A Verbal, Protracted Metaphor About Software

July 12, 2012

The 2000 Presidential Election was mired in controversy over which candidate received the popular vote. Whether due to faulty hardware, or a state-wide psychomotor-disfunction epidemic, a large number of Florida ballots were unclear about which candidate they endorsed. “How could something as parochial and deterministic as aggregating multiple choice answers lead to such a quagmire?”, you might ask, and indeed, it makes for an entertaining story.

The voters were instructed to punch holes in their ballots beside the candidates they were electing, and the ballots were then to be automatically counted by a machine that would process the placement of the holes on the ballot. For most of the voters, punching a hole completely through their ballot was not a difficult task. For the ballots in question, however, the common case was that a hole appeared to have been started, but the chad — the circular paper cutout that previously filled the area that the hole now resided in — had not been separated from the ballot, but was instead left indented into the ballot. These were referred to as dimpled chads; they were imperceivable by the tallying machine because they weren’t actual holes in the paper, and they were confusing and controversial for the human panel that would ultimately have to apply both visual and tactile inspections to the ballot in order to determine what it was trying to say.

The dimpled chads were unclear about the voter’s intention. Whether by a fit of acute insanity, profound incompetence, or extreme laziness, the voter had abused the opportunity to make a clear, obvious statement of their intent in this simple system, and had instead turned a process that should have been deterministic, thoughtless, and automated, into something tragically fuzzy, discreet, and manual. As you might have expected, the human committee that deliberated over the tens-of-thousands of ballets were constantly arguing, negotiating, and collaborating their way to an answer that they felt was a reasonable representation of what they assumed the dimpled chad was suggesting about its voter’s intent. “Okay John, very good. Anything useful today?” Yes, Reader. Presented for your viewing pleasure: a verbal, protracted metaphor about software.

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John is a serial conversationalist who spends entirely too much time engulfed in problem domains he knows nothing about and has no earthly business trying to learn. He can occasionally be found at your local coffee shop writing algorithms and trying to think deep thoughts.