Voting Systems

Bram Cohen seems to have discovered voting systems, which have also been one of my interests for a while – enough so that I’ve been hosting a copy of the Voting Systems FAQ since last October when I noticed that the previous host had died. In his latest diary entry Bram has this to say:

Proportional representation as a method of electing congresspeople has been banned, which seems rather extreme given the usual bent towards states’s rights. The reason this happened was actually a good one. Elected officials like having a considerable amount of personal power, and simple proportional representation would lead to them being completely subservient to the party they represent, easily replaced by party beurocrats [sic].

One of the nice things about the way elections work in the US is that ballots always list individuals, not parties.

Actually they list both, and that’s part of the problem. An awful lot of people won’t vote for anyone who doesn’t have “Democrat” or “Republican” next to their name because they think the candidate has no chance of being elected or effective, and that’s one of the main things that keeps the two-party system going. I actually think it would be quite interesting if ballots didn’t show parties at all.

Returning to an earlier point, Bram’s statement about being replaced with party bureaucrats only applies in one system – where votes go to the party and the party decides who actually gets to serve. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a system. What I have seen is a system where votes go to candidates from a particular party, and the party that wins the most seats gets to appoint whoever they like, however they like, to offices like prime minister. That’s quite a contrast to direct election, but it’s still not quite the system Bram seems to be thinking of.

Some proportional-representation systems can actually help third (and fourth, etc.) parties. For example, I’m a fan of an “additional member system” in which each person votes for both a local candidate and a party (not necessarily the same party as the candidate they voted for). If a candidate gets most of the votes in their district, they get a seat – party or no party. The key is that there are more seats than districts, with the non-district seats being “at large”. The votes for parties are used to determine how many seats each party should have nationwide, the winners of districts are subtracted, and the parties with seats remaining get to fill them however they want.

Such a system has several advantages. For one thing, it avoids the dilemma where you generally support one party’s policies but their candidate in your particular district is a total doofus. Also, it allows a party with “broad but shallow” to have a voice that they almost certainly wouldn’t have under the usual “first past the post” system or under the ranked ballots Bram favors. If a party can get 5% of the vote across 20 districts, they won’t win a single district seat, but under an additional member system they’ll at least get a party seat.

Ranked ballots are great for single-seat elections, and the math has an attractive simplicity. I’d argue, though, that multi-seat elections are both more important and more interesting, and proportional representation in such elections makes a lot more sense than some people give it credit for.

Ruin Dissed

A while back, when I was making a tour through fantasy fiction aimed at younger readers, I noticed that one of the highest-rated such books on Amazon was Ruin Mist: Keeper Martin’s Tale by Robert Stanek. Accordingly, as a break from my usual fare, I put it on my wish list and I received it for Christmas. I started reading it last week, and man does it stink. Besides the painfully one-dimensional characters and predictable plot, the author actually managed to annoy me in a whole new way. You know that aura of mystery that good fantasy has, as plots and characters are revealed slowly like a literary striptease? This book doesn’t have it. What it has instead is context and detail dropped at random, yielding an experience much like having a decent book read to you over a really bad cel-phone connection. Yech.

The most interesting part of the book, in all seriousness, is the back cover. Here we find testimonials from such luminaries as “Liz S., Reader” and “Reader, Amazon.Com” (twice) – no professional would touch it, apparently. Then we see the unattributed and unsubstantiated claim that “Stanek is perhaps one of the best writers of our time” and, finally, some information about the author’s military (not literary) credentials. Weird. It was so unconvincing that I started wondering what kind of amateurs put it together. Who is Reagent Press anyway? What a surprise it wasn’t to find that their entire list of authors seems to consist of Stanek, Stanek, and Stanek. Reading through the site a little, it’s clear that they devote most of their creativity to self-promotion; no wonder so little was evident in the book itself.

It looks to me like this small-time publisher has been using Amazon to wage an astroturf campaign promoting their own book. Maybe Amazon should check the identities behind some of those glowing reviews.

Apache Logs

As I’ve mentioned here before, I use a .htaccess file to block links to my platypus images from several sites. Sometimes the attempts show up in my error log, sometimes they show up in my access log as requests with a 403 status – never as both. Even stranger, the hits seem to show up in my (Webalizer) statistics either way. Does this sound like normal Apache behavior, or might it indicate a problem? I’d appreciate it if any readers with more Apache experience than I have could offer opinions or insight on this.

Second Chances

At Eliot’s request, I changed the way comment-posting errors are handled. In addition to an error message (which I agree could probably be more helpful) the site will now give you a new form pre-populated with the text of your comment so you can try again. I’ve tried to test it but there might still be some minor glitches – particularly in how quotes and backslashes are handled.

Good luck, enjoy, and keep posting those comments. I get a kick out of knowing that what I write actually interests people enough for them to respond.


My relative silence here is mostly the result of being extremely busy at work, but another factor has been that what little energy I have left over for personal writing has been spent mostly on other sites. I was very active on e.thePeople for a while, but I finally got tired of timeouts and general slowness, an interface that makes it all but impossible to follow threads, and a moderation system that was apparently designed to be abused more than it is used productively. I’ve switched to America’s Debate (which I found only because it’s hosted at the same company I am) to fulfill that same conversational need. If the one-sidedness of Democratic Underground or Little Green Footballs starts to annoy you, I recommend AD as a place where you’re likely to see more than one side of an issue, and where the signal-to-noise ratio is relatively high. But that’s not really what I’m here to write about.

One of the themes that keeps coming up in my conversations about the Iraq war is “right answer, wrong method”. As I put it in one thread, just because you nailed one bad guy by stabbing in the dark doesn’t mean stabbing in the dark is a good approach. This is why teachers, particularly those in science classes, used to mark me down not for getting an incorrect answer but for not showing my work…and I’m glad they did. Without seeing my work, they could not know whether I was using the right method, and therefore whether I would get the right answer the next time.

Another reason that methods matter is that the distinction between methods and results is not as clear-cut as most people think. It’s like the idea that drugs don’t have side effects; they have effects, and a “side effect” is merely one that we didn’t want or intends. Doing things a particular way often has many effects besides the one intended, and often those other effects become more significant in the long term than the immediate goal.

To tie this back to Iraq, I can think of several examples where the US might be achieving a right result by a wrong method, and hurting itself in the long term.

  • The whole way we got into this war was wrong, even if in retrospect it turns out to be the right thing to have done. The conclusion came first, and there’s an ongoing effort to rationalize it. It’s about UN resolutions. No, it’s about WMD. No, it’s about liberating the people of Iraq. The reasons change, but the conclusion remains the same. That’s a common sign of logic running backward.
  • Alienating would-be allies just because they don’t agree with our timetable will have effects that last well beyond the war in Iraq.
  • Remember the chemical weapons factory we thought we’d found right after the war began? Haven’t heard about that for a while. Remember the reports of soldiers exposed to sarin a couple of days ago? Silence again. The loud proclamations that accompany each discovery, and the embarrassed silence that follows, show that the Bush administration (followed by the media) is searching not for the truth but for evidence to support a particular conclusion. It’s as wrong in this case as it is when a detective suppresses evidence that might exonerate the suspect – even if that particular suspect is guilty. The next one might not be.
  • In the Mike Hawash case, a US citizen has been detained in isolation, without adequate access to legal representation, for weeks. No charges have been filed, or even hinted at. The only semi-plausible explanation seems to be that a few years ago he donated money to an organization that was subsequently determined to have unspecified ties to terrorists. Worse yet, there are apparently hundreds or perhaps even thousands of cases like this. Even if the Kafka Kops do succeed in catching a few terrorists this way (which is no more likely than if citizens’ civil rights were respected) the method is totally wrong.

Do I believe Iraq has chemical or biological weapons? Probably. Do I believe that war in Iraq can be justified? Quite likely. Do I believe that the war had to happen right now, this way, with all of the other effects that attend to our choice of timing and methods? Absolutely not. Even if we do find chemical weapons, even if we succeed in freeing the Iraqi people and not just abandoning them in a year or so to a whole new kind of hell, our methods are wrong and in the long term we’ll be the worse for it. As a software engineer I’m particularly aware of how the “quick fix” can become a disaster in the long term. The difference with Iraq is that the time scale is decades instead of months and the cost is measured in human lives instead of dollars. Methods still matter, and it’s still worth trying to do things the right way even if it takes longer.

Not Before Dinner, Please

My awesome brother-in-law (hi Jeff!) sent a link that led me to the aptly named Gallery of Regrettable Food. This is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The dishes are frightful enough in their own right, but then the world’s worst food photography (or a deliberately bad job of scanning and color adjustment) achieves the near-impossible and makes them look even worse. The captions are the best part, though. How can you not be amused by the Great Meat Glacier or Lung…?

Den Beste Digest, #4

“Unlike those in the US, French commercial interests have no respect for the dead.” 922-word version

Rise of the Phoenix

Four years ago, I used a Linux desktop full-time at work for a period of several months. I don’t remember exactly why I stopped, but I did. Now I’m trying it again, and that means I’m trying different options in several different categories. I had already decided on Gentoo as a base, and Blackbox as my window manager, because I’ve already used those extensively at home and I’ve been happy with them. I’m OK with Xemacs for text editing, so I’m all set there. I’ll be using Evolution for email because it seems to be the only real option for connecting to the Exchange server at work.

That leaves a web browser as the most important remaining niche. At work I’ve used Opera because it was just the easiest to install, and when I’m on Linux at home all I really use it for is to look up documentation or download stuff. When I started looking around, one browser that seemed to get a lot of good attention was Phoenix. I noticed last night that there was a Windows binary available, so I tried it on my laptop. I like the simple, clean interface, and it seems to work with all of the sites I’ve tried – even the ones that use a lot of Javascript tricks. It also has two of the features I consider essential for my main browser – tabbed browsing and an “open all bookmarks in a folder at once” function.

Today I’m using the Linux version, and I’m even more surprised. It hasn’t failed on even one of the 100 sites I skim through to start my day, and I’d have to say that a lot of them looked significantly better in the Linux version than they did in Windows. That’s not entirely Phoenix’s doing (some of it is generic font handling and such) but it’s still a pleasant surprise. There do still seem to be a few glitches, like a subtle shifting of text at the end of a line in a form like I’m using to enter this, but I can live with that. Overall, this is a much more enjoyable browsing experience than I had expected.