If you have been following the news you must be aware that Aaron Swartz, a social-networking pioneer, academic researcher and clumsy hacktivist, has killed himself. Though he left no suicide note many people attribute his death to the fact that he was facing federal charges that could have sent him to prison for many decades.
I feel obliged to comment since I responded to the original news of his arrest with a somewhat sardonic post called “When Ethicists Steal.” (Swartz was a Fellow at the Harvard University Ethics Center and the title referred to my long-held suspicion that self-styled academic “ethicists” just come up with rationalizations for their gut feelings and present them as scientific results, far superior to the ethical opinions of mere mortals.)
Swartz downloaded a vast number of academic articles from the JSTOR database. He apparently believed that they should be freely available to the public. Who knows? Maybe he was right, given that the public probably paid for the research with their tax dollars.
However anyone with any involvement with computers should understand that it is not OK to enter a network wiring closet without permission in order to make an unauthorized connection to the network. Surely this would justify some sort of criminal penalty.
On the other hand what he did was in no way comparable to murder. It was more on the level of entering an empty house though an unlocked door and taking a sandwich from the refrigerator. Except that nobody was deprived of a sandwich. (JSTOR, the aggrieved party, didn’t lose any money and didn’t want to press charges.)
So the loud outcry that the federal prosecutor was abusing his power by threatening to send Swartz to prison until he was an old man is not without merit. We have lost a bright and promising young man whose actions were surely misguided but not evil.
On the other hand we are not dealing with a rogue prosecutor here. This is what prosecutors do every day, though usually not to people with so many friends in the media. They routinely threaten to send people to prison for the rest of their lives in order to pressure them to plead guilty to reduced charges–even if they are innocent. That’s the kind of justice system we have and presumably that’s the kind of justice system the voters want, otherwise they would change it.
I usually look to Megan McArdle for sensible well-informed financial commentary. She’s willing to tell people things that they don’t want to hear–a valuable trait in a financial writer.
Now she has something to say that probably none of us want to hear: There’s Little We Can Do to Prevent Another Massacre. Unfortunately I suspect that she is right.
Everyone seems to be jumping on the story of the Romney campaign’s “Orca” debacle. But it seems to me that this is not really a new story. It’s a story that’s been repeated over and over again thousands of times, in large companies and small, not to mention government agencies.
Tell me that you haven’t heard this one before:
- To begin with, you have a CEO who is a great visionary. (Everyone tells him he is, so he must be.) He doesn’t know much about Information Technology, but that’s OK–you can hire people to handle that.
- The CEO is approached by an IT consultant who proposes a great new system, something that has never been done before, which will run rings around the competition.
- The consultant has never actually developed a system of comparable complexity but the CEO is impressed with his vision. He tells his people to give the consultant everything he needs.
- Because of the great strategic importance of the project the team accepts an extremely aggressive development schedule. It just has to be ready by the drop-dead date. To make it work the team will have to put in lots of overtime and not waste too much time on things like design reviews and extensive testing.
- The consultant creates an elaborate marketing presentation to sell the project to the organization (and maybe to outsiders as well.)
- To simplify the transition they decide on a “Big Bang” implementation. On the deadline date the old system will be irreversibly shut down and the new system will go online.
- Users are given “training” that is basically a rehash of the marketing presentation. They can’t practice with the new system because it isn’t ready yet.
Profit! humiliating failure.
Ars Technica has a great analysis of “Team Romney’s whale of an IT meltdown.” Regardless of your political views, if you are involved in any large IT project this is worth reading.
“Orca” was the campaign’s massively-hyped centralized computer system for managing the get-out-the-vote drive. It was supposed to track the process in real time and shift resources as necessary from areas where Romney was running far ahead to areas where more help was needed–thus running rings around Obama’s more old-fashioned system.
In fact the system was inadequately tested and users had essentially no training. On Election Day it collapsed, leaving the campaign managers flying blind. Given the margin of victory this probably wasn’t enough to change the results the election. (The “ground game” is supposed to be good for a point or so.) Still, it certainly didn’t help.
“The end result,” Ekdahl wrote, “was that 30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of [get out the vote] efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters). Wrap your head around that.”
As Election Day approaches it looks like a pretty tight race. The polls tend to favor President Obama but his lead is usually within the margin of error. A lot will probably depend on which side does a better job of turning out the vote. In addition such a close race offers the chance of some rather ugly outcomes, including the following:
- A slow count or recount in which we won’t know the outcome for several weeks. (Think 2000).
- An “Electoral College inversion” in which one side wins the popular vote and the other side wins the Electoral College. (Once again, this happened in 2000.) This is bound to cause resentment on the losing side.
- A 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. In that case the House of Representatives chooses the President and the Senate chooses the Vice President. The House is pretty certain to remain under Republican control while the Senate is pretty certain to remain under Democratic control, so we will end up with President Romney and Vice President Biden. That will be embarrassing to say the least.
On the other hand it is still barely possible that we will have a clear winner soon after to polls close on the East Coast.
In any case, most states are not competitive so the winner in the Electoral College will be determined in a small number of swing states where the race in considered close. If you keep an eye on the swing states you will know the outcome as soon as anybody does.
- I fixed a problem with WordPress 3.4.2
- I added an option to enable/disable aLinks’s internal cache. In fact I left it off by default. Unless your database is on a separate server, caching things in your local file system is unlikely to improve performance much and may actually slow you down.
To get the updated version, go back to my original aLinks post.
A word to the wise: before you download that smartphone app for your favorite candidate you should read
The Register: Don’t download that app: US presidential candidates will STALK you with it.
There are endless competitors for this, but surely some sort of major stupidity award is due to the Dollar Rent-a-Car password system as described by Geoff Kuenning:
But the winner of the incompetent-design sweepstakes has to be Dollar Rent-a-Car, who asked me for the last four digits of my driver’s license number and my birth date for verification (but not my old password). Then, when I clicked “Change Password”, it took me to a customer-support e-mail form! Apparently I was expected to type a message asking a human to change my password for me. I declined; it seems monumentally stupid for them to let one of their employees to have access to thousands of customer passwords. Instead, I used the form to ask them to let me know when they deploy a secure system.
You might think this would be simple but I actually spent a fair amount of time last week tracking down some confusing bugs. The problem is that the official documentation is pretty sparse and if you Google for support you will find many answers that are confused or flat-out wrong. Hopefully this will provide the straight dope.
The key Java classes are as follows: