The Northern Spy: decisions, decisions
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The Northern Spy: decisions, decisions

By Rick Sutcliffe

When all is said and done with the usual caveat that most is said and little done, people make decisions with their emotions and guts, not their brains. This has been noted here before in connection with the stock market and the purchase of cheap imitation PCs (rather than the real thing -- Macs).

Last month's Provincial election here in British Columbia illustrates the same principle in the practice of politics. (Note: in Canada, municipal, Provincial, and Federal elections are independent of one another both in timing and in party affiliations.) A tired, scandal-ridden, and seemingly unpopular Liberal government (no connection with the Federal party of the same name) was running for a re-election the pundits universally thought a cakewalk for the socialist opposition.

A new Conservative party would split the free-enterprise vote, they opined, and the NDP (New Democrat Party) would win a landslide. Every "professional" polling organization agreed that the NDP had 45-50% with the Liberals trailing by 10% (though down from a 20% gap earlier).

The Spy, a sometimes active participant in the process, though never a candidate, tended to agree, pegging Conservative support at 10-12% in their best ridings, not a threat to anyone, with the Greens around 5%, except in one riding, which he thought they would win. Moreover, he viewed the centre-left wing vote as split between the Liberals and NDP, rather than the centre-right vote being split between the Liberals and Conservatives, which if he was right meant a Conservative vote would not damage the Liberals, but rather the NDP. He should have thought this through to its logical conclusion.

The Liberal government, much to the possible chagrin of those MLAs who resigned rather than go down to what they thought would be ignominious defeat, was instead re-elected with a very comfortable majority, the percentages between the two main parties reversed from what the pollsters and pundits claimed ahead of time. The Greens got their 5% and one seat, the Conservatives maxed out at around 12% in a few ridings, every one of the latter now represented by a Liberal. Conclusion: the Liberal government held on to its voters (though some may have held their noses in the polling booth) and the others parties fractured the opposition vote. The small parties had essentially no effect on the outcome (in the big picture).

Dig deeper. Why were the pollsters with their sophisticated sampling, statistical and other analytical tools so wrong? Indeed, why have they been almost as wrong in several recent Canadian elections? Here are a few possible reasons:

- Many people didn't really make up their minds until they picked up a pencil to mark their X. Then they became 10-second Liberals.

- Perhaps the centre and right voters are less inclined to answer a pollster at all, and if they do, to be honest (more concern over privacy?).

- The left was overconfident, and failed to get out their vote.

- Younger people, who are more likely to vote socialist than their elders, are also more technically savvy, and so more likely to be polled and be counted in this electronic age.

- Older voters, who are on the other hand more likely to show up on election day, and more likely to vote centre-right when they do, are also more likely to hang up on pollsters, thereby being put down as undecided. They may also be more likely to give a deceptive answer to mask their true intentions. They are less likely to be reachable by any online polling method.

The Liberals ran a simple campaign based on a single theme--jobs. They played on fears that if the NDP got back in to power, they'd wreck the economy in pursuit of social engineering dreams (negative politics). The NDP (same name and party as the Federal one) ostensibly campaigned on issues -- on what they would do -- but failed to say how it would all be paid for, and indeed came across as reckless in both promises and spending.

They also reversed themselves on a major issue, seeming cynical in the process. The electorate simply decided that they couldn't actually govern, any more than they could in their last two tries, weren't ready to trust them, so went with the perceived lesser evil.

Frankly, had the voters gone with their heads instead of their gut emotions, neither of the two parties that have divided power between them for the last three decades would have formed government, but we'd be looking at a three or four party coalition, led by a party other then those two. After all, in federal elections, the province has in recent years elected mostly conservatives (no connection either to the provincial party of the same name).

Over to you, Reuters, Gallup, Angus-Reid and your ilk. How do you devise an analytical method that will compensate for the technical, social, and generational disparities in polling reach and reliability, voting participation, stated and actual political preferences, and the 10-second syndrome? Lots of luck, but the Spy doesn't see you getting it right any time soon.

Oh, and for the reader south of the bump at the 49th parallel, Canadian elections are becoming more like yours with every passing try -- simplistic, deeply polarized over style, profoundly negative and acrimonious, lacking in substance for both people and issues, pitting the incompetent against the breathtakingly so, and just as likely to result in a collection of legislators long in ideology, but unable and unwilling to govern.

Alas, as he sadly predicted back in the early 80s, the instant communication aspects of modern technology have brought us all just close enough together to realize that most people intensely dislike anyone who looks different, thinks different, votes different, roots for a different hockey team. Moreover, that same "closeness" makes it easy, instant, and just as misleading as always to expose "scandal", make all government look bad, and disincline talented and able people from becoming involved.

Make no mistake. Bad candidates not only drive out good, they lead to bad government. Little brother may indeed have triumphed over big brother after all, but the victory is Pyrrhic.

While on the Doctrine of Election(s) the Spy notes that the purpose of the scrutineer (candidate's representative is the terminology for this election) is to provide an independent check on the integrity of the election process. In a polling station with eighteen polls, our small-party group of three was able to do this -- swearing in at every poll, then moving from one to another depending on where the action seemed most interesting, watching the process of vouching for those not on the list, the presentation of identification credentials, the handling of absentee ballots, the process of giving and receiving ballots and depositing them in the boxes, and finally the count. Yep. All good.

A representative of one the two larger parties showed at a table occasionally to take photos of the voter number tally sheets at each poll to transmit back to party HQ to enable them to call recalcitrant supporters and offer them a ride to a polling station. We saw no other scrutineers until eighteen or so people arrived on behalf of each of the two larger party some five minutes before the polls closed, solely to watch the count. Duh. Had anyone cheated, the time to stuff the box was hours before when none of you were around. Counting time is the riskiest and by far the least likely time for such shenanigans.

This brings us back to the technology of elections. How can these processes be made electronic and bulletproof at the same time? Apologies to security "experts" but there is no such thing as an unhackable system. Only the amount of time, energy, and human resources required to hack it is in play, not whether it can be done or not. Human oversight (if properly done) keeps the paper system honest, but who can guarantee (and how) the integrity of an electronic one?

The Spy, who's had more than a toe in both the political and the computer game since the 60s, can see no obvious way to deliver on such a guarantee. Stray pencil marks, hanging chads, and the possibility of concerted hacking probably mean that an electronic system is at least potentially less secure and reliable than the paper one, for now. There must be a better way, but it isn't clear what that way might be.

Make no mistake. Bad elections drive out good. The Spy wonders if not only the voting process but both the party system and representative democracy itself need replacing with something different. At minimum a considerable re-tooling is in order.

The technology industry's version of punditry has been working overtime trying to see into iCook's mind these days and discern what Apple decision making is about. After all the little Cupertino company that could hasn't changed the whole world for at least a couple of years now, so, almost obscene profits notwithstanding, it must be doomed.

But in the polling booth of the actual retail store, the same naysayers, who may at least be selling Apple stock, are nonetheless pulling out their wallets and deciding to buy Apple products, paying a price that yields higher margins than any other company in the business, and therefore generating ever increasing profits. Here we have mixed emotions at work again. Apple is the overdog, and so out of favour in some quarters, except that people know the best products when they see them, and thus pundits vote one way in the stock market and press, and actual customers the opposite way in the store. Ah, logic.

Assume the more extravagant pundits are wrong in this instance, too. Fact of the matter is, much of what Apple must do this year is easily predictable--new models of their phones, pads, pods, and laptops, the promised and overdue MacPro for WWDC or shortly after, system 10.9, a flatter IOS, and more steps toward taking over the television and wearable technology markets.

More specifically, retail chain shortages indicate MacAir and MacPro, and closing the testing cycle indicates 10.8.4 -- all for WWDC. The Spy still holds that Apple's history indicates either an all-in-one Pro with slots around the outside, or a modular pro, with the latter most probable. And, since Intel will not ship the next generation of their chips until fall, look for something unusual here -- either in the number of cores or the brand of chip. All it takes is a compiler switch to generate the OS for another processor, if the source is properly modularized and the low end modules are on hand.

So much for the obvious that needs no punditry beyond common sense. "What about an unforeseen breakthrough product? Where is the game changer," clamour the critics? The Spy's answer: An unforeseen product is just that, so he won't foresee beyond the low hanging fruit, and a game changer won't be recognizable until six months after the introduction. "Today" comes before both. Unlike the political promises not kept in the face of the unforeseen necessity to govern,

Apple's new products aren't even hinted at by the company, much less promised (except a new Pro for this spring). Cool it. But if he were an investing man (not!) he'd go long. Oh, and don't place any bets on Tim Cook being replaced in the mid to longer future, either.

Speaking of whom, iCook told the Spy once at a long ago WWDC that Apple hadn't yet figured out how to do the educational e-reader right, and wouldn't until they did. When they do, there's gobs more money to be made by sweeping aside the entire (wretchedly broken and seemingly unfixable) academic publishing industry and becoming the student's best friend.

Think electronic downloads of the whole semester's books for $5 a pop, with Apple taking the usual 30%, and the author making a respectable living. Who needs two-hundred page texts on Abstract Algebra at $300+ a copy (with the author getting peanuts)? Academic dead-tree publishers would go the way of the typewriter, keypunch, magnetic core memory, teletype, rotary phone, 5-bit ASCII, and the PC. Go team!

And, speaking of, well, speaking, the Spy notes with great interest that former NHL coach and GM Brian Burke has decided to sue multiple bloggers for allegedly fabricating and spreading false slanderous stories against him. Interestingly, he has been allowed to serve the summons online. Without commenting on the content or merits of the case, the Spy confesses to hoping Burke can indeed prove his case and win large judgements against all parties found guilty.

It's time defamation and libel (the written form of same) were reined in. It was bad enough in a lower tech era to make false catty remarks attacking someone's reputation in private or telephone conversation, became much more serious still to run a false and defamatory snail mail and email attack (the Spy has been a victim), but is far more damaging to post fabricated slanders online for millions to see.

The only way to dampen the enthusiasm of people who make up and post such stories is to relieve their wallets of sufficiently large sums to get their attention and deter others considering the same thing. Free speech remains so only if its practitioners are responsible for what they say, and held thoroughly accountable when they cross the line into falsehood or libel. Most people cannot afford to sue, so go Burkie! Make yourself a hero to the millions of people and organizations who have been victims of verbal and written abuse, false allegations, slander, and bullying.

-- The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six+ novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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