f/k/a . . . the archives

October 26, 2008

the Osama-Obama ballot: a lame spellchecker excuse

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,q.s. quickies,Schenectady Synecdoche — David Giacalone @ 10:06 am

We’re still visiting our family of origin, but can’t go cold turkey all weekend without a little blogging. So . . .

. . . . . . . . You may recall that absentee ballots with the name “Barack Osama” (instead of “Barack Obama”) were sent out to 400 voters in Rensselaer County, NY, a couple weeks ago. [See the Albany Times Union (October 10, 2008) for an image of the infamous ballot.] The embarrassed Rensselaer County legislature asked for an investigation and explanation from their Board of Elections, and received a report last Monday. See “Blame the computer for Obama-Osama goof, officials say: Rensselaer County voting officials say inattention led to misprint of name” (Albany Times Union, Oct. 23, 2008); and “Was botched ballot a spellcheck slip-up?” (Troy Record, October 21, 2008). The Troy Record reports:

“This error may have been due to a spellcheck function on the operating system of the computers utilized by the Board of Elections,” said the letter signed by Commissioner Ed McDonough, a Democrat, and Commissioner Larry Bugbee, a Republican. “Due possibly in part to the number of different ballot styles along with the higher than normal number of new registrations and overall increased activity at the board, this error was not caught.

“While there is no explanation other than the fact that the error was made innocently and with no malice or forethought,” the letter addressed to Chairman of the Legislature Neil Kelleher reads. “While attracting a great deal of attention, the error was caused by a simple mistake that unfortunately was not caught.”
The board also made some internal changes, such as all proof reading of ballots will be by two employees, a Democrat and a Republican and all ballots will now be read by both commissioners.

Blaming spellcheck? Who would buy that lame excuse? Well, the editors at the Schenectady Gazette. In “How Obama became Osama, and other tales of computer horror” (Schenectady Gazette, October 25, 2008), they say:

“It’s a logical explanation, and something of a relief because it indicates that the misspelling was an honest mistake, not an intentional political dirty trick. Still, the episode should serve as a reminder for anyone who uses a computer — they’re not infallible, even with software designed to catch grammar or spelling mistakes.”

Yeah, but: Spell-checkers don’t force a change on the writer, they highlight possible errors and ask the writer to decide whether a change is needed. If the folks in Rensselaer County use spell-check software that forces a change on them or gives them no chance to review a change, they really need a new webmaster; if their employees cede so much power to Spellcheck when doing something as important as a presidential ballot, they need new management. The Gazette editors are right that:

“The point is that writers, or anyone who uses a computer, still has to proofread what they’ve written before pulling the trigger — whether it’s an absentee ballot, job application, term paper, whatever. Computers are fantastic machines, but they can’t think.”

[Ed. Note: We often "pull the trigger" around here without catching all the typos (as we did here today), but this is an unimportant little website whose Editor eventually sees and corrects most of the errors -- and only occasionally blames his peridementia.]

The problem with lame excuses is that they make people (even non-lawyers and the non-curmudgeonly) more than a little suspicious, or make us wonder if those giving the excuse are capable of thoughtful analysis. Around this part of the world (as elsewhere), there is no doubt that civil servants are more than capable of making silly mistakes like the “Osama-Obama” mishap without even trying. They shouldn’t exacerbate the situation with such poor “explanations”.

Afterwords (Nov. 3, 2008): Oh, Brother.  I just discovered that there’s a whole line of anti-Obama merchandise with the inscription “Spell-Check Says Obama is Osama.“   Also, in “Microsoft tries to fix big glitch on Obama,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on June 12, 2008, that Microsoft’s Hotmail Spell-checker suggests “Osama” when you type in “Obama.”  Microsoft spokeswoman Melissa Lawson says it’s a mistake they planned to fix ASAP:

“For the convenience of our customers, Windows Live Hotmail spell checking functionality helps provide suggested alternatives for words not recognized by the Hotmail dictionary, including suggestions for other words or proper names similar in spelling to the unrecognized term,” she wrote in an e-mail.

As I often do when visiting Rochester, I’m going to leave you with a few poems by Rochester’s haiku guru Tom Painting, and his ten-year-old daughter Sarah Brachman Painter.

watching a bee
skim the flowers-
summer’s end

November 11th
cemetery flags
Old and tattered

……………… by Sarah Painting – Two Dragonflies

autumn light
I lower the window
cover my child’s feet
the foul ball lands
in an empty seat
summer’s end
Sarah Painting was also editor/illustrator/publisher of a chapbook last year to commemorate a Ginko [haiku-inspiring walk], in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery. See our post “Mount Hope Haiku” (October 14, 2007) for more about the chapbook Mount Hope Haiku: September 16, 2007. Here are a couple poems from Mount Hope Haiku.
green copper letters
on the ex-slave’s grave –
some leaves already red
……. by dagosan – from Mount Hope Haiku (2007)

3 Comments

  1. ah well. this was unfortunate. hopefully it will be inconsequential this november…

    Comment by kouji — October 27, 2008 @ 5:47 am

  2. but really… what kind of spellcheck program offers the word, ‘osama?’ i mean, it’s a proper noun after all.

    Comment by kouji — October 27, 2008 @ 5:49 am

  3. Hi, Kouji. That’s a very good point about the proper names: Only the Taliban version of Spellcheck would offer “Osama.”

    This shouldn’t affect the actual voting, as new ballots were reprinted and any votes for Osama that are sent in will go to Obama.

    Comment by David Giacalone — October 27, 2008 @ 7:24 am

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