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”.
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.
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
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.
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:
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:
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
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:
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.
UPDATE: More customer service rules, 11 May 2003.
Posted by tino at 11:43 7.11.02
Wednesday 06 November 2002
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
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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