Son of Devil's Advocate, December 2000

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Psephological Methodologies

I had been hoping to avoid any reference to the Florida voting discontinuities but, as I post this column, the free-world is still without a clear leader. As Jay Leno quipped: "We await the lesser of two weasels." Meanwhile, Psephology (the abstract science of elections) admits many paradoxes, whereby "preference" is non-transitive. Thus, simple counts (by tabcard or hand) can establish "A over B" and "B over C" yet validly conclude "C over A."

There's been no end of formal papers in the journals of the MAA (Mathematical Association of America) and its rival AMS (American Mathematical Society) [ref 1], seeking the "fairest" voting algorithms. Some of the obvious "proportional represention" approaches have resulted in wild instabilities, for example, the monthly power-swings in France, Italy, and Israel.

Many of the mathematically "ideal" voting systems call for a sequence of "discardable-reallocated" votes whereby you can switch your preferences after each round has eliminated certain candidates. Alas, these electoral methods tax the patience and, dare one say, the intelligence of the "vox populi," cynically known as "pox vopuli."

Given space and time, I could remind you of the fascinating history of "democracy," namely the various ploys for deciding who was qualified to vote. The Greeks, to whom we pay due etymological homage, restricted the right to the tiny minority of male non-slaves (forgive the tautology). Later cultures [sic] placed income (poll-tax) and gender limits to determine who could vote. Interestingly, it was the Tory Prime Minister Disraeli (1867) who helped move the Brits nearer to "Universal Suffrage" by reducing the voting limit to a single household threshold. Much later, both the UK and USA moved painfully to allow everyone to vote, however poor, black, and female, but there was always an underlying fear that voters might not meet certain minimum IQ standards if naive majority-democracy were to work.

The US popular- electoral-college-vote compromise has worked well so far, yet the current narrow-count impasse is one of those rare but statistically possible events given the long history of presidential elections. The annoying mathematical fact is that N+1 > N for all N. Thus, in theory and malpractice, the brother- in-law who sold you that Pinto lemon ("Do I have a deal for you?") could well be the bugger who changes the course of history. He's the proverbial nail in the horse's shoe that lost Alexander (or was it Attila or Napoleon?) his empire.

Or, as we chaosists prefer to posit: "A registered butterfly can trigger a tempest."

Of course, faced with a tiny majority, the minority scream for a re-count, with special attention to dubious votes that might tip the balance. The term "irregularity" (copyrighted, they say, by the mayoral Daley family in Chicago) covers a multitude of sins and blessings, ranging from bought votes (no problem for me: some people really need the money) to many a Lazarus who returns from the grave to cast his or her preference. I've never been bothered by these "deceased" votes -- after all, the dead have been exposed to political insights beyond our ken. Recall St Paul's: "We [the living] see through a glass darkly..."

However, re-ambiguous votes (what was the voter's real intent), it's interesting to note that in the UK there's a long tradition of deliberately "spoiling" your ballot when none of the candidates meets your fancy. This is considered more British than simply abstaining, which raises the vexing question: should voting be made compulsory? After all the "right-to-vote" struggles it's depressing that so few are bothered. Indeed, we are used to calling 36% a "landslide."

The use of various "automated" voting systems whereby you poke or fail to poke holes in a card has, in the current Florida mess, revived interest in "chad," an almost forgotten term in the DP "laxicon."

Whence Chad?

Well, we older Iron-Age farts who cut our teeth [sic] by removing circular and rectangular cobs from paper-tape and Hollerith cards, had no doubt that our keypunches had "chad boxes" to collect the discarded "bits." Indeed, many a wedding was enhanced by scattering this free confetti, and many a gin was made pink with a sprinkling of paper-tape chaddim (note the preferred Talmudic plural).

Yet, the origin of the word "chad" has long puzzled those of us who have nothing more vital to ponder [ref 2].

Complicating our etymological angst was the fact that "chad" also became associated with the perforated edge-strips that you had to remove from printed tabulator sheets. Way back, these were also known as "selvage" (via the milliner's hem; far from convincing unless, ironically, you rate low your actual tabulations.) In the 1960s, a Datamation contest ruled in favor of the more picturesque "perfory."

Folklore (the alternative to etym obscure) has it that a certain Dr Chadless invented an eponymous keypunch which merely clipped a flap in the medium without creating a horrid hole. Mechanical pin-sensing readers were none the wiser. Whence, of course, by a process known as retronymic-semantics, a real macho punch was non-chadless, producing, what else but "chad?"

Little did we think that a US Presidential Election might hang on a possible chad-mischad-abednego. But, a joyous bonus for us full- time satirists. Thus, from Kevin G. Barkes

"I heard that the Supreme Court has been asked to rule if a pregnant chad has the right to choose?"

Bob Toxen [ref 3], noting Bush's opposition to TV violence and the Gore family's dislike of porn, concluded that "Bush was against gore and Gore against bush."

Bob also reported the germane:

"What George Washington did for us was to throw out the British, so that we wouldn't have a fat, insensitive government running our country. Nice try anyway, George."

A related chad anecdote by Mike Richter fwd'd from Darius Thabit:

One of the finest software engineers I ever knew had begun working with computers in the late 1950's. She was on a classified project - the punch cards were pre-marked Top Secret. Early in the project, the head of security came in with a can of chad. The question: what is the proper classification of these fragments of card.

Logically, they contain no information, so Carol replied: Unclassified. The head of security voted for TS. For those who are unfamiliar with such matters, each document classified Secret or above must be supported by paperwork on its creation, properly marked and numbered, then tracked until signed off at (witnessed) destruction. Of course, each bit of chad is a 'document' - you certainly cannot bind them appropriately and number each 'page', now can you? They compromised on "Confidential"; documentation was reduced to paperwork on each can at the end of each day and incineration was witnessed and documented.

You think we're seeing red tape now? Suppose that security had won that battle.

The ultimate reaction to a rudder-less US was the Brit "Revocation of Independence." So many versions have been spamming our precious bandwidth (all, alas, anonymous) that I'm loath to add to the flood. Yet, yet, some of youse may have missed it:


To the Citizens of the United States of America,

In the light of your failure to elect a President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective today.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchial duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy. Your new prime minister (The Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, MP for the 97.85% of you who have until now been unaware that there is a world outside your borders) will appoint a minister for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire will be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

1. You should look up "revocation" in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then look up "aluminium". Check the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up "vocabulary". Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as & like" and "you know" is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. Look up "interspersed";.

2. There is no such thing as "US English". We will let Microsoft know on your behalf.

3. You should learn to distinguish the English and Australian accents. It really isn't that hard.

4. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as the good guys.

5. You should relearn your original national anthem, "God Save The Queen", but only after fully carrying out task 1. We would not want you to get confused and give up half way through.

6. You should stop playing American "football". There is only one kind of football. What you refer to as American "football" is not a very good game. The 2.15% of you who are aware that there is a world outside your borders may have noticed that no one else plays "American" football. You will no longer be allowed to play it, and should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. It is a difficult game. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American "football", but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like nancies). We are hoping to get together at least a US rugby sevens side by 2005.

7. You should declare war on Quebec and France, using nuclear weapons if they give you any merde. The 98.85% of you who were not aware that there is a world outside your borders should count yourselves lucky. The Russians have never been the bad guys. "Merde" is French for "shit".

8. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 8th will be a new national holiday, but only in England. It will be called "Indecisive Day".

9. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean.

10. Please tell us who killed JFK. It's been driving us crazy.

Thank you for your cooperation.

-- The United Kingdom

This column UNIX Review Dec 85 (c) Stan Kelly-Bootle 11/12/85

Goodspels, Badspels...

Those of you blissfully unversed in contemporary Biblical scholarship are still hopefully and innocently basing your Christmas activities on the King James Version of the Gospels, in particular:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

(KJV: Luke 2:14)

However, most reputable scholars, suitably aided with Biblical and Dead Sea Scroll databases, are now convinced that the Greek word eudoxia is better translated in the above context as "good pleasure" or "favor" rather than "good will." Further, the preferred Lucan manuscripts have eudoxias, which is the genitive form: "of (God's) good pleasure." Cutting through many years of heated exegesis (see, for example, The Anchor Bible, Volume 28, pp. 410-412; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Doubleday, NY), we can report that the heavenly host were undoubtedly proclaiming to the frightened shepherds:

Glory in highest heaven to God; and on earth peace for people whom he favors.

The good news is that anthropoi, formerly rendered in the macho modal ("men"), becomes "people" thereby subsuming the ladies. The not-so-good news is that the Almighty is still male (to offset this, though, note that Commodore's Amiga is a senorita) and the target group for peace is restricted to those people whom God favors or "manifests his predilection" (op. cit. p. 411).

Whether this spoils your holiday or not I must leave to you and your conscience. Other seasonable scriptures, unchanged as far as I can determine at the time of this essay, stress the advantages of giving over receiving, a precept that I wish more of my friends would observe! The same secular tendencies that label Christmas as "Xmas" or "Bah-humbug-time" also replace the pure joy of giving with a cold, annual calculation known as the exchange_of gifts, whereby December 26th is spent unwrapping the new PC and computing VAL_GIFTS_IN and VAL_GIFTS_OUT. Any imbalance is carefully noted and used to prepare next year's shopping list. If you doubt me, look up "Present Value" in the index of any book on Actuarial Algorithms.

"What's in all this for me, me, me?" I hear you bleat.

Well, I seem to have talked myself into a generous frame of mind, and many of you will benefit as I discharge my merry sleigh.

True, some of my gifts this year will be of an advisory disposition, but remember that computer-consultants nowadays are so exorbitant that it is patently crazy to ignore their advice. With my free advice - you can take it or leave it; see if I care. I am even prepared to offer you a free second opinion.

First prezzy out the bag is for the semiconductor industry - my suggestion that they immediately adopt a sensible supply/demand mechanism. It appears obvious to me that the only solution to the present roller-coaster instability is to make demand continuously responsive to supply rather than the other way round. You see how simple things can be when a fresh, uncluttered mind approaches a problem from the outside?

Ah, here is a game for all those who find Raymond Smullyan's puzzles too difficult. I call it the "Tower of Cracow." You have to transfer the hoop from A to B without using C. (see fig. 1)(fig. 1 coming soon)

Next, for non-accountant computer-scientists forced to use spread-sheets, I offer binary and hex versions of a well-known package, which I have named Lotus 01-10-11 and Lotus H01-H02-H03 respectively. These help spread-sheets to look like the more familiar and tractable core-dumps.

I have something special for all ye who labor in vain. Whenever your genius slips by unrecognized, re-read the following complete review of the first ever performance of Mozart's opera "Idomeneo" in 1781, as reported in the local Munich newspaper:

"On the 29th of the past month, the opera 'Idomeneo' was performed for the first time in our new opera house. Libretto, music and translation originated in Salzburg. The decorations - of which the most inspiring are the view of the seaport and the temple of Neptune - are masterpieces by our architect, Mr. Corent Quaglio, and aroused the admiration of all."

Is there a Mr. (or maybe a Mrs.) Quaglio in your life, grabbing all the glory?

Everyone, it seems, including such culprits as Steve Rosenthal, is complaining about the impossible data flow generated by the computer industry - this daily accumulative assault on the finite band-width of our comprehension. Our numbed channels, they claim, can no longer distinguish useful signals from noisy hype.

So, for all of us, God-favored or not, I whisper a heartfelt prayer for peace and a well-earned break from the dyna-quo.

ref 1: the sort of "bipartisan" friendly hatred that pervades Washington.

ref 2: See entries @ chad in "The New Hacker's Dictionary" (Eric Raymond/Guy L. Steele Jr -- MIT Press, 1991) and "The Computer Contradictionary" (Stan Kelly-Bootle, MIT Press, 1995)

ref 3: Bob's Real World Linux Security (Prentice Hall) will hit the shelves real soon.

Stan's bio:

Liverpool-born Stan Kelly-Bootle has been exposed to computing, on and off and vice-versa, since 1953 when, after graduating in Pure Mathematics at Cambridge University, he switched to impure post-grad work on the wondrous EDSAC I. After some trenching with IBM and Univac in the 1960s and 70s, Stan opted for self-employment as a consultant, writer, folk-song revivalist, after-dinner entertainer, and cunning linguist.

His monthly DA ("Devil's Advocate") column ran and ran in UNIX Review (aka Performance Computing) from 1984 until January 2000 (a date that will live in infamy) but lives on as SODA ("Son of DA") via the homepage devoted to UNIX performance.

The latest of his umpteen books are "The Computer Contradictionary" (MIT Press) and "UNIX Complete" (Sybex). More on his biblio- and disco-graphy can be found on soon due for its millennial update.

Stan welcomes reader reaction:

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Portions © copyright Stan Kelly-Bootle 2000.
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