Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Frustration Sets In

And then there’s the matter of the "fiscal cliff."

Contrary to the way it's often portrayed, the looming prospect of spending cuts and tax increases isn't a fiscal crisis. It is, instead, a political crisis brought on by the G.O.P.'s attempt to take the economy hostage. And just to be clear, the danger for next year is not that the deficit will be too large but that it will be too small, and hence plunge America back into recession.

Deficit scolds are having a hard time with this issue. How can they warn us not to go over the fiscal cliff without seeming to contradict their own rhetoric about the evils of deficits?

- Paul Krugman, who probably has better things to do than repeat himself. But some people just will not listen to reason.

Should be an interesting couple of months. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Technology Managers: You May Want To Jot This Down

Mitt Romney didn't just lose the popular vote and electoral college, he also lost the technology battle. Some unexpected but important lessons from the 2012 election:

(1) in-house development is better than outsourcing to consultants;
(2) free, open-source tools perform just as well, and often outperform expensive proprietary tools;
(3) flexible, user-driven requirements are almost always better than requirements predetermined by management;
(4) using untested software is risky;
(5) you cannot rush software development.

What am I talking about? The Obama campaign's software performed flawlessly throughout the campaign, while the Romney campaign's application was DOA. I've seen this pattern time and again in my fourteen years in technology. At the beginning of a software development project, there is a lot of time and money spent making a decision between developing the software in-house, or purchasing a vendor product and customizing it using professional services. This is a waste! I've never seen the latter approach work effectively. Managers often make a decision between these approaches based upon the cost. Hidden in vendor products, however, is that the total cost of ownership is usually a great deal higher than the initial price tag. Ask the Romney campaign if they think Orca was a great deal.

When development begins, projects often become overheated by unrealistic deadlines. This is unnecessary and almost always due to poor planning. Using this election as an example, Romney had already run for president once, and had been actively campaigning since 2009. He and his advisers should have been ready to build and deploy technology resources to support their campaign. Instead, their project had a seven-month development cycle, while Obama's team had a development cycle almost three times longer. This compressed timeline often cuts crucial quality assurance and load testing from the schedule with disastrous results. 

If you have a complex business problem, don't fall for a sales pitch: you likely need a custom piece of software. Hire the staff with the expertise, give them a stake in the system after it goes into production, and allocate enough time to do the project right.

Perhaps it is also a good reminder that a businessman doesn't always make the right decision. What makes software great is requirements based on close scrutiny of what the users actually need. What makes software great is metrics and thorough testing, not assumptions. Finally, what makes software great is collaboration and transparency, not competition and secrecy. Maybe all of this is a metaphor for good government as well.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Election 2012

Amazing! That's the only way to describe it - I am excited about and thoroughly pleased by the results of the 2012 election. I have never been happier with the outcome of an election day! I stayed up late nervously waiting for the results of the two Minnesota Amendments, and I was so grateful and so happy to see them defeated. These were meaningful and unqualified victories, and everyone who worked to defeat these amendments should pause to savor the outcome. We earned the right to feel great about what we did.

In the spirit of magnanimity, whether you voted yes or no, I hope that people on both sides of these amendments realize that we actually have a lot of common ground. In the case of the Marriage Amendment, the side that voted no is pro-marriage and pro-child and pro-family too. In the case of the Voter ID Amendment, the side that voted no wants fair and clean and transparent elections too. We are not so different as it may seem.

What about the rest of the election results? Many liberals and other progressives have expressed a high degree of dissatisfaction with President Obama, and rightly so. That dissatisfaction translates into some ambivalence about the whole 2012 election, which I think is a shame. Regardless of how one feels about Obama, this election was so much bigger than the presidential contest, and the election results really could not have been better.

Obama's critics from the left are absolutely correct: he is a centrist. Maddeningly so. President Obama has not been a progressive champion one might have hoped for in a black Democrat, and he did not live up to the expectations I had at the beginning of his first term. I think that as far as presidents go, however, Barack Obama has been the best in my lifetime: he has faced huge challenges, had a great deal of legislative and policy success, and fought against a ferocious personal and political backlash, all while retaining his grace, integrity and good humor. So I think they are wrong to be ambivalent about this election.

Why are people on the left so disappointed with Obama? I think it boils down to two words: drone strikes. In our country, there is a War on Terror/War on Drugs/Security State governing consensus eerily similar to the Cold War Consensus that gripped the two major political parties for fifty years following World War II. In this context, Obama is an ugly continuation of George W. Bush, and in many ways, of every president since Harry Truman. This is a completely valid criticism of him, and Obama's abuse of our national security apparatus should be a lasting stain on his legacy. But Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich notwithstanding, it is really hard to imagine a viable presidential candidate standing up to these outrageous "wars" with any success - unfortunately, that simply is not where we are as a country. I think we are finally starting to wake up to the colossal failure of the war on drugs (go Colorado & Washington!), but there is no sugar-coating it: drone strikes are popular, the war on terror is popular; we are willing to sacrifice the right to privacy upon the altar of national security (not to mention social media, but that's another story).

Unfortunately, Obama isn't pushing back against these immoral policies. He's simply floating with the current of public opinion and the governing consensus. But I say this without hesitation, and I think it's true: John "Bomb Iran" McCain and Mitt "Double Guantanamo" Romney would have been substantively worse in these areas: more belligerence, higher military budgets, more war. A presidential candidate will never gain traction on these issues (and thus will be forever on the margins) until there is a public consensus that the current policies are immoral. That will take a major grassroots movement. Which leaves us to evaluate Obama on foreign policy (as distinct from national security policy) and domestic policy. Judged by these standards, Obama has been okay to pretty good on both, and on the strength of his record in those areas, I think he deserves another term.

Back to why I'm excited: overall, if you are a liberal, if you are a progressive, if you think that actual data and science should guide public policy, and/or if you believe that collectively, we can and should use government to work together to solve problems, I think this particular election could not have gone better. Here in Minnesota, not only did we beat back those awful amendments, we threw out the cynical legislators who put them before us. That was unexpected, and it is huge.

Nationally, Karl Rove poured $300 million of one-percenters money down a black hole - he was completely shut out. That should please everyone who wants to put an end to Citizens United. Elizabeth Warren won. As a senator, she's going to be a great national figure. The rape guys lost. And perhaps most significantly, structurally, the right-lurching GOP is broken. The country will never be whiter or more conservative than it is right now, and the GOP made one last gambit for power using an all-white strategy. It failed pretty spectacularly. This is beautiful and it also is cause for celebration.

I feel like we may have turned a corner with this election, that we may start to develop into a *real* modern democracy like our European and Asian counterparts. Who knows - only time will tell. But have a look at this list of Obama's first-term accomplishments and check out Rachel Maddow's excellent summary of November 6th, 2012 and tell me you still feel totally ambivalent about this election.

One last thought - a quote from Charles Pierce, a writer deeply critical of the relentless war on drugs and of Obama's campaign of drone strikes -
"There is a story that they tell in Georgia politics about the first time that Barack Obama was inaugurated as this most improbable president of the United States. Shortly before the ceremony, they say, he met with John Lewis, the congressman and American hero who was nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama as he marched to demand the right simply to vote. The two huddled in the corner and the president-elect wrote something on Lewis's inaugural program. He walked away, and Lewis showed the program to the friends who had come with him.
"Because of you," it said. "Barack Obama."
I get goosebumps reading that. Obama is still paving a trail, and he is aware of the pioneers who came before him. Does anyone think that Romney (or McCain or Bush) has a sense of history like that? The American Empire will have its day of reckoning, maybe sooner than we can prepare for it. In the meantime, if Obama is the best we can do right now, and I think he is, I am content.

Of course, I might just be feeling good because I participated in the two vote no campaigns, and they won. But it feels pretty damn good to be a Minnesotan today, and pretty good to be an American too.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Tortured Logic (or Evil Genius) of Voter ID Laws

A dedicated fraudster, malevolently determined to cast as many illegal votes as possible, could cast ten, perhaps fifteen votes by furiously driving around on election day and falsely registering, impersonating, or otherwise bypassing the controls currently in place which prevent in-person voter fraud. He would have a difficult time of it: waiting in line, producing falsified documents verifying his residence, filling out registration forms, and lying to the face of many election judges. His actions would be cause for serious concern, and if caught, he would face fines and penalties.

If that same fraudster used absentee ballots to commit fraud, however, he could cast hundreds, perhaps thousands of votes, while leaving a much smaller trail of evidence. Most ominously, if he had access to electronic voting machines, he could potentially change the outcome of multiple national contests and wreak havoc on the entire election system.

For a lone actor determined to commit fraud, the worst possible way to do it is in-person, election day voting. It is slowest way to manufacture votes and the easiest way to get caught, as each polling place is a potential point of failure. Given the limited number of votes he could successfully cast, the chance of this hypothetical person influencing an election at any level is almost nonexistent. Moreover, there is no evidence that anyone like him actually exists or has ever existed: nationwide, according to the most comprehensive study produced on the subject, in-person, election-day voter fraud happens about once per fifteen million votes cast. And yet, the Voter ID Amendment in Minnesota intends to stop this phenomenon at any cost.

I work on anti-money laundering and fraud prevention software for a bank. Here's an unspoken but obvious little secret: we don't spend a lot of time, money, and energy going after small time scams. It simply is not cost effective to do so. Any good business person will tell you that like any other investment or company resource, it is better to spend fraud investigation dollars where that money will make the most difference. Here's a fact: we know where election fraud happens. Doesn't it make more sense to invest in controls which would combat the fraud that actually influences elections?

Fighting in-person, election day fraud with Voter ID laws costs a lot of money to implement - perhaps millions of dollars. These laws have very limited impact, because they intend to combat the rarest and least effective form of fraud. Finally, these laws have the potential to disenfranchise many more voters than they catch. Judged using a cost-benefit analysis, Voter ID laws do not make any sense whatsoever.


...Voter ID itself is the fraud. Think about it: the law targets certain classes of voters: students, poor people, the elderly. It raises the difficulty level of voting for these groups - for some, high enough that they will not vote. Collectively, these demographics are far more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates. And unlike the rogue actor casting upwards of a dozen illegal votes, using Voter ID to raise the difficulty level of voting affects hundreds of thousands of people, numbers which could change the result of an election. As Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Mike Turzai so clearly says in his ill-advised moment of candor, Voter ID laws are very nakedly a partisan power play.

The vote is a free, anonymous, and Constitutionally granted right. Over the course of history, our country has worked to expand this franchise to everyone.  In Minnesota, we pride ourselves on high voter turnout and a transparent, open election process. Flying in the face of history, the Minnesota Voter ID Amendment seeks to change all of this - it contains few details, leaves many questions unanswered, and if it passes, it has the potential to destroy our widely praised system: there will be countless arguments in the legislature about its implementation as well as legal challenges over the amendment itself. Same-day registration could become a relic of the past. And all of this will be expensive. Is this how Minnesota should spend its limited time and resources - to combat a problem that happens about once in fifteen million votes? We should be very suspicious of this kind of tampering with the election system.

Vote No on Voter ID, Minnesota.