I don’t think I need to remind readers that (a) there is an election coming up real soon now and (b) the good old U-S-of-A has not had a good run of elections that are both clean and appear to be clean of late, as the various controversies of the 2000 and 2004 elections show. As a reminder:

  • Diebold Corporation, maker of touch screen voting systems seems to have a cozy relationship with Republican Party operatives and, far more importantly, has held the code for its voting machines closed so it’s not possible to check for security holes and other bugs, which lends credence to the various conspiracy mongers out there on the intarweb.
  • Large numbers of voters are put on and off the rolls by loosely supervised private contractors and other organizations often paid for by the parties, which leads to accusations of voter fraud (i.e., making up voters), voter exclusion (i.e., removing registration of eligible voters), etc.
  • Chicanery around electoral districts every ten years (or more often, as the case may be).
  • The use of partisan poll watchers to either intimidate (or unfairly challenge) voters or ensure voters vote the party line (by checking ballots for “validity”).

I’m sure there are others I’m missing but it really doesn’t matter, you get the point. These have more Republican fingerprints on them of late but Democrats shouldn’t be smug, you’ve been busted with your hands in the cookie jar before, too—the Republicans were just better at it than you were for a long time.

Part of the reason is relatively simple but often misunderstood: There’s always roaches in the walls and rat hair in your food. The closer you are too the cracks and crevices the more likely you are to see them. Well we’ve had close elections and close elections show you the cracks and crevices up close so no surprise there are roaches.

Stripping away all the civics class rah-rah, voting is a measuring system. It takes individuals’ subjective preferences, whatever they may be, and maps them into an aggregate choice of representative at various levels in a hierarchy. It cannot do this perfectly, as economist Kenneth Arrow showed in 1951, ever. In a nutshell, Arrow showed that five reasonable criteria (well, reasonable after a fair amount of thought) for decision making to be democratic are mutually incompatible. However, it’s not necessary to go to some of the esoteric extremes of Arrow’s mathematics to realize there’s a problem, and that problem is error.

Much like the price system—also a measuring system that takes your time, expertise and resources, my time, expertise and resources, and everybody else’s, even people you don’t know, and allows us to exchange them—it is ultimately subjective. Similarly the jury system is a measurement of the facts of a case when they are in doubt. Juries and voting are more similar than prices because in both much of the running of the system is in the hands of people who have stake in the “right” outcome happening and thus a lot of incentive to game it. (Of course there are regulations against price fixing for a reason.) Again, that matters in detail but not in the big picture. What is important is the fact that it is a measuring system and with measuring systems the important questions are:

  1. How much error are we willing to tolerate? Put another way, what level of resolution do we want from our measuring system? How many rat hairs are we willing to tolerate in a certain volume of peanut butter?
  2. How much does it cost to reduce error, realizing that because the universe is built on O(1/√n) convergence of averages, each additional digit of accuracy can be expected to cost increasingly more resources to attain? If rat hair free peanut butter costs, say, $100 per jar, who would buy it?

Let me give you an example to put this into perspective. The numbers quoted for DNA evidence are ridiculous. You hear numbers like “one in a million” or “one in a septuagenarian” or whatever. The actual number is unknown but probably somewhere around 1%… a reasonable guess for the probability of a human error in the chain of evidence. Human error, of course, dwarfs the chances of a real DNA match between people. If you mess up the evidence along the way, genetic science can’t help you. Sure Gil Grissom has a lower probability of error in chain of evidence, but even he’s not perfect and most CSIs are definitely not perfect, as OJ’s 1995 case showed the world. Assuming for convenience that human error and DNA sequencing machine error are independent,

Pr(one or both errors) = Pr(human error) + Pr(DNA sequencing error),

which effectively equals the probability of human error. Of course this doesn’t undermine DNA evidence, because in many cases the alternatives are worse, but it should make you a great deal more skeptical. In systems with substantial human involvement, we really can’t expect much better than about 1% give or take an order of magnitude… usually take an order of magnitude.

From actual data I saw of a study done in Illinois in 2002, optical scan with verify “kickback” (amusing use of that term in Illinois…), which is the best voting technology I know of, has an error rate of about… you guessed it, on order of 1%. So, unless we develop telepathic voting or are willing to spend a HUGE amount on the system, chances are good that 1% is about as good as it gets, or maybe one more digit, I would guess, but that’s just a guess. Maybe it can go smaller but no matter how you cut it, it’s not going to go smaller by all that much, which means that an election like 2000 in Florida—decided by a margin of about 0.01%—would be a nail biter for the foreseeable future. However, many people would, I believe, find the attainable level of error unacceptable, saying something like “It is a gross injustice if even one person is falsely denied the right to vote!” or “It is a gross injustice if even one person votes fraudulently votes when not entitled to!”

What’s ironic is that rather than taking effective, proven steps that would reduce the error level without breaking the bank (more on that below), we actually have many policies that increase the error level. The US is unusual in that voting is seen as a romanticized celebration of localism, civic virtue and so forth, and is handled largely by volunteers, many elderly, who are overseen by partisans. I don’t even need to leave the State of Florida to discuss this point:

  • If voting is so important it shouldn’t be left to the designer of the infamous Florida butterfly ballot, who violated a large number of principles of interface design because of well-intentioned ignorance.
  • Supervision of the system shouldn’t be left to elected officials who have multiple relationships.

Lest you get smug in other states, chances are good your electoral system sucks just as much but if things aren’t close it doesn’t matter. For instance, more chads were hanged in Illinois in 2000 than in Florida but because the vote in Illinois wasn’t close it didn’t matter, thus you didn’t hear about it. Then there’s the Land of Enchantment, where political pressure to bring cases of “voter fraud” (non-citizens voting or the good old standby of votes from bums “votes for smokes”, etc.) before an election got a good prosecutor kicked out of his job when he found no real evidence of it and declined to bring any charges.

It’s sad but many US elections simply don’t meet the standards that would satisfy electoral observers sent by, say, the Organization of American States (OAS).

To cut a long story short, I am arguing that we should turn the voting system itself over to a technocratic organization—let’s call it the National Electoral Institute, or NEI for short—built along the lines of the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, National Transportation Safety Board, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Census Bureau. These three organizations are recognized around the world as the experts on their respective topics. If there’s an airplane crash somewhere in the world, chances are that an NTSB investigator will be helping the locals both because he or she knows a lot more about such things than the locals but also because NTSB is gathering more data about airplane crashes for when something happens in the US. Similarly, there basically isn’t a census in the world that doesn’t draw on the deep expertise of the Census Bureau. These organizations are non-partisan. (At least I hope they are and that there aren’t any Monica Goodlings or Kyle Sampsons floating around in them but Lord only knows after the last eight years.) In short: These are professionals who see it as their mission in life to make sure their jobs are done properly and according to spec.

One of the deep ironies is that the US government has pushed independent electoral institutes in other countries, e.g., Mexico’s IFE or the Electoral Commission of India, while letting our own electoral institutions languish. Yes we have the FEC but all it does is oversee campaign finance, and it’s far from clear that that’s even a good idea. But a true non-partisan institute would allow the United States, the world’s oldest extant democracy, to finally end Amateur Hour and assume a role as a shining example of how to do elections right, a role we should darn well have had years ago…but better late than never.

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Next Time: What the NEI would have as staff and function, barriers to making all this happen, and, of course, the downsides.

You’re in the wrong line of work. I know this because there is a fabulous career in research waiting for you in Antarctica where the sun stays hidden below the horizon in a night that lasts from June until September. Wait! Wait! There’s more! Just yesterday the base at McMurdo received part of its last shipment of supplies for about 90 days, which included 16,500 condoms. Did I mention only 125 people will occupy the base for the next 90 days?

Thats right, 16,500 condoms are being delivered to a base in Antarctica populated by a mere 125 scientists. There are less than 90 days until the next resupply. Given those numbers that’s 132 condoms per individual. Given the use of these… ahem, items, this number is more like 264 per person. So the suppliers are estimating these scientists will be getting laid about three times per day.

That’s an awful lot of “science” going on…

As a bit of variety for our readers, I’ve decided to throw together a periodic humor piece inspired by Simon Travaglia BOFH. It’s not exactly an angry rant… but April Fool’s is over, and you still deserve a few laughs… For those new to the HoS series, the first episode is here.

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It’s about 9:30 in the morning when I roll into the office (so sue me, the sun woke me up and I couldn’t get back to sleep), when to my shock and horror I see the department’s two morbidly obese systems administrators (I’ll call them Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum) leaning on our lab table.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” I lie, oozing charm. “What seems to be the cataclysmic event which has caused you two troglodytes to risk exposure to the dreaded day star?” Oh well, no charm after all. Drat.

“Very funny,” snorts Tweedle Dee. His cheese-it devouring PLP continues, “You know why we’re here.”

“No, I don’t,” I respond, because I honestly have no idea whatsoever.

“Yes you do,” responds Tweedle Dee, tapping his softball bat against his empty palm. When the last time he could run to first base without having a coronary was, I don’t know. But I don’t like the mafioso-style intimidation.

“Listen, here junior hitmen. Either you tell me why you’re here, or I’m on the phone to the university EEO to complain about the ‘hostile and abusive’ workplace environment you’re creating,” I snip back.

“We’re here about your Nessus activities,” counters Tweedle Dee.

“I don’t know anything about…”

“Save your lies for the expulsion committee. We know you ran Nessus against the departmental servers.”

“And you know this how?”

“It was coming from your server.”

“Which anyone in the research group has access too.”

“Yes, but it was running scans that require root access.”

“…”

“Pretty damning, isn’t it?” adds Tweedle Dum, obviously salivating over the thought of finally getting the best of me.

“No. It wasn’t me, but I’ll find out who it is. Nobody roots my server and gets away with it.”

I storm out of the lab and head for The Love Nest, dialing my old college roommate on my cell phone. By the time I get down there, I’ve got him on the hands-free as I’m busy sifting through the server logs.

“Well, it looks like I got myself rooted,” I gripe, staring at what looks like Martian poetry in what should be my /var/log/messages file.

“What great joy,” says the disembodied voice over the phone. “Local or remote exploit?” the voice continues.

“Well, assuming the logs haven’t been doctored, there were three users on. One of which was me.”

“And the other two?” the voice asks.

“One was Amy, and there’s no way she’d know enough to root my box, and the other….”

My face darkens.

“Li.”

“And this should mean what to me?” inquires the voice.

“He’s the cowboy who cracked my memory chip in half a few weeks back.”

“Well, that’s pretty damning. Any router traffic logs?”

“I can’t get those without the cooperation of the very admins who are trying to get me kicked out of school in the first place.”

“True. But it is unlikely they’d fake those just to get you thrown out. If they’re even half-competent, they would have checked those to rule out external penetration before coming after you.”

“You give them too much credit.”

“Perhaps,” notes the voice. “But if they want to get you, a smoking gun pointing to an external source won’t be good enough. Even so, they have you where they want you.”

“Come again?”

“Think. Since there was no external penetration, someone with root access did the dirty deed. You have a log that strongly suggests Li did it, but they can claim you doctored it to save your own tail. Your historical animosity towards Li will aid their case.”

“So? They’ve got no proof. I get off scott free.”

“No. They can’t get you expelled, but they can question your competence as an admin, and make a compelling argument that you’re a security risk…”

“Bloody hell! What they really want is root on my machine for themselves,” I exclaim.

“Correct,” the voice responds. “Which means that unless you can give them an ironclad case against this Li fellow, you’re hosed.”

“Bugger all! How the heck do I do that? As you said, any evidence I present will be suspect.”

“Correct. Consider this thought exercise. Say you wanted to invade a country.”

“You mean, like Iraq?”

“Precisely. You need casus belli, otherwise nobody will buy it. How do you get a reason for war, if the other party isn’t going to give it to you?”

“Get someone else to manufacture one, like WMDs!”

“But who? Someone like…”

“George Tenet,” I exclaim, knowing full well the price of a Presidential Medal of Freedom these days.

“Who has…”

“The credibility I lack. After all, why would he be making this crap up?”

“Back to your case: Who has the credibility to condemn Li which you lack?”

“The Advisor?”

“But would he really back you over his Chinese slave labor?” the voice questions.

“Uh, no.”

“Right, so the only other person who could condemn Li would be….”

“Li himself!”

“Correct again. You need a confession.”

“Thanks, you’re a lifesaver, man,” I say as I hang up, grab my coat and head to Hellalatte, a coffee bar who’s only redeeming quality is that it’s not in the building. If I’m going to get Li to turn himself in, I’m going to need one heck of a plan…

To be continued…
Thanks to longtime reader, Angry Sysadmin for providing the inspiration for this story

As a bit of variety for our readers, I’ve decided to throw together a periodic humor piece inspired by Simon Travaglia BOFH. It’s not exactly an angry rant… but it is Friday — you deserve a few laughs. For those new to the HoS series, the first episode is here.

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It’s about 10am on Friday when I finally wander into the office. The Greek grad student union had one hell of a bender last night where the ouzo was flowing like water. Those Greeks (as in Athens and Sparta, not as in Lambda Lambda Lambda) evidently like to start the weekend early! anyway, in addition to 16 v1agra emails, 3 “natural male enhancement” emails and 2 “h0t st0ck t1ps”, i finally get down to the only email that actually matters, the one from the department office. “Effective immediately,” it reads. “In light of security concerns, all external building doors will be keycard access only.” The note was signed by Professor Chain Smoker, head of the Facilities Committee for the Department. Now I’m for security as much as the next guy, but these ham-fisted policies often create more inconvenience than they do security. Like the inconvenience of having to walk all the way down to the doorway to let in the pizza guy when we’re having a LAN party in the office. Now under other circumstances, this
email would probably trigger a “Well that sucks” and I’d move on with my life. Unfortunately for Professor Chain Smoker, however, I have a massive hangover and I’m in a completely foul mood because of it. And lets be honest, does Hell’s own Scientist really need a reason to wreak his revenge?

I’m thinking not.

My more altruistic readers might feel it inappropriate for me to retaliate against a poorly thought-out policy which only accidentally inconveniences my non-department-sanctioned video game hobbies. To them I respond that I’m not “seeking revenge,” but rather helping certain key individuals, specifically Professor Chain Smoker, to learn to empathize with the pain of others, specifically my pain.

Feel my pain, big boy.

I grab Javier for a quick lunch (and hangover fix) at The Golden Calf, my favorite sports-bar-cum-burger-joint and we start to plan.

“What we need is a way to blackmail Professor Chain Smoker into revoking the policy,” I say, biting into a bacon cheeseburger with genuine aged Wisconsin cheddar.

“By ‘we,’ you mean, ‘you,’” Javier notes. “After all, I’m not a fan of computer games. I prefer consoles.”

He’s playing hardball. The only reason Javier does that is because he has something I want.

“Another imperial stout?” I offer.

“Make it two.”

“Done.”

Coming back with the beverages, I sit down to hear what sort of wisdom Javier has to offer. And for two beverages of the quality to which we’ve become accustomed, it better be good.

“Blackmail is dangerous,” Javier notes in his sage-like fashion. “It can have legal implications and can be easily traced back to the source if the blackmailer engages in liquor-induced bragging. It is far better to convince the gentleman that revising the policy is his own idea.”

“Go on.”

“What would convince him of that?”

“If he himself were inconvenienced by the policy.”

“Exactly.”

“But he doesn’t order pizza and if he did, he’d get one of his grad students to go down and pick it up.”

“But what if the professor is at the door?”

“He calls his wife or his secretary or his students and gets them to let him in. I bought two stouts for this?” I was getting tired of this Socrates shite out of Javier very quickly.

“Patience, grasshopper. What if he can’t make the call?”

“What, you mean we jam his cell phone? He can walk out of the range of the jammer, or just wait until someone comes by to let him in?”

“But what if he can’t?”

“That’s not…” Light bulb turn on! “That’s absolutely brilliant! Barkeep, get this man another stout!”

I drop some cash at the bar and leave Javier to deal with the effects of a four stout lunch while I rush back to the office to grab the cell phone repeater we use because the reception is terrible in the office. A few warranty-voiding modifications later and I have a working (and highly illegal) cell phone jammer. Another hour of electrical engineering later and I have a working battery-powered electromagnet capable of scrambling the first year’s student ID from about two feet (Hey, I need to test things somehow, and he carelessly left his wallet in his back pocket, how foolish of him!). After a few hours of actual work (the horror) it’s almost quitting time… and almost time for Professor Chain Smoker’s last smoke break of the day.

You see, the department policy applies to all doors external to the building, no matter where they are positioned. This, of course, includes the doors to the second and third floor balconies that have no other exits. Well, unless you were a ninja or had a grappling hook on your person when you got locked on the balcony. As the webcam shows my new favorite professor heading out on the balcony for a smoke break, I rush to the common area near the balcony and plug the jammer into one of the wall outlets (leaving the actual device in a nearby potted plant). With a piece of old pipe, I prop the balcony door ever so slightly ajar, so Professor Chain Smoker won’t notice it stays open after I come out) and walk out to get a nip of fresh air.

“Hi, Professor.”

“Uh, hello.”

He has no idea who I am. Excellent.

“Ooh, what brand do you smoke? I’m a Marlboro man myself,” I lie.

As he starts to show of his fru-fru cigs and tell me about his favorite smoke shop, I wander over just close enough to…. ZZZZZZ.

“What was that?”

“Probably just Jimmy starting the vacuum cleaner,” I reply innocently. “Anyway, I need to head out. I’ll be sure to check out that smoke shop.”

As I walk out (and un-prop the door), I wonder how long it will be until Jimmy finds the jammer and unplugs it. Well, I suppose I can watch the live, streaming video on the department “look at our new building” webcam to find out.

As a bit of variety for our readers, I’ve decided to throw together a periodic humor piece inspired by Simon Travaglia BOFH. It’s not exactly an angry rant… but it is Friday (well, Saturday this time, but nobody really cares about those details if they know what’s good for them) — you deserve a few laughs. For those new to the HoS series, the first episode is here.

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It’s Saturday night and I’m in the lab. Javier and I are sitting at the lab table trying to figure out exactly how I’m supposed fulfill my part of the bargain with Jimmy the Janitor. Our preliminary recon only served to enhance the immensity of the problem — ever since a disgruntled grad student tried to shoot him about a decade ago, the Columbian Slave Driver’s door (I’ll call him the CSD for short) has been reinforced and alarmed. Even if Javier or I could pick the lock, we’d have a few minutes before campus police arrived and hauled us off to the county jail for the night. The only other door is into his lab, though it’s not alarmed, it’s hinged to make it impossible to enter from the lab unless we drill out the whole lock mechanism.

“This does not look good,” I complain.

“No kidding. There’s no way in the world to get inside that office without seriously damaging either the wall or windows,” notes Javier sadly.

“Yeah, and neither of us can dry wall for shit.” We found that out the hard way at Habitat for Humanity a few weeks back, which we both volunteered for quickly after finding the grad student association (GSA) was shouting drinks afterwards. “If only there was a way to distract him…”

“Well, he’s become a serious skirt chaser ever since his third wife left him.”

We both pause for a moment, and look at the portion of the wall on a direct line to Amy and Sasha’s office.

“I’m not talking to Sasha if I could possibly avoid it and Amy wouldn’t do it,” I protest.

“But she doesn’t have to know,” responds Javier with a sneaky gleam in his eye.

“What do you mean?”

“What if Amy and I go to the CSD’s office about 10 minutes before class to ask for help on an assignment and she has an ‘accident’ to attract his attention?”

I’m sure there’s no way in the world I could bring myself to do this to Amy myself — she’s just too unbearably cute to use as a pawn in my personal wars. But fortunately for me, Javier has fewer scruples than I (not to mention that he doesn’t have a soft spot for midwestern farmer’s daughter types like I do), and he’s willing to do the dirty work, so…

“Excellent. I’ll dash into his office while you and Amy keep him busy.”

Monday afternoon comes and phase one of the plan executes perfectly. Javier and the unwitting Amy head up to the CSD’s office while I wait around the corner, with my backpack full of “operational supplies.” Javier and Amy engage the CSD with some inane homework question, when Javier “accidentally” trips, spilling Amy, her books and all of Javier’s coffee all over the hallway floor. The CSD, not missing a chance to impress a lady, hops up from his desk to help the damsel in distress, while I sneak behind him into his office and dive under said desk.

The next 5 minutes are shear and utter hell as Javier fast-talks the CSD and I try desperately not to make a sound. Soon the door slams shut and I’m off to work. I pop a few ceiling tiles to find that the satellite feed runs right next door into the CSD’s lab. But before I follow the line, I feel obliged to strike some revenge for grad students everywhere.

Into the CSD’s top-left drawer, where he keeps his pens, go about a dozen prophylactics strategically placed to be visible from the other side of the desk. A swimsuit calendar goes up on the back side of the door and a few lad’s mags get placed on top of the stack of unread journal articles on the shelf by the window. I drop a few empty bottles of booze in the trash and open up his bottom right drawer to put in a half-empty bottle of booze only to find, well, a half-empty bottle of booze. I didn’t realize the CSD was actually boozing it on the sly, but in retrospect, I’m not sure that I’m surprised. Realizing that internet traffic logs could give my presence away, I do nothing to the CSD’s computer (which he carelessly forgot to log out of), except (a) leave a trojan which will start visiting http://www.dirtynunsinleatherhosery.com during all of his office hours for the next week before deleting itself, and (b) leave a nice (backdated) thank-you-for-donating letter from Manuel Marulanda Velez, the generalissimo of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). I’m sure supporting a known terrorist group will go over very well with the uni police when they show up after the CSD’s impending sexual harassment complaint. Perhaps he’ll even win an all-expenses paid vacation to Gitmo when the Feds find out (one can only hope).

A quick call to Jimmy to trigger a fire alarm has me escaping the CSD’s office via the CSD’s lab (after I use the rangefinder to figure out exactly where the satellite feed drops through to second floor). I run back to my lab and check the blueprints on my way out and I notice that the feed drops to an instructional lab on first floor, where Jimmy and I could easily use a masonry drill to run a line to the basement. Excellent. I finally wander outside and catch up with Javier and instruct him to use his newly found tactical tripping skills to ensure that the department’s own Man-Hating Dyke is the first person to make her way up to the CSD’s office after we’re let back inside.

Javier doesn’t even ask any questions as we walk back into the building and the stream of profanities soon heard from the direction of the CSD’s office make me grin. It appears that Operation FARC You has been a success…

As a bit of variety for our readers, I’ve decided to throw together a periodic humor piece inspired by Simon Travaglia BOFH. It’s not exactly an angry rant… but it is Friday — you deserve a few laughs. For those new to the HoS series, the first episode is here.

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The Advisor is pretty pissed about what happened to Li and seems to think that I was at fault in the matter, even if, to the trained observer (and the university police, for that matter), it appeared to be nothing more than an unfortunate accident. Despite spending the evening in university hospital, Li seems not so particularly worse for wear and is “excited about getting back to work.” This means that my offensive did not have the desired effect — instilling fear in Li. That must be rectified, but first I need to switch to defense mode. I must protect the server.

As the only guy in the group who does any computing beyond the “Excel” level, I use about 95% of the non-idle cycles on the server (yeah, ok, that counts BitTorrent), so protecting the server from idiots like Li is high on my priority list. As any decent admin knows, physical access is root access (or in Li’s case, break-memory-in-half access). Ergo, I need to come up with a better place of stashing the server than in the lab so Li and his ilk keep their bloody hands off. Seeing as I don’t really have an office — Javier, the first year and I work in the lab — there’s no obvious place to put it. The thought of leaving it in Amy and Sasha’s office makes me shudder… the prospect of putting in some spadework with Amy is overshadowed by the prospect of having to interact with Sasha at all. I will need another plan.

After finishing off a few rounds of Xevil against the first year and the condensed matter guys down the hall who’s advisor is gone all week, I grab my coat and head out to McSweeney’s for department happy hour. On the way out, I see the Jimmy the janitor and invite him along. Despite the fact that he’s on the clock, he joins us. I like this man’s work ethic. A few hours (and more than a few stouts) later, I’m sitting with Jimmy and Javier and discussing the server problem.

“… and you see, after the memory chip problem, I need to put the server somewhere more secure.”

“What about the department server room?” says Jimmy offers.

Javier and I laugh heartily. “Uh, No.” The departmental web site has been rooted 3 times in the last six months (OK, one of those times was me and Javier), so I wouldn’t trust those guys further than I could throw them (which, given their computer-user physiques isn’t very far).

Jimmy responds, “Well I suppose I could keep it in one of the janitorial closets.”

“Well, I don’t know. I mean, what about moisture?”

“I’ve got the perfect dry space in one of them. And nobody has access but me.”

“And if I need to get to the machine?”

“Come by any time I’m on shift and it’s yours.”

“Well, I’d need to see the facility,” I note.

“Not a problem,” smiles Jimmy.

Now Jimmy is probably about 50 with the libido of a 18 year old. Even the normally oblivious female grad students notice his naughty leer and make it a point to avoid him. Even given his Dirty Old Man status, I’ve made it a point to shout Jimmy a few beers — in the large, heartless bureaucracy that is the university, a janitor is one of the best friends you can possibly have.

After happy hour ends, I head back with Jimmy to inspect his proposed server site… in the basement. I wonder for a moment whether or not I’ve just stepped into a slasher flick when Jimmy opens the door to the room. Needless to say, I’m impressed. Ecce love nest.

Jimmy’s “closet” is almost as large as the lab, and it’s equipped with a large flat panel TV (so that’s where the screen from conference room 234 went), a mini-fridge, a fully stocked bar, the complete collection of the works of Ron Jeremy and a bed that’s so gaudily decorated it looks like it came from a motel with hourly rates. I whirl around to face Jimmy.

“Uh, man, if you’re a thinking that I’m…”

“I’m not a fuckin’ queer, you moron,” Jimmy retorts, “This is for the ladies.”

I ponder in disgust as to what kind of “ladies” would find their way here. Swallowing my doubts, I ask, “Where do you think I can put the server?” Jimmy responds by pointing to a nice area in the corner, near a powerpoint where I could easily place the machine and have it completely undisturbed.

“Well that will do quite nicely. What’s the catch?”

“Come again.”

“I know I was buying drinks, but if there’s an off chance I might be interrupting your escapades, this is going to cost me a lot more.”

Jimmy smiles and says, “Son, you definitely have your head on straight. I’ll tell you what I want. The department just installed a satellite HDTV feed up on the roof, and I’ve heard they have all the special channels. You’re going to get me a feed.”

I shudder to think exactly how many porno channels that thing will carry. But it’s either give the man his porn or have Li’s hands all over my server… an easy choice, but a tough job. I’ll need to tap the line, run cable all the way to the basement and do all of this without anyone noticing or caring. I pause for a moment.

“For that much work, I want a key. I won’t use the bed, I promise.”

“Done.”

After a quick trip to city hall in the morning, the next afternoon Jimmy and I are inspecting the dish — it’s a pretty nice system. I can only begin to dream about watching the Super Bowl in HD in one of the conference rooms. I jar myself back to reality by realizing that snow has started falling. Quickly I pull out the laser range-finder and find that the dish is precisely 465 feet from the west wall. Looking over the blueprints for the building (thank you Mr. Mayor!), I trace my finger across them to find out exactly where the feed will drop. A chill comes over me as my finger settles on the office of the professor known as the “Columbian Slave Driver.”

Gulp. This is going to be much harder than I thought.

(to be continued…)

As a bit of variety for our readers, I’ve decided to throw together a periodic humor piece inspired by Simon Travaglia BOFH. It’s not exactly an angry rant… but it is Friday — you deserve a few laughs.

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It’s about 9:30 on Tuesday when I roll into the lab. We had a wicked bender last night at the little Irish pub in convenient stumbling distance from my couch, and so I’m pretty hung over (dark sunglasses and all). Disregarding my now fading headache (pounding 4 aspirins does make a difference), I plop down into my chair and try to log in to my account.

Only to find that I can’t log in at all.

Or for that matter ping the server, once I’ve rebooted into single user mode.

Not good.

I wander across the lab and give the server the ol’ three finger salute.

Nothing.

A hard reboot is equally as ineffective. Drat. I was actually intending on getting work done today — after I spent a little while getting caught up on friday’s BOFH.

After a quick stop by the hideously overpriced coffee shop down on the first floor for a half double-decaffeinated half-caff with a twist of lemon (which somehow came out as an Americano with a slice of orange… the bastards), I clear off a table in the lab by dumping the scattered papers into one pile in the corner. I’m sure the first year didn’t have any particular ordering scheme in mind for his paperwork. Within half and hour, I’ve completely field-stripped the server and have nearly busted out the multimeter when I see something a tad bit odd — a memory chip that’s clearly been cracked in half.

Say all you want about “thermal fatigue,” but memory chips don’t do THAT… which leaves me with one conclusion — somebody else did. But who?

Was it Amy, the theorist best described as an idiot savant — brilliant about theoretical physics and high-falutin’ mathematics, but utterly clueless about anything else in the world? No, it’s unlikely that she could figure out how to open the case, even if I showed here where the quick release was on the side panel.

What about Sasha, the surly Eastern European theorist? Also unlikely. She’s evidently just found Jesus and has been off partying with him all weekend. Not the sort of partying I’ve been doing, but if it makes her any less surly, I’m all for it!

What about Javier, the Puerto Rican experimentalist? No. Javier’s the only guy in the lab who works less than I do… and over a three day weekend, there’s no way Javier would’ve stumbled into the lab… unless he’d had enough booze to forget where his apartment was.

No, it could’ve been the first year… what was his name again? But he seemed to not realize that he was in grad school yet, and was probably boozing it up with Javier.

No, there’s only one other option — Li, the stereotypical workaholic Chinese grad student, who’s deathly scared of the commies revoking his visa. Now, I don’t like Li to begin with — workaholic foreigners are bad for us more laid-back American types. By having no life outside the lab (at least Li showers), they slowly convince professors that 16 hour work days are “normal” and suddenly your whole office is speaking Mandarin and you’re getting the pink slip for putting only 8 hours in a day. As I only put in about 4, this would be a big problem. Thankfully, Li isn’t all that good at science, so his overall productivity isn’t that high, but he’s still a threat. And if Li broke the server, I’m a threat… to him.

A trip by ECE stores has me billing a new memory chip to The Advisor’s grant. By lunch time the server is up and running, so I can check my email before I head down to Burrito Mucho Grande for my traditional Monday lunch (yes, it’s Tuesday, but three day weekends reset the lunch schedule). The internet was out all weekend because some idiot down in Central Computing gas-axed through the external line. You could almost see the light bulb above my head as I pour a bunch of dust in the card reader and headed to Burrito Mucho Grande. Whoever messed with the server did so because the internet was out… and thought it was a problem with the server… *my* server. And whoever that someone is will pay.

Upon my return (and after I pick up my next cup of coffee), the card reader is out — who would have known — so I head down to the office of the only secretary in the building with actual keys to the rooms (the university having moved to card readers to “save money” and not just because the chancellor’s cousin owned a card reader business in Skokie). She sighs and walks me back to the lab and is about to let me in when I trip, spilling my coffee and grabbing her swipe card (carelessly left inside her purse). I apologize profusely, she lets me in and I duplicate her card before leaving it by the potted plant outside the lab (so she can find it when she retraces her steps after realizing she “dropped” it).

The rest of the day passes fairly uneventfully as I restock the lab’s chemical supplies from central stores. The clerk wonders why I’ve ordered so much liquid nitrogen, but I tell her some cock and bull story about a new supercooling experiment until she lets me go my way. After 6pm when most of the building staff is gone, I head down to the secretary’s office and let myself in. Within a few minutes I’ve broken into her NT box and I’m loading up the cardkey log software. Thankfully it’s web-based and Miss Secretary has chosen the “remember this password” option in her browser, so within no time I’m looking over the access logs to the lab, which confirm my suspicions — Li was the only person in the lab this weekend. And now he needs to be taught a lesson.

I head back to the lab (who’s door I propped this afternoon) and rig up a tripwire with some fishing line tied to the valve on the liquid nitrogen canister. I pull the patch cable out of the server and quietly lock the door and walk down to the lobby, chatting with the janitor about the Uni basketball team when…

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

It looks like the server is down… and Li’s feeling worse. That’s what you get for messing with

HELL’S OWN SCIENTIST!

Danny Thomas (born Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yaqoob), Jan. 6, 1912-Feb. 6, 1991.

Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others.

—Danny Thomas

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Many Americans today have probably never heard of Danny Thomas, as he belonged definitively to the twilight of the Golden Age of Cinema (starring in the 1952 remake of The Jazz Singer) and the dawn of the Golden Era of Television (starring in, what else, The Danny Thomas Show and producing such shows as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad). And before all that, he was a stand-up comic touring the Midwest nightclub circuit under an anglicized form of his given name, Amos Jacobs.

In any event, it is not for Danny’s entertainment talent that we honor him today. Of all his long work in the studios, only a couple of his many shows are still shown frequently. But though most do not know him by name, nearly everyone knows him through his greatest legacy: The St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

At an early moment in his career, when the nightclub circuit was looking particularly grim (he was languishing in Detroit, no less), Danny knelt down in prayer and asked St. Jude Thaddeus (patron of hopless causes) to “show me my way in life.” Soon Danny found himself in Chicago and his career finally moving. When he next went to St. Jude in prayer at another turning point, he pledged to build a shrine if he ever had the means to do so.

His career took off, and Danny found himself wondering just how to fulfill his vow. Working with a group of businessmen in Memphis, he hit upon the idea to build a research hospital dedicated to curing the most catastrophic diseases afflicting children. A key point here: Danny Thomas didn’t just found a hospital—which after all can only treat the children that come through its doors—he founded a research institute dedicated to researching, applying, and publicizing cures for free.

And Danny did more than just found the place, he returned to the community of his birth, Lebanese Americans, to secure ongoing funding. From his efforts, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) was founded—with the sole purpose of supporting St. Jude. Today, ALSAC—still exclusively dedicated to St. Jude—is America’s third-largest health-care charity. Thus, the efforts of Danny Thomas and the Arab-American community produced a fundraising powerhouse that today transcends ethnicity, geography, and ideology to reach across America.

With an initial focus on pediatric cancer, St. Jude has helped increase the cure rate of acute lymphocytic leukemia from 4% to 80%, seen its budget grow from $1 million per year to $235 million, and branched out to study HIV-AIDS (devastating the children of Africa) and numerous cancers. Today it engages in cutting edge gene and stem cell therapies and is a highly rated scientific institution.

Leaving aside the 4900 patients seen each year, St. Jude has saved the lives of thousands upon thousands of children around the world through its contributions to basic and clinical research. Protocols developed at St. Jude have helped raise the survival rates for childhood cancers from under 20% to around 70%, with several key cancers having survival rates 90% or higher. And now it sets its sights on the diseases and therapies of the 21st Century. In the best American fashion it does not simply treat the symptoms of the ills it fights, it seeks to eliminate the root causes.

All from the vow of a stand-up comic, with help from a few Memphis businessmen and the unstinting assistance of the Arab-American community. Danny Thomas represents precisely what is right about America: he had opportunity, seized it, succeeded, and then stopped to consider how he could use his success to improve the world.

Of course, as with our other Great Americans Walt Disney and George Marshall, there are detractors. Some point to the sheer impossibility of curing childhood diseases and the tendency of charities to metastasize over time. To these folks the size and scope of St. Jude aren’t strengths but weaknesses—weaknesses that a group of smaller more focused institutions wouldn’t have. Others point out that as nasty as the diseases St. Jude fights are, they’re nothing compared to the childhood deaths from starvation, war, and exploitation. Wouldn’t all those millions be better spent fighting these more lethal, but far less scientifically “sexy” killers? Doesn’t St. Jude commit the classic American blunder of the Big Plan when less ambitious, more targeted efforts would work better?

There’s a point to all the carping, to be sure, but it still misses the point. Here, as always, the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good. Trying too hard to get the perfect solution is a great recipe for doing nothing. While others carp, hopeless cases still find hope at the place Danny built.

Still, I don’t think Danny would mind if those critics of his got busy building their competing visions. They might give ALSAC a run for the money, but I can’t help but think that Danny would just look down and urge them on.

After all, there’s still more than enough childhood misery to go around, sadly.

I’d like to kick off a new semi-regular feature here at the Angry Men, a celebration of Americans of all different stripes and backgrounds who have all, in their way, made America and the world a better place. They will be politicians, generals, entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors; famous, and obscure; figures of history and thoroughly modern folks. But together they will remind us of the diversity and unity of the United States, of our greatest principles and of the great promise of America: you are free to pursue your dreams as best you can.

Without further ado, let’s raise a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to our inaugural Great American: Walter Elias Disney:

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The first few decades of Walt Disney’s life reads like an almost stereotypical American success story: born the son of an immigrant, growing up across the Midwest in big cities and small towns, sneaking off to World War I as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross, hustling to get started in his chosen career, getting breaks from his brother and returning the favor, and making and losing businesses and fortunes. All by the age of 33.

But in 1934, Disney did something destined to change American entertainment forever, and catapult him to new heights: he produced a full-length animated film featuring both realistic human characters and fantastic cartoon characters. This doesn’t sound like much these days, but back then it was “Disney’s Folly” because it had never been done, and conventional wisdom said it couldn’t be done. Disney bet the farm that conventional wisdom was wrong, and his competitors bet that he’d lose that farm.

Of course, as we know, Disney was right, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was wildly successful, playing to standing ovations and winning an Oscar (well, actually one large and seven small Oscars, in fact). More than a personal triumph, it ushered in the golden age of American animation, and set the stage for the staggering industry of animated features around the world. It also launched Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and bankrolled a skilled studio of master animators. Disney would go on to produce a whole cavalcade of classic animated films: Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (which brought the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Wind in the Willows to many for the first time), Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and many, many more. Many did not make much money, some were quite successful, but all have endured the test of time surprisingly well and stand as a tribute to Walt Disney’s vision that rich, complex stories could be told through animation.

After the Second World War, Disney brought his vision for a child’s fantasy amusement park to life in Disneyland, setting it on a huge lot and surrounding it by one of his favorite things in the world: a train. Throughout the 1950s Disney Studios worked on Disneyland and released major live-action and animated features. Disney also turned his eyes towards the stars and worked with NASA (and Werner von Braun) to promote space travel through films.

The 1960s saw Disney at the peak of his success, with Mary Poppins sweeping box offices and Disney debuting his vision of the future at the 1964 Worlds Fair. Not content with a one-time display of that vision, he laid the plans for an expanded and enhanced Disneyland known in development as “Disney World” and sited on 27,000 acres in Florida. Although plans included an expanded amusement park (to be known as the “Magic Kingdom”), resorts, and hotels, the centerpiece was to be Disney’s vision of the perfect future community, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). In Disney’s expansive vision, EPCOT was to be a working future city, whose residents would focus on innovative science and advanced technology.

Sadly, Walt Disney would never live to see the fulfillment of this vision, as he died from lung cancer in 1966, just two years after beginning the new project. His brother Roy came out of retirement to manage the project (and company) and open the first stage of the new park, now formally called “Walt Disney World Resort” in October 1971. By December of that year, Roy too was dead.

EPCOT as envisioned by Disney never came to be, though the modern Epcot park does provide a showcase for future technologies, and embodies the spirit of international cooperation in its World Showcase. And Disney’s Celebration community, built by Disney Imagineering as a model planned community, comes closer to the original goal of EPCOT (though in a suburban rather than urban mode).

Of course, as we remember the man and his legacy we should not overlook the darker side. Walt Disney never trusted organized labor, and his prejudice led him to make unsubstantiated allegations during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. He spied on union activity for the FBI for years and may well have illegally intimidated union activists. He was, as many visionaries are, a notoriously difficult man to work with. In short, he was a man, with a full share of faults and limitations.

But he was also a visionary in the best American mode, with an optimistic and enthusiastic take on society, technology, science, and the future. He built places devoted to bringing joy to children and inspiring them to dream deeply. He gave the world the vast legacy of his dreams in film and concrete and has inspired millions around the world with a vision of pluralism, tolerance, kindness, optimism and joy. For all of these reasons, whatever his human faults and foibles, Walter Elias Disney is, indeed, one of the Best of Us.

UPDATE: Welcome Fark.com! After you read this, feel free to have a look around. You’ve probably already seen this and this, but check out this fine piece about the One Laptop per Child program, this one about that nutcase Chavez, and, of course, this classic challenge.

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So unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the One Laptop Per Child project, aka OLPC. This innovative and amazing idea is the brain child of Nicholas Negroponte, of MIT Media Labs, and set off with the goal of making an affordable, durable, fully featured laptop computer for children in under privileged areas. Originally the machines were supposed to cost no more than $100, and while this price point has not yet been reached the Project has created an absolutely incredible machine for only $199.

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I’ve been a fan of the project since I first heard about it. The idea is brilliant. I’ve long thought that children should have more exposure to computers, they’ve changed the world immensely, and have become a common and necessary tool for daily life. Especially with the modern prevalence of the internet, and the information it brings to your finger tips, computer use has become a priceless life skill. Education has been the one aspect that hasn’t fully embraced computers and, let’s face it, the price hasn’t made it easy for them to even try. The OLPC Project’s XO Laptop fix this problem, and not just for developed nations, as evidenced by the number of countries which are taking part in the program.

While many news outlets have discussed the effect that the Project will have on developing nations, there has been surprisingly little coverage on the effect it will have in the United States, and the information available on the OLPC wiki isn’t very enlightening. Since I have a lot of interest in the education system here in America, I decided to see if the OLPC staff would answer some questions about the level of interest they have received from US states, and the status of the project in America. They were gracious enough to answer my questions, and help me to gain a better understanding of the OLPC Project in the United States.

Angry Midwesterner: I have a few questions about the XO laptop, specifically about the effect it might have on poorer regions of the USA. I was wondering if it is possible to get information about what states have expressed interest, or in fact committed to buying, the XO laptop?

OLPC Staff Member: 19 states have contacted OLPC for more information and expressing some level of interest in doing the program. OLPC hasn’t disclosed which states because it doesn’t make sense to do so until something concrete happens.

Angry Midwesterner: Completely understandable. Has the organization considered making OLPC’s available not only to countries and states, but to county/city level education programs? If so, when might they be available, if not, would this be considered in the future?

OLPC Staff Member: OLPC’s focus is working with governments of developing nations. OLPC is focused on achieve large scale distribution of laptops and that is best handled at this level. OLPC does not have the resources to work with lots of individual county/city level education programs. There may be exceptions to this now and then but generally OLPC wants to focus on the largest possible distribution.

Angry Midwesterner: Thanks, one last question. If a county or city wanted to obtain laptops for their students, could they use your Give Many program to
direct them to a city or county school system, like perhaps the City of Chicago Public Schools, or Champaign County Public Schools?

OLPC Staff Member: I think they could but depending on the quantity they’d probably want to just work directly with OLPC.

Angry Midwesterner: Thanks for all of your help. I’ve really appreciated your talking with us, and answering our questions.

It’s great to know that the folks working on the OLPC have in fact been working directly with US states, and have mechanisms in place to work with city and county school boards, should the need arise. While some states, such as Maine and Georgia, have instituted laptop programs, and at least 17 other states have started investigating the OLPC, education has long been a rather local issue in the USA. Most school boards, while beholden to the states, are rather independent, a fact that is all too apparent when one looks at the variation in quality of education present within any given states. Some areas, such as the Mississippi Delta region are so impoverished that they sometimes resemble underdeveloped countries. It’s a sad fact that Americans everywhere don’t have access to the same standard of education, a fact that projects such as the OLPC could help to change.

In addition to providing children with a tool for learning technology, the OLPC has many other exciting applications. Imagine the cost savings to school districts if they could purchase textbooks in e-book format, instead of print format? Suddenly textbook life spans are extended by huge margins, and the cost of each individual book drops dramatically, allowing teachers to order additional resources for their students. Locker space could be reduced as well, as students now don’t have to manage a pile of seven thick text books, only their XO Laptop, which they bring with them to every class anyway. Given the model of student ownership for each laptop, it’s not too hard to see how this model extends beyond Elementary School, but instead provides the student with a machine that could last them until High School and beyond.

Of course the truly exciting fact is that the XO Laptop is available for us to purchase through the Give 1 Get 1 promotion which runs until December 31st, 2007.

For $399 ($200 of which is tax deductable) you can not only receive an XO laptop for yourself, but also give one to a needy child. It’s a brilliant idea in my opinion, and I hope they get a lot of interest. I know I’m interested. This is a great option for individuals looking to develop for the XO Laptop, or for those of us who simply would like a durable, portable machine, tablet, and e-book reader with an outstanding battery life. T-Mobile has chipped in for the program too, and sweetened the deal by offering a year of free Wi-Fi service at any T-Mobile hotspot.

I have my fingers crossed that this project will be the huge success it promises to be. If it is adopted as readily and widely as it should be in the USA, it will help to equip young Americans from varied backgrounds and income levels to compete in the global technology market of the future, and help to reduce the cost of operations for each individual school, freeing up additional resources that can be used to outfit other needy sectors of education, such as properly outfitting science labs, and building maintenance. Keep up the good work OLPC, the future depends on you.

-Angry Midwesterner



1Photo by Jim Gettys, used under permission of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.
2Photo by Mike McGregor, used under permission of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

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