Bureaucrat hatching monstrosities (allegory)

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

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.