October 2016

Volume 31 Number 10

[Don't Get Me Started]

A Technical Solution to a Political Problem

By David Platt | October 2016

David PlattI’m sick of this U.S. presidential election cycle. I was sick of this election cycle a year ago. As I write these words in August, I despair at the thought of 100 more days of this ever-increasing cacophony. 

I’ve never been a fan of politics, but this election is especially bad. As Ian Tuttle wrote in early August (bit.ly/2bkAt2T), we have “two small groups of extreme partisans fighting on behalf of horrible candidates, and a sea of voters in between disheartened by two miserable options.” Sometimes I think both sides are trying to lose (shades of “The Producers,” anyone?), and wish there was some way that could happen. Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I’m noticing a lot more bumper stickers like the one in Figure 1.

A 2016 Presidential Election Bumper Sticker
Figure 1 A 2016 Presidential Election Bumper Sticker

The Web is often lauded as a medium for the exchange of ideas. That’s not happening now. The volume of speech is huge, but the content is minimal. I’m omitting no detail whatsoever when I paraphrase the conversation thusly: one side shouts, “X good, Y bad,” while their opponents riposte with the witty and thoughtful, “No, you idiot, Y good, X bad.”

My political philosophy is simple: I agree with Mark Twain, that politicians should be changed as often as diapers, and for the same reason. Throw the rascals out, and put our rascals in. But for Pete’s sake, can’t we finish the damn throwing so we can get on with our lives? Especially because I’ve already voted by absentee ballot, and couldn’t change it if I wanted to.

We geeks could provide an option for those who want out of it. I’ll bet many people do by now. As Mr. Peabody always said to Sherman, “As usual, I have a plan.”

Most people I know use ad blockers on their Web browsers. I’m sure that the lack of one hampered the adoption rate of the Microsoft Edge browser. (It just got one over the summer.) How hard would it be to concoct a blocker for political content? I think not very.

Content blockers were the second mass-market product to appear on the consumer Internet. Parents bought them to shield their children from pornography (the first mass-market product), and their capabilities have expanded over the years. Net Nanny, the market leader, advertises that it can filter 18 categories of content, from dating to alcohol to abortion. The primary limitation has always been that the kids are more computer-savvy than the parents, so the filter settings don’t last long. We won’t have this problem as we build our content blockers for consenting adults.

The early content blockers were blunt. But today’s Net Nanny claims to be smart enough to distinguish the word “breast” in a cooking context (chicken), a medical context (cancer) or a sexual context (augmentation). Surely such an engine could distinguish between Trump the candidate and trump in a card game. I’ll call it Plattski’s Political Pablum Preventer (P4).

How would such a thing improve our lives? For a quick test, I scanned the front page of The New York Times Web site, imagining blank spaces replacing the political articles, as Adblock Plus replaces the ads with blank spaces. I’d still see all the sports scores, the technology section and daily news coverage. Just no Donald and no Hillary. Looks fine to me. Let’s get it done.

I cannot close this column without renewing my eternal election-­year call: Lie to the exit pollsters. The control they exercise over our society is revolting, but it’s also easy to disrupt. All we have to do is lie. If you voted for A, say you voted for B, and vice versa. If you made up your mind a long time ago, tell them you just made it up in the voting booth, or the other way around. If they ask your age, add or subtract five years, whichever you think you can get away with. If they ask your gender, you’d probably better tell the truth; it might be a control question. If everyone does this, we’ll have a delightful election evening of watching the prognosticators fall on their faces—the funniest night of political foolishness since Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now let’s go to it.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.

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