Letters to the editor | January 22, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 22, 2021

Letters to the editor

The barber pole 'hack'


If police radio transmissions had been encrypted previously, we would not be able to laugh at the M.I.T. Barber Pole Hack that allegedly occurred quite a few years ago. The term "hack," in this context, was student slang for a prank, with a completely different meaning for computer programming.

As the story goes, three students approached a barber and offered to buy his barber pole for significantly more than what a new one would cost. The barber said, "Sure," and the only stipulation that these students had was that they wanted to be able to pick it up whenever they wished. At around 2 a.m., they picked up the barber pole and ran around the streets of Cambridge carrying it. In about an hour, the police saw them. The students said, "It's our barber pole. We bought it." The police: "Sure you bought it." The reply: "Here's the receipt, and you can call the barber." So the police contacted the barber, who said, "Yeah, they bought it, and what's the idea of calling me at three in the morning." They ran around some more and got stopped again. They told the officer that they had already been stopped, so the dispatcher announced on the police radio, "There are three students running around the streets of Cambridge carrying a barber pole. Don't bother them. They bought it." Meanwhile their friends were listening in on the police radio channel and went around in groups of three, stealing every barber pole in Cambridge.

That's a good reason to encrypt police radio broadcasts. You can always stream the broadcast with a suitable time delay so the public can monitor what the police are doing.

Bill Zaumen

Clara Drive, Palo Alto

Virus of lies


Images of a mob of domestic terrorists invading Congress this past week will long be imprinted in our minds as one of the most devastating attacks on our democracy. Unfortunately, the events of Jan. 6 were not unexpected. The amplification, and viral spread, of the lies and conspiracy theories by social media have polarized this nation to such a dangerous degree that they may well continue injuring our democracy beyond repair. No society can function unless there is enough shared basis of factual reality.

Social media, and Facebook in particular, have prioritized profit far above the sustainability of the country that has incubated them. Their algorithms are designed to maximize attention, and they well know that polarizing content and rage maximize engagement. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that fake news has a six times advantage over real stories. How convenient, then, that Facebook has continued to resist suppressing dangerous misinformation. Their platform's media have created and empowered a consequential population of conspiracy theorists, including groups the FBI has determined to pose a domestic terror threat. Even though they have 15,000 people moderating the most egregious content like child pornography, their leadership has not done nearly enough to remove dangerous disinformation.

Immediately after the election on Nov. 3, Facebook tweaked their algorithm to prioritize media based on factual verifiable reporting; but they did not continue after the election as they surely came to the conclusion that it would affect their bottom line. They know how to fix the vile spread of lies and conspiracy theories, but they won't take responsibility. We, their neighbors in Menlo Park, should not be passive or blind to the fact we live next door to a doomsday machine. At the very least, we should start a serious dialogue on what we can do to stop the virus of harmful conspiracy theories and state-sponsored disinformation purposefully designed to exacerbate the fault lines in our society.

Social media platforms have all been complicit in excess pandemic deaths and in the events leading up to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. It's long past time for them to take responsibility for spreading hate and lies.

Mark Tuschman

Santa Monica Avenue, Menlo Park

2021 goals


As the City Council asks residents to offer their views on priorities for 2021, the members owe us a detailed explanation of what was accomplished in line with last year's priorities. What did the council accomplish with regard to housing, sustainability and mobility? How are we better off in those domains?

While I agree that goal setting is necessary for a community to align and allocate our resources, I again advocate for more than just broad, lofty goals. The council needs to agree on specific and measurable objectives and must report back on these efforts. Without this measurement and accountability, the annual goal setting is reduced to a feel-good exercise that far too often fails to deliver meaningful results.

Like the rest of the nation, our city faces difficult challenges. Now is the time to offer clear direction and deliverables in order to maintain the confidence of residents.

For 2021, the council needs to be more specific, set targets, establish metrics and be prepared to hold us all accountable for making progress.

John Guislin

Middlefield Road, Palo Alto


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