" Numbers don't count?"

Edge 79 — November 23, 2000 — Thanksgiving Day Special

(2,507 words)


THE THIRD CULTURE

GOLDSMITH VS. ZIMMERMAN
By George Dyson

"I count nine bits of chad on the carpet after all the ballots are run. The chad may just have fallen innocently out of the innards of the machine, it may have fallen out of any number of punch positions which had nothing to do with the city council race, or one or more bits might have fallen out of the Zimmerman-Goldsmith positions. Who knows? The seconds tick by, and I am acutely conscious at this instant that language and reality sometimes coincide: in the punched card universe a "bit" really is a bit, and Gregory Bateson's definition of information as "any difference that makes a difference" is true indeed, as we await the count of how many bits of difference between card and not-card have just passed through the Cardamation machine."

INTRODUCTION
By Freeman Dyson

It shows the way to deal equitably with the situation in Florida....It describes a real case verifying Hillis's theory of democracy. Implications for biology, engineering, and physics are enormous.



THE REALITY CLUB

Jaron Lanier , Bernardo Huberman on "How Democracy Works" by Danny Hillis


THE THIRD CULTURE

GOLDSMITH VS. ZIMMERMAN
By George Dyson

INTRODUCTION
By Freeman Dyson

For your entertainment, here is a piece by George Dyson. It shows the way to deal equitably with the situation in Florida. It was written three years ago being published this week in the Bellingham Herald and in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. You might consider it an addendum to Danny Hillis's piece in the news-letter about "How Democracy Works". It describes a real case verifying Hillis's theory of democracy. Implications for biology, engineering, and physics are enormous.

— Freeman Dyson

GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, has been excavating the history and prehistory of the digital revolution going back 300 years. His most recent book is DARWIN AMONG THE MACHINES. See George Dyson's Edge Bio Page.


GOLDSMITH VS. ZIMMERMAN
By George Dyson

In the digital universe, every bit makes a difference. In a democracy, every vote counts. Punched card ballots are where these two universes coincide. On November 4, 1997, in Ferndale, Washington, the difference between two candidates for city council came down to one bit of difference on one card.

"There's not much case law on this," argues Frank J. Chmelik. "The responsibility of the canvassing board is to certify that universe of ballots that make up the count. A recount is to re-count the ballots. It doesn't make any sense to expand the universe of ballots. It would frustrate the purpose of the law to allow the recounting of an infinite set of ballots. It may have been in a sealed envelope but it was in a white envelope, not a pink envelope." It is December 19, 1997 and I am in Whatcom County Superior Court, listening to arguments before Judge Michael Moynihan in the matter of Yvonne Goldsmith vs. the Whatcom County Canvassing Board. Yvonne Goldsmith came in one vote ahead of Lloyd Zimmerman in the race for Ferndale City Council on election night. After a mandatory manual recount and the discovery of a lost ballot, she is now one vote behind. Her lawyers have appealed for a second recount, this time by machine. Said machine to be a Documation card reader, one of the models now built by Cardamation of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania — if the appeal is upheld. Right now the lawyers are arguing over whether to include an absentee ballot — discovered in a sealed envelope at the time of the first recount — whose validity depends in part on whether the envelope it turned up in was white or pink.

"It doesn't make any sense for a subsequent computer recount to supersede the manual recount," argues Karen Frakes on behalf of Whatcom County Auditor Sheila Forslof, returning to the issue of human beings vs. machines. "We have no reason to believe the computer recount will be any different."

Chmelik, however, cites chapter and verse of a statute (RCW 29.64.010) which "allows for second recount upon application by the candidate, who may specify such recount be done manually or by (electronic) vote tally machine. Goldsmith has a right to an electronic recount that will control."

Judge Moynihan, who is reading the fine print, refers to a clause (RCW 29.62.050) which "stipulates `a recount by machine shall use separate and distinct programming.' Can you explain?" Chmelik explains how the vote counting software will be freshly installed (under Windows 95) from a copy delivered from the State Capitol under official seal.

After some deliberation the judge decides: "They have to count that ballot. As to whether or not the candidate is entitled to an electronic or manual recount — she's entitled to make that choice. If there's a discrepancy, well, it will probably have to be decided by another court."

The recount (by machine) is scheduled for Tuesday, December 23, at 9:00 a.m. I arrive at the Whatcom County Courthouse at the appointed time and am ceremoniously signed into the room. No one, as far as I can tell, has ever heard of WIRED magazine. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD, a few blocks away, hasn't bothered to send a reporter but is awaiting the results by phone. The card reader sits facing the end of a long boardroom table, with various officials arrayed on either side. The reader is hooked up to an IBM 300GL PC, with the "separate and distinct programming" occupying an external Iomega Zip Drive. The software, produced by Computer Elections of Benicia, CA, is up and running under Windows 95.

Pete Griffin, elections supervisor, is fiddling with the card reader. He's proud of how much the machine cost and that it's recently been factory rebuilt. A number of minor dignitaries are present, as well as representatives for the two candidates and two official scrutineers. Lots of sealing and unsealing of metal boxes containing the ballots, with forms signed and witnessed in triplicate every time a deck of punched cards makes a move. The card reader is fired up. It runs through a series of "Logic and Accuracy" test decks from the Secretary of State. The results are compared with the results from election night, when the Logic and Accuracy decks were placed under the seals we just removed. It's a cryptic process, and we all just take the word of Peter Griffin that the string of characters generated on the monitor means everything's OK. The reader flutters smoothly through the piles of cards without missing a single beat — far smoother than the readers I saw at Cardamation, being tested against cards that had been stored for many years.

Finally, it's time to count the ballots. It doesn't take long, a few minutes at most. We all hold our breath. The manual recount was repeated three times, under strict supervision, and all three counts showed Zimmerman one vote ahead. Is this the moment of truth? I'm watching the floor under the machine, to see how many bits of "chad" — the card stock that is punched out to make a hole — fall out when running through the decks. Occasionally, in running through the vacuum-fed reader at high speed, a bit will be dislodged from a ballot. This is a problem with partially pre perforated ballots — and human beings who sometimes start to punch out one location and then change their mind. As Larry Olsen, the Republican observer, whispers to me when he senses what I'm thinking, "If chad falls out there's no way to put it back."

I count nine bits of chad on the carpet after all the ballots are run. The chad may just have fallen innocently out of the innards of the machine, it may have fallen out of any number of punch positions which had nothing to do with the city council race, or one or more bits might have fallen out of the Zimmerman-Goldsmith positions. Who knows? The seconds tick by, and I am acutely conscious at this instant that language and reality sometimes coincide: in the punched card universe a "bit" really is a bit, and Gregory Bateson's definition of information as "any difference that makes a difference" is true indeed, as we await the count of how many bits of difference between card and not-card have just passed through the Cardamation machine. Pete Griffin sits down at the PC, enters some commands, navigates through some dialog boxes, and a Hewlett-Packard laser printer begins to hum. It's a tie: 954 to 954. The statistics show one "overvote" — a ballot where both candidates have received a vote. Someone asks Goldsmith's representative if she would like to run the cards again. No.

The auditor consults the Laws of the State of Washington and announces that the election will now be decided by flipping a coin. The candidate who filed first — Goldsmith — gets to call it heads or tails. Three days later, Judge Moynihan tosses a 1921 silver dollar in the air. Goldsmith calls it tails — and wins. Goldsmith gets the seat on City Council, while the Judge awards Zimmerman the coin. The "Logic and Accuracy" decks go back, under seal, to the Secretary of State. We live in a binary universe — and what isn't governed by logic is governed by chance.


THE REALITY CLUB

Jaron Lanier , Bernardo Huberman on "How Democracy Works" by Danny Hillis


From: Jaron Lanier
Date: November 20, 2000

Danny's analysis is exactly right for sincere players. When the players are insincere, the story gets more complicated.

My sense of the 2000 presidential election is that some right-leaning Bush supporters believed their candidate was being insincere on the campaign trail, but with a welcome wink. For instance, opponents of gun control believed that once in office Bush would become an active ally, even though he was able to remain remarkably soft spoken, almost to the point of inaudibility, on gun control during the campaign. The same dynamic played out in reverse for Gore, however. Gore's most left-leaning potential supporters doubted his resolve or sincerity on issues such as protection of the environment.

Thus the perception of sincerity became the deciding factor in an election where both candidates sought the center. In some cases an appearance of selective insincerity actually helped a candidate (as in Bush's courting of the pro-gun vote).Speaking technically, Grover's algorithm show quantum search is only polynomially faster than classical search. Part of my research is solving continuous problems on a quantum computer and here there are problems which can be solved exponentially faster on a quantum computer.

To state the obvious, actual sincerity is quite a different thing from the appearance of sincerity. I know Gore a bit and find him to be utterly sincere in person, but sadly artificial on television. I'll turn to Phil's remarks. He says "Why does the quantum computer do new things? Why is complexity theory such a poor quide to the real world of problems?"

Childhood play is often concerned with the management of the appearance of sincerity. Children learn to present and detect poker faces, for example.

The most successful politicians not only excel at such skills, but even master elaborations, like sincerely displaying to one set of people one's insincerity to another, even if one has to be insincere to do so, and thus cementing an alliance.

The fact that the votes in a surprising number of diverse states came out almost perfectly tied demands further analysis. Maybe the arts and sciences of demographic-driven campaigning have become perfected to the point that there is almost no noise left in the system. I am reminded of the flat wall that can form between two soap bubbles.

JARON LANIER, a computer scientist and musician, is a pioneer of virtual reality, and founder and former CEO of VPL. He is currently the lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative.

From: Bernardo Huberman
Date: November 20, 2000

Concerning Danny Hillis' arguments on "How Democracy Works (Or Why Perfect Elections Should All End In Ties) " I'd like to point out that they are well known in political science. As a matter of fact, there is even a theorem (can you imagine, a theorem in political science?) that states it all rigorously. This so called median-voter theorem states that if two parties are trying to maximize their share of the votes, the only Nash equilibrium (each party making a best response to the other candidate's choice) is where both candidates chose the platform of the median voter's ideal policy.

While the assumptions underlying this theorem, originally proved by Hotelling in the context of consumer preferences in 1929, are rather stark — but not different from Danny's example — (it is assumed that voters have single-peaked preferences over a left to right one-dimensional issue space, and that everyone turns out and votes for the candidate whose platform they prefer), it turns out that the theorem's conclusion is robust in many respects. That is, modest departures from most of the canonical assumptions lead to only small changes in the candidates' behavior.

The present presidential platforms, while far from fitting the classical assumptions exactly, seem to indicate that the median voter theorem applies to even more general cases.

BERNARDO HUBERMAN is a Research Fellow at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where he heads the Internet Ecologies Area, a group involved in studying the dynamics of distributed processes in social organizations and the Internet.


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher

Copyright ©2000 by Edge Foundation, Inc.