Archive for November, 2010

“I’ve Never Gone to Work…I’ve Only Gone to Fly”

The last words of Denny Fitch, subject of the best of Errol Morris’s First Person interviews.  If you’ve never heard of Denny Fitch, watch this interview, and you’ll never forget him.

Believe it not, this was a success.

In 1989, Fitch was a check pilot. dead-heading home to Chicago from Denver, where he had been testing the emergency-readiness of other flight crews, when the hydraulics on the DC-10 went out. Well, “went out” wasn’t quite right: they were severed, all three systems, at the single point of failure, when the tail engine more or less exploded.

When Fitch went up front to help the crew, he joined its battle to do what no other airplane crew had ever done – survive a total failure of their plane’s hydraulic systems. As Fitch points out, there are no cables on a DC-10, because they wouldn’t do any good. The large control surfaces would simply overwhelm the strength of any one man. Essentially, the only control that the crew had over the plane was through the right and left engine power.

Fitch guides us through the crew’s battle to stabilize the plane’s flight, decide where to try to land it, and the eventual crash-landing through which 2/3 of the crew and passengers lived. He dead-pans his way through some of the decisions the crew had to make: “It is better to land in a corn field with the gear up or down? There’s not a lot of test data on that.” He comes across as a thoroughly serious, but likable guy, who can simplify even complex aeronautical problems.

Morris’s pacing is also superb, alternating between the tension of the cockpit and the stakes of success or failure, and the personal and technical background needed to tell to the story. I sent the link to the first segment to my Dad last night, and he ended up watching the whole thing, beginning to end. I suspect you will, too.

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Thanksgiving and Other Holidays

For a while now, Dennis Prager has been championing the idea of a 4th of July Seder, paralleling the Passover Seder, as a mean of using ritual to preserve the ideals of the day.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen him explicitly explain how Passover’s position within Judaism is similar to Independence Day’s role in our civil religion.  Just as Passover celebrates the emergence of Israel as a nation, so does the 4th of July.  Just as the Declaration of Independence declares principles without specifying the legal form of the new nation, so is the Exodus only half the story, incomplete without Sinai.  And just as on Passover we recount the story of the Exodus, so in the 4th of July, we remember – often by re-enacting – the events of the Revolution.

It’s also been noted that Passover is the most specifically Jewish of the holidays, stands in contrast to Rosh Hashanah, the most universal holiday on the Jewish calendar.  I would like to suggest that Thanksgiving occupies a similar spot on our secular calendar.

Now, Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday, no doubt about it.  But the theme is of creation of the world, and God as universal monarch, which is different from the concept of gods that had existed before, usually as local gods, whose power didn’t extend beyond the territory of those who worshiped them.  There’s little more universal than that.  Likewise, there’s the mystical notion that the shofar is the sound of our soul, something that all humans share.

Similarly, while Thanksgiving has distinctive American overtones – our material prosperity is a function of both our resources and our resourcefulness (and the freedom to use the latter to make use of the former) – the notion that our blessings ultimately are a result of a partnerships between God and ourselves is something that could be celebrated by anyone fortunate to be free.  It was first celebrated before and exists independent of America as a political entity.

This isn’t to suggest identity between the two sets of holidays, much less between America and Judaism.  Rosh Hashanah is not Thanksgiving; Passover is not the 4th of July.  The ideas actually embodied by the holidays are very different.  And I’ve been highly critical of those (mostly Reform and secular) Jews who replaced religion with politics, trading eternal values for temporary politics.

But their places within their respective systems are very, very similar.

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Those GAO Reports

From Holly Doodruff Lyons, those GAO reports I promised:

1.)    “Systematic Planning Needed to Optimize the Deployment of Checked Baggage Screening Systems”, (GAO-05-365, March 2005)

According to TSA’s analysis, in-line EDS would reduce by 78 percent the number of TSA baggage screeners and supervisors required to screen checked baggage at these nine airports, from 6,645 to 1,477 screeners and supervisors.” (Page 42).

2.)    Classified GAO Report (April 2005), GAO reviewed the TSA’s own covert screener testing data and concluded that TSA’s data indicated that passenger checkpoint screeners at airports participating in the PP5 Program performed better overall on the tests than checkpoint screeners at the totally Federalized airports.  GAO concluded that differences in these test results were statistically significant.

3.)    “Screener Training and Performance Measurement Strengthened, but More Work Remains”, (GAO-05-457, May 2005)

For the two-year period reviewed, overall failure rates for covert tests (passenger and checked baggage) conducted at airports using private-sector screeners were somewhat lower than failure rates for the same tests conducted at airports using federal screeners for the airports tested during this period.” (Page 34).

4.)    “Aviation Security: TSA’s Cost and Performance Study of Private-Sector Airport Screening”, (GAO-09-27R, January 2009)

The limitations in the design of TSA’s study comparing the cost and performance of SPP and non-SPP airports were due to several key factors related to the study’s purpose and data availability.  For example, TSA officials stated that they did not include some cost elements in the study because they wanted to determine the impact of the SPP on TSA’s budget, rather than to determine the impact to the federal government as a whole.  In addition, for its comparison of performance, TSA analyzed measures for which information was most complete, among other things.  Because of these limitations, we [GAO] believe that TSA should not use the study as sole support for major policy decisions regarding the SPP.”

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What Does Technology Want?

First, take about half an hour and listen to the following RadioLab podcast.  Go ahead, I’ll wait; the comments won’t make sense without it, and I don’t want to have to set up the whole thing, piece by piece, before commenting.

It’s an interesting question, then.  Does technology have to have advanced more or less in the way that it did?  Or could certain things have been invented sooner, or later?  Did we have to get the railroad about the same time as the telegraph?  Did we have to wait for the automobile until well after the telephone?  The authors would seem to say yes.

Why do things get invented?  Because all the necessary technologies have been invented, they answer.  It’s like a chess game, where you can only make certain moves once the board’s in a certain position, i.e., once the moves needed to get there have been made.

I’m not so sure.  There’s a point, somewhere in the mid-to-late 1800s, stretching until the 1920s or so, when things seem to get invented at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to believe that the order was pre-ordained, that there weren’t just so many potential useful inventions out there waiting to be invented, that they didn’t overwhelm the number of inventors at least a little bit.  If that’s so, then technology advances at least as much because people are looking in a certain place, as much as that the tools for inventing it were around.

Take the space program.  There’s no reason to believe that the tools for a civilian space program weren’t lying around in 1960.  What was lacking was the belief that anyone other than the government could make it happen.  Or so-called “green energy.”  As much as we’re subsidizing its development, there’s no reason to think there won’t be some breakthroughs there, but we’ll never know the opportunity cost of those breakthroughs.  Suppose we just built a bunch of nuclear power plants, and all those inventors had to go to work on household appliances or nanotechnology instead?

Another fascinating notion, tantalizingly cut short in the radio piece, is the notion that technological evolution seems to be an extension of the evolutionary processes that produced us.  As a believer who also believes in human evolution, that was a bit jarring at first.  No doubt, some materialists would choose to believe that it obviates the need for a creator.  But this, like all Ideas, is self-proving.  To a believer, it’s perfectly reasonable that if we’re created in God’s image, then our intelligence is a reflection of His.  The authors can’t quite being themselves to say that.

The notion that our networks will self-actualize at some point isn’t a new idea; science fiction authors have been playing with it for years, and they generally aren’t as sanguine as the two authors are.  I remember reading an Asimov story where the telephone network gains consciousness, and SkyNet is another example.

Towards the end, I think they read Krulwich’s unease incorrectly.  There’s something at least unsettling about the idea that we’re just midwives for other intelligences, that we’re not the logical end of evolution, but just another link in the chain.  Because if we are, then the intelligence that we’re creating may eventually decide we’re more trouble than we’re worth.  Krulwich isn’t, as one author states, worried about next Tuesday.  He really is worried about the next 10,000 years.

The risk, I believe, comes in taking them too literally.  I don’t really believe that the Internet will gain consciousness someday.  I do believe that the idea of man-and-his technology as an organism is useful as a metaphor for understanding what’s going on.  In an earlier edition, RadioLab accepts the metaphor that a city breathes energy in and out.  (But if they know that’s a metaphor, why do they so easily accept the Technology metaphor as real?)

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DIA and TSA – What We Can Do, and What We Can’t

I just got off the phone with Holly Woodruff Lyons, who’s a staffer with the US House Transportation Committee.  She was kind enough to spend about 15 minutes with me, discussing Rep. Mica’s letter, and the opt-out program, and was extremely helpful given that she didn’t know me from Adam.

It turns out that private contractors, while quite popular in the places where they are used, still have to obey TSA screening policies, and if TSA decides to put electronic strip-searchers at DIA, there’s no mechanism for DIA to resist.  TSA is responsible for security, not DIA.  This also means that the private contractors almost always are contracted to TSA, not to the local airport authority.  The airport applies for an opt-out, after which the Feds put out an RFP and go through the normal contracting processes.  There are some other models, where the private contractors work for the airports, but they still have to operates federal processes under federal supervision.

The innovations that Mica refers to are operational, not policy, but Mrs. Lyons did note that (not surprisingly) the private companies tend to be more responsive, more willing to open new lines, and more concerned about their public perception that the TSA.  For instance, the handling of heavy bags has led to a higher rate of injury for security workers, and many have subcontracted out baggage-handing to cut down on injuries.  In other instances, the turnover rate at private companies is far lower, further reducing operating costs.

When the TSA tried to run through a study comparing itself to its competition, and – surprise! – found that the competition was less efficient and more expensive, the GAO called them out on it, showing that the cost savings generally resulted from not counting federal pensions, and that sort of thing.  In fact, there’s every reason to believe that operationally, contractors do save money.  Mrs. Lyons has promised to pass along the relevant GAO reports and the studies that validate Rep. Mica’s statements.

We need to remember that the opt-out is a program that was written into the original TSA law, but that Rep. Mica is obviously a strong supporter of it.  Rep. Rogers, who currently heads the Transportation subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, and it challenging earmark baron Jerry “The Minority-Maker” Lewis (R-CA) for the chairmanship of the whole committee, is also a strong supporter.

Remember, Rep. Mica’s letter was sent before these procedures starting causing a public sensation, so he’s really not referring to them in his letter.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t use the opt-out to reduce the number of TSA employees, and thus its budget, and therefore its bureaucratic position.  Bureaucrats never like to be on the defensive, never like to be in the public eye, and their employees certainly don’t like being The Enemy.

Whether or not this is enough to get them to stop treating us as The Enemy remains to be seen.

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The Opt-Out Letter

It’s rare to see anyone in the federal government actively trying to devolve power back to any sort of state or local authority, but Rep. John Mica (R-FL), is doing exactly that.  Rep. Mica was the ranking member of the House’s Transportation Committee, and is likely to become its new chairman in a couple of months.  He’s also one of the authors of the original TSA legislation.  Mica has sent a letter to about 150 airport administrators around the country asking them to opt out of TSA’s screeners and hire private screeners instead.

I’ll post the full letter later, but two points are worth commenting on.

Under this program, TSA continues to set standards, pay all costs, and conduct performance oversight.

It’s unclear if this means that TSA has the authority to require private contractors to conduct the problematic scans, or whether those can remain up to the screeners’ discretion.  Much of the momentum for opting out won’t come so much from reducing federal bureaucracy as much as from opting out of these procedures.  It’s possible that the push to have airports opt out is a political tool designed to reduce TSA bureaucratic empire, or to create the threat of doing so, in order to push TSA to drop the procedures.

Rep. Mica also makes a couple of claims that, on the surface, make sense: that private screeners’ performance is better, and that they have been responsible for the “positive innovations” (his quotes) that TSA has adopted.  Both of these are believable, but a citation for those past studies, and examples of those positive innovations would go a long way toward building the case for an opt-out.

DIA is the fourth-busiest airport in the country; such an opt-out here would be a major development and perhaps set the pace for other airports to follow suit.

UPDATE: The letter is embedded below:

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It’s From an Old Familiar Score

The latest story from the neverending story that is the Middle East “peace process” is that Prime Minister Netanyahu will agree to a 90-day extension of the moratorium on building in the West Bank, in exchange for completing the 1300 units just approved, and delivery of 20 F-35 jets capable of reaching Iran.  Many saw this as opening a window of opportunity for the Prime Minister to let the Palestinians continue their obstreperousness.

Many Americans assume that because the US Military tends to be more conservative, the same must be true of the Israeli military.  In fact, Israel’s military and intelligence services tends to be to the left (although not the Academic Suicidal Left), and it appears that they may be operating in coordination with elements in the Obama Administration to pressure Netanyahu through the press:

Israeli intelligence and military officials have warned in recent days that if a peace deal isn’t achieved soon the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank could collapse and give way to more radical Hamas militants, backed by Iran and Syria, who already rule the Gaza Strip.The warnings come as the United States makes a last-ditch effort to revive talks between Israel and the Palestinians that stalled almost as soon as they resumed in September.

It’s also not as though we haven’t seen this before:

  • February 26, 1995 – South Florida Sun-Sentinal – “Middle East Peace in Pieces”
    • “Many U.S. diplomats say in confidential interviews that the partners for peace had but a short window of opportunity, a window that opened when the PLO and Israelis issued the declaration of principles for peace 18 months ago. Now, U.S. officials fear, that window has closed.”
  • October 15, 1998 – Austin American Statesman – “Decks Clear for Mideast Talks”
    • The decks literally cleared in southern Israel a few days later, when a bomb injured 64 people
  • July 24, 2000 – St. Paul Pioneer Press –  “Clinton Rejoins Peace Talks, Pressure High, Time is Short
  • August 14, 2000 – New York Times – “Washington Feels Time is Short for Restarting the Mideast Talks”
  • April 5, 2002 – Jerusalem Post – “The Postwar Window of Opportunity”
  • December 12, 2003 – New York Times – ‘A Bush Aide Criticized Israel For Not Doing More To Foster Peace”
    • “In Rome international donors to the Palestinians said that, because of the installation of a new Palestinian prime minister, a ”window of opportunity” had reopened, permitting the resumption of negotiations with Israel.”
  • October 19, 2006 – UN Security Council – “Mideast Peace Envoy Tells Security Council…Urgent to Help Restart Dialogue”
    • “ELLEN MARGRETHE LØJ ( Denmark) said the challenge for the parties to the conflict, as well as for the international community, was to ensure that they embarked on a process leading towards lasting peace…. It was now up to the parties to avail themselves of that window of opportunity.”
  • March 31, 2007 – Bloomberg – “EU Says Palestinian Government Gives Window for Mid East Peace”
  • May 2, 2008 – MonstersAndCritics.com – “Rice Warns Time Is Limited For Achieving Mideast Peace Deal”

It seems that, to paraphrase an old saying, in the Mideast, whenever one window closes, another one opens.

Of course, this is only another iteration of the game that the enemy (the Palestinians, not the Israeli left; only Obama calls his own countrymen “the enemy”) has played ever since Soviet times: Give us what we want peacefully, or the next guy will take it by force.  Nice.

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Can We Spare Denver Passengers TSA?

By now, pretty much everyone has heard about John Tyner, the Oceanside, CA man who reasserted his individual dignity by refusing to submit to either the option of groping or self-pornification in the service of what Reason‘s Matt Welch (and now, Rep. John Mica (R-FL) calls, “security theater.”  You know, the fellow that TSA has decided to make an example of for us all.

In addition to being large, impersonal, and top-heavy, what really worries critics is that the TSA has become dangerously ineffective. Its specialty is what those critics call “security theater” — that is, a show of what appear to be stringent security measures designed to make passengers feel more secure without providing real security. “That’s exactly what it is,” says Mica. “It’s a big Kabuki dance.”

It’s good to see that someone – one of the authors of the original TSA legislation, no less – is telling us that yes, indeed, all this stuff is to make us feel better, not actually to make us safer.  I’ll grant that there is something to the operational theory that ever-changing rules and oddly intrusive regulations keep the bad guys off-balance and force them to take risks that make failure and detection more likely.  Except that the underwear bombers and the ink toner bomber weren’t really stopped because the system worked, were they?

It’s not often I disagree with Dennis Prager outright, but this morning, he and guest Michael Fumento were seeking to defuse the panic over the scanners.  Now, Fumento has a creditable history of taking on irrational public fear – see last year’s swine flu plague that swept away civilization, for instance.  But in this case, they’re not taking into account that the TSA has dealt with us in bad faith over these scanners from the beginning.  We were assured, for instance, that pictures could not be stored or shared.  Which is why they’re all over the Net.

The fact is that these options are insulting, intrusive, humiliating, and demeaning, and the sort of thing that a free people should never have to put up with simply to get from point A to point B.  The argument from Big Sis that they’re absolutely necessary, that nothing else will do, that no other solution short of Amtrak or Greyhound is possible, is pretty rich coming from a Lilliputian government that routinely ties down its citizens and businesses with regulations, and then excuses the extra cost on the grounds that they can always find a work-around.

It’s time for Big Sis to find a work-around.  And not the current SPOT program.

In a May 2010 letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Mica noted that the GAO “discovered that since the program’s inception, at least 17 known terrorists … have flown on 24 different occasions, passing through security at eight SPOT airports.” One of those known terrorists was Faisal Shahzad, who made it past SPOT monitors onto a Dubai-bound plane at New York’s JFK International Airport not long after trying to set off a car bomb in Times Square. Federal agents nabbed him just before departure.

Now, Mica has written another letter to over 150 airport administrators reminding them that they can opt out of TSA, and hire private contractors for screening instead.  At one point, this seemed to be an attractive option for many airports.  In 2004, Mica tried to remind them of the option, but Peter DiFazio (D-Public Employees Unions) suspected a nefarious Bush plot to continue reducing the size of government.

Since the rules actually state that security screeners have the right to use their judgment in determining which screening methods to use, presumably passengers at private security wouldn’t feel it necessary bring a wad of one-dollar bills to get them through security.

In most places, citizens lack the means to force their local airports to do this.  The good news is that we do.  DIA is owned and operated by the City and County of Denver.  With Denver’s municipal elections coming up in May, there’s no reason we couldn’t place a ballot measure requiring DIA to transition to private, non-union, security contractors within a year.

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Those Darned Ballot Initiatives II

A final word on 60, 61, and 101.  They violated two basic rules of drawing political lines – 1) create contrasts, and 2) make sure that more people are on your side of that contrast.  These were written in such a way that even true fiscal conservatives didn’t believe they could support them.  Which meant that not only didn’t they get passed, they passed up an opportunity to let the Republican candidates define differences between themselves and their opponents.

In the Wall Street Journal:

The ballot measures mirror tea-party goals. So Natalie Menten, who runs the proponents’ campaign, expected lots of help from the movement.

She didn’t get it.

A large majority of Colorado’s elected officials, both Republicans and Democrats, have urged voters to reject the measures as too extreme. The opposition raised millions from businesses and unions for ads warning that the measures would kill jobs and strip funding from schools, roads and prisons.

In the face of such forceful opposition, many tea-party activists stepped aside to focus on other priorities, such as state legislative races.

“It does disappoint me,” Ms. Menten said. “It tells me they want to go out to the capitol and hold up a sign” but not take real action.

No.  They took real action.  They got involved in campaigns they believed they could win.

Now, look at what happened in Arizona.  Two years ago, they rejected (barely) a ballot initiative that would have made sure that people could always purchase their own health care.  This year, they passed an Amendment 63 look-alike.

Here’s an idea.  Two years ago, we barely killed a right-to-work initiative, and an initiative to get rid of affirmative action in public hiring and contracting.  This year, we came within a few points of neutralizing Obamacare here.

Why not take a page from the lefty handbook, and try these again?  Better yet, why not think about how the initiatives will help get people elected by clarifying differences, coordinating ballot initiatives with electoral politics, rather than falling in love with whatever new idea we come up with in the interim?

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How Bad Was the West, Really?

Conventional wisdom right now is that the West was excluded from the Republicans’ big gains in the rest of the country.  And by a certain standard, that’s true.  Not too many people would have guessed that the state legislatures in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan would go Republican, with the latter two also electing Republican governors.  The West didn’t see any such seismic shift (apologies to those living in rift valleys and on fault lines).  But the Republican gains, outside of California, were still pretty substantial.

Consider that in the 10 non-California western states (Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona), the count in the US Congress went from 27-15 Democrat to 23-19 Republican, a net gain of 8 seats out of 42.  The Republicans also picked up two governorships (Wyoming and New Mexico).

The gains in state legislatures were also significant, although in some cases, merely amounted to pushing the Democrats closer to extinction:

  • In Washington, the state Senate went from 31-18 Democrat to 24-22 Democrat, with 3 seats undecided
  • In Oregon, the House went from 36-24 Democrat to 30-30, and the Senate went from 18-12 Democrat to 15-13 with 2 undecided.  Imagine a state legislature not merely split, but with both houses evenly divided.
  • David Sirota, phone home.  Montana went from 50-50 to 68-32 Republican, although the State Senate saw only modest gains, from 27-23 Republican to 28-22.
  • In Arizona, the State House went from 35-25 to 40-20 and the State Senate from 18-11 to 21-9
  • In Colorado, as we know, the Republicans recaptured the State House
  • In New Mexico, the Republicans cut into the Democrats’ lead, moving it from 45-25 to 37-33, and putting pressure on the Democrat majority to negotiate with the newly-elected Republican governor.  The State Senate remains firmly in Democrat hands, 27-15.
  • And in Idaho, where Labrador retrieved CD-1 for the Republicans, the State House went from a lopsided 52-18 to an even-more lopsided 57-13; the State Senate stands at 28-7

This is hardly the stuff of Democrat strangleholds, or even strongholds.

And a look at the ballot initiatives gives even more hope.

  • In Nevada, a proposal to weaken eminent domain protections went down by better than 2-1
  • In Washington, the initiative losses of 2009 were redeemed, as voters rejected a state income tax (34.6% in favor), repealed a series of state sales tax increases (62.4%), and restated existing law (suspended by the state legislature) requiring 2/3 legislative majorities or voter approval for tax increases
  • Both Utah and Arizona passed laws requiring secret ballots for union elections
  • Arizona passed a law similar to one that it had narrowly rejected two years ago, and similar to our own Amendment 63 (55-45)
  • Arizona also eliminated affirmative action in public hiring or contracting (60-40)

California, as always, with its 46% Democrat registration, remains problematic.  But unless you expect it to become a net exporter of political ideas, along with jobs and population, the biggest threat from California isn’t contamination so much as default.

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