Back to previous post: In the navy, between the wars

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Wanna Buy a Caboose?

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

January 15, 2010

Beating airport chemical detection systems
Posted by Teresa at 04:30 PM * 95 comments

I think about this every time I see a news story about the DHS/NTSA developing elaborate systems that test travelers for trace amounts of chemicals used in explosives.

How do you beat that? By seeding the travel environment with the target chemicals. For instance, you could sprinkle them into the upholstery and/or carpeting of buses, trains, and airport taxis. Travelers who came into contact with them would pick up trace amounts, which would set off the airport chemical detectors. A system that’s swamped with false positives is as blind as one that can’t detect what it’s looking for, and it’s a hell of a lot more nervous.

The beauty part about doing this is that it’s so easy. You don’t have to build a working bomb, learn to fly a plane, target a specific flight, buy a plane ticket, or pass through airport security. All you have to do is sit back and keep pressing the DHS/NTSA’s panic buttons.

Chemicals aren’t terrorism. Terrorism isn’t air travel. Terror is an effect. I don’t know anyone who was made more fearful by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab setting fire to his crotch. I know a lot of people who are afraid to travel because they’ve heard reports of abusive behavior by security personnel at borders and airports.

Next: figuring out how to put miniature cap pistols into coin-operated toy vending machines at highway rest areas near border checkpoints.

Comments on Beating airport chemical detection systems:
#1 ::: Dawno ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 05:25 PM:

"I know a lot of people who are afraid to travel because they’ve heard reports of abusive behavior by security personnel at borders and airports." Yep. That's why I am 99% sure I'll be driving from the Bay Area to Seattle for Norwescon in April.

#2 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 05:37 PM:

It wouldn't even take buying exotic chemistry to do this. A little sulfer and some graphite shavings would do.

#3 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 05:49 PM:

One doesn't even need that level of sophistication, Keith. I was talking with a guard at one point when I got a false positive, and he commented that they got a strong positive off someone's shoes just a few days before. Turns out he'd been at a place where a lot of fireworks had been set off.

Recently fertilized lawns can also give false positives. If what they're looking for are generic nitrates -- easy to find.

#4 ::: James A. Hetley ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 05:59 PM:

Yeah, lawn fertilizer triggers the explosives-sniffers. Ammonium nitrate, you know, just walk through the stuff . . .

Saw a guy patted down, shoes examined, etc, etc, up to a probable strip search behind closed doors. The TSA finally waved him through, with just that explanation.

#5 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 06:14 PM:

Turns out he'd been at a place where a lot of fireworks had been set off.

Nice. The irony in that: anyone flying after attending a 4th of July BBQ could be flagged.

#6 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 06:26 PM:


Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set fire to his crochet?

#7 ::: Joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 06:28 PM:

Same here. I have a workshop/concert in Arcosanti AZ next fall that requires me to get a fairly large amount of electronics there. I'm driving.

#8 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 07:00 PM:

What you're describing here, Teresa, is an excellent civil-disobedience protest tactic. Seed the environment so thoroughly with those trace chemicals that half the people going thru the detectors will set them off. It would become obvious, after a while, that the detectors weren't doing anybody any good.

#9 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 07:15 PM:

Serge #6: Had he been a bishop he might have set fire to his crotchet.

#10 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 07:18 PM:

Oh, what a revenge on the *ahem* less than optimal TSA guards at LAX.

#11 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 08:09 PM:

Fragano @ #9, Don't you think Teresa's suggestion deserves to be censered?

#12 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 08:23 PM:

Have you seen the Gizmodo poster? I posted it (Fear of Landing » Odds of Airborne Terror (Gizmodo)) and had two people unsubscribe on the spot. And that was before the conversation in the comment stream :P

#13 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 09:14 PM:

Fragano #9

If a bishop, I think a rochet might be more likely.

#14 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 09:24 PM:

It's all about making the right amount of noise -- chemical, digital, auditory...

#15 ::: Russell Coker ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 10:13 PM:

If $1 notes were impregnated with ammonium-nitrate (or some similar chemical) and spent at stores in airports they would circulate widely and contaminate many people. A base level of contamination everywhere can be filtered (just increase the threshold). But a base level (from notes rubbing against the contaminated notes and from people who received the contaminated ones from one store and spent them at another) plus the occasional spike from a directly contaminated one would be a lot harder to deal with.

As a general rule stores never bank $1 notes. They get $1 notes and coins from the bank and deposit $20 and above. So every $1 note that was contaminated would end up eventually being taken away as change by a customer. As customers tend not to buy much after arriving that means that the majority would be taken on departing flights.

Someone who was really ambitious would contaminate the change supply of a major store, get 20,000 contaminated notes in circulation in a city and they would be picking them up at airports for the next year.

Also in terms of false positives they could pay drug mules to take packages of fertiliser. A good quantity of something that could have blown up a plane (if only it had some Diesel fuel and a detonator) would really wind the authorities up. A terrorist group could probably do that with a dozen wanna-be drug trafficers before the idiots who want to transport drugs realised what was going on.

#16 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 10:18 PM:

Heck, depending on how sensitive those detectors are, you don't even have to get within visible range of explosives. I got picked up with a positive reading from the explosives detectors at Canberra airport prior to one flight (interstate within Australia to visit my parents - so this was before 2006). How did I wind up with the traces of explosive on my clothing? Well, I'd been residing in Canberra over the Queen's Birthday weekend - which used to be one of the two times per year when Canberrans were legally allowed to purchase and set off fireworks. I hadn't gone to a display; I hadn't purchased any fireworks myself; heck, I hadn't even been outside on any of the three nights in question (Canbrrra nights are *cold*, drattit); and the amount of fireworks being used in the district wasn't enough to even scent the air with gunpowder. But just being in the same general area as people who were using or selling fireworks had been enough for me to pick up detectable traces. Fortunately the security folk at the Canbrrra airport knew the situation and knew how over-sensitive their apparatus was.

#17 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 10:29 PM:

Russell Coker @ 15:

Reminds me of the way that James Randi treats money with spray starch and then returns it to the bank, to help confound those useless counterfeit-detector pens. I like your plan.

All of these things that they try to do make me think that they're looking for magical solutions, so that they don't have to train and employ competent people.

#18 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 10:47 PM:

I can't find the news story now (the Oregonian's website design is very search-hostile), but I recall a new story about a false positive at the Portland Airport about 5 years ago. They finally said that the likely source of the error was that the suitcases had been stored in a garage where a fiberglass boat was repaired. Something in the fumes of the fiberglass patch was picked up by the material of the suitcase, and was detected by the equipment.

#19 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 10:52 PM:

Discussing this topic is probably a felony.

#20 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2010, 11:42 PM:

Earl Cooley III @19: At least a thoughtcrime.

#21 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 12:17 AM:

Fireworks are mostly blackpowder -- the classic old gunpowder, charcoal and sulfur and saltpeter. Modern gunpowder (smokeless powder) and especially modern explosives are quite different (nitrate heavy). Given that you can make a fine pipe bomb with gunpowder, they probably have to check for both, but it's probably unrelated separate checks in their equipment.

I've had my camera bag swabbed within days of taking photos at a range where many hundreds of rounds of modern ammo were fired off, and it did not come up positive.

#22 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 01:46 AM:

Dawno @ #1 - for a trip from the Bay Area to Seattle, you may want to investigate Amtrak. The Coast Starlight is a very pleasant train trip, especially if you want to spring for a roomette. The only challenge is timing - it runs only once a day, and it takes about 24 hours to get from San Jose to Seattle (when it's not running late). On the other hand, driving would take you a day and a half anyway.

#23 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 02:03 AM:

As far as I'm concerned, they're already swamped with false positives. Oh my god! It's a human being! Take her shoes off! Make him prove that his computer can compute something! Is he smiling? Is he frowning? Is she impatient with the inspectors? Is she too patient?

We must treat them all as terrorists, otherwise the terrorists will have killed themselves in vain!

#24 ::: Ingvar ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 03:03 AM:

David Dyer-Bennet @ #21:

I wouldn't be surprised if modern powder (derivates of what was originally dubbed "smokeless" after all) have next-to-no detectable nitrates in the post-burn residues and that's (probably) what they're testing for.

I'm not sure that rubbing something in unburned powder just too see if the device reacts is a WISE thing, however.

#25 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 05:11 AM:

False negatives are also possible: an acquaintance of mine had to fly out of an airport that was testing explosive/firearm residue sniffer booths. He'd been on a firing range two hours earlier, shooting a pistol, and went directly to the airport, and was therefore worried enough to tell the TSA staff running the sniffer in advance. They were most chagrined when the umpty-zillion dollar sniffer promptly failed to detect anything.

This tech is highly unreliable. And Bruce Schneier's usual rap about false positives being the bane of airport security applies.

#26 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:11 AM:

Explosive residue from firing ranges varies quite widely, and
depends a lot on the actual propellent and the barrel length.

.22 rimfire cartridges fired from a rifle produce next to nothing
in terms of unburned powder ("all burned" occurs at around 18
to 20 inches of barrel length and most rifles are over 24".
(Leading to the interesting feature that the bullet may actually
be decelerating at the point it reaches the muzzle because the
pressure in the bore is less than enough to overcome friction.)

Short barreled weapons, and those loaded with large charges of
relatively slow-burning propellent will leave the most residue,
and on an indoor range this needs to be cleaned up in case it
becomes a fire hazard.

Either way, it will be enough to detect _if_ you're looking for
evidence that someone has recently been near a gun which was
fired, but not if you're detector is just a "general sniffer" rather
than a gas chromatograph.

Dogs, on the other paw, probably _are_ as sensitive as a gas
chromatograph - and much more portable.

If the explosives sniffer was sensitive enough to be useful, it
would panic every time someone with GTN pills for angina
walked past the building.


#27 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:17 AM:

Serge @ 6

Brings a whole new meaning to "Yarn bombing".

#28 ::: jsgbs ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:19 AM:

John Robb has some related musings on this topic. His view is that Al Quaeda is low-cost half-assed attacks that end in failure because the US over-reaction means that failed attacks cause almost as much damage as successful attacks at a much lower cost to AQ. I tend to agree. AQ's leadership isn't stupid and they're quite capable of doing cost-benefit analyses even from their safehouses in Pakistan.

Regardless of the details behind AQ's current strategy, it's very clear that AQ has won the terror battle precisely because of US overreactions. The TSA, INS, CPB, and partisan Republican fear mongers have done more damage to American civil liberties and the American economy than AQ could hope to accomplish even if they managed to blow up one aircraft a month.

#29 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:25 AM:

Has anyone managed to train a turkey vulture to do a sniffer dog's job?

#30 ::: jsgbs ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:30 AM:

@Cadbury Moose:

There's a bit of anecdotal evidence that TSA explosive detectors will indeed false-positive on people who have handled glyceryl trinitrate pills.

As with most government equipment bought since the rise of neoliberalism, the machines were built by politically connected firms for the purpose of maximizing the transference of public wealth into private hands. Actual functionality is largely irrelevant.

#31 ::: rgh ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:44 AM:

Howard Marks, the cannabis smuggler, suggested carrying lion or elephant excrement in order to put off sniffer dogs.

#32 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 10:06 AM:

jsgbs @ 30: You seem to be susceptible to a certain confusion concerning -isms.

#33 ::: Jim Lund ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 10:20 AM:

I'm sure the explosive detectors are ignored for a few weeks around the 4th of July. Also specific airports near explosive events--model rocket fests, airshows, ballgames, stadium concerts.

And there's also the steady stream of military travelers, a good fraction of whom are dusted with explosives.

#34 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 10:54 AM:

Mark @ 32: No, I think that's a description both accurate and precise.

#35 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 10:57 AM:

Claude Muncey #13: You're right. My error.

#36 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 12:06 PM:

Cadbury Moose @ 27... Yarn bombing

Or carpet bombing?

"Which thread do I cut?!"
"The blue one... No! The red one!"

#37 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 12:26 PM:

As far as I can tell, the most salient part of security theater is to spend large chunks of money on private magic technology in order to avoid having the expense of a trained, professional staff.

Trained professionalism goes against every principle of the third-world royalty worldview that is corrupting America.

I like my house. I'm happy to have bought it so cheap. And it's been really neat living close to relatives again. But I'm really questioning how smart it is to put any eggs in the American basket. I still have my portfolio diversification, but perhaps it's time to start taking it more seriously. Starting a legal entity in Hungary, and buying a little cheap property (if any) in Puerto Rico, are feeling a lot smarter than this time last year.

Teresa, I find your ideas intriguing and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

#38 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 12:31 PM:

I have to say, Teresa's scheme makes me quite nervous, particularly since it involves passengers without their consent, or even knowledge.

It's fine for the nice pale-skin passengers whom the guards will "assume innocent." But for the people whom they already assume are guilty, which is to say, anyone from the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and now, apparently Africa, plus anyone who looks that way, the consequences could be dire.

I'm half-Indian, and half-German, and I wind up judging what I wear when traveling, so as to not look "too Indian" and attract suspicion. Which stinks, because a nice cotton salwar kameez would be quite comfortable for travel. My brother, who has a darker complexion than I do, and inherited more of the Indian features, has it worse - it doesn't matter what he wears.

#39 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 01:27 PM:

You recall the terrorist "dirty bomb"m which was supposed to turn the American city of your choice into a howling radioactive wasteland.

The real terrorist dirty bomb doesn't use radioactive dust. It uses the sweepings from waiting room carpets, pistol ranges, and fireworkcounters at Walmart. It's a hell-brew of chemical tags and thoroughly mixed DNA. It wrecks the high-tech ID systems that our Lords and Masters would wish us to be cowed by.

(Yes, this is an expansion on what Charlie Stross has written of.)

#40 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 01:39 PM:

This seems to be an appropriate place to link to this little news item about what America has become.

Discuss. I'll be here in the corner doing meditation in an attempt to restore equilibrium to my blood pressure.

#41 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 01:56 PM:

Michael @ 40: That link gives me hope.

Why? Because out of fifty-seven comments, there is not one single defense of the school's actions. When this hits Boing Boing, there'll be one in the first ten comments.

#42 ::: Malaclypse ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 02:05 PM:

As a mental exercise: let us remember that half of all people have IQs under 100. Some reasonable percentage of those, when confronted with the presence of trace explosives on their money, will not draw the correct conclusions about security theatre, but will instead believe that the reach of A-Q is ubiquitous. They will be, well, terrified. The question of who is truly responsible for that terror is certainly an interesting one, which I don't claim to know the answer to. But it does seem that their terror will arise from the actions of some group or groups of people wishing to make a political point.

#43 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 02:27 PM:

John, the "authorities" (rapidly becoming a trigger word for me, along with "individual" as a noun) recommended counseling for the student and his parents. Nobody seems to have recommended counseling for the vice-principal of this "magnet tech" middle school. Good freaking Lord, this sort of thing really makes me want to diversity my residency portfolio.

#44 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 03:19 PM:

Michael @ 43: Oh, it pissed me off royally too, Michael. (Though if my kid had been put through that sort of abuse, I might send her to counseling. Just not for the reasons the principal thinks.) But I was thrilled that not one single commenter--not one!--supported the school's insane actions. Maybe, just maybe, this sort of story is finally beginning to wear on the public at large.

#45 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 04:41 PM:

Malaclypse #42: when confronted with the presence of trace explosives on their money

Don't forget the cocaine; anyone could potentially be thrown in prison for possession, based on the ubiquitous lacing of naughty dust on everyday currency.

#46 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:10 PM:

O hei John @ 41 - u are rong: turns out BoingBoingers also think it's pretty stupid.

Now that does give me some hope.

#47 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:16 PM:

Ah, no, John, turns out you're right; I just didn't read down to comment #45 yet.

Sigh. There are just such incredible trolls at BB. Is it the water over there, or what?

#48 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:19 PM:

Once, long before 9/11 - heck prior to the Unabomber - I carried a set of professional watercolors through airport security. It had (not surprisingly) cobalt blue and cadmium yellow, and the idjit at security decided that these must be bomb components which I intended to blow up the plane with. After all, they had dangerous chemical names.

Fortunately the other person at security that day was not an idjit.

#49 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:47 PM:

Margaret @48

This moose read it as "watercoolers" and had a WTF? moment.

(FX: drinks more Leffe, calms down.)

#50 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 06:49 PM:

Michael @ (46+47)/2: Possibly it's as bad as I thought: comment 10 is pretty harsh.

#51 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 07:09 PM:

I discounted #10 because that was just a normal (for BB) anti-Cory kneejerk, and still maintained that the school overreacted.

#52 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 09:07 PM:

Russell--Drug mules are either really innocent dupes (who may not know they're carrying anything, because someone slips the drugs into their bag, which is then stolen or rifled through by the baggage handlers) or they're in it for the money, and would probably jump at the chance to collect a few hundred dollars for transporting something that isn't even illegal.

Yes, wrapped in condoms and carried in the smuggler's body has potentially harmful or lethal failure modes, but the same is true of heroin and cocaine.

#53 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2010, 11:47 PM:

I don't think the BB comments are trolls. (My definition of a troll, FWIW, has a lot to do with insincerity. It's someone who says things they don't believe, or don't care whether they believe or not, just to make people mad and stir up trouble.)

I think those comments are from on-the-other-handers: people who can always find a reason not to be outraged by an outrage. And there always is a reason. You can always argue that we shouldn't rush to judgment until we learn more. If we learn more, you can always make exactly the same argument. There's no such thing as complete knowledge, after all, and there might always be some unknown fact that would explain everything.

You can apply this nihilistic skepticism universally, but you can also apply it selectively without being insincere. I've noticed a lot of people who are selectively willing to give the authorities the benefit of the doubt, and to stretch that benefit beyond what I would see as the breaking point. You just have to have a faith that the authorities wouldn't do things without a reason, and that if you can't see what that reason might be it's just because it's hidden -- after all, they know more than you do. It's authoritarianism in a fairly literal sense.

#54 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 01:10 AM:

I just watched a repeat of the recent MythBusters test of what would happen if you had a very well sealed room filled with hundreds of thousands of antacid tablets upon which lots of water is suddenly poured. The pressure was enough to blow the door open.

I hope none of the Security Theater people get ideas from this and decide that you can't allow antacid tablets on planes.

#55 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 02:28 AM:

Years ago my carry-on went from the x-ray machine to a sniffer machine. I told the woman that it was just a really large batch of glass beads but she still looked at me like I was carrying bad things. The years after that I had the storeowner mail me the beads.

#56 ::: jsgbs ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 03:34 AM:

Mark @ 32:

No, I did mean neoliberalism.

I'm being somewhat imprecise because there's no 'ism' to describe a governing system based around a belief that government exists only (or mainly) to serve as a profit center for the well connected. Neoliberalism is the closest semi-neutral political theory term for this arrangement save for pejorative epithets like 'kleptocracy,' ambiguous phrases such as 'corporatism' or the accurate but alarming descriptor 'fascism.'

#57 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 03:53 AM:

Malaclypse @42: let us remember that half of all people have IQs under 100

Let us remember that scores in the 90-110 range are considered "normal" or 'average", and 50% of the population are supposed to fall into that range. Only 25% fall below it, and 25% above.

Furthermore, most people, regardless of intelligence, have years or decades of experience with crappy equipment that doesn't work. That's be the most obvious explanation for mass false positives from explosive-sniffers.

#58 ::: Russell Coker ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 04:40 AM:

John Robb wrote "The recent al Qaeda sponsored attempt to blow up an Northwest Airways flight is an example of an interesting, but likely inadvertent strategy: failure".

I don't think he was trying to say that AQ are actually trying to fail or that they don't care about trying to succeed (in spite of the evidence that launching pitiful attacks achieves real goals). He is merely saying that they could make such failed attacks the plan. Among other things I expect that it would be easier to recruit people to implement such failed attacks. Lots of people will reject an offer of a job to kill innocent civilians, but an offer of a job to plant a package of explosives that won't go off will get more volunteers.

Really I think that AQ is just a failed organisation. They used to be capable of doing big things, but when the US started cracking down on them organisations like the Taliban stopped giving them support. It seems that others who have similar ideologies use the same name and aspire to being as capable. The original AQ people were trained by the CIA and would be unlikely to make a bomb that fails to detonate.

#59 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 05:14 AM:

One of the problems of that school incident is that committees and administrators don't get "counselling". There might be pretty hot committee meetings and "performance reviews", but "counselling" is not for those with power.

"Counselling" is a way of bringing people down from a righteous desire to unleash the rabid attack lawyers. "Counselling" is a way of persuading people that they really shouldn't have been stupid. It's a form of reprogramming.

Yet it can be done for good reasons. Sometimes, it seems to be a way of taking some of the emotional load off a school's staff. I've heard of it being used when there's been an unexpected death at a school. Maybe, back in the old days, instead of counselling you'd have had a visit from you church minister.

When I was at school in England we had "Religious Education" on the timetable, which was not really about any particular religion. One of the local Chuch of England clerics taught it, and if there had been a sudden death, I'm sure he would have been around. Better than some total stranger, or some "real" teacher who'd been shouting at you on the sports field (insert your own pet hate teacher memory here).

And, in the England of that time and place, there wasa certain reputation and status, a certain feeling that you could talk to somebody like that.

#60 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 07:06 AM:

jsgbd #56 - I thought, from perhaps insuffient reading of the likes of Marx, that in the 19th century "capitalism" was the label you would be looking for.
Or maybe pork barrel politics.

#61 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 07:59 AM:

How about "crony capitalism?" See this recent article in The Atlantic.

#62 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 12:16 PM:

jsbgs, #56: That seems to be a perfectly accurate description of GWB-era neoconservativism, if you forget the traditional meaning of "conservative" and look at what they actually did rather than what they called themselves.

#63 ::: Ambar ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 01:58 PM:

A couple people mentioned fertilized lawns, but no one made the leap from there to golf courses.

In my days as a TSA agent, I learned to hate golfers and all their equipment, for it would have to be searched painstakingly by hand. Every Time.

#64 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 02:12 PM:

jsgbs 56: No, I did mean neoliberalism.

The people who've been practicing the kind of politics you describe have been calling themselves conservatives, even though they aren't. By using the term 'neoliberalism' you are insulting liberals, who do not and never have practiced such politics.

#65 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 03:01 PM:

Xopher @ 64: Xopher, neoliberalism is a precise term, currently in use for exactly what jsgbs describes. I try not to dwell on the point, but liberals are complicit in the United States' journey from republic to empire. (And me? I'm somewhere between a social democrat and a socialist. Not a liberal, though I don't quarrel with those who describe me as such while smiling.)

#66 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 03:26 PM:

Ultimately, I don't think I'd be really happy with any political system other than one where I alone rule by decree and wield the power of the Three O's. It's the only way to be sure. All I need to do is get a critical mass of people to worship me in order to bootstrap my apotheosis, and the rest is mere hand-waving. Ta da!

Is there a simple political term for that stance?

#67 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 03:37 PM:

Earl Cooley @66: If not, we could call it solipsocracy.

#68 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 03:56 PM:

John, #65: If that's the case, then "neoliberalism" bears the same relationship to liberal values that "neoconservativism" bears to conservative values -- a nearly complete inversion from the original. The traditional liberal position is that the role of government is to act as a check on corporate greed and to work toward ensuring that individual citizens have a decent quality of life. The traditional conservative position is that government should be as small as possible, and that individuals are on their own against unregulated corporate entities.

It's starting to sound to me as if "neoliberalism" and "neoconservativism" are in point of fact synonyms.

#69 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2010, 07:27 PM:

The trap we're falling into, I think, is that jsgbs and John are using an economist's term of art in a way that makes it easy to conflate with political terminology. Economic neoliberalism - a retread of the liberalism that collocates with laissez-faire in many texts - has come to have as little to do with the American political left as Xopher's reaction suggests.

#70 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 04:22 AM:

You are mistaking a perfectly normal sense of the word 'liberal' when applied to economic thought [i.e. 'what is good for the property-owning individual, is good'], for the right-against-left pejorative version common in the USA which suggests that it means some form of socialism. 'Neoliberalism' has been in use to describe aggressive deregulatory capitalism as a goal of government [with the attendant enrichment of cronies] since the early 1980s at least.

#71 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 04:31 AM:

More precisely, neoliberalism is an updated version of liberal economics, with "liberal" in the European sense, not the American sense, so it's still about free markets, free trade, and minimal government interference with the economy as ways to allow people to optimize their economic behavior.

However, just as Reagan used libertarian and free-market rhetoric but acted in ways that had no resemblance to his rhetoric, the Rove/Bush/Norquist speechwriters used free-market or neoliberal rhetoric whenever it seemed to be a good way to play to the base or the general public, but the Cheney/Bush administration actually practiced crony capitalism, and did things like increasing military spending while cutting taxes on the rich, rapidly increasing the federal deficits to record levels, while neoliberal economics says that's a Bad Thing, or increasing tariffs on steel imports to do a favor to US steel mill owners, while not only is protectionism antithetical to neoliberal economics, but it's a terribly stupid thing to do to other American manufacturers who use that steel (such as auto makers), who are a much larger segment of the US economy.

#72 ::: grendelkhan ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 10:58 AM:

I thought of something rather similar, though it was in reaction to an even dumber idea--Eric Raymond had suggested that the best way to detect explosives-carrying terrorists was to have everyone carry sniffers and just start accosting each other if they go off.

He failed to get back to me with his preferred response mechanism if an agitated person waving a sniffer demanded to immediately see his underwear. I'm a bit disappointed at that.

#73 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 05:27 PM:

Jsgbs, I simultaneously dislike your use of "neoliberal," and agree with your point about turning government into a profit center for the well connected.

My objection to the word is more practical than theoretical. There are too many dittoheads and Kool-Aid drinkers out there who've been conditioned to equate "liberal" with "evil" with "person who opposes the aims and policies of the far right." They're not going to see the "neo" prefix, look up the real definition of the word, and interpret your statements accordingly. All they'll see is the "liberal" part, which they'll take to mean that you're talking about yet another evil thing that's all the liberals' fault.

Ursula @38, I can't keep you or your brother from being falsely suspected or terrorism. What I can do is point out the uselessness and unreliability of one of the TSA's screening methods, and how very easily it can be hacked.

Michael Roberts @40, what that story demonstrates to me is that some schools are still using "vice principal" as a euphemism for "idiot." If the school district can't get rid of him, they should at least have him moved to a less technically oriented school.

John Arkansawyer @41: Amen. Maybe some of them are starting to figure out that "fear management through blaming the victim" isn't a safe strategy.

I'm strongly in favor of coming down hard on such comments. Letting them stand encourages other readers to post me-too replies. They're not really discussing the issue. Most of them are just giving themselves permission not to think about it. If I challenge them to defend their positions, and keep up the pressure, they'll stop
making that argument because defending it would mean having to think about it.

Michael Roberts @47, "Cory is being sensationalistic" is one of the standard brainless comments made by people who want to post on Boing Boing but don't actually have anything to say. Notice how he claims he's come to hate Cory's posts, but is still reading and commenting on them?

Cory's a fast-moving brightly-colored object, which means a certain number of losers are bound to obsess over him. Unfortunate, but it happens.

If I were still moderating Boing Boing, my "things to do in the future" list would include a filter that automatically flags sensational*, hypocri*, debat*, and other troll-spoor words.

And speaking of troll spoor, Grahamers2002's comment #45 has a classic pair of opening and closing lines:

Not to rain on your parade, but --


Let the flaming begin.

It's another one for the troll wiki.

Matt Austern @53: I have to disagree. By me, they're obviously trolls. Read the comment thread on the Peter Watts thread to see this set of issues being thrashed out in detail.

Also, sincerity/insincerity isn't a good marker for trollishness. Way too many trolls have so little insight into their own condition that it's impossible to determine whether they're being sincere at a given moment.

Ambar @63: You used to be a TSA agent? Is this something you're allowed to talk about? Nothing perks up a conversation like primary data.

Grendelkhan @72:

Eric Raymond had suggested that the best way to detect explosives-carrying terrorists was to have everyone carry sniffers and just start accosting each other if they go off.
Head. Desk.

...There's nothing I can say about Eric Raymond that hasn't been said before.

Also: this.

#74 ::: Ambar ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 05:59 PM:

Teresa @ 73,

for precision's sake, I was employed by Covenant Aviation Security from, oh, November 2001 through August 2002. The same legislation which created the TSA allowed a handful of airports to use private contractors who had to work to the TSA's standards; SFO was the only category X (that is, large) airport so, ahem, blessed.

I doubt I remember anything that is both current, secret, and not in the accidentally-released redacted manual, but considering I departed by writing my letter of resignation, dropping it into a box with all my uniforms and security passes, and sending it certified mail to my employer, I'd rather not get too specific.

#75 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 07:54 PM:

Bear with me here, I'm groping along somewhere...

The comment at boing boing which Teresa referenced (no.45) is a type that I have seen at various times, albeit more when involving legal or quality or other such matters.
Taking it at face value, it basically values following the rules above all else, just in case. Its the kind of thinking that says that if we search everyone getting board planes there won't be any terrorist incidents. That we can control everything with the right procedures. That we can taylorise everything such that all you have to do is follow the flow chart and things will turn out ok, no independent judgement required. Oh, and no professional knowledge, thats expensive, just keep those sausage factories going, who needs to think when you have rules to follow.

Yes, in this case things did turn out ok, albeit at a fairly huge waste of time and presumably a bit of money. And you know I'm feeling too much like a Heinlein character when I write this to be comfortable.
It seems like a toxic brew of authoritarians, bureacrats, fear of lawyers, paranoid insurance companies, and so on, is getting in the way of just living. Of requiring people such as the teacher here to have the common sense and professional knowledge to be able to say "those wires go there, the bottle is empty, doesn't look like a bomb to me."

And my complaint does sound rather like that aired in the sort of tabloid rag we have here in the UK, and they spend their time complaining about H&S and so on.
Oh well.

#76 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 08:05 PM:

Guthrie: not only do those tabloids complain about H&S, they spend plenty of time complaining about "political correctness gone mad" and the Human Rights Act (aka the British answer to needing a Bill of Rights).

You do well to be uneasy about keeping that kind of company. But as long as you remain uneasy, you're probably not too far down the slippery slope for a reality check, should one become necessary.

#77 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 08:06 PM:

Guthrie @75:

The problem with that taylorist "search everyone thoroughly enough," is that, as I think you're suggesting, "thoroughly enough" is defined as "prevents all terrorist attacks."

It's probably logically equivalent to pointing out that we know how an effective way to stop terrorists from taking over civilian planes and using them for nefarious purposes: it's called "total ground standdown" and we saw it done in September 2001.

Or, perhaps, to sprinkling salt on my front doorstep and saying "may this house be safe from tigers," as if there was any risk of tigers here without that.

#78 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 10:22 PM:

One of the specific things I hated most about America's anaphylactic reaction to 9/11 was that ESR turned from the cool guy who wrote The Cathedral and the Bazaar into a flaming lunatic with loathsome and idiotic ideas. Along with half the country, sure, but Raymond in particular hurt. His thinking on open source was really influential for me.

TNH @73, dammit, you're making me waste brain cycles thinking about troll autodetection again.

Category 731: comments that make me think about comment categorization.

#79 ::: Ron Sullivan ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2010, 11:57 PM:

Michael Roberts @ #78: ...America's anaphylactic reaction to 9/11...

I'll buy you a drink in thanks for that phrase, even if it's not originally yours. (Finder's fee!)

#80 ::: Ron Sullivan ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 12:04 AM:

Guthrie @ #75: ...all you have to do is follow the flow chart and things will turn out ok...

Oh. Cargo cult.

#81 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 12:26 AM:

Descriptive, ain't it? Well, the phrase per se is mine. The notion of 9/11 as bee sting and everything since as anaphylaxis? Somewhere down in the meme soup, perhaps even here.

(Why does Google Chrome's speel cheker not know the words "anaphylaxis" or "meme"?)

#82 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 12:59 PM:

Michael Roberts (#78): I'll buy the second drink, since Ron Sullivan's offer beat me to being the first.

What I really want to know is how we can replace the Statue of Liberty's torch with a giant Epi-Pen.

#83 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 02:36 PM:

Ron @ 80:

Of course! That explains the ceremonial removal of the shoes, the blessing with the beeping wand, and the sacrificing of luggage to the giant X-Ray Machine. And by a long strange chain of association you have infected me with an Easter Island earworm.

#84 ::: Nickp ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 02:59 PM:

I grow orchids in a greenhouse in my backyard. I'm pretty sloppy when watering and fertilizing, and my shoes are usually spattered with a solution of ammonium nitrate, urea, and other scary nitrogenous compounds. Whenever I travel, the last thing I do before leaving is duck into the greenhouse to make sure everything is OK.

However, I have never, ever been pulled aside at security, nor have my shoes set off any explosives detectors. I wonder if it is harder to set of a false positive than people are assuming.

#85 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 03:22 PM:

However, I have never, ever been pulled aside at security, nor have my shoes set off any explosives detectors. I wonder if it is harder to set of a false positive than people are assuming.

Probably a set of real positives, too. It's all theatre.

#86 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 03:27 PM:

Urea, eh? So, you think maybe one could purposefully trigger a false positive through the simple expedient of urinating on one's shoes? I suppose it would help to be dehydrated, to increase the concentration of the liquid gold.

#87 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 04:09 PM:

Teresa #73:

I'm just loving the model of human decisionmaking in which, after my explosive-detection device goes off pointing at your suitcase, I go confront you about it, rather than quietly heading for the exit while praying fervently for your detonator to fail.

#88 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 04:18 PM:

Closely related to this discussion: I strongly recommend reading Bruce Schneier's essay The Psychology of Security. I'm a bit skeptical of some of the evolutionary psychology bits (which always seem broadly plausible while not really being especially enlightening), but I thought the whole discussion of known cognitive biases centered on security issues was really interesting.

#89 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 04:29 PM:


I also like the term. I think media-oriented terrorism is effective mainly because of this effect. It's a result of incentives facing politicians and media--amping up fear is usually a win for both.

#90 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 04:49 PM:

I could have sworn that I posted this as a part of the discussion but apparently I haven't.

The 'Israelification' of airports: High security, little bother -

The forum where I found the article posted had a discussion very focused on profiling and the problems it brings. I felt that the article made it very clear that the focus was on behaviour and not race/clothes/hair cut but perhaps the other posters are correct that I'm naive. :/

#91 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 05:01 PM:

Ingvar@24: as also pointed out @26, unburned powder residue can be a problem on indoor ranges, particularly those used largely for handguns (very short barrels compared to rifles). It can blow up on you. The military has them periodically, as do manufacturers, and sometimes private civilian ranges too. Thus, I think enough escapes that it should be able to trigger detection equipment.

I'm not interested in running experiments on real airport security, no. I'd be somewhat interested in helping do some scientific testing, but I don't expect to be invited (no special expertise in that area).

Moose@26: yeah, highly variable. With the range of firearms commonly used, from long-barreled .22 rimfire to snubby .44 magnum (a friend calls his the "flare gun"), you get quite a range of outcomes in terms of unburned powder distribution.

#92 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 05:13 PM:

Last time I left Puerto Rico (well, next-to-last time, now) I walked through the scanner and there was "residue", so they swabbed my backpack, and it triggered, so they patted me down. Nearly missed the flight, actually (because thinking I had plenty of time, I ate some breakfast before going through security).

I still have no idea why, but I did notice the same scanner was no longer in use last week. Nitrates from lawn treatment are probably the only thing that would make sense in my case; I don't shoot guns and there were no fireworks around that time.

#93 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2010, 07:13 PM:

Does the TSA confiscate nitrolingual pump-sprays?

#94 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2010, 09:31 AM:

TNH @73: You reminded me to go look at ESR's recent writings and, well:

19C/Early 20C antisemitism ahoy!

#95 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2010, 07:34 PM:

Earl, you have to take off your pumps when you go through the TSA security check.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.