Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How the TSA kills americans

There's a big to-do this week with a big passenger backlash to the perceived excesses of airport passenger screenings. There are those with luddite attitudes towards the new backscatter X-ray scanners, but it's fairly easy to see how the machines themselves are safe. But facing the Hobson's choice of either a virtual strip-search or a pat-down not dissimilar to what happens when suspected criminals are arrested just because you choose to use an airplane to exercise your constitutional right to free (as in speech) travel is unreasonable.

But we can go a step further. There is a web campaign calling on travelers to "opt-out" of the X-ray, forcing the TSA to give all of those passengers pat-downs instead, in an act of civil disobedience. And the TSA has vowed not to give in. And so, the prospect looms of air travel becoming, at least for a day, even more unpleasant.

The more air travel becomes more expensive, unpleasant or otherwise untenable, the more people forego it for their cars. And while individually they don't make headlines, people die on a daily basis on America's roads, to the tune of more than 30,000 per year (as of 2009). That compares to a fatality rate for domestic commercial aviation of approximately 100 per year. So the TSA is doing everything they can to funnel people to a transportation system that has a fatality rate 300 times higher. They should be proud of themselves.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 were only possible because of the "rules of engagement" that were in place at the time. Those rules said that passengers and flight crew should cooperate with hijackers and let them go where they wanted and let the police handle matters when the plane lands (as it inevitably must). When Al Queda demonstrated that aircraft could be turned into weapons, those rules changed. In actual fact, Al Queda's plan stopped working even before it was complete - the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania did so because the passengers revolted when they figured out what the plan was. No terrorist since then has been able to take control of or destroy an aircraft while on board because of the vigilance of the passengers.

Really, the only thing the TSA needs to do, given this state of affairs, to make air travel sufficiently safe, is to insure that the cockpits remain secure during flight, that each piece of luggage in the cargo hold belongs to a passenger, and perform the level of passenger screening that was commonplace for the 3 decades between DB Cooper and 9/11.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Who does Nancy Grace remind you of?

Every time I see her on The Soup, I can't help but think of Roland Freisler.

So what does health care cost?

Scarlet was in the hospital a few weeks ago. Fortunately, she's all better, but we got some paperwork from our health insurance today. The long and short of it: Her one week hospital stay had a retail price of $87,000. But the "network" price was $18,000, and the patient responsibility (that is, what we have to pay) is $0.

So the last of those numbers - the $0 - is fine with me. I can't complain. It is, after all, what health coverage is for. But I'm reminded of my last visit to Safeway where I bought a box of crackers for $1.99 at the "club" price, instead of the "regular" price of $3.99.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Taiwanese animated news: Snooki

I've been loving the NMA animated news "reenactments" that have been featured on The Soup and elsewhere, but googling around for it, I found perhaps the best one of all, centered around Jersey Shore inmate, Snooki:

Best of all is the last few seconds of the video boldly predicting the coming end of her 15 minutes.

There really is an "I" in team

You just have to use the correct font.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Mehserle mess

In honor of the sentencing this week, I thought it long overdue to pontificate on the shooting of Oscar Grant.

I think we can take at face value the supposition that Grant did nothing that evening that warranted the use of deadly force. But at the same time I think we also can take at face value Mehserle's assertions that he meant to use his Taser rather than his gun. After all, to believe otherwise would be to ascribe some motive that Mehserle had to kill Grant - a man whom we have no evidence Mehserle had ever met before (and, no, we have no evidence that Mehserle harbored any racist leanings that might explain his actions).

If anyone thinks Mehserle got off lightly, let's just put some things into perspective: he is going to spend another year of his life in prison, having already spent the better part of a year there. He will have a felony conviction on his record, which will make him utterly unemployable in any career even remotely related to what he is trained to do (since he is a felon, he will no longer have legal access to firearms, so he can't work as a security guard, and I don't believe felons can get a private investigator's license). And then, there's all the baggage that goes along with being an ex-con - having to check the "yes" box on all of his future employment applications that ask about felony convictions. All of this because he committed an error.

That said, we can, and I believe should hold police officers to a higher standard. But at the same time, I believe at least some of the blame should be attributed squarely to where it belongs. This was, fundamentally, a failure of ergonomic engineering.

Policemen and soldiers train themselves so that in times of stress they can rely on their instincts to carry out actions quickly and without thinking about them. They need to do so in order to stay alive, given that they are in situations where they are in contact with other people bent on doing them bodily harm. They need to act in the amount of time that the rest of us would mentally say, "Oh shit!" and soil ourselves.

I'm sure Mehserle trained for hours to pull a gun, raise it up to a target and pull the trigger.

Now go back to the picture of the actual model of Taser that Mehserle carried.

I'm sure the Taser folks were thinking that if they shaped their weapon that way that they could leverage the training that the users already would have in operating similar, but more deadly weapons.

Mehserle had time for exactly one thought that night, and his brain said, "Quick! Tase him!" Everything that followed from that decision was instinct and training. He reached for and grabbed his weapon. At that instant, had his Taser training been with a weapon that had a different shaped grip, or that you operated with a thumb trigger rather than an index finger trigger, then the reptilian portion of the brain that was following along the script would have said, "wait, this doesn't feel right." And that probably would have been enough to change the outcome. But the fact that the gripping action for the Taser X-26 was the same as his service revolver didn't give him a chance to recognize his error before it was too late.

It's too bad the book has already been written about technology failures like this. The story of Johann Mehserle and Oscar Grant absolutely deserves to be written alongside those of the Bhopal disaster and the Therac 25.