Computers: July 1999 Archives

Perhaps I am destined to be involved in voting processes.

In 1995, before I ever started programming, I adopted the moniker "Counter Terrorist." Our plan was not all too ingenious, but it was funny: I would put IMG links to web hit counters on an HTML page, and users would come to that page and reload it as often as they liked. People who previously had tens of hits on their pages suddenly had tens of thousands of hits. I lost an ISP because of it, was asked to move my page elsewhere by another, and was mentioned in a counter program that had a feature to combat "Counter Terrorism."

Before the first Tyson - Holyfield fight (the one where Tyson did not treat himself to a mid-bout snack), I noticed that the site was going to be allowing users to vote for who they thought was winning each round. So I wrote a little Perl program called evander.plx that would vote as many times as possible for whomever I chose. I picked an underdog in an undercard, some Russian guy, and voted for him as many times as I could during each round. I got about 7,000 votes in per round (give or take a thousand). He won the voting for each round I did it, even though he was getting killed in the ring. When I stopped voting, he lost the online tallies for those rounds. The pay-per-view announcers tried to explain it away, saying there might be a lot of Russian fans, or that it is different watching a fight on TV than in person (a nice way to say the fans watching on TV are stupid). So I got a chuckle out of that, knowing I affected something that was on live TV.

Here and there, now and then, like scores of other people I know, I would write a program to vote in an online ballot. Sometimes it was for Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf in a People Magazine poll for the Most Beautiful People. I was only one of many people who worked on that one, I'm sure.

And then there was the Big One: last week it came out that I voted for Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra for the All-Star game about 40,000 times (so they say). I was talked about in every major newspaper, I was getting calls nonstop for days, I was mentioned on radio shows (including a mention by Jim Rome), and they said my name on SportsCenter.

Wow. My main reaction was "that's a lot of something over nothing." Aside from a call to WEEI 850 (sports radio in Boston), I didn't return any calls, because it was all such nothing. But it isn't nothing to these people, obviously. The Fox News van that came to my house thought it was something. Sports Illustrated wouldn't have called about nothing (well, not intentionally).

The most interesting thing about this whole story, to me, is that so many people found it so interesting. This kind of thing happens all the time. Even with my history of this kind of thing, I am not the originator of it, and I am not the only or most prolific one to do it, not by a longshot. One guy mailed me and said he had voted for B.J. Surhoff 75,000 times, and I have no reason to believe he didn't. Of course, I also have no reason to believe that MLB didn't catch his votes, as they say they caught mine.

This story was all over the media, yet it got a collective yawn from the hacker community. First, it was a really weak hack: I spent 20 minutes on the Perl program, just randomizing the names and addresses and faking a referrer to allow it to be submitted. It was easy to catch if the guys running the server were diligent, and apparently they were (even though it was a process for them; at first, they did not even check referrer headers). But more important to the nonchalant attitude of hackers toward this thing is that, again, it happens all the time.

Unfortunately, I don't have the time right now to do what I want to do here, which is to expound on polls in general, and how evil they are. I've talked about it before, so you can go read Why Do You Think That Is? and take the No Poll Pledge from the Partnership for a Poll-Free America, a joint project from everybody's favorite couple, Arianna Huffington and Harry Shearer. This unlikely pair came together to lessen the influence of polls on American politics. We need leaders who will lead, not leaders who will follow.

But while I am on the topic of general polling and elections, I am 25 now ... maybe I should fix it from the inside out and try to get into Congress. I only have to beat my congressman, Barney Frank, and if the Internet traffic is any indication, I am sure I am much more popular than he is, right? But I digress.

I need to address this all because I get scared. People think that online polls mean something. They don't. They mean absolutely nothing. Non-online polls are pretty bad, too. Our society depends on polling data for every decision our leaders make, whether in Washington, our local statehouse, or our media outlets. It is so easy to bastardize the results of the polls, and people don't even realize it. Whether it is me voting for Nomar 40,000 times or a self-important pollster at CNN writing inherently biased questionnaires, polls cannot be trusted. And it is so much worse for online polls. Sure, several thousand Cleveland fans can stuff the voting boxes at Jacobs Field, but one person can do that in an hour online. Maybe the MLB guys will catch the votes, and maybe they won't. It is most likely they'd catch some of them, but not all.

And now people are talking about voting for elected officials online. Britain might actually implement this in limited fashion next time around. I don't have all the answers, and I won't say that online voting can't work, but I will say that we aren't ready, if only because the general public is so completely clueless about the problems involved.

<pudge/*> (pronounced "PudgeGlob") is thousands of posts over many years by Pudge.

"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Computers category from July 1999.

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