Dishonesty Cured by Automated Tellers

I don’t often take cabs in Boston, but I did tonight, and en route the driver told me this story, which completely stunned me:

People used to run out of cabs without paying all the time.  After ATMs showed up, that hasn’t really happened anymore.  So, I have to believe all those people weren’t really dishonest; they just didn’t have the money.

Amazing!  Easy access to cash solved an apparently unrelated problem of people shirking their cab payments.  This is a Freakonomics moment, for sure.

He speculated further that many of the former shirkers had spent their money at bars, perhaps inadvertently, leaving them with no way home but to risk angering a cab driver.

Of course, the next logical question is how the newly mandated credit card machines in cabs will change the equation.  This driver had three concerns.  First, the processor takes a 6% cut.  Second, it takes weeks to get the money (which is problematic when the driver has to pay cash for the cab and cash for gas).  Third, people often leave before the payment clears, sometimes leaving the driver empty-handed.

This bothers me.  Whereas market forces can correct the strictly financial problems — by changing rates, or forcing cab companies to negotiate more flexible terms with drivers — the social implications of a technology causing people to unintentionally abandon their debts are less easily remedied.

Sexiled in the 21st Century

I don’t know how I missed this back in September (unless it just didn’t make the print edition).  Travis Andersen wrote on about a new rule at Tufts this semester barring sexual activity in dorms in the presence of roommates.

The policy – which took effect this semester – reads, “You may not engage in sexual activity while your roommate is present in the room. Any sexual activity within your assigned room should not ever deprive your roommate(s) of privacy, study, or sleep time.”

It’s actually a good policy in that it provides an avenue for students victimized by nearby sexual activity to complain and inflict consequences on the perpetrators.  It’s also hilarious.

If nothing else, let’s note that sexual activity deprives at least the participants of privacy (at least between themselves), study time, and sleep time, however respectful they might be of their roommates.

(This came up in a story about Quidditch being played at Tufts.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that wasn’t even the most unusual story I’d see today.)

We’ll Just Call it the 1040-Make-Believe

I got my first check for service as a juror today.  I love that where one would normally find the account holder’s name, it just says “United States Treasury.”  Evidently the government goes straight to the source when writing checks.  (This somehow reminds me of that classic line from The Princess Bride: “You are the Brute Squad!”)

Being the responsible and obsessive adult that I am, I immediately wanted to know the tax implications.  Google immediately produced an article titled “Jury Duty Pay Given to Employer” on the IRS website.  Many employers ask staff to hand over their jury duty pay in exchange for earning their regular salary while they’re serving as a juror.  The article clarifies that this can be deducted on line 34 of the 1040 form, as seen in this graphic from the article:

How the IRS Thinks the 1040 Form Looks

How the IRS Thinks the 1040 Form Looks

Note in the lower right corner that this is the form for 2008.  I happen to have submitted a 1040 form that year, which, of course, I saved.  After cropping it and blanking out the amounts (but making no other changes), my copy looks like this:

How the 1040 Form Really Looks

How the 1040 Form Really Looks

Either “tuition and fees” and “jury duty pay” are terms we’re now using interchangeably, or we should probably be a little nervous that the IRS doesn’t know what its own forms look like.

MBTA ScoreCard

The MBTA has published a document titled MBTA ScoreCard.  Acting General Manager William Mitchell writes on the first page:

With this ScoreCard we begin publishing the same performance metrics that we use internally to measure our progress towards meeting our service quality goals.

It’s 25 pages of mostly graphs, covering statistics on ridership, on-time performance, speed restrictions, dropped trips, maintenance, and safety.  Some of the data are woefully uninteresting.  Some are fascinating.

It’s not clear how often we’ll see updated ScoreCards.  The current document is dated “September 2009,” implying a monthly publication, but some of the graphs cover data dating as far back as January, 2004.  Even if this is the only ScoreCard we see, it’s a nice gesture.  Score one for Mr. Mitchell.

Modern Medicine Through JavaScript

I love a medical school that gives online tests (quizzes, maybe?) and evaluates the results through JavaScript.  I especially love when it uses this logic to do it:

if(correct) return true;
else {
  if(guess < 2) {
    alert("That is not correct.");
    guess = guess + 1;
    return false;
  } else {
    alert("You have guessed incorrectly, but may move on.");
    return true;

I hope my (hypothetical) surgeon works the same way.  “You’ve removed three organs.  None of them were right, but you can send him home now anyway.”

Every Little Step

In the opening scene of A Chorus Line — one of the greatest opening numbers in Broadway history — we see a group of dancers auditioning for a part in an upcoming musical — the unnamed “show within a show.”

In the opening scene of Every Little Step (available from Netflix), we see a group of dancers auditioning for a part in A Chorus Line where, as you may remember from the previous sentence, they’ll portray dancers auditioning for parts in an unnamed “show within a show.”

Everybody got that?

The film shows us the real-life audition for the recent A Chorus Line revival, which so closely parallels the audition scene from the musical that the film cuts between them seamlessly.  We see whole songs put together from a dozen individual people going for the same part, some with wildly different styles.  Different actresses read the same dialog, one after the next, leaving us, the audience, rooting for the people we want cast.

The film also plays some of the original taped interviews with dancers in 1974 that first inspired A Chorus Line, showing us how some simple if emotional anecdotes told among friends became some of Broadway’s best known music.

Really, the film is itself what A Chorus Line was in 1975: a look at what it’s like to be a dancer competing for a role, and how thrilling success can be.

The DVD includes a director’s commentary — i.e., an interview about the auditions for the show about the auditions for the other show based on interviews about various auditions for other shows.  I’d love to listen to it, but I have a very real fear that exploring that many levels of “meta” could unravel the very fabric of the universe.

Child Conquers Train

Before watching this video, it helps to know that the child survived with no more damage than a cut on his forehead.  Otherwise, it would be unwatchable.  As it is, it’s a sure way to experience a gut-wrenching feeling of helplessness and despair.

The Herald Sun reports on the Closed Circuit Television footage from a train station in Melbourne, Australia, where we see a child’s pram (that’s “stroller”) roll off the platform when his mother lets go for only a second.

Kudos to the train operator who immediately employed every brake at his disposal to halt the train in just 30 meters.

The lesson: keep the stroller’s brakes on while waiting for a train.  Also: don’t build train platforms that slant inexplicably toward the track so steeply that a motionless stroller can rotate itself and roll completely off the edge before anyone can react.

Naturally Stenography

I was recently summonsed (yes, the word really is “summonsed”) to appear for jury duty.  As part of the voir dire process, lawyers on both sides questioned each juror individually to unearth any possible sources for bias.

I was asked to sit at a conference table with the judge on my left and court reporter on my right.  A laptop attached to the reporter’s stenotype machine was in plain view, and was evidently running some fancy software to translate her machine shorthand into an English transcript as she typed.

The most fascinating part of the entire voir dire experience was watching every word I spoke appear on the screen at almost the moment I uttered it, faithfully reproducing everything said in the room in real time, complete with attributions for each remark:

SMITH: Have you ever bought or sold a firearm?*

THE JUROR: No.  Never.

SMITH: You indicated you've watched Cops on television.  Have
any episodes involved the use of a firearm?

THE JUROR: Certainly.  Many episodes have.

SMITH: Would that influence your ability to be impartial about
the use of firearms in this case?

THE JUROR: No, sir.

I tried using Dragon Naturally Speaking about a year ago to transcribe some video tutorials we were creating at work.  It failed spectacularly to achieve even the most basic speech recognition, and I returned it.  Now I understand the problem: I only installed the software; I never thought to call in a qualified stenographer!

In the courtroom, I was impressed first by how quickly and accurately the court reporter could record shorthand — even during a rapid-fire objection and response to one of the questions asked.  As a software developer, I was also impressed with the application that translated shorthand back into readable English, complete with correct attributions for every statement.

* I obviously cannot discuss any details of the real trial to which I’m assigned, so I’ve invented a completely fictitious trial to provide details for such anecdotes as this. In this imagined case, three defendants are accused of transporting illegal firearms across state lines to be used by very young members of a gang in a series of liquor store robberies.