Tuesday, June 23, 2009

No More Flying "Clear"

TSA's so-called premium service for pre-screened travelers went out of business yesterday, reportedly because their credit was withdrawn.

This is a great example of how you can't even trust the government to do something simple that everyone agrees upon...

Pretty much everyone who flies hates TSA security screening, and apparently with pretty good reason.

The idea was that you submit to a background investigation and biometric ID and they would give you a less painful experience at the airport. Unfortunately, TSA didn't really want to give anyone the opportunity for a less painful experience, so they refused to allow FlyClear members any relief from the overall security screening. In fact, there was MORE to the FlyClear screening because you had to present your "Fly Clear" card (to both a machine and a human), in addition to another picture ID, and your boarding pass, before being allowed to get in line.

The only advantage was either a special line, or the privilege of cutting to the head of the line, to get to the TSA humiliation quicker.

I fly a lot, and I was very interested in anything that would reduce the pain of commercial air travel, so I studied the Fly Clear program closely.

First of all, it was a pain to sign up. You had to fill out a form online and pay, wait to receive paperwork in the mail, then make at least one (and usually 2 or 3) trips to the airport when you weren't flying to get the biometric data taken and the "Clear" card issued. The cost was $128, per year, I think.

The first time I enquired about it was at Washington National. There was a long line, and some friendly-looking folks (not TSA, I subsequently learned, but contractors with the now defunct company that ran the program) passing out literature about the program. I told them I'd sign up right now if they'd let me get past the line, but of course that wasn't possible. I still went to the web site when I got home, and it seemed painful, invasive, and not particularly sensible.

So I watched at the airport to determine what the program really saved. At National there was a second line for the FlyClear program, which was usually pretty short, but once through it you still had to get in the second line to actually get through security. It could save a few minutes - maybe quite a few if you were flying during peak hours and the lines were bad - but overall not much. Out at Dulles, the FlyClear line seemed to be very similar in length to the "Expert Traveler" line, which seemed to be a much better idea and a much better program. Many of the airports I visit, however, didn't even have FlyClear lines, and I found that by simply avoiding travel at peak times (a good idea under all circumstances), you could achieve the same effect as the FlyClear line for $0.

Some of my friends, however, raved about how they liked the program (I apparently knew a substantial percentage of the program's participants, since there were only about 250,000 overall). I took another look, and thought about signing up just as an experiment.

But the other day I was at Dulles. Some rich important-looking old guy got in the "Fly Clear" line at the same time I got in the Expert Traveler line (which was longer, but only a little bit). We got through the TSA screen at the same time, but he was being by TSA that he was required to submit to additional screening. As I headed off to my gate, he was being led away to be strip-searched. TSA seems to relish forcing anyone with the appearance of eliteness to submit to additional screening... in particular officials of other government departments or agencies with official credentials.

That ended my interest in FlyClear, and I guess I'm glad now I didn't pay for it, because it doesn't look like subscribers will be getting their money back.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Cleaning Up

I'm extremely sick and very busy, not a good combination, so nothing good blogging-wise is going to be coming from me for a while. Instead, I leave you with a funny story about Japanese toilets.

One of my cats is mildly retarded. He likes little noises.

The controls on the toilet in our Japanese apartment were these little bubble pressure switches that beeped when you pressed them. The cat used to get up on the control arm and walk around so he could hear the beeping sounds. Unfortunately, those buttons controlled the seat temperature, bidet action ("gentle spray" to "blow your ass into the next apartment") and water temperature of the bidet ("cold, wet Willy" to "disinfecting a rendering plant").

So, when you sat down in a stupor early in the morning or after a late night, you might get a little surprise ranging from an overheated seat to a steam cleaning of Uranus. You could count yourself lucky if the seat was hot, because that reminded you of the cat's shennanigans. Otherwise, your impaired brain had to catch the faint whir of the bidet head extending from its recessed niche before it pulled its Stanley Steamer impression on your ass.

The toilet in this video is very similar to what we had, but our control arm was higher, like an armrest on a chair, and had more buttons. The bidet action, however, is pretty spot-on.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Just How Dumb is Western Europe?

No dumber than anyone else, actually. But they are currently a shining example of Normalization of Deviance.


This is why.

Gazprom is indeed a power-projecting organ of the Russian State. Putinism is entering the Pirhana stage.(H/T to commenters at the Chicago Boyz)

In his book Riding Rockets, Astronaut Mike Mullane explained that NASA ignored known risks with the Shuttle because the craft had flown without those risks manifesting themselves in an incident. It is a common feature of humanity. Someone tells you that riding motorcycles without a helmet is dangerous. But you do it once and get away with it. You do it twice. A thousand times. But on the thousand-and-first, someone cuts you off, and you spray your brains all over the landscape, realizing, in your last, painful instants on this Earth, exactly why doctors call people like you "rolling organ stockpiles".

You normalized the deviance, assuming the odds would never catch up with you.

I was studying Russian in college when a lot of the debate on the trustworthiness of Gorbachev with respect to the gas supply took place. And that was part of an older debate. I clearly remember the arguments against the pipeline:.

French, West German and British Firms were largely supported by their respective governments in evading Washington’s demands for an embargo on the shipment of technology for a Soviet natural Gas Pipeline to the West. Nor did they pay much heed to American arguments on the danger of dependence on the USSR for energy supplies.

The problem with such warnings is that the negative consequences are many times removed in time from their cause. When Gorbachev, and then Yeltsin proved relatively benign, never seriously threatening Europe's newly acquired energy supplies, the talk of threat was dismissed as American jingoism. Now, between the Russian cut offs over price and the Georgian incident, the threat is being re-evaluated. Perhaps too little, too late, as delayed feedback loops often have more severe consequences than immediate cause-and-effect chains.

Individual Russians, such as Gorbachev, may be friends of the West, but Russia herself is not, and will not be until the last vestiges of serfdom are thrown off of that society several generations hence. Russia sees life as a zero sum game because her society has never created much wealth, it has subsisted on selling natural resources. The wealth from those resources is bitterly fought over within Russian society, and the created wealth of the West is viewed with jealousy.

As far back as in 1991, during the coup that ousted Gorby, Europe should have been taking precautions to diversify its future supply. It did not:

The EU currently relies on Russia for a quarter of its total gas supplies. Of the bloc's 27 member states, seven are almost totally dependent on Russian gas.

Even former Eastern Block countries, where people should have had memories of previous bad experiences with the Russians, fell prey to Normalization of Deviance and wishful thinking.

"It was a huge shock. We thought we had good relations with Russia and that we'd be supplied at all times regardless of what happened between Moscow and Ukraine," he says.

"We thought Russia would protect us."

How could a resident of country within the former Iron Curtain make such a spectacularly obtuse statement? Some of it has to do with the modern intellectual's assumption that Europe has outlawed bad behavior, and that the Russians will play nicely in the sandbox because that is what is expected of them.

The other reason is the special history that Bulgaria enjoyed with the USSR.

There is a Soviet / Russian joke about elephants. The nations of Europe decide to celebrate a year of the elephant by publishing a book in each nation. The French, of course, publish a detailed account of the sex life of the elephant. The German book is a dry, but extremely detailed encyclopedia about elephants. The Soviet book proclaims the superiority of the Soviet elephant. The Bulgarian book merely proclaims that the Bulgarian elephant is the best friend of the Soviet element (see the middle of the posting here, I have heard the same joke made about Mongolia as well, reflecting their tough position between the Russians and the Chinese).

So one can perhaps forgive a modern Bulgarian intellectual for such a statement, suffering as he does from two major blind spots. But not the rest of the West. As can bee seen from the examples of the Shuttle and the helmetless motorcyclist, when the bill for normalizing deviance comes due, the price is often exorbitant.

Monday, June 1, 2009


A little free advertising for a bank and insurance company that doesn't do stupid stuff...

Like most people with a connection to the military, I have long done business with the United Services Automobile Association, also known as USAA. They've had my car insurance since I got my first drivers license, because my father was eligible to join from his service in Vietnam. He always said good things about USAA, so I stuck with them when I started paying my own bills. (USAA is a member association, kind of like a credit union, not a commercial bank or insurance company. To be eligible you generally need some connection to the military - as a servicemember or dependant.)

I established mutual fund accounts when I graduated from college, and started a brokerage account when USAA created their brokerage. (Luckily I dodged the bullet with those shysters from USPA&IRA.)

Today I have a couple of all-inclusive "asset management accounts" with them, as well as a couple of old IRAs, all the insurance I'm able to get (they won't write coverage on the Adios Airways HQ in Florida), and one of my two mortgages with them.

Just a little while ago they sent out an email to remind their members that not only have they never taken a cent of bailout money, they are solidly in the black for 2008 and 2009, and are paying record dividends.

I knew all that already (I got a check from them the other day), but it's a pretty important point. USAA does very well because they aren't insanely stupid, like apparently the entire commercial banking industry. They only make loans that make common sense, they don't deliberately screw their members over nickle-and-dime fees (in fact they charge no fees for anything ever, as far as I know), and they don't write insurance that is obviously a bad risk. They especially don't do derivatives and they don't sell their mortgages.

Where would we be, as a country and a civilization, if the commercial banks did business like USAA? Well people wouldn't be living in houses and driving cars they couldn't afford, and we'd probably be richer and stronger than ever, instead of standing over the same precipice that engulfed the Soviet Union.