Communion Of Dreams


The gift that keeps on giving.

Man, sometimes I think the TSA exists solely to provide me something to write about when other news is slow. To a certain extent, it’s just too easy to rant about the ongoing farce. And constantly harping on the idiocy does nothing for my blood pressure.

But sometimes there’s a run of things which just require you to at least point to it and laugh. First, some items from Xeni Jardin over on BoingBoing (all links have a lot more content):

Who did the TSA terrorize today? A 4-year-old girl. Why? She hugged her grandma.

After picking on the elderly, today the TSA is bullying children. A 4-year-old girl who was upset during a TSA screening at the Wichita, KS airport was forced to undergo a manual pat-down after hugging her grandmother. Agents yelled at the child, and called her an uncooperative suspect.

And…

TSA screeners in LA ran drug ring, took narco bribes

Four present and past security screeners at LAX took 22 payments of up to $2400 each to let large shipments of coke, meth, and pot slip through baggage X-ray machines. Oh, we are so very, very shocked.

And…

TSA agents harass 7-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and developmental disability

The Transportation Security Administration launched the “TSA Cares” program to assist disabled fliers just four months ago, but a story making the rounds today proves that the TSA definitely does not. The Frank family was traveling from New York City’s JFK airport to Florida, and were abruptly pulled aside after a dispute over how their 7-year-old daughter Dina was screened. The child is developmentally disabled and has cerebral palsy. She walks with crutches and leg braces.

You can guess what happened next, of course.

Then there was this item from Cory Doctorow earlier this week:

95 year old veteran and 85-year-old friend humiliated, searched and robbed at San Diego TSA checkpoint

Omer Petti is a 95-year-old USAF veteran with artificial knees and a heart condition. Madge Woodward, his partner, has an artificial hip. They recently flew home to Detroit from San Diego, and were humiliated and robbed at the San Diego airport TSA checkpoint. The metal in their bodies set off the TSA magnetometer, and Petti was instructed to put his $300 in cash in a bin. Then he was further detained when a swab detected the nitroglycerin residue from his heart pills. He and Woodward were subjected to humiliating patdowns, and then discovered that their $300 had gone missing. When Petti asked where his money had gone, the TSA agent required he and Woodward to remove their shoes again and empty out their pockets, and asked if they were “refusing his request” when they objected. The TSA manager checked the security footage, but reported that it was “too blurry” to see what had happened to the money. The two elderly people were loaded into their wheelchairs and taken to their plane at full tilt, barely making it. They never got their money back.

In each case the response from the TSA is some variation on the theme of “TSA has reviewed the incident and determined that our officers followed proper screening procedures…”

No surprise there.

And lest you think this is just BoingBoing’s obsession, how about this article from Kip Hawley, former head of the TSA, who has decidedly changed his tune:

Why Airport Security Is Broken—And How To Fix It

You know the TSA. We’re the ones who make you take off your shoes before padding through a metal detector in your socks (hopefully without holes in them). We’re the ones who make you throw out your water bottles. We’re the ones who end up on the evening news when someone’s grandma gets patted down or a child’s toy gets confiscated as a security risk. If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably hate us.

More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.

The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk. In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple.

Bruce Schneier, who recently debated Hawley in the pages of the Economist, has his (very positive, all in all) reaction here.

Any bets on whether or not this will change anything in the slightest?

“Welcome to the TSA checkpoint. Hand over your valuables and grab your ankles, please.”

Jim Downey



Game-changer.

The other day I posted a video clip which nicely demonstrated one particular aspect of “game theory” and mentioned that it tied in to Communion of Dreams, though I wasn’t explicit how (nor did I explain what I found so interesting in the clip). Partly this was just due to my being preoccupied with the Kindle promotion that day, and partly it was because I like to leave people to figure things out for themselves.

Well, yesterday Bruce Schneier, whom I have mentioned here a number of times, posted an excellent explanation of what was so interesting about the clip (which has been making the rounds). Here’s the gist of the explanation:

Think about Nick’s strategy. He can’t trust that Abraham will split. More importantly, he can’t trust that Abraham will do what he said, because it’s in Abraham’s best interest to say one thing and do another. So he changes the game. He offers to split the pot outside the game — set up a meta-game of sorts — and removes Abraham’s incentive to lie.

Read the whole thing – it’s only a couple of paragraphs long, and nicely goes over exactly why this strategy works.

And that is also why I thought it had such a strong connection to Communion of Dreams: because in one very real sense, the whole book is about what happens when you unexpectedly ‘change the game’. The character of Chu Ling is the key in this regard, both literally and metaphorically, and that is why I had to have her as a game theory prodigy.

Just thought I’d share that.

Jim Downey



Fear is the mind-killer.*

It’s time to wake up.

Bruce Schneier and Kip Hawley had a good debate recently in the pages of the Economist over the proposition: “This house believes that changes made to airport security since 9/11 have done more harm than good.”

Both of the primaries in the debate make their points about as solidly as they can be made, in my opinion, and the ensuing back & forth and discussion with other participants was . . . vigorous.

I wasn’t surprised at the result, though the moderator seems to have been. Here’s an excerpt from his final statement:

I thought Kip Hawley would have the tougher role as the opposer, but I have still been surprised at the vehemence and quantity of the views expressed in favour. The debate was American in emphasis, and the tetchiness of the relationship between many Americans and the TSA is perhaps something this Briton hadn’t fully appreciated. In Britain, where airports employ their own security, we lack the monolithic body on which to focus anger about liquids in hand luggage, shoe-removal and the like.

Voters have roundly declared that the frustrations, the delays, the loss of liberty and the increase in fear that characterise their interactions with airport-security procedures vastly outweigh the good these procedures achieve. For some, indeed, the benefits are essentially non-existent: any sensible terrorist can find a work-around or choose a different point of attack, as Bruce Schneier explains. And so the widely expressed hope is that changes made to security in the (near) future will make the whole regime less reactive, more rational, more flexible and more intelligence-driven. The results of this debate suggest that these changes should be made with some urgency: passengers are angry.

As I said, no surprise to me. That’s because the actual problem isn’t with security, it is with liberty. I think that this has been the main problem all along – the governmental response to the 9/11 attacks were understandable, predictable, and almost completely misguided. From Schneier’s closing statement:

The current TSA measures create an even greater harm: loss of liberty. Airports are effectively rights-free zones. Security officers have enormous power over you as a passenger. You have limited rights to refuse a search. Your possessions can be confiscated. You cannot make jokes, or wear clothing, that airport security does not approve of. You cannot travel anonymously. (Remember when we would mock Soviet-style “show me your papers” societies? That we’ve become inured to the very practice is a harm.) And if you’re on a certain secret list, you cannot fly, and you enter a Kafkaesque world where you cannot face your accuser, protest your innocence, clear your name, or even get confirmation from the government that someone, somewhere, has judged you guilty. These police powers would be illegal anywhere but in an airport, and we are all harmed—individually and collectively—by their existence.

And this is *exactly* what was desired by Osama bin Laden all along: to prompt us to react in fear, to incur huge expenses in trying to make ourselves ‘safe’, and to stress the very foundations of our society. Again, from Schneier:

Increased fear is the final harm, and its effects are both emotional and physical. By sowing mistrust, by stripping us of our privacy—and in many cases our dignity—by taking away our rights, by subjecting us to arbitrary and irrational rules, and by constantly reminding us that this is the only thing between us and death by the hands of terrorists, the TSA and its ilk are sowing fear. And by doing so, they are playing directly into the terrorists’ hands.

The goal of terrorism is not to crash planes, or even to kill people; the goal of terrorism is to cause terror. Liquid bombs, PETN, planes as missiles: these are all tactics designed to cause terror by killing innocents. But terrorists can only do so much. They cannot take away our freedoms. They cannot reduce our liberties. They cannot, by themselves, cause that much terror. It’s our reaction to terrorism that determines whether or not their actions are ultimately successful. That we allow governments to do these things to us—to effectively do the terrorists’ job for them—is the greatest harm of all.

Complete safety is an illusion. A fantasy. I know most people don’t want to actually think about that, but the truth is that living is a terminal disease and there’s more than a fair chance you will suffer your share of accidents along the way. Accept that, and you can go through your life trying to minimize those while maximizing your happiness. But if you are obsessed with never being at risk – if you let fear control you – then you will be controlled by others.

I’ve written a lot about terrorism (64 tags), and violence (82), and civil rights (102) over the years, going on and on about how our privacy and even our dignity have been eroded by unthinking fear. I guess I have long since passed the point of being a crank about this in general and the TSA in particular.

But this is important. Essential, I would say, for the life of our Republic. We’ve stumbled. Just as we have stumbled before in the face of a shocking attack. We’ve stumbled in blind panic. We’ve all been through a kind of societal Posttraumatic stress disorder. And the time has come to shake off the fear response, to once again engage the thinking parts of our brains. Only then can we hope to recover not just life, but also liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Jim Downey

*Of course: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear… And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear is gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”



When toy plastic hammers are outlawed,
June 16, 2011, 10:09 am
Filed under: Bruce Schneier, Civil Rights, Terrorism, Travel, Violence

only outlaws will have toy plastic hammers:

We have yet another horrific encounter with TSA. This time the incident occurred in Romulus, Michigan where a family was going to Disneyland and found two denizens waiting from them at the airport from the Unhappiest Place on Earth. Dr. David Mandy was walking his 29-year-old severely mentally disabled son through security when two agents spotted him.

Drew [had] difficulty understanding orders to place his feet on the yellow shoe line and follow the TSA agents’ orders. When Dr. Mandy tried to explain his son was severely mentally disabled the TSA agents told him to back off and that they would handle the matter. They were concerned with his adult diaper and kept instructing him to rub his hand up the front and back of his pants. They then turned their attention to a small plastic toy hammer and ball that Drew carries for comfort. As with children, Drew clings to the toys for a sense of security and has had the toys for years. One agent tapped it on the wall and reportedly said “See, it’s hard. It could be used as a weapon.”

At this point, it’s almost impossible to parody the TSA’s Security Theater.

Jim Downey



Something to look forward to.
May 30, 2011, 11:22 am
Filed under: Bruce Schneier, Civil Rights, Failure, Health, Privacy, PZ Myers, Science, tech, Travel

I just took my blood pressure. Because of past problems with hypertension, I keep a pretty close eye on it. Here are three readings, using a very good automatic digital monitor:

  • 123/85
  • 121/88
  • 115/81

This is how they usually recommend doing it – taking several readings over the course of a few minutes, to help get a good sense of where your bp actually is since there are natural variations and just one reading can be misleading. And those numbers are pretty good – showing that my blood pressure is under control thanks to a combination of diet, exercise, and drugs.

Happily, my doctor trusts me to keep an eye on my bp, because whenever I go in to the clinic, my numbers jump. The readings above would probably be a good 20/10 points higher, if not a lot more. See, I have a mild case of “white coat syndrome”. I just dislike almost any kind of testing by strangers like that (one of the reasons I am happy to work on my own, in my own business, and on my own time).

I also hate traveling. Well, more accurately, I hate having to put up with the hassles and intrusion on my privacy that goes along with dealing with airport security. Flying is fine. So is driving around in a new place, seeing the sights, experiencing a new culture. But dealing with the TSA or any similar entity? Gah – I hate it with a passion.

And if the latest debacle of an idea to provide ‘security’ comes to pass, I’m probably going to hate it even more:

Terrorist ‘pre-crime’ detector field tested in United States

Planning a sojourn in the northeastern United States? You could soon be taking part in a novel security programme that can supposedly ‘sense’ whether you are planning to commit a crime.

Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programme designed to spot people who are intending to commit a terrorist act, has in the past few months completed its first round of field tests at an undisclosed location in the northeast, Nature has learned.

Like a lie detector, FAST measures a variety of physiological indicators, ranging from heart rate to the steadiness of a person’s gaze, to judge a subject’s state of mind. But there are major differences from the polygraph. FAST relies on non-contact sensors, so it can measure indicators as someone walks through a corridor at an airport, and it does not depend on active questioning of the subject.

Charming.

Of course, scientists are skeptical:

Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a think-tank based in Washington DC that promotes the use of science in policy-making, is pessimistic about the FAST tests. He thinks that they will produce a large proportion of false positives, frequently tagging innocent people as potential terrorists and making the system unworkable in a busy airport. “I believe that the premise of this approach — that there is an identifiable physiological signature uniquely associated with malicious intent — is mistaken. To my knowledge, it has not been demonstrated,” he says. “Without it, the whole thing seems like a charade.”

As well they should be. Even the DHS spokesperson says that the FAST system was only “70% accurate” in lab tests. As PZ Myers notes:

Feeling anxious about the job interview you’re flying to? You will be strip-searched. Angry because the incompetent boob at the ticket counter bumped you from your flight? Your body cavities must be inspected. Steely in your resolve, forthright in your determination to strike the infidel? Welcome aboard!

More security theatre. Wonderful.

Jim Downey



Oh, great – one more thing to worry about.

In listening/reading about the Toyota car crashes earlier this year, a thought had occurred to me: if it was a software problem with controlling the brakes or throttle, could that be something which could be used maliciously against the owner of a car? I mean, I could see where it would make an interesting plot point in a mystery – someone gets into the car’s computer system, mucks around, and then a couple of days later the car crashes, killing the driver. But since I don’t write mysteries (though there are elements of that in Communion of Dreams), I let the idea just slip away.

Now it seems that I wasn’t thinking on nearly a large enough scale:

Cars’ Computer Systems Called at Risk to Hackers

Automobiles, which will be increasingly connected to the Internet in the near future, could be vulnerable to hackers just as computers are now, two teams of computer scientists are warning in a paper to be presented next week.

The scientists say that they were able to remotely control braking and other functions, and that the car industry was running the risk of repeating the security mistakes of the PC industry.

“We demonstrate the ability to adversarially control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input — including disabling the brakes, selectively braking individual wheels on demand, stopping the engine, and so on,” they wrote in the report, “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile.”

Well, it’s too late to enter this year’s Fifth Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest by Bruce Schneier, but that’d be a great one: terrorists design a computer worm which targets the control systems of cars, and when the worm is activated on a certain date, all the cars will suddenly go out of control on America’s roads, killing thousands and spreading mass panic. Given the level of dependence we have on cars & trucks in the US, this would quickly cripple the economy and destroy the country.

Make a hell of a book or movie, wouldn’t it? It could even be done as a 24 style TV show, where the protagonist has to track down and stop the mad computer genius behind the plot.

Gah. Now I suppose Homeland Security will be paying me a visit for coming up with such an idea . . .

Jim Downey



Time to invest in Kimberly-Clark,

the makers of Depends:

In the wake of the terrorism attempt Friday on a Northwest Airlines flight, federal officials on Saturday imposed new restrictions on travelers that could lengthen lines at airports and limit the ability of international passengers to move about an airplane.

The government was vague about the steps it was taking, saying that it wanted the security experience to be “unpredictable” and that passengers would not find the same measures at every airport — a prospect that may upset airlines and travelers alike.

But several airlines released detailed information about the restrictions, saying that passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. It was not clear how often the rule would affect domestic flights.

That’s from today’s NYT’s article. Here’s what’s on the TSA site:

The Department of Homeland Security immediately put additional screening measures into place- for all domestic and international flights- to ensure the continued safety of the traveling public. We are also working closely with federal, state and local law enforcement on additional security measures, as well as our international partners on enhanced security at airports and on flights.

The American people should continue their planned holiday travel and, as always, be observant and aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious behavior or activity to law enforcement officials.

Passengers flying from international locations to U.S. destinations may notice additional security measures in place. These measures are designed to be unpredictable, so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere.

And here’s this from a tech news site:

Multiple sources, among them Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, have also been told that no electronics are allowed on international flights. None. So you can’t even play video games to distract yourself from how badly you have to pee.

Jeez. As I noted back in September, Bruce Schneier has already talked about an ‘underwear bomb’:

For years, I have made the joke about Richard Reid: “Just be glad that he wasn’t the underwear bomber.” Now, sadly, we have an example of one.

Time to invest, I tell ya. The demand for Depends is going to go up. They’re not just for grandma anymore.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



“Grab your ankles, please.”
September 28, 2009, 10:35 am
Filed under: Bruce Schneier, Civil Rights, Emergency, Failure, Government, Humor, Predictions, Privacy, Terrorism

Good lord. I’d heard about this, as an “attempted assassination”, but I hadn’t heard the details:

On the evening of Aug. 28, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister — and the man in charge of the kingdom’s counterterrorism efforts — was receiving members of the public in connection with the celebration of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. As part of the Ramadan celebration, it is customary for members of the Saudi royal family to hold public gatherings where citizens can seek to settle disputes or offer Ramadan greetings.

One of the highlights of the Friday gathering was supposed to be the prince’s meeting with Abdullah Hassan Taleh al-Asiri, a Saudi man who was a wanted militant from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Asiri had allegedly renounced terrorism and had requested to meet the prince in order to repent and then be accepted into the kingdom’s amnesty program.

* * *

But the al-Asiri case ended very differently from the al-Awfi case. Unlike al-Awfi, al-Asiri was not a genuine repentant — he was a human Trojan horse. After al-Asiri entered a small room to speak with Prince Mohammed, he activated a small improvised explosive device (IED) he had been carrying inside his anal cavity. The resulting explosion ripped al-Asiri to shreds but only lightly injured the shocked prince — the target of al-Asiri’s unsuccessful assassination attempt.

As Bruce Schneier says:

Nobody tell the TSA, but last month someone tried to assassinate a Saudi prince by exploding a bomb stuffed in his rectum.

* * *
For years, I have made the joke about Richard Reid: “Just be glad that he wasn’t the underwear bomber.” Now, sadly, we have an example of one.

Richard Reid was the “shoe bomber”, and the reason why we all have to remove our shoes when you go through security at an airport.

Consider the possible reactions from the TSA. I suppose we all should limber up, and get used to literally bending over from now on.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



There ain’t no such thing.

The annoying cold I mentioned the other day seems to be trying for an upgrade to bronchial infection, perhaps with delusions of becoming pneumonia. So I’m not feeling particularly creative or insightful. Maybe I used up too much outrage yesterday. Anyway, since I am a bit under the weather, let me just post an excerpt from something you ought to read. This is the closing of The Most Dangerous Person in the World?:

Security itself is an illusion. It is a perception that exists only between our ears. No army, insurance policy, hazmat team, video surveillance or explosive sniffer can protect us from our own immune system, a well-intentioned but clumsy surgeon, failing to look before crossing the street, an asteroid randomly hurtling through space or someone willing to die in order to do others harm.

In this sense, the only things that can truly make us more “secure” are not things. They are the courage to face whatever comes with dignity and intention, and the strong relationships that assure we will face the future together, and find comfort and meaning in doing so.

Imagine, then, what might happen if we simply quit listening to the scaremongers and those who profit from our paranoia. Imagine what the world could look like if we made a conscious choice to live out whatever time we have with courage, compassion, service and joy.

Terrorism is an act of the weak. But so is walking through the airport in our socks.

We can make better choices.

Go read the whole thing.

Jim Downey

(Via Bruce Schneier.)



Hey, it’s not like it’s *their* money.
January 6, 2009, 9:41 pm
Filed under: ACLU, Bruce Schneier, Civil Rights, Government, NPR, Predictions, Society, Terrorism, Travel

Well, in spite of the fact that I doubt it will really change anything, this is good news:

Transportation Security Administration officials and JetBlue Airways are paying $240,000 to settle (.pdf) a discrimination lawsuit against a District of Columbia man who, as a condition of boarding a domestic flight, was forced to cover his shirt that displayed Arabic writing.

Oh noes! Not evil Arabic writing!!  Next thing you know, there’ll be evil Arabic numerals, taking over our culture!

According to a civil rights lawsuit, TSA and JetBlue demanded Raed Jarrar to sit at the back of a 2006 flight from New York to Oakland because his shirt read “We Will Not Be Silent” in English and Arabic.

As Jarrar was waiting to board, TSA officials approached him and said he was required to remove his shirt because passengers were not comfortable with it, according to the lawsuit. The suit claimed one TSA official commented that the Arabic lettering was akin to wearing a T-shirt at a bank stating, “I am a robber.”

The lawsuit claimed Jarrar, 30, invoked the First Amendment but acquiesced after it became clear to him that he would not be allowed to fly if he did not cover his shirt with one given to him by JetBlue officials.

From Jarrar’s blog, this:

“All people in this country have the right to be free of discrimination and to express their own opinions,” said Jarrar, who is currently employed with the American Friends Service Committee, an organization committed to peace and social justice. “With this outcome, I am hopeful that TSA and airlines officials will think twice before practicing illegal discrimination and that other travelers will be spared the treatment I endured.”

Nice sentiment. And not a bad settlement – I’m glad to see him get the money.  But I am highly skeptical that it will really change anything – it’s not, after all, like the people who did this will be paying the money out of their own pockets.  The Security Theater will continue, and there will still be instances of absurd behaviour such as we saw last week:

All Things Considered, January 2, 2009 · A Muslim-American passenger, one of nine members of a family detained and questioned at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport after fellow passengers on their AirTran flight reported hearing a suspicious conversation, says the family is trying not to be angry at what happened.

So, yeah, Jarrar’s settlement is good news, but only one small bit of good news, and mostly for him.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)