Communion Of Dreams


Drawing the wrong lesson …

One of the oldest Science Fiction tropes is the development of technology intended to enforce compliance through pain. Two notable examples: the ‘shock collars’ used on members of the Enterprise crew in The Gamesters of Triskelion and the ‘pain givers‘ first depicted in the Babylon 5 episode The Parliament of Dreams.

In both cases, and typically through most of the SF I can think of, this is meant to be a cautionary tale, to show how even a nominally benign or at least non-lethal technology can be perverted. The lesson is that the intentional infliction of pain is itself a bad thing, whether or not it actually causes real corporeal damage.

So, naturally, we have drawn exactly the wrong lesson:

Judge pleads guilty to ordering defendant to be shocked with 50,000 volts

A Maryland judge who ordered a deputy to remotely shock a defendant with a 50,000-volt charge pleaded guilty (PDF) to a misdemeanor civil rights violation in federal court Monday, and he faces a maximum of one year in prison when sentenced later this year.

* * *

The deputy sheriff walked over to where Victim I was standing and pulled a chair away to clear a place for Victim I to fall to the floor. At this point, Victim I stopped speaking. The deputy sheriff then activated the stun-cuff, which administered an electric shock to Victim I for approximately five seconds. The electric shock caused Victim I to fall to the ground and scream in pain. Nalley recessed the proceedings.

* * *

The authorities are increasingly using stun cuffs, which are about the size of a deck of cards, at detention centers and courthouses. They are made by various companies and cost around $1,900 for a device and transmitter. Some models can shock at 80,000 volts.

 

Oops.

 

Jim Downey

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Hey, it’s just $900 million …

Well, that’s terribly surprising: the GAO is out with a new report from their investigation of the TSA’s Behavior Profiling program, and it turns out that it doesn’t work.  From NPR:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal probe of a Transportation Security Administration program to screen suspicious behavior of passengers at airports suggests the effort, which has cost almost $1 billion since 2007, has not been proven effective, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Government Accountability Office said its investigation found that the results of the TSA program — called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques — were “no better than chance.” Under the program, agents identify suspicious looking people and talk to them to determine whether they pose a threat. The investigators looked at the screening program at four airports, chosen on the basis of size and other factors.

“TSA has yet to empirically demonstrate the effectiveness of the program despite spending about $900 million on it since 2007,” said Steve Lord, who directed the investigation for the GAO. He said the GAO, which is the research and investigative arm of Congress, “conducts active oversight of the TSA for the Congress given their multibillion-dollar budget.” He said “the behavior detection program is viewed as a key layer of aviation security.”

Yeah, a “key layer” that doesn’t work. From ars technica:

It sounds pretty science-y, but it turns out that, in practice, BDOs across the country are referring passengers for secondary screenings at very different rates. For a program based on “objective” biometric measurements of deception, this is not the result one would hope to see. (Even the TSA admitted to GAO auditors that some of the observations were “subjective”; it is trying to rein these in.) And Ekman, who helped set up the program, told GAO three years ago that no one knew “how many BDOs are required to observe a given number of passengers moving at a given rate per day in an airport environment, or the length of time that such observation can be conducted before observation fatigue affects the effectiveness of the personnel.”

For the report, GAO auditors looked at the outside scientific literature, speaking to behavioral researchers and examining meta-analyses of 400 separate academic studies on unmasking liars. That literature suggests that “the ability of human observers to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral cues or indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance (54 percent).” That result holds whether or not the observer is a member of law enforcement.

It turns out that all of those signs you instinctively “know” to indicate deception usually don’t. Lack of eye contact for instance simply does not correlate with deception when examined in empirical studies. Nor do increases in body movements such as tapping fingers or toes; the literature shows that people’s movements actually decrease when lying. A 2008 study for the Department of Defense found that “no compelling evidence exists to support remote observation of physiological signals that may indicate fear or nervousness in an operational scenario by human observers.”

Like I said, surprising.

Or, you know, not at all.

But at least they spent almost a billion dollars of our money. That’s something.

 

Jim Downey



Proof of concept.

Interesting:

Imagine three astronauts, 125 million miles from the Earth, talking to Mission Control with a four-minute time lag. They have seen nothing out their windows but stars in the blackness of space for the last 150 days. With a carefully timed burn, they slow into orbit around Venus, and as they loop around the planet, they get their first look at its thick cloud layer just 7,000 miles below.

It might sound like the plot of a science fiction movie, but in the late 1960s, NASA investigated missions that would send humans to Venus and Mars using Apollo-era technology. These missions would fly in the 1970s and 1980s to capitalize on what many expected would be a surge of interest in manned spaceflight after the Apollo lunar landings. They would be daring missions, but they would also be feasible with what was on hand.

 

Somewhat surprisingly, I don’t remember this at all. Though of course these were just “proof of concept” studies which were put together for NASA.  Still, they were fairly well thought-out, as the article on ars technica demonstrates. As is often the case, technological limitations are less of an absolute factor in accomplishing something than economic/political limitations are. To borrow from a favorite old movie: “You wouldn’t believe what we did. It’s possible. It’s just hard work.”

What isn’t hard work? Getting entered into the drawing for a leather-bound copy of Communion of Dreams. Full details here. Yesterday’s Kindle promotion pushed us over 500 copies of the electronic version given away this month, and that puts the total number of copies out there somewhere in the neighborhood of 26,000. There are already 65 reviews posted to Amazon. Yet so far only 9 people have entered the drawing. You have until midnight this coming Saturday.

 

Jim Downey

Via BoingBoing.