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Thursday 21 November 2002

Thoughtcrime Prosecution in Britain

This has been posted a number of places, but it’s important enough that it should be mentioned here, in case you read Tinotopia and nothing else.

Robin Page, a columnist for the Telegraph, has been arrested in Gloucestershire on suspicion of violating Section 18 (1) of the Public Order Act, which is to say on suspicion of “stirring up racial hatred”.

Mr Page said yesterday: “I urged people to go on the march and I urged that the rural minority be given the same legal protection as other minorities. All I said was that the rural minority should have the same rights as blacks, Muslims and gays.

Few people would actually defend the stirring up of “racial hatred”, of course. It’s true that the ACLU defends the KKK, which has as its purpose the stirring up of racial hatred. I’d suggest that, whatever the purpose of racial-hatred groups, they don’t actully stir up any racial hatred, except possibly against their own members.

I am worried most about this type of law not because of the possibility of unintended consequences, but because of the possibility that cases like Mr Page’s are not unintended consequences. That Mr Page was arrested at all — there’s no dispute over what was said, and there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable way to construe his comments as “stirring up hatred” — seems to show that statements of “racial hatred” can be anything a complainant and the police want them to be.

Posted by tino at 13:46 21.11.02
Tuesday 19 November 2002

One Little Indian

Marc Fisher’s column in the Washington Post is often good for tales of idiocy, and today’s edition does not disappoint.

It seems a high school in Montgomery County, MD — home of a good deal of the idiocy I’ve written about here — was planning to stage “Ten Little Indians”, a play based on the Agatha Christie novel.

Richard Regan, an American Indian who lives in Montgomery County (but not near the school in question), didn’t like this.

He complained to Paint Branch’s principal, arguing that the play “violates multicultural regulations” and “is offensive to all American Indians.”

Regan has never seen the play.

It being Montgomery County, this solitary complaint of ethnic offense sparked immediate action: The name of the play was changed. “And Then There Were None” played to appreciative audiences last weekend.

“The only reason we even considered changing the title was to try to be more sensitive,” said Principal Jeanette Dixon. “The letter he sent was completely off base. Our effort to be sensitive kind of backfired, because he thinks he’s won a victory.”

Ah, but when I reached Regan, he announced that he will ask the school board to ban the play.

“Montgomery County always tries to appease activists,” he said. “Changing the title doesn’t solve anything. They needed to cancel the show. What they should do instead of the show is have diversity training for every person at that school.”

I’ll leave Regan’s idiocy to stand on its own. It’s interesting, though, that while the principal of the school thinks that Regan’s complaint was “way off base”, the school made an “effort to be sensitive” anyway. I don’t really understand that. Must be my devotion to factual correctness getting in the way.

Posted by tino at 13:09 19.11.02
Thursday 14 November 2002

Suburban Living

An article in the Washington Post today discussed The Oaks, a development of million-dollar houses in Montgomery County, Maryland. The houses are right next to I-270, a very busy commuter route that’s 12 lanes wide.

Not that long ago, a suburban home buyer with enough money to purchase at The Oaks — prices start at $1.2 million — would have aspired to the natural serenity of a country estate. But the construction of highway mansions like those planned at The Oaks reflects not only the scarcity of buildable land around Washington but also the erosion of the old suburban ideal: The yearning for a stately acreage has been trumped by the consumer demand for speed and mobility.

It seems to me that these people would have even more speed and mobility — and possibly more privacy and a lower housing cost — if they lived in a big luxurious apartment in a high-rise that was actually near anything other than a highway. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to build those in most places, because they “result” in “bad traffic”, unlike the sparse developments that line both sides of the gridlock that is I-270. And in the places where such buildings are permitted, they’re made unprofitable by building codes that require that they be built to an absurdly high standard.

Eventually, things will have to change; people will eventually reject the idea of paying a million dollars to live in the midst of increasingly hellish traffic. The problem then will be the question of what to do with these giant houses that people no longer see as desirable.

Posted by tino at 11:22 14.11.02
Tuesday 12 November 2002

MBA != Godhood

Some guy pointed me to this Forbes article:

At lower levels, a lack of experience is often damning. No one would hire an engineer to build an airplane because he once constructed a highway. No one hires a basketball coach because he coached a successful football team. But at the very highest levels of American business, being a good guy all around is considered what it takes. GAP, for instance, recently hired Paul Pressler as its CEO, though the former Walt Disney Co. executive had never worked for the company, or as a retail executive, or in the garment business.

Posted by tino at 15:16 12.11.02

Spammers’ Questionable Tactics

I have a custom-made, rather sophisticated spam filter look at all my e-mail before I get it. It catches almost all spam, though I’ve had to use the expedient of rejecting all mail from Hotmail, China, Russia, and Korea, unless the sender is known to me or he positively indicates in the subject header that the message is not spam.

I try to err on the side of rejecting a message, rather than accepting it. When a message is rejected, a bounce message is sent to the original sender, explaining what’s happening and asking for the message, if it’s not spam, to be re-sent with the no-spam claim in the subject header. The message actually has a license agreement in it, one that gives me the “right” to sue the spammers for incredible sums should they continue to send spam.

The spammers ignore the bounces, of course, but an ordinary person who wanted to send me normal, ordinary e-mail about Viagra or mortgages or credit would read the bounce message and re-send the mail in a way that makes it clear it’s not spam.

To date, except when the system has had some undetected bug in it, I have not rejected a single piece of mail that was not actually spam anyway. I know, because I log the rejections, and look through the logs from time to time. Every few days, I look through the spam that’s managed to get past, and I revise the filters.

Recently, while looking through the logs, I have come across a few interesting items in the rejections. These are lines from my log, which include the sender and the subject of the message:

  • “Midori” <midori@studiocev.com> Young Asian Beauties Crave C*ck!!

    I do reject mail if it’s got the word “cock” in the subject line. I’ve checked my e-mail going back to 1990, and I’ve never got a single legitimate e-mail with “cock” as a separate word in the subject. The people are studiocev.com, though, want to make sure that, even if I’ve taken steps to see that I don’t get mail about “cock”, their message will get through. The asterisk, used as a wildcard character by a lot of pattern-matching software, might make this message impossible to block on a cheesy spam-blocker, which might not be told to look for literal asterisks.

    That doesn’t matter anyway, because I reject all mail coming from studiocev.com anyway, and there are some other things in the way they send mail that cause it to stand out as spam. Why on earth do they want to waste time with people who are plainly not interested in their mail?

  • “Hailey” <py79gihv4m11199@hotmail.com> C*U*M in her mouth…..

    The same thing again. This one’s a triple whammy; I rejected it because there were too many numerals in the e-mail address (a dead giveaway), but had that not been the case, the hotmail.com address would have killed it, as would the ….. ( a sure sign of spam), and the interspersed letters and asterisks. Again, though, they’re trying to defeat people’s spam-blocking systems, to tap that great market of people who don’t want spam. They’d be sure to buy all these dubious things from spammers, if only they saw the spam. Yeah, that’s it.

  • “vcProd” <ahjkl2eg@yahoo.com> 120 PRO+ WEB templ’ates-# for sm^all bus^iness*es 9nucy3h

    They’re pulling out all the stops here in an attempt to get their message through, but they’re stupid enough to include that gibberish at the end of the subject line. The purpose of that is to foil systems that reject large numbers of messages with identical subject lines. However, it’s just as easy to reject messages with gibberish at the end of the subject line, or for that matter to strip out punctuation before looking for telltale spam terms.

  • I think I understand the economics of spam well enough: if you send out an enormous number of pitches at very low cost, you’ve only got to have a few people respond in order to make a profit. Thus it’s possible to make money by selling very, very dubious products and services, the kind of thing that no sane person would ever think about purchasing. The crazy-person market alone is large enough.

    Why, then, go to extra trouble in an attempt to get your messages through to people who have explicitly attempted to exclude your mail from their lives? Do these spammers think that I will order videotapes of girls “forced to fuck” if they only spell it “forced to f*ck” and thus foil my filters?

    There’s a theory making the rounds that a lot of spam is being sent out, ultimately, by various agencies of the U.S. government. The idea is that the spam is either an attempt to warn people about the dangers of dealing with people who send badly-spelled e-mails that offer fantastic returns through investment in G*neric Vi*gra!!!!!, or an attempt to induce people to commit a crime by offering to pay money for various sorts of illegal pornography.

    To be honest, I rather doubt that the U.S. government has to together enough to pull off anything that clever. I am beginning to question that doubt, though, as the alternative explanation — that the more insane come-ons that show up in my mailbox are merely attempts to make money — has begun to seem less and less plausible.

    Posted by tino at 14:16 12.11.02
    Monday 11 November 2002

    Morality and ‘Zero-Tolerance’

    American Catholic bishops are meeting in Washington this week, and revising their plan for dealing with sexually-abusive priests. The Vatican rejected the original proposal put forth by the bishops following their June meeting in Dallas, which should not have been surprising.

    After all, the Catholic church was founded by a pal of the guy who said

    Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

    I don’t think the Sermon on the Mount specifically requires you to die rather than fight — though some honestly and thoughtfully disagree — I do think that it’s a pretty clear injunction against zero-tolerance policies, particularly on the part of an organization that claims to have been established at the specific personal direction of God on Earth.

    The pro-zero-tolerance folks, calling themselves SNAP, for Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, is having none of that business with the cheeks. They’ve got a website full of stories about the terrible effects of sexual abuse:

    Like scar tissue, the effects of sexual abuse never go away, experts say, continuing to influence victims in various ways, such as by contributing to drug and alcohol abuse, low self-esteem, divorce and distrust.

    And, when a priest sexually abuses a child, the effects can be particularly devastating. “The most trusted person imaginable suddenly does something that feels terribly wrong and creepy,” said [David] Clohessy [president of SNAP], who as an adolescent was sexually abused by a priest. “It’s a shocking kind of shattering experience.”

    They’re right in that people — the very, very small number of people — who are actually abused, sexually or otherwise, by priests will probably lost some trust in the Church. But does it not occur to them that most of the problem comes from people who plant stories in newspapers with headlines like The Effects of Sexual Abuse Never Go Away? That by constantly repeating that sexual abuse leads to feelings of shame and people who are sexually abused never really recover, they help make that true? Why is it so much worse to be diddled than to be struck? They’re both violations of the person, but while one bruise fades in short order, another bruises the soul and one can never, ever actually recover from it: only Survive and Go On Living, One Day At A Time bla bla bla. Happily, this Survival assures the long-term survival of the Recovery industry — members of which tend to be the people quoted in all those newspaper articles about how terrible the effects of x are, and how lots of therapy is needed.

    I don’t deny that sexual abuse does harm to the victims; but it doesn’t do that much harm, nor is it all that common. The American bishops, living in the swirl of American culture, couldn’t or wouldn’t point this out. The Vatican’s smackdown of the bishops’ original scheme for banishing priests accused of sexual abuse demonstrates one of the good features of a benign dictatorship. In the face of popular idiocy, the wise king (or, in this case, Pope) has saved the people from themselves. (This was once the point of a democratic republic; the leaders would, presumably, act as a damper on potentially wild swings of the popular mood. Unfortunately, precisely the opposite now seems to occur.)

    We’ll see what comes out of this week’s bishops’ meetings. They’ll agree to the Vatican’s demanded changes, of course: the Catholic church isn’t a democracy. But there’s an opportunity here, if it’s handled properly, for the Church to in the USA to begin to turn back the clock to a time when people were not so ready to see and portray themselves as Victims.

    Posted by tino at 22:54 11.11.02
    Friday 08 November 2002

    Muzak Is Getting Worse

    Where the hell do they find the music that’s pumped into nearly every public place these days? Piped-in music is nothing new, of course; Muzak has been in business since the 1920s. But within the last ten years or so, piped-in music has changed from consisting mainly of easy-listening covers of Beatles tunes to consisting mainly of obscure and bad pop music.

    This has come to my attention in the last week or so as the more gun-jumping of the piped-in-music channels have begun to work Christmas music into the mix. Where this used to mean easy-listening versions of Christmas classics and maybe “Mele Kalikimaka” on the hipper programs, now it means incredibly bad versions of Christmas classics by contemporary “stars”, all of whom feel the need to put their personal stamp on the works by making them worse (they same people do the same thing when singing the national anthem). Or, if they’re not playing Christina Aguilera’s rendition of The Little Drummer Boy (‘come, I told him, bumpa dumpa ooo’), it’s some original pop-music Christmas song — but never, ever one of the 0.0001% of these that are actually worth hearing.

    I suppose I should count myself lucky, though, because outside of Christmas season, the piped-in music in most places is now almost exclusively B- and C-list artists of the 1970s and 1980s, performing their songs that never got on the radio because they never appealed to anyone.

    These things must be programmed entirely by computers these days. I find it hard to believe that a human being would decide that, at any point, people would rather hear Olivia Newton-John’s Magic, or yet another track from Muzak’s favorite album, The Very Worst of Rod Stewart, than any other piece of music ever recorded.

    Commercial radio, in the 1990s, ceased to be anything like a representation of what listeners might want to hear. Piped-in music was never about what people wanted to hear, but it now seems to be about what people don’t want to hear. A song of yours showing up in easy-listening form on Muzak used to be a sign that you’d really, really made it — much more so than merely appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone. The reverse seems to be true today. If this trend continues, perhaps Billboard could change their hit ranking system to consider how infrequently a song is played on piped-in music systems and boost its chart position accordingly.

    Posted by tino at 17:36 8.11.02
    Thursday 07 November 2002

    Rules For Retailers

    I’ve spent the last three evenings at malls, trying to find some clothes and to get a few other things done. In the wake of this, it occurs to me that the people in the business of selling things have forgotten how to do it.

    While the economy was booming, I was usually told by the managers of these incompetent retail establishments that the problem was that it was difficult to hire enough staff — everyone already had a job — and that it was difficult to keep anything in stock, so fast did it fly off the shelves. That’s plausible if unlikely, and I looked forward to an improvement in the experience of spending money as the economy soured. It hasn’t happened, and the excuse I hear most often now is that cost-cutting measures have resulted in the place being understaffed, understocked, and generally miserable.

    Doing my bit to rescue the economy, I offer these tips to aid retailers. I don’t say these things because I hate retailers, or because I think that I, as a customer, am some sort of god. I say these things because, if you are in business, you are probably in business to make money. Customers give you money in exchange for goods and services. Treating your customers well will make it more likely that they will give you money.

    There are probably hundreds of good points I could make here, but I’ll just offer what I can think of off the top of my head, the things that should be abundantly clear to anyone.

    1. Nobody is forcing you to do this. If dealing with the whims of customers is just too much bother, or not profitable, or boring: do something else. You are under no compulsion to remain at your current job or in your current line of business. These rules apply to you because you choose to put yourself in a situation where your profit depends on customers.

    2. Be prepared to deal with customers during the whole of the hours of business posted on your door. If you are a restaurant, you are not allowed to start stacking the chairs on the tables before your official hour of closing. You are not permitted to perform any regular mopping, vacuuming, or other periodic day-end cleaning until the customers are done and out of there. During your regular hours of business, the entire purpose of your enterprise is the direct sale of goods and services to customers. Housekeeping, bookkeeping, restocking, re-arranging, and ready-to-leave-getting should be done after the customers are done and you have their money. If business is so slow that it’s not worth actually being prepared for customers during the last hour you’re open, or worth paying your employees past closing time to take care of the housekeeping, maybe you’re staying open too late, or charging too much, or selling something that nobody wants. Or maybe your would-be customers just don’t feel like dodging the cleaning crews while trying to spend money.

    3. Don’t make customers work for the privilege of giving you money. If you do not have enough staff to handle your normal customer traffic, you do not have enough staff, full stop. If you cannot afford to hire enough people to handle the business you’re getting, you’re not charging enough for whatever it is you’re selling. Some customers are willing to do a lot of work in order to save money — witness the success of Wal-Mart — but if your premises have carpeted floors and non-fluorescent lighting, and if you don’t market yourself as a discount warehouse, you should be doing the work, not the customer.

    4. Let customers evaluate potential purchases. If you’re selling an electronic gadget, the unit on display must be operable. The customer is not considering purchasing that digital camera as an objet d’art. While its physical appearance and mass are one of the things the customer will consider in evaluating it, they are not the main things.

    5. Do not hound customers with ‘service’. If you are selling extremely complex and specific goods, or something that’s locked away, you may approach the customer immediately upon his entrance to your place of business. If, however, you are in the business of selling sweaters, shoes, trousers, hats, objets d’art ‘gifts’, or some other goods the selection of which depends largely on personal taste, back off. It’s a fine line between being available and helpful, and being obsequious and intrusive; but there definitely is a line, and with just a little attention it is possible to avoid crossing it.

    6. Help customers when customers need it. When customers do need assistance, it should be available, and it should be competent. On a very basic level: if you run a large department store with only one or two centralized cash desks per floor, they should constantly have enough staff to handle the customer traffic. Once a customer has carried his selections to the desk (see above about making customers do your work), he should not have to stand around waiting.

    7. You must know the price of things, and make this information available to your customer. It’s said that everything has its price, but this isn’t always true in the retail sector these days. Unless you intend for every transaction to involve some bargaining to arrive at a price, the prices of all your goods must be clearly marked for the customers. If a customer has to ask your the price of an item, you have failed. If, at the till, you can’t determine the price of an item, you have utterly failed. The only honorable way out of this situation is to ask the customer what he’d like to pay, and accept his offer without question. This may get expensive, but it’s easy to prevent: have enough respect for your customers to let them evaluate a product in light of its price.

    8. Your corporate structure, policies, and organization are of no concern to your customer. Your relationship with the customer consists of providing them with goods and services that they want, and with taking their money in return. The customer does not care that your store is understaffed due to bad management, or that the sweater he wants is not in stock because all the sweaters were moved out for the big hot pants sale, or that you can’t process credit card transactions because your computer system has failed. All the customer cares about is that you don’t have enough staff to run your business, that you don’t have the item he wants, and that you can’t take his money.

    9. Evaluate your business from the point of view of the customer. The customer’s point of view is really the only one that matters, if you’re interested in making money. If you don’t have any way for customers to let you know about their experiences, it’s almost certain that it’s costing you money. Isolated bad experiences are to be expected with even the best-run businesses — but it’s the businesses with no customer-feedback mechanisms that allow systemic problems to linger on and on, costing them customers and money.

    10. Answer the phone. Contrary to what appears to be popular belief, customers are not fooled into thinking that their call is important to you just because your on-hold message says as much. If the call is actually important to you, hire enough people to actually deal with customers. If you can’t afford to hire enough people, you’re probably not charging enough.

    11. Don’t answer the phone. When you are dealing with a customer in person and the phone rings — let it ring. Let a machine tell the person on the phone how important they are. Unless you sell penny candy and run a $5-per-minute 900 number out of the same location, you have no higher priority than to deal with the customer who’s standing in front of you.

    12. Don’t burn bridges. It’s cheaper and easier in the short run to let customers absorb the effects of your mistakes, but it will eventually destroy your business. As the saying goes, “if you don’t have a good time, you have a good story” is true in retail, too. Customers who are pleased with your business generally won’t tell other people about it unless they’re asked. If you make them sorry they ever heard of your company, they’ll tell the story to complete strangers if the opportunity arises.

    13. Don’t cheat your customers. This is related to the one directly above, but different. Unless you are a scam artist, know you’re a scam artist, and intend to be a scam artist, it just doesn’t pay to cheat your customers. You are exchanging something of value to the customer for money. Fooling the customer, through deceptive advertising, coercive contracts, ‘gotcha’ policies, and the like might make money, but it only works once. If you charge someone to ‘see the egress’, make sure you’ve already recouped all your customer-acquisition costs, because there’s little chance you’ll see any more of their money.

    14. The customer isn’t necessarily always right, but he’s always the customer. If you do a Google search for “the customer is not always right”, you’ll find a very large number of results. I’m amazed at these people; if the customers are such a pain in the ass, why not do something that doesn’t require dealing with customers directly? (See #1 above.) Most of the customer-is-not-always-right pages have all kinds of tips about getting rid of ‘undesirable’ customers, and how to set ‘rules’ for the people who are giving you money, and when to ‘fire’ customers you don’t want. If you do business in a mall and find yourself thinking along these lines even a little bit, you really need to consider whether retail is for you.

    15. Customer-profitability accounting is almost totally inaccurate. Especially in any kind of retail business. Most businesses who have ongoing relationships with their customers will treat some better than others. It’s just smart business, given limited resources, that the customers whose business is very lucrative will get better service and pricing than the customers whose business generates less profit. If you try to apply this to unknown or little-known customers, though, it can blow up in your face. You can’t serve only the 20% of customers who produce 80% of the profits, so stop trying. If you are thinking of classifying a customer as ‘unprofitable’ and not worth serving well, make sure that you know, truly, who that customer is and who it is he influences.

    UPDATE: More customer service rules, 11 May 2003.

    Posted by tino at 11:43 7.11.02
    Wednesday 06 November 2002

    Software Upgrade

    We at Tinotopia have recently upgraded the software that runs the weblog, in addition to making a number of look-and-feel changes here. The weblog should now look much more like the rest of the site. It should be easier to use, and it should work better for those of you who are using web browsers whose CSS implementations are broken.

    Please let us know if you come across anything that seems fishy.

    Posted by tino at 18:44 6.11.02

    Paper ballots

    Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, writes in an article at Tech Central Station about the virtues of paper ballots.

    This echoes an argument I’ve been making for some time now, namely that the voting process is not a problem that benefits from a high-tech solution. He focuses almost exclusively on the fact that paper ballots are less confusing and more distinctive from voter to voter than punch card, graphite-oval, or touch-screen ballots.

    All of these are very good points, but he doesn’t even touch on what I think is the biggest potential risk in the high-tech voting systems that everyone seems to be spending loads of money on: the system itself.

    You’ve probably never heard of Ken Thompson, one of the fathers of the UNIX operating system. In the early 1970s, he re-implemented UNIX in the new C programming language. In doing so, he introduced an almost totally undetectable back door into the system

    When you log in to a UNIX system, you interact with a program called login (or you used to, anyway). This program asks for your username and password, and checks to see whether they’re correct. If they are, it allows you access to the system. Thompson’s hack was to modify the login program so that it would accept both your password or a password he specified and hard-coded into the system as valid.

    This would be obvious to anyone looking at the source code for the login program, so Thompson modified the compiler — the program that turns source code, written by programmers, into machine code, understood by computers — to recognize when it was compiling a copy of the login program, and insert his back door.

    Now, the compiler itself has source code, so Thompson also modified the compiler to recognize when it was compiling itself, so it would insert both the code for putting the back door in login. He then re-compiled both the compiler and login. Neither program’s source code held any clue as to what was going on, but all subsequent copies of login would allow Ken Thompson access to the machines they were installed on.

    Thompson himself told this story in a speech, “Reflections on Trusting Trust”, that he gave accepting the Turing award from the Association for Computing Machinery in 1995.

    The moral is obvious. You can’t trust code that you did not totally create yourself. (Especially code from companies that employ people like me.) No amount of source-level verification or scrutiny will protect you from using untrusted code. In demonstrating the possibility of this kind of attack, I picked on the C compiler. I could have picked on any program-handling program such as an assembler, a loader, or even hardware microcode. As the level of program gets lower, these bugs will be harder and harder to detect. A well installed microcode bug will be almost impossible to detect.

    Keep in mind that this isn’t some schmo saying that this is “almost impossible to detect”, it’s Ken Thompson. This is like Michael Schumacher saying that a car is “very fast”, or Bill Gates saying something is “expensive”. It’s all in the frame of reference. If Ken Thompson says that something would be “almost impossible” to spot in computer software, you might want to believe it.

    The Federal Election Commission’s draft standards for voting systems miss this point entirely. They specifically state, in fact, that compilers don’t have to be tested. The source code of the voting system is to be examined, but compilers, databases, and operating systems just have to be checked that they “were not modified”. There’s no information on how this is to be done; and somehow I doubt they’re running checksums on all the compilers used.

    This, in my mind, is the best reason to avoid electronic voting systems. The whole point of computerization, of anything, is to allow a whole bunch of things to happen automatically, with no human attention or involvement. It seems clear that this is precisely what you don’t want in an election.

    We’re told that we need all these gewgaws to handle the enormous number of votes that are cast, but this just isn’t true. We might need the gewgaws if all the votes are going to be counted in a central location, as they are now, but why should we assume that’s necessary? In yesterday’s election, there were over 200 polling places in Fairfax County, Virginia. In one of them, seven people voted. In another, 2180. The average was about 1190 people per polling place.

    Assuming it takes about five seconds to count a single vote — probably a conservative estimate, as you’re just looking for an ‘X’ and incrementing some kind of counting device — it would take about 90 minutes to count all the votes from a single polling place (and keep in mind that the polling places of today are set up with the constraint that there are only so many of those expensive voting machines, and that counting is easy. If you assumed that counting was to be done by hand but that the only equipment required were some ball-point pens, you could probably get the count time down to 30 minutes without too much trouble). You can either set up the people doing the count — the same people who manned the polls in the first place — in assembly-line fashion, each person concerned with only one question, handing the ballots off to the next person to count the next race, or you could supply voters with a separate slip of paper for each race in the election. There are logistical advantages to both methods, but in any case it wouldn’t take that long.

    Presumably, the whole process would be observed by a number of people: someone from each political party, reporters, people from the area, etc. It’d be impossible for someone to become confused by the placement of names on the ballot dictated by the requirements of some machine. Voters who make a mistake would ask for a new ballot form, watching while their spoiled ballot was shredded in front of them. Changing ballots at the last minute — as happened in Minnesota due to the death of Paul Wellstone — would require nothing more than a photocopier and a supply of the ballot paper.

    Save money, improve the process, and reduce the possibility of fraud, all at once! Amazing. For some reason, though, it seems to be taken as a given that our voting process must involve apparatus of some kind. As long as that’s accepted uncritically, I can’t see matters improving much.

    Posted by tino at 12:49 6.11.02
    Tuesday 05 November 2002

    BA and Yellow Cards

    British Airways have recently announced that they will be showing yellow cards to “disruptive” or “abusive” passengers on the ground. The airline has been using the system in the air for several years.

    In a lot of ways, it’s brilliant. Front-line airline employees don’t deserve to be abused — they don’t make the idiotic policies that infuriate the passengers — and the yellow-card system is unambiguous. It works well across languages, makes it clear that you’ve done something wrong, and that you’ll be sent off (though ideally not at 35,000 feet) if you do it again.

    However, in all the news coverage of this — all the stories being rewrites of the BA press releases, after all — I have not seen any questions as to whether this is just treatment of a symptom, rather than an actual solution to the problem.

    It might profit BA – and other airlines, and the commercial aviation industry in general – why it is that they require special systems to keep their customers from lashing out violently. This isn’t a problem in most other industries; the only ones I can think of where it is a problem are industries like biker-bar management, automotive repossession, and other inherently confrontational trades.

    The industry says that their customers get violent much more often than customers of other industries for a variety of reasons: the passengers are drunk, the passengers are uninhibited because they’re on holiday, because there’s not enough oxygen in the plane cabin, because – honestly, now – they carry too much baggage, because they’ve seen documentaries on air rage on television, or any one of a number of other things the passengers have done. (No word yet on why they have to have such a system on the ground, where there’s plenty of room for baggage, lots of oxygen, and no free booze. Must be something the customers ate for breakfast.)

    Very, very rarely does the air-travel industry even hint at the possibility that they have a hand in all this.

    If you were trying to design a system to trigger the fight-or-flight response (no pun intended), it would be difficult to come up with one better than the modern air-travel apparatus. From the moment you purchase your ticket — which doesn’t actually oblige the airline to do anything, even to carry you from point A to point B at any time — you’re at the mercy of the system. That’s not all that unusual, actually. What’s unusual is how little mercy is actually involved, as well as the glee with which this particular system reminds you that you’re at its mercy.

    Posted by tino at 13:29 5.11.02
    Monday 04 November 2002

    Air Rage, From The Other Direction

    In the Philadelphia Inquirer lately, an article praised the air marshal service:

    Almost every day now, somewhere around the country, somebody is being arrested by a federal air marshal.

    Well, wonderful. Good to know that people are being arrested. But does the fact that the marshals are arresting people mean that they’re making things better?

    Minutes after takeoff in the close confines of an airline cabin, a loud-mouthed passenger demands a beer and shoves an attendant. Other passengers gasp.

    A federal air marshal - one of thousands now at work since Sept. 11 - approaches, identifies himself, and tells the man to calm down. Instead, the man mouths off.

    Explosively, without warning, the air marshal grabs the man by the head, yanks him face-first to the floor, handcuffs him, and shouts to passengers to remain seated and calm.

    Gosh. When you’ve got law enforcement like this, who needs hijackers? “Mouthing off” is cause for violent arrest — even when, as in an airplane cabin, the “mouther” is unarmed — he hasn’t even got a nail file, thank God — and there’s no chance that he’ll escape. Let’s hope this particular marshal is relieved of duty: if the point is to preserve order on planes, this guy certainly isn’t helping.

    But wait:

    Jarring and fearsome, the staged incident was part of a training session by the Federal Air Marshals service. It was performed for reporters late last week at the secretive agency’s training center near Atlantic City, to reassure and educate travelers about the things they one day might witness in the skies.

    “We want to get the message out that we’re enforcing laws up there, which has not always been the case,” said Greg McLaughlin, deputy director of the Federal Air Marshal service, a branch of the recently created Transportation Security Administration. [emphasis added]

    So this was an exercise. This is how it’s supposed to be done, with a maximum of shouting, violence, and intimidation of passengers.

    The Air Marshal service is getting a message out, much as Tony Soprano might do by having someone’s legs broken. That message? Sit down and shut up, presumably.

    And, somehow, all of this is supposed to reassure the flying public.

    Another Inquirer story from September — by the same writer, who seems to be on the air-marshals beat — is even more reassuring.

    The incident on Delta Flight 442 was scary enough last month: U.S. marshals seized an unruly passenger, then one aimed a pistol at other passengers for a half hour and shouted at them to stay seated.

    The event, however, didn’t end there. Unknown to most passengers on the Atlanta-to-Philadelphia flight, the marshals upon landing also seized an Indian passenger from first class and silently whisked him away in handcuffs.

    Far from being a terror suspect, the second detainee turned out to be a former U.S. Army major and military doctor from Lake Worth, Fla., where he has had a family practice for two decades. Both detainees later were released without charge […]

    They maintain that they’re “enforcing the law”, but if they’re not charging people, it means that they don’t think they can show that any law was violated.

    Very reassuring. This should ease the airlines’ customer-service burden somewhat, though, as any passenger who annoys the cabin crew can be declared ‘unruly’, and thrown face-first to the floor.

    Posted by tino at 14:43 4.11.02
    Friday 01 November 2002

    Wanted: Customers. Only Experienced Need Apply.

    Not long ago I went to lunch at one of these chain noodle places that dot the suburban landscape. You know the kind: your choice of N pastas under your choice of sauces, with unlimited salad and rolls. It’s not a gourmet feast, but it’s cheap and you don’t have to fetch the food yourself from a counter.

    As soon as the waitress came to our table, she asked the question that I hear more and more as I eat at chain restaurants: “Have you been here before?”

    Siiigh. I have, but what’s it to you? I mean, what if I’d never eaten there before? I come in and tell you what I want to eat after consulting the menu. After a while, you bring the food. I eat it, pay, and leave. I don’t understand why I need any particular training in the matter. I’ve been eating since before I could walk, you know.

    Restaurants whose procedures are so complicated as to require specific previous experience on the part of the customer should really take a look at their operations and see whether they can’t be standardized somewhat.

    Posted by tino at 10:05 1.11.02