If the TSA Were Running New York

James Fallows.

If the TSA Were Running New York

How would it respond to this weekend’s Times Square bomb threat? Well, by extrapolation from its response to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent threats, the policy would be:

  • All vans or SUVs headed into midtown Manhattan would have to stop and have their contents inspected. If any vehicle seemed for any reason to have escaped inspection, Midtown Manhattan in its entirety would be evacuated;
  • A whole new uniformed force — the Times Square Security Administration, or TsSA – would be formed for this purpose;
  • The restrictions would never be lifted and the TsSA would have permanent life, because the political incentives here work only one way. A politician who supports more permanent, more thorough, more expensive inspections can never be proven “wrong.” The absence of attacks shows that his measures have “worked”; and a new attack shows that inspections must go further still. A politician who wants to limit the inspections can never be proven “right.” An absence of attacks means that nothing has gone wrong — yet. Any future attack would always and forever be that politician’s “fault.” Given that asymmetry of risks, what public figure will ever be able to talk about paring back the TSA

The video games merit badge

The Boy Scouts now have a video games merit badge. This seems a seminal event in victory of electronic media for the attention of our youth over the actual real world. Of course, for today’s youth (or I’m sure past generations had such an entertainment existed), video games are irresistible. The organization is reinventing its “program delivery method” and increased retention is a top priority, and it’s hard to think of more popular merit badge (perhaps chocolate eating, or visiting Disneyland merit badges). Notably, the web site devotes its first (leftmost) link to the marketing section.

It’s hard to understand how playing video games develops scouting’s core values. Taste in games and issues of simulated violence aside, I find the reset button an objectionable feature of video games as it relates to character building. Courage and perseverance are hardly fostered when should the game take a turn for the worse the push of a button gets you back for a fresh start. Of course the merit badge activity makes a point of parental involvement and age-appropriate games but you know for the typical kid this takes the fun out of it.

If any institution would be pushing back against video games, I would have thought it would be the Scouts. (I don’t think the Luddites are organized.) Aside from poverty and disability, when was the last child born in this country who never played video games?

Sold your soul lately?

Via Danny Yee.

7,500 Online Shoppers Unknowingly Sold Their Souls

A computer game retailer revealed that it legally owns the souls of thousands of online shoppers, thanks to a clause in the terms and conditions agreed to by online shoppers.

The retailer, British firm GameStation, added the “immortal soul clause” to the contract signed before making any online purchases earlier this month. It states that customers grant the company the right to claim their soul.

“By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from gamesation.co.uk or one of its duly authorised minions.” …

We are not going to be second to none

Rob AtkinsonThis morning on NPR we heard from a fellow name of Rob Atkinson, president of something called the “Information Technology and Innovation Foundation” (where do these think tanks come from, anyway?). He was riffing on Obama’s SOTU line, “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”

Mr Atkinson helpfully points out that “the Japanese, Mexicans or Indians … can do the things that are easy to do; they have low-wage labor; they can’t do the things that are harder and more complex and require more knowledge, more skills, more technology, more brainpower—that’s what we can and should be good at, and if we don’t do that then we are in real trouble.”

Any pushback from the interviewer (Liane Hansen)? Naw.

“We are not going to be second to none,” says Atkinson. If he has anything to say about it, we are in real trouble.

Civil unions and straight marriage

“But even if we take matrimony at its lowest, even if we regard it as no more than a sort of friendship recognised by the police…” —Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque.

Civil unions and straight marriage

Arthur Goldhammer’s excellent blog on French politics and society points to this article on the French pact civil de solidarité – a kind of civil union introduced in 1999/2000, largely as an alternative to gay marriage. But the pacs has had very interesting consequences for straight couples (95% of couples with pacs are straight), as this chart shows.


The growth of the pacs’ popularity over its first decade is striking. There are now two pacs for every three marriages. Interestingly, this is because of both a significant decline in marriage, and a significant increase in the overall number of people willing to engage in some kind of state-sanctioned relationship. While you would obviously need more finely grained data to establish this properly, the obviously intuitive interpretation of this (at least to me) is that the pacs have grown both by providing an option for people who would probably not have gotten married in the first place, and attracted a number of people who otherwise would have gotten married, but who prefer the pacs’ lower level of formality (it is much easier to cancel a pacs relationship than to get divorced). …

They have a name for it

Semantic satiation

Semantic satiation (also semantic saturation) is a cognitive neuroscience phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who can only process the speech as repeated meaningless sounds.

Actually, a whole lot of terms. Who knew?

“Many other names have been used for what appears to be essentially the same process: inhibition (Herbert, 1824, in Boring, 1950), refractory phase and mental fatigue (Dodge, 1917; 1926a), lapse of meaning (Bassett and Warne, 1919), work decrement (Robinson and Bills, 1926), cortical inhibition (Pavlov, 192?), adaptation (Gibson, 1937), extinction (Hilgard and Marquis, 1940), satiation (Kohler and Wallach, 1940), reactive inhibition (Hull, 19113 [sic]), stimulus satiation (Glanzer, 1953), reminiscence (Eysenck, 1956), verbal satiation (Smith and Raygor, 1956), and verbal transformation (Warren, 1961b).” (From Leon Jakobovits James, 1962)

Too many clocks

Some future civilization is going to look back and find our obsession with time and clocks mighty peculiar.

It’s time to reset the clocks again, now that we’re no longer saving daylight. I lost count this morning, but I can reconstruct some of it.

  • Three setback thermostats. OK, these are justified; they need to know the time, and in return I save a surprising amount of energy.
  • Various computers. They’re considerate enough to change time on their own, and to pass it on to an iPod and printer/fax. The printer wants to timestamp faxes. I’m not sure why the iPod wants to know what time it is; I guess it assumes that it might be my only timepiece. Ha.
  • I’m happy that answering machines timestamp messages, so I can’t complain.
  • Car clocks. Traditional, I guess, but…
  • Cameras. I like having my photos timestamped, so I’m not complaining.
  • Our kitchen radio is a recycled bedroom alarm clock. I don’t need the time from it, but if I don’t set it, it blinks at me.
  • Water softener. This one uses its clock to do its regeneration cycles in the wee hours of the morning. OK.
  • Cellphones do themselves.
  • A small collection of wristwatches, alarm clocks and one wall clock. Dedicated to telling time, so you can’t blame them, but why do I bother to wear a watch?
  • Kitchen oven and microwave. They seem to have a fantasy that I’m going to prepare some elaborate dinner ahead, put it in the cold oven, and program it to cook it later. No chance.

That’s not all of them, but I’m tired of making the list. I long ago got rid of a coffee maker with a clock in it. I will say this: electronic clocks have gotten considerably easier to set over the years. None of the clocks I set this morning presented more than a few seconds puzzlement over how to accomplish the required task.

Still. Two people. Well over 30 clocks. Crazy.

The South is Another Country, Part I-forget

Steve Benen has made a graph of part of the results of a Research 2000 poll:


Now sure, it’s a DKos-sponsored poll, but R2K is a respectable outfit and the sample size is big enough to push the margin of error down to 2%. So even if the absolute numbers are off, the region-to-region comparison ought to be pretty close.

Voters, of course, vote for (and against) candidates, not parties. But still…

Impressive engineering

The very best engineering finds innovative ways to do something in a simple, elegant, and surprisingly original way. To see something that’s done at great cost and complexity and think of a completely new way to do it for a tiny fraction of the cost and effort is a unique satisfaction for the engineer who can pull it off.

Project Icarus is just such an achievement. At MIT they took photos from an altitude of nearly 100,000 feet (not quite into space, proper) for under a $150 investment. Photos are here.

A very nice touch to the project is that by keeping the weight of their device to a minimum they did not need to get FAA permission for the flight: it was actually legal.

It’s time to embrace American royalty

I’ve had this bit from Glenn Greenwald hanging around for the last week or so. I really need to add Glenn to my blogroll.

It’s time to embrace American royalty

We’re obviously hungry to live with royal and aristocratic families so we should really just go ahead and formally declare it:

Bush daughter Jenna Hager becomes ‘Today’ reporter NBC’s “Today” show has hired someone with White House experience as a new correspondent — former first daughter Jenna Hager, the daughter of former President George W. Bush. . . . She “just sort of popped to us as a natural presence, comfortable” on the air, [Executive Producer Jim] Bell said.  Hager will work out of NBC’s Washington bureau.

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it.  They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it’s really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. 

Privacy versus software bugs … d’oh!

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently launched a nice service that monitors the legal terms of service and privacy policies of prominent web sites and tracks changes that may impact their users. These documents are universally “subject to change without notice” so having an RSS feed lets customers know when changes happen as they are made. If you are the sort of person who actually reads these documents you can just follow the alterations.

[Note: the rest gets technical.] At some point this service got configured to track what appears to be a test document, and so long as this document doesn’t change there is no effect. Last night access permission to that test document changed, becoming no longer available. The web server in turn duly refused to service it (to a request presumably from itself), returning an HTTP 403 error. This, in turn, was interpreted as a change in the policy to now read “403 Forbidden” (a most unusual and terse privacy policy) and was reported to the feed. Ironically, in a commonplace programming oversight, the error also showed debugging information including the name of the file access was forbidden for, which includes the programmer’s user account name (a common first name I won’t copy here). Does this bug in a very well intentioned effort to protect our privacy violate the privacy policy of the EFF in publicly disclosing the programmer’s name?

Mainstream media

The press is supposed to ensure fair and open exchange of information and opinions, but in recent times it seems to be serving a contrary purposes – information filtering and message control. Paul Krugman uses his excellent blog at the country’s biggest newspaper to make this point in very direct terms. Simply put, by doggedly choosing representatives of certain viewpoints and ignoring others media easily defines what “mainstream” is rather than present it.

Another tactic frequently used is given one position on an issue they will present a competing viewpoint in opposition, spouting misinformation and flawed arguments, as if the two were equally valid and reasonable.

Trickery like this turns the media into a tool to perpetuate an agenda – all the more effective because it operates within a system of democratic rules. It’s a level playing field, but but one where individuals cannot begin to compete with concentrated wealth and power.

God Bless the Yankees

We live in a strange country.

On Yankee Stadium Restroom Dispute, the City Settles

New York City will pay $10,001 to settle a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Queens man who was ejected from the old Yankee Stadium last August after trying to use the bathroom during the playing of “God Bless America.” In addition, the team has publicly declared that it has no policy prohibiting fans from moving about during the playing of the patriotic song, which the team began playing during games after 9/11.

The New York Civil Liberties Union had filed a federal lawsuit in April on behalf of the man, Bradford Campeau-Laurion, of Astoria, Queens, saying he was the victim of religious and political discrimination. The suit said he was forcibly restrained and ejected from the stadium in the Bronx on Aug. 26, after trying to walk past a police officer as the song was played.

“God Bless America” is played during Yankees games after the visiting team’s at-bats in the seventh inning, which in baseball parlance is known as the seventh-inning stretch. Most of the time at Yankee Stadium, the rendition is a recording by the singer Kate Smith, though the tenor Ronan Tynan has also been there to sing the song in person.

Power! Ambition! Glory!

Felix Salmon points us to an entertaining takedown of Steve Forbes.

33B72E25-5524-40A0-9786-C7250AC31B8C.jpg… And how does Caesar figure into the Finkelstein saga, exactly? Well, there was that whole flap over the inhouse Macy’s clothing brand, just for starters. Under Finkelstein’s power-mad reign, you see, Macy’s “began pushing its own private labels despite the fact that customers still wanted traditional brands…. Private labels in department stores often connote ‘cheap.’ But Finkelstein kept the prices on Macy’s private labels so high that even customers who, to save some money, might have overlooked the stigma of in-house brands chose not to buy them.” The launch of a dubious clothing line and a plot among senators to do in a dictator-in-perpetuity: This, indeed, is a stunning parallel.

But that’s nothing next to the principle adduced from the whole affair: “Once you decide on your plan and take action, don’t look back or second-guess yourself”—i.e., precisely the behavior that got both Caesar killed and Finkelstein shitcanned. …

No to boldly mayor

The Washington Post quotes SCOTUS nominee Sonia Sotomayor: “each time I see a split infinitive, an inconsistent tense structure or the unnecessary use of the passive voice, I blister.”

Have we established that split infinities are perfectly grammatical only to have them declared unconstitutional?

I’m looking forward to the ruling on distinguishing necessary from unnecessary uses of the passive voice. Something like this, perhaps, channeling Potter Stewart?

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within the shorthand description “unnecessary”; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the sentence involved in this case is not that.

The law’s majestic equality

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

—Anatole France

I added this to my quote collection today, and in looking it up had a look at its context, from The Red Lily, 1894.

Nowadays it is a duty for a poor peasant to be a soldier. He is exiled from his house, the roof of which smokes in the silence of night; from the fat prairies where the oxen graze; from the fields and the paternal woods. He is taught how to kill men; he is threatened, insulted, put in prison and told that it is an honor; and, if he does not care for that sort of honor, he is fusilladed. He obeys because he is terrorized, and is of all domestic animals the gentlest and most docile. We are warlike in France, and we are citizens. Another reason to be proud, this being a citizen! For the poor it consists in sustaining and preserving the wealthy in their power and their laziness. The poor must work for this, in presence of the majestic quality of the law which prohibits the wealthy as well as the poor from sleeping under the bridges, from begging in the streets, and from stealing bread.

This comes from the Project Gutenberg version of the text; I don’t know who the translator is.

Church and torture

This is from a CNN pointer to a Pew Research Center poll.

Survey: Support for terror suspect torture differs among the faithful

The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week — 54 percent — said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.

The differences aren’t exactly huge, though. And notice the largest and smallest groups believing that torture “can never be justified”. I’d be curious to see the same poll for murder, rape, infanticide.…


Normal Flu

Matthew Yglesias. Worth keeping in mind.

Normal Flu

If I were to say that this year 30,000 Americans would die from the flu, you’d probably think I was offering an alarmist take on the current swine flu outbreak. In fact, I would be offering an extremely optimistic take on influenza in 2009. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the country sees about 36,000 flu-related deaths in a normal year and around 200,000 hospitalizations. It’s standard for between five and twenty percent of the population to contract the flu in any given year.

Given all that, not only do we face the risk of an unusually bad pandemic of “swine flu” we also face a risk of panic. Apparently, very high levels of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are actually pretty normal. But the media doesn’t normally cover them as national news stories. The heightened awareness of swine flu risks, however, means that anything flu-related is going to get dramatically inflated attention.