Bureaucrat hatching monstrosities (allegory)

  Federal rules and regulations
No more laughter left on earth
Blue Oyster Cult, "Monsters"

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

So what do you do for a living?

Sometimes, at the end of a pretty stressful week, I attend a social function. My hint, generally, is when the wife throws some clean clothes at me and says, "Here, change into this, we're going out."

There, I often meet interesting people who ask what I do for a living, and I am always a bit at a loss to describe my engineering job. So I came up with this:

Click to display the full-size image

Maybe this applies to your job as well. In that case, feel free to reuse! (With attribution, please.)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The savvy salesman and the bandit

First, my apologies for the long lull without a post. I got many emails with links of stories that my readers want me to cover -- thank you, and keep them coming at FredTheGrumbler (at gmail)!

Some writers have problems finding a suitable subject to write about. I, on another hand, suffer from an abundance of riches. Trying to blog about abusive regulations in today's world is like trying to empty Lake Michigan with a thimble.

No awful regulation can be complete without suckers to pay for it, though, and that's where we come in, we taxpayers. Taxes are bad enough. Even worse is government deficit, which are in essence a promise made in the name of future taxpayers on their future payments. The biggest single governmental deficit on the planet is in the US Federal budget, of course. America is still number 1 somewhere.

I am keen observer of Washington DC: Joe at the office buys a paper every day and leaves it in the cafeteria, and when the comics and movie pages are missing, I read about the gummint, 'cuz nobody ever steals that page. So naturally, I followed the recent deficit and debt ceiling show with the attention it deserves: loud howls when the matter came up on TV, followed by face palms when the budget dance of the day was announced.

The outcome of this sorry spectacle was revealed tonight. Regardless of your political inclinations, you have to tip your hat to President Obama. He won that one handsomely. If you were unable to stomach the sight of grinning politicians, let me summarize it for you. Both parties agreed to raise the debt ceiling, which is to say, to let the US government borrow more money once again. In exchange, the budget will be amended to cut, they say, "one trillion over ten years". Which means they might cut 100 billion this year, but since one Congress cannot bind a future Congress, the rest is purely hypothetical.

And so, the deficit will be 1400 billion instead of 1500. Quite a saving, right? But admire the modesty of House Speaker John Boehner, who commented: "This isn't the greatest deal in the world." Shucks, John, you did great. Look at it this way: The take of personal income tax is about 1400 billion a year, the same amount as the deficit. So if they simply doubled our income taxes, this will neatly cover the deficit for this year! Good job, John.

For some reason, this incites me to share a little story I heard when I was living in the deep South. It's called "The savvy salesman and the bandit".

(Credit: Mel Brown, TexasEscapes.com)

Back in the 19th century, a traveling salesman and his wife are riding their mule wagon from village to village. They eke a living out of selling odds and ends. Call them Zak and Sara in honor of Ben Folds. Today, like every year, their sales route brings them to the toll bridge over the Potomac. They stop at the booth guarding the bridge entrance and grudgingly pay the stiff toll. Then they engage their wagon on the bridge spanning the rolling, muddy Potomac waters.

Suddenly, a man jumps from behind a pillar and points a blunderbuss at them.

SARA: Oh no, it's the infamous Potomac bandit!
BANDIT: Stick 'em up!
ZAK: Don't worry, dear, I am a good negotiator. I'll talk to him.
BANDIT: There is no discussion. I want $1500. Every year.
SARA: What? On top of the toll? But...
BANDIT: It's for my farm. I grow economies. You wouldn't understand. Pay up.
ZAK: My good sir, I demand a lesser payment.
BANDIT: No. You pay the fifteen hundred or I push you over the rail.
ZAK: No! Think of my poor old mules!
BANDIT: You are quite convincing. Very well. You will save $1000 over the next ten years.
ZAK: Oh joy!
BANDIT: So instead of $1500, just give me $1400.
ZAK: Here you are.
BANDIT: Fine. Get out of here before I change my mind.
ZAK: Thank you!
BANDIT: See you next year.
ZAK (whipping the mules): I told you I am a shrewd negotiator.
SARA (slapping him behind the ear): You got fleeced like a rube at the carnival, you moron!
The morale of the story is that even astute businessmen are routinely robbed blind in DC. Yet, for some reason, campaigning politicians keep touting their honesty (or at least, their lack of criminal indictment). When you deal with robbers and whores, honesty is a liability, not a virtue. We desperately need a good desperado to  deal with the Potomac Posse and lower our taxes -- including our future taxes, which means the deficit.

(Source: Cossack II
Napoleonic Wars by
GSC Game World)
Is it so bad, you ask? It is. Taxes and waste of tax money are always a bad thing when they get out of hand. King George's excessive taxes brought the American Revolution, which started a war. The Independence War could have ended up very badly -- see what happened to the Boers who were exterminated by the Brits a century later. The French Navy, gunpowder, cannons, supplies and troops helped tilt the balance in favor of the Continentals, but the expenses of this war forced French King Louis to raise taxes, which brought the French Revolution. This, in turn, brought up Bonaparte and 20 years of wars.

There is no telling what today's waste in Washington will bring up tomorrow. I can safely predict it will not be good. Ask France's neighbors what they think of Napoleon.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Perils in the Plane Privy

There are some news items that leave you incredulous. You read them and go *blink* *blink* whaaat? I call these "headscratchers". Judging by my baldness, I must have seen a lot of them.

The latest case of headscratching I saw is a report saying that all airlines operating in the US have discreetly removed the chemical oxygen generator from the toilets in their airplanes, because of a "hazard that could jeopardize flight safety". At least, that's what the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) says in its Airworthiness Directive 2011-04-09.

An oxy... what?

A chemical oxygen generator
(Source: FAA)
Wait. What is a chemical oxygen generator? It's a small metallic cylinder, 10 inches (25 cm) long, that contains a chemical mix able to generate oxygen when heated. The main component of the mix is sodium chlorate (NaClO3) and iron powder. When a cabin pressure loss is detected, an overhead compartment containing face masks opens. When you, the passenger, pull on a mask, it releases a pin that fires a small percussion cap, igniting the mix. The heat decomposes the sodium chlorate and releases oxygen. Some of the oxygen goes into sustaining the combustion, and the excess flows into the masks, giving you 15 to 20 minutes of breath.

Since the metal cylinder can become as hot at 500 F (270 °C), you will smell an alarming yet normal burning odor. And since the canisters will be empty in 20 minutes, the pilots will be descending quickly to a breathable altitude.

Now, why are these things deemed dangerous in airplane lavatories? The FAA won't say. It even went so far as to secretly ask airlines to remove the generators from airplane toilets before making the directive public. Aren't you intrigued now? Don't you want to know what secret evil lurks in these live-saving cylinders?

Canisters of concern

Mix of NaClO3 and sugar burning
So let's see what we can dig out about sodium chlorate. It's a weed killer, it's toxic if ingested, and, if mixed with sugar, it can detonate (like gun powder). Aha! So the FAA is afraid that a terrorist will kill all the weeds on board! Either that, or they are afraid that they'll get sugar from their coffee and make a bomb.

The weed-killing threat would actually make more sense. The problem with sodium chlorate is that it's a lousy explosive. It has about half the explosive power of black powder, which is itself one tenth to one fifth of the power of TNT. And like black powder, it needs an enclosed container to explode, otherwise it burns like a sparkler.

Let's assume Al-Qaeda has found a suitably fanatical volunteer to blow up an airliner. Under the FAA oxygen generator scenario, the terrorist must go to the restroom, remove the generator from its brackets (with what tools?), saw open the cylinder (how?), scrape the chemical from the cylinder (don't lick your fingers, remember, it's toxic), pour it into a bottle or some other container (ideally, a sturdy pressure cooker). Then, he must mix in sugar (you'll need about 100 of these little paper packets), close the container, and light up some firing system (like an explosive cord fitting through the container.)

So all that Al-Qaeda has to do is to find somebody dumb enough to fall for their arguments, yet clever enough to execute such a scheme. I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm just saying that the talent pool of such gullible, suicidal MacGyvers must be quite shallow.

Accommodating attendants

(Source: Domino Sugar)
Assume that you can bring in the 200 grams of sugar, the container and the tools required for kludging up a sodium chlorate bomb. Why not bring 200 grams of high explosive and some weapons instead? Or does the FAA think that the crew will let an agitated passenger raid the galley and take all the sugar, then lend him a toolbox?

AIR ATTENDANT: Oh, my, you want the whole box of sugar packets from the galley? Sure! Help yourself. You do like a lot of sugar in your coffee, don't you?

TERRORIST: Yes, I like it very, very sweet. And, er, can I borrow a screwdriver?

AIR ATTENDANT: Certainly. Here you are. What for, if I may ask?

TERRORIST: It's for stirring all that sugar in the coffee. It gets a bit syrupy. Oh, and may I also borrow a hacksaw?


TERRORIST: For opening all these sugar packets.

AIR ATTENDANT: Of course. Fortunately, I always have one in my knitting bag. Here you go.

TERRORIST: Great. Can you help me carry all of that to the restroom? I'll grab my pressure cooker, my explosive cord and my lighter.

We might have hinted in another post that the TSA was less than 100% effective, but still, that's a lot of things to pass through those X-ray machines.

The more you think about it, the less credible the threat is. But that didn't stop the FAA from issuing a directive, and the airlines complied without a peep. Some foreign regulation outfits, such as the DGAC, the French civil aviation agency, even went so far as requiring their national airlines to obey this incomprehensible rule, even for planes that are never flying to the US. All of that to eliminate a risk that is vanishingly small.

But, you say, even if the risk is very small, why not eliminate it? It can't hurt, right?

Well, yes, it can hurt. It statistically will hurt.

Give me embarrassment or give me death!

Every year, 40 to 50 airliners suffer a rapid cabin depressurization. When that happens, the pilots bring the plane down to 10,000 ft or so. But from a cruise altitude of 35,000 ft (typical for a transatlantic or transpacific flight), this can take a good seven or eight minutes.

If you are in the loo at the time a depressurization occurs, you'll quickly get into hypoxia, better known as "getting dumb from lack of oxygen". Hypoxia is particularly sneaky because you don't realize you are losing your mental capabilities. Videos of volunteers subjected to a short hypoxia are quite hilarious and deeply embarrassing for said subjects, once they are back to breathing normal air. But stuck in the toilets, you won't get so lucky. Seven minutes is about twice as long as it takes to kill you. The crew has been instructed to check the lavatories in case of a depressurization. Pray that they are able to do so.

Next time you're in an airplane loo and you feel your ears popping, you might get lucky and remember to unlock the door before passing out. When you wake up, you'll be down on the aisle floor with your pants still down and a yellow mask on your reddening face, while nearby passengers try to stop young children from gawking.

And that, mind you, is the optimistic case.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Pussification of the Brits

(Source: ChicagoNow.com)
Regulation-pushing bureaucrats hold as a self-evident truth that we're all too stupid to live without their supervision and that they know better what's good for us. Left unchecked,they would have us tied in government-approved cocoons from cradle to grave.

Think I exaggerate? Case in point, a process currently happening in England that I called the Pussification of the Brits.

I just read in a UK paper that at least three British counties have banned kids from wearing goggles during school swimming lessons from fear that the goggles will... wait for it... snap on a child's face.

Are you aghast yet? I am.

Oh, the kids will survive. Some of them will get chlorine-irritated eyes, and the worst cases will be able to get their goggles back on a medical certificate. That's not the point.

The point is that this is yet another step taken by busybodies to meddle in the most insignificant details of other people's lives. I mean, how many children did lose a limb from a feral pair of goggles snapping on them savagely? How does protection against this non-existing risk warrant attention from local governments when England's violent crime rate is shooting through the roof?
(Credits: Daily Mail)

This is not the first times that British wusses are overreacting at imaginary risks, either. After all, this is the country were outdoor kiddie pools are banned for fear that someone might trip on them, and where windows shouldn't be barred with wire mesh for fear that a burglar might hurt himself.

How on Earth could that happen? How did Brits end up being led by such a clique of meddling, overreaching bellyachers?

Brits, you'll remember, used to rule the world. Mostly, it was because anything was better than Mom's cooking. Better take a bullet in a God-forsaken land rather than sit through another serving of boiled lamb with mint, right?
British Character: Adaptability to Foreign Conditions
(Credits: Punch cartoon reprinted in Life, Dec 19, 1938)

Up-Helly-A Festival, Shetland Islands
(Credits: Sydney Morning Herald)

But it was also because Brits were mean and tough. After all, the country was populated by Vikings. But not just any Vikings, oh no. The settlers were these Vikings that were kicked out of Scandinavia for unnecessary roughness.

For instance, here is how Viking sailors were recruited. The screen gets all wavy (insert special effect here), and suddenly we are looking at a typical Viking port sometimes in the Middle Ages.

EXTERIOR, DAY. A small port. A drakkar is moored. Men are loading arms and provisions in the boat, under the watchful eyes of the Captain. A woman walks to the ship, a teenager in tow.

WOMAN: Good day, Captain. I heard you are hiring sailors to go loot England?
CAPTAIN: Yes, indeed. But you are a bit too old.
WOMAN: Not me, you herring-brain. That big oaf here is my third son. He's fifteen. He'll do a fine recruit.
CAPTAIN: What can he do?
WOMAN: Getting in trouble, mostly. Yesterday, he broke into the neighbors' house, raided their pantry, drained their akevitt keg, wrestled their pet polar bear, raped their Great Dane, and relieved himself in their best silverware.
CAPTAIN: Welcome on board, sonny.
TEENAGER: Whatever. When's dinner?
Up-Helly-A Festival, Shetland Islands
(Credits: Sydney Morning Herald)
That's exactly how it happened. I have the sworn testimony of the prow figure.

(Credits: Fingal Living History Society)
Ah, but wait, you say, England was made by its ruling class, which was mostly Norman. Fine, so let's talk about the Normans. When William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, he and his band of ruffians were the descendants of a bunch of Vikings who had cut themselves a Duchy out of the French Western coast. They thought that William was too unruly and too rowdy, and they heaved a collective sigh of relief when he led his rabble across the Channel. That's right, England's nobility was founded by Viking descendants that other Vikings thought were too violent!

That's why it's so amazing to see how the Brits have been neutered, broken, and chained by their rulers. It throws a new light on regulators. They are so insidious, so well-spoken, so full of good intents that they can reduce a bunch of ex-Vikings into the feeble wusses that populate England today.

Think about what they can do to other countries.
These are just sex toys. They are not mandatory yet.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mandatory TSA Peep-Show Misses Gun 5 out of 5 Times

Of all the annoyances that plague travelers, the TSA is probably the worst. It started with baggage X-rays and metal detectors. Removing our phones, keys and change from our pockets was not enough, we also had to remove our belts, at the risk of our pants dropping around our ankles.

Then, thanks to Richard Reid (a.k.a the shoe bomber), we had to remove our shoes and squish in the fungi generously spread in the area by our fellow passengers. When Umar Abdulmutallab (a.k.a the undies bomber) attempted to blow a plane by setting his explosive-doused boxers on fire, I feared that we'd have to put our unmentionables on the X-ray belt, too. Maybe your flights are exclusively populated with supermodels, but when I fly, it's usually in less than athletic company, and believe me when I say that I have no interest in seeing more of my average travel mates. That goes for me too, I wouldn't want to inflict my hairy butt to unsuspecting passengers.
By Jimmy Margulies, The Record of Hackensack, NJ

Mercifully, the TSA didn't implement that obvious countermeasure. But they did introduce an even more demeaning treatment: the backscatter X-ray scanners, which are able to see through your clothes and make every passenger the star of a peep-show for the benefit of whoever is watching the screen. The machines are not recording pictures, says the TSA. Except in test mode. A lot of backscatter pictures are available on the Internet, so it's obvious that the test mode is used a lot.

Fortunately for me, I earn a living as a software monkey, not as a workout instructor, so whatever scanner pictures of me are ever stored will hastily be erased by a TSA agent gasping in horror. Behold the power of office chair fitness and vending machine snacks.

Not only does the scan remove any leftover dignity you might still possess, it's also probably dangerous. There are no long-term studies about the effect of repeated exposures to this type of X-ray scans. Granted, I've yet to meet a frequent flyer that glows in the dark, but watch your skin for moles that suddenly start growing...

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America)
If you insist, the TSA will let you skip the virtual strip search and will submit you instead to a very close, very real groping, the kind of which used to warrant dinner and a movie in more civilized times. Most people will go back to the scanner line the next time (although a colleague of mine actually enjoys the gropings).

So back to the scanner. At least, it keeps evil people from smuggling weapons on planes, right?

Nope, not really. The Consumerist reports that an undercover tester was able to go undetected through the scanners with a handgun in her undies no less than five times. This happened at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Did the TSA at least fire the agents? No, they were "warned", which you'll agree sounds truly terrifying.

The TSA, undeterred, issued a statement saying that "advanced imaging technology is an effective tool to detect both metallic and nonmetallic items hidden on passengers" when the tester just proved it's not.

So here you have regulations inflicting unpleasant, demeaning, potentially dangerous treatment on citizens in the name of security, even though said treatment has been proven not to do its purported job. The TSA is clearly not working. But fear not! The TSA's 43,000 screeners are now able to unionize, which was of course the most urgent need.

See article on The Consumerist.

Edit: The New York Post reports that on Saturday 2/27 night, a construction worked innocently went through TSA with three box cutters in his carry-on bag. The guy forgot them in his bag (from which they fell while an attendant stowed the bad in the overhead bin.) The plane was evacuated, the flight was delayed, police was called, everybody was mightily inconvenienced as security regulations kicked in -- a federally mandated overreaction to a non-threat. The poor passenger was not charged with anything, but you can bet other travelers hated him.

The TSA agents will go through "remedial training", where they will hopefully be able to relax from their stressful job.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When Greens Make Brown

Die, you dirty human!

In 2007, federal Judge Oliver Wanger decided that protecting a small bait fish known as the delta smelt was worth more than California's Central Valley farms. The fish, argued environmentalists, is dying because the farmers divert to much water from the San Joaquin rivers. Science had spoken, the debate was over. Judge Wanger ruled in the Green's favor and ordered irrigation to be shut off in the Valley.

Central Valley used to be the best farm land in the country, producing a quarter of the US food supply. Deprived from 90% of its water by court order, many farms quickly reverted to the state of nature -- an arid dust bowl. 500,000 acres were deprived of irrigation water in the midst of a severe drought. Thousands of jobs were lost (a mere 2000 according to the environmentalists, as much as 40,000 according to agricultural economist Richard Howitt at University of California in Davis.) Direct and indirect economic damage estimates are ranging from tens of millions of dollars to more than a billion per year. Unemployment shot up. Poverty increased and food lines became a common sight.

Central Valley food line. Credits: Community Food Bank, Fresno, CA

Ironically, the big agro-business that Greens despise so much was the biggest winner in this affair. Many family farms, unable to survive, closed down and were sold to large agricultural corporations. Also, the noticeable rise in the price of fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts has made some distributors very happy.

Tough, but at least, the cute lil' fishies are saved, right?

Not really. According to a new study from the Delta Stewardship Council, the man-made drought had no effect on the smelt, which keeps declining for unknown reasons. New predators are suspected.

Judge Wanger apparently understood he was played. Last December, he issued a strongly-worded decision striking down irrigation restrictions and criticizing how his ruling has been used to destroy a whole region:
The public cannot afford sloppy science and uni-directional prescriptions that ignore California's water needs.

As a result, some water allocations are going up. Certain farmer will receive 40% of their normal water, others will have 100% Additionally, the drought is easing and precipitation levels are up. An excellent news if you are a large company that recently bought parched farm land in this area. If you are one of the farmer who sold off at a loss, not so much.

The alliance of powergrabbers and charlatans

So here, we have the conjunction of two dangerous trends: Charlatans pretending that they have the ultimate truth, and regulations allowing them to pimp their voodoo science and turn it into a political and economical destruction weapon.

Wanger publicly regretted that environmental regulations did not let him factor in human cost and ruined lives when he ruled. He thus had no choice but to inflict great harm on to the Valley.

Regulations that turn a category of people into disposable, worthless subhumans shouldn't be passed in a country built on an ideal of freedom and equality. But those did. And herein lies the scandal.