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Tech and tallies, failures and fixes

By RD Heldenfels Published: November 9, 2005

I was standing in line at my polling place on Tuesday night, waiting for a booth to open up. There were a lot of lonnnnnng measures on the ballot, so voting was taking time. Then there was the matter of the paper ballots, which had to be lined up in the voting gizmo, then punched through.

Why, I wondered, are we still using paper? Haven't ATMs and the Internet taught us that there are faster, easier ways to do things? I could order half a dozen books from Amazon, or add a zillion titles to our Netflix queue, in less time than it takes to punch a paper ballot.

And I'm not even thinking about what happened in Florida in 2000.

Rather, I had technology on my mind for a couple of reasons. One, I hate waiting in lines. Two, I've been thinking a lot lately about TV technology. Awhile back I mentioned the movement back tiny TV sets, with downloaded programs on them, and how that might change TV. And this week we've seen both CBS and NBC take big steps in video on demand, with Comcast and DirecTV, so that for a small fee you can see a program you missed -- without the commercials.

I'll have a column in the Beacon Journal about all this soon. And one thing I'll be wondering about is the way that advanced technology is not a panacea. We've heard of problems with paper ballots, and with voting machines, and there will also at some point be a scandal involving electronic voting. If you build it, they will hack.

The other day I took a look at a new ''Saturday Night Live'' special about the show during the 1980s. It airs on NBC on Sunday night. The documentary is of particular importance right now because ''SNL'' has been so bad this season; the show reminds us that ''SNL'' has been bad before, and found its way back to quality. The 1980-81 season, which followed the departure of the acclaimed original cast, was famously horrible, but the documentary argues that it was not alone in that respect. When producer Lorne Michaels returned to the series after a five-year absence, he almost ended up presiding over its demise -- only to rebound a year later.

I wonder, though, how many shows are capable of such reinvention -- of recasting and retooling to such an incredible degree and yet still thrive. ''Law & Order'' has gone through a lot of recasting, but in its case that involves fitting new pegs into old holes, since the formula is fundamentally the same year in and year out. You could argue that ''SNL'' has the same basic formula, too, but both the writers and performers can make huge changes in the framework. A ''Weekend Update'' with Tina Fey is not the same as one with Chevy Chase, or Dennis Miller.

Still, in arguing that there is life after legend, the ''SNL'' special strikes an optimistic note. And who couldn't use a little optimism these days?

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