Monday Highlights

Good morning.

  1. TSA, coming where?
  2. If it doesn’t do that, what’s the point?
  3. Economics and nonsense.
  4. Attacked? For what?
  5. That’s the attraction of “pragmatism”, after all having principles is just soooo limiting.
  6. Jailed in Germany.
  7. The FDA strikes again.
  8. What you know is wrong, examine for example the Puritan preacher.
  9. Happiness and the US.
  10. An interesting comparison made by the left.
  11. Visiting a memorial.
  12. Not the digital revolution we have come to expect.

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13 comments

  1. […] Pseudo-Polymath) Share this: Digg this postRecommend on FacebookBuzz it upTweet about itSubscribe to the comments […]

  2. TSA Expands Jurisdiction To Sidewalks: Where Is The Left?

    Um, I’ve been all over them. I’ve pointed out over and over again that not only is it a disgusting invasion of privacy and waste of time and money, but it’s completely ineffective and pure theater. You (and Boonton, to be fair) were defending them, if I recall correctly. Much of the left is against all this nonsense, unless by “the left” you mean the centrist Democrats in charge.

    An interesting comparison made by the left.

    Made by “the left?” Really? Like we all got together, globally, and voted on this particular comparison?

  3. Boonton says:

    You (and Boonton, to be fair) were defending them, if I recall correctly. Much of the left is against all this nonsense…

    Well they didn’t actually do anything, little fictional story aside. Question, what would the implication be if it was possible to develop a safe scanning technology that could operate at a distance? Imagine, for example, a very passive type of x-ray could indicate whether C-4 was being carried by a person and this x-ray was mounted on the ceiling of Penn Station. If the scanner gets a hit, cameras and security closes in on the person.

    How is this different, though, from, say, a drug or explosive sniffing dog being walked around who suddenly barks at someone walking by?

  4. Boonton says:

    If it doesn’t do that, what’s the point?

    Oddly very few people who argue that health coverage doesn’t improve health itself seem to be willing to dispense with their own health coverage.

  5. Well they didn’t actually do anything, little fictional story aside.

    It’s bad enough in airports. Have you been following the recent news stories about various people intentionally and accidentally smuggling things through? It’s all a total sham, an invasion of privacy, and an enormous waste of time and money.

    Imagine, for example, a very passive type of x-ray could indicate whether C-4 was being carried by a person and this x-ray was mounted on the ceiling of Penn Station. If the scanner gets a hit, cameras and security closes in on the person.

    That seems fine, I guess, except that x-rays couldn’t pick out C-4. The parts I’m objecting to most strenuously are the parts where they look at you naked and provide intimate body searches.

    How is this different, though, from, say, a drug or explosive sniffing dog being walked around who suddenly barks at someone walking by?

    I have huge doubts about those, too. Check this out from wikipedia:

    In 2001 the Australian state of New South Wales introduced legislation to provide police with powers to use drug detection dogs without a warrant in public places such as licensed venues, music festivals and public transport.[12] The legislation was reviewed by the NSW Ombudsman who in 2006 handed down a report highly critical of the use of dogs for drug detection. The report stated that prohibited drugs were found in only 26% of searches following an indication by a drug sniffer dog. Of these, 84% were for small amounts of cannabis deemed for personal use. The report also found that the legislation was ineffective at detecting persons in supply of prohibited drugs, with only 0.19% of indications ultimately leading to a successful prosecution for supply.[13][14]

    I’m opposed to the entire drug war, so let’s just leave that half the question aside. (Although, obviously, it always starts by citing “security” and continues onto the “war on drugs” so it won’t be aside. And I’m sure they won’t at all disproportionately screen minorities or anything.)

    You’re basically looking through people’s clothes to see if they’re carrying anything you don’t approve of, not onto a plane, but on the sidewalk. How could that possibly not be construed as an “unreasonable search”? Even if you can come up with some legalistic technicality, this is obviously a gross violation of the spirit of the 4th Amendment, and the spirit of the 4th Amendment is something I very much support.

    Life’s a little risky, people. There’s going to be some crime. That doesn’t justify billions of dollars of wasteful spending, enormous violations of privacy and the freedom from unreasonable searches, and the granting of unprecedented power to people who will inevitably abuse it in countless ways, great and small.

  6. Boonton says:

    Actually the RAND study is worth looking at. A few considerations:

    1. The study ran for 5 years. Many of our serious health costs are driven by issues that have latency periods longer than 5 years (cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure etc. all take longer than 5 years to hit home). Somewhat disturbingly, families with the ‘high cost sharing’ plans reduced the use of effective and ineffecitve care by about 23% (see http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9174/index1.html). This may not show up over 5 years in terms of bad health outcomes, but beyond that you could have serious problems. (If not then why are the treatments considered ‘effective’?)

    2. The study ran between 71-81 (familes spent 3-5 years in the experiment, clearly there were several wave). This is problematic IMO because quite frankly health care sucked before. OK that’s very harsh but the reality is that health care in 2011 is very different from health care in 1982. The treatment of cancer, for example, in some areas has advanced amazingly. But a lot of advance has happened by procedures that are very expensive and specialized. Again let’s turn to the woman who finds a lump in her breast while showering. Exactly how is the outcome of that indifferent to her being covered?

    3. There’s no group that actually had zero coverage so you can’t quite use this study to look at whether or not zero coverage harms health. The closest you get is a ‘95% cost sharing’ group. But the site only has a brief summary so I can’t quite see whether or not the ‘95% co-pay’ plan had some OOP cap where a higher rate of coverage kicked in. Likewise I’m not seeing what controls were put in place to make sure those with the higher plans didn’t go out and purchase private coverage.

    4. If you look at the reductions in use of medical care, they mostly seem to happen at the 25% level of cost sharing. For example, annual doctors visits looks like it is about 4.5 in the 0% co-pay plan, it drops to just over 3 in the 25% plan but is only slightly less at the 95% level. Hospital visits shows the same behavior, high with the 0% plan but then drops off at the 25%-50% co-pays but oddly rises at the 95% level. Which makes one ask if the ‘no-coverage’ group was actually using the ER room as a type of ‘backup coverage’. Note that the killer metric is average dollars of health care services used. At the 0% level it’s shy of $1500. At 25% it drops dramatically. At 50% it goes down a bit more but not as much. At 95% it’s even lower but only slightly. How is this possible if people in the 95% plan were visiting the hospital more often than those in the 50% considering that hospital visits are notoriously expensive? It’s possible if thos ein the 95% bracket were ‘sneaking’ coverage in on the side either directly with supplemental plans or indirectly by having hospital visits paid for with charity care.

    5. Republicans here have to stop trying to have their cake and eat it too. If health coverage provides little or no health benefit then exactly how are seniors going to be hurt by the ‘massive’ Medicare cuts? In fact why all the posts about doctors who won’t take Medicare, worry about malpractice suits etc.? If you take this seriously then it seems like doctors are getting paid a lot of money for not doing anything.

  7. Boonton says:

    That seems fine, I guess, except that x-rays couldn’t pick out C-4. The parts I’m objecting to most strenuously are the parts where they look at you naked and provide intimate body searches.

    Well they might be able to pick out C-4 in the same way a metal dectetor picks out metal. It can’t tell if that metal is a gun, an artificial hip, or a belt buckle though. The difference, though, is that lots of innocent people are walking around with innocent metal on them. I don’t think there’s many innocent people carrying C-4 around.

    And no there’s nothing about random sidewalk scans, that’s just a fictional story. I think what would be more likely would be random sweeps of an area that’s suspect or major centers like, say, Grand Central Station in NYC or a major event like the Superbowl.

    While the details aren’t really made public, I understand this already happens with nuclear material. Unless you do a very good job of encasing a bomb in heavy shielding, nuclear material will give off radiation that can be detected. There are supposedly radiation detectors in major spots like the GW Bridge going into NYC as well as mobile detectors in vehicles and helicopters.

    I agree that the ‘nudie’ backscanners would be over the top but I don’t think they are really possible unless you’re going to expose people to a lot of radiation. I think that more passive scans would be permitted and I’d break them into two categories:

    1. Truely passive scans that detect stuff you’re ‘giving off’ such as radiation or ‘smells’ from a concealed explosive. Granted the detector, whether its a dog or a machine, has to have an acceptable error rate. Metal dectors, I think, fall nto this category since you’re ‘giving off’ a magnetic field.

    2. A ‘passive invasive’ scan. This would basically be a scan that would detect the presence of ‘something’ on you but doesn’t actually penetrate your body. Hypothetically imagine a high pitched sound wave that you can’t hear and is harmless. This wave, though, will ‘echo’ off of C4 or some other common explosive allowing a machine to report that you’re carrying it if you are.

    3. Invasive scans, this is the backscanning type of scan that you’re objecting too in airports.

    #1 I think is basically OK anywhere. The question is only what is the best use of limited resources but there’s no freedom question at issue. If you’re driving thru a neighborhood giving off the radiation signature of plutonium….well that’s probable cause to be stopped and searched.

    #2 I don’t think is a problem either provided that you establish there’s no health danger and you have good procedures for handling what is and isn’t permitted when you get a positive result.

    #3 I think is ok when the stakes are high. The stakes aren’t high when you’re walking down a sidewalk but they are when boarding a plane, entering a sensitive facility (like a military base) etc. I don’t think the lack of captured terrorists trying to sneak weapons on board US planes post 9/11 tells us anything about the usefulness of TSA procedures. The lack of post-9/11 incidents can just as easily be read as an indication that TSA procedures are seen as so good that terrorist groups have deemed the chances of success trying another 9/11 as being too low to be worth it. Sorry like it or not airplanes are highly sensitive targets. Unlike, say, hijacking a bus or train it doesn’t take much to inflict a lot of damage with a plane, esp. to people who made no choice to take on the risks of flying.

    Now I do think there’s a real customer service problem with the TSA and the ‘no-fly lists’. The understanding should be that there’s going to be a lot of false positives with the screening and they should be as polite and nice as possible about it and the bullying should be stamped out hard. But no the screening is not useless and should not be stopped.

  8. I’m with you on #1 and #2, but not #3.

    If there were a hypothetical #3 that actually worked AND if it were impractical to get around it (by exploiting other security holes like bribing a TSA or airline worker or putting something in baggage, etc.) then I could see it being maybe worth it for the very special case of getting on an airplane. The big problem is that #3 does NOT actually work AND there are other ways around it. When you combine that with the cost and massive invasion of privacy, it’s a no-brainer.

    Think about anal cavities for a minute. (Bear with me.) It’s the obvious place to hide something to smuggle onto a plane, if you’re taking it through security, especially with the pornoscanners and pat-downs in place. I mean, it’s beyond obvious. In prisons, they search that place. So why aren’t they searching it at the airports? Well, because nobody who had a choice would put up with that nonsense.

    This is at the same time an analogy for the invasive scanning that they are doing that shows there are limits (and where they are is a matter of opinion) AND a completely obvious flaw that is just one example of a way around the scans that makes them cosmetic only.

    It’s also been shown that you could put something like c4 on your body as long as it’s shaped to fit and blend in and get through the scanners no problem.

  9. Boonton says:

    I think what you’re missing, though, is cost. What you’re doing is making it more difficult and expensive to accomplish something like blowing up a plane.

    Back in the 1980’s you could do this without even being on it (See Lockerbie England, the guy checked a bag but didn’t even get on the plane, now if you don’t board your bag is pulled off). By requiring you to be on the plane with your checked bags, alone, means that only a willing suicide bomber could take down a plane. Then you can’t use your carry on bags to hide a bomb. Then you can’t just simply strap one to your body, you have to make it look like something other than a bomb to bypass the image scanners….

    The idea is not that there’s no possible way in all possible universes to get a bomb on a plane. It’s that by making the cost of it higher and higher the odds of it happening go down. Highly sophisticated explosives are tricker to get than dumb explosives. They require a user who is at least modestly trained and cool headed enough not to give himself away. Burying the device deep in your anal canal increases the odds that just getting it out would be enough to get caught before you could pull the operation off. Bribing TSA agents requires at least a certain level of cultural sophisitication to avoid walking right into a sting operation. Yes it can still happen but you’ve set so many hurdles up to it happening you’ve already deterred a lot of attacks that would happen if pulling one off was easier and those remaining who are still willing to take a shot at it face a higher risk of getting caught as they try to jump all the hurdles they need too.

    This is at the same time an analogy for the invasive scanning that they are doing that shows there are limits (and where they are is a matter of opinion) AND a completely obvious flaw that is just one example of a way around the scans that makes them cosmetic only.

    Why did the shoebomber and later underwear bomber put their bombs in such awkward to detonate places? I suspect part of it was that while there may be a chance that brazenly toting the bomb in your carryon might have been missed by a sleepy agent watching the scanner’s monitor, they felt that was a risk not worth taking. Hence having to bury their potential bombs deep in their shoes (then, now their crotches now that shoes are all scanned). OK an expertly shaped C4 charge may be missed (assuming there isn’t tech in place that can pick up C4’s ‘signature’ by means other than a human recognizing it on visual inspection, if you’re a terrorist organization do you want to potentially expose your C4 expert and willing suicide bomber in an attack that gets botched before it even gets off the ground?) but that many terrorist groups simply will not have the expertise to do so or if they do will be less inclined to risk such assets. IMO having cops pacing around airports in body armor and toting machine guns is mostly cosmestic, the scanners for all their problems aren’t.

  10. I get the “cost” argument. The question is how much this technology increases the cost, and whether it’s worth the (financial and other) price. Another point is that if the cost of going through security was already higher than the cost of using another route (baggage, bribery, etc.) than increasing the cost there doesn’t change anything.

  11. Boonton says:

    Why not look at a real life analogy; shoplifting from retail outlets.

    When the cost of the crime is high, we see lots of technological burdens placed on shoplifting. Jewelry, for example, is behind glass cases with locks. Electronics require you to walk through a scanner. Lesser merchandise may just have a guard at the door who eyes you on the way out.

    But why the tech? Couldn’t a shoplifter, say, bribe the eletronic cashier look the other way while he tosses the goods over the aisle beyond the reach of the departmental scanner? Or bribe the jewlerly person to make a copy of the key to the glass cases? Yes. Likewise brute force can also overcome this. A gang of thugs can grab lots of eletronics and storm out of the place, for example. And there’s counter tech too. I’ve read that shoplifting gangs use bags lined with aluminum foil to fool those scanners. There’s swapping price tags, gangs have been known to copy receipts go into the store pick up the items and then ‘return them’ etc.

    At all these levels the balance has to be struck between raising the cost of shoplifting enough to prevent it while not deterring an equal or greater amount of legitimate sales thru heavy handed security measures. I hate to say it but if terrorists suddenly found it very easy to sneak stealth C4 bombs perfectly crafted for their anal cavities then we’d have to start doing anal searches or full invasive scans.

    But in the meantime I don’t think the tech. is the problem but the solution. If you had a ‘nudie scan’ but a pretty good Watson level AI was evaluating the pictures, only letting humans see them when something seemed amiss what would be the problem?

  12. Again, I get the cost argument. I’m not opposed to security in general, just this particular method.

  13. Boonton says:

    Well take the ‘nudie scan’ and combine it with a good computer system. If you get the system to be really sensitive enough, you can lower the amount of radiation used which is even better. If you could get that then you have no need for ‘pat downs’. That would seem to help, not hurt, the privacy problem while maintaining security.