This is so stupid.

Ok, look.

It’s just an airplane. I have no emotional attachment to a 737-200 except for the part where I flew on them for years and years, and beyond complaining that Airbus lacks the “oh, wow!” feeling of aviation I don’t really have an emotional attachment to any airplane. So how come I’m on the verge of tears while watching this farewell video to the 732?

Stupid airplane! Be less sad!

Waterfront property at low tide

Now with ultra-cool updates at the bottom!

So I managed to set off the explosives detector at CYEG this afternoon on my way home. It was, to say the least, a humiliating experience, enhanced only by the frustration that I was late for my flight. Why my bag was randomly chosen to be explosive-residue-tested is a bit of a mystery; my laptop, the usual suspect for this kind of thing, wasn’t in there at all, and when they swabbed the bag I didn’t think anything of it. I mean, I use a totally different bag to carry my Semtex around.

Apparently, though, when the explosive detector is activated, you get to get super-duper screened. Which involves a physical search of everything you’re bringing with you. And a physical search of yourself, which is sufficiently thorough that I think someone owes me breakfast. And, as with everything involving the government, there’s paperwork to fill out. Name. Address. Birthday. Occupation. It goes on and on. I asked what was going to happen to the form. “Oh, nothing,” the guy said a little too nonchalantly for my tastes. Yeah, right. And if you believe that one…

So I totally won’t be shocked that I’m now tagged and will get nailed every time I go to get on a flight from hereon in.

The punch line is that my bag tested positive for nitroglycerine residue. Which is, in hindsight, totally not unexpected, since it has been home to several bottles of nitro spray that at one point or another have found their way into my pockets and then into my bag. (Don’t look at me like that — I’m not stealing the damn drug. It’s just that it’s frequently easier to shove them in a pants pocket rather than keep fishing for one at the bedside or whatever, and besides, we’ve now gone to single-patient use sprays so that once you use one on one patient, it’s fininshed.) Whether one discharged, or leaked, or whatevered in my bag, it somehow got NTG molecules all over the place, and that’s what the detector picked up. The guy said this happens all the time but I’m not so sure, and in any event I’m not even remotely certain how I could go about getting the NTG residue off my bag so this doesn’t happen in the future. NTG spray has a pretty distinctive smell. All I can smell in my bag is consumer electronics, so it must have been some minute amount somewhere.

The worst part of it all is that I can’t even make snide jokes about the total uselessness of the air travel security theatre, since spotting passengers with explosives is, uh, kind of what you want the security theatre to be doing. Must.. find.. useless government joke.. in here.. somewhere..

Some time after I posted this, Bruce Schneier happened upon it and posted an excerpt on his blahg. There were a few things that came up in the comments to his post that I wanted to address, so I’ve re-posted my own follow-up here.

First of all, please understand that my post was not intended as a commentary on air travel security. I have a personal habit of having horrible things happen to me when I travel, and posted the story to my LiveJournal mostly as a means to amuse my friends; the tone of voice behind the story is one of weary resignation, not frustration or anger. (Though I’ll note that had I known Bruce would repost it here, I might have been more eloquent and thoughtful.)

Second, as mpd and the anonymous poster above me have noted, this was not a false positive result. The detector correctly detected (and identified) the nitroglycerine residue on my bag, and it functioned exactly as expected. The screening personnel also functioned exactly as expected: They investigated the source of the alarm, asked me reasonable questions to determine why the alarm condition occurred, and, having been satisfied that I did not represent a threat to air safety, allowed me to board my flight. The alarm condition was thus valid (I had nitroglycerine molecules on me), but irrelevant to the overall goal of preserving the safety of the flying public (I’m not a terrorist, so who cares if I have nitroglycerine residue on me?).

Third, keep in mind this was at a Canadian airport. CATSA isn’t a whole lot better than the TSA, but it is marginally less stupid, and the margin seems to make a difference.

The anonymous poster’s comments regarding medical diagnostics are particularly astute and I think the comparisons are very valid: If you spot a suspicious lump on ultrasound, you naturally biopsy it. When the biopsy comes back benign, we don’t turn around and say the ultrasound was a waste of time — we say that the diagnostic process worked more or less as expected.

For a variety of reasons, though, it feels as though there was some kind of failure here, although it’s difficult to figure out exactly where the failure occurred and what should have been done differently. It’s tough to argue that we shouldn’t be checking for explosives, it’s tough to argue that we shouldn’t additionally screen people found to have explosive residues on their personal effects, and it’s tough to say that we shouldn’t document instances where residues were found but posed no threat. It may be that we need to take situations like this in stride and recognize that they will happen, and design the system in such a way that these situations do not escalate into something bigger than they need to be. Viewed in that light, I think The System worked fairly well overall (though I would have preferred that it worked on someone else).

My biggest concern about the whole incident is what happens to the report that was filed as a result of the positive explosives test; not being one to have much faith in the government, I’m not at all convinced that “nothing” is going to happen to the document. Insofar as there are other risks here, I think the biggest one is the personal shock that may come from being suddenly yanked out of line and subjected to a more intensive screening process.

As to some specific comments…

Thomas: “The question is whether or not this system the best we can do for the cost (money/convenience/liberty).” I agree. After having had about a week to think about it, I’ve come to the tough-to-swallow conclusion that it is the best we can do for the relative costs. The whole thing seems excessive but on further reflection, as I said, it’s tough to argue against any one aspect of it. It pains my libertarian soul to say this, but this may be about as good as we’re going to get.

One final risk comes to mind: Because this event was related to airport security, and because we’re used to thinking of airport security as being mostly useless, we run the risk of writing off those procedures which actually do result in a net increase in safety to the traveling public.

New gambling opportunity

Dear Lazyweb,

I miss this show. Fox totally caved when yanking it off the air, and CityTV hasn’t had it for donkey’s years (buncha cowards and/or philistines). It was, like, the best thing ever — and became even more magnificent after a night shift when you couldn’t sleep but were too tired to make any sort of coherent sense out of what you were seeing.

Please help me find copies of it again; I will be your bestest friend for ever and ever.

Love,
Dr. Hazmat

Update below.


I went back and re-read all the negative commentary about
Banzai from places like Asian Media Watch and I honestly don’t understand any of it. I got teased when I was a kid, too, I don’t think it was a function of TV or movies or anything else — I think it was a function of pinheads. Eventually you get past it, or you don’t, and one of the benefits of getting past it is that you get to take responsibility for your own sense of self-worth and stop paying attention to what other people say about you, particularly if those things are baseless. Banzai was pretty clearly parody from the moment you saw it; I guess the reason it was offensive had to do with fake accents and the fact that it was even less plausible and more absurdist than, say, Takeshi’s Castle (which seems to enjoy an inexplicable popularity and still manages to escape comment from organizations like AMW).

The media element that has offended me most as a nominal ethnic in the last decade was probably The Last Samurai, for most of the same reasons why I thought films like The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile were mildly offensive — because it suggested that minorities had some kind of redemptive power that exists solely to better white people, usually misguided white men. Spike Lee, among others, refers to this as the “magic nigger” movie and it drives me fucking bananas (ha ha — get it?). Having Tom Cruise be redeemed by his co-option of traditional Japanese culture (which, by the way, he had set out to destroy in the first part) was offensive; having it be suggested that he then became the embodiement of that culture was another thing entirely. Why The Last Samurai gets a pass in this department and Banzai, or, for that matter, Lost In Translation gets nailed for having negative stereotypes is a total fucking mystery to me.

Hip hip hooray!

End of General Availability for MIPS IRIX Products:

SGI launched the MIPS IRIX family of products in 1988. Since then, this technology has powered servers, workstations, and visualization systems used extensively in Manufacturing, Media, Science, Government/Defense, and Energy. After nearly two decades of leading the world in innovation and versatility, the MIPS IRIX products will end their general availability on December 29, 2006.

Of course, SGI is replacing IRIX in its systems with… Linux. (I don’t know what happened to the great NT experiment.) So it’s hard to say whether this constitutes an actual improvement or not, though it does bring to mind jwz‘s comment about “being fucked over merely by a soulless megacorp, rather than a bunch of teeangers who think my desktop is their learning experience.”

Then I think about IRIX 5.x (“yeah, you shouldn’t use the version of cc that came with the operating system, because it’s really buggy, and good luck getting gcc installed, okloveyoubye!”), and shudder.

Am I a bad person for reaching the point where I like my Windows laptop more and more?