IP and Web Technology

I recently had a conversation with the principals of another startup, who I’m an informal advisor for, that uses SVG as a central technology. They told me they’d applied for a patent on a combination of SVG and CSS media features (aka “media queries”) for darkmode. I told them then, as I’d told them before, that they can’t do that.

As a public service, I thought it would be useful for them, and for everyone else, if I explained why (or rather, why not) in detail. I hope this will save people from wasting money on patents, from paying for advice from IP lawyers and advisors who don’t know what they’re talking about, and more importantly, save anyone else from frivolous lawsuits regarding web tech.

W3C has a patent policy–a very clever patent policy–that protects their web technologies from predatory practices, and keeps a level playing field for everyone using them. If you’re a lawyer, you should read it; for everyone else, I’m going to highlight some key aspects.

This patent policy has two primary protections: one for members and contributors, and one for users.

  1. Members and contributors to W3C technologies explicitly grant royalty-free permissions to any applicable patents they have for a technology–any technology–developed while they are members of W3C. Does this mean they give up their rights to those patents? Not at all. It means that if Company A has a patent on, say, making a clip-path in a photo so you can insert your face on a mermaid’s body (yes, this is based on a real patent), and they were members of the W3C when the clip-path feature was added to SVG (that is, when it was first published circa 2001, and any subsequent publication that includes the clip-path), they must grant an irrevocable royalty-free (that is, no charge) license for anyone using clip-paths in SVG… but only in SVG. If someone wanted to make a physical photo-booth where they used clip-paths in raster images only, and didn’t use SVG in any way, they would be infringing on Company A’s patent, and would have to negotiate a license at whatever price Company A wanted to charge. (Or, you know, simply use SVG instead.) Company A still holds the patent and licensing rights for all non-SVG uses. But SVG users are protected. (I’ll explain why this is so vital in a bit.)
  2. Users of W3C technologies are protected from lawsuits by any W3C members or contributors who hold patents that are included in those technologies… unless they sue somebody else for infringing on one of their own patents that applies to a W3C technology. This is the very clever bit. Let’s say Company B has a patent on something that is later added to a W3C technology, and Company B shrewdly avoided joining W3C or making any patent policy commitments. Let’s say it’s a specific bezier-curve algorithm, or something. They can certainly sue some other company for using their patented bezier algorithm in SVG… or they can instead choose to use HTML, CSS, SVG, any of the DOM APIs, etc. You can’t have both. You can either assert your rights over your specific IP used on W3C tech, or you can use W3C tech–any W3C tech. You either share with everybody else, or you take your ball and go home, any everyone else will use one of the thousands of other balls at their disposal, and keep playing the game. Because the patent policy protects all W3C technologies, it protects everyone using any of them.

Thus, W3C protects users of their tech both explicitly (from legal agreements by people and companies who joined or contributed to W3C tech) and implicitly (from people who want to use W3C tech).

So, let’s take Company C, who is using W3C tech years after it was developed. They develop what they think–or more insidiously, they are advised by an ill-informed IP lawyer–is a novel technique using W3C technologies. They decide to patent it. Now, as the old regex joke goes, you’ve got two problems.

  1. You can either enforce your IP, and lose the rights to use any W3C technology–a real chicken-egg paradox–or;
  2. You can realize that the very act of using the combination of different W3C technologies for their explicitly intended effect is not patentable, but waste the money anyway.

Why is is not patentable? Because a) there prior art (someone’s already done the same thing), and b) it is “obvious to one skilled in the art”. Both of these are disqualifying from obtaining an enforceable patent. Can you get a patent anyway? Of course, because the patent office is overworked and understaffed and the IP landscape is far too vast for anyone to have a firm grasp on what’s already been done. So the lawyers and patent office take your money and give you the piece of paper (or rather, the registration number), and you can claim “Patented” or “Patent Pending”… but try to assert that patent in court and you’ll lose, either in the lower courts, or in appeal. And in the process of losing the case, you’ll also lose your rights to use W3C technologies as a bonus.

Okay, why is this important? Because without this very clever patent policy, there were be countless frivolous law suits that put a chilling effect on people publishing (or even using) web sites or web apps. That would be a terrible world. This is a legal framework for companies to cooperate to make a public commons without the tragedy.

This is what allows for innovation. Millions of web developers come up with elegant techniques for mixing and matching web tech to solve problems both trivial and devilish, and usually they share how to do this with others, and we all benefit.

I pioneered my share of clever SVG techniques through the years, and benefited even more from techniques other pioneered. In the specific case we’re talking about, using CSS media feature to change the colors of an SVG when a user has darkmode enabled… I don’t know who first did that, but I did it well over a decade ago. It’s not novel, but it is useful. And it’s useful because hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were involved in the conception, specification, standardization, testing, implementation, and deployment of the prefers-color-scheme feature to make sure that we could shift colors for people who needed them (for example, people with vision disabilities like low vision) or who just prefer darkmode. If people could patent that (which–again–they can’t), it would prevent all of us from trying to make our websites and graphics more accessible. To hell with that.

Please, don’t try to patent W3C tech features. Don’t believe people who say you can. And certainly don’t believe people who say you can’t use that tech because they own it; they don’t, and you can and should use it.

Ups and Downs

Last year, y’all cheered me on as I lost 45 pounds in 6 months. I had gotten up to 235 or so, the most I’d ever weighed, and I could read the writing on the wall. If I didn’t do something to get myself healthier, I’d keep gaining weight until I was too old to do much about it. And I’d live a lower-quality life because of it. I was proud of meeting my goal, and felt great. Just by exercising every day and counting calories, I accomplished something I didn’t think I could do. I could fit into clothes I hadn’t worn in a decade!

So, about 1 year later, I weigh 245, 10 pounds more than I did at my previous heaviest.

Yeah, I could name a bunch of factors: I lost my job; I was suffering from low-level depression, and went on anti-depressants (both of which contribute to weight gain); I got colon cancer and spent some time in recovery from the surgery; Donald Trump became President; my Mom passed away; I got busy with my new job. I decided to treat myself a bit for a hard year.

But really, it comes down to one thing: I stopped weighing myself every day. Without that daily reminder, I stopped exercising and watching my calorie consumption. I broke the habit. For me at least, that’s really all it takes: if I exercise and watch what I eat, I lose or maintain weight; if I don’t, I gain weight. And the scale is my external talisman of mindfulness. (Well, that and the last hole in my belt, which I’d started to strain. Seriously, I’m down to a single pair of jeans that feels comfortable.)

So, a couple weeks ago, I decided enough was enough. I knew what I needed to do, and I knew I could do it. I just needed to overcome my procrastination, and get back on the exercise bike. I dusted the bike off, cleaned up the stack of books that had piled up on the side table, tidied my exercise area up, put on my now-tight exercise shorts and shirt, got myself a bottle of water and a towel, plugged in my new Amazon Echo (my new toy to listen to podcasts hands-free), and…

The Echo wouldn’t connect to the Internet. What? 30 minutes wasted debugging that. But finally, I stepped up on my Fitbit Aria smart scale, and peeked at the dreaded result. 244 pounds. _sigh_ Worse yet? The scale didn’t even recognize me anymore. Like a high-school friend who you hadn’t seen in years, all that extra weight just made me another face in the crowd. “Guest”, it said, and dutifully reported the result to the Internet. How could I change it, so it logged the weight as me? Another round of debugging, wherein I realized that the batteries were all but dead, and that the battery level reported on the website was inaccurate because the scale wasn’t actually sending the signal to the Internet, like it seemed to claim. And once the batteries were changed, it still couldn’t connect to the Internet, because I’d recently changed the password, and it took many rounds of connecting first to my app and then to my wifi router before I could persuade it to log on. Then once it was working, I still had to retrain it to recognize my new weight. Quite a reward! All this took over an hour. Time was wasting, but at least I had everything in order now.

I got on my bike, told Alexa to play RadioLab, set my bike to my old familiar rolling hills, and started pedaling, recommitted to a new, healthier me.


Huh? Why did the bike pause? I restarted it, and began pedalling.


WTF? I jump through all these hoops, and my bike Hals me with, “I’m sorry, Doug, I can’t do that.” Open the damn pod bay doors, Bike!

Sure, it’s been a year since I used the bike, but it worked fine last time I got on it, and it’s not like it’s an avocado, it shouldn’t have an expiration date!

Clearly, the Universe doesn’t want me to lose weight. Luckily, I don’t give a hot damn what the Universe thinks, because it’s shown pretty poor judgment up to this point.

Now it’s late, dinnertime, and I just give up. After dinner, I look up Schwinn’s forums and help line, find they’re closed for the day; I determine to call them in the morning. In the meantime, I spend a couple hours window-shopping for new exercise bikes. Turns out I have a pretty old model, and the newer ones are better… but I can’t justify the cost to myself, and I don’t like just throwing stuff away.

Once I navigate the always-annoying phone tree, pressing 2 and 1 and 5 and 3 on cue (I’m getting a little tired of machines telling me what to do), I finally connect to a real live person at Schwinn! (Or Bowflex. Or Nautilus. Apparently, they’re all the same company.) They’re friendly, helpful, and patient, and walk me through removing the “shrouds” (plastic covers) from the bike’s inner workings. Has the magnet come loose? It does that sometimes…

Interlude: IT’S ALL MAGNETS! There’s a big metal flywheel, and below it is an armature lined with big blocky magnets; the variable resistance is generated by a small motor that moves the magnet-armature closer or further from the flywheel. It never touches the flywheel, so there’s less to wear down and break. Kinda genius. Then there’s the “pulley wheel”, which is the plastic wheel that the pedal shaft goes through, which runs the drive belt to the flywheel. Inset into the side of the pulley wheel is a small magnet that rotates with the wheel; as it orbits, it passes by a fixed “speed sensor”, a small tube mounted on the bike frame, and as the pulley wheel magnet zips by, it counts the interval between orbits, giving the velocity of pedaling.

The magnet is still there on the pulley wheel. The sensor wire is connected to the bus. It’s probably the speed sensor itself. No problem, they say. Just order a new speed sensor from this partner site. It’s cheap, 6 bucks, and it’s almost certainly the problem. The bike’s computer would fail more spectacularly than that, so it’s likely something cheap.

I thank them, hang up, go to buy this cheap part online.

As they said, it’s like $6. But there’s a minimum $25 order, so it’s magically $25. And of course this tiny wire costs $15 to ship. $40, and I’m not sure that this sensor is really the problem. Maybe I should look again at those new exercise bikes.

The Universe is really opinionated about me getting back in shape!

I call Schwinn back the next day (or maybe the day after?). Explain the situation again, ready to start asking what I might look for in a new bike. This new call center guy asks what my customer account number; didn’t the last guy set me up an account? Nope. Okay, that gets done, and New Guy tells me that I can order the part directly from Schwinn, it’s like $8 shipping included. I’m at a loss why Other Guy didn’t tell me that option, but there you go. But I have new info from New Guy! The speed sensor needs to be really close to the orbiting magnet, like a credit-card’s width away, or it won’t register.I don’t know how it might have gotten moved, but I start to adjust it… and the mounting bracket crumbles in my hand. Oh.

Do I want to order a replacement now? Nope, that would be too easy, I’ll try adjusting it first, then if it doesn’t work, I’ll call back. A couple busy weekend days go by before I try to duct-tape the sensor in place, to no avail. On Monday or Tuesday, I call Schwinn back. The speed sensor is sent on its way, and will be here in 10 business days. Yesterday, it came in the mail, but I felt crappy, and didn’t get to it. I felt crappy again today, with a migraine, but I know this game. I reopened the shrouds, removed ye olde speede synsorre, and replaced it with the shiny (well, matte black) new one. Fitted the shrouds back on (they’re kind of a pain to get on and off around the pedals), and low and behold, the bike works again! Of course, by this time it’s dinnertime again, and then I gotta watch some TV, and …

Nope. Not again. Not my first rodeo, Body (or really, Brain, the sneakiest part of my body). Just before midnight, I forced myself back on the wagon (or back in the saddle, as it were).

Long story short, I just started exercising again tonight. Starting slow, only half the time (and calories burned) that I was doing at my average last year, but I’ll work my way up, just like I did last year, and I’ll be back on track.

Keep it to yourself, Universe. Nobody’s got time for your opinions.

Climate Skeptic Takedown

On a private Facebook thread, where a friend expressed dismay at Trump leaving the Paris Climate Accords, a smug skeptic dropped in a dataviz that argued against the effects of combatting climate change.

This struck a nerve in me. Data visualizations are a tool, and can be used for good or evil. Because they are visual, they can have a more immediate and visceral impact than mere statements, in part because of the Picture Superiority Effect. So, I responded, in a thread that quickly grew too long. My new opponent, who I cleverly detected as having a libertarian bent by glancing at their last couple public Facebook posts, used many of the classic tropes for Internet trolls arguments, though stopping well short of the Hitler-Nazi threshold. They used blunted accusations of logical fallacies, while engaging in fallacies themselves.

XKCD: Duty Calls I probably shouldn’t have engaged, but I felt compelled: they were WRONG on the INTERNET! They used the facile quasi-reason that is such an insidious force on public dialog, and they misused a dataviz. I could not, as the kids say, even.

Much to my dismay, having put in so much work on taking down this skeptic, I realized that this conversation was on a private thread. How could I rest when people don’t know just how damned clever I am? (It’s one of my things… I have to be right, all the time, every time. I’m working on it.)

I have some ethical concerns about posting content from a private thread, but I don’t want to misrepresent my opponent (they did so well on that themself), so I’ll anonymize the author (as Anonymous Libertarian Troll, or ALT), and only include the necessary posts. (Copyright concerns? Good point! I’ll cite two legal defenses: 1. Fair Use. 2. Don’t talk crap on social media with strangers.)

It’s not my best work, since I was just dashing it off, and I was a little harsher than I usually am… but for your morbid pleasure, here’s the exchange:

ALT: Fret less. The Paris Agreement was nonsense in the first place. Showboating. https://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/paris-accord-impact.jpg

Some Sensible Stranger: It was a step in the right direction!

ALT: No, it wasn’t. It was a waste of the money we will need to help people cope with a changing climate.

ALT: The practical reality is that the goals set by the Paris Climate Conference are akin to the Kyoto goals: small enough not to bankrupt the entire world, and small enough to not actually do a darned thing to reduce CO2 emissions.

Put it this way: the US, using the free market, has done more to reduce CO2 emissions than any agreement or accord or treaty we’ve signed or not signed.

Me: There are a number of problems with that dataviz, not least of which is that it’s unsourced. Where did those projections come from? What are the margins of error, and what are the variables? Who made the projection? What is their goal in making the dataviz? What is the impact of their 0.17ºC change?

Even assuming that the dataviz is correct, which is a leap of faith, you assert that it’s wasted money, and that it wasn’t a step in the right direction (e.g. that it doesn’t lay the groundwork for future, stricter agreements). What’s your basis for those assertions? Where specifically could the money be spent more effectively, and are you assuming that those resources (as expressed financially) are indeed fungible and have the same sources of control?

In short, this seems to be mere opinion, of a similar vein to the trendy nihilist distraction that paralyzes rather than effects change.

ALT: Unsourced? Or are you simply wishing it were unsourced?

Me: I stand corrected. What I took for the URL for the picture itself (the bit.ly URL in the bottom-right corner) was in fact the source. (I’d argue that’s bad provenance hygiene, since it’s a fragile link with no supporting text or search terms, but at least there is a source quoted).

In fact, the source is Bjørn Lomborg, who’s well known as a climate change skeptic. He’s clever because he doesn’t deny that climate change is happening, nor that it’s caused by human activity, but only argues that it’s too little and too late to do anything about it.

The article cited in the dataviz is “Impact of Current Climate Proposals”, and it feeds his line that we should spend the money elsewhere, such as AIDS, malaria, and malnutrition; again, the assumption is that the necessary resources are fungible.

His assumptions and projections in that article are refuted (Ward) , as are most of his arguments, but the majority of climate scientists.

His methodology is convenient for libertarians and for corporations, governments, and organizations that wish to halt or stall efforts to rein in climate change and apply “free market” solutions, but is counter to the overwhelming consensus.

ALT: You’re actually correct. Because of climate hysteria, people are willing to spend trillions of dollars to suppress plant food, but without that unreasoning hysteria, people are unwilling to spend money on Clean Water for Everyone (for example).

Maybe we should stop with the hysteria? The IPCC predicts a 2 degree C warming, but we’ve already seen 1.4 with no apparent harm to the world. The IPCC says that the harm from climate change will be less than many other harms felt by humans, including war, poverty, pestilence, drought, and famine.

I’m not a climate scientist. I have to rely on what the IPCC says. How ’bout you? Where did you get your degree in Climate Science from?

Ward says “Neither of these scenarios corresponds to expected policies beyond 2030.” If that’s not hand-waving, I’m a monkey’s uncle. The fact is that CO2 emissions have been growing. You cannot assume that a subsequent agreement will be signed, nor can you assume that, counter to all evidence, people will voluntarily impoverish themselves by ceasing to use fossil fuels.

May I add that impugning the source of information has little or no value in a discussion of the value of the information. Such a reference is ad-hominem. Similarly, imputing veracity to a document merely because the source is well-known is an appeal to authority, similarly a fallacy. Can we possibly not resort *immediately* to fallacies? It would be better to wait until after you’ve failed to convince me, which you surely will do. I’ve looked at the evidence, and you don’t have any that will convince me.

Me: The strawman of your first paragraph is simple sarcasm, and meaningless. You really don’t seem to get the fungibility issue. The money “spent” or “saved” on climate action is not the same resource that would be “spent” or “saved” by completely different actions toward eradicating disease or providing abundant food or water. Of course, climate change is making it increasingly hard to get clean water around the world, but you live in the US, so it doesn’t affect you yet, so I’ll move on.

“No apparent harm to the world”? Nonsense. Educate yourself about the effects of climate change. Information is abundant.

Yes, I used an ad hominem argument. I did so deliberately, and with good reason. The source of the information you cited, Lomborg, is subject to the same scrutiny that anyone in the scientific community is; that’s how science works. Lomborg has been refuted again and again, so his arguments should carry less weight than those by scientists who have better reputations.

Your classic blunder is in assuming that an ad hominem argument is by its nature a fallacy. Specifically:
“However, in some cases, ad hominem attacks can be non-fallacious; i.e., if the attack on the character of the person is directly tackling the argument itself. For example, if the truth of the argument relies on the truthfulness of the person making the argument—rather than known facts—then pointing out that the person has previously lied is not a fallacious argument.”

Nor did I cite any particular document or author as “well-known”, I just posted a specific refutation of Lomberg’s paper that you cited. I wasn’t appealing to authority for a particular author (well-known or not), but rather showing an example of the kinds of criticism leveled against Lomberg by the climate science community at large. So, I wasn’t using an appeal to authority, I was reinforcing How Science Works, which is by repeatability and consensus opinion.

BUT! If I had been appealing to authority, citing some specific and well-known climate change expert, that too would not have been a fallacy. You keep conflating “types of arguments” with “types of fallacies”. Many formal arguments have both valid and invalid forms. Saying “X is a climate scientist; X says Y about climate science; therefore Y is more likely to be true” is a valid form of appealing to authority; in fact, you used it yourself when image-bombing that dataviz into this thread, and had your source been more reliable, it would have been a persuasive, strong, and valid argument by authority. An invalid appeal to authority might be, “X is a medical doctor; X says Y about climate science; therefore Y is more likely to be true”, which neither of us made.

(As an aside, I wonder if there’s a fallacy for mistakenly accusing others of fallacies? That seems rampant these days. Maybe “argument by fallacious fallacy”?)

A good example of a fallacy that doesn’t have a valid argument form is cherry picking, which is “the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position”. For example, selecting a single author who holds a controversial and widely-refuted position, out of a field of many researchers on that same topic who hold contrary views, in order to make or reinforce a claim or viewpoint, would be cherry picking. It would be like if you picked the one well-known climate change skeptic that validates some libertarian “free market” philosophical solution to addressing climate change, and ignoring the 95+% of climate change scientists who agree that climate change is real, that it’s caused by humans, and that we can take active steps to decrease its negative effects. But neither you nor I would cherry-pick like that, because it would harm our credibility, and we know that since neither of us is a climate scientist, we should trust the scientific consensus by climate scientists rather than applying our own inadequate filter to select a fringe view. We’re both rational people who realize that the stakes are too high to indulge our default reactions and worldviews on topics we’re not qualified to advise others on. That would be the appeal to the common man, a logical fallacy akin to the appeal to authority, which holds that everyone’s opinion is equally valid in all matters… and we all know that that’s just silly.

Of course I realize that I won’t and can’t convince you. That’s not my goal. It’s clear from the style and substance of your arguments that your confirmation bias has a firm grip on your ability to process information. My goal is to present clear refutations of your claims, so that such toxic ideas have a decreased change of taking root in other people who might otherwise think your rational-sounding position is based in anything pragmatic.

It’s probably too late for you. I don’t think it’s too late for the planet.

I’m satisfied that I’ve accomplished my goal, so I’ll leave you the last words in this discussion.

Surprisingly, they haven’t posted since. I’ll keep you updated if they do.


Naturally, ALT didn’t post a response. What response could they have posted?

But on a thread about this blog post, another libertarian men’s rights cultist took exception to this post, saying it wasn’t a takedown. Why? Because I hadn’t refuted the climate claims, or the figures, but only the underlying logic and credibility of ALT’s argument.

Of course, that’s another classic argument tactic: attempt to force the opponent to argue on your terms, not the aspects on which you’re weakest. Because, by doing so, you are granted that your weakest methodology is axiomatic, and you can quibble on details.

ALT was fundamentally wrong, their reason fundamentally unsound. I didn’t even need to get into the actual details of climate change or its remediation. And since neither of us were climate scientists, any debate would have been as meaningful as bickering over the number of angels that can dance on the point of a pin.

I didn’t need to argue whether climate change is real, nor whether remediation is worthwhile, because experts have already established those facts, exhaustively… read the climate change experts if you want that takedown. What I needed to challenge was how my opponent was gathering, processing, and presenting the facts, and to prove them wrong in all three of those aspects.

Reason matters, y’all.

Weather or Not

As I sit here in the unseasonably warm March of 2017, it’s clear to anyone who lived through the 1970s or earlier that weather in the US has dramatically changed. I certainly remember, when I was growing up in Mid-Missouri in the 1970s, that the snow drifts used to be much deeper. But maybe I was just romanticizing it, or sizing it based on my own childhood height? Nope, I went back and looked at the data:

Snows used to be deeper, Winter lasted longer, and plants are now blooming out of season. Was this climate change caused by humans? It doesn’t matter!

When hurricanes, tornados, floods, droughts, earthquakes, or other natural disasters happen, we don’t argue about the cause… we just act to minimize the damage and threat to human life. We have regulations about safe building standards for houses near hurricane zones, to protect lives and minimize damage. We spend money finding ways to make buildings and bridges more earthquake resistant. We build levees, dams, and other massive projects to prevent or decrease flood risks. We have insurance industries and government agencies to deal with weather damage. Heck, we have whole industries, including satellites, university programs, and daily news programs, to try to predict and inform people about weather patterns, even for normal weather.

When the Dust Bowl happened, we didn’t debate about whether it was happening; the government took steps to help the affected and to fix the problem, and America emerged stronger than ever.

The question is not, “Did humans cause climate change?”, but rather, “Can humans do something about the climate change that we know is happening?” Is carbon dioxide and methane buildup caused by humans, or a natural cycle? It doesn’t matter; we know it contributes to climate change, so regardless of whether humans caused it, we know that we can minimize the negative effects by reducing our own carbon dioxide and methane, and the good news is that this shifts our economy away from dying fuel sources and toward new industries, like solar, wind, wave, or other sources that will create new jobs (including new blue-collar jobs), and where there’s still room for entrepreneurs and self-starters who can innovate.

The problem is not public education about the details of climate change; people don’t need to know how their smartphones work for them to use them to do amazing and trivial things every day, or how roads are constructed to commute or take a road trip. The problem is not political; this isn’t a sports game where one side wins and the other loses if we take steps to curb climate change. The problem is that we are procrastinating, and the discussion is dithering around proving or disproving climate change in the court of public opinion. We live in a highly specialized society, in which we trust experts to make informed policies; let’s not waste their time defending the idea of whether smartphones are possible, or roads could or should be built, or whether climate change is happening, but what we need to do about it next.

It makes sense to me that humans have had at least some contribution to climate change, but there’s no need to point the finger or play the blame game, and there’s no need to give up and say that we can’t do anything about it, and there’s no need to look at changes as burdens we have to take on rather than opportunities we can capitalize on for improving our economy. Let’s stop talking about whether global climate change is real, and shift the discussion exclusively to what actions (personal, policy, and business-wise) we need to take to decrease the negative effects, like we do for any natural disaster.

(* Unseasonably warm in NC. In New England, they got a crazy blizzard. Don’t get smug. That’s not climate, that’s weather!)

Goodbye, Eulalia.

My wonderful mother, Eulalia Veronica Donehue Schepers, passed away in her sleep last night. She was 89 years old, in fairly good health, and still had her mind and sense of humor. She was the sweetest, most selfless person I have ever known.

She had 12 children, 8 girls and 4 boys, of which I was the youngest. She was strong and self-sufficient, never wanting to bother others with her needs, and she struggled hard all her life to provide for us growing up, at work and in the home, while my dad was on veterans’ disability.

She was the epitome of a patriotic Christian, who deeply loved her family, her faith, and her country, and who lived by those values with a humble, quiet dignity, shakeless in her devotion. She volunteered at the VA hospital 30 miles away every week, for decades, and was active in the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary. She was a Republican, because her dad had been a Republican, and to her that meant taking care of people who needed help; she was a believer in the social safety net, and in jobs programs, and in giving people another chance.

When I thought of a good Christian, I thought of her. She was my moral compass; though I didn’t share her religious belief, I tried hard to live up to the values she exemplified. Her faith never led her to judgment; she helped others whenever she could; she lived the Catholic credo that faith without acts is dead, which I’ve taken as one of my own core beliefs. She drew comfort from her religion, and that’s the best reason I can imagine for religion.

She was surrounded by an extended family of children, children-in-law, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who all loved her. She was easy to love, and her in-laws quickly found a new mother in her. We had to rent a hall whenever we got together, to fit the 50+ offspring who orbited around her.

Megan and I last saw her a month ago, at Christmas. Mom loved Christmas. It was the only time of the year all her kids were together. She rearranged her apartment to fit all the decorations. She had a tree, her beloved nativity scenes, her winter village, and every surface and wall was festooned with some old or new decoration that held a story for her. She got such joy, even childlike glee, over sitting with family in a darkened room lit only by the lights on the tree and her cherished village, which she would talk about in detail. She grew up in small towns in Mid-Missouri, and I think in her heart, she lived in that little village. The last photos I have of her are in front of that tree, and that village, her last village.

Eula, Doug, and Megan in front of Mom's Christmas Village, 2016

Eula, Doug, and Megan in front of Mom's Christmas tree, 2016

She was, in many ways, a simple woman. Not unintelligent, not incurious, but with pure, clear values, a gentleness with no malice, a trusting mind that took the world at face value. She was born in 1927, and lived though all the changes in our society, which she wondered at. In those 89 years, she’d known pain, and loss, and struggle, and joy, and love, and devotion, and she took it all in and radiated goodness and wisdom from it all. She had a simplicity of life I’ve never known, probably will never know.

She died once, for a few minutes, before the doctor’s brought her back, back in the 1960s, before I was born. She came back to life, then she gave me life. I hope I can live my life in a way that makes her sacrifices worth it.

All of us siblings grieve her loss, are united in our pain. Pat, Christie, Becky, Tim, Roberta, Tom, Cindy, Lisa, Jackie, Jennifer, Dan, and all your spouses and children and grandchildren, you made her life complete. She loved nothing more than family, and you gave her a good family to be proud of.

We had a little script, every time I’d call her:
“Hello, Eulalia.”
“This is your youngest son.”

She always played along with it, put up with our gentle teasing. We’d mock her about calling us by the wrong name: “Tom… Tim… Dan… Oh!” She’d shake her head, lips pressed tight in frustration, “Douglas!” (Hey, when you have 12 kids, it’s hard to keep them straight.) Or we’d rib her about how she used to say, in exasperation with us, “Well, I’ll swan.” Swan? Who says “swan”? What does that even mean? “Are you going to swan, Mom? Make sure not to swan!” It was only years later that I looked it up in a dictionary… it’s really a word, a variant on “swoon.” It was the closest thing my mom had to a curse word.  She didn’t mind the teasing. She had an impish, sly sense of humor herself. I’ll miss that, and so many other things about her, and I’ll carry it with me.

Eulalia, Mother, I love you, and I will deeply miss you, and I will think of you fondly always. Thank you for sharing your life with me.


On Leaving W3C

Today is my last day at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It’s been an amazing experience working there for the past almost-a-decade (9 years and 6 months). In the time-honored tradition of reflecting on your last job as you leave it, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts. It’s hard to know what to say… building Web standards has been so much of my identity, so central to how I approached the world, for so long, that it’s hard to unpack it all.

It’s pretty common for people leaving the W3C Team (as we call W3C staff) to take a negative attitude toward W3C. That’s fair; it’s a political atmosphere, and most of us pour ourselves into the importance of the mission, so we accumulate a strong emotional charge, and leaving releases that potential energy. There’s also the frustration of living in the bureaucracy (and sometimes inertia) that comes from painstaking stewardship, and wishing it could work better. But I’m making a conscious effort to focus also on the positive aspects of W3C… not just what it’s doing wrong, but how well it’s doing many things. And there’s a lot of good there, more good than bad.

For me, there’s also the regret of things left undone.

But it’s always left undone. It’s time to turn the page.

Continue reading “On Leaving W3C”

Schooled by the Electoral College

If the Electoral College was meant as a firewall against populism, it has failed, twice in this century, and twice for the worse. (Note: the data in this chart is out of date; see the updated version.)

Notice the pattern? The electoral vote amplified the differences in the popular vote, except when the race was close, when it reversed the outcome. A tight outcome is the condition you might expect when there’s a populist, heated race, driven by emotion. The two times when the electoral vote recently went against the popular vote, we ended up with a President that appealed more to fear, mistrust, and disorder than to unity and deliberation.

I’m not claiming that the Electoral College always reverses close outcomes, simply that it’s a destabilizing factor that can clearly err on the side of disenfranchising the will of the voters.

I wrote before on some problems with the Electoral College. It’s an undemocratic institution that’s skews our politics. It has not only outlived its usefulness, but it’s causing actual harm to our society. It’s undermining faith in our process of governing, it’s confusing, and it’s time for it to go.

Placebo against populism

Was the Electoral College even meant to prevent populism in the first place? Yes. Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers #68, “The Mode of Electing the President”:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.

In other words, the Founders wanted to have a select group of “discerning” leaders (ostensibly chosen by their fellow citizens e.g. land-owners) pick the President, on behalf of each state, to prevent a populist demagogue from riling up the citizenry and getting elected on a wave of emotion. They were to gather and vote in each individual state, separate from those from other states, to prevent collusion, group-think, and civic influence.

Let’s set aside for now that this is elitist; the problem I’m focusing on is that it’s ineffective.

The Electoral College was designed at a time when only 6% of the population (the land-owners) could vote, when communication between states was slow and difficult, and when the feedback loop between officials and the public was even slower. That has all changed. America needs to change with it.

Couldn’t the Electoral College still prevent Trump from becoming President?

Theoretically, yes. There are 26 states where the Electors are unbound; that is, where the Elector can vote for whomever they wish, regardless of how their state voted. 16 of those states (Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin) voted for Trump. Any of those Electors could decide to vote for someone else, either someone more traditionally Republican, or one of the third-party candidates, or even Hillary or Bernie. There are 157 electoral votes in those 16 states, more than enough to change the outcome of the election. But will any of them change their vote? Highly unlikely.

Ironically, they would be accused of ignoring the will of the people, even though Clinton won the popular vote.

How do we get rid of the Electoral College?

Wouldn’t we need Congress to make an amendment to the Constitution? Wouldn’t that take forever, if it’s even possible? No. We can do this on our own, without a Constitutional Amendment. We can work in our individual states to enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). Once it’s law in enough states to add up to 270 electoral votes, then we’ve effectively worked around the Electoral College, and it could be the harmless, doddering old ceremony that it should be.

Maybe the popular vote might still be bad. But it’s hard to imagine the outcome being worse than 2016.

Update, 15 January 2016

Now that the dust has settled, the votes have been counted and recounted, and the electoral college has proven its inability to serve its sole purpose, I thought I’d revisit this post with an updated dataviz showing the final numbers.

As you can see, the popular vote margin is even more pronounced for Clinton and against Trump, but the Electoral College vote is still dramatically skewed in the opposite direction.

This is gerrymandering writ large, vote-concentration at the national level. Like gerrymandering, this is concentrating electoral constituency to favor one class of voters.

The Electoral College is an institution founded in compromise with slave owners, and it continues to work against the most disadvantaged.

Electoral Engineering

Remember, everyone in NC, a vote for Hillary Clinton tomorrow is a vote for me! 😛

As I posted on Twitter originally on 28 September:

NC Democratic Party called me today. I’m 1 of 15 Electors in NC’s Electoral College, if @HillaryClinton wins! I still want #ElectoralReform…

And I followed up with more details posted on Facebook.

How I became an Elector

My friend Sheri Tindle asked how it happened.

I attended the NC Democratic convention, though I didn’t have a vote because I hadn’t figured out how to apply to be a delegate. When they were collecting nominees for the Electors, I tried to volunteer, but had no standing to do so… so one of the delegates sitting near me jumped up and put my name in. I think I won a slot because my county (Orange) is a Democratic hotbed in NC.

I was originally chosen as an Alternate Elector, but apparently the Primary Elector declined, so I got a promotion!

Can I vote for anyone I want?

The Supreme Court ruled that there’s no federal requirement for an Elector to vote as they’ve pledged. In principle, I could vote for whomever I wish.

An Elector who doesn’t vote for their party’s designated candidate is known as a “Faithless Elector”. There have been 157 faithless electors since the founding of the Electoral College. (71 of them changed their vote the candidate died in the interim… Republican VP Sherman in 1912, and Democratic Presidential candidate Greeley in 1872). But no Elector defection has ever changed the result of a Presidential election.

I’m a fan of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which is a pledge among participating states that their Electors would vote for the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the state popular vote. This would effectively bypass the Electoral College if enough states someday enact it (that is, a set of states that total 270 electoral votes). However, it failed in committee in NC’s lower house (though the NC Sentate passed it in 2007), so that wouldn’t apply to me.

Still, I could vote my conscience. In North Carolina, I actually write down the name of my vote on a piece of paper, and I could write Bernie Sanders, Vermin Supreme, Pigasus, or in a passing moment of terrible judgment, Donald Trump. In practice, however, there is a NC law (NC Gen Statute §163-212) that makes it illegal for me (or other Democratic Party Elector) to cast a vote for anyone but Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine; my vote would be stricken from the record, and I’d be expelled from the Electoral College and fined $500, as well as face censure from the Democratic Party.

Overall, probably not worth it. 🙂 But still… let’s see those leaflets!

Incidentally, being an Elector is technically an elected office, and it’s exclusive in NC; you can’t hold any other elected office while acting as an Elector, and I’d have to resign any other position. That’s probably one reason I got the job… many other people in the party weren’t eligible.

NC §163-209 states, “A vote for the candidates named on the ballot shall be a vote for the electors of the party or unaffiliated candidate by which those candidates were nominated and whose names have been filed with the Secretary of State.” You read that right… in North Carolina, a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for Doug Schepers (and 14 other Electors)!

Like almost all other states, NC is a winner-take-all election. If Hillary doesn’t win the popular vote in NC, then I don’t get to take a trip to Raleigh on December 19, and I don’t get the $44 a day and 17¢ per mile paid to Presidential electors (per NCGS §163-211.) Vote for Hillary… I need the money!

The Old Ceremony

I’m tickled pink that I might have the ceremonial role of electing the first woman President of the United States, but we still need to fix this broken system, and I’d like to help do that however I can. As I responded to my friend Eric Brown’s tongue-in-cheek question, “So what are you going to major in?”: “Electoral Engineering, of course.”

Why is the Electoral College a Bad Idea?

I joked on Twitter on 21 October, the first day of early voting in NC:

I just voted early in NC for Clinton/Kaine! I hope to vote for them again as an Electoral College member in December!

I don’t really get 2 votes. Because actually, there is no popular vote for President; there is a popular vote for Electors, per NC §163-209.

And while an Elector in NC cannot be a Faithless Elector, other states don’t have that restriction. In Georgia, a Republican Elector vowed not to vote for Donald Trump, the nominee of the Republican Party, which is most likely going to win Georgia. This would be fodder for the conspiracy-minded who think the elections are rigged. Luckily, that Faithless Elector resigned, but it could still happen this election with some other Elector.

As much as I want Trump to lose –and I want him to lose badly– I want him to lose fair-and-square.

The Electoral College also skews issues and campaigns to focus only on a few key states; the rest of the states are largely ignored, especially reliably Red or Blue states. You’d think that would actually mean that the candidates have to woo a set of centrist states, but it doesn’t work that way… they have to go to the extremes, especially the Republicans (as shown by the Tea Party and Trump), or to drift away from the Progressive view. That is, they have to maintain status quo or play to anxiety and fear.

Some claim that the Electoral College is the last firewall against a poorly-informed or emotionally-manipulated populace. To this, I draw attention to Exhibit A: Donald Trump. The Electoral College holds no succor there.

I have no deep insights about the negative effects of the Electoral College, other than the received wisdom of others who’ve looked at it. But it adds an unnecessary level of abstraction away from democracy, which raises real questions of the legitimacy of governance that we can scarce afford now. We need people to have faith that their voice matters, or they won’t bother to speak out at all.

Voting button with 538 / 2 + 1 = Winner

Phoning It In at the Voting Booth

Among the various controversies and confusions about voting in North Carolina, seemingly designed to impede voters from exercising their franchise, there’s some conventional wisdom about whether or not you can use your mobile phone at the polls.

Poll officials are instructed not to allow a voter to use their mobile phone in any way while in or around the voting area, citing NC General Statute 163 Article 14A. I’m not a lawyer, but my reading of this statute leads me to think this is misguided, wrong, and harmful. This interpretation of NC GS 163 should be challenged in court, since it exerts a chilling effect on voting.

I’ll run through my interpretation and how it applies to a few scenarios. I welcome comments, questions, and corrections.

Rationale for Prohibition

There are two primary reasons given for why mobile phones are not permitted at the polls, explained by Don Wright, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, in a 2012 WRAL article, “Smartphones not smart at the polls”:

Assistance Clause

Wright claims that it violates §163–165.1 to receive voting advice at the polls:

First, NC Statute 163-165.1 bans voters from receiving assistance at the ballot box except from a close family member or a few other exceptions that require prior arrangement with precinct officials.

NC Statute 163–165.1 says nothing about receiving assistance, and deals only with how ballots are handled:

§ 163-165.1. Scope and general rules.

  • (a) Scope. – This Article shall apply to all elections in this State.
  • (b) Requirements of Official Ballots in Voting. – In any election conducted under this Article:
    • (1) All voting shall be by official ballot.
    • (2) Only votes cast on an official ballot shall be counted.
    • (c) Compliance With This Article. – All ballots shall comply with the provisions of this Article.
    • (d) Other Uses Prohibited. – An official ballot shall not be used for any purpose not authorized by this Article.
    • (e) Voted ballots and paper and electronic records of individual voted ballots shall be treated as confidential, and no person other than elections officials performing their duties may have access to voted ballots or paper or electronic records of individual voted ballots except by court order or order of the appropriate board of elections as part of the resolution of an election protest or investigation of an alleged election irregularity or violation. Voted ballots and paper and electronic records of individual voted ballots shall not be disclosed to members of the public in such a way as to disclose how a particular voter voted, unless a court orders otherwise. Any person who has access to an official voted ballot or record and knowingly discloses in violation of this section how an individual has voted that ballot is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. (2001-460, s. 3; 2002-159, s. 55(o); 2005-323, s. 1(f); 2007-391, s. 9(a).)

This is likely a simple misquote, and Wright probably meant §163–166.8. Wright continued in the article:

Wright says a voter on the phone could be talking or texting with someone working for a campaign. “There’s a presumption that operation of a cell phone in a voting booth is unlawful assistance.”

I’m not sure who is making this presumption, but the term “assistance” is used ambiguously here. “Assistance” could mean:

  1. Help in deciding who to vote for; or
  2. Help in the mechanical operations of voting, such as entering or leaving the polling booth, marking the ballot, or submitting the completed ballot.

The prohibitory interpretation conflates these, but the law itself distinguishes them:

§ 163-166.8. Assistance to voters.

  • (a) Any registered voter qualified to vote in the election shall be entitled to assistance with entering and exiting the voting booth and in preparing ballots in accordance with the following rules:
    • (1) Any voter is entitled to assistance from the voter’s spouse, brother, sister, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, mother-in-law, father-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepparent, or stepchild, as chosen by the voter.
    • (2) A voter in any of the following four categories is entitled to assistance from a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or an officer or agent of the voter’s union:
      • a. A voter who, on account of physical disability, is unable to enter the voting booth without assistance.
      • b. A voter who, on account of physical disability, is unable to mark a ballot without assistance.
      • c. A voter who, on account of illiteracy, is unable to mark a ballot without assistance.
      • d. A voter who, on account of blindness, is unable to enter the voting booth or mark a ballot without assistance.
  • …
  • (c) A person rendering assistance to a voter in an election shall be admitted to the voting booth with the voter being assisted. The State Board of Elections shall promulgate rules governing voter assistance, and those rules shall adhere to the following guidelines:
    • (1) The person rendering assistance shall not in any manner seek to persuade or induce any voter to cast any vote in any particular way.

So, a registered qualified voter may ask for assistance in the mechanical operations of voting (which is good), but the person helping them cannot force or even hint at how the voter should vote (which is also good). As an aside, the law doesn’t impose any expectation that the helper accurately represent the options or record the ballot according to the wishes of the voter, nor offer penalties if the helper doesn’t act in good faith, which seems a glaring omission.

This statute clearly prohibits the operational helper from offering advice, but it doesn’t stipulate that the voter can’t seek advice from anyone of their choosing at any time. I ask my wife for advice on local referenda, or to remind me of my own previous voting decisions. This seems to be allowed under any reasonable circumstance, and by my reading of §163–166.8, should apply even in the voting booth if my wife isn’t also providing me with operational assistance. §163–166.8 clearly applies to the conditions of operational assistance only.

If the NC General Assembly or State Board of Elections wants a different effect, they should pass a more specific law, not loosely interpret §163–166.8.

This means that I should be able to legally use my mobile device to seek advice from anyone I wish, even while in the voting booth. The law doesn’t prohibit me to text someone (but not call, because my conversation could be overheard and interpreted as campaigning), to search the Web, or to consult my own pre-written research which happens to be on my phone (as opposed to a piece of paper). Perhaps there’s some other statute I’m not aware of which prohibits that, but §163–166.8 does not, and shouldn’t be used that way.

Photography Clause

Wright also asserts that it’s illegal for you to photograph your own ballot:

Second, under NC Statute 163-166.3, it’s illegal to take photos of voters or completed ballots, “except with the permission of both the voter and the chief judge of the precinct.”

Banning people from photographing other people’s ballots is just common sense, Wright says. “It’s a violation of the secret ballot.”

If it’s your ballot, why can’t you take a photo of it?  Wright says it’s to partly protect the vote – and partly to protect you.

In another state several years ago, a criminal vote-buying scheme used such photos. Vote-sellers were given cell phones and told to take a picture of their completed ballots to prove they had earned their payment.

“We don’t have a lot of trouble with vote buying in NC,” Wright said. “But we don’t want to encourage it, either.”

He says the ban also protects voters from outside pressure. Several years ago in Italy, Wright says, members of the Mafia were told to bring back photos of their ballots to prove they voted for the candidates supported by their crime syndicate.

Wright says without the photo ban, an unscrupulous employer could exert the same type of pressure here in North Carolina.

This is a legitimate concern, and a plausible rationale. I might differ on whether this is the right solution to the real problem, but I don’t see this as a impediment to the voting process itself.

I’m unable to find a substantive report about vote-buyers passing out mobile phones for vote-sellers to take pictures in some unnamed state, and it makes me uncomfortable that interpretations of laws might rest on hearsay, though there are recently recorded cases of “vote buying” in Kentucky and elsewhere. The Washington Post published a 2012 article, “Selling votes is common type of election fraud” –with prices ranging from a tank of gas or half a pint of liquor all the way up to $800– but noted that “Voter fraud, by any method, is still rare.”

Absentee ballots are a far more reliable way to buy votes than ones cast at the polls. That’s partly because of it does seem to be illegal to photograph your own ballot in North Carolina, as Wright says:

§ 163-166.3. Limited access to the voting enclosure.

  • …
  • (b) Photographing Voters Prohibited. – No person shall photograph, videotape, or otherwise record the image of any voter within the voting enclosure, except with the permission of both the voter and the chief judge of the precinct. If the voter is a candidate, only the permission of the voter is required. This subsection shall also apply to one-stop sites under G.S. 163-227.2. This subsection does not apply to cameras used as a regular part of the security of the facility that is a voting place or one-stop site.
  • (c) Photographing Voted Ballot Prohibited. – No person shall photograph, videotape, or otherwise record the image of a voted official ballot for any purpose not otherwise permitted under law. (2001-460, s. 3; 2005-428, s. 1(b); 2007-391, s. 23; 2008-187, s. 33(a).)

If you can’t photograph your ballot, then a prospective vote-buyer can’t verify that you voted the way they wanted (of course, it’s no guarantee anyway: you could simply photograph your ballot with their chosen votes marked on it, then request a replacement ballot that you use to vote the way you actually want).

I’m not sure what “any purpose not otherwise permitted under law” means; what are the permitted purposes for photographing a ballot? I don’t know enough legal convention to track down the references at the end of the clause that might have shed light on that.

So, you can’t use a camera in the “voting enclosure”. Just what is the legal definition of a“voting enclosure”?

Where does this apply?

These voting statues are clear about the locational scoping for these provisions:

§ 163-165. Definitions.

  • …
  • (8) “Voting booth” means the private space in which a voter is to mark an official ballot.
  • (9) “Voting enclosure” means the room within the voting place that is used for voting.
  • (10) “Voting place” means the building or area of the building that contains the voting enclosure.

So, the voting enclosure referred to in §163–166.3 refers to the rooms set aside for voting, while the booth itself is where you mark your ballot.


Can I take a photo of people intimidating others or otherwise suppressing voters?

Yes! You can take a photo of anyone outside the “voting enclosure”, and since it’s illegal to do campaigning inside or directly around the voting enclosure, or to be inside the voting enclosure except while voting, any photo you take of someone intimidating others in the area outside is legal.

§ 163-166.4. Limitation on activity in the voting place and in a buffer zone around it.

  • (a) Buffer Zone. – No person or group of persons shall hinder access, harass others, distribute campaign literature, place political advertising, solicit votes, or otherwise engage in election-related activity in the voting place or in a buffer zone which shall be prescribed by the county board of elections around the voting place. In determining the dimensions of that buffer zone for each voting place, the county board of elections shall, where practical, set the limit at 50 feet from the door of entrance to the voting place, measured when that door is closed, but in no event shall it set the limit at more than 50 feet or at less than 25 feet.

In fact, taking photos is exactly what you should be doing, to help document any problems for later law suits. There is a meme circulating that advises you to do just that:

Election Protection Hotline: 888-OUR-VOTE | 888-687-8683

I’ve been trained as a non-partisan Voter Protection poll watcher, and I plan to go to a smaller town in NC to help ensure fairness at the polls. I took extra training to help deal with possible organized voter intimidation, and one of the main takeaways was not to confront anyone or try to de-escalate the situation, but simply to document it and call the Election Protection Hotline: 888-OUR-VOTE | 888-687-8683.

So, take photographs of anything suspicious, but protect yourself and be safe.

Caveat: There may be voter suppression happening in the voting enclosure, though we hope it’s rare. The poll workers might not be dealing with it properly, or the intimidation or suppression may be coming from the poll workers themselves (e.g. turning away voters that don’t have photo IDs, not offering provisional ballots, etc.). It’s still illegal for you to photograph incidents of voter suppression inside the voting enclosure! Don’t do it. You can ask names, take notes, or record information in other ways, but you can’t take photographs. Immediately call the Election Protection Hotline (888-OUR-VOTE | 888-687-8683) and report the incident.

Can I take a photo of my completed ballot in North Carolina? Can I post a ballot-selfie on socials?

No. That’s still illegal in North Carolina and many other states. This has been changing in some states, though, so it might also change in North Carolina.

The Washington Post has an up-to-date list of the legal status of taking ballot-photos for all the states.

US map of the legal status of taking ballot photos in all 50 states

Can I use my phone to look up my voting choices?

Yes. There seems to be some gray area here, so you might want to be discreet –getting your vote cast is the most important thing– but this seems to be legal. There have been incidents in NC of poll judges saying this is illegal, or even posting signs saying it’s illegal. I’ve seen this happen myself even in the progressive stronghold of Chapel Hill. I think this is due to bad training of poll officials.

Even though this should be legal, you might be confronted by poll officials telling you to turn off your phone. If this happens, ask them to let you step outside the voting enclosure and write down your voting choices (or prepare a paper list in advance).

This ambiguity is insidious, because it largely targets younger voters, who are more likely to rely on smartphones for this as they do for other tasks, and who are less likely to vote. We should reduce barriers to younger voters, not put up walls against democracy.

Can I use my phone to text others for advice? Can I access voter guides on the Web?

I don’t know. My opinion is that you should be able to, but that’s not a legal opinion, and it’s not based on any reading of any specific statute.

My advice is to get a sample ballot outside while you’re waiting in line (there are likely to be partisans handing these out), and do any phone calls or texts or web browsing for advice before you enter the voting enclosure. This also decreases the wait time for others in line, ensuring everyone has an equal chance to vote.

Topic of Cancer

I’m now officially a cancer survivor! Achievement unlocked!

A couple weeks ago, on July 27th, during a routine colonoscopy, they found a mass in my ascending colon which turned out to have some cancer cells.

I immediately went to UNC Hospital, a world-class local teaching hospital, and they did a CT scan on me. There are no signs that the cancer has spread. I was asymptomatic, so they caught it very early. The only reason I did the colonoscopy is that there’s a history of colon cancer in my family.

Yesterday, I had surgery to remove my ascending colon (an operation they call a “right colectomy”). They used a robot (named da Vinci!) operated by their chief GI oncology surgeon, and made 5 small incisions: 4 on the left side of my belly to cut out that part of the right colon; and a slightly larger one below my belly to remove the tissue (ruining my bikini line).

Everything went fine (I made sure in advance that this was a good robot and not a killer robot that might pull a gun on me), and I’m recovering well. I walked three times today so far, and even drank some clear liquids. I’ll probably be back on my feet and at home sometime this weekend. Visitors are welcome!

There are very few long-term negative effects from this surgery, if any.

They still don’t know for certain what stage the cancer was at, or if it’s spread to my lymph nodes; they’ll be doing a biopsy on my removed colon and lymph nodes to determine if I have to do chemotherapy. As of right now, they are optimistic that it has not spread, and even if it has, the chemo for this kind of cancer is typically pretty mild. If it hasn’t spread (or “metastasized”), then I’m already cured by having the tumor removed. In either case, I’m going to recover quickly.

My Dad had colon cancer, and came through fine. My eldest sister also had colon cancer over a decade ago, and it had even metastasized, and her chemo went fine… and cancer treatments have greatly improved in the past few years.

So, nobody should worry. I didn’t mention it widely, because I didn’t want to cause needless grief to anyone until after the operation was done. Cancer is such a scary word, and I don’t think this is going to be as serious as it might otherwise sound.

I’ll be seeing a geneticist in the coming weeks to determine exactly what signature of cancer I have, so I know what I’m dealing with. And I want to give more information to my family, because this runs in our genes, and if I’d gotten a colonoscopy a few years ago, they could have removed the polyp in the early stages and I’d have never developed cancer. (And because I’m otherwise healthy, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the colonoscopy if I hadn’t had insurance, which I probably wouldn’t have had if Obamacare didn’t mandate it. Thanks, Obama!)

Yay, science!

Future Plans

So, the cliché here is for me to say that this has opened my eyes to the ephemerality and immediacy of life, and that I’m planning to make major decisions in my life that prioritize what I truly value, based on my experience with cancer.

But the fact is, I’ve already been doing that recently, and while the cancer underscores this, I’ve already been making big plans for the future. I’ll post soon about some exciting new projects I’m trying to get underway, things that are far outside my comfort zone for which I’ll need to transform myself (you know, in a not-cancerous sort of way). I’ve already reduced my hours at W3C to 50%, and I’m looking at changing my role and remaining time there; I love the mission of W3C, which I see as a valuable kind of public service, so no matter what, I’ll probably stay involved there in some capacity for the foreseeable future. But I feel myself pulled toward building software and social systems, not just specifications. Stay tuned for more soon!

I’m optimistic and excited, not just about leaving behind this roadbump of cancer, but of new possibilities and new missions to change the world for the better in my own small ways.


Today (Friday, 26 August), I got the results of my biopsy from my oncologist, and I’m pleased to announce that I have no more colon cancer! The results were that the cancer was “well-differentiated, no activity in lymph nodes”, meaning that there was no metastasis, and I’m cured. This whole “adventure” emerged, played out, and concluded in just a month: I heard there was a tumor, was diagnosed with cancer, consulted an oncologist, had surgery, recovered, and got my cancer-free results all in 30 days. It felt much longer!