Referendum Ontario

September 25, 2007

My registration card for the upcoming October 10th Ontario election arrived in the mail the other day. In the package there was a pamphlet explaining that this election will also have a referendum question. The question is whether we should keep the existing electoral system OR switch to a new alternative electoral system.

Hmmmmm…. sounds ominous. They call the old system “First Past The Poll”. Very catchy, no? I think of it as a Zero Sum Riding system where there can be only one winner in a riding. The problem with the old system is that TV commentators say things like “the Penultimate Party only won 23 seats despite winning 39% of the popular vote” the next day.

So how do you fix the system to prevent cynicism on TV? Well, you use the proposed alternative electoral system which is called Mixed Member Proportional. Catchy, no? So the way this works is that each party makes a list of special politicians that you don’t vote for in addition to the politicians that run in each riding. When the riding results are in someone calls the Election.everyonePlayNice() Java method and politicians from each party’s pre-assigned list are “elected” to make the vote proportional.

So I thought hard about this. After about 5 seconds I thought, well fair is good. But at about 7.5 seconds I realized there is some weird stuff in this new system. A ballot will allow for two votes, one for the person you want to win in your riding and one for the party you want to win in the province. Perfect for those that want to cook up devious voting strategies but really a bit of superfluous complexity in my mind. The system can work fine without the two votes but this is what we get if we vote yes. Then I wondered about the politicians in the pre-assigned list. What is that all about? How are they accountable? I don’t like the idea of nebulous blobs of politicians.

Then the real kicker occurred to me. How do election outcomes change? Well, it seems to me that the system takes seats from the zero sum riding winner and redistributes them to everyone else. So more minority governments or at least it increases the likelihood of minority governments. So the NDP or The Green Party carry the balance of power. Yuck.

Here is the other thing. After thinking hard about a simple yes/no question for 15 minutes if you still don’t have an obvious opinion then there are probably some non-trivial ramifications involved.

I’m voting no (I’m thinking maybe…. nothing like firm commitment).

UPDATE (2007/10/11): Electoral reform rejected with 63% against.

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Pygmy vs. Hobbit Revisited

September 21, 2007

Sometime ago, I posted about the ongoing scientific debate regarding hominid skeletal remains found on the Indonesian island of Flores. The controversy is whether the remains represent a new species, Homo floresiensis.

Really this is a battle of one Hobbit vs. Three Pygmies. The Hobbit is a new species of Homo. The Three Pygmies are subspecies/pygmies of one of three known Homo species. The three Pygmy options are Homo sapiens (modern human), Homo erectus (Java man which is a large neanderthal-like early human that lived in Asia long before H. sapien arrived), and Homo Habilis (smaller but less advanced in tool use than H. erectus but never thought to have left Africa).

Time will tell but if I’d put my money on a Pygmy H. sapien.

Well time is telling and it looks like my Pygmy H. sapien bet was wrong.

An international team of researchers led by the Smithsonian Institution has completed a new study on Homo floresiensis, commonly referred to as the “hobbit,” a 3-foot-tall, 18,000-year-old hominin skeleton, discovered four years ago on the Indonesian island of Flores.

This study offers one of the most striking confirmations of the original interpretation of the hobbit as an island remnant of one of the oldest human migrations to Asia.

Unless I am misreading, the evidence seems to be pointing at a Pygmy H. erectus or some kind of subspecies of Homo erectus. Very cool.

Google Presently

September 18, 2007

Google officially released Presently, the presentation application for Google Docs. I’m not sure if I’m more enamored with the application or the nifty little YouTube presentation about Google Docs.

In an earlier post about Google Presentations (since renamed) I wondered out loud if Google would remember to provide an “export” feature to support offline presentations. They have in the form of “Save as Zip”.

From a techie point of view, Presently is HTML styled with CSS and tied together with Javascript rather than using a “richer” environment like Adobe Flash. Good for them. At first glance, Presently does seem to be the first truly web centric application for presentations.

Given that the underlying format is HTML/CSS, Presently has a few very powerful editing features. Presently allows “Text Boxes” to be inserted into a slide. These Text Boxes look and behave like their equivalents in PowerPoint. When selected, a Text Box is surrounded by a dashed line with grab handles at the corners allowing you to resize. If you mouse over any of the enclosing dashed lines the cursor changes to a “move” icon and you are allowed to change the position of the entire box. Depending on your chosen theme, a slide will have default Text Boxes, say one for the title and one for the body.

Editing text is similar to many visual online HTML editors for things like Wikis and Blogs. You can change the font, add bullets or numbered lists, change paragraph alignment, and indent/outdent. The only pecularity I found was that “TAB” adds an indent rather than switching from one text box to the next (say title to body).

Where Google Docs really shines is collaboration. Microsoft has its Sharepoint offering which targets enterprise intranets, but Google Docs allows ad hoc groups to collaborate from anywhere with internet access.

Presently takes collaboration one step forward not only allowing collaborative editing (like Docs and Spreadsheets) but allowing live presentations. Once you click “Start Presentation”, you get the full window presentation as expected but you also get an “Audience” GTalk-like buddy list with a generated URL. You can send out the URL to the audience members and when the presenter changes the slide it is automatically changed for everyone in the audience.

So Presently is also a very simple but useful Web Conference application in addition to a collaborative online presentation editor. If you don’t need the whiteboard and/or application sharing features of more powerful Web Conference applications like WebEx and Microsoft Live Meeting then Presently is a simple and inexpensive way to host meetings.

I’m liking it. Kudos to Google.

Minks Gone Wild

September 16, 2007

Someone in Newfoundland decided to free Willy…. ummmm, I mean 6000 minks. But fear not.

Police said there is no reason for local people to be worried about the free-roaming animals.

“We’ve been advised they pose no danger, but now we are advising people that if they happen to see one in the yard, certainly don’t go over and try and capture it themselves.”

Perplexing in a weaselly kind of way.

Canada’s privacy commissioner is concerned about Google Street View.

A number of websites carry satellite images or low-resolution photographs and video.

Stoddart doesn’t have a problem with those. However, she warned that high-resolution pictures such as those available on Street View could contravene the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, which came into effect on Jan. 1, 2004.

“Our Office considers images of individuals that are sufficiently clear to allow an individual to be identified to be personal information within the meaning of PIPEDA,” Stoddart writes.

Of particular concern to Stoddart is that the images on Street View appear to have been collected largely without the consent of the people in them. Street View does allow viewers to request their images be removed. However, by then, Stoddart says, it’s too late.

Oh brother. Am I missing something? The PIPEDA is about the collection of “personal information” not about unintentionally including an individual in an image of a streetscape. If this is the most pressing privacy issue in Canada then we are indeed a privileged country.

The fine folks at Automattic (the people who created WordPress and host this blog) are using an interesting advertising technique to target a highly specialized market segment, uber-web-nerds. If you look at the HTTP headers returned by the WordPress.com servers you will see the following:

X-hacker: If you’re reading this, you should visit automattic.com/jobs and apply to join the fun, mention this header.

Nice :-)

Palm Foleo Mothballed

September 5, 2007

Palm CEO Ed Colligan announced that he has mothballed the Palm Foleo.

Jeff Hawkins and I still believe that the market category defined by Foleo has enormous potential. When we do Foleo II it will be based on our new platform, and we think it will deliver on the promise of this new category. We’re not going to speculate now on timing for a next Foleo, we just know we need to get our core platform and smartphones done first.

In a previous post I mentioned that the Foleo reminds me of the HP Jornada 820 circa 1999. It still does.
Does this market category have “enormous potential” as claimed?

Well, the Foleo seems to target two types of people: 1) people on the go that currently only carry their Treo, and 2) people on the go that carry a laptop and a Treo. So the question in my mind is what added value does the Foleo provide over a “companion laptop” for the Treo? What customer pain point does the Foleo address?

In its day, the Jornada 820 had the nice keyboard, it was lightweight, and it was instant on. The stand-by feature on modern laptops is actually quite good so “instant on” isn’t a big issue anymore. Single spindle (i.e. no DVD drive) laptops can be very lightweight. Solid state drives are coming down in price but for the amount of storage required for Windows or Mac OS X the solid state drive is very expensive compared to a limited OS like Windows CE. The key to keeping the price of the Foleo down is keeping the amount of persistent storage to a minimum.

Ultimately, the Foleo tries to fill the gap when connectivity is limited. The Foleo has WiFi and Bluetooth. The Bluetooth is used as a two-way sync for e-mail/calendar/contacts between the Foleo and the Treo. You use the two devices tethered together where you have a table top (for the Foleo) and no WiFi. The Treo acts as a wireless modem while the Foleo gives you a laptop-like screen and keyboard.

So why not just write the optimized e-mail/calendar/contacts application for Windows with two-way sync to a Treo via Bluetooth? Real Windows running on a laptop?

If this market category has enormous potential for a specialized hardware + software solution then why is there no potential for the same kind of software solution running on a normal laptop that tethers with a Treo?

Would you pay for Palm SuperDesktop for Windows? Then why Palm SuperDesktop for a revamped Jornada 820 clone. I dunno.