2017-07-14

Unintended consequences of the TSA regulations

You'd have to be astonishingly ill-informed to believe that you could waltz through USA airport security with any recognisable knife in your carry-on luggage. TSA regulations specify:

Knives
Carry On Bags: No
Checked Bags: Yes
Except for plastic or round bladed butter knives.
Now, I'd read that as "you can have any kind of knife in your checked baggage apart from plastic knives or round bladed butter knives" but I'm a pedant; the overall guidance is clear.

A couple of weeks ago, my pal Harry turned up to San Francisco International Airport (motto: "Fogged in by design") for a flight up to Washington state. He wasn't checking any luggage, just carrying a backpack. Shortly before security he reached into the side pocket of his pack to get his passport, and while fumbling around he came across the folding knife that he'd left in there on his last hiking trip.

Crap.

Oh well, better to discover it now than later. He could have surrendered it to the TSA contractors but it had been an expensive knife when he'd bought it, and he'd had it a long time. He was damned if a TSA-contracted monkey was going to take it from him.

Not a problem! Airport Mailers are a company that allow you to mail items to yourself from the land-side of an airport. Harry walked over to the Airport Mailers kiosk and asked them for a pouch to mail his knife back.

"Sorry, we're out of pouches." Apparently they'd been out for most of the past week, and were "optimistic" of getting a delivery in the next few days, but of course that did not help Harry. Harry starts to see why there is less than enthusiastic endorsement for this firm.

Harry realises that he could just drop the knife in the "Sin Bin" box at security, but he would lose it forever and it was an expensive knife when he bought it, and has a lot of sentimental value. Pondering the problem, his gaze alights on the plants in tubs used to decorate the hall:

"Problem solved!" Harry pulls out his folded knife, palms it, and sidles to the corner of one of the planters containing a particularly bushy plant. He casually slips his hand under the leaves and gropes around trying to dig unobtrusively a hole in the soil to fit his knife.

This admittedly ingenious strategy is sadly not original; as Harry pokes his fingers into the soil, he discovers a wooden object that is indisputably a knife handle. It seems that, as he pokes around, what feels like half of the planter is taken up with buried knives.

Harry, undissuaded, finds an undisturbed corner of the planter, furtively buries his knife, and heads off to the gate. 48 hours later he's back, coming out of Arrivals. He wheels left, locates the planter, digs his knife out from the corner, and strolls off to his car. In the process he discovers that the other knife has vanished.

No doubt the TSA would posit this as a security "win", but it's not obvious that this is true. People are stashing knives all over San Francisco airport, and seem to be able to rely on picking them up again when they return. If they can manage this in a heavily-patrolled airport departures area, how effective do you think the TSA Security Theatre is at keeping hundreds of aircraft in an "allowed" state?

2017-07-08

First man in the UK to give birth is from Gloucester

Of course they're from Gloucester.

So how did this miracle occur, such that Hayden Cross managed to pop out a baby?

Hayden was born a girl, called Paige, and plans to continue gender reassignment treatment now he has become a father.
Aha. So Hayden has a womb, at least one ovary, and presumably a vagina. I don't know about you, but when someone has those assets - and no testes, since Hayden had to find a sperm donor - I'm inclined to think that they don't actually qualify as "male".

Popping out a baby just before gender reassignment surgery seems like an odd choice. Almost a case of trying to have your cake and eat it. Not terribly committed to the whole irrevocable life-as-a-man thing. I wonder how long before Hayden will get tired of it and want to change back.

Despite the headline, this is not a miracle. This is attention-seeking behaviour if ever I saw it. That's fine if it's just you who's affected but, my goodness, I feel sorry for Hayden's daughter. How is she going to feel once she grows up enough to understand what went on?

2017-06-23

Oh Australia, don't ever change

When you read a news article heading like "Cairns man who binged on ice feared dead after attempting to have sex with crocodile" you just know that the journalist who picked up this particular story was down on their knees crying with gratitude.

According to the friend, the man - now naked - leapt at the crocodile and tried to have intercourse with it. [How? How!?] "We were still a fair distance back but I reckon he just about got it in," said the witness. "Of course, the croc wasn't having a bar of it [never heard that particular idiom before] and started thrashing around like crazy.
This of course has many of the hallmarks of an urban legend - unnamed victim or friends, too good to be true - but the source is a local newspaper in Cairns, and specifically names the beach, so dammit I'm going to believe. I want to believe, and so should you.

I know that Australia is famous for blunt public health warnings - "If you drink and drive, you're a bloody idiot!" but this case provides the material to step it up a gear:

If you smoke ice, a croc will bite yer bollocks off!

2017-06-10

Bitrex redux - DUP edition

After 24th June 2016's outpouring of bitterness I expected that it would not be equalled - or even rivalled - for quite a while. It appears I was wrong.

The avalanche of Facebook protest posts and memes about the proposed pact between the Northern Ireland DUP and the Conservatives to form a working (though small majority) has been quite something. The main themes have been appeals to sign the petition protesting against the coalition (now at half a million people!) and excoriations of the Tories for allying with the "bigoted" DUP - with a lot of links to Brighton's favourite loon, Caroline Lucas writing in the Grauniad:

This desperate Conservative government will reach out to the hardline DUP – a party that denies climate change, opposes abortion and is openly homophobic.

Since there are 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland, the DUP has 10 of them, and 7 of the others are held by the Sinn Féin, it seems a bit odd to slam 55%+ of Northern Ireland's parliamentarians as "bigots". It seems fairly clear what Ms. Lucas thinks of the Northern Ireland electorate. Does she perhaps prefer Sinn Féin, since there's no possible way they could be accused of prejudice of any kind? It also appears that their position on abortion is complex, mixed, and still far from the UK mainstream. "Bloody Irish peasants, why aren't any of them woke like we metropolitan liberals?"

Let's face it, this new wave of bitterness is entirely because Jezza didn't make it as far as an electoral majority. Heck, he couldn't even get a majority with a 3-way coalition. This is not to take away from his electoral performance which was a massive out-perform of expectations, but it took one of the most incompetent electoral campaigns in modern times from May and her advisers for him to get even that far.

2017-06-04

When seconds count, the police are minutes away

After last night's terror attack on London Bridge and Borough Market, the main lessons I took away were:

  1. Anyone who's motivated can execute this kind of attack: get 1-2 buddies who are similarly motivated - for maximum efficiency - some long knives, and a rented van are all that's needed;
  2. Civilians were reduced to throwing bottles and drinking glasses at the attackers to try to keep them away;
  3. Unarmed officers were effectively powerless during the incident, reduced to trying (extremely bravely) to distract the attackers from civilians;
  4. In the heart of the nation's capital, at near-maximum terror alert, with the densest national concentration of armed officers, the attackers had 8-10 minutes to rampage unimpeded before the armed police turned up and whacked them in short order.

Contrast this with the May 2015 attack in Garland, TX where the heavily armed gunmen just made it out of their car, managed to slightly wound a security officer, and then promptly expired in a hail of bullets. I can't help but notice the complete lack of follow-on terror attacks in Texas since then; presumably word has got around the terror community that it's a poor choice of location.(Glasgow is probably number 2 on the do-not-terrorise list after the terrifyingly vicious response of the residents.).

I can't help but think that the complete dis-arming of the UK civilian population is not working out quite as well as most of its proponents expected.

2017-06-02

Teachers vs engineers

"If we paid teachers like we paid engineers, just think how far ahead we would be!"

If we assessed teachers on the results of their work like we did for engineers, just imagine the outcry from the California Teachers Association.

"Class X results in Maths have plummeted year-on-year compared to equivalent classes Y, Z taught by other teachers; class X's Maths teacher objectively sucks and should be demoted/fired."
"How dare you! Won't you think of the children?"
I've met some great teachers in California, but The System is very clearly working against them.

Government-class service

I was chatting at the coffee machine yesterday with a buddy - let's call him Mike - who was just back from paternity leave. He was showing me many, many pictures of his baby son - we can thank Apple and Google for making death-by-mobile-photostream a thing - and mentioned in passing that he'd spent half the morning phoning around local post offices to make a passport appointment so they could go en famille to visit his brother's family in NZ.

"But you said you're not planning to go until October?" I pointed out, puzzled.

Well, it turns out that if you're applying for your first US passport, you can't just send off a few forms. The American passport application form (DS-11) isn't as bad as you might think if you've dealt with other US government forms, but first passports and passports for any under-16 child require that you appear in person at an "acceptance facility". This, in practice, means one of a small number of passport offices, some city clerk offices, or a subset of US post offices. Passport offices allow you to turn up on the day; city clerks and post offices are appointment-only. The appointments are usually only available 3-4 days per week - not weekends, natch - and only a few hours per day, e.g. midday through 4pm.

After canvassing four or five different venues to get a handle on availability, Mike had managed to find himself an appointment for Wednesday 2nd August as the earliest available - ignoring all other scheduling concerns. That's 2 months hence.

"That's a bit tight for an October flight - why not go in person?" I wondered. Unsurprisingly Mike had already done the research, and pointed me to the Yelp reviews for Willow Glen Passport Station, San Jose as a guide to what he'd be dealing with:

#1 tip is get there early - and I mean 3, 4, 5, 6 AM early (the doors open at 10 AM). There will always always be a line. I talked to so many people who just expected to walk up and have their application processed. Even if it LOOKS like there are only 2 or 3 people in front of you, it's entirely possible they are saving a spot for additional people. We thought we were 7th in line but once everyone's relatives showed up at 10, it was more like 15th in line.
[...]
Weekends have WAY more people in line and some people have been known to show up as early as 3 AM. We took off work on a weekday just for this reason. Arriving at 4:30 or 5 AM on a weekday SHOULD ensure you're near the front of the line.
[...]
Arrived at 4:30. Nine families were there already. At 5, about 20 people. At 6 about 30 people. Total 50 numbers were issued. Therefore, after 6 am chance is small. Numbers were given out by post office employee at 9:55. Got in at 10. Finished at 11:10. Staffs are nice and professional.
[...]
Got in the line at 3.20AM. There were 15 folks ahead of me. Long line formed behind me by 8AM. A post office employee came out at 8AM and said "if the applicants are in the line, please come inside, 10 at a time, and I'll validate the forms". Chaos ensued, since most of the folks in the line were holding a spot for their families. Eventually things calmed down. The employee was out again and stated that they would only process 30 passport applications (not 30 customers).
Do you think that there might be a demand signal here? (In case you think Willow Glen is a special case, read the Eastridge reviews.)

What I took away from those reviews is that the passport station staff (generally) were individually trying to do a good job and make things run smoothly, e.g. by pre-validating application forms, but were totally ham-strung by being desperately under-staffed relative to the demand. Similarly, the city clerks and post offices had no incentive at all to add staff and expand the number of face-to-face appointments. It looks like they're limited to claiming $25/person fees so there's no ability to raise fees to respond to demand, and hence no reason to hire extra staff to increase their processing capacity because that's probably below the employment cost here in Silicon Valley.

I remain completely baffled by Americans who want more Federal government involvement in their lives. This is what Federal government involvement looks like. (At the state level, they should examine the well-oiled customer-service-friendly machine that is the Department of Motor Vehicles.)

2017-05-23

Manchester

The only speech we need to hear from the UK Government is:

To those people behind Monday night's bombing in Manchester: we are going to find you and we are going to fuck you up.

2017-05-12

Downsides of an IT monolith (NHS edition)

I have been watching, with no little schadefreude (trans. "damage joy") today's outage of many NHS services as a result of a ransomware attack.

This could happen to anyone, n'est ce pas? The various NHS trusts affected were just unlucky. They have many, many users (admin staff in each GP's surgery; nurses, auxiliaries and doctors rushing to enter data before dashing off to the next patient). Why is it unsurprising that this is happening now?

The NHS is an organisational monolith. It makes monolithic policy announcements. As a result of those policies, Windows XP became the canonical choice for NHS PCs. It is still the canonical choice for NHS PCs. Windows XP launched to the public in late 2001. Microsoft ended support for Windows XP in April 2014. Honestly, I have to give Microsoft kudos for this (oh, that hurts) because they kept XP supported way beyond any reasonable timeframe. But all good things come to an end, and security updates are no longer built for XP. The NHS paid Microsoft for an extra year of security patches but decided not to extend that option beyond 2015, presumably because no-one could come up with a convincing value proposition for it. Oops.

The consequences of this were inevitable, and today we saw them. A huge userbase of Internet-connected PCs no longer receiving security updates is going to get hit by something - they were a bit unlucky that it was ransomware, which is harder to recover from than a straight service-DoS, but this was entirely foreseeable.

Luckily the NHS mandates that all critical operational data be backed up to central storage services, and that its sites conduct regular data-restore exercises. Doesn't it? Bueller?

I don't want to blame the central NHS IT security folks here - I'm sure they do as good a job as possible in an impossible-to-manage environment, and that the central patient data is fairly secure. However, if you predicate effective operations for most of the NHS on data stored on regular PCs then you really want to be sure that they are secure. Windows XP has been end-of-support for three gold-durned years at this point, and progress in getting NHS services off it has been negligible. You just know that budget for this migration got repurposed for something else more time-sensitive "temporarily".

This is a great example of organisational inertia, in fact maybe a canonical one. It was going to be really hard to argue for a massively expensive and disruptive change, moving all NHS desktops to a less-archaic OS - Windows 10 seems like a reasonable candidate, but would still probably require a large proportion of desktops and laptops to be replaced. As long as nothing was on fire, there would be a huge pushback on any such change with very few people actively pushing for it to happen. So nothing would happen - until now...

Please check back in 2027 when the NHS will have been on Windows 10 for 8 years, 2 years end-of-life, and the same thing will be happening again.

2017-04-13

'Fearless' girl? Is that really the best adjective?

The famous "Charging Bull" statue in Manhattan has been garnering a lot of proximate press recently. Contrary to the belief of lazy journalists, it's not actually anywhere near Wall Street: check out the map, it's a good 600 feet away.

Last month, a temporary bronze statue "Fearless Girl" was placed opposite the bull, garnering all sorts of breathless praise by journos about the strong feminist message that it imparts. Since the Fearless Girl statue was created by the investment firm "State Street Global Advisors", I suspect that nothing other than their marketing department's desperate desire for publicity and their CEO's self-image were the main factors behind the project: since only 5 of their 28-strong leadership team are female, two of whom are in the traditional female bastions of HR and Compliance, one suspects that this is compensatory signalling. The statue's plaque:

Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.
confirms my suspicions.

The Charging Bull sculptor Arturo Di Modica is not amused:

"The placement of the statue of the young girl in opposition to 'Charging Bull' has undermined the integrity and modified the 'Charging Bull'" Siegel said. "The 'Charging Bull' no longer carries a positive, optimistic message. Rather it has been transformed into a negative force and a threat."

State Street Global Advisor and the statue artist Kristen Visbal may believe that this is a powerful message of feminine empowerment. However, if in real life you saw a 4-foot girl standing square against a charging bull, hands on hips in defiance, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't think her "brave" and "assertive"; words like "foolish" and "insane" would be more likely to pass your lips.

I'm reminded of Hilaire Beloc's Sarah Byng, whose illiteracy led her into a field containing a bull:

Alas! The young illiterate
Went blindly forward to her fate,
And ignorantly climbed the gate!
Now happily the Bull that day
Was rather in the mood for play
Than goring people through and through
As Bulls so very often do;
He tossed her lightly with his horns
Into a prickly hedge of thorns,
And stood by laughing while she strode
And pushed and struggled to the road.

State Street Global Advisor and Kristen Visbal should perhaps take the lesson that your perceptions of how the world should be, no matter how right-on, are much less important in pratice than how it actually reacts to you.