Airport Insecurity

The latest attempted airline attack and the subsequent disruption to air travel due to ‘enhanced’ security made me wonder about the true objective of the attack. At the surface, we treat the attack as an attempt to bring down a single airliner — but what if the objective was to disrupt air travel?

Look at the history of airport security responses. A long time ago, when airplane hijacking was in vogue, metal detectors were deployed in airports to prevent passengers from bringing guns and knives on board. Then the plastic gun and glass fibre knife was developed — but we still keep doing the metal detection check. Interestingly, locking the cockpit door was a concept very slowly and reluctantly deployed even though the industry option was that it would be more effective.

More recently we had the shoe bomber and now the underpants bomber — and there was an attempted assassination in Saudi where the bomber had an explosive suppository. So no more carry-on luggage and even larger delays and passenger indignities. And some air transport agencies want to show their zeal for security by outdoing even the most exaggerated checks. [Are full body cavity checks and travelling naked far away?] But as always, the response is to the previous attack — and the usual stories are circulating that there was advanced warning but it was ignored or the process was still considering it. So a fail at catching the bomb and worse on responding to warnings about the bomber.

But maybe the real objective is not to bring down an airliner but to disrupt holiday air travel? The bomb doesn’t even have to work, just suggest that it might have. Remember the 1950’s horror movies — the most terrifying were the ones that suggested what was happening, not the ones that showed it. So we have had a suggestion of an attack and our (by now predictable) response is to impose even more severe ‘security’ measures and really clog holiday air travel. After all, is not the objective of a terrorist campaign to induce the fear of an attack rather than just a high body count? By that standard the attack was wildly successful — with the full cooperation of the air travel security authorities.

And as far as a real hazard to air travel, how much is all this theater diverting from aircraft maintenance? I think the real numbers would indicate that there is a larger risk to passengers of traveling in poorly maintained planes or in planes repaired with counterfeit parts. And would we not do better by spending more money on trying to use all the ‘intelligence’ more effectively to anticipate and prevent attacks? Seems to me that what we really do is help the terrorists achieve their objectives — but I wonder, is anyone thinking about that?


Climategate — Oh No Not Again…

I have been appalled by the discussion in the press about those internal emails that were stolen from the UK Climate Centre. Not the content of the emails themselves but the way that they have been manipulated and tossed about as justification for extremist positions.

The pity is that data about the real world is never as clear as opinion would like it to be. And problems of messy and inconsistent data are everywhere — hence the delicate art of data cleansing. Which is why even outside of climate study there are so many analysis that start with the same data and derive opposite conclusions. I am sorry but I disagree with anyone who thinks that we understand what is happening to our climate and why. The climate system in the world is just to complex for our tiny brains to comprehend — with the influence on cloud cover by cosmic rays and solar activity, local circulation patterns in air and sea, forest destruction, temperature-sensitive absorption of gasses by the land and sea, and countless other variables that we probably don’t know exist let alone understand.

So whether the Saudis or the oil sands of Alberta doom us to a death by climate change I am afraid that we are much too stupid to be able to predict — let alone decide on what wrenching and expensive changes to power generation will affect the outcome.

Some effects are visible to all — the loss of ice cover in the arctic, melting of glaciers, rising of the sea and gradually changing seasons — visible even in our local weather data. The loss of glaciers will eventually cut the water supply to large areas of China and India. Rising seas will engulf low lying coastal areas like Bangladesh, Miami and Manhattan. These changes seem apparent even from my safe haven in Ontario — but I fear that the debate over whether global climates are changing and who is at fault is masking the clear and present problems already being experienced.

But that day does not appear to be here. A pity. I would hope that someday mankind as a whole would have the maturity to respect places of beauty and try to leave the world a better place for the next generation. Not just a used-up garbage dump.

Misapplication of Industrial Ideas

I have been fascinated by the creeping mis-application of industrial ideas into unrelated areas. These misapplications seem inevitably to increase costs and degrade service while simultaneously engendering a sense of helplessness on the part of the users of these services.

For example, here in Ontario we have been blessed by several successive governments saving us money through what they call ‘economies of scale’ such as forced amalgamation of local governments and collapsing the healthcare system into ‘regional centers of excellence’. Sure, if I were making adhesives a 10,000 pound batch could probably be made for less than two 5,000 pound batches. But with any organizational process making it larger increases the number of human interfaces and the complexity of management. So costs tend to go up, not down and the responsiveness of the organization degrades.

Similarly, we see what appears to be an adaptation of the ISO 9000 quality approach — in food safety, hospital operations and most recently transportation safety. In all these cases the role of the quality agency is reduced from actually inspecting the products to auditing the paperwork documenting the procedures. But the defect checking seems to get dropped by the wayside — so despite full paperwork compliance we get batches of contaminated food sold in stores and recalled only after people get sick or die. But some raving bureaucrat has the idea that this is ok so we persist. As long as the right paperwork is done and the participants hold the right certifications it is ok whether the output is safe or not.

The common flaw in all of this is the absence of a feedback loop to evaluate the efficacy of the new idea. To say nothing of backing away from a change if it turns out to be wrong. Just ignoring what is happening is no subsititute — despite the popularity of this management approach. But it would appear that our leaders are locked in a delusional world of their own making — and the social services that we all rely on are growing more expensive and dysfunctional.