Spelling mistakes

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2004

Sorry to keep posting about the Cat Stevens brouhaha, but it really is revealing about the world we are now living in. The latest reports suggest that what happened was basically a mistake—a spelling mistake , in fact. I don’t know it that’s true, but if it were, what would that say about the bloggers who rushed to construct justifications for the action and the “experts” who went into print in the Weekly Standard and elsewhere to explain why deporting Stevens was the right thing to do? It raises the possibility of an interesting exercise:

You are a right-wing blogger or a writer for TechCentralStation or FrontPage Magazine. Famous non-American person X is detained and deported from the US. Construct a rationalization for the decision based only on material you can find using Google.

Suggestions for X: David Beckham, Amartya Sen, Sting, Tom Jones, Gunther Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

{ 48 comments }

1

antirealist 09.27.04 at 9:15 am

I think the point being made is simply that he was mistakenly allowed on the plane in the first place only because his name was misspelt on the no-fly list.

2

Oh Dear 09.27.04 at 9:37 am

….zzzzzz…burp…zzzzz

3

mona 09.27.04 at 9:40 am

Actually, the point seems to be like Chris read it – that’s how news sources citing the story are reading it anyway:

Stevens was deported from the United States because of a spelling error, with American officials confusing the former pop star with a man with a similar name on a “no-fly” list, Time magazine reported today.

Yusuf Islam, formerly the singer Cat Stevens, was deported from the United States because of a spelling error, with US officials confusing the former pop star with a man with a similar name who is on a “no-fly” list, Time magazine claims.

Check google news for more, they all say the same thing.

By the way, “Youssouf” is the French spelling of Yussuf. It’s hardly an uncommon name.

4

Chris Bertram 09.27.04 at 9:40 am

That doesn’t seem to be the way that news sources are reporting it, though. “This one”:http://dailytelegraph.news.com.au/story.jsp?sectionid=1274&storyid=1995879 has

bq. American officials confusing the former pop star with a man with a similar name on a “no-fly” list….

But if someone at the TSA just fucked up we may never know, since “we meant to do it all along” may be the least embarrassing line to stick to.

5

mona 09.27.04 at 9:50 am

Oops, Chris beat me to it…

I don’t think we’ll ever know exactly what happened either. Actually, I have a feeling this “spelling error” story is being leaked on purpose. If the whole thing was a deliberate electoral publicity stunt, by circulating rumours it was a mistake, you can avoid further explanations a lot better. Incompetence is more easily excused and accepted than deliberate propaganda.

OR maybe they’re really that incompetent, but what with it having to do with such a celebrity figure, I have my doubts…

6

mona 09.27.04 at 9:57 am

Also, it can be a really convenient way to mend the controversy with the UK Foreign Office. Sorry guys, you’re right, it shouldn’t have been done, we really didn’t mean to insult our best ally, only a case of misspelling, see? still friends?

Just speculating.

7

antirealist 09.27.04 at 10:20 am

Actually, the point seems to be like Chris read it – that’s how news sources citing the story are reading it anyway..

The original Time article is perfectly clear and unambiguous. That so many journalists read it another way tells us something about journalists.

8

john b 09.27.04 at 10:32 am

The original Time article is perfectly clear and unambiguous

No, it’s appallingly badly written and ambiguous. I’d lean towards to reading it the way you do, but it could easily mean either.

9

mona 09.27.04 at 10:35 am

Right, antirealist, so true, so true.

Another interesting quote from Newsweek:

“Some security and intel officials acknowledged, however, that intel on Yusuf Islam might be so soft that the U.S. authorities may have to apologize to the singer.”

Note that the whole story from the start has been a series of sources say this, sources say that, security officials can’t explain, and yet, those who were quick to applaud the deportation had their own certainties about the motives and no interest at all in the reaction from the UK Foreign Office. That, also, says a lot.

10

mona 09.27.04 at 10:49 am

Yes, it’s true the Time piece is ambiguous, more so because it also cites other instances of spelling errors and people mistakenly added to the no-fly list when they weren’t a threat.

The whole thing has been ambiguous from the start.

11

TJM 09.27.04 at 11:33 am

From the article:

Still, the TSA is learning. It recently acknowledged that a Federal Air Marshall, unable to fly for weeks when his name was mistakenly put on the “no-fly” list, was in fact not a threat, and removed his name from the list.

12

TJM 09.27.04 at 11:34 am

From the article:

Still, the TSA is learning. It recently acknowledged that a Federal Air Marshall, unable to fly for weeks when his name was mistakenly put on the “no-fly” list, was in fact not a threat, and removed his name from the list.

13

Brett Bellmore 09.27.04 at 11:57 am

I don’t know that you could have justified deporting Stevens, based just on public information. But you could, from public information, conclude that it was scarcely implausible that the government had non-public information which would justify it.

I guess it depends on how much of a presumption of good faith/competence you extend the government. In cases like this, which involve merely expelling a non-citizen, I extend somewhat more than I’d be inclined to offer for more dire penalties, particularly if directed at citizens.

14

Andrew Edwards 09.27.04 at 12:16 pm

By the way, “Youssouf” is the French spelling of Yussuf. It’s hardly an uncommon name.

I think that’s the part that gets me most about the whole story. If Yusuf Islam was blacklisted because of a spelling error, then it seems to me they’re essentially blacklisting people because they have the names of terrorists. Can you imagine how many “Yosuf Islam”s there are in the world? What if someone with a more common name got on the list? How many “Mohammed Ismail”s are there to be disbarred if one of them gets in trouble? What if a “David Smith” gets on the list?

Ridiculous.

15

John 09.27.04 at 12:18 pm

< >

I don’t extend any presumption in the good faith/competence of the government towards the government, chiefly due to my work for and in the government, and knowing firsthand what bozos are employed there.

16

Donald Johnson 09.27.04 at 12:58 pm

At one time I think I could have made a right-wing case for deporting Sen, when the Dreze and Sen book “Hunger and Public Action” was online, but I think it was taken offline when the book was reprinted.

In the book, Dreze and Sen say that India has a superior record of famine prevention to Maoist China, because democracies allow public pressure which forces the government to stop a famine before it can kill many people. Maoist China, in sharp contrast, had the biggest famine ever because people were afraid to tell Mao that the Great Leap Forward was a catastrophe. And famines in India under the British occurred fairly often, though they seemed to have the problem under control for a bit until 1943. But once India obtained indepedence, the famine problem stopped (Sen was saying this in the 80’s and 90’s–I’m not sure if it’s still true).

That wouldn’t get Sen deported, but he also claims that if you look at deaths from malnutrition, the background noise of deaths that occur all the time, India’s record is much worse than Maoist China’s, and overall, Maoist China did better for its poor than India. Maoist commie symp. Deport him.

That’s a summary of Chomsky’s summary about Sen in “Rogue States” (pages 176-178), but I vaguely remember looking at the Dreze and Sen book online or in a bookstore and finding that Chomsky’s summary seemed accurate. I’m too lazy to search through all the Google entries on “Hunger and Public Action”, but if I worked for the US government my vague recollection and a secondhand account ought to be more than enough evidence to fly his butt out of here.

17

dsquared 09.27.04 at 1:35 pm

But you could, from public information, conclude that it was scarcely implausible that the government had non-public information which would justify it.

Not wanting to be a dick about this, but after thousands of deaths and no WMDs, haven’t we learned the lesson about governments and their “non-public information” yet?

18

Brett Bellmore 09.27.04 at 1:59 pm

I didn’t realize that proving that an institution isn’t perfect was equivalent to proving that it was perfectly bad.

19

Ben 09.27.04 at 2:04 pm

It’s Yusuf Islam’s fault. If he hadn’t coverted to the faith of islamofascists and stuck with Cat Stevens or Steven Georgiou, he’d be A-OK.

This rationale has been constructed using material from the typographically credible Little Green Footballs comment board. The author is not responsible for kerning.

20

mona 09.27.04 at 2:10 pm

– Can you imagine how many “Yosuf Islam”s there are in the world?

Yeah, let’s just hope the day never comes when they all decide to take the same flight to New York, or the whole US security system might collapse under the strain!

I really don’t know what is supposed to be worse, that they really screw up over name spellings, or that they’d use that as an excuse. I suppose a lot of people don’t even care either way, because as the lovely Brett reminds us, it’s “merely expelling a non-citizen” anyway.

I’m looking forward to the day the UK decides to go tit for tat and expel some Americans in similar fashion, boy wouldn’t we hear the chorus of outrage all the way from coast to coast.

21

Mark 09.27.04 at 2:45 pm

What if some devilishly clever terrorist actually has the resources and cunning to GIVE A DIFFERNET NAME when purchasing tickets?

The horror!

22

Peter 09.27.04 at 2:59 pm

Bruce Schneier has been writing about this sort of problem in the past. I call it the “David Nelson” problem. There are about 200 D. Nelsons who experience extreme delays flying because some bad-guy used the alias Dave Nelson in the past. The name was added to the no-fly list, and even after the bad guy was imprisoned, the name was not removed from the list. As a result every person with a last name of Nelson, and a first name starting with the letter D gets to spend 2-4 extra hours each way of each flight. Or the Ted Kennedy incident. Bruce says there are about 3400 T Kennedys across the US who also would have wasted more of their life until one politically connected T Kennedy was able to have the name removed. The way the no-fly list works, eventually, every name in the world will be on it.

http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram-0409.html#10

23

Robin Green 09.27.04 at 3:06 pm

Evidently, the measure is designed to avoid the embarassment that would be caused if a known terrorist got on an aircraft under his own name and then committed an act of terrorism.

24

mona 09.27.04 at 3:20 pm

Oh I just remembered, something similar to what Peter cites happened last year to The Darkness singer:

Darkness star Justin Hawkins is detained by US police in a case of mistaken identity… Hawkins shares his name with a wanted criminal in the US, to whom police claim he bears a resemblance.

Not even the tattoos helped, apparently…

25

lex 09.27.04 at 3:40 pm

Technology fixes involving national or international databases will never be reliable.
Any human contact database will contain at least 10% junk: misspellings, wrong addresses, titles, organizations, etc. Typically, corporations can expect the data in their external customer and other contact databases to degrade or become corrupted at a rate of about 15-20% every three months.

No vendor has created viable data quality software that can overcome this problem, and there’s no viable solution on the horizon.

All the more reason to ramp up human intel, and face-to-face screening of airport passengers, instead of relying on technology fixes. Israel’s airline, El Al, uses human screening of all passengers and has yet to suffer an attack since this approach was instituted nearly thirty years ago. Low-tech, expensive– and effective. Vastly more reliable than checking identities against any database.

26

john b 09.27.04 at 3:58 pm

Yup to Lex. It would be good to hear that since September 11, El Al has made squillions providing security consultancy services to other airlines.

However, I suspect it actually hasn’t, because it would tell the other airlines they need to spend money on security and employ non-monkeys to implement security policies, and that isn’t what they want to hear.

Much better to have policies that inconvenience all customers a bit, screw some customers over entirely, don’t have any impact on security, but make scared people feel defended without costing the airline significant money…

27

harry 09.27.04 at 4:15 pm

No-one, but no-one, could construct a defence of keeping Tom Jones out. Well, only all the people in the rest of the world who would like to have him there.

28

lex 09.27.04 at 4:50 pm

…they need to spend money on security and employ non-monkeys to implement security policies, and that isn’t what they want to hear.

… without costing the airline significant money…

Actually the low-tech solution, while expensive, is probably less expensive than the high-tech one. As any Oracle customer–ie most of the advanced world’s corporate and govt entities– will tell you, the costs of creating, configuring, maintaining, providing help for and cleaning any large database are astronomical.

Not a Linux expert here but obviously open source, which lowers these costs substantially, is not an option in the security area.

How much would the Israeli approach cost us in the US? Well, it might require, oh, maybe 6,000 full-time screeners at each of the five largest US hubs, not more than 2000 at each of the 15 next-largest hubs, and maybe an average of 500 screeners at another 60 smaller regional hubs.

Total = ca. 90,000 employees, maximum, with college degrees and some training in psychology, interrogation techniques etc. All-in cost of finding, training, and ramping up these people would be maybe $100k per year per person (factors in turnover). So maybe total cost of, max, $9B per year, which is less than the bailout required by the airlines post-9/11 and is also less than the annual sales, maintenance and consulting revenues of the top database vendors and related service providers.

Again, not cheap but a far better return on investment than paying for another Larry Ellison boondoggle that we know will be far mroe expensive than is presented to us and will in any case not work as effectively.

29

john b 09.27.04 at 6:02 pm

Lex – those estimates are interesting.

However, approximately 0% of the 9/11 bailout was spent on security, and I imagine that the no-fly list costs very little to run: all it appears to involve is running an unsophisticated matching query comparing passenger names to a single, occasionally-updated table. Even someone with my meagre programming skills could manage to add this to an existing passenger database…

30

lex 09.27.04 at 6:21 pm

unsophisticated matching query comparing passenger names to a single, occasionally-updated table

Trust me, john, it’s a massively difficult problem that software will not solve, mainly because data quality corrodes with time (people move, a guy changes his name from Stevens to Islam) and with human error (multiplied many times over with transliteration problems).

Even if you wanted to scrub the customer/indivuidual records manually, every college kid from Mumbai to Montreal would not be able to do it. If you have a billion records, and each record has ten objects– well, you get the point. There is no way with existing software or human intervention to scrub all those records and thereby ensure a match success rate consistently higher than 95%, which of course is atrocious. Not even 99.999% would be good enough, and that’s far far above our capabilities today.

nb If the above were not true, I’d be as rich as Larry and Sergey….

31

abb1 09.27.04 at 6:41 pm

How do you get a billion records, lex? This is a no-lfy list, a list of suspected terrorist. Can’t be more than a few thousand records.

32

Another Damned Medievalist 09.27.04 at 7:09 pm

I’m sorry, but why Tom Jones? I know I’m not the only person who appreciates him in a twisted kind of way. When we went to see Eddy Izzard on his last tour, the whole audience was singing along to the Tom Jones tunes before the show and during the intermission. Dang! Next you’ll want to get rid of ABBA.

PS — banning all Air Supply and REO Speedwagon would be okay, though. And Bonnie Tyler. And Diego Maradona. And anyone connected to Milwall.

33

bryan 09.27.04 at 7:15 pm

David Beckham:
Is british soccer player, british soccer fans are known to be violent.
lots of muslim people in britain.
there was that movie Bend it like Beckham, getting bent is an euphemism for drinking, being bent is an euphemism for homosexuality.
Movie had sikh girl wanting to play soccer, in love with older white soccer teacher. race mixing, paedophilia. also possible undertones of lesbianism.
Has played around on his wife, we need to keep marriage sanctified.

Amartya Sen:
Sen is an asian religion.
To be a martyr is to die for your religion.
The 9/11 terrorists were seen as being martyrs. Saddam said so.

Welfare economics. We need immigrants who will help expand our society by working, not sponging off others.

Sting: I got stung once, wasn’t anything nice about it.

studies yoga. yoga is an asian religion.

Tom Jones:

the Welsh are celtic. The irish are celtic. The irish are terrorists.

Obviously wearing a disguise, that wig on his chest is concealing O’hara bin Lad.

Gunther Grass:

Grass is illegal.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
I figure the chances of one of those guys being a bad guy are too big to risk it.

34

abb1 09.27.04 at 7:43 pm

Maradona has Castro’s face tattooed on his leg. He’s a no-fly alright.

35

mona 09.27.04 at 8:36 pm

“Has played around on his wife, we need to keep marriage sanctified.”

Worse than that, he’s been on the cover of gay magazines, in all his naked pecs glory. If let in the US, could incite unconstitutional gay marriage spree. Which in turn would facilitate terrorists.

Also, plays for Real Madrid. Spain, socialist government, pulled out of Iraq. The guy is a walking anti-american threat. I volunteer to detain him indefinitely and torture him for information.

36

dsquared 09.27.04 at 8:37 pm

No-one, but no-one, could construct a defence of keeping Tom Jones out

Given the standard of accuracy this database apparently works on, they would presumably note that he robbed the orchard and picked Master Blifil’s pocket?

37

bryan 09.27.04 at 9:05 pm

“Maradona has Castro’s face tattooed
on his leg. He’s a no-fly alright.”
also above the legal weight limit.

cocaine smuggler. not in our pay.
met him in a bar once, when I raised my glass to toast evil the swine puked on my shoes.

38

bryan 09.27.04 at 9:07 pm

“Also, plays for Real Madrid. Spain, socialist government, pulled out of Iraq.”

pulling out is a well-known form of birth control. jesus, do we even want to let this guy drive?!?

39

bryan 09.27.04 at 9:11 pm

Tom Jones(additional):
To jones is to have an addictive craving for cocaine. Maradona could be supplying this guy.
Also Dick noted at the last meeting in case nobody else noticed it that this guy has an awful lot of hair. I agree, he’s a bastard.

40

bryan 09.27.04 at 9:19 pm

“No-one, but no-one, could construct a defence of keeping Tom Jones out”

it is well known that Mr. Jones is a lascivious foundling of a decidedly low moral character.

41

Steve 09.27.04 at 9:52 pm

I guess it depends on how much of a presumption of good faith/competence you extend the government.

On the basis of the record since 9/11: none whatsoever.

In cases like this, which involve merely expelling a non-citizen, I extend somewhat more than I’d be inclined to offer for more dire penalties, particularly if directed at citizens.

Interesting reasoning: The gov’t couldn’t be lying about this…everybody knows they save their lies for when they’re really necessary, like for duping the country into a war.

Sigh.

42

Brett Bellmore 09.28.04 at 12:10 am

“Interesting reasoning: The gov’t couldn’t be lying about this…everybody knows they save their lies for when they’re really necessary, like for duping the country into a war.”

Nah, the government could very well be lying about this. I just worry less about whether the government has a good reason to do something, when it’s doing something very mild to somebody who’s not a citizen anyway, instead of something serious to a fellow American.

Want to know what gets me mad? Tens of thousands of people rotting in prison for victimless crimes that are none of the government’s goddamn business. Basic civil liberties being grossly violated on an everyday basis. WITH the ACLU’s smiling endorsement, yet! A Ponzi scam shoved down our throats in the guise of a retirement program.

But not some has-been singer being sent home because he’s got the same name as a suspected terrorist. Have a sense of perspective, people!

43

Poemu 09.28.04 at 1:10 am

The discussion about whether the no-fly list would be easy or hard is kind of intriguing, but isn’t the most likely answer “It would be hard and expensive to do it properly, but since they aren’t (D. Nelson? T. Kennedy? Y. Islam? Why not just ban all names with vowels in them and save time?), we are justified in assuming that they are doing a cheap, half-assed job”?

F’rexample, you talk about “maintenance” — WHAT maintenance? Name goes on, name never comes off (unless you’re Ted Kennedy) — given what we know, we’re quite justified in assuming that this is all the “maintenance” this list gets.

44

Steve 09.28.04 at 3:25 am

But not some has-been singer being sent home because he’s got the same name as a suspected terrorist. Have a sense of perspective, people!

My “sense of perspective” is still preoccupied with wondering how many “Yusuf Islam’s” are probably rotting away in Gitmo right now on the basis of similar bad faith and/or incompetence.

And I have to say that unlike you, Brett, I don’t find that thought any easier to take just because the people in question aren’t US citizens.

45

mona 09.28.04 at 9:37 am

Want to know what gets me mad? Tens of thousands of people dying of AIDS in Africa, Rumenian children forced into prostitution, Colombian field labourers exploited by drug barons, etc. sure they’re not Americans either, but they clearly suffer more than one rich has-been singer dumb enough to pick a name that belongs to a terrorist. He asked for it. Why should it bother me? it’s not like it’s about more than the person involved and affects wider crucial issues of security, politics, legal principles, in which I as any voting citizen should be interested in anyway.

46

akikonomu 09.28.04 at 10:48 am

Two words: Harry Tuttle!

47

ian 09.28.04 at 12:04 pm

Can you imagine how many “Yosuf Islam”s there are in the world?

Yeah, let’s just hope the day never comes when they all decide to take the same flight to New York, or the whole US security system might collapse under the strain!

Sounds like a neat piece of civil disobediance if it could be managed!

48

guild ludd 09.28.04 at 9:38 pm

Don’t forget Bernadette Devlin McAlister, a hero of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, thrice firebombed at her home, barred last year from entering the U.S. Her sin? – probably that she was the youngest person ever elected to the British Parliament as a Liberal.

Comments on this entry are closed.