Of That

Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

18 November 2010

Quote of the Day: Paul Brooks

Written text is a primitive but powerful form of virtual reality.
  - Paul Brooks

06 November 2010

How Much Daylight Do You Save?

Shortcut: Click Here for the Daylight Saving Calculator

Tonight most of us in North America get to sleep an extra hour as we go off of Daylight Saving Time. Before 2007 the shift would already happened. The US Energy Policy Act of 2005 added four weeks to Daylight Saving time. The end of daylight savings was delayed by one week in the fall (possibly to keep it lighter for trick or treaters) and it now starts three weeks earlier in the spring. These changes took effect in 2007.

I've always been skeptical of the value of Daylight Saving Time. Though I'm not great at it, I still subscribe to Benjamin Franklin's admonishment, "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Having the sun rise and set later reduces the incentive to rise and retire early. Ironically, Franklin is widely credited with inventing daylight savings time. In fact, his writings on the subject were satirical.

Three years ago, when the new daylight rules took effect, I decided to find out how much daylight is really saved. The theory of Daylight Saving is that any daylight before you rise from bed is daylight "lost." Therefore, the amount of daylight you "save" will depend on three things: your latitude, your longitude and the time you wake up in the morning. Here's why:
  • Latitude: The higher your latitude -- the further you are from the equator -- the more dramatically the length of the day changes between winter and summer. Above the arctic circle, the sun says up for days or weeks in the summer and sets for the same amount if time in midwinter.
  • Longitude: If you are at the Eastern edge of your timezone the sun will rise approximately an hour earlier than on the Western edge.
  • Rise Time: If you rise before the sun and retire after it sets then there is no daylight to be saved. Any daylight to be saved is between sunrise and "you rise."
With that in mind, I put on my programmer hat and wrote my Daylight Savings Calculator. This calculator takes the city you live in and your rise time and calculates how much daylight is saved under the old and new US rules. If your city isn't listed, you can choose one nearby or enter your latitude, longitude and timezone. It has a few limitations: If you enter a latitude above the Arctic Circle it does strange things. Also, it follows US rules for daylight saving regardless of your location. So, if you enter a latitude in the Southern hemisphere it will accurately plot the length of the days but the calculations of daylight to be saved will be really wrong.

Click here to try it out!

With my recent move to Seattle it's interesting to see how much more dramatic the lay-length shifts are. Using a rise time of 6:30am, I saved 149 hours of daylight in Provo and save 181 hours of daylight in Seattle.

Despite these savings of daylight, I'm still skeptical about whether the savings result in a net benefit or liability. The Wikipedia article on the subject discusses energy use, economic effects, public safety and health. Overall, there's more controversy than conclusion. 

02 November 2010

Coercing the Vote

Its election day again. This one has potential to be the most memorable in my lifetime. But my subject is is the security of the vote.

Last year I wrote about the insecurity of DRE voting machines. Those systems have not improved in the last year though there is growing awareness of their vulnerabilities.

This year we are voting for the first time in the State of Washington. In this state 38 of 39 counties use a vote by mail system. Eighteen days before the election, the county auditor mails ballots to all registered voters. Voters mark their ballots in the privacy of their homes. Ballots go into an inner "security" envelope and an outer mailing envelope. They sign an oath on the outer envelope and mail it in via US Mail or drop it in a specially marked, secure drop box on or before election day.

Vote by mail has some useful advantages:

  • Voters can take their time marking their ballot -- researching the candidates and issues that they might not have been aware of before looking at the ballot.
  • The cost of running an election is substantially reduced.
  • People who will be out of town on election day can cast their ballots early without figuring out special early voting provisions.
  • Paper ballots offer a physical record of voter intention that can be manually counted to verify that electronic scanners are working properly. Of course, manual counts aren't necessarily accurate either.
The system has some important safeguards:
  • The voter's name and voter ID number appear on the outer envelope ensuring that no voter votes more than once.
  • The ballot is inserted into an inner security envelope thereby allowing the ballot and the voter's name to be separated before the vote is visible.
  • The public is invited to observe the vote counting process to make sure that counting is done properly and confidentiality is maintained. Since counting is concentrated at a relatively few places, fewer observers are required to cover all locations.
However, there remain vulnerabilities:
  • Since ballots are marked away from the polling place, it is possible for someone to coerce another's vote and verify that the ballot is cast according to their mandate. Votes can literally be bought.
  • Individuals can steal ballots from mailboxes, mark them, forge the signature and send them in.
  • Unscrupulous mail workers could intercept and destroy ballots before they reach the counting place. Since the voter's name appears on the outer envelope, it is easy to do so selectively.
  • Sophisticated criminals could intercept the mail -- steam open the envelope and substitute a different ballot. Or simply replace with a forged outer envelope.
  • A bright-light scanner with digital image processing could penetrate the envelope and paper to detect how a particular ballot has been cast.
There's a big difference between these manipulations and hacking electronic voting machines. As I wrote last year, electronic voting machines can be hacked and the vote manipulated in such a way that no evidence is left behind. With the exception of coercion, the manipulations I've listed leave physical evidence.

Here are some additional safeguards that would help:
  • Move the voter ID number and the signature to the inside of a cleverly-designed envelope. This would keep casual manipulators from knowing which ballots to intercept.
  • Encourage voters to use drop boxes instead of mail as much as possible. Invite public observation of the drop box collection process.
  • Ensure voters know that coercion is a crime that should be reported.
  • Notify voters of when to expect their ballots in the mail and encourage reports of missing ballots.
Overall, I'm happier with Washington's vote by mail system than I am with Utah's Direct Entry machines. I just hope that people are on the lookout for manipulation.

The Following added on 4 November 2010 at 9:15am:

Since writing the original post I've learned two things. First, King County offers a website where I can track the processing of my ballot (you can too if you know my birthdate). As of this writing, they've received the ballot but it's awaiting verification of my signature before they process the vote. So, despite submitting my vote a week ago, it has yet to be counted. That's not too strange as there is still 30% of the statewide vote yet to count and a large fraction are in King County.

Second, this article from the freakonomics blog says that vote by mail actually reduces voter turnout -- at least in Switzerland.