, Apple posted US$53.8 billion of revenue, and US$10billion of profit. The third quarter is typically Apple’s lowest-selling quarter of the year, too.

Apple has US$210 billion of cash (or marketable securities) on-hand, ready to spend at a moment’s notice.

Is it clear that Apple has the resources to do things in the best way possible, and acquire the best and brightest talent in the world?

Yet it was just reported this week that Apple’s iPhones had some security flaws that were exploitable in the wild for years.

How were these exploits triggered? An iPhone owner simply had to visit the wrong website to be a victim.

What were the consequences of visiting a website exercising this flaw? Your private information – including contacts and text messages – could be sent off your phone to the attacker.

The biggest company on earth couldn’t make an unhackable system

Apple makes hundreds of billions of dollars from iOS and iPhones, and Apple tries very hard to have top-notch security.

Yet even Apple could not prevent some massive security flaws from being in the wild for iPhones. (Android has plenty of issues, too, and arguably worse ones – I’m just focusing on Apple, the world’s biggest company, right now)

This is not surprising news to anyone who builds software and has to think even slightly about security.

Software security is wildly difficult

Success in the world of keeping software secure is pretty much impossible.

Apple, and anyone else trying to build secure software, must get it right every time, forever, fighting attacks from potentially everywhere on Earth, to reach success.

People trying to break into a system only have to break it once to reach success.

Can you do something right forever?

Has any single person, or any group of people, in the history of Earth, gotten something right forever?

Because getting something right forever never happens, it shouldn’t shock us that Apple, Google, or any other software company sometimes has a breach. It sure would be nice to know who did the breaching, but that’s sometimes impossible to tell, too.

The latest reports don’t say who might have taken advantage of these Apple security vulnerabilities. However, they could have been used by people who did not put themselves into any sort of harm.

Virtual crime is less risky

Before computers were so central to so many of our lives, crime typically required someone risking their physical safety or other consequences.

Stealing a loaf of bread or a car required being physically present to take it away, risking physical punishment or direct arrest by law enforcement seeing you committing the crime.

Robbing someone’s wallet requires some level of physical risk for the robber. In the USA, a robber never knows if the person they’re stealing from may have pepper spray or even a stronger weapon on their person. There is physical risk to the person, not to mention the risk of the legal system’s consequences if they get caught by law enforcement.

But now computers run the world, and stealing from them involves a whole lot less risk.

There are certainly still potential legal system and criminal justice consequences… but when you can commit the crime from the comfort of your couch, that risk drops a lot. If you’re a savvy computer criminal, you may be able to delete a lot of the traces that you were ever there. Plus, the legal arguments and precedent for computer crimes consequences are young. There’s jurisprudence for physical stealing and battery and robbery dating back hundreds of years, but computers haven’t even been around a hundred years, and haven’t truly been central to the world until the last couple of decades.

So if you want to create a little havoc but keep yourself at a low risk of facing any significant consequences, computer crime seems like a low-risk way to achieve it.

Minimize voting’s vulnerability to less risky crime

Voting shapes government, & government has massive power.

The world’s biggest company can’t build an unbreakable system.

The companies and government agencies tasked with state or local elections are nowhere close to the size of Apple, and have nowhere close to their money and resources.

What if I told you there’s a simple, low-cost step every state in the nation can take to put a high degree of certainty that votes cannot be falsified by someone sitting in the comfort of their house on an entirely different continent?

Use paper ballots.

Like we did in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, and today in many states.

That’s it.

Yes, paper ballots could still be subject to fraud, but that’s pretty darn difficult to pull off at scale, and a recent attempt failed. The effort to do that requires:

  1. more people to pull off (likely a lot more people, all working in concert)
  2. more potential for physical harm to someone, or to be physically stopped from doing it
  3. more potential for legal consequences (you had to have been physically present in a voting place to change the votes, and to do that means you likely live in that neighborhood, so you’ll likely not leave the country the very next day)

Just use paper ballots.

I am not the only one to have this idea. I am just repeating it so there’s one more voice out there.

What can you do right now?

  1. Check here to see if your state says it is “without paper trail”
  2. If your state has no paper trail, call your state senators and representatives and tell them to change that.

A simple, single phone call will help some.

Finding out if there are any laws in your state legislature for switching to a paper trail, and then going to the state capital and testifying on that, will help more.

Getting involved with your local election board can also help, and will amplify your voice in the voting process.

How many states have no paper trail?

As of this writing, 12 states (25% of the USA’s states) appear to have no significant paper trail:

  • Delaware*
  • Florida
  • Georgia*
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana*
  • New Jersey*
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina*
  • Tennessee
  • Texas

Those states combined have 102 million people.

Roughly 1/3 of the US population has their votes unnecessarily vulnerable to fraud.

Every single one of these states that has no paper trail is putting our democracy at risk.

States with an * are particularly at risk, as noted in this article.

Electronic voting is no panacea for the democratic process; it may require fewer people to count votes, but do we want fewer people involved in the voting process, or more? More people means less chance that any small group of people can be bad actors, falsifying voters or doing other questionable things in person.

Get paper ballots in your state. Technologists everywhere will thank you.

Late night pizza near Brigham Circle in Boston

October 2019 update: I’ve created the Boston Pizza Blog, and put a copy of this story up there!

After a pre-St. Patrick’s Day visit to Flann’s with Roberto and friends, I just visited the triumvirate of late night pizza in the Brigham Circle area of Boston. Join my stroll of the three pizza places open late.

Where did I go?

  1. Crispy Dough
  2. Tremont House of Pizza
  3. Penguin Pizza

Special mention to Il Mondo, which is currently moving locations and is not yet re-opened. If they had been open, I may have gone straight there and then straight home.

Let’s break down each spot.

Crispy Dough

True to its name, this had some nice, crispy pizza. It was fairly empty at 11:00pm the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day – just like every place I visited – which meant I got my slice with little waiting. Service was friendly and fast.

I got the buffalo chicken pizza, a staple in the area. It had more white sauce than some places (Il Mondo), but it was tastier than some of the white sauces I’ve had, too.

Slice was pretty good sized. This was my second time here, and the pizza was on par with my first visit.

Official website, and Yelp

Tremont House of Pizza

I had been meaning to go here for a long time, yet tonight was my first time venturing in to this spot with ample seating space. I chose pepperoni instead of cheese (the other option), and it was quickly available and crumbling in my mouth.

The dough was distinctly different. It had a much more buttery and crumbly consistency. It was something I haven’t really had before, which was a nice change of pace.  It’s unlike Dominos, Pizza Hut, or any of the local places I’ve had in Boston so far. The edge of the dough was a typical crispy crust, though.

If you want a different kind of dough, check out Tremont. It’s a little more dough than the others, but still has a nice taste.

Official website, and Yelp

Penguin Pizza

I spend many a Monday here for wing night after hitting the gym, but I’ve always enjoyed their pizza the few times I’ve picked it up for takeout. This was my first time having a slice in the restaurant, though, and it did not disappoint.

A gigantic piece of pepperoni was hanging off the sides of the plate I got, alongside a nice Irish Whiskey that the bartender mentioned was new.

Service at Penguin is fantastic as always, plus it’s the only place of the three where you can have either a beer or some harder beverages, depending on your preference. Dough is similar to crispy dough, but still distinct, and the slice size was bigger.

Official website, and Yelp

Which was best?

I’d be a fool to choose between these three, since they all offer a delicious slice in the later evening hours. Since I tend to be nearer to Penguin, I’ll probably tend to go there, but I will not hesitate to try Tremont again after a good first experience. Crispy Dough has a few locations around Boston, and I’d be happy to go back there, too.

Penguin probably wins just because you can get a tasty beverage from some great bartenders, but you can’t go wrong with any of these spots.

Follow-up: not-as-late-night pizza

I wanted to check out Chacho’s Pizza last night, but they close at 11pm. However, I tried it today – and it’s pretty good! Much more dough than the other three spots, but a nice taste. If you want the most dough, go straight to Chacho’s.


The US Immigration System Caused a Smart, Talented, Hard-Working Person to Leave the Country

Happy almost 2018!

One thing I’ll do next year is occasionally try to help explain US immigration policy, and also understand it better for myself. I’ve got a story below that can help educate.

Because I was born in the US, I’ve never learned much about immigration law and policies. I think most of my friends born in the US have similar experience.

I’ll talk about immigration policy much beyond the topic of illegal border crossings, because the typical way people immigrate into the US is through a legal channel.

Story Time

This is a true story about legal immigration.

This happened very recently.

Picture a young adult who comes to the US to get an undergrad college degree. That person stays here for four years under a student visa, paying sales tax the whole time, pumping money into our economy by buying food/services/etc. A student visa allows this student to make a little spending money by working somewhere on campus (the kitchen, computer support, etc), and if they made enough, they would even pay income tax (but usually they wouldn’t, because those jobs don’t pay very much).

That young adult, after graduating with a 4-year STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degree, wants to stay in the US. But now that adult has two options:

  1. Go back to school for a master’s or PhD
  2. Find a company to sponsor a work visa for him at the cost of thousands of dollars (along with a variety of other requirements levied on that company).

The number of work visas are limited by the US government. So this person who has gotten a 4-year degree in a science/technology field, and who wants to stay in the USA, simply might not be able to, because there’s an element of luck that determines if they get to stay here or not.

Some of the luck involves:

  • finding a company willing to take a risk of thousands of dollars on trying to hire someone that they may not actually be able to hire.
  • getting lucky enough to get drawn by the US’s work visa lottery

The specific person I’m talking about above was lucky enough to get a company as a sponsor. But after six years – six years of paying income taxes, social security taxes, six years of pumping effort into our economy – the person did not get lucky enough to get residency. another piece of luck involved in being able to stay in the USA. That also means that person who paid income taxes and social security taxes will never see that money again.

This person, who spent 10 years in the US and is a very smart, hard-working person, now has no choice but to go to another country. And this smart person has decided they will go to a country that accepts them without such elements of luck; Australia and Canada both have merit-based, no-luck-required immigration systems.

The US just lost a hard-working science employee.

I think someone who has spent 10 years in the US, getting an education, paying taxes, working a full-time job, and generally being a productive member of society, should get to stay in the US if they want. No luck required, just hard work. Merit-based.

Do you agree?

Let’s get beyond Trump and Clinton and talk about the problems we want to solve

The echo chamber of social media is strong, and this is our first election where the algorithms from Facebook (and Twitter to a lesser degree) are truly having an impact on people’s feelings.

I agree with a friend of mine who said he’s glad the country is ready to put this behind us. But the biggest work yet is ahead: bridging the gap between people who are supporting Trump in this election, and those who have felt very hurt by his comments.

Rather than simply shaming people for supporting one candidate or the other, I think talking about the places where people want improvements is a great starting point.

The biggest points I’ve heard from people who are in favor of Trump are:

  1. Shutting down (temporarily, as I am frequently reminded by his supporters) Muslims entering the USA
  2. Building a border wall (apparently just on the southern border)
  3. A vague desire for stronger military leadership

I’d love to address these one at a time:

Shutting Down a Religion Coming to the USA is Particularly Unamerican

Because religious freedom has been an absolute cornerstone of the USA since its inception, I simply cannot condone this idea.

However, I can understand what I believe the underlying idea is behind doing this: keeping people safer, and reducing crime. Improving our screening process is an ongoing thing that, perhaps, could use more specific focus over the next four years.

(Yes, recently Pence said that’s not the plan anymore. I haven’t heard Trump say that, though, and it makes me incredibly wary about someone attempting to roll back a controversial cornerstone of an election platform just 30 days before an election.)

Building a Wall on the Southern Border

As pointed out by various critics of this idea (most entertainingly by John Oliver), it is a huge amount of expense for something that will likely be ineffective. If we are concerned about border security, using technology in intelligent ways could help accomplish this much better. Tech-oriented jobs are the high-paying jobs we want in the US, so let’s put a focus there, rather than some monstrosity of a civil engineering project that would extend the reach and impact of the federal government on land in the area, rather than more elegantly figuring out where people breaking the law are at.

Even better, why are people illegally crossing the borders? Drugs is no small part of that. There are so many changes to our drug laws that we could do to reduce the reasons people are crossing the border illegally.

Desire for Stronger Military Leadership

I’ve heard arguments that Hillary is a warmonger, yet that she will follow Obama’s approach to much foreign policy, which, at least in the case of Syria, has been fairly weak. Foreign policy is an incredibly careful sort of thing to pull off successfully, and I think unless any of us have experience doing this, we cannot really pretend to understand all the complexities at work.

Someone who has served as the Secretary of State has experience well beyond anything us armchair quarterbacks can imagine.

My hopes, which come from the world of tech startups

I hope with discussions focused on the problem, we can get to happy mediums where we are addressing problems with solutions that solve the problems we want to fix.

In the world of software development and tech startups, it’s all about focusing on one specific problem, and relentlessly asking questions until it’s solved in an intelligent way. It’s not about taking the first idea someone proposes; it’s about trying something quickly, seeing how it works rapidly, then changing as we get feedback. Hopefully we can try things like that, and get input from both sides (because hey, my solutions certainly aren’t to everyone’s taste, but let’s talk through and actually try something… something which we can roll back much more easily than simply rejecting a religion or undertaking a massive, debt-massing project).

Pregnancy should not be an inconvenience for a business

At the first US presidential debate of 2016, Hillary Clinton pointed out:

this is a man who … has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers

Donald Trump responded by saying:

I never said that.

Actually, he did.

I quickly posted a link to that article on Facebook last night, primarily to show that he just lied during the debate.

However, that post sparked a pretty long Facebook discussion, with my friends and family weighing in about how pregnancy, vacation, and other things may or may not be considered “inconveniences” to a business.

Most people agree that expressing this sentiment is a dumb thing for a Presidential candidate to say, because it’s a fairly controversial thing to say. But some people who think that still agree with the sentiment that pregnancy is an inconvenience.

I kind of did, too, but I don’t anymore. Here’s why.

Words Have Consequences

When someone speaks, those words can have repercussions. The words and language we use shape our opinions and transform how we experience the world. Whether we speak or think those words, they matter.

If you disagree with those statements, maybe Tony Robbins can change your mind. Or The Linguistic Society, The Guardian, or this peer-reviewed journal article I found on Google.

Political Correctness and Words

Like John Cleese, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and other comedians, I don’t think we should stop ourselves from saying words if there is even the slightest chance that they may anger or otherwise disturb someone else.

I think at the heart of the backlash against the idea of “political correctness” is that people don’t want to be told what words they can use.

And hey, we live in the USA, so thanks to the first amendment, your words are whatever you want them to be, free from governmental reproach! Just avoid libel and slander.

But words still have consequence.

Using the word “inconvenience” to describe a business’s view of pregnancy immediately implies something negative about that pregnancy.

Here’s two definitions of inconvenience:

  1. trouble or difficulty caused to one’s personal requirements or comfort.
  2. a cause or instance of trouble or difficulty.

Both of these are negative. No person or business wants trouble or difficulty.

Do we – as a country – want the words used to describe pregnancy with regards to a business to be negative?

Furthermore, is it accurate? Is a pregnancy a cause of trouble or difficulty for the business?

Because using the word “inconvenient” to describe pregnancy for a business is certainly a cause of trouble or difficulty for a pretty large number of people: women.

If Pregnancy is a Business Negative, What About the People Getting Pregnant?

Last I checked, only women can have babies. (science, get on that)

If a business only considers pregnancy a negative thing – and hence, uses words like “inconvenience” to describe pregnancy – women will always be at a disadvantage, because they are the only ones who may have this negative thing happen to them.

Maybe women can vocally let their hiring manager know they plan to never have a child to avoid any perceived negatives. But I’m pretty sure the USA does not want to become the nation producing no new children.

If many people are concluding that pregnancy is an inconvenience to business, should we perhaps consider changing incentives so that pregnancies can be at worst neutral, and hopefully beneficial, to a business?

Tax Credits

Business priorities are generally all about money. Family priorities are not.

Family priorities are a whole mix of pursuits of happiness.  But families still need some money to live and pursue that happiness, and when having a child, yet more money is needed.

The US government has something for families which it doesn’t have for businesses: a child tax credit.

That’s because we the people understand a child is a financial responsibility, and we want to help with raising that child, because it’s a valuable contribution to society.

If businesses got a similar benefit to help with that financial responsibility, maybe we could banish the word “inconvenience” when talking about a business’s attitude towards pregnancy, which could help reduce gender discrimination in hiring. Remember, discrimination over pregnancy is illegal.

I’d love to see us spend tax dollars on something that:

  • eliminates one avenue of gender discrimination
  • helps our economy
  • incentivizes raising happy, healthy children

I’d sure prefer that over a new football stadium, increased military spending, or more welfare.

If that’s what it takes to eliminate the idea or language that pregnancy is “inconvenient” to business, perhaps we should consider it.

The alternative is for our economy to always view people who can bear children as having the opportunity to introduce a negative – an inconvenience – into its plans.  And I sure don’t like conflating a pregnancy with an inconvenience.

P.S. – Imagine if…

After writing this up and running it by a few friends, one friend suggested this scenario:

Imagine a boss saying to an employee, “Your pregnancy is really an inconvenience to this company.”

How quickly do you think that lawsuit would be over?


What Does One Senior US Senator Think of Term Limits?

I attended a meeting at a coffee shop with Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa when I was his constituent a few years ago. This is the Chuck Grassley that is internet famous for his Twitter feed.
It was a totally informal meeting, and I was a bit shocked he was really there. About 20 of us and him sat and stood around a big table, and we could ask him anything we wanted.
I wanted to ask something – ANYthing – so the first thing that popped into my head was term limits.
I knew how stupid this question was as it came from my mouth.
I was asking about term limits to a Senator who has been a Senator longer than I’ve been alive; he’s been a Senator since 1981.
I asked as nicely as I could what his thoughts were on term limits, and he took no offense to it. In fact, it was very easy to see why he’s a politician when I got to meet him; he’s quite charming in person. When he took my question, he made it feel like it was just me and him in the room; his voice and body language are pitch perfect for making someone think, “wow, he cares about me!”
So, I asked my question.
The senior Senator’s answer: he used to like the idea when he was younger, but not anymore. (Not exactly a surprise, right?)
He said he stopped liking the idea of term limits because lobbyists don’t have term limits.
I thought it was a fairly smart answer while I stood there.  It sounded smart, it was a fact I had not previously considered. 
On second thought, I think I was only impressed because it was an unexpected answer.
If I could reply to him now, I’d say, “Even if the same lobbyist sticks around for decades, wouldn’t it be better to cycle in more people, so that there’s more of a chance that some of those people would be immune to the lobbyist? At a minimum, in a Senator’s last term, they should be fairly immune to lobbyist donations to a Senator’s reelection campaign… although that doesn’t stop a lobbyist from committing outright bribery.”
I’d be curious what he’d think about that.
I’d be curious what precisely a lobbyist can do that a new Senator has no defense against, but that an over-30-year Senator can apparently handle without issue.
I have my doubts that there really is a difference.


I’d also be curious if corruption in politics has been studied before, and to what degree.  For instance, have US House and Senate members ever admitted to accepting bribes – or other shenanigans – and then have a researcher look at when this happened and determined what year of a House/Senate member’s term it was done in?
Maybe, on average, Senators really do take more bribes and can be more easily pushed around in their first 1 – 6 years.
But maybe they don’t.
This wikipedia article may be a good place to start the hunt… although that’s just a list of people convicted of it. I bet there’s a lot more people that got away with corruption without any repercussions.

Writing a Daily Today I Learned (TIL)

Inspired by Josh Branchaud’s idea sent to Hacker News, I’ve created my own Today I Learned (TIL) on GitHub.

I doubt I’ll write in it every day, but it’s a good motivator to see someone who has collected a lot of little things they’ve learned over a long time and compiled them into a space like Josh did.

It’s probably going to be mostly programming-related, but I might branch off into the world of travel, too – git is useful to track any type of writing!

Why 24 News Networks – Even ESPN – Are Silly

Does it mean anything? 

I think it means one team scored more points. Maybe one team is getting better or worse as a general trend. Or maybe it was a fluke. 

At one point, news media answered questions in the headline. Now that’s optional, if not frowned upon at some places: giving away too much in a buzzfeed headline will reduce the number of clicks. 

This ESPN headline is exciting because it lets the reader ask all of these questions in one’s head, rather than actually telling the reader any worthwhile information. 

Inbox-almost-zero in 2016


Above is the Mac Mail app and Things, a task manager I use to track what I need to do each day.

At this time in 2015, the number on the Mail app would have been likely over 100, and Things probably wouldn’t have even been open, since I had given up using it effectively sometime in 2014.

Sometime in the second half of 2015, I realized I wasn’t being strict enough with myself about ensuring I knew what I wanted to get done each day.  I turned to Things, took an evening to organize a bunch of the little tasks and ideas I had jotted down over the last year, and started using it as the GTD method intends:

Something in the “Today” bucket (which drives the number in red) should only be there if it truly needs to get done.  It isn’t a prioritized wishlist – the “Today” view should simply be the absolute bare minimum.  If you get nothing else accomplished today, what MUST be accomplished?

By being diligent and keeping my expectations reasonable, I’ve kept my Things’ Today list and Mail Inbox at a manageable quantity throughout  the first 18 days of the year.

I’m unreasonably proud of this fact.

Here’s to hoping the next 348 days (it’s a leap year) follow that same pattern!