More TSA Nonsense

Security and Terrorism Expert Bruce Schneier: TSA Scans “Won’t Catch Anybody”

And why would they? Zero bombers made it through (or were caught by) the old system.

Errata Security: I was just detained by the TSA

Today, I was detained by the TSA for about 30 minutes for taking pictures while going through security. Taking pictures is perfectly legal.

TSA: How would you like it if somebody came to your work and disrupted your procedures? How would you like it if people took pictures of you at your work?
Me: I don’t work for the government. Government agencies need to be accountable to the public, and therefore suffer disruptions like this.
TSA: Not all parts of the government are accountable to the public, especially the TSA.
Me: Wow. No, ALL parts of the government are accountable to the people, especially the TSA. I’m not sure what type of country you think we live in.

The TSA and America’s Turning Point

If America has a single founding principle, it is this: no government has any authority to take any action without the consent of the governed. Our Founding Fathers did not object to the principle of paying taxes per se; they objected strongly to the idea of being forced to pay taxes to a government where they had no input. Freedom’s cry was not “No taxation” then, and it isn’t now; it was “No taxation without representation.” The same goes for any other intrusive regulation.

George Will takes another tactic: The T.S. of A takes control

What the TSA is doing is mostly security theater, a pageant to reassure passengers that flying is safe. Reassurance is necessary if commerce is going to flourish and if we are going to get to grandma’s house on Thursday to give thanks for the Pilgrims and for freedom. If grandma is coming to our house, she may be wanded while barefoot at the airport because democracy – or the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment; anyway, something – requires the amiable nonsense of pretending that no one has the foggiest idea what an actual potential terrorist might look like.

I have to disagree here, because I don’t think that it’s amiable nonsense at all. Here he falls into the trap that the TSA has: implementing a protocol to stop a specific threat. It’s inefficient and ignores the thousands of other ways a successful attack could be carried out. If you start profiling, then all it would take is someone who doesn’t fit the profile. People, Juan Williams being a prominent example, have expressed the feeling that they are nervous about flyers who are “in Muslim garb.” All a terrorist has to do, then, is dress to blend in, to allay that fear. But it doesn’t get rid of the threat. People in Boston famously freaked out over some flashing LEDs (twice) in recent memory, because “that’s what bombs look like.” Which is nonsense. Bombs “look like” pretty much whatever you want them to. The same goes for terrorists. At the very least they could wear a mask.

More commentary and links at Uncertain Principles: Invasive Searches and Underage Drinking in which Chad makes the comparison to other situations which seem to fall under the rubric of “We must be seen as doing something about the situation. This is something.” Which is nothing but a CYA move. “Don’t blame me, I did something!”

The bottom line is that in all things there is always, and will always be, risk. 100% safety is unattainable, and it’s dishonest to imply otherwise. It’s dishonest to manufacture fear in order to justify actions restricting our freedoms.

Update (11/26): Roger “Carlos the Jackal” Ebert: Where I draw the line

Thermodynamics is a Good Idea

Toyota has a new commercial series out, going by the moniker “Ideas for Good.” The gist of it is using technology that they have invented, or at least use, and point it to new applications. The first one I saw was crash modeling and using it to analyze football collisions to help reduce concussions. Great.

But the next one was taking regenerative braking and putting it on roller coasters, so that we could “create the world’s first self-sustaining amusement park.” Which sounds suspiciously like perpetual motion. You can’t do it. You will always have losses of your useful energy (heat), and can’t recover all of the mechanical energy to use it again. Maybe they meant something else, but if they did, the execution was off.

Here is a link to the commercial, in case you want to watch it.

I Know What You Did Last Friday

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200 students admit cheating after professor’s online rant

“I don’t want to have to explain to your parents why you didn’t graduate, so I went to the Dean and I made a deal. The deal is you can either wait it out and hope that we don’t identify you, or you can identify yourself to your lab instructor and you can complete the rest of the course and the grade you get in the course is the grade you earned in the course.”

So far more than 200 students have admitted to cheating.

UCF cheating scandal makes national news, on ‘Good Morning America’


It’s a 15-minute video, so the short version: the professor noticed a bimodal score distribution (rather than the expected normal distribution), with the average a grade and a half higher than usual. And then an anonymous student dropped off a copy of the entire exam bank, saying that it was in wide distribution.

I think the professor bluffed a bit when he told the students that he could hand in a list with 95% probability that all the cheaters were on it, which is probably true, and would shortly be able to hand in a list that only contained the cheaters, which is probably false. The list with all the cheaters would just be a list with all the high grades, which deviated from a normal distribution — the high-end part of the bimodal distribution. (You might not incorporate a few at the low end, but I’m guessing there isn’t much of a worry about a student who couldn’t pull better than a “C” while having the test questions ahead of time.) The problem is in identifying the cheaters with no false positives. That means not including anyone who legitimately got a high grade, and I don’t see how you can conclusively do that. But tossing the test makes a lot of that moot, since nobody gains an advantage from the cheating.

An interesting and scary scenario is what happens if the university decides someone who didn’t come forward is a cheater. What do you do if you’re that student, and you didn’t cheat?

The part about the incident not appearing on the transcript might have been a smokescreen as well. Would you hire a business grad from UCF who took this class in Fall 2010 and also had the four-hour ethics class on their transcript?

However, some information is missing, and I’m not entirely convinced this is cheating. It’s an advantage to know what questions might be asked, but whether that’s an unfair advantage (i.e cheating) depends on how you came across that information. The course had been given for several years and presumably at other institutions, so it’s possible questions were re-used. How many of them were “in the wild?”. Gathering up old exams to be used as a study guide is perfectly legitimate as far as I’m concerned; professors have to be profoundly naive to think that wouldn’t happen (and is why exams were treated as restricted material when I was teaching in the navy). The real issue here is how the students came to have the bank of exam questions and where you draw the line of coming by that information legitimately.

Trust Me

Bruce Schneier has an extensive collection of links regarding the TSA and current screening procedures.

One thing that seems to get overlooked in all of the stories I’ve read, in which some government official insists that the ever-more-invasive security protocols are needed, in order to prevent attacks like the shoe bomber and Christmas-day bomber, is this: these protocols never would have stopped either of those attempts, because neither passenger boarded a flight originating in the US. They are being used as excuses.

The government says, “Trust us. We need to do this for your safety.” The problem is that the government has no credibility. There’s no incident of a bombing which could have been prevented by these scanners to which they can point, and no statistic of risk they can cite which they could improve upon. They promise that the scanner images aren’t retained, but then we discover that’s false. How could it be true, anyways? The government isn’t going to hang on to potential evidence in case a passenger needs a followup pat-down, or there’s a subsequent problem on a flight? All they have is a manufactured fear they keep promoting.

The Cryptic Kryptos

Clues to Stubborn Secret in C.I.A.’s Backyard

Jim Sanborn, the sculptor who created “Kryptos” and its puzzles, is getting a bit frustrated by the wait. “I assumed the code would be cracked in a fairly short time,” he said, adding that the intrusions on his life from people who think they have solved his fourth puzzle are more than he expected.

So now, after 20 years, Mr. Sanborn is nudging the process along. He has provided The New York Times with the answers to six letters in the sculpture’s final passage. The characters that are the 64th through 69th in the final series on the sculpture read NYPVTT. When deciphered, they read BERLIN.

Visualizing Your Microwave Oven

I don’t have a microwave oven, but I do have this big clock that can cook things.

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The guy who did the video has a blog, and from that I’m a little surprised at some of the commentary in the video.

The absorption by the “salty water” isn’t correct — water isn’t absorbing the microwaves because it’s salty; it’s a polar molecule and will respond to the oscillating electric field all by itself. Ions would do this too, so having a dissolved salt probably doesn’t hurt or even helps, but distilled water will absorb microwaves and heat up. This is immediately followed by “turns the microwaves into heat,” which treats heat like a substance. The water is heated, but does not contain heat.

You also can’t see steam coming out of the glass, because you can’t see steam — it’s the vapor phase of water, and is not visible. What you can see are small water droplets, after the vapor has begun to coalesce. Yeah, I know that steam is used colloquially like this, but I expect better of a scientist.

National Geographic's Photography Contest 2010

National Geographic’s Photography Contest 2010

National Geographic is once again holding their annual Photo Contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 30th. For the past eight weeks, they have been gathering and presenting galleries of submissions, encouraging readers to rate them as well. National Geographic was again kind enough to let me choose some of their entries from 2010 for display here on The Big Picture. Collected below are 47 images from the three categories of People, Places and Nature. Captions were written by the individual photographers.