Wednesday, July 23, 2008

airport abuse

CBS 2 has an article about complaints about airport screeners (link from Instapundit). They describe what sound like some pretty abusive incidents. However, the TSA only answers with this:
A spokesman said that out of 2 billion passengers screened nationwide since 9-11, there have been only 110,000 abuse complaints.
What does that mean? 110,000 complaints sounds like a hell of a lot of complaints. Sure, it's a small fraction of the total screened, but what is a reasonable number for things like this? Keep in mind that most of those screened just take off their shoes and belt and walk though the metal detector. What percent of those taken aside for special attention complain? What percentage of complaints do police from interactions with the public? What percentage do private security guards get? Is the TSA number high or low with respect to these similar professions? And are there certain screeners who get a lot more complaints than others?

And of course those who face only minor abuse won't bother to complain because we all know that such complaints will be ignored. I once had a Swiss Army knife taken from me. The knife blade was only an inch long and it was utterly useless as a weapon. And it had some sentimental value to me --but that didn't matter, I was forced to give it up anyway. But I didn't fill out a complaint form because I knew that it would do no good whatsoever. It can be assumed that most of these complaints were by people who felt that their own experiences were unusually abusive --bad enough to be worth trying to do something about.

And of these complaints, what percentage of them were resolved to the satisfaction of the complainers? If it's 0, and I suspect it is, then this would mean that all 110,000 complainers have been lying or over-reacting. So, what's more probable: that there are 110,000 people who falsely claimed to have suffered unusual levels of abuse from airport screeners, or that some airport screeners are abusing people?

Let me try to imagine myself as the sort of pervert who would get a thrill out of feeling up random women (this requires less imagination than you might think). Let me imagine further that I'm poorly educated, so that I can't get a good-enough job to pay strippers to let me feel them up. Then what kind of job might I look for? Obviously, I would want to be a male cheerleader (and people think George Bush is dumb). But let us suppose also that I'm too masculine to wear tights (another one I can easily imagine) and that I'm not particularly concerned whether these random women are amenable to the feeling up. Then what job should I go for? I'd say a TSA screener is just the job I want.

Now, I've probably just described a couple of million American men. What are the odds that none of them have managed to get jobs as TSA screeners? My concern is that the TSA does not take this possibility seriously, and that they don't take seriously the other character flaws that may lead people to want to be screeners, or that screeners just might randomly have: irrational hostility to certain people, a Napoleon complex, vindictiveness --there are a lot of flawed people who would be abusive in a roll like that of a TSA screener but I get the impression that the TSA is far more concerned with suppressing any uprising of sentiment against them and their jobs than they are at protecting the passengers from abuse. And so far, the TSA has done nothing --nothing at all-- to relieve this fear.

This attitude of the TSA has cost the airlines several thousand dollars of my money over the last few years. I've skipped trips that I normally would have taken, and driven when I normally would have flown, just because airport security has become so obnoxious. And I can't be that unusual. Why isn't the air industry concerned about this?

children of the Enlightenment

Although I loved John C Wright's essay, I do have to take exception with one thing: his implication that his views of equality and freedom are essentially the ideal of the enlightenment and that Nazism and Communism are opposed to the Enlightenment. But in fact, Nazism and Communism are both true children of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, after all, was not just about dethroning kings, but also about dethroning God. And if God is not the ruler, why not the State? Read this essay for some interesting notes on historical Enlightenment thought.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

coldblooded legless creatures with poisonous fangs who eat their mates and do not care for their young

Here is a great essay by John C. Wright. It explains why people like me have such a hard time coming up with descriptions of ourselves. I sometimes call myself a conservative, or sometimes I say that I'm on the right, but neither description really seems accurate. Wright explains that these terms were constructed by our political opponents in order to invalidate our views. Here is a short section:
‘Right’, as it is used these days, means classical liberalism plus Nazism. It means all those things I listed (Bill-of-Rights type thinking: individualism, rule of law, separation of powers, free trade, free market, Rights-of-Man, limited government) In other words, it is a meaningless definition.

Now, why should anyone define a term to include classical liberal ideals (individual liberty, limited government, rule of law, separation of powers, etc.) with Nazism? Answer: to denigrate classical liberal ideals. ...

It would be like defining ‘mammals’ to mean ‘warmblooded organisms with hairy skin who give birth live to their young PLUS snakes and black widow spiders.’ That way, if you cannot criticize mammals for anything, you can always claim that they are coldblooded legless creatures with poisonous fangs who eat their mates and do not care for their young.

(link from Foxfier)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

holy kitchen sink, Batman!

I really wanted to be a programming-language researcher. Actually, that's what I was for several years of my extended Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona, where I worked for the late Ralph Grizwold who was quite famous in that field. However, Ralph and I had a falling out, or rather Ralph took a dislike to me for reasons that I never understood (and now, I suppose, never will), and so I moved on to language implementation, working for Saumya Debray. Language implementation was very cool also, but my first love was always language theory and design. After I got my Ph.D., I decided not to pursue an academic position for several reasons: first I was a poor teacher (which would have been a minor nit at a good research department). Second, I'd heard that Ralph was saying uncomplimentary things about me to others in the field and since he was well-respected and I was unknown, I knew that was a fight that I couldn't win. And third, it took me ten years to get my degree, which doesn't look good on a CV.

I've been keeping up, more or less, with language research but not with actual production languages. Then I chance to read a paper on ES4 --the latest design for Javascript (aka ECMASCRIPT, aka Jscript), and ... holy cow. They have included every cool and/or useful language concept of the last forty years except for the kitchen sink. By kitchen sink, I mean continuations --and they felt like they had to explain why they didn't include continuations. If I were to design my dream language, it would look a lot like the latest Javascript, only more elegant. That's part of the problem with languages designed by committee, of course --they all have cool ideas that they want to include and there isn't time and motivation to come up with simpler abstractions to subsume the collection.

Also, of course, there is a trade-off between the elegance of your abstractions and the useability of the language. As abstractions get more concise and powerful, they get harder to use by average programmers.

Anyway, if you last programmed in Javascript ten years ago like I did, there is a lot of new stuff in the language. I'm not even sure it is properly still a scripting language since it has static typing and other sorts of compile-time checks that are not typical of scripting languages. But it's cool.