PS... A Column
By Paul E. Schindler Jr.
Some things are impossible to know, but it is impossible to know these things.
January 11, 1999
It's Always Darkest Just Before They Turn On The Lights!
I have a day job, so I need to make it clear to anyone who comes here that the opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer, my family, or your great-aunt Mathilda. Offer not valid in Wisconsin. You must enter to win.
Table of Contents:
I am feeling a little let down and underappreciated by the readership of this column. The Internet is an interactive medium. I can't believe I have run out of interesting and/or controversial things to say already! I have written more of this week's column myself in an effort to pique your interest.
Impeachment is like an M80 in a Cow Pie
I don't know if this counts as original material or not. As Marlow was at Winter Ball last night and Vicki and Rae were seeing Waking Ned Devine, I was able to indulge a semi-shameful habit of mine: I listened to A Prairie Home Companion. Although Garrison Keillor is one of the most frequently and deservedly parodied people in all of public life, I find his skits and monologues very funny, in the tradition of Bob and Ray. Humorous observation, usually, rather than flat-out yocks. If you were paying attention last week, you know how much I like Bob and Ray. Not that I am unaware of Keillor's subtext.
In any case, he used a telling impeachment metaphor on Saturday night. He said it was like placing an M80 firecracker in a cow pie. You run away as fast as you can, but of course you want to turn around and look at the havoc you have wreaked. Sometimes, you have run outside the circle of havoc and can merely watch. Most of the time, you get splattered with cow dung.
House Republicans lit the M80 of impeachment. Here's my fervent new year's hope: they didn't run fast enough.
Instant Runoff Voting
Here's something you probably never thought about, unless you lived in Cambridge, Mass. or Ireland. It is a small but growing movement towards Instant Runoff Voting, also known as preferential voting. It is about the only chance we have to break the two-party duopoly which is strangling American political discourse and resulting in things like... well, like the Republican majority in the 106th Congress. My older daughter, Marlow, a Green Party activist and first-class researcher, got a "A" on her paper on this subject. I am printing excerpts here. Several minor parties in California are seeking signatures for a referendum on IRV. Sign the petition when you have a chance (if you live in California) and vote for IRV when it gets to the ballot. And remember, you read it here first, in Marlow's own words:
America currently uses a plurality or "first past the post" voting system. There is only one winner.
The system has been in use since George Washington's time, but the old ways are not necessarily the best ways. Many progressive countries have already adopted a different voting system for the twenty-first century. A new system, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), is already in use in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Malta, and Cambridge, Massachusetts....
In an IRV system, the voter does not simply cast his vote once for a single candidate; instead, he ranks the candidates on the ballot. If a candidate receives more than half of first-place rankings, he is declared the winner. If no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-place rankings is eliminated and those ballots are handled as though the nominee ranked second is now their first-ranked candidate. This process is duplicated until one candidate has a majority of first-place rankings.
The winner is the candidate with overall majority, not plurality, support. Although the current system has worked for over two hundred years, the country would benefit greatly in a change to an IRV system because it would produce fairer elections, a cheaper more efficient system, and a better political atmosphere....
Sentiment against change is strong. The current system, however, is mainly responsible for maintaining the two-party system in America. Political scientists consider it one of the easiest systems to manipulate. In a Presidential election, with three or more candidates, most voters only pay serious attention to the two major party candidates. Voters fear that if they vote for a third party candidate they will be "wasting their vote," and essentially, as the system is set up, their vote would stand little chance of being relevant to the election at large. All the voters who want to, but don't, vote for the Eugene Debbs, Hulk Hogans, and Ross Perots, are voting "strategically" or insincerely
IRV, on the other hand, al-lows every person to vote his hopes and not his fears. Since the voter is ranking his choices, he can give preference to his actual favorite, knowing that should that candidate be eliminated in the first round his second choice will get the full power of his vote in the "instant runoff."
How is it that we can send a man to the moon but we cannot implement a voting system that recognizes the wishes of the majority? Voting should not be rocket science. IRV offers a flexible understanding of the will of the majority for which the current rigid and outdated system simply does not allow. In addition, today's American citizen is ever critical of the frivolous waste of government money, his tax money. IRV offers a cheaper alternative to the current sys-tem. In most mayoral races, a majority is demanded; if the majority is not achieved in the first election a runoff election is held in which the candidates who received the most votes run again against each other. This process is costly for both the candidates and the taxpayers. The candidates have the financial burden of continued campaigning, and the taxpayers have to pay for the second election.
This is by no means fiscally frugal. To add insult to injury, voter turnout normally drops considerably in a second election. By using IRV, the first election, the one with maximum turnout, will act as the decisive election. And the cost of changing over is negligible; for example, the price of changing over to IRV in New Mexico, which is considering a bill in January to implement changes in the voting system, is estimated at fewer than one million dollars. It would be necessary to implement at every precinct, as the voter would be filling in a bubble sheet, not unlike the scantrons used for the SATs, which could then be counted at one central location.
In today's elections, character assassination and "mud-slinging" are quite common. A candidate can win simply by making his opponent look less desirable than himself. In a two party system, negative campaigning is encouraged and rewarded. However, if there were three or four viable candidates running in an IRV election, "mud-slinging" is no longer a good tactic. The public might have a lowered opinion of the person being slandered, but they will also have a lower opinion of the candidate slinging the mud, making the third and fourth party candidates look appealing by comparison. Also, if two major party candidates know they will have to depend on crossover votes from smaller party candidates in the second round of ballot counting, they will be less likely to knowingly offend the supporters of the smaller par-ties. IRV forces politicians to actually strive to get approval of the majority of the voters.
Computer Industry News
Hypocrisy on Parade
I am getting pretty sick and tired of the hypocrisy that Microsoft has on near constant display in its antitrust case. By the way, the 10th week just wrapped up, the government has nearly completed its case, and we're now about to hear from Microsoft's witnesses.
First, there's the fundamental hypocrisy of Microsoft's dualistic approach to Bill Gates testimony. Microsoft officials complain bitterly that the government is releasing only "sound bytes" of Gates' deposition tapes. Yet, in court, Microsoft attorneys vigorously oppose the release of those tapes. In addition, they taunt the government about calling Gates as a witness, yet they decline to call him themselves. We'll all just have to make up our own minds as to why Microsoft is behaving this way. My best guess is, having met and interviewed the man, that Bill Gates would set new records as the world's most terrible witness. His lack of manners, his intolerance for what he considers fools and his hair-trigger temper would not paint a pretty picture in the courtroom.
Come on Microsoft. You want us to hear from Bill Gates? You call him as a witness! Good Luck!
Then there's the latest hypocrisy. All during the government testimony about Microsoft pricing, Microsoft has complained that the government witness was wrong about Microsoft pricing and its effects. So, the Government introduces a Microsoft document about how much it charges PC makers for Windows. Suddenly, Microsoft turns on a dime. The document must be kept secret and even the discussion of it must be held in a closed session, with the media excluded. A half-dozen media organizations are challenging this Microsoft attempt to bury the facts. I, of course, am rooting for the media.
Microsoft can't have it both ways, although that won't stop it from trying. Reasonable people will see through its bleating about the unfair discussion, on the one hand, and its effort to hide the facts on the other. If there's nothing to hide, if Microsoft is not using its monopoly power to force unfair pricing on its victims... sorry, customers... then let's have it out in public!
Anyone who isn't employed by Microsoft (directly or indirectly) who doesn't believe they have a monopoly, and doesn't know from first- or second-hand experience that they use their monopoly power to crush competition, raise your hand!
And all those who think Microsoft competes fairly, strictly on the merits, let's hear from you as well. Frankly, it's really hard to find anyone to defend this firm and its activities.
Cookies are Better than PINs
I first met David Strom when he was my supervisor at PC Week during my brief but pleasurable interregnum there in 1988-89 as a Senior Technical Analyst and columnist. He then went on to found Network Computing for CMP Media, and to tape a segment for the ill-fated PC Vision TV project I worked on there. He has since become a knowledgeable freelancer and the author of a newsletter you should get (if you aren't getting it already) called the Web Informant. I am proud to call him a friend, a colleague and a damn good supervisor.
Dave modified the views expressed here slightly after a strong letter he received from an IBM official, but I was less persuaded than he was by IBM's arguments. I agree with his original thesis, which is why I am publishing excerpts here. Visit his web site for the full column, the IBM response, and the details on how to subscribe.
These are excerpts fromWeb Informant #136, 5 January 1999: Perplexed about PINs
This past holiday season I managed to work in a bit of surfing, and I uncovered an irritating new trend in the process. Personal Identification Numbers, or PINs, once the sole province of banks and phone cards, are being used on way too many web sites....
Okay, okay. I know all about security and understand why these PINs are necessary. I don't want random surfers accessing my medical records, executing trades without my approval, or redeeming my hard-earned frequent flyer miles. But PINs are painful when you need to do business quickly on the web and have never visited the site before. As an existing customer, I should be able to establish my identity quickly. If I wanted to waste time I `d still be on hold on the phone...
All this is more trouble than necessary. There is a simple solution to the proliferation of PINs: it's called cookies.
I am a big fan of cookies. Unlike some nay-sayers that talk about compromising privacy, I love the convenience, the simplicity, the usefulness, the time saved, the sheer joy of those little files littering my hard disk. Do I worry about my privacy with cookies? Not for a nanosecond. If you want to read something I wrote along time ago about cookies that's still relevant.
Look at what some of the better sites, such as Amazon.com and Yahoo do. They set up your identity in a cookie. Provided you use the same machine and same browser to come back to their site, they greet you by name and are ready to do business with you from the first screen forward. What a concept. No PINs to track. No hassles. Just usability at its best.
My recommendation: if you come across a site that requires PINs, make your feelings known via plenty of email to the webmaster. Get them to either make it easier to obtain a PIN (like Delta does) or banish PINs entirely and pick up with cookies for authenticating you, the customer. Otherwise, we all might take our business elsewhere.
I have read the American Journalism Review since its founding as the Washington Journalism Review (partly because Edwin Diamond, my mentor, helped cofound it). I also read Columbia Journalism Review for most of its existence. I cancelled my subscriptions to both two years ago, because I found I didn't have the time or the interest to read them.
Then I read that Steve Brill, the brash, irascible founder of the gadfly American Lawyer empire and Court TV, had turned his sides to media criticism. Brill did not want to compete against WJR and CJR for the journalist market; he wanted to create a magazine that provided intelligent journalism criticism to the interested journalism consumer.
He succeeded. I subscribe to the paper version of Brill's Content and I strongly recommend it. It you'd like to dip your toe in the water, try the web site. From his first-issue blockbuster attack on Kenneth Starr, through his widely overlooked second-issue blockbuster, a genuine mug shoot of Bill Gates (probably for speeding), he has presented lively, well-written, intelligent, contrarian commentary on the media. If our watchdogs won't watch themselves, let's have Brill do it for them. This magazine (and its associated web site) deserves success as well as our support.
It used to be when there was a big egregious case of media stupidity, I'd call Edwin and discuss it. He's dead now, depriving me of my inside look. The next best thing is Brill's Content.
A Shaggy Dog Story Or Two
Some jokes are still passed from hand to hand, the old-fashioned way. Word of mouth. You know, there's long been a theory that topical jokes "escape" from Letterman's writers, or Leno's. Well, this one isn't topical and it probably didn't escape from anywhere.
As with most shaggy dog stories, clearly this one could be strung out. Since the punchline is the whole point, however, I'll spare you the long version.
There's this guru. He walks around barefoot, so his feet are heavily callused. So much so he can walk on glass. He fasts regularly, so he's frail. Fasting makes your breath smell bad, so he has a pretty awful case of halitosis. What do you call him?
"A super-callused, fragile mystic with extra halitosis."
You may have to say that out loud, quickly, to get it.
Sometime between 1970 and 1974, when I was in college, the NY Times Magazine ran a last page feature on Chattanooga Choo-Choo jokes; that is, jokes which reflected the meter of the lyric, "Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?" The only one I remember ends "Pardon me, goy, is that the chatty guru's new pew?" Does anyone else remember any other Chattanooga Choo-Choo jokes?
Then there's the two-part joke about the construction site, and throwing the brick, in part one. Then part two involves a bird and an airplane, and the brick makes a cameo appearance. Does this ring any bells?
Does Quasimodo ring a bell?
New Corporate Cost-Cutting Policy
Any of you who travel for business in these cost-cutting days can relate to this perennial list of travel suggestions. Send them to your friends at work, with a spoof "From" address that makes them appear to be from the travel department. Or simply paste them into a message and ask, "Did you get this e-mail from the travel department?" The line between parody and reality grows ever thinner. I could almost have believed these came from my company.
Due to the current financial situation, changes will be made to the Business Travel standards and Procedures Manual. Effective Monday the following revised procedures apply:
What! No publishable letters this week from you, the readership? I am chagrined, disappointed, flabbergasted and, frankly, a little short on the column. In case you hadn't noticed, this is a communal effort. Let's get on the ball here, people! I know everyone is a little lethargic right after the holidays, but come on. The tree is down, the lights are put away, you've bitten the head off the last chocolate Santa. It's time to get back in the swing of things, which means writing either witty or intemperate letters to me.
It's either that, or read columns written (almost) completely by me.
Note: Instead of digressions in Java boxes, I thought I'd try hypertext footnotes. Let's all decide how we feel about these, shall we?
A first class movie if you haven't already seen it; highly recommended, very funny. A small Irish village tries to collect the lottery winnings of a resident killed by the shock of winning. Rae, my younger daughter, says it's about Ireland and it's funny: what more could you ask for? [return to text]
The Simpsons and Harry Shearer's Le Show, both guided by Shearer's comic genius, are particularly devastating; Keillor appears on Homer's TV in a PBS broadcast, causing Homer to leap up, Beat the top of the set and scream "Be Funny." [return to text]
Garrison Keillor is a very angry man. Anyone who has listened to his show for more than a few weeks can hear that. Although he makes light of the way he dismisses listener complaints--something he tellingly doesn't do much anymore [I think someone told him how petty he sounded], there is a quite apparent undercurrent of hurt and anger. It is frightening sometimes if you're tuned in to it. Like Walter Winchell, or more appropriately, Arthur Godfrey (or sometimes Dan Rather), I always have the feeling he could turn on any act or any actor at any minute. Perhaps, like Godfrey, he will fire someone popular on the air someday. On the other hand, he did convince Bob Elliott of Bob and Ray to join him for two seasons on the show when it was based in Manhattan. It was the most appropriate comedic paring in radio history, save only that of Bob and Ray themselves. There's a reason Keillor fought the only published biography of him tooth and nail. [return to text]
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