Saturday, February 11, 2017

More than 25 years of Free Software

One of the most critical discoveries that determined the form that my business and advocacy work would later take was the discovery of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project.

While I do not have an exact date of when I joined the gnu.misc.discuss newsgroup, a search on Google indicates that my first posting was on Feb 11, 1992. The topic was: Public Domain re-worked and re-released under GNU Public License?. It is interesting to go back and time and note that I have learned quite a bit about software licenses and copyright law since that time. I think my English and spelling have improved as well.

(Re-post from 2003 article on Digital Copyright Canada. Most of my recent contributions have been to this blog)

Why a long-time electoral reformer will be staying clear of the "Day of Action for Electoral Reform"

A few partisan and multi-partisan groups including the NDP, Green Party (provincial and federal), and Fair Vote Canada have sent out announcements to their members about a "National Day of Action for Electoral Reform".  While I've been an active electoral reformer for many decades, I will be avoiding this event.

Many of the reasons why were articulated in an earlier article on how Electoral Modernization is hard, but worth it.   It discussed how compromise and consideration of other viewpoints was critical to move forward.

When Justin Trudeau and his election platform team stated that, "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system" they likely envisioned a specific campaign.  On one side would be those who wanted to keep the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system either because it benefit them or they were simply resistant to any change.   On the other side would be a broad coalition of people who saw the many flaws in the current system and had a proposal to move forward with a solution to the major flaws.

While these multi-partisans like to use the phrase "voter equality", this was not the campaign they ran. They picked one specific flaw in the current system that has meaning to partisans (if the seats in parliament are allocated to parties in proportion to alleged votes for parties), and dismissed all other concerns as being irrelevant as well as dismissing the people who had those concerns.   This splintered those who wanted change into multiple camps, and made a broad coalition for change impossible.

With a broad coalition not possible, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Government correctly concluded there is no consensus on this issue and was forced to back away from their election promise.

In January 2013 I cancelled my Fair Vote Canada membership and donation. I felt a need to distance myself from FVC for the sake of the electoral modernization movement in Canada.

FPTP has many flaws, and many believe vote splitting among multiple candidates that voters would be happy with is the largest flaw.  The only solution to that particular problem is ranked ballots, so it should be recognized that proposals for any system that doesn't involve ranked ballots is not a proposal aimed at "voter equality" or "fair voting".

FVC's campaign against ranked ballots in municipal elections was expected to cause confusion. Most municipalities do not have political parties, so the question of whether the makeup of city council is allocated proportionally to parties based on alleged votes for parties is an irrelevant concept.  If ranked ballots were supposedly bad in municipalities, then reformers who were repeating talking points would also be claiming that ranked ballots would be inappropriate in all elections.  The distinction between single-member and multi-member districts would be lost on many of them.

There is a family of systems that solves both sets of problems, and that is ranked ballots in multi-member districts: also known as single transferable vote (STV).

The partisan groups (NDP, Green, FVC) would indicate that STV was OK with them, but with their campaign against ranked ballots as well as the way they worded their support it was always considered a "lesser" option.   It is unbelievable that a voting system that would solve a greater number of problems with the current system and be able to create a broad campaign was somehow the "lesser" system.

It was clear to those of us who do not consider party proportionality to be an issue (or for some just not the major issue) that their "we are happy with any system that is proportional" could never be used to create a broad consensus around a version of STV.

STV isn't a single system, but a family of systems that have specific features in common: ranked ballots to solve the vote-splitting and plurality issues, coupled with multi-member districts to solve not only party proportionality but proportionality based on other demographic traits as well.   Our conversation should have been focused around optimizing district magnitude (the rural-urban proposals, and how to group districts), how to allocate surplus votes (random vs deterministic, etc), whether we offer party-promoting features (above the line voting) and whether we solve the "donkey vote" problem (randomizing order of candidates on ballots).

Instead the conversation focused on party-PR, which was a distraction that remained unclear on whether the voting system would improve or get worse.

Back in 2013 there were FVC activists who asked that I apologize for what I wrote in this blog. It turns out that my concern was proven correct, and that their campaign was counterproductive.  I don't expect these advocates to rescind their request for an apology any more than I expect them to apologize for the harm their campaign did to the electoral reform movement in Canada.  Some of these people were people I considered friends, but their devotion to FVC's campaign made it impossible for them to remain friends with me.

So we are where we are.  There is a large rift separating Canadian electoral reformers which might take a long time to heal (if at all). Electoral reform is off the table federally yet again, and the groups who are largely responsible for that failure are meeting together later today to point outward to someone else to blame.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Van Helsing #DigiCanCon via Netflix Canada

I just finished season 1 of Van Helsing via Netflix Canada. Filmed in Vancouver with most cast members being Canadian, this is the type of Canadian content that makes me feel proud of Canadian talent.  There were so many familiar Canadian actors from other series out of Vancouver including Flash and Sanctuary, and it even had Amanda Tapping directing 4 episodes. Nomadic Pictures, the producer, operates out of Calgary.

I'm excited to hear that season 2 has already been ordered, and that production starts next month.  My hope is that for future seasons that legal Internet distribution will be simultaneous with any broadcast-era distribution.

The Wikipedia page for the series suggests that some fortunate events happened for this to be released on Netflix Canada on December 23'rd (after the September 23 broadcast launch) rather than being tied up in broadcast-only licensing for much longer : Super Channel's ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. In earlier articles (Ad free CBC? Why not shift money to creators? and Space (Bell) has no Class when it comes to protecting copyright) I discussed how I consider broadcasters and BDUs to be in a conflict of interest when it comes to the modern lawful distribution of video content. I consider it a sign of ongoing progress when broadcast channels close and new OSI layer 6 (what ISPs provide) neutral video distribution systems open (like the launch of Amazon Prime Video in Canada).

I hope that in the new year we will continue to see more Canadian content with wide international distribution on modern layer-6 neutral video distribution services like Netflix, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video and CraveTV. I further hope that opponents to the ongoing cycle of technological change like Denis McGrath, councillor for the Writers Guild of Canada, will not be able to confuse politicians into continuing to favor broadcast-era distribution and distributors over the interests of Canadian creators and Canadian audiences.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Imagining an #EngagedInER conversation between Russell McOrmond (1997 #PR ) and Russell McOrmond (2017 #STV )

I can imagine a conversation between Russell McOrmond (1997) and Russell McOrmond (2017), and how that would go.

Both of these individuals feel they have a good grasp of the problems with First Past the Post, and both feel they have properly analyzed the obvious solution to the obvious failure.

These two individuals would likely hate each other :-)

RM1997 would think RM2017 was arrogant for constantly bringing up the fact that he was 20 years senior, and in that last 20 years had:

  • met many sitting MPs
  • had long conversations with some sitting MPs - in constituency and parliamentary offices, as well as in the Government Lobby (that part of center block behind the curtains on the government side), the parliamentary restaurant, as well as private pubs and private homes. I've even been invited by sitting MPs to help represent Canada in front of policy delegations from other countries.
  • attended many federal committee hearings (more than I care to count), and have been a witness in multiple committees
  • had joined a different federal party and voted in that parties leadership race.

RM2017 would be suggesting that systems based on ranked ballots in multi-member districts are the only systems which solve both the plurality problem (what non-partisans focused on the individual people rather than only the parties care about) and the proportionality problem (what partisans, especially those who support small parties, care about). He would be mentioning that the last 20 years of experience is why he believes the people matter more than the parties.

RM1997 would be telling RM2017 that none of that nonsense mattered, and that all that mattered is that the only party that could ever represent RM1997 in parliament needed a change to the system in order to represent him. Who cares who the MPs are, normal people don't talk to MPs :-)

You can see where this is going :-)

While I have 20 years more experience , I recognize that it would be rather presumptuous of me to think that I didn't have anything more to learn. I have the fact I learned so much in the last 20 years as proof that there is always more to come.

I can't learn from RM1997 as I already know everything he knows. There are so many people in this debate wanting to educate me on those same things, believing the only way I could possibly disagree with them is because I don't know these things. And I've been blocked on Twitter by a few of these people, upset that they can't change my mind by repeating words used by RM1997.

(re-posted from  Disqus)

Monday, December 19, 2016

First look at Amazon Prime Video Canada

I received an email this morning from titled "Your Prime membership now includes Prime Video", indicating that Amazon Prime Video has been launched in Canada.

Like Youtube(Google) and Netflix, Amazon is an internet native company, so I wasn't surprised to see that Prime Video worked on most of my devices.  It plays from my desktop, Chromebook, and has an Android App.  Missing, and something people often complain about, is Chromecast support. Amazon has a competing Amazon Fire series of devices, but they are not being sold in Canada.  This is quite unfortunate that their ongoing rivalry with Google diminishes the utility of their service. Vertical integration isn't helpful, and it is inappropriate to expect everyone to have so many different incompatible devices plugged into their televisions.

This service wasn't quite what I was expecting.  I thought Amazon Prime would be more like Google Play Movies and TV, offering per-movie, per-episode or per-season pricing for video.  Instead this is more like Netflix where my yearly fee for Amazon Prime gets me access to a catalog without an incremental fee to watch each movie or TV episode.  I immediately watched the first episode of Mozart in the Jungle which looks like an interesting Amazon original series.

I will continue to evaluate.  At the moment I would rank the service higher than CraveTV, even with Amazon Video's lack of Choromecast support, as the user interface is considerably better.  This is also early for the service as they have very little Canadian licensing for content, given even Internet video services have to deal with the archaic region restrictions and region licensing.

During the DigiCanCon consultations I was made aware of some Canadian content released on Amazon Prime that was available in the USA but not Canada.  That title is still not available in Canada, but I have asked the copyright holder (via twitter) if they know if there is something they can set from their end.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A few Straw Men of Canadian electoral reform

straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent. (Wikipedia)

It is hard to engage in electoral reform conversations in Canada without having one of the two top straw-men thrown at you.  Which one you are thrown depends on which of the most common perspectives you hold.

This is massive generalization, but Canadians could be divided into 3 groups.

  1. Everything is fine, leave it alone.
  2. Our voting system is broken, and the problem is a lack of proportionality (See Gallagher index)
  3. Our voting system is broken, and the problem is plurality

When it comes to choosing an electoral system, there are a number of interesting variations.

  • People who believe that plurality is a feature, not a problem, in that it forces a "consensus" to form between the top two opposing visions of how to run the country.  The "spoiler" effect is seen as a need to better "educate" voters to stop voting for third parties.
  • People who note there is no consensus on this issue, and who believe we should leave the system alone until there is consensus.
  • People who believe that any solution to the proportionality problem also solves plurality, so do not consider plurality to be a legitimate issue to be concerned with.
  • People who believe that any solution to the plurality problem also solves the proportionality problem, so do not consider proportionality to be a legitimate issue to be concerned with
  • People who believe the only "fair" system is one that recognizes that proportionality and plurality are two separate problems that need to both be solved.
  • People who vote along party lines, believe there is only one right choice, so don't see any value to ranking choices on ballots.  Voters who might have a second choice just need to be better educated about the "one true choice".
  • People who don't vote along party lines, and who if they vote for a party nominated candidate voted despite, not because of, the party affiliation.
    • They will most often see more than one candidate they think can represent them and want to rank them rather than be forced to pick only one.
    • They will sometimes oppose any attempt to take votes for party nominated candidates, presume they were support for the parties, and put them into formula in order to make claims not supported by the actual marked ballots.
  • People who don't trust political parties, and believe parties already have too much control over Canadian politics, so oppose proportionality.

The Straw Man for Proportionality supporters

The proponents of a system that solves the proportionality problem have to deal with this Straw Man all the time: that they are proponents of the most controversial form of proportional representation which is "pure PR" where an entire country or province becomes one single district and all the MPs are allocated based on party lists.

Not only has Fair Vote Canada never made that proposal themselves, I'm unaware of any other organization or serious electoral reformer who has advanced that proposal in Canada.

There is always the "thin edge of the wedge" claim, which is that any introduction of PR into Canadian politics will be abused as a way to eventually push Canada to abolish local districts.  Any introduction of at-large members or larger districts is seen as negative not because of the merits or flaws of specific proposal in front of them, but because of their fear of pure PR.

Engaging in this "thin edge" argument is as fruitless as arguing against the more direct Straw Man as it is based on a presumption of dishonesty on the part of PR proponents.  This presumption of dishonesty isn't helpful for having healthy debate.

The Straw Man for Proportionality opponents or skeptics

The opponents of proportionality, as well as those who don't think solving a lack of proportionality alone can solve the major problems with our voting system, are eventually claimed to support abolishing political parties.

Not only have I never made this proposal myself, or support abolishing political parties, I'm unaware of any organization or serious electoral reformer who has advanced that proposal in Canada.

There is always the "thin edge of the wedge" claim, which is that any regulation of political parties or reduction of the influence of political parties over Canadian politics will be abused as a way to eventually abolish political parties.   Often, any discussion that suggests that votes for party nominated candidates can't be presumed to be support for the party itself are taken as an attack on political parties, rather than a simple recognition that not ever voter votes along party lines.

Engaging in this "thin edge" argument is as fruitless as arguing against the more direct Straw Man as it is based on a presumption of dishonesty on the part of PR opponents or people who don't consider PR to be the greatest voting system problem.  This presumption of dishonesty isn't helpful for having healthy debate.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Are US voters really that much smarter than Canadian voters?

There are so many things I found disappointing about the democratic institutions voter compass site.

Some aspects I found offensive, such as the question "A ballot should be easy to understand, even if it means voters have fewer options to express their preferences".  This leading question suggests the people who created this site think Canadians aren't as smart as people from most other countries already using more advanced voting systems.

Since is is a common Canadian pastime to presume they are better than people south of the US-Canada boarder, we should take a look at their ballots.  People who don't like the outcome of the recent US presidential election may think their system is flawed, but if you ever looked closely at the Canadian system you realize it is purely luck and not design of our democratic institutions that gives the false impression we have something better.

Lets ignore for the moment that the Liberal platform promised to change the voting system from First Past the Post before the next federal election, something that can be done without constitutional change, and something many of us will punish the Liberals for until they honor that promise.

Lets pretend, as the democratic institutions voter compass site suggests, that everything is on the table including discussing how the government is formed.   Lets ignore the fact the vast majority of the questions on that website are off-topic for a discussion on changing our voting system, and that many questions discuss policies that require constitutional changes.

The Canadian System

In Canada in federal elections we mark a single X on a ballot beside a line that has the name of a person. Most often there is also the name of a political party that nominated that person.

From this single X a person who only needs a plurality of votes, not a majority, becomes the MP in the House of Commons for that electoral district.

Once the House of Commons assembles these MPs then decide who the Prime Minister will be. While the convention in a Westminster system is that the Prime Minister is the leader of the party whose members have a plurality of seats (not necessarily a majority), other configurations are possible in a healthy Westminster system. While the formality is that it is the governor general representing the Crown who appoints the Prime Minister, it is actually up to the full membership of the House of Commons who can vote non-confidence in a person that asked and received permission from the governor general to form government.

The Prime Minister controls the appointments of most key positions in Canada's democratic institutions, including the governor general, the Cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, senators, heads of crown corporations, ambassadors to foreign countries, the provincial lieutenant governors, and approximately 3,100 other positions.

The Cabinet is appointed by the Prime Minister out of the membership of both the upper house (Senate) and lower house (House of Commons).  This cabinet along with the Prime Minister form the executive branch of government, with all members in both the upper and lower houses forming the legislative branch of government.  Cabinet members have mixed responsibilities (some suggest conflict of interest) to both executive and legislative branches of government.

While we still have ties to the British Monarchy, it is now the Prime Minister that appoints the Governor General, creating a conflict of interest if it were actually the Governor General that appointed future Prime Ministers.  This is why it is understood that it is up to the membership of the House of Commons to decide who the Prime Minister is.

All of this with a single X which doesn't allow any clarity in what the voter is intending to say.
  • Are they voting for a person they believe is the best local candidate to become part of the legislative branch, or are they voting for the political party they believe would best represent their views in the legislative branch (or a full spectrum between those two extremes).
  • Are they attempting to vote directly for the executive branch (the Prime Minister, who like most heads of executive branches in other countries then appoint the rest of the executive branch), ignoring the formation of the legislative branch?
  • Are they attempting to (by this point very indirectly) influence appointments of Senators, Judges, or other unelected parts of our democratic institutions?

As there is no way to tell what the X means, everyone can (and does) argue endlessly about what a voters intent is.  They will pretty much always be wrong as there is no mechanism to have clarity around voter intent.

Most of the current debate around electoral reform is based on assumptions, not facts, about how people vote.  The whole notion of measuring the disproportionality of a resulting House of Commons based on support for parties presumes that the single X was a vote for a party rather than the person, and that it is the makeup of parliament rather than who forms the executive branch that mattered to the voter. Without knowing the percentage of people who voted for the person despite, and not because of, the party, it is impossible to measure the disproportionality of the house to party support.

The claim our current ballot is "easy to understand" because it has so few words on it and voters make few marks is embarrassingly invalid. The question should be whether the meaning of a marked ballot can be understood. The fact is our current marked ballots cannot be accurately understood by anyone, and if we have any concern about voter intent this critical flaw needs to be fixed.

Attempting to understand a Canadian marked ballot

In my case when I vote I am voting for the person (not the party) who I believe would make a good legislator in the legislative branch.  It's not that I don't care about who forms government, but that I don't believe I have any influence on this as it is too many levels indirected from my ballot for me to have any influence.  When I was younger, involved in party politics, and voted for the leader of "my" party I thought differently, but that time passed. I also don't focus on political parties as I've noticed from meeting sitting MPs that the good legislators have far more in common with other good legislators from any political party than the tribalism I've seen within and between political parties.  I don't believe my views are well represented by political parties, but they can be represented by individuals (and I've been proud to meet many good legislators).

In his Toronto Star column Bob Hepburn didn't state it, but it is clear from his argument that he is only concerned about the executive branch of government and the executive's legislative agenda.  In his mind the only thing that matters is the leader of one of the two parties most likely to be named the Prime Minister, and he demonstrates no consideration for the workings of other branches of government.

It isn't surprising that we couldn't agree on a voting system as our criteria for success is different as we are focused on trying to have influence on entirely different branches of government. I can think he is naive for believing he has any influence on who the Prime Minister will become, and he can think me naive for being focused on the makeup of the legislative branch of government.


What if we were able to talk about more than the voting system, and fix the obvious problem between Mr. Hepburn and I which would be to have separate ballot questions for separate democratic institutions?

The United States system

The US system was derived from the Westminster system, but with many improvements.

The two most obvious improvements:
  • Separate ballot question for Executive Branch (President, rather than Prime Minister)
  • Elected Senate, which along with an elected House of Representatives forms their Congress which is their legislative branch.

As a compromise between the President being elected by Congress and being directly elected by voters, the Electoral College concept was created.  Instead of using popular vote across the country, which would have meant the larger cities would be choosing the President, the allocation of vote to each state was based on the number of seats they had in Congress.  As each state has 2 Senate seats regardless of population, and a minimum of 1 House of Representatives seats which is otherwise based on population, each state has a minimum of 3 electoral college votes towards electing the President.

We can and they should discuss whether it is a good idea that how Electoral College votes are allocated is up to each individual state, or whether it should be required to be allocated proportionally according to popular vote within each state.  I wouldn't suggest that the US system is perfect, but I am suggesting I believe it is better than what we currently have in Canada.   I am not one of those people who would want to abolish the Electoral College rather than reform it to become proportional, but believe it is embarrassing that so many Canadians' are focused so much on the US electoral college that they don't even notice that they aren't able to vote for the equivalent position in Canada.

At the Federal level Canada's vague single X was improved by the US into 3 different votes for 3 different institutions within those two branches of government in the US.  Even while they still use single-member plurality for these votes, and have considerable room for improvement, this is still far more advanced than the Canadian system.

While US Supreme Court judges are still appointed by the executive branch like Canada, some states elect rather than appoint judges, and some states us a "bipartisan commission" for appointing judges. Like the discussion about the electoral college, people tend to change their opinions about whether judges should be directly elected or nominated by elected officials depending on whether the "right choice" according to their own political views is made with the current process.  This will be an ongoing debate within the USA, but it is a conversation that has barely started in Canada. Some Prime Ministers have been seeking HoC advise on appointments, but this is not yet codified in law that can't be ignored by a future Prime Minister.

While Canadians may see a handful of referenda their entire lives, US citizens have a few initiatives to think about on most ballots.  The process and biases of campaigners is something they have experience with, including the fact that an initiative that passes at one time may be repealed in a later initiative.  It is all part of the ongoing legislative process which US citizens have far more direct influence over than Canadians.

If you are a Canadian who has never done a quick image search for sample US ballot, then you should do so now.

Technological Assistance

I have yet to meet someone who is both an expert in technology and in the features of voting systems that believe that online or paperless voting is a good idea.  Unfortunately we have to fight so hard against corruption being introduces by ballot-less voting that we technologists aren't able to easily simultaneously encourage the introduction of accountable assistance for voting.

Rather than having voting machines invalidly trusted to do count votes without voter verifiable ballots, we can introduce technology to do two very different things.

  1. Assist voters in filling out their ballot.  In fact, one obvious advancement is to have voters use well designed technology to form and print their ballot in the voting booth.  Voters can then verify that the ballot is correct, and then bring that newly printed piece of paper to the person running the polling station.
  2. Count, and possibly use other brands to re-count paper ballots

When I vote in municipal elections in Ottawa we already use machines of the second type.  A pre-printed ballot is marked by the voter and then inserted into a vote counting machine that keeps the ballots (for potential re-counts, which could even be done by hand if there were technical problems). The process is far quicker than provincial or federal elections.

Introduction of technology to print ballots at polling stations might not be cheap, and needs to have a backup in the face of technical problems, but it solves any claim that more accurate ballots are too complex.  Compared to many other things governments spend money on, this would be money well spent.

For instance, ranked ballots become trivial:  you slide the names on a screen into the order you want from top to bottom, remove the names you don't want, and you are done.  If the number of names grows it might be easier to first choose names you want from the larger list, and then sort the list of candidates you accept after.  User interface design is something that has experts who can make it easy for any voter.   While I don't consider counting to be hard, having assistance makes an easy thing trivial.

The same with having more than one ballot question for different branches of government, as well as ballot initiatives for when capturing information directly from voters with an accountable process is needed.

It would be great to live in a country that uses a proper mechanism for ballot initiatives to get a clear idea how Canadians are thinking on specific issues.  When I think of US ballot initiatives and compare it to a voter compass falsely claiming to be part of a government consultation I am embarrassed by how far behind other countries Canada's democracy really is.