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Voting machines (sigh)

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 07.02.21

The voting machines industry is tiny and mysterious. None of this is surprising exactly, but it makes an impression when it's all summed up in one place.

This student at Wharton is assigned a bog-standard problem to take an industry and size it up, and this time the professor picks the election industry. This is back in 2014 or so:

Caulfield began to consume all the information he could. He learned the history of what happened after Bush v. Gore. Following that fiasco, Congress poured billions into state coffers to upgrade their voting machines. After the flood came the famine, and when the money dried up, the private market began a dramatic consolidation. Big firms gobbled up the smaller ones, until 20 years later, the number of major companies had whittled down to three: ES&S in Nebraska, Hart InterCivic in Texas, and Dominion, whose main headquarters is based in Canada. Today, these companies control just under 90 percent of the American market.

...

The first sign something was amiss came when they started making phone calls. It was protocol for students to call up a company directly to discuss the state of their industry. In response, executives usually leapt at such a chance--a great way for a small coffee-bean producer to get noticed by the likes of Wharton. Caulfield had never encountered companies that appeared as if they didn't want to be noticed. ...It began to dawn on Caulfield, slowly at first, that the amount the public didn't know about these companies was vast. Quarterly profits, regional market share, R&D budgets, even the number of employees--often, there was simply nothing. "Basic, basic data--the basic layout of the industry--was just not out there," Caulfield recalls. "Eventually, we realized that it didn't exist."

He keeps working on this problem more or less ever since, via various jobs.

Caulfield worked on the report well past graduation--throughout the 2016 election, and into the first weeks of the Trump administration. In March 2017, Wharton published Caulfield's and Coopersmith's 58-page report. It was called "The Business of Voting." Around the halls of Wharton, the document was received politely. Inside the insular field of election administration, however, Caulfield's findings arrived like a lightning storm...
Caulfield had found a private market that seemed not only hard to analyze, but congenitally incapable of innovation. The problem started with money: There wasn't any. Local governments, which were usually the ones that bought voting equipment, had budgets that were the equivalent of fumes.

This isn't exactly a surprise. I've watched our local county purchase voting machines. So since everything is run on this dinky scale, nothing ever changes or grows, because there's no money anywhere.

In theory, another company could enter the market and build a better machine. In practice, Caulfield discovered, it was nearly impossible to break in. One reason was the byzantine regulations that were passed after 2000. Almost all 50 states now require a certification process for their election technology, which is usually unique to them--meaning that a machine sold to Florida might not be suitable for a county in Idaho. The cost for companies to certify a new voting machine can routinely surpass $1 million. In one remarkable example, a voting company sank $12 million into certifying its new machine before giving up and pulling the plug.

JFC.

But by far, Caulfield's most significant discovery was to put a figure on the total size of the industry. He estimated the entire revenue footprint of all the companies in the United States was $350 million. That meant the entire elections industry in the world's richest democracy was about the peak size of the R&D department of the camera company GoPro. The private voting sector wasn't like a secretive and well-heeled defense contractor. It was more like the manufacturers of arcade machines or jukeboxes, grasping for market share with a product they could sell at best once a decade.

The second half of the article is all about how Caulfield starts focusing on how much one voting machine costs, and how impossible it is to answer this question. Eventually they decide it's easiest just to reach out to all 3000 counties, and they get about 350 bits of data, which shows that it's essentially random how much anyone pays for a voting machine, with a median value around $5K.

At the very end they point out the merit behind having public funding and transparent development of voting machines, and some of the open source options coming out.



 

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Check Ins, Reassurances, and Concerns, 7/1

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 07.01.21

This is intended to be our system for checking in on imaginary friends, so that we know whether or not to be concerned if you go offline for a while. There is no way it could function as that sentence implies, but it's still nice to have a thread.

Episode 85.


 

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WTFFFFFF

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 07.01.21

Republicans do the darnedest things:

South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) will deploy up to 50 National Guard troops to the southern U.S. border, her office said Tuesday, with a highly unusual caveat -- the mission will be funded by a "private donation" from an out-of-state GOP megadonor billionaire.

They're going to the Texas border. The megadonor billionaire is some nut from Tennessee:

Ian Fury, a spokesperson for Noem, said the undisclosed amount was paid to the state of South Dakota by Willis and Reba Johnson's Foundation, a Tennessee-based nonprofit that donates to various groups, including churches and the National Rifle Association, according to 2018 tax filings. Willis Johnson has donated to GOP campaigns for decades, including at least $550,000 to Trump in 2019 and 2020, filings show.


aaaaugh


 

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Uncanny Valley of Theories

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.30.21

I have a theory that I call the Uncanny Valley of Past Selves. If you're in college and find your high school self extremely cringe-worthy, then it's in the uncanny valley. You've changed enough that you're no longer that high school self, but it's similar enough to make you uncomfortable. Whereas if you go back two seasons in life - say, to middle school - you're more apt to have a degree of separation and kindness for yourself.

In my head, this actually defines a season of life: you have your self that you relate to and think of as current, then you have an Uncanny self who made questionable decisions and perhaps their earnest creative attempts are painful to look at, and then you have a previous self to that which you have more kindness towards. The Uncanny Self is the one that has unresolved threads - relationships that you're still mad about, choices that you regret, etc. The previous self before, you have enough distance to resolve the narratives and close the book and lay things to rest.

The funny thing is that I think I've outgrown this theory. I definitely have a former self involving the parenting of small children and being pregnant, but I don't find her particularly embarrassing or cringe-worthy. She was just a bit younger and had a different set of circumstances. Two stages ago, I was in grad school. I was still an adult. I still relate to myself then, even if I'm smarter now. My theory doesn't seem to apply very well anymore.


 

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Slow news day.

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.29.21

I taught the kids the There's a Hole in the Bucket song recently, and of course they love how dumb Henry is. His particular brand of dumb is just like parenting an obstinate child, to the point where the first time through I was thinking, "Divorce him, dear Liza dear Liza dear Liza".

From the "talk" tab of the Wikipedia article:

FWIW: If Henry cut and laid a 'mat' of straw on the bottom of the bucket, it would absorb some of the water, swell, and form a reasonably water-tight barrier over the hole. This would last until he brought home a bucketful. This is a quick-fix well known in the sailing vessel era as 'fothering.' If a wooden hull was holed by a rock, coral reef, or cannon-shot, it was covered with a sail filled with rope, straw, and anything else that would swell up and plug it until repairs could be carried out in a dock-yard.

I just pictured him shoving some straw through the hole, like a plug, like I might have seen on the Smurfs or something.



 

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Heatwave

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.28.21

These temperatures in the NW are crazy. Are you all okay?


 

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One weird trick to end Dengue Fever

Posted by Heebie-Geebie
on 06.28.21

Mossy Character sends in this link, 'Miraculous' mosquito hack cuts dengue by 77%

The trial used five million mosquito eggs infected with Wolbachia. Eggs were placed in buckets of water in the city every two weeks and the process of building up an infected population of mosquitoes took nine months.
Yogyakarta was split into 24 zones and the mosquitoes were released only in half of them.
The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed a 77% reduction in cases and an 86% reduction in people needing hospital care when the insects were released.

Is this really what we mean by "hack"? This isn't just a scientific success?

(I realize that nitpicking the journalist's headline word is not the most interesting thing about this story nor the reason MC sent it in. It's an actual feel-good story worth feeling good about.)


 

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