July 21, 2011: The news networks are abuzz with a threat to power plants coming from committed terrorists. Apparently some know bad guy has worked in several nuclear plants and has passed security checks. One would think that, were the government to put as much resource into police work as it does into harassing airplane passengers, these guys would be found out.

 

July 11, 2011: Radio reports that, after a Jet Blue flight from Boston landed at Newark yesterday, a Stun Gun was found in a seat pocket. TSA incompetence is outed once more.

 

I have been reading books about the relationship between the hoods in Southie and Medfore (Bulger, Flemmi, Salemme, etc.): Howie Carr’s ‘The Brothers Bulger’ and ‘Hit Man’ and ‘Black Mass…’ by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neil. These are not kind to the FBI (sister agency of the TSA), nor to Whitey’s brother Billy, or to Mike Dukakis. I was amused by a judge in Boston dismissing Dukakis during the 1998 election cycle: ‘How is he going to stand up to the Russians if he can’t stand up to a corrupt midget from South Boston?

 

June 28, 2011: Brookline is at it again. Closed the same section of St. Paul Street for Rush Hour. I went through at 8:30 and they were working on a water pipe that crosses the street. I wonder if they had given any thought to maybe waiting an hour or so to let commuters get through. Ah! but that would presume thought on the part of our public servants…

 

And while on public servants, the FBI finally caught James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, who had been on the lam since 1995. There is a lot of speculation that people within the FBI actually knew where he had been, and they finally decided to bring him out of the cold, either because he is old enough and notorious enough that they won’t be able to bring him to trial or because there are enough young guys within the Bureau, who were not tainted by the corruption that put him on the lam in the first place, that the jig was about to be up anyway.

 

The talk show I listen to in the morning is run by a former speaker of the Massachusetts Great and General Court and himself a felon. Recently he has been getting calls suggesting, in intemperate and largely incoherent fashion, that crooks like Whitey Bulger and politicians like his kid brother Billy are all the same. The Felon takes umbrage at that, saying he knows Billy well and that, in his opinion, Billy is not a crook. Well, we can take one felon’s word for it that a fellow politician is not a crook, but it occurs to me that there may be a good basis for equating the two. Mobsters like Whitey and politicians like Finneran (the felon) and Billy do have something in common: they don’t do economic transactions, but resort to coercion to do their transactions. Remember, and economic transaction is one in which both sides come away better than before. I buy a car: I get a car and the car dealer makes some money. We both enter the transaction voluntarily. On the other hand, I pay the government taxes not because I value what the government does (which I do, in some cases) but because if I don’t, I spend time in Club Fed. People paid Whitey protection money, not because he gave them any protection, but because if they didn’t he would break their legs (or worse).

 

On the flip side of this is that some transactions carried out by criminals actually are economic in nature: cocaine, heroin, marijuana, gambling and some prostitution are all voluntary transactions. But they are illegal for reasons that people try to articulate to me, but they have never quite made the case.

 

June 23, 2011: Trip to Baltimore. The TSA was running only one lane and that had a nude-o-scope. I asserted to the TSA person that I thought they had given up on running these things, after all of the kerfluffle about them a few months ago. In return she asked ‘Don’t you want to feel safe?’ My retort was not strong enough, but I told her, and she did not respond, that they hadn’t yet caught a terrorist. (Which I believe to be true). I should also have added that the activities of the TSA do not do anything to make me feel safer.

 

Same day the feds caught some fellow who was preparing to shoot up, in the name of Islam, some military base out west. I don’t know if this was a good catch or a PR stunt on the part of the FBI. But, just think, if the feds put as much effort into police work to detect and track down terrorists as they do in harassing innocent air passengers, they could catch a lot more of them and, possibly, save some lives. I say possibly since there have been no successful terrorist attacks in the US for quite some time now.

 

June 21, 2011: This morning the town of Brookline chose to block a section of St. Paul street to do some plumbing work. They did this just before the morning rush hour. This is the same road on which they set up a bike lane. The bike lane is regularly blocked by badly parked delivery vehicles and is not cleaned so it has leaves and other crap in the way, so it is useless as a bike lane. But it also means that there is no right turn lane at the intersection with Commonwealth Avenue. Boston owns the traffic light there, and there is a right turn arrow. But cars still idle because some want to go straight.

 

June 12, 2011: A few weeks ago, one of my graduate students, who is from China, was in the American Consulate in Shanghai to renew his student visa. They at first told him it would take a few days, but then for some reason demanded a whole pile of documents and then told him it would take at least three weeks. This is problematic for me since the fellow was supposed to lead a group building an experiment this summer. When I asked for the reason for this by email, I got this from the consulate:

Sir, the application is required to go through administrative processing.  There is no alternative.

So then I asked them to let me speak to a responsible person who could make decisions, and they directed me to the public inquiries division of the State Department. They were even good enough to give me an email address for that division.

I wrote to that email address with what I believed to be a fairly polite inquiry, asking why my graduate student was being held up: was there something I should know? In response I got a note telling me that all inquiries about visas in process should go to the consulate.

So now my government has two offices, both of which are telling me to talk to the other one: neither will speak with me and both say that the issue is out of its hands. Really remarkable circular finger pointing. And neither would even tell me their names. The United States can’t issue a routine student visa renewal in less than a month, and when a US citizen and taxpayer makes a simple inquiry he is treated like a mushroom. This is embarrassing. I have applied for and gotten visas from several countries: Egypt, China (twice), Japan (back when that was necessary) and India. None of them were as bad or bureaucratic as the United States. The Indian folks even called me to discuss what I had done wrong and how to fix the problem.

I also approached my congressman. His local staff called me to ask about the problem, but the fellow there got no further with the consulate in Shanghai than did I. But he was careful to redact the name of the consular employee.

So, between the TSA and the State Department, I am not very happy with the federal government.

 

November 11, 2010

Yesterday I had my first encounter with one of those new terahertz scanners: the machines that are supposed to give a good view through clothing so that things that won't set off metal detectors can be seen by screeners. There was no problem with the machine, but the demeanor and demands of the staff were unacceptable. Unless the TSA changes its policies and instructions to its staff, the number of travelers going by air will decline, and that will hurt the airlines, who don't need this.

 

This machine uses a part of the electromagnetic spectrum, between visible light and radio waves, that does not interact strongly with fabric and so can 'see through' clothing. Because it can see a lot more than a metal detector it could be used in a way that is a lot less intrusive: the traveler should be instructed to pause while in the middle of the thing and go on. But the TSA people seem to want to use the existence of this machine to be far more intrusive than they have in the past: everything out of your pockets, including plastic pens and paper that have never before been a problem. Then they pose the traveler carefully and, when  out of the machine he or she must wait until the attendants decide to do a 'pat down' (that is frisk the traveler). That didn't happen to me (a 65 year old white guy who was obviously annoyed), but I understand that the TSA 'pat down' is getting to be pretty aggressive -- to the point where it is bothering even pilots. (Why do they bother to search pilots anyway?)

 

The behavior and treatment of passengers by TSA personnel has been moving only in one direction, and that is to be more intrusive. First it consisted of screening carry-on bags and walking travelers through the metal detector, with a follow on of finding out why the machine beeped, if it did. Then, after some bright terrorist thought to hide a bomb in his shoes, it was shoes off and through the detector. After another bright terrorist threatened to make a bomb that could be hidden in a water bottle, travelers can take only small quantities of toothpaste and such and lay them out on the screening conveyor. Now, after a would be terrorist tried to hide a bomb in his underwear,  the TSA is using the terahertz scanner to take naked pictures of the traveler and making the whole process very intrusive and annoying. Follow this trajectory and the behavior of some of the middle east bomb makers and where it lands is a full strip search, including body cavities. The TSA probably is thinking of the frog in a pot paradigm, where if you try to put a frog in a pot of hot water he will jump out, but if you put a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and subsequently heat the water slowly, you will have a cooked frog. I doubt they are right about this: sooner or later the traveling public will stop putting up with them.

 

If the TSA is not moderated, air travel will suffer. Many people will stop riding in airliners, and that will hurt the airlines.

 

March 6, 2010: Today the President of the United States spent his whole weekly radio address on his health care proposal. Told us a whole bunch of good things would happen to health insurance. This was the usual stuff about how insurance companies would be required to do a whole lot of expensive things like cover anyone, even people who are already sick, not have annual or lifetime limits to coverage, and so forth. Then he repeated the canard that ‘if you like your current health care plan, you can keep it’. What if you have and like a health care plan that doesn’t have all of these required coverages? Probably part of why you like it is it is not as expensive as plans that DO have those coverages. He didn’t mention that. Makes me wonder which of the things he says I can believe.

 

Also today (yesterday, actually, but it was in the papers today), Hugo Chavez’ buddy and congressman Bill Delahunt announced he wasn’t going to run for re-election. Said it had nothing to do with politics. Nothing to do with the election of Senator Brown. Nothing to do with the sour mood of the public over Mr. Obama’s attempt to use the Democrats to ram through congress his health care program. Nothing to do with that college professor who blew away three colleagues over a tenure decision in Alabama. Same woman who, several years ago in Quincy, killed a relative with a shotgun, tried to hold up a car dealership and got away with all of this at a time when Delahunt was District Attorney. Yea, Right.

 

October 29, 2009: So how long has it been since the Boston University Bridge has been partially out of order? Anyway, a couple of days ago they put up Jersey barriers to reduce the width to two lanes. There may be work going on out of sight, but nothing is being done in the newly cleared area. This is causing traffic jams on both sides of the bridge. I wonder if the geniuses in Congress really want the nation’s health care to be put in charge of the same sort of people who are running its infrastructure.  The radio this morning reported that that ageing bimbo who is Speaker of the House will introduce today her health care bill. It will cost a Terabuck and will coerce everyone in the country to buy a health insurance policy. It also has that Trojan Horse provision of a ‘Public Option’: an insurance company supported by taxes. And Mr. Obama says he won’t sign anything that increases the national deficit. Yea, Right…

 

Last Friday, the President of the United States gave a speech in Kresge. It was a short speech about energy. It was really given here to justify using Air Force One to bring him here for a fund raiser for Deval Patrick, who is likely to be unelected next year. Anyway, MIT disrupted all of its activities: forbidding even pedestrians in the main lot for most of the day. It was a dry day so I came in on my bicycle and found that not all of the main lot was fenced off as the parking people had told me, so I was able to get to a grade level entry at Building 4. And something else good happened: the place was deserted (I guess because most other people here decided they couldn’t get to work, and they didn’t do any work on the Great Dome so the crane that they set up outside my office wasn’t running. I had forgotten what it was like without that big diesel engine running right  outside. The President’s speech was AT MIT, but not really TO MIT as only about 200 seats were allocated to MIT people. The rest of the auditorium was devoted to the press and to people invited by the White House (My guess is to contributors to the Patrick campaign, although MIT insists that no tickets were sold). I think it unbecoming of a great institution like MIT to serve as an excuse for this kind of political corruption, but then, I don’t run the place.

 

December 4, 2008: The folks who are working on the Boston University (Cottage Farm) bridge seem to have gone away again, leaving a mess. There are still jersey barriers that reduce the inbound side to one lane, causing traffic problems in the evening, and the sidewalk on that side is inaccessible (actually, nonexistent). A few weeks ago there were people working there, at least during morning rush hour,  and they were causing serious traffic problems then, too. They even half blocked the outbound side of the bridge. But now they are gone again. One wonders when they will finish with whatever they are doing. 

 

All this time we are enjoying the spectacle of the argument about turnpike and bridge and tunnel tolls. The Turnpike Authority wants a big toll increase (seven bucks to get to the airport!) and the people who have to use the harbor crossings and merchants in East Boston are really concerned. (Maybe ‘concerned’ is an inadequate word.)

 

There have been interesting stories about traffic congestion in the local press recently. I had long said that I thought the ‘big dig’ was the result of a conspiracy between Michael Dukakis, when he was Governor, and Fred Salvucci, who was as I remember, ‘Transportation Secretary’. According to my conspiracy theory, these two guys wanted to, and apparently achieved, taking all of the funds available for road work and spending them in ways that would not improve traffic flow. Thus the deterioration of the bridges across the river and all around the state. If the newspapers are to be believed, Salvucci has admitted this, (that is, that he knew before the project started that the central artery and third harbor tunnel would not improve rush hour commute times for almost all drivers), but puts it in terms of a lack of investment in public transportation.

 

December 3, 2008: It was very good to see the Moslems of India demonstrating against the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. It is long past time the good people of that religion (and obviously there are many good people of that religion) disavow the bad guys who murder and destroy in the name of that religion.  Now, will Pakistan give up the directors of that terrorist organization?

 

September 27, 2008: The Weekend Journal has a column by Peggy Noonan (my favorite columnist at the present time) that comments on the TSA and its reign of annoyance on air travelers. “Why do we do this when you know I am not a terrorist and you know that I know you know that I am not a terrorist?” What I would like to know is this: why does the TSA continue to exist, given that they have yet to actually catch a terrorist and that they cause so much trouble to the traveling populace? And that they cost us so much money?

 

This may not be of much interest right now, with the markets melting down as congress fiddles. My representative in congress is Barney Frank, one of the principal actors in the current drama. But he is also one of the principal villains. Barney was a defender of Fannie/Freddie and, if I have it right, one of the folks who facilitated their existence and freedom from any level of regulation. And Barney was clearly one of those folks in Congress who insisted that banks erase their redlines and extend home loans to everyone, including those who could not pay the loans back. Now, when this is coming home to roost, Barney has the balls to blame the lenders for all of the defaults. This is dishonesty to the extreme.

 

I think Barney and his sidekick, the ageing bimbo from San Francisco, should both resign from Congress. And they should have their pensions revoked (something like the ‘golden parachutes’ they so deride.) We have been very badly served by these people, and they owe us.

 

September 20, 2008 So, as I understand it, the federal government is going to bail out all of the banks and other financial institutions that bought bad mortgage backed securities by buying those securities ‘at a discount’ from those institutions. According to Barney Frank, they expect to make money on this exercise by waiting three years and selling those securities at a profit. One wonders, if this were possible (and predictable) why could not those institutions do exactly the same thing? (That is, just wait three years when the securities would be liquid.) I expect that we taxpayers will be paying for this exercise, just like we will be paying for the other half trillion dollars of expenditures the Treasury and Fed have made this week. There have been a couple of good editorial pieces in the Wall Street Journal yesterday and today about the accounting rule that has played a major role in this crisis. The banks are required to ‘mark to market’ the value of these securities, which have become quite illiquid recently, even if most of the loan portfolio reflected in the securities is still performing. The discounted stream of revenue may be substantially greater than the immediate sale value for those securities. After all, most people are paying their mortgages, so these securities can hardly be worthless.

 

Anyway, I wonder: since as a taxpayer I am going to be paying for this mess, should I stop paying on my mortgage? Maybe the feds will just bail me out…

  

September 17,  2008 The geniuses who are working on the BU bridge have taken to using orange cones to reduce it to one lane in each direction. When they do this at rush hour it tends to form a Boston Square at the Commonwealth Avenue end of the bridge, because the average driver around here is even dumber than the folks working on the bridge. This morning I even saw a cop car participate in this, by driving part way across the street, blocking the exit from the jug handle. Fortunately I was on my bike this morning.

 

MIT is painting window frames. This year they are using two of those man-lift things: a working platform on a mobile crane. They have taken to blocking off parts of the sidewalk, bike path and whole areas of the parking lot in unpredictable ways with absolutely no regard for those of us who work there.  One wonders if this might be something that could be done during non-working hours, so that it would cause less disruption.

 

September 11, 2008 One wonders, amongst all of the grief and hand wringing, where is the anger? Seven years ago today, an bunch of Arabs murdered nearly three thousand people in New York and DC.  Our reaction has been underwhelming. The bad guys are still at large and we Americans are still wringing our hands in grief and helplessness while Osama Bin Laden is living the high life in rural Pakistan. It is very difficult to sustain good humor under these circumstances. The problem is that GW is doing too little while the Democrats suggest that he is doing too much. By now the World Trade Center should be back to 2X 110 stories and Afghanistan should be facing the bill for the restoration. And about 3,000 wrongful death lawsuits at maybe 2 mil apiece. I understand the problem: Afghanistan would say it doesn’t have that kind of money. Too bad. We should take what they do have and let them worry about their next meal. Maybe Saudi can help them. A decent respect for the opinion of mankind should have sent a bunch of American trial lawyers led by John Edwards to persecute the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan.

 

The fact of the matter is that the bad guys won. They knocked down the World Trade Center, an object that the resented because it represented the peace and prosperity that comes from a free, liberal society. Rather then rebuilding the WTC immediately, we wrung our hands and started a regime in which we treat everyone as if he or she is a terrorist. Today we can’t carry on an airplane even toothpaste (not to mention duty free wine or perfume) or our swiss army knife (if you are not an engineer, you don’t understand how much of a problem this is). To date, seven years out, the TSA has yet to catch a single terrorist, despite the serious annoyance and real disturbance to most travelers in, to and from the US. So the Moslem terrorists have caused us to treat each other as terrorists, have disrupted our normal civic feelings toward each other, and have survived what should have been our reaction to their assaults. By now, the world trade center should have been rebuilt as two 110 story buildings, the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan should have been presented with a bill for the reconstruction and for compensation for all of the people who were killed and hurt. What sayst thou, you political candidates? (Barney?, John?, John?, Barak?, Joe?, Sarah?)

 

September 10, 2008 The Boston University Bridge is still not fully open, and there does not seem to be a lot going on. What work there is seems to indicate that they are going to weld together and seal up all of the expansion joints. There is some possibility that they know something I don’t, but it is my guess that they don’t and that there will be serious problems with this bridge in the not too distant future. One only hopes that enough tracks will have been laid down that, when the bridge fails and people are injured or killed, that the at-fault folks can be held accountable.  Similar to this is Vassar Street. It will not fall down as may the Bridge, but it has a bicycle path that crosses several parking lot access points, and it is likely that this will cause an accident. Use caution while riding that piece of road, particularly westbound from Massachusetts Avenue.

 

September 9, 2008 (San Francisco) SFO is not as bad as CDG, but it is still the pits. The terminals are not connected together on the air side of security, so if you arrive at, say, Terminal 1 on Alaska and are connecting to its code share partner American (Terminal 3), you have to go back out to the insecure world and back through the indignities of TSA. This evening the guy who was checking passengers was a Russian.  Over to one side was one of those celebrated GE machines that puffs air and reports if there are any explosive particles on you. And that allows you to keep your shoes on. But it, like two of the four X-ray machines was not in service. Seems like they need a line of certain length to justify their existence.

 

I will vote for the first candidate who first declares that he will fire everyone who works for TSA on his first day in office (even if it is Obama). Fat chance. The thing is that I don’t think these guys (TSA)  do a whit for air transport security. And I think they know this too. They are in it for the simple pleasure of invoking discomfort on their fellow citizens.

 

August 24, 2008 (Paris)   All of Aerogare 2 is the pits. It was too small when it was built and now, some years later it is totally overloaded. And badly laid out. You have to already know where baggage claim is, because there is virtually no guidance when you get off the airplane. And when you get there you find the place is mobbed. The taxi stand outside has a small area for loading cabs and an officious woman who insists on loading only one cab at a time. Of course long lines build up, making the crowding worse. And then the airport exit necks down to one lane, so even on a Sunday afternoon there is a traffic jam to get out of the airport.

 

August 23, 2008 (Burgos)  Sociologists are fretting about the low birth rate in western Europe, particularly southern Europe. It is said that women are having fewer than the 2.1 children per required to maintain their numbers. Anecdotal observation in Spain and Portugal does not agree. There seem to be kids, particularly small kids, everywhere and in large numbers.  My guess is that we will see a shift in what the sociologists are saying, and now it will be concern about overpopulation in Europe.

 

August 20, 2008 (Bilbao)  The Guggenheim Museum here is a travesty from just about every perspective. The building itself is a Frank Geary creation, and like the Stata Center it exhibits a terrible use of enclosed volume. The place is enormous but has surprisingly little useful floor space. But what was disappointing was the contents of the building. Much of the floor space was devoted to several large steel sheets (typically about 5 cm thick and maybe four meters high) in shapes like spirals. The other works of ‘art’ were even less impressive, ranging from two big black squares painted on the wall to old dresses. I felt ripped off, having spent twenty five euros for two of us to tour the place. But I suppose the contents were roughly what one would expect of that building.  Silly and wanting of adult supervision.

 

August 13, 2008 (Porto, Portugal). Negative restaurant review. It is, of course, tourist season here and the joints along the riverfront are jammed. Went into a place at 40 and 42 Ribeira called, I think, Casa Filhao do Mae Preta. Took two hours  after the guy brought the wine before any food came. They were more interested in getting tables set up at the junk shop that had just closed next door then they were in feeding their patrons.

 

Autust 12, 2008 (Porto, Portugal). Drove here from Lisbon. Interesting that, in the world of $8 per gallon gasoline, they drive at near 100 miles per hour. (The speed limit is 120 km/h (75 MPH) but traffic moves at between 130 and 140, with the occasional Beamer of Mercedes going quite a bit faster.) But they behave well on the road: keeping to the right except for passing, not tailgating and generally being quite predictable.

 

August 4, 2008 (Madrid). Well, Air France didn’t get our bag on the flight from Paris to here, despite having a couple of hours of connection time. They delivered it this evening, just over a day late. One wonders about people who stay only one night in the hotel their first day in country: their bag might have chased them all over the continent. Anyway, a little forensics on the various tags left on the suitcase have convinced me the problem was with Air France rather than American.

 

August 3, 2008 (Roissey, France) Terminal 2F is the pits.  I haven’t been through CDG in a few years and never really liked this airport. It is poorly organized and chaotic. But the (relatively) new Air France terminal is just awful. Too small for the crowds: not enough seating. Acoustics are really terrible. Our flight from the US (AA 146) was two hours late because of something stuck in the baggage hold, so it turned out to be wise for us to have chosen the longer connection to Madrid. Turned out to have saved us a couple of hours in this lousy terminal too.

 

July 16, 2008     The State has closed half of the roadway crossing the B.U. (Cottage Farm) bridge from Cambridge to Boston, ostensibly for repairs. It is about time as that bridge is quite decrepit and desperately needs work. But they closed the bridge in mid May. No work has been done on it. Your public servants at work, with your tax money. It is causing really spectacular traffic jams at rush hour. Fortunately, with good weather I can take my bike to work, but I am sorry for the poor folks who are stuck in their cars.

 

The town of Brookline has made some important roadway changes to Beacon Street. At Coolidge Corner they even replaced the traffic lights. The old ones had an audible signal that informed “Walk light is on across Beacon Street and T tracks” or “Walk light is on across Harvard Street”. The new one says “Walk light is on…Walk light is on…” for both directions. I am amazed we haven’t killed a blind man yet. Maybe the town figured out that blind folks are smart enough to not trust the walk lights.

 

July 14, 2008     Another annoyance provided with your tax money. We arrived in San Juan on a flight from St. Maarten with a comfortable connection time to clear immigration and customs and go through the TSA charade. But then at Immigration there was some sort of a problem with my passport. So they grabbed the forms and took us to that office at the top of the stairs and said ‘wait over there’. No explanation. When I asked one of the (gun toting) officers ‘What is up?’ he said “Ask that guy”, indicating another person so inconvenienced. That fellow told me that the airline (American) must have spelled my name wrong. Why that should make any difference I don’t know. My flight coupons had my name spelled right (and the same as my passport). I have a valid US passport, issued in 2004, so there were no expiration issues. After about 40 minutes they called my name and said “you are all set” and gave me back my passport and customs form. So we hustled through the TSA thing and would have just made our flight back to Boston, but it turned out to be a bit more than an hour late. You can guess why: American didn’t have a pilot to fly it and had to bring a fellow down from DC.

 

September 19, 2006  At 7:45, Vassar street was open both ways, but the street closing and detour signs were  already up, and the construction guys were getting their stuff out. It looked as if the street would be closed by about 8:00, right in time for morning rush hour. The construction guys are gone by mid afternoon. If they shifted the work schedule back by an hour and a half they would miss both the morning and afternoon commute periods and make life a lot easier for several thousand people who work in the vicinity of MIT.

 

I am sure that has been thought of, but dismissed. If you are not inconvenienced coming to work, how will you know all of the good these folks are doing for you?

 

September 18, 2006 Poor Joe Ratzinger. The fellow just doesn’t get it. Quoted some fourteenth century guy who was critical of Mohammed, in the context of a longer speech. The Moslems of the world went nuts, saying he was disrespectful of the prophet, rioting in the streets, torching churches and even shooting a nun. Joe went and apologized, as if he had caused all of the problem himself. This ain’t good. Joe’s behavior, after making the initial insult, is simple appeasement.

  

The traffic light at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and the BU bridge access is still out. The construction guys and cops who guard them did well this morning. Vassar Street was backed up almost all the way to Westgate. It appears they are changing out the curbstones on Massachusetts Avenue and installing ‘Traffic Calming’ bulges in the sidewalk (taking away a few parking spaces). And for that little job they are doing a wonderful job of jamming up traffic.

 

Much talk in the news about spinach. Over 100 people have come down with e-coli infections over the past couple of weeks, and the food and drug people think it has to do with fresh (uncooked) spinach. They seem to be catching the same panic syndrome as homeland security, telling everyone to throw out any fresh spinach that might be in their icebox. Don’t wash it, don’t even cook it. Just throw it out. And this is even before they have definitively identified the source of the infection. Apparently they have identified a single company in California, but subsequent investigations have not turned up any of the cooties in their fields or equipment.

 

I think they know what is causing these infections and they just don’t want to identify it. Of course everyone knows that these particular cooties live in the guts of cattle and, of course, are in manure. Groundwater that is in the vicinity of cow manure will be contaminated with these cooties. Organic farming uses manure as fertilizer and groundwater for irrigation. So the problem is almost certainly ‘Organic’ farming. Just think: people who are paying more for ‘Organic’ produce are putting themselves at risk for a really bad case of food poisoning.

 

Maybe not that big a risk. How many people were killed in car accidents in the past two weeks?

 

September 16, 2006  Traffic around MIT is as chaotic now as it was at the end of the Spring term. Despite assurances that the last  time Vassar Street was closed would be the last (or was it Massachusetts Avenue?), they have done it again. Vassar Street behind MIT was closed to eastbound traffic yesterday morning. The first warning sign for those of us coming from the west was posted about 100 feet from the intersection. Cops didn’t do any good and traffic was backed up in all directions. Don’t know if the problem was that the guys doing the digging can’t get their act in order (as in fix what needs to be fixed while the street is open) or if they just like stopping traffic. Maybe it makes them feel important.

 

And speaking of that, I am told that MIT is going to go ahead with the Vest era Vassar Street project, from Massachusetts Avenue westward. This one will feature ‘traffic calming’ measures and the same idiotic bicycle lanes they installed east of Massachusetts Avenue. If a bicyclist is hurt because of the design of that bike lane, MIT is going to have a problem with a senior professor with good bike riding expertise testifying for the cyclist. The folks who designed the system have been yelled at and told what is wrong with their bike lane.

 

September 7, 2006     The International Herald Tribune reports that British Airways lost about 40 million  pounds due to the “Terror Alert” in August. They cancelled 1,280 flights to try to alleviate congestion at Heathrow and other airports in Britain. That congestion was caused, of course, by the panicky British Airport Authority. I have received a document, dated yesterday, describing what can and cannot be brought onto an airplane. It is very similar to what we saw a bit more than two weeks ago and it still reflects what looks like panic, not reasoned precaution. It has been postulated that what we are seeing is not panic or stupidity at all, but a calculated means of injecting fear into the flying public on the part of the government (in this case, Britain’s, but we all know who is calling the aviation shots). The reasoning here is that, first, the public equates inconvenience with safety (or can be made to) and that if the public is fearful enough that it can be controlled.

 

I disagree. I think the British Airport Authority is as stupid as the American TSA. They are just more civil about it.

 

 

 

August 31, 2006   Upon hearing that his customers were American, the waiter in the beach bar in Matala, Crete, described a firefight in Baghdad that killed 100 people. Probably a bit hyperbolic, but the next thing he said was more interesting: he declared “there are no musselmans here”. It seems to be true: in two weeks of touring in Greece we have not noticed anyone who was obviously moslem. I know that the greeks and the turks have not gotten along very well for some time, but it didn’t sound like this was the guy’s beef: he wasn’t talking about turks, but about iraqis.  I think he was reflecting a general distaste for muslims arising from the behavior of the more religious and less responsible amongst them, in particular the terrorist tendencies they are showing.

 

In the past the “Ugly American’”has been spoken of. But now the arrogance and aggressiveness of religious Islam may be exceeding even the ugly American, and the guy on the street (at least the greek street) is noticing.

 

 

August 30, 2006   In east-central Crete there is an agricultural valley known as the “Lassithi Plateau”. This area is about 800 meters above sea level, quite flat and said to be quite fertile. It is approached by a relatively small number of mountain roads and was fairly inaccessible until modern roads were built. Today is is rather bucolic and pleasant looking. It has one rather unusual feature: hundreds of derelict windmills. These things were apparently used for pumping water for irrigation. They are all over, just sitting there rusting.

 

This should give us some thought. These windmills are already built so the capital expense has been paid for, but they have been replaced by electric motors, presumably because the expense and trouble of maintaining them is too high. And pumping water must be the ideal use for wind energy: you size the wind turbine to the average amount of water you need (considering of course the wind conditions) and provide enough storage to handle the peaks and valleys in wind and usage. This area of Crete is said to be quite windy, by the way. So why have all of these paid for machines with free fuel been replaced?

 

It has been observed that reliability and maintenance of wind turbines is a major issue with large scale applications of this technology to electricity generation. As has been demonstrated with earlier wind technologies, this is something that will require a lot of our attention as we try to develop wind as a major source of electric power.

 

 

 

August 29, 2006   There was a bombing in Antalya, Turkey, yesterday that killed three people. This on top of four smaller incidents, one in Istanbul and three in Marmaris. The latter four caused injuries but no deaths. Two of the five incidents (one in Marmaris and the one in Istanbul) were claimed by Kurdish extremists. We don’t know anything about the others. The Kurds, who are generally secular moslems, have a bad history in Turkey for terrorism in pursuit of autonomy for their region or a country of their own. My opinion on the matter had been that W should have talked Turkey into giving them a bit of southeastern Turkey and combining that with the oil rich northern third of Iraq to form a Kurdistan that presumably would be friendly.

 

But not after this.

 

As to the other incidents – they were probably caused by religious moslems who are trying to damage the tourist industry in Turkey. Antalya (site of next year’s IEMDC) is apparently a popular destination for European tourists. I doubt it will work.

 

 

 

August 28, 2006    Today the Herald Tribune reports that the airplane bomb plot detected by the Brits was not very far along when they interrupted it by putting the bag on almost two dozen people. Apparently they felt their hands were tied by Pakistan’s arrest of some fellow who was tied up in it and they panicked. And then Mike Chertoff panicked too and air traveler’s can’t carry toothpaste in their checked bags. Toothpaste. The bad guys were experimenting with various types of explosives (what is HTMD?) and with  some Gatorade like sports drink called Lucozade. Despite the fact that a couple of the gang had made ‘martyrdome’ tapes, no airplane tickets had been purchased and some of them had not even applied for passports. The paper reports that some explosive materials were found hidden in a suitcase but does not report that any actual explosives had been made or tested. It looks like they were a long way from having a real plan of action.

 

One of the better retrospective statements quoted by the paper was by Michael Sheehan, who is described as a former director of counterterrorism for New York, “there may have been too much hyperventilating going on”.

 

Sounds like Keystone Cops chasing the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

 

Also in the paper was a story from Turkey. A young woman wearing a bikini got into an argument with some religious moslems. Seems like they objected to her state of dress and she objected to their discarding dirty diapers and fouling the beach. Actually the paper was not too clear on this. My guess is that they were cleaning baby shit out of the diapers in the sea. The paper said that they were ‘soiling the beach’. Anyway, it came to blows and the religious folks apparently attacked the woman. The paper indicated that she was going to make an issue of this. I read this in the English language paper Kathimerini that comes attached to the Herald Tribune, and it will be interesting to see if the American press reports the aftermath of this. Turkey has a problem with religious moslems who breed like rats and think themselves superior to everyone else, to the point of lecturing folks on their clothing. That is, when they are not throwing bombs.

 

August 25, 2006   It had to happen. Today the apologists for the airline security mechanisms currently in place struck back, in the form of an op-ed piece by Bernard E. Harcourt, who is described as ‘a law professor at the University of Chicago’. It sounds as if he is one of the people who designed the system that the TSA is using. Of all things, he brings up the case of that woman from Vermont who caused the panic on a United flight from London to Dulles that was diverted to Boston. He botches the argument that this incident illustrates what is wrong with behavioral profiling of passengers. In fact, it should be pretty clear that, while conventional screening in a heightened awareness environment (read ‘all out panic mode’) did not find several items of flight contraband on the woman’s person, even the most cursory look at her behavior would have drawn attention to her. Harcourt then outlines what he describes as a problem with the procedure used by the folks at Ben Gurion airport, which is that they use smart, tough people as screeners. This could be a problem, for if the US were to adopt this, known effective mechanism it would have to fire almost everyone currently working for the TSA. The screeners would also have to have more and better training. This is, according to Harcourt, a problem. Then, he makes the assertion, backed by an ‘according to Rafi Ron, former head of security at Ben Gurion’, that it takes on the average 57 minutes per passenger, to screen passengers there. Harcourt must have misunderstood Ron. Maybe it was 57 minutes total to get through screening or maybe 57 seconds with the profiler. When I went through there, on a flight to Egypt, I spent no more than a fraction of a minute with the guy asking questions. In fact, I was kind of disappointed that he had so little interest in talking to me. The guy seemed to be an interesting fellow. My wife and kids, who were taking a separate flight back to the US, spent a little longer (maybe a couple of minutes) because a woman traveling without a husband is thought to be an interesting case.

 

Harcourt then described how he thinks the system should work, and that is like the procedure used to admit lawyers to high security prisons, where they take away essentially everything. The analogy is flawed: in the prison the lawyer needs to take only a limited set of things with him and he gets all back when he leaves. When one is traveling one has stuff to take along. Checking that stuff is an inconvenience and takes time, particularly now that the airlines have to carry a lot more checked baggage. This is expense for the airlines and lost time for the traveler.

 

If the prisons trusted the lawyers there would be no need to have them empty their pockets, but then lawyers probably can’t be trusted, and this Harcourt fellow is making a seriously specious (and transparently so) argument for the flawed policy of the TSA.

 

 

 

August 23, 2006   Today it was reported in the Herald Tribune that some Moslem terrorists  in the Gaza Strip have kidnapped a couple of Americans and demanded that the United States release all Moslem Prisoners … or else. I guess they are trying to replicate the roaring success they achieved with the same ploy against the Israelis several weeks ago. Seems like somewhat stronger action is required on our part. Maybe a blockade of Gaza until the two are released unharmed. The human rights crowd would love it.

 

The same newspaper had two excellent editorial comments. One by Alex Woolfe (“The Comfort of a Panic”), explaining why people support the government when it engages in idiotic and panicky actions in response to terrorists. Meaning there is really no hope here. The other was by Jeff Jacoby about security and how El Al and Ben Gurion airport does it right and the United States does it wrong. [See August 11, below] Having gone through security at Ben Gurion I understand and can support the notion that the way they do things (including talking with each passenger) would make air transport in the US much more secure. The issue I see is that the dunderheads who currently work for TSA are just not, on the average, smart enough to do what the Israeli security people do. They would need a whole new cast of characters. Also the volume of short haul flights in the US drives things toward more mass production of security operations. But then most air travelers should be easily recognized as such and not take much of a screener’s time.

 

 

August 23, 2006    On a high point above Mikonos Town on Mikonos island in Greeece there are five derelict windmills that at one time were used for grinding grain. The  use of wind energy was then a great advance over hand labor and a good source of energy. At first,in looking at these things, which are now just skeletons of turbines that ahd sails, one wonders why are there not modern wind turbines making electricity on the spot. The wind certainly seems to blow with substantial force and continuity. But then it is pointed out that these things are a tourist attraction and modern wind turbines would be ugly and a detriment to the tourist industry on the island (and tourism seems to be all this island is good for—and it is very good at that). Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that wind energy is highly maintenance intensive and these things are just too expensive to keep running. Possibly tourism has saved the Greeks from making a big mistake.

 

The Hearald Tribune reports today that one of the two Lebanese fellows arrested in Germany for planting bombs on trains (the bombs didn’t work) was caught after he had made “a panicked phone call … to his family [in Lebanon] after video images of him were broadcast in Germany”. This is a situation in which listening in on a telephone call made to a foreign country produced a good lead to solving an important criminal case. In the same issue was an editorial comment (from Canada) mentioning the ruling by a U.S. District Court judge (a Carter appointee, if I remember correctly) that holds that intercepting such telephone calls is a violation of the US Constitution. One wonders if the resulting criminal case, were it in the United States rather than Britain, would be derailed by this technicality.  It is probably unfair to blame President Carter for this, but his inaction with respect to Iran in 1979 was largely responsible for leaving us with a theocracy that has fed radical Islam and terrorism in the world for the past 27 years.

 

In the same newspaper appears a front-page story headlined “Air travelers adjust to a ‘new normal’: Stricter security brings few gripes”. The story is, of course, carefully constructed to try to make the point, but it fails simply because air travelers are, indeed, griping about the panicky reaction of the national transport security apparatus. If there is not open rebellion of the traveling public it is because the security apparatus has backed down from its most outrageous provisions. Indeed, the inset quote is “I think it is idiotic to surrender our noamalcy of life to Terrorists”, which is exactly what the British and American air transport security people have tried to do. These guys seem to be confusing tolerance with acceptance. The traveling public resents the ineffective and intrusive measures being taken by the TSA. It puts up with it only because it has no choice: the TSA has all of the cards. But wait until a politician offers to fire the rascals. It will not be hard to identify a block of voters who will vote for that person.

 

In the same newspaper there is a halfway hopeful story headlined “US and EU aim to tap deeper passenger data”. What they are referring to is that they would like to get the data on passengers that travel agents have already developed: credit card numbers, hotel and auto reservations and so forth. Chertoff is quoted as saying that he could use this information to find bad guys: “did Mohamed Atta get his ticket paid on the same credit card?” This is nice, but Atta probably used his own credit card, which died with him, or paid cash. And Chertoff won’t use the fact that he paid cash for his ticket because that is profiling. But put that one in reverse: That I pay for an airplane ticket with a credit card I have held for more than a decade should, it seems to me, indicate I am less likely to be a terrorist. That I have lived in the same place for 33 years, held the same job for 35 years and been married to the same woman for 39 years might also tend to lend a feeling that maybe I am not going to strap on an explosive belt. Do you think maybe Mike could understand that some of us good guys can be easily identified.  Maybe he could let me carry a tube of toothpaste?

 

 

August 22, 2006  Three different airplane rides in the last three days (now a bit more than a week after the bomb on airplane scare produced by the arrests in Britain). Boston to London Heathrow was the first. A week earlier, after we heard of the unseemly panic in both British and American transport security agencies I tried to re-book our trip (to Athens) but was told that everything was fully booked. On the first leg, to London we had booked mileage based upgrades to business class, and our section of the airplane was less than half full.  I don’t know if this was because of fear, the inconvenience promised because of the security panic, or if the airlines are not as busy as reputed. But it was a pretty good trip. Next day, on the London to Athens flight, the British Airways flight WAS full. Security was not as bad as had been reported in the American press, although the Brits had made special provisions. It appears people were going to the airport quite early in the day and causing jam-ups at checkin and security. So, at least at LHR Terminal 1 they didn’t let people even enter the terminal until about 2 1/2 to three hours ahead of their flights. Now I can imaging American security people doing this and letting people stand on the curb in the sun or rain. The Brits set up some very large tents with folding chairs just outside of the terminal and served (free) coffee and water. I was told they even had set up a loo out there, but we didn’t need it. Anyway, when we did get inside, checkin and security were smooth. Turns out The Brits were not as panicked as was reported after all. They did insist that liquids not be in checked baggage, but once through security they allowed passengers to buy stuff in the airport shops, including water and booze, and carry it onto the airplane. I was told this did not work on flights to America, where the TSA rules still held. On the third flight, from Athens to Mykonos, it seemed like normal – the Greeks did not seem affected by all of this and we did checkin and security as normal. Of course in Athens, the security search is done quite close to the gate, and since we were going on an ATR, the likelihood of a terrorist doing much damage was about zero.

 

               A couple of notes on this. On the American Airlines flight from Boston to London we were presented with the normal party favor like thing they usually do. It included a little tube of toothpaste. We couldn’t bring toothpaste but the airline could. Makes me think of the time I went to a reception at the Hotel Tallyrand in Paris (part of the US Embassy compound, where we were warned to leave our Swiss Army knives behind) at which the party favor was a sharp letter knife. The other was that on the British Airways flight from London to Athens, about the same length as the Miami to Boston flight I took a week earlier, we got a real meal at lunchtime, including a glass of wine and/or a beer. No extra charge.

 

               There must be more competition in Europe.

 

 

August 16, 2006    I have been hearing stories about stuff being stolen from checked baggage on airplanes. This is more of a risk now that the TSA forbids travelers from locking their checked baggage, ostensibly so they (the TSA) can look into it for bombs.

 

The issue is that TSA, even though  it is supposed to be in charge of the baggage, can’t keep it secure. So thieves can get at it. This brings to mind an interesting question: if the baggage is left where a thief can get at it and swipe things from it (a laptop unwisely packed for example), what is going to prevent a reverse thief from putting a bomb in it? If the TSA can’t secure the airport from thieves, what is to make us think that they can secure it from terrorists? With all of the attention paid to water bottles and toothpaste, one would think that a competent, self-respecting terrorist would look to checked baggage to get a bomb on the airplane. It need not be a time bomb (as we all know, these sometimes go off at inconvenient times if the flight is delayed), but a suicide bomber could set it off by remote control. I wonder if they will ban garage door clickers from carry-on bags – now that might be worthwhile.

 

And I have also been told, third hand but by usually reliable sources, that the TSA has been known to confiscate Swiss Army Knives from checked bags, leaving behind notes accusing said knives of being dangerous weapons. Now, if you look at their web sites, the TSA specifically says that knives can be in checked bags. So when they take one they are simply stealing it.

 

Your tax money at work.

 

 

 

August 15,  2006  Airplane ride to Tampa. No great difficulties going through the TSA checkpoint. Seems like very few people are carrying much on so the guys don’t have as much work to do. Still they didn’t catch my toothpaste. This is not an issue since I am not a terrorist, but it does illustrate what the head of the ALPA said a couple of days ago: they should be focusing on bad guys rather than bad stuff.

 

And reported in the newspaper that Mike Chertoff wants the law changed to give the feds more authority for searches and domestic spying: kind of like MI-5 has. I would not mind doing this were the government run by competent people, but Chertoff is a fool and Gonzales is a knave. I would be very unhappy to give them more authority to chase terrorists and have them use that authority to chase pornographers (which is what, I am convinced, Gonazales wants to do).

 

Terminal C at Miami International airport is the pits. Looks like a bus terminal and doesn’t have enough seating. American Airlines should be ashamed of itself.  On my way back to Boston from Tampa there was good news and bad news. The good news is I managed to catch my illegally short standby connection. The bad news is the reason I did that was that the flight was late. It was late because the airplane was late arriving. The airlines are doing too much ‘Just in Time’ scheduling.

 

There is a story today in the Wall Street Journal about air freight, which apparently is still not well screened for explosives, even as the passengers are not being allowed to bring their toothpaste with them. I won’t describe to the TSA how a suicide bomber posing as a passenger could hide a bomb in checked baggage and set it off by remote control. The terrorists already know and it would just panic the geniuses at TSA. Actually, that is probably too harsh. The real reason for the disparity is the TSA doesn’t give a fig for aircraft safety. They just think that most passengers equate inconvenience with safety. Or they are control freaks. Take your pick.

 

As to that first notion: inconvenience = safety, the flying public is starting to be disabused of the notion, at least if the letters in USA Today today are any indication. Several of the letter writers seem to be actively angry at the stupid things TSA is doing to air passengers in the name of safety. There is a little good news, however, the Brits seem to be coming out of their funk. They seem to be allowing some hand luggage and even laptops. Good thing too: they were about to start incurring damage to people’s computers.

 

 

 

August 11, 2006  This morning the President’s radio address was about the terrorist threat uncovered by the Brits and Pakistanis. He mentioned the new ban on carrying water and toothpaste on airplanes. Then I thought of Mitt calling up the national guard, specifically to make sure that nobody buys a bottle of water after clearing security and carries it onto an airplane. Some folks interviewed on the television set question this: why should water purchased, after all, in the secure part of the airport, be considered a hazard?

 

And apparently one of the people the Brits arrested was an employee at Heathrow, with a security badge that gave him the run of the airport.

 

So the answer is clear: the government can’t trust its own employees or other people who inhabit the secure areas of the airport. That is why we can’t buy water in the secure area – it ain’t really secure. Until and unless the government can get control of its own precincts there is no way of saying what they are contributing to aircraft security.

 

Frankly, I think we should farm the whole deal out to El Al.

 

August 10   Woke up this morning to hear the Brits claim to have caught almost two dozen terrorists who planned to blow themselves up aboard airliners coming, in part, to Boston. They didn’t know yet how far along the plot was, but I suspect it was like many others, just in the initial phases. A bit later we heard a senior British police official explaining why they went to the highest alert level. Seems like they are not sure they got them all. I noted a bit of a Scottish accent in the guy’s voice. I wonder if he was MI-5 or 6, and if his name might have been ‘Bond’.

 

Anyway, the geniuses in homeland security here in the US are making good on their watchword:

 

                                             When in Trouble; When in Doubt;

                                             Run in Circles; Scream and Shout.

 

As usual, from reports I am hearing from the airport, they are treating everyone like a terrorist, rather than just people who might actually BE terrorists. They are taking the quite understandable steps of not allowing anyone to carry water or darn near anything else on aircraft. Apparently all aircraft, but that might be the news networks showing their usual accuracy. Oh. This step is understandable since these people can’t actually find explosives in your (our) bags. And they won’t make special provisions for people who might be terrorists (young Arabs, for example) because Norman Minetta, who is not an Arab, was involuntarily sent to the desert when he was a kid. I had hoped that, once W fired Minetta, that the situation would improve, but the fellow is gone and the situation hasn’t improved. I am told that the flying public equates inconvenience with safety, so maybe there is a method to their idiocy.

 

More geniuses this morning. The traffic light at Commonwealth Avenue and the BU Bridge access is still out. It has been out for months. Early in the summer I saw a couple of guys working on it. Apparently the City of Boston has no competent electricians. Just in case, I don’t ride underneath the hanging light.

 

I understand Bechtel is complaining about the methods used by the Turnpike Authority to test the screws used to lag supports for hanging ceilings into the tunnel top layers. Sounds like they are setting up for a really good smokescreen excuse.

 

As I was riding down Vassar St, before passing the new (remote) MIT off-campus police station and Chuck’s Folly, I was delayed briefly by what I believe to be utility piping work. (They are digging and putting pipe into the ground). Why do these guys always start work early enough to screw up morning rush hour? They are gone by evening rush hour. (Thanks for small favors).

 

And just after crossing Massachusetts Avenue, I was cut off by a truck entering the campus by the entry between Buildings 35 and 37. The driver probably didn’t see the sign demanding that motorists yield to bikes. This, as you will remember, is just about where the bike path departs from the road way. That hide and seek process will, one day, get a bicyclist seriously injured. I hope that the Institute will be smart enough to avoid doing this when they re-work the western part of Vassar Street.

 

When I got to MIT, that parking container was still taking up a parking space near the smoking area of Building 4. Seems to me that, since the crane has come and gone, they should move this thing to the private parking area of Eastman Court. I should think, that since I am paying six hundred bucks to be allowed to park here, there would be a space when I get in. That is not always the case.

  

I didn’t say anything beyond giving them a really hard look. But I certainly thought of some nasty things.

 

Speaking of nasty thoughts, as I was typing the above a radio commercial came on. If you live in New England you have heard it. Starts with “This is David McCullagh” (well, I may have spelled his name incorrectly). This fellow is obviously wearing a plaid shirt and he is editorializing against the Cape Wind development. Seems inappropriate for him to be speaking on the radio, since this requires him to use electricity.  

 

August 4, 2006  I just applied for parking for next year. Kind of nifty: it is all done on the web now – the system knows my cars, down to the VIN, so all I need to do is to sign in (my web certificates get me to the right page) and push the button authorizing a payroll deduction. This is costing me about $600, to drive to work. And that is redundant since I bike in half the time. Actually it is costing MIT about $200. You see, the $600 includes about that much money that goes directly to federal income and medicare taxes and to Massachusetts income tax. MIT could pay me $400 less and give me free parking and I would be just as happy. Ah well, support the troops.