Archive for November, 2008

Book: 1776

Posted on November 22nd, 2008 in Books, Education, Entertainment, Life, Politics and Law | No Comments »

If one were to take a national poll on the most important year in United States history, 1776 would easily be a top contender. Thomas Paine published Common Sense in January. Although not an American, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, which had (and continues to have) extraordinary influence on American financial history. The Continental Congress signed the The Declaration of Independence that summer. Perhaps most importantly, George Washington held together the young and inexperienced “rabble” that was the Continental Army throughout the course of that entire year and eventually through the conclusion of the war in 1783. This is the story told by David McCullough’s novel 1776.

Although 1776 is the first book by David McCullough that I have ventured to read, I had most certainly heard of the author before I began reading it. McCullough is one of the most decorated living historians in America, and I would be astonished if more than a few American readers haven’t heard of him. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize and twice won the National Book Award. He has also received the highest honor bestowed to American civilians: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As a result of the author’s fame and previous success, I had extremely high expectations for 1776 in several areas. First, McCullough is known as a fastidious researcher, so I was expecting the book to provide details on the inner workings of the fledgling American Revolution. Second, McCullough is often praised as an exemplary story teller, and with the material he has to work with in the American revolution, I was expecting something amazing. Third, McCullough used many of his notes originally compiled in writing his biography of John Adams, so I was expecting much of the book to deal with the political relationship Washington maintained with the Continental Congress.

In regard to my first expectation, I was quite pleased with the details found throughout the novel. If anything, these details were the most redeeming aspect of the book to those who already know the story quite well. McCullough goes out of his way to drop some now-famous names of people who were at the time merely rising stars, including Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Aaron Burr. I was also quite pleased to see many misconceptions dispelled. For example, I grew up learning that the Hessians in the Battle of Trenton were drunk or hungover at the time of the attack. Of course, this has been dispelled in many accounts, as McCullough dispels it here, but it was through this book that I learned the truth of the matter stated plainly.

As to my second expectation, McCullough is certainly a master story teller. Even knowing this beforehand did not prepare me for the fluidity of the book. I was truly surprised at how easy to read it is. It flows so quickly and effortlessly that I found my self reading it in large chunks. One of the primary reasons that I even picked the book up was to find some respite from the large amount of technical reading I have been doing recently, and I am pleased to say that it did not disappoint in the least, even though I was already quite familiar with the major events of the year.

Lastly, I was expecting a focus on Washington’s political discourse with the Continental Congress over the course of the year. This expectation was simply not met. Although there is some discussion of this important relationship, it was certainly not a highlight of the book. Each discussion of the relationship feels unbalanced because the book does not introduce or develop most of the important characters in the Continental Congress. I was left wondering if that is due to the coverage it received in his biography of John Adams, which I will endeavor to read.

My one major disappointment with the book was the artificial framing of the subject. Although 1776 was an extremely important year, it was just one of eight years (1775-1783) that comprised the American Revolution. Quite a few important events are not covered by this book including the winter in Valley Forge, enlisting the aid of France, signing the Treaty of Paris, and George Washington stepping back into the role of a civilian. Perhaps feeling a bit cheated at the missing events was somewhat inevitable. The entirety of the American Revolution itself has been the subject of many books, so I can understand why McCullough would not want to plow the same field all over again. However, I have no doubt that his talents would have made the remaining years and events of the Revolution exceedingly enjoyable stories to read.

On the whole, I can heartily recommend 1776. Owing to its easily accessible nature, it is perhaps best geared towards the average American, but there are certainly details that may interest those more deeply involved in studying history.

Reports on Electronic Voting

Posted on November 6th, 2008 in Computer Security, Politics and Law, Technology | No Comments »

As a technologist with a strong interest in computer security, privacy, and public policy, I am naturally drawn to the topic of electronic voting. I have written about electronic voting several times before, including this piece on Ed Felten’s work. Recently, I have seen lists of things things could have gone wrong and some lists of things that actually did go wrong. I have even seen a hilarious account of the worst case scenario, but the most interesting accounts that I’ve seen have been personal accounts of computer science professors who volunteered to operate the polls as election workers.

Avi Rubin, a Professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins and director of the ACCURATE Voting center, wrote a post describing his experience working the polls and posted it only minutes before most news outlets announced that Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States. Professor Rubin is the author of the book Brave New Ballot, an excellent book on the dangers of electronic voting machines that I have reviewed here. His experience at the polls in Maryland describes the very practical and non-technical aspects of just what a poll worker does during the day.

Steven Bellovin, a Professor of Computer Science at Columbia, also wrote about his experience as an election official. Professor Bellovin is another well-respected authority on computer security whose post focuses on the non-technical details of the responsibilities of poll workers in New Jersey. Andrew Appel, a Professor of Computer Science at Princeton, also wrote about the use of voting machines in New Jersey.

Both New Jersey and Maryland used Direct-record electronic voting machines, which have a myriad of security concerns that have been detailed extensively elsewhere. Essentially, DREs store the official record of an election in an electronic form rather than a paper form. If you are interested in some of the problems with DREs and proposed solutions to those problems, then you should check out the USACM’s page on electronic voting.

You may be asking yourself: Why would a computer science professor volunteer to work a poll as an election official? It’s not like there’s anything technical going on there. Well, any computer security expert will tell you that the first line of defense must be physical access. This means that you can have all technology you want, all the cryptography you want, and spend all the money you have and still not be secure without common sense. There was a great video on No-Tech Hacking at DefCon in 2007 which covers what I’m talking about.

Physical access is one of the key problems with DREs: thousands of people must have physical access to the machines themselves to cast their vote. The environment is filled with opportunities for absolutely simple no-tech hacking. Even if these systems weren’t notoriously bad in terms of the technology used, the physical access alone makes these devices difficult to secure.

The challenges of physical access and the stakes of a Presidential election are both great reasons that computer science professors are interested. It’s a unique opportunity to see how these machines are actually used, and some of their observations are excellent. Their posts are worth reading if you’re interested in electronic voting or computer security: Avi Rubin’s post; Steven Bellovin’s post.