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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Fine Line Between Indignity and Inanity, or, The Travails of Travel

I was thinking over recent events related to travel while basking in a hot shower this morning and the difference small things can make to the general impression of a trip. I recently returned from a very pleasant trip to Seattle. I had a great trip out on the Empire Builder. The train arrived early, the accommodations were very nice, the food good; it was very relaxing. Seattle itself was its usual charming and wet self, but the rain made itself known mostly when I wasn't outside walking around (or perhaps I was just clever enough to schedule myself around it.) The museums were all spectacular and everything was fun, public transportation making it easy and inexpensive to get around.

The return trip on a new American Airlines 737-800 was as to be expected, overbooked, very full, cramped (the poor tall fellow next to me in the middle seat suffering from a cold which he indelicately managed to transfer to me) spent the four-hour flight with his knees in his nose after the girl in front of him reclined her seat all the way. (Why do we need to have seats that recline, anyway?) He never complained (no doubt being a seasoned and hardened traveler used to the indignity of it all.) The flight entertainment system was quite good, and I had some nice NC earphones, so my suffering was no worse than usual.

The worst part of any flight now, as every traveler knows, is the airport and TSA. From the moment you set foot in the terminal you realize that everyone (even other passengers) views you as the "enemy" and potential terrorist. Loudspeaker messages remind you to constantly be vigilant for unattended bags, people nervously eye others (especially those of darker skin or wearing a turban; interminable lines where dogs walk up the lines sniffing for explosives, currency, drugs and probably also liquids over three ounces (give me a chemist and I'll show you how to create a problem in less than three ounces.)

After waiting patiently in line for 30 minutes and removing belt, shoes, and emptying pockets so I could be body scanned, my carry on was selected for hand search. No problem, I always arrive at the airport at least three hours early -- that's what Kindles and laptops are for, right? Of course, that meant extra waiting until the surliest TSA rep showed up. (One dares not try to be friendly or joke with these guys, that's guaranteed to make them suspicious, after all you are a potential terrorist.)

Now, I like to avoid buying plastic bottles whenever possible, and I had my usual container with less than 3 ounces of Mt. Dew (it's a clear bottle) in my bag, intending to fill it up with water later (I was trying to ration my doses of caffeine). The guy holds it up, looks at me clearly disapprovingly; after all, I'm white, 70-years-old, with a beard so clearly a threat, and wanted to know what it was. Not wanting to make a problem, I offered to drink the contents right there. I was informed that in order to do so I would have to exit security and drink it outside security and then go through security again. Or, throw the bottle in the trash (well he would, I wasn't allowed to touch anything.) So much for that bottle. I have racked my brain trying to figure out how we are safer by drinking the contents outside security, just making more work for them but having to process me all over again. But what the hey.

Now I enjoy flying, i.e. being in a plane as it goes up and down, but the airport experience has gotten so ridiculous, the inane approaching indignity, that from now on it's car or train (I'd have to be chained and dragged on to a bus -why aren't there luxury non-stop buses with wi-fi and snacks to get places?) When the airport experience (I do hate that word) becomes so inane that it approaches the ridiculous, it's time to get off.

Review: Back to Bologna by Michael Dibdin

If you like Aurelio Zen novels, this book might disappoint you. If you enjoy Michael Dibdin, you’ll love this story. Aurelio is really just a peripheral character. He’s recovering from surgery and trying to fix his relationship with Jenna. (Reading some of the earlier novels first would be useful.) Dibdin’s goal in this wickedly funny and cynical view of Italian academia and upper crust is to skewer the phoniness of the elites and famous. Lots of in jokes including a hidden appearance of Umberto Eco disguised as Eduardo Ugo as a semiotics professor which gives you an idea of Dibdin’s humor.

I suggest reading some of the earlier books in the series and Googling “Ruritania.” The crime is irrelevant and plays second fiddle to Dibdin’s irreverent look at Italiana and gentle spoofing of Italian detective stories. Dibdin has a way with words that often brings a smile to one’s face.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: After the First Death by Lawrence Block

Another reissue of a Block classic that was originally published in 1969. A man wakes in a hotel room only to discover he is covered in blood and there is a dead girl he has apparently murdered while in an alcoholic haze. He had done this before, and had, in fact, just been released from prison for the murder of another prostitute. He was sure of his innocence the first time; now he’s not sure of what he might have done. Could he have done it again?

A lot of Block’s later themes are beginning to show in this book which has the elements of sixties romanticism: the hooker with the heart of gold; redemption, and the Hollywood ending with a slight twist. But it’s a good story even though lacking some of the subtleties of Black’s later work. Very pleasant airplane read.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

United Airlines 3411: A Case Study in Linkages

The United Airlines fiasco will surely go down as a case study in how not to do things. It had all the elements of potential disaster, and the restriction on Chicago Aviation Authority officers (they were not Chicago police officers) not being permitted to carry guns may be the only thing that prevented a death that would have made the episode considerably worse. As with many disasters it’s rarely one factor that causes the event; it’s the piling on or linkage of several mistakes that when compounded inevitably lead to failure.

1. Passengers were fully seated, any overbooking had been taken care of at the gate, as it should be, and the plane was apparently close to push back and under control of the captain.
-The first problem arose when four United employees approached the agent and said they had to be in Louisville for a flight. (There is some uncertainty about what flight that was, but one report said it was to be the next afternoon.)
-The agent had several options at this point:
--Tell them to grab a different flight
--Bump four seated passengers to accommodate the employees
--Arrange for alternative transportation to Louisville by limo (that option seems to have occurred to no one) which was only 5 hrs by car and would have cost far less than the $3200 they were willing to pay bumped passengers. It would have certainly be exponentially less than the resulting firestorm.
--The agent chose to bump passengers.

2.The second problem arose when no one wanted to accept the voucher offer. (Note that vouchers suck. They come with all sorts of restrictions.
-Options open to the agent:
--Offer cash in increasing amounts (not sure if United/Republic policy offered this as an option)
--Offer cash instead of a voucher
--Force removal of four passengers
--Reported at first to be random, it was then said they used a sophisticated algorithm. How that formula made the choices has not been revealed and certainly was unknown to the passengers. Had it been, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
Three passengers reluctantly decided to leave rather than face forced removal which apparently was made as a threat. One passenger did not.

3.Problem three
-Someone (the agent?) called in security
-Questions remain.
--What were the officers (they were not Chicago police but Airport Security) told.
---Their reaction may well have been dictated by what they were told. Was this passenger a security risk? Was he unruly? Why was he being removed?

4.Problem four: Who was told what and who was in charge?
-An investigation needs to be made into just what they were told and their perception of who was in charge.
--Was the captain aware of the commotion in the cabin?
--Who was in charge of the officers?
--What were they told to do?

-All of these things had a bearing on the outcome.

5. Training
-The level of force was clearly excessive.
--How had the officers been trained to deal with the situation?
--How do you get a concussion, broken nose, and lose two front teeth by being dragged out of an airline seat?
I have a suspicion - item e is not supported by any evidence so it’s purely speculative -- that the following sequence occurred
Officers drag the man off the plane. He looks unconscious so may have hit his head (or been hit on the head)
Officers lose control of the man in the jetway or at the gate (!!!!!! how could that happen with three of them?)
Man runs back on the plane uttering incoherent statements (Kill me, I want to go home - let’s not forget he had escaped from Vietnam)
--The plane is emptied of passengers ostensibly to clean up the blood.
---The man is beaten to subdue him by the officers in the back of the plane. That’s when most of the injuries occurred.
---The man is taken off in a stretcher to the hospital.

6.Attitudinal Issues
-Post 9/11 passengers are treated as the “enemy” and as “potential terrorists” as soon as they enter the airport. Certainly TSA regards them as such and everyone in the airport is warned about strangers and unattended bags, etc., checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, searched, x-rayed, etc. This has infected the way crew view the passengers. They are considered as possible terrorists - --All of them. I think this is very important in causing the result on flight 3411.
-The United CEO had just replaced a CEO forced to resign because of his connection to the Bridgegate scandal. He wanted to be seen as supportive of the employees and not reflexively dismissive of their actions.

7. PR Missteps
-The United CEO made statements without being in possession of all (or one wonders, any) of the facts. The United PR department should be fired en masse for their bad advice.
-The second “apology” was horrible in its use of a new euphemism (re-accomodate) that simply inflamed a bad situation. Here again, waiting to collect all the information should be mandatory. Some thinking before speaking might also be useful.
-The final apology was a good one, but considering that the videos had gone viral in China where United wants to have a larger presence, seemed disingenuous and stemmed more from a fear of what the impact might be on their business in China, so its positive impact was lessened considerably.

8. Who was in charge?
-The episode gave the impression that no one was in charge.
--The pilot? Ultimately he needs to take some responsibility as he is presumably in charge of the plane. He had the authority to step in at any point and just say “stop” until things could be figured out.
--The gate agent? s/he presumably had authority to manipulate the amounts offered to passengers. Was s/he under pressure to keep the amounts as low as possible?
--The flight attendants? Couldn’t they have stopped the action at any point? Did they believe they had no authority to do so?
--Does United empower its employees to fix problems?
--The security officers? Did they assume they were in charge because they represented power and force? Again. What were they told about the ostensible threat and who told them? It seems not unreasonable their actions were governed to some extent by what they had been told and their perception of the event.

Note that at any point if someone had stepped in and said “stop let’s sit down and talk about this” or examined their options, the disaster would not have occurred. Clearly the passengers all felt cowed and the United employees unempowered. Each assumed someone else would make everything right. As in Charles Perrow’s excellent book, Normal Accidents*, breaking any one of the links in a coupled system will always prevent disaster. Someone has to break that link.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Hang Fire by Henry Kisor

I have read all the previous books in the Steve Martinez series. Steve is a Lakota Indian working as a deputy sheriff (now sheriff) in the Upper Peninsula. I’ve also read all of Kisor’s non-fiction books and I’ve enjoyed everything immensely. This one seemed a bit off to me. Perhaps it was the absence of Gina, or the potential relationship with Sue, or that he is now in charge, I don’t know. It’s still very entertaining. It concerns the murders of several people, some apparent accidents, using relic smooth bore rifles. The killer is expert with the antiques and we get to see into the mind, such as it is, of the religious zealot, but her motivations are never very clear to me. Still, I liked the sense of place and the prosaic nature of the investigations. On to the next in the series.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Review: Swiss Spy by Alex Gerlis

Henry is on his way back to Switzerland from Britain. It’s 1939 and he’s stopped at the border before getting on his flight. Edgar, a member of the British Secret Service then blackmails him into spying for them. After some training he’s sent back to Switzerland through France where he is to wait for more instructions. In France, however, Henry circuitously and surreptitiously sneaks away briefly to meet with his Russian handlers. Turns out he’s a Russian spy and his handlers now think they control a double agent. But then we learn the British are fully aware of Henry’s relationship with the Russians. Add a Jewish woman and her daughter hiding from the Gestapo and the plot thickens beyond stew.

I love complicated spy thrillers.

Review: Family of Spies by Pete Early

Another of those must reads after watching the eponymous movie. I have this need to always find out what really happened, i.e., what verity there might be in the dramatic film version compared to real life. Some background reading revealed that John A. Walker’s achievements were monumental. The Soviets could read our communications but not break the code until Walker gave them the code cards. But that was only half of the puzzle. The North Korean hijacking of the Pueblo in 1968 gave them the machine (whether that was the intent of the hijacking remains an interesting speculation.) Why the U.S. didn’t change all its codes after the hijacking baffles me, but they didn’t, and the Soviets could read all the U.S. military traffic until 1980 when the system was changed. That was millions of coded messages. “K-mart store has better security than the U.S. Navy,” John told the author in one of his interviews.

This is the extraordinary story of John Walker who, as a Navy warrant officer, passed vital secrets to the Russians, not out of any political conviction, but purely for the money. He successfully enlisted his friends and relatives in his operation. This went on for more than twenty years. And he would never have been caught except John’s maltreatment of his wife. In fact, the FBI initially discounted Barbara’s revelations much as they ignored the information they had on the 9/11 attackers. John soon realized their ineptitude. “I began to realize that the FBI is not like it is on television. You see, the FBI doesn’t really do any investigating. It doesn’t know how to investigate. The FBI is not powerful at all because its agents are really just bureaucrats and they have the same inherent ineptitude of all government bureaucrats. All they do is spend their days waiting for some snitch to call them and turn someone in. That’s how they operate, and I was beginning to sense that.”

I have always said that the danger to an institution is more likely to come from within (this applies to computer facilities and well as American society - especially with Trump now on the loose.) Of course, that is the danger inherent in trust and it’s virtually impossible to live in a society devoid of trust so the balance between trust and openness and self-protection is a delicate one. “Perhaps it is time for intelligence experts to rethink this central concept of attitudinal loyalty, this idea that Americans don’t betray their country to foreign powers the way that Europeans are perceived to do quite regularly. We trust our citizens to an extent that is almost unknown in history and unheard of in most other countries. This is as it should be. However, we live in a society where money is no longer a mere commodity, but a sacrament. Money is power, possessions, persona, sex, and status.”

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Review: Black Orchestra by JJ Toner

Lt. Kurt Muller, nephew of the infamous Reinhold Heydrich, reports for work at the Abwehr one morning only to discover the body of his colleague, an ostensible suicide. It was certainly a peculiar way to kill oneself, pointing the gun to the back of his head before pulling the trigger. Odd indeed and Kurt starts asking a few questions, wondering why the Kripo is taking such little interest in the case. He’s soon promoted to the translation section where they receive all incoming signals which are then translated and distributed. The Gestapo takes an interest in Kurt’s meddling and it’s only because of his relationship to Heydrich that he’s not shot.

Kurt is sent to Ireland, where he was born, to find out what happened to their Irish agents. There he learns of the “Black Orchestra,” originally a college chess club, to which his father (his mother was German) and several others now prominent in the Abwehr had belonged. He finds himself enmeshed in a vicious political battle to take down Hitler but also for control of the Reich’s security forces orchestrated by his uncle.

It’s often a convoluted story with a few gaps but a fun read that barrels along.

Some nice similes: :”Our conversation was like a loose clutch” i.e., slow to start and jerky.”

Review: Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

What if you suspected that an ostensible suicide was really a murder, but one of the “locked room” variety and it might have been cleverly designed in a way so that you, as a detective inspector who had already solved a different locked room puzzle, would never considered the new murder as a locked room riddle because the real world likelihood of being faced with two such enigmas was completely improbable. |

And yet, according to Bayes’ Theorem which describes “the probability of an event, based on prior knowledge of conditions that might be related to the event,” the fact that you knew of the previous locked room investigation might influence how you view the current one. Whew.

McGinty comes through once again with an excellent addition to the Sean Duffy series, this one #5 read by a favorite reader Gerard Doyle. Lily Bigelow’s death seemed to be a suicide; no other solution appeared possible and yet the forensic evidence pointed in a different direction. But who would want to kill her? And why?

Duffy’s tenacity pays off in his usual sardonic and winsome manner even as he has to inspect underneath his car for an IRA bomb. It’s 1987 and there are the usual tensions between the police and everyone else although they aren’t as prominent as in others of the series. Several of the books have darkly hinted to being the last of Sean Duffy and this one is no exception (fortunately there is a #6).

Excellent read, but four stars instead of five because I felt it wasn’t quite as compelling as the previous books in the series, but I eagerly await diving into the sixth (Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.) Note that this one stands alone better than the first three of the series.