Thursday, February 26, 2009

How overzealous activists are misleading you regarding Rush Holt's bill

Your vote is seriously at risk, and we have possibly only the next two years to fix it. Two years into Bill Clinton's term, we lost Congress, and didn't gain it back until nearly twelve years later. So time is of the essence.

There's a very good bill that, while not perfect, moves the ball very far down the field toward a victory of an accurate and transparent vote, at least at the federal level.

But overzealous activists are already stretching the truth past the breaking point in their criticisms of it.

Look. The first test of whether someone is a useful activist, or even a good person, for that matter, is whether they tell the truth. Whether by ignorance or design, some of the leading voices in the election activist community are failing that test.

A lot of people follow others unquestioningly simply because they don't know they are being hoodwinked. I see it on the Web frequently - a mass stampede when a few voices speak out in a certain direction. I've always admired those who are not afraid to stand against the herd, to point out when the conventional wisdom is wacko.

In the electronic voting community, two voices speak very loudly, and have a lot of reach: Bev Harris, and Brad Friedman. Both have done some very excellent work reporting on election problems. But both have also proven abominable at reviewing and commenting on proposed legislation, and their ignorance and overblown hysteria is truly hurting the election reform movement.

Right now, nearly 1/4 of all voting jurisdictions are using DRE machines that have no voter-verified auditable permanent paper trail. I won't take the time here to explain how dangerous that is. If you don't understand this, search "DRE hack" in Google and self-educate before you read the rest of this.

For the last three Congressional terms, a brave little team in Rush Holt's office has been diligently trying to find a way to protect our elections from hacking. Each session they have introduced a bill to protect elections. Each time, opposing interests, which include Republicans, voting machine vendors, those with an agenda to steal elections, and, sadly, Brad Friedman and Bev Harris, have banded together to defeat it. Pretty odd company, don't you think?

I wouldn't mind if their objections were based on fact. But their objections are based in large part on an inaccurate reading of the bill, as I will show you.

Let's start with the headline. Brad's blog screams a quote from Bev Harris:
BBV: New Holt Election Reform Bill Would Allow 'Surreptitious Dismantling of Self-Government'

Can we all agree that screaming hyperbole never helped any progressive cause? Good. I knew we could start there. But it gets worse.

I've read the new Holt election bill. Many of those decrying it have not. And that's unfortunate. If they read the bill for themselves, I wouldn't need to be here pointing out just how inaccurate Brad and Bev's rantings on this bill have been.

This Brad/Bev post needs to be broken down line for line so people understand just how factually inaccurate it is. Unfortunately, I don't have that kind of time. But for a sample, look at this: a mere seven words in the first paragraph make three dramatic misrepresentations.

Brad opens with this:

From's Bev Harris, on the section of the new Election Reform bill being proposed in the U.S. House by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), which would federally institutionalize secret software for vote counting, and the requirement of non-disclosure agreements for those who are lucky enough to be allowed permission to examine it...

Let's see what Brad (quoting Bev) just accused the bill of doing, in seven words:

1. Federally institutionalizing secret software for vote counting.

Seven words. Three misrepresentations.

Misrepresentation #1

The software functions that relate specifically to the vote counting process cannot be kept secret. The bill explicitly provides for its review. Now bear in mind that vote counting programs are often built on top of "off the shelf" (OTS) software, like Microsoft Windows, the code of which is exempt from disclosure.

What does this mean?

Well, if you were a programmer, you'd know that you can't change OTS software, but you can write the code that interacts with it. Everything you write has to be disclosed.

For nonprogrammers, think of this as an analogy. Think of the OTS software as a dunking machine. Your code is the ball you can throw at it to trigger the dunking mechanism. But your ball and your throw will not change the internal workings of the dunking machine.

To carry forward the analogy, let's say someone wanted to program the dunking machine to drop the currently seated person after every fifth throw. The "vote" would be "rigged." But the problem with that is that Microsoft Windows and all that other OTS software is written and released long before ballot order is set. What if the machine dunks the wrong person? How would one build in code?

It could be done, but not undetectably so. The rigging depends on the toss of the ball, and the programming for that side of the equation must be disclosed, per Holt's bill. If the code that CAN be inspected needs to trigger something special in a special circumstance, that would be detectable to a knowledgeable observer.

People have also mentioned code that would be self-deleting after it runs. That's possible to do, but not possible to hide, to the savvy observer.

So Brad and Bev's first point is simply not true. But let's continue.

Misrepresentation #2

Holt's bill does not "institutionalize" "secret software for vote counting" either. Many provisions in the bill leave the door wide open for an open source solution to election code. There's nothing secret about open source code.

HAVA already "institutionalized" computers counting our vote in such a way that they could not be audited, as with DRE ("Direct Recording Electronic") machines. Holt's bill will end the use of DREs in elections, for starters. That one fact alone should make it worthy of support.

In reality, nothing is ever "institutionalized" by a bill. The U.S. Code of Law is amended almost daily by laws passed in Congress. The Holt bill itself amends a portion of the bill that was added to the U.S. Code through the misnamed "Help America Vote Act." Holt's bill corrects mistakes made in HAVA.

Misrepresentation #3

Even the last two words in those seven, "vote counting," are referenced in a misleading fashion. Brad and Bev want you to believe that your vote is ONLY counted by these secret computers programs (which, as we see, aren't even secret, if Holt's bill passes).

But the reality is, Holt's bill requires two things we don't have currently at the federal level: voter verified permanent paper ballots, and an audit, i.e., a hand count, of those paper ballots. In addition, no election can be certified until at least a portion of the voting districts have been counted by hand.

A typical Congressional district has, as a very loose average and for the sake of simplicity, roughly 400 voting counts/precincts/townships/buckets) into which votes are cast and counted. Holt's bill would require a percentage of those buckets of votes to be counted 100% by hand. In other words, this is an apples-to-apples audit, a complete recount of selected precincts.

This sort of an audit has 100% chance of catching fraud or error if either occurred in any of those districts.

The mandated audits are conducted on a tiered scale. The closer the vote, the higher the percentage of precincts to count by hand. The greater the margin of the victory, the fewer precincts are needed to statistically turn up error.

Holt's bill says that an election cannot be certified until the audit has transpired.

In short, no federal election could be certified unless and until a percentage of the paper ballots had been counted by hand. So if Holt's bill institutionalizes anything, it's hand counted paper ballots, not secret software, as the hand count trumps the machine count, per specific language in the bill.

In the past, because we have no such legislation to date, paper ballots have been discounted by some courts in favor of the computer record. Holt's bill would reverse that completely, specifying in clear language that the voter-verified paper ballot is the legal ballot of record (unless it can be convincingly shown that the paper ballots had been tampered with. And even in that case, the Holt bill explicitly states that the electronic count cannot be the sole determiner of the election.)

BooMan has been ranting of late how some progressives are stretching the truth in an attempt to make points. The same holds true for some election activists.

We must be honest with each other, and should not try to propagandize each other. We should focus not only on what's ideal, but on what is actually possible, and work for that. That's how activists get things done in this country.

Hyperbole and sarcasm never got any bill passed. We have to take what we can get and then keep reaching for more. Nowhere is this more true than in our quest for honest elections.

If you feel tempted to defend Brad or Bev, ask yourself where the bill they DO support is. Nowhere. There is no other boat coming. It's this bill or more DREs, more unauditable elections. I, for one, will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good in this case.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Obama, JFK, and FDR

I wanted to point you to my new article at Bob Parry's site Consortium News, one of the few places that regularly posts about Real History. Here's the start of my piece, and a link:
Robert Parry recently wrote of how President Obama's early actions might bring him a "Seven Days in May moment," referring to a fictitious coup attempt from a film of the same name, in which a popular military figure nearly took over the government.

In Parry's piece, he compared Obama's situation to that of President Jimmy Carter. I was reminded, however, of President John Kennedy's comments regarding his own brush with the "Seven Days in May" scenario, and the dangers Obama too will face.

I was also reminded of the coup that almost came about during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term.
Read the rest here. And hat tip to Jim Douglass for pointing us to JFK's comments re "Seven Days in May" in his excellent book "JFK and the Unspeakable."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Best Oscars in Years!

Truly, I will have lots to say about real history again in the near future - very near future. And I've found a way to save my site for a while - and I'll have more to say about that soon as well.

But meanwhile. The Oscars! Hugh Jackman rocked as a host. As he told Barbara Walters, the Oscars needed "a little more show, and a little less biz." Boy, did he deliver.

And you know why he's the sexiest man alive? Because he loves his wife now more than the day he married her, and she's an older woman. I mean, it doesn't get any sexier than that! What a guy. And what a voice, and what a dancer. What a nice guy. He surely helped the show immensely.

The movies this year were also really stellar. I was so happy to see the very youngest actors from Slumdog up there on the Kodak stage. What a huge victory for the slums in Mumbai. What a way to give people hope in desperate times.

I was moved to tears when the family of Heath Ledger came up to accept the award. Instead of mourning his loss, they had chosen to celebrate this moment, making it all the more touching. I'm crying again just thinking about that.

I loved when the tightrope walker from "Man on Wire" did a little magic trick, and then balanced the Oscar on his chin. It was so spontaneous and wonderful.

Finally, Kate Winslet got the Oscar she had so earned this year. I thought all the actresses most worthy this year, but her performance was truly a standout, and I would have felt robbed had she not gotten the nod this time. She was fantastic. I have to give a nod to Anne Hathaway though. I saw her film almost by accident. Had I known what it was about, I probably wouldn't have gone. But I didn't, and I went, and she delivered a tremendous performance. I was happy to see her singing and playing the role of Richard Nixon in the opening number, as well. What a delightful twist!

And thank goodness Sean Penn won the Oscar for best actor. Truly, he deserved it, and he said what needed to be said. We need to expose that hate, born of religious dogma, NOT born of anything Jesus ever said, as the ignorance that it is. Jesus would not have tolerated anti-gay sentiments. I love my gay friends and want them to be able to have all the rights of all the non-gay people I also love. It pains me to personally know people who are still discriminated against, this far into our collective history.

I want to draw your attention to an important article by Bob Parry recently, re the enemies Obama is making simply by trying to do the right thing:
Obama faces near-unanimous Republican opposition to his strategy for salvaging the U.S. economy (and a GOP readiness to use the Senate filibuster at every turn); right-wing talk radio and cable-TV personalities are stoking a populist anger against him; Wall Street executives are miffed at limits on their compensation; and key military commanders are resisting his promised drawdown in Iraq.

In addition, former Bush administration officials are making clear that they will fight any effort to hold them accountable for torture and other war crimes, denouncing it as a “witch-hunt” that will be met with an aggressive counterattack accusing Obama of endangering American security.

It is not entirely inconceivable that Obama’s powerful enemies could coalesce into a kind of “Seven Days in May” moment, the novel and movie about an incipient coup aimed at a President who was perceived as going too far against the country’s political-military power structure.
I'll have more to say about that in the near future. Definitely read the piece.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Oscar predictions

Los Angeles is busily preparing for the Super Bowl of the Entertainment Industry, the Oscars. The Hollywood and Highland complex that hosts the Kodak Theater has been bristling with security for days, guarding the newly installed bleachers, ensuring no one gets near enough to the places where the celebrities will soon be to do damage.

I’m looking forward to the Oscars this year more than in previous years for two reasons. First, I’ve seen nearly all the nominated films for a change, so I care more than usual about the outcomes. Second, this year, the host will be Hugh Jackman.

I was not a big fan of Jackman’s until I saw him on Broadway in “The Boy from Oz.” I’ve seen a lot of excellent theater in my life, so it means something when I say he was extraordinary. His charisma didn’t just ooze; it came rolling like a tidal wave from the stage, and the audience was clearly as swept away as I was, both times I saw his show.

The guy can flirt with the audience and sing and dance like nobody's business, and with any luck, all his talents will be on full display Sunday night. I just hope the writers don’t ruin it for him with dumb jokes! I do hope, however, the writers saw fit to lampoon the hilarious slow motion shower Jackman took in his recent film “Australia.” That cheesy shot deserves to be parodied for a long time to come.

This is also the first year in recent memory where I agreed, and very strongly, with the five films nominated for Best Picture. These films were all extraordinary. If you haven’t seen them all, do not delay.

How could Frost/Nixon, a story most of us either remember or know something about, have been so suspenseful on film? I was riveted by the story itself as much as by the tremendous feats of acting by Frank Langella, a lifelong favorite actor, and Michael Sheen, who captured completely the essence of Frost. Of course, my favorite character was the fiery, passionate James Reston, Jr. (played by Sam Rockwell), who wanted to turn the televised interviews into the trial Nixon never had.

How could Jewish filmmakers get me to care so much about a Nazi guard in “The Reader”? This is a film made with and about tremendous compassion. And Kate Winslet should absolutely get the Oscar for her amazingly layered and nuanced portrayal.

How could a film by the writer of that awful faux history of the CIA, “The Good Shepherd,” be so good? The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was an immensely thoughtful and moving examination of life, love, and the hardships of aging both physically and emotionally.

And seriously, how could a low budget film with Hindi subtitles become the frontrunner for Best Picture? Slumdog Millionaire wound its way into our hearts by giving us a look at hardships few of us ever have to deal with in not only a moving way, but in often hilarious segments, with the brilliant framing device of the world’s most famous game show.

I wish all the top nominated films could win at least one award so people go to see them. In any case, without further ado, here are my Oscar picks in some of the major categories.

Actor in a Leading Role

Who will get it: Mickey Rourke
Who I’d like to see get it: Sean Penn

Sean Penn is known for his dark, brooding, willful characters. But as Harvey Milk, he dials up the fun and lightness to the point where he's unrecognizable as anyone other than the charismatic Mr. Milk. Rourke, however, did a fine job of resurrecting his career, and will probably get it, because 1) it was a fine performance, and 2) Hollywood is full of people who hope they too can get a second chance at greatness.

Actor in a Supporting Role

While each of the nominees gave remarkable performances, if you have any doubts, you 1) are not paying attention and 2) have not yet seen “The Dark Knight.” Don't be put off because it's a film about a comic book character. Heath Ledger's performance as “The Joker” is already legendary, and deservedly so. Ledger will win. The only question remaining is who will accept the award his three-year-old daughter will eventually inherit.

Actress in a Leading Role

While I feel compelled to note it was a crime that Cate Blanchett was not nominated for her extraordinary role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” hands down, this one belongs to Kate Winslet.

Winslet plays a Nazi prison guard so ordinary it was terrifying. She didn't fully understand the role she played until the compassion of another helped her face the horrible truth about herself. As great as Winslet was in (that awfully depressing film) Revolutionary Road, she's that much better in this. All the actresses in this category were fantastic and deserving. Meryl Streep created yet another version of herself we’ve never seen before with her amazingly hilarious portrayal of a fundamentalist nun in Doubt. But this should be Kate’s year. She more than earned it.

Actress in a Supporting Role

This is one of the most suspenseful award categories this year, as all of these actresses gave fine performances. Here, I start to think overall best film sentiments kick in. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” will lose several awards to “Slumdog Millionaire.” Here’s a chance for the film to pick up one. Tariji Henson’s performance was excellent, and while not as nuanced or passionate as some of the others, given that her picture is the biggest of those nominated, I think she’ll pick this one up. If not, I’m pulling for Viola Davis, whose portrait of a mother caught between unacceptable options in “Doubt” was chilling, if brief. However, conventional wisdom would probably pick Penelope Cruz, who has already received awards for her role in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Animated Feature Film

Again, if you don’t know the answer to this, you don’t live in Los Angeles. Everyone knows Wall-E will win this one going away. It was a brilliant little film with precious little dialog, but a lot of heart. This one is a slam dunk.

Art Direction

Wow, this is a tough category. All of the nominees—“Changeling,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Duchess,” and “Revolutionary Road”were gorgeous and meticulously presented. I think the award will go to Benjamin Button, though. This is truly one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. So many scenes were almost like paintings. And with thirteen nominations, it’s important the film actually win some awards. I think this category is a likely victory for Button.


This one is a toss-up between Button and Slumdog. I think Slumdog is going to win this one because the task of making Slumdog look good while running through the streets of Mumbai and on a shoestring (by Hollywood standards) budget was monumental and well-executed. But you’ll get no disagreement from me if the Academy sees fit to award the gorgeous shots of Button. If the award goes to any other film I’ll feel a bit cheated, even though the other films were clearly worthy of their nominations.

Costume Design

Typically, this award goes to the period piece, and The Duchess was the most “period” of the films nominated. While Benjamin Button covered the longest period of time and therefore might have required the most thought and research, the results were so subtle I don’t think this one will get the nod. Personally, I’d like to see “Australia” pick this one up, as it required quite a lot of variety, and I’ll never forget Jackman’s Rhett Butler-like entrance in that white suit. That image alone was worth an award. (It’s safe to assume my Jackman infatuation is coloring my judgment here, for better or for worse.)


All five of these films are so wonderful, so well done, that it’s a crime the award this year can’t be split five ways. David Fincher did a sensitive and beautiful job with Button. Ron Howard, one of the underrecognized yet much beloved directors in Hollywood, really put forward a personal best with “Frost/Nixon.” Stephen Daldry’s job with “The Reader” is remarkable for its unflinching yet compassionate look at a difficult moment in history. And Gus Van Sant always delivers quality work, as he did again this year in “Milk.” But this year, Slumdog has all the momentum, and it’s going to carry its most enthusiastic champion and deserving director, Danny Boyle, to the stage to accept this award.


I haven’t seen any of these, but most of the buzz this year seems focused on “Man on Wire,” about a French citizen who came to America and staged a daring and illegal tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York, which he dubbed “the artistic crime of the century.” The dark horse in this race would be “Trouble the Water,” about a couple trapped in New Orleans during Katrina.

Film Editing

Again, this is a tough category, because all the nominated films—“Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” were so well edited they crackled with energy and intensity. Given the close race, I’m giving the edge to the underdog again, Slumdog. Watching that film was like taking a roller coaster ride through Mumbai, at times, and that’s due to the amazing editing.

Foreign Language Film

The buzz in town seems to center around the Israeli entry, done in filtered animation style (modified from live action), called “Waltz with Bashir.” The runner-up seems to be the film that has sparked a lot of vehement discussions, “The Class,” France’s entry.


This award should and will go to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” How they age both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in reverse directions, in this film, is amazing.

Music (Score)

This is one award that might go to Slumdog that I feel strongly really should go to Benjamin Button. At the end of the film I felt like I had just seen and heard an amazing work of art. The score was lush and romantic without being corny or obtrusive. It was modern yet lyrical, beautiful without being sentimental. I loved the score to Slumdog as well, but I really want this one to go to Button. Still, I’ll call this for Slumdog.

Music (Song)

This one is anyone’s guess. I’m leaning towards “Jai Ho” from Slumdog, but wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Peter Gabriel’s song “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E) took this one.


This one will likely go to “Slumdog Millionaire,” and deservedly so. The little film that could has chugged to victory in several of the other awards arenas, and I expect the Oscars will be no different. As I said, the other films are all fantastic, and should any of them win, it will be justified. But the world is enamored of the international underdogs right now, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency. Given its recent momentum, betting on Slumdog seems safer than any bet you could make on the market right now.

Screenplay (adaptation)

This category always puzzles me. Is an adaptation “better” if it adhere closely to the original material, or “better” if it invents something new, but in somewhat of the spirit of the original? How does one judge? Or do you just pick the movie you liked best in this category? If the latter, I think this award will likely go to Slumdog Millionaire.

Screenplay (original)

This one is hard for me to call. I think “Milk” and “Wall-E” were both outstanding screenplays. But I’ll give “Wall-E” the edge because it was so different from anything else we’ve seen, whereas we’ve seen really great biopics and political stories before. And Andrew Stanton, a key writer on the project, has been responsible for so much of the success Pixar has enjoyed (he wrote “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Finding Nemo”) that it’s high time the Academy awarded him some serious recognition for his compelling stories and keen sense of humor.

Those are my predictions, and I’m standing by them. What are yours?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Goodbye, Real History Archives

Dear Readers,

I'll continue to maintain this blog from time to time, but my Real History Archives site is so old and out of date, and in need of an overhaul that I'll never have time for, that I've decided to retire it, at least for the time being.

I hope to be spending much more time this year pursuing other writing projects, which will not leave me as much time for online work. But if I'm excited enough or outraged enough, I'll be back, in force.