Bureaucrat hatching monstrosities (allegory)

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

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.