Archive for the ‘General’ category

What’s wrong with airport security?

December 4, 2010

Updated airport security policies have been in the news lately. And I have experienced them first-hand: although I haven’t been flying over 100K miles like the good old days, I achieved elite airline status just based on my flights in the first six months of the year.

Before I get to the question of what’s wrong, let me make one thing clear: I think the system needs to be fixed rather than replaced. I do believe that airline security is better since the September 11 attacks. I don’t want to see the professionals of the TSA replaced with the low-bidder-contractors that were in place previously.

The basic problem with the changes in airport security is that we’re solving the wrong problem. Let’s look at the perpetrators of the high-profile incidents of the last decade:

  • September 11, 2001: Perpetrated by a group of young men who followed al-Qaeda, had pilot training, and used smuggled knives to overpower airline crews.
  • Shoe bomber: Perpetrated by a young man who followed al-Qaeda and smuggled explosives in his shoe on a flight from Paris to Miami.
  • Underwear bomber: Perpetrated by a young man who followed al-Qaeda and smuggled explosives in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
  • Printer cartridge bombs: Perpetrated by al-Qaeda to smuggle explosives inside printer toner cartridges shipped from Yemen to the USA.

Notice the obvious patterns:

  • All perpetrators were young men with a radical anti-American agenda
  • Since the September 11 attacks, all events involved explosives
  • Since the TSA was established, all events involved trips on US airlines from Europe, Africa or the Gulf states to the USA

So if you’re trying to stop an airline terrorist plot, it seems pretty obvious that you should focus on:

  • Radical young men with an anti-American agenda
  • Explosives
  • Flights on US airlines from Europe to the USA, particularly involving passengers or cargo originating in Africa or the Gulf states

This also implies that the visible changes that the TSA implemented in 2010 are solving the wrong problem. For example, the following people are virtually no threat to American security:

  • The family traveling from St. Louis to Disney World
  • The college sorority girl flying home for Christmas break
  • The 45-year old sales representative traveling from Silicon Valley to a trade show in Denver
  • The retired couple traveling from Boston to a Caribbean cruise

So why are we putting these people through the “full body scanner” and “enhanced pat-downs”? By doing this, we’re wasting valuable time and resources that should be used to target the real sources of terrorism. And so “the terrorists are winning” since one event – even a failed one – inflicts fear and wastes time and money. And while we focus on the past event, the terrorists are planning new tactics for the next one.

Since September 11, 2001, the major terror plots involved international flights that started outside the USA. In other words, since the TSA was created, it has been effective in maintaining safety on flights departing US airports. And it seems to me that TSA and CBP policies in place from 2002-2009 were effective without the need for offensive “full body scanners” or “enhanced pat-downs”.

What is needed instead are methods to improve security on international flights destined for the USA.

Meantime, what are we doing about other targets? Imagine the horror if terrorists struck at a bridge, a tunnel, a rush-hour subway, or a national monument. What if terrorists struck at crowds in a televised sports event? Or at an amusement park? Or holiday crowds? Are we really doing enough to protect against these threats? Or are we too busy trying to solve yesterday’s problem today – trying to protect domestic US flights against harmless grandmothers and toddlers?

P.S. I’m also annoyed by the speculation over the safety of the full-body scanners. Where are the studies to determine whether these systems are safe? This is elementary science: subject laboratory animals to the scanners, and observe whether they get cancer or other diseases. Then send the results to peer-reviewed journals for scrutiny. There is no excuse for not doing this research and making the results public. Until then, all we’re doing is speculating.

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The Glory Days of Flying

November 11, 2010

In the last 12 months, I have done more flying than I have done in years. I also realize that my son is now at the same age as I was when I started to fly frequently. This made me recall the differences between now and when I flew as a child.

I remember when the airlines gave you a choice of hot meals. (They weren’t perfect, but they filled a need – and your belly). I remember when the ‘meal’ became a skimpy deli sandwich. Now, you’re lucky if you get a chance to buy overpriced crackers and beef jerky. Or pack a picnic meal.

I remember when the biggest worry in flying was that they’d run out of your choice of meals. Now you have to worry that some disgruntled person is looking to turn the plane into a missile. Or blow up his underwear.

I remember when you didn’t have to take off your shoes to pass through security.

I remember when security didn’t require you to submit to the “porno scanners” or to genital groping.

I remember when your friends and family could meet you at the gate.

I remember when it didn’t cost extra to check a suitcase.

I remember when carry-on liquids weren’t limited to a 1-quart zip-top bag with 100 ml bottles.

I remember when you could bring your own soft drink past security. Now we have the privilege of paying $3 for a bottle of water.

I remember when my parents and grandparents made my brother and me wear a jacket and tie when we flew. Now you’re lucky if the person next to you took a shower that day.

I remember when the pilot used to welcome children into the cockpit during the flight. (I vividly remember seeing the coast of Canada from the cockpit during a return flight from Europe).

I remember when kids could get a set of pilot ‘wings’ to wear. And you could get a deck of playing cards, just for asking.

I remember when the airline employees treated coach passengers with dignity and respect.

I remember when the airlines gave you a boarding pass. Now I get to waste paper and ink printing them at home – with a page full of ink-wasting advertisements! (Unless I remember to find the tiny link that lets me print without ads).

I remember when the airports were staffed with helpful airline personnel. Now you get an electronic kiosk and a phone to a central reservation desk.

I fear that when my son grows up, he’ll look back fondly on the glory days of flying – from the year 2010. Unless I can afford to fly by private jet – which doesn’t seem likely.

Why I’m voting Democratic

January 4, 2008

Many friends know that I’m a closet Libertarian: I believe that the role of government is to protect my liberties. But I’m also a pragmatist: I know that the Libertarian Party is a fringe element, and so I need to align myself with the Democratic-Republicans. So which to choose? A few months ago, I finally realized that I am better off voting Democratic. The Democrats are better at protecting personal liberty, while the Republicans are better at protecting financial liberty. I can always make more money, but there’s no way I can make more freedom.

He’s baaaaack

October 9, 2007

My goal is to post at least once per week. After a long break, I’ll return to blogging later this week. Thanks for waiting.

Best tool isn’t necessarily the largest

November 25, 2005

Although I was never a fan of the TV show “Home Improvement”, I am amused by the appetite for tools by the main character, Tim Taylor. Whenever there was a job to do, Tim purchased the largest tool he could find, which was gross overkill. This is so amusing because it is so true in real life.

So many times, I see consumers get preoccupied with specifications and buy the biggest thing they can possibly afford. Often a cheaper item is a better fit. For instance, as people rush to replace their wireless computer networking gear, they forget that the oldest wireless standard, 802.11b (“wi-fi”), is about 4x as fast as the fastest cable or DSL connection. In few cases will a home user see any benefit from a wireless networking standard that is 5x or 10x faster.

Another example: people who purchase cameras based on megapixels. (“Look, this one has 8 megapixels! It’s 4 times as good as my old 2 megapixel camera!”). It only takes 2 megapixels to enlarge a 150 dpi photo to 8 x 10! Aside from Digital SLRs, which use a different technology, cameras with “only” 5 megapixels generally produce better images than those with more.

Spend wisely.

Take my money, please!

November 14, 2005

Today I walked into a well-known professional photo shop in downtown San Francisco. I was looking for three accessories, worth about $150: a particular model of Tamrac camera bag, an Expodisc white balance filter, and a Canon EW-73B lens hood. Both the bag and the lens hood are standard products.

The clerk barked at me that the camera bags were in the back room. When I told him that I had already looked there and didn’t find any from my desired manufacturer, he implied that I must be an idiot and walked back with me. Sure enough, they had only two bags out of Tamrac’s giant catalog of hundreds. Same story for the other two products. I walked out without spending a penny.

I cannot figure out why a store makes you feel like a nuisance for actually wanting to shop from them. I now know that I need to take my business to Keeble & Shuchat in Palo Alto or B&H in New York, and I will take great pleasure when that other store goes out of business. Good riddance!

First class, all the way

November 4, 2005

I may have found a new set of heros: Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Yes, they are smart. Yes, they are incredibly wealthy. Yes, they created Google, a product that has truly transformed my life. But instead of living a life of opulence, they still spend money thoughtfully and wisely. Bravo, guys.

(Another good link on this story).