Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sarah Palin For President?

It must have seemed a remarkable thing to Democrats watching the Republican intra-party sniping a little over a week ago being conducted between Sarah Palin and certain anonymous McCain campaign staffers, as it was leaked to and reported by that organ of Republican communication otherwise known as Fox News. And all that with no Democratic or liberal media fingerprints anywhere to be found.

Can it actually be true, as the McCain leakers claim, that Sarah Palin didn't know the parties to the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly known as NAFTA? That she didn't know that Africa is a continent and not a country? That South Africa is a country and not a region? It seems improbable. Still...

One way to view these latest claims is through the lens of things Palin has said in interviews on the campaign trail, particularly those with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric. Those statements, at least, are matters of public record, and we can judge them for ourselves.

Look, it would be no big deal if Palin's only flub was not knowing what the "Bush Doctrine" is, especially in the pressure of her first high stakes national interview. But what about her response to Katie Couric's question regarding how Alaska's proximity to Russia heightened her national security qualifications? It was always an absurd proposition, but one Palin and even McCain had nevertheless tried to milk, even in the face of some ridicule. The topic, then, was certainly in play when Katie Couric asked for a clarification. Consider the following exchange.

Couric: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials.

Palin: Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of. And there...

Couric: Have you ever been involved in any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?

Palin: We have trade missions back and forth, we do. It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right next to our state.

Wow. Not only did she not make the case, but she didn't make the case in the most inarticulate manner imaginable, even by the low standards of the current president. It's almost fair to call that answer gibberish with punctuation. It parses, and you can wonder about what she's reaching for, but why try? I know people who claim—mainly while trying to defend President Bush—to not care if our highest leaders are articulate. I disagree with them. Being able to speak clearly is one sign of being able to think clearly. It seems important to me. In any event, most Alaskan housewives could have given a more astute and more coherent answer.

But moving on, and more to the point about what Palin actually knows, try to make sense of the following.

Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?

Palin: I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.

Couric: What, specifically?

Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.

Couric: Can you name a few?

Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too. Alaska isn't a foreign country, where it's kind of suggested, "Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?" Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.

"All" of them? But she couldn't specifically name even one? Truly, I'd be interested in how any candidate answered that question. But the fact that a candidate couldn't answer it at all would never have occurred to me, until now. Her bizarre non-answer, the dancing all around it, and ultimately deflecting it as being anti-Alaska, begs the question of whether she is even minimally informed about the world. And that includes understanding that Africa is a continent.

After getting over the initial shock, one can imagine how an ambitious but incurious person of minimal previous accomplishment transitioned from small town mayor to small state governor and then, by a frightful lapse in judgment, to the presidential ticket of a major party. It should never have happened. But in retrospect, only the final step in that progression is starkly implausible. It's one of those freak things that is thankfully now behind us.

Given that, why should we now care what Ms. Palin knows or doesn't know? In a reasonable world, we wouldn't. Because in such a world, nobody would seriously consider Sarah Palin as presidential material. In such a world her shallowness, her lack of understanding, her inarticulateness wouldn't merit a second thought. Millions of Americans are just as shallow, uninformed, and inarticulate.

But in the world in which we live, quite a few people do consider Palin to be worthy of the presidency. Palin has lately been conducting a full court media press, with a raft of interviews, to put her spin on the past couple of months. She's making noises suggesting she won't be going away. Not that she necessarily has all that much to say about it: Whether she remains on the national political scene ultimately depends not on her, but on us.


The interview transcripts containing the quotes included above can be found here and here.

Copyright (C) 2008 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

You mean credit card numbers don't have spaces?

Yes, it's true. Even though your account number on your credit card is shown as four groups of four digits, credit card numbers don't actually contain spaces. And surprisingly, an enormous number of online vendors are quite determined to make you realize that, under pain of not doing business with you.

You see, when you're involved in a credit card transaction, your account number is sent from the vendor's computer to the computer of a credit card clearing company as a simple 16-digit integer. Real credit card numbers, as they exist inside these various computer systems, don't contain spaces.

But since humans don't handle 16 contiguous digits very well, account numbers on cards and statements are broken down into four groups of four digits. It makes transactions involving humans proceed more smoothly and with fewer errors.

Despite the eminent sensibility of that arrangement, how many times have you gotten to the point of typing your credit card number into an online form, and it warned you to use "no spaces or dashes"? And when, out of stubbornness, you entered your number with spaces, did the web order system throw an error? Of course it did.

It turns out the genius programmers who wrote that order system were smart enough to detect that you entered a number with embedded spaces, but they weren't smart enough to programatically remove those spaces and see if the result was a 16-digit number. How dumb is that?

Actually, it's extremely dumb, even incompetent. That's because writing a computer program to remove spaces from the credit card number in an online order form is incredibly easy to do. As a computer programmer myself, I can assure you it is literally the most trivial of programming tasks. And yet, these vendors, or the programmers they hire, can't be bothered to do it. Or worse, it doesn't even occur to them.

It's even more stupid because this boneheaded intransigence is likely to cause the vendor problems. An inexperienced web user, such as an elderly person apprehensive with all this newfangled technology, might bail out of the order at the first sign of anything disturbing—such as an error message saying there's a problem with something they entered. They were, with much trepidation, on the verge of giving the vendor their money, and the vendor blew it. (See update below for more on this.)

More commonly, the requirement to enter 16 uninterrupted digits will result in a certain number of entry errors, and consequent failed transactions. When not broken up by spaces, it's harder for a human customer to visually verify the correctness of the number he just typed into the form. My old eyes have particular difficulty.

Not convinced? Consider this. Citibank has a "virtual account numbers" service that allows you to generate a credit card number for limited use—even for just a single transaction, if you want. You can, from Citibank's web site, generate a virtual account number in real time, at the moment you're completing an order with some online vendor. The virtual account number "looks" just like any other credit card number. Not surprisingly, Citibank displays that newly generated account number in an on-screen image that looks like an actual credit card that you just pulled out of your wallet. Slick. Citibank recommends that you "copy and paste" the number into your online vendor's form.

What could be easier, more natural, more error free? Except for one thing. Citibank's rendering of the account number contains, as you'd expect, spaces. But probably 70 percent of online vendors can't handle that. What a pathetic shame.

No doubt a certain number of those vendors are mom-and-pop operations that hired the kid next door to program their web site. They don't understand that the job of the user interface is to mediate between the person interacting with their web site and the considerably less user-friendly constraints of the backend computer systems that run the business. A surprising number, however, are medium to large operators that ought to "get it," but apparently don't. If your vendor makes you enter your credit number without spaces, you should take every possible opportunity to tell them how disappointed you are with their backward web site. Some may even get the message.

Update Oct 12, 2009: An article in the New York Times highlights the peril to online retailers of allowing anything disruptive, including technical glitches, that might interfere with closing the deal. "This is revenue that people really wanted to commit to the company and were unable to do it, and it often ends up being in the millions of dollars," said one expert. Another said: "When customers are trying to purchase something, we need to do everything in our power to make sure they can do it."

Copyright (C) 2008 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Bush's Contribution to Democracy

George W. Bush's critics have had a sad duty to enumerate the President's constitutional transgressions, and a mournful burden to lament their toll on American democracy.

The dreadful litany includes illegal domestic wiretaps, illegal (and immoral) torture of detainees, the reprehensible practice of extraordinary rendition, the politicization of the Department of Justice (and just about everything else), and the general disdain of constitutional checks on executive power.

Give credit, however, where credit is due, and acknowledge Bush's one undeniable contribution to American democracy.

As we revel in what may be the highest turnout of American voters in a generation or two, and in a rejuvenation and renewal of the American electorate, we have not only Barack Obama but also George W. Bush to thank.

Thanks in part to Bush, the citizens of these United States, while all too often woefully uninformed and minimally engaged, have nevertheless come together in uplifting numbers to repudiate the conduct of the last eight years, and to cast their aspirations toward a future lit once again by hope and decency.

Copyright (C) 2008 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved