TSA staff are doing their job – ok?

There are quite a few things that I wouldn’t really want to do for a living, some because they usually involve moving large amounts of effluent around and a lot because it means the way in which you perform your job is potentially constantly photographed and discussed world-wide.  The advent of photo sharing sites and the age of instant communications puts almost all of us under scrutiny and someone somewhere, or maybe everyone everywhere, will take offence at the way in which we work or the actual job we are performing.  The list of jobs affected is growing: whilst it used to be say senior politicians and parking enforcement officers, almost everyone is now at risk of finding themselves front page news.  With the tendency for me-too journalism and the way in which all humans complain about everything, from the waiting times at the post office to the fact that even politicians and teachers have a private social life, the list of ‘public facing’ careers I would want has dwindled very fast.  Being a Transportation Security Officer for the TSA has now been added to my list of “it’s a rotten job and I couldn’t do it” and I have a large degree of empathy for those who do.

I fly comparatively often, both internationally and domestically on both sides of the Atlantic.  When I leave my house or hotel at the start of my journey, the one thing I expect is to arrive at the other end with my luggage and without having a nervous breakdown on the way.  A lot of other people have the same expectation and we are all reliant on a second group of others to ensure that we get there, despite the thankfully, very, very small but still significant third group who may want to interrupt our journeys, often spectacularly, to prove an ideological point or for the insurance or just because they can.  And it’s the job of the Transportation Security Officer to ensure that some homicidal maniac doesn’t succeed in his or her plan, so if the cost of my well-being en-route is walking through a security screen at the airport, then that’s fine by me, even if at that point I have to take out my laptop or give up my unopened bottle of Fuji water, because that is what everyone else has to do.

Think of the numbers involved. In 2009, there were 704,400,000 air passengers in the US alone.  The world’s 4th largest airport handles an average of 90,000 departing passengers, roughly 62 per minute.  Each one of them has to be screened, because unlike the movies, potential mass murderers don’t usually send warnings in advance and there is not a crack team of law enforcement arriving in the last few seconds to drag our miscreants off the plane or out of the terminal.  And our potential threat is not from someone conveniently dressed in a headscarf, sweating profusely and reading a religious tract, nor are they dressed in uniform and speaking with fake British-Russian-South African accents.  The threat isn’t even greater now that half the world seems to be at war with the other half: nearly 50 years ago in 1962, a family man with a young daughter bought life insurance at O’Hare International, got on board a Boeing 707 and blew it up over Missouri with 6 sticks of dynamite.  In 1969, 34 planes were hijacked to Cuba.  Which is nice if you want to see Havana, but really annoying if you were on your way to your sister’s wedding in Oakland.

So to ensure that you get to the wedding or don’t end up as just a name on a piece of granite somewhere, the governments of the world screen passengers.  And this job is entrusted to the Transportation Security Officer who is in a no win situation.  If the officer does the job proficiently and enforces the rules to the nth degree, some passenger will complain.  If the officer is trusting or deemed not to be diligent, then someone will complain.  And in the same way as you don’t smoke behind the school gym because that’s the first place the teachers look, any potential hijacker or homicidal maniac with a fake British-Russian-South African accent will ask the sweet little old lady or some gap toothed little three year old child to carry his weapon of choice.  And then, because the poor Transportation Security Officer double checks the little old lady or the three year old child, because he knows that our homicidal maniac with a fake British-Russian-South African accent will not carry the weapons himself, the Transportation Security Officer ends up on YouTube or on the front page of some newspaper somewhere branded as a fascist or racist or any other pejorative term you can think off.  Just for doing the job properly.

On top of all this, he is going to face the passenger who thinks that the rules governing security screening are contrary to section 1203 chapter 87 paragraph 8 sub clause c of the 433rd amendment of the International Declaration of Human Rights or violates his or her rights as a citizen of Oliviatania or wherever.  Or they think have the body to die for and all the officer wants to do is fondle it or see it on x-ray.  So they decide to make a protest, armed with video camera phones on record and the news-desk on speed dial.  And they invariably do it in the line I am in together with the other 62 people a minute who needs to clear the security point in order to get to their gate.  The Transportation Security Officer has to put up with this – and still do the job – whilst everyone hates him or her and is just waiting for their three minutes of fame on the front page. 

Some friends of mine were flying from Los Angeles to London a couple of years ago with their child and a stroller.  As they passed through security, the stroller was given a 20 minute inspection for contraband.  They didn’t complain, because like most people they could see the same thing as the Security staff – that if they were going to hide something, use the stroller not their bodies.  Or they could place it in their baby’s food or diapers.  Because that thought wouldn’t have occurred to anyone else with real evil in mind would it?  So my friends did not object and did not make a fuss, just carried on with their journey feeling a little bit safer that there was less likelihood of ending up as collateral damage in someone else’s war and that they would get to Heathrow without a detour to Cuba.  They even discovered what their baby’s food actually tasted of as well. 

I cannot see that flying is a human right, but if it is, then accept the rules.  You accept that you cannot smoke on the aircraft, so accept that you go through a security screen at the airport.  And expect that if your watch or the keys in your pocket sounds an alarm, or even if you fit the description of a known miscreant, some poor TSO will be asked to investigate.  I am sure that given the choice, some of the Officers would prefer moving large amounts of effluent over standing in a depressing airport terminal and putting up with the thousands of impatient, surly and downright rude passengers who pass the security gate every day.  Especially when they have their videos on record looking for an excuse to sue the government or someone weighing 300lbs and smelling like rotting cheese needs to be patted down.  But more importantly, if you do want to make a fuss, give me a call first to make sure that I am not flying that day and likely to end up waiting with in line with a hundred others for your fifteen minutes of fame to be over.

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And? So? What happened?

One of the advantages of living in a westernised county today is that most people have access to news and salacious gossip.  From the numerous 24 hour news channels, radio stations, newspapers, magazines and the wonders of the interwebs, nothing remains private and we all have the ability to  develop a fair idea of what is happening to whom and where, even if we can not work out why.  We are even told what to think about it if we listen to the commentators and pundits who break items down even further and then use some little facet of the story to promote their own agenda.  But such is the nature of twenty four hour news is that in order to keep their viewers or readers, the story has to change.  Today’s eagerly sought out and avidly read front-page story will be tomorrow’s wet fish wrapper or on its way to be re-cycled into bathroom tissue, either in a industrial process or just by being hung on the back of the door.

But just sometimes, like when the television network cancels your favourite TV show mid-season because it didn’t attract enough viewers in the 24-35 year old young Oliviatanian female demographic as promised to the advertisers, you are left in suspense as to what happened next. It was years before I discovered that Mrs Carter’s daughter (the one that everyone knew was the butchers) acknowledged her real father and became a TV news anchor, because when I was listening to my mother and her friends discussing the local events, the causes célèbres changed daily and I was too young to remember to ask “so mommy, was Mr and Mrs Carters’ marriage guidance counselling ultimately successful and did Jane discover a sense of self worth, overcome the psychological damage of having red hair when the rest of her family had black and transcend the contradiction of a vegetarian mother who liked the butcher’s sausage?”  Watching the news or trying to follow a public story is like reading through a book and discovering that the final chapter is missing.  And they never go back and follow up.

A while ago, Kraft-Cadbury was accused of being racist amid clamour for the company’s products to be boycotted, all because they used the slogan “move over Naomi, there is a diva in town” to advertise a chocolate bar.  This became a big story, reported all across the world from New Zealand west to California.  What was not reported (although one UK based newspaper did have an item buried away in the advertising columns of its media section) was the fact that the Council of the Advertising Standards Authority totally rejected that the complaints that the advertisements were ‘an insult to black women’ and concluded that there were no grounds for an investigation.  Then there are the stories and reports that appear and disappear just as fast, for example, a couple of newspapers carried an item that the Sun is due to enter a period of inactivity.  The last time this happened, from 1645 to 1715, was called the Maunder Minimum and is linked to the Little Ice Age in Europe.  Does that mean that if we follow the advice of the global warmists we will exacerbate the effects and that the ice age facing us will be worse?  The answer is probably in the missing chapter of the book or left spiked on the editors desk because they must give us more background on someone’s love child.

If your news program has followed the posse and like all of the competing stations you have devoted virtually a whole show to the fact that a daughter of some celebrity was pregnant and sent your reporter to stand outside some locked gate at 11:00 at night to say this is where the conception took place, please remember to come back to the story a few months later and tell us if it was a boy or girl, the birth weight, how long the mother was in labor and if she had an epidural.  If you are going to gossip, please follow through and tell me the whole story.  Just for the sake of completeness or to use that awful word, ‘closure’.  At least my mother and her friends would start a conversation with “Remember I told you about Reverend Lovemuch and the sheep, well ………”

To be fair to the newspapers and reporters, there is only so much time and only so much you can cover in any news cycle.  Some stations even acknowledge this: one local news program in the US gives the viewers a choice of which of three reports they want aired at the end of the show, but that just leaves those interested in the other two stories throwing their remote controls at the television and wondering about the proposal to place a tax on ‘bedroom’ activities or the sad eyed donkey found wondering the streets.  Exactly the same way in which a cancelled TV show left me wondering what will happen now another planet has appeared in Earth’s orbit but I am never going to find out because the show was so bad that not even SyFy will pick it up for another season.  So the five year story arc is left unfinished just after I suffered twenty two episodes of plot establishment.

Now I do understand that times change and the world moves on.  Obviously if the US has just invaded Canada or if a Republican and a Democrat or a Conservative and a Labour politician both  actually agreed on something, then that would be the new big news and would dominate the agenda for the next few days.  But if you have just shown a video of strange unexplained contrails over Southern California, can you at least say that these were just the normal condensation trail of a commercial aircraft when they are identified a couple of days later?  Otherwise everyone who didn’t bother to look it up on aviation websites would still be wondering at the back of their minds if this was yet more proof that Earth was being invaded by real furry creatures from Alpha Centuari and the conspiracy industry will be claiming the lack of follow-up as evidence that the ‘World Government’ was trying to hide the fact that it was actually in league with extra-terrestrials. 

So here is a suggestion.  Instead of some little seen cable channel doing a “Where are they now” program, how about as part of the normal news output, journalists actually state what happened in the end.  Don’t leave us halfway through the story, for example, the Three Bears were in the middle of investigating a home invasion and discovered that a trespasser had broken into their house, vandalised the furniture, stolen their supplies and were in the middle of a potential hostage situation with a girl trapped in the bedroom on Wednesday and then on Thursday only tell us about some homicidal transvestite wolf with oversized teeth terrorising girls in red hoodies.  Even fairy stories have an “and they all lived happily ever after” so why not say that the three bears underwent counselling for their shock and Goldilocks was captured and is now serving 6 years for house breaking , theft and trespass.  And please don’t make me have to read a little paragraph in column eight on the bottom of page 14 or watch 44 minutes of the news at eleven telling me how the Governor was once found in bed with a donkey to find out that the ‘mysterious’ lights in the sky and loud bangs you spent 44 minutes telling me about yesterday was not an invasion but just a celebration that the local football team had actually won a match.

Cute Puppy or Cute Donkey?

Given a choice, there are probably very few people who want to go shopping.  Not the ‘retail therapy’ kind, where you get the chance to visit all those shops that only have one of anything on display, but the more mundane grocery shopping where you spend hours trying to park the car, force a shopping cart to go in a straight line when all it wants it to turn left, perform advanced mathematical analysis to establish if two smaller bottles are better value than a large one with 20% off, get smashed ankles from being hit by other carts and strollers, spend five minutes trying to work out exactly which of the 20 different types of ‘milk’ is actually normal milk and then argue with the cashier over the merits of paper or plastic grocery bags.  Because you know that when you leave the supermarket, you have another gauntlet to run and even harder ‘shopping’ faces you.

Outside your usual supermarket will be a charity stand, usually one of those flimsy wallpaper tables with posters stuck to the front and a pile of envelopes or a clipboard on which you can give your credit card and bank account details to donate.  But outside the shop next door will be another similar stand, but this time it’s for a different charity.  And if you are in a large retail area, there will be others, together with the people who accost you with a clipboard and sad story.  So now you have the difficult choice to make:  is that poster of the really cute puppy with sad eyes having shampoo dripped on him worth more than the poster of the really cute donkey with sad eyes and ribs poking through its skin or do you go with the poster of the really cute little boy with sad eyes, a teddy bear and empty bowl? (I know the answer, most of you will pick the sad eyed puppy because a donkey is just a failed horse and we all know what cute little children can turn into.)

So you are faced with a choice, animal testing, animal rescue or famine relief.  You have to select which of the air-brushed and staged photographs is the best, so which cause should you donate to?  Do you try to take a more holistic approach and rationalize in your mind that if you save the world from climate change or buy a goat for some farmer in Africa, the world would have enough to eat and everyone would be able to drive around in their electric Smart cars?  No, because then you would have to give even more money to support all the out of work charity workers and the scores of unemployed photographers, publicists, campaigners, banner makers and lobbyists.  (This is Samantha.  Samantha had a home and an income and used to spend all her time flying to conferences all over the world staying in five star hotels to talk about saving the planet.  But now the Earth is saved, its time to recognise Samantha’s sacrifice and help her regain the twenty foreign trips she used to take.  Just one dollar can help buy her an airline ticket to Fuji ………….)

Let’s assume that you have chosen the environment as your cause.  How do you decide between saving the lesser spotted greater white stripped pelican or saving the habitat of the lesser spotted greater black stripped frigatebird?  Why is Samantha’s species of pelecanidae water bird more worthy than Annabel’s on the stand outside the shoe emporium?  But then, what happens when charities actually contradict each other?  For example, there are numerous organisations trying to encourage the use of renewable energy and seeking your donations to help teach us all that nuclear energy is really bad and that a nice little windmill can produce enough energy to power twenty million homes (why are homes always the measure?  Don’t shops, offices and factories use electricity?).  The American Bird Conservancy (another charity) quotes a government report that states 440,000 birds are killed annually by wind turbines.  Another report stated that one type of eagle in southern California was now at the point of extinction because the number of deaths per year was higher than the number of hatchlings, again because Annabel wants to use her electric toothbrush with energy from a windmill and not a nuclear power plant.

There are countless examples of charities working for diametrically opposite causes.  The charity that provides grants for farmers to improve production of palm oil contradicts the charity that campaigns for farmers to stop cutting down rain forests to grow palm oil.  The charity that campaigns for more cycle tracks so we can reduce obesity will run into the charity that insists that we should not cover the countryside with asphalt and more development.  The list is endless.  If you accept that most arguments and fights start over what someone called your life style or mother, then it is not hard to foresee a day when the united forces of alternative power charities will be on one side whilst the united forces of wildlife charities will be on the other.  With all the monies they can collect by showing pictures of a cute little kitten with sad eyes and nails in its head, will they start arming themselves and who will blink first and resort to internecine warfare?  Don’t worry though, we still have real agencies like the Red Cross or the Red Crescent or Médecins Sans Frontières who will help us poor civilians who are caught in the crossfire of the battle of the charities.

Today, your shopping trip doesn’t end at the cashier.  It ends when you finally reach your car and have got past all the petitions and collecting tins of every charity supporting every cause.  Charity is not a bad thing and I am grateful that such organisations exist.  But please don’t force me to choose yet another suffering animal to help or debate the merits of fighting a disease of the brain, spine, chest or whatever when I have 16 plastic shopping bags full of defrosting ice-cream and all I want to do is get back to my SUV.  In the absence of a store guide to the equivalence of the nutritional value of each collecting tin, I am more than likely to walk past all of them.  Then when I get home I will feel guilty about the really cute puppy with sad eyes having shampoo dripped on him, the really cute donkey with sad eyes and ribs poking through its skin and the really cute little boy with sad eyes, a teddy bear and empty bowl.

So to alleviate my guilt, I am going to write 1271 words on the subject, throw a cow on the barbeque to avoid global warming and insist that the power for my patio lights comes from nuclear power stations to save the birds.  I will also buy palm oil to support the farmers in where ever but not use it because I like rain forests.  And as I nail a goat into a small box to send to Africa I will vow to stop using plastic or paper bags and order all of my goods online and watch as 30 trucks drive to my door instead of just my SUV.  All to help the thousands of charities in the world and because I can’t face yet another photograph of the cute puppy, kitten, horse, orang-utan or child, even though over the years I have adopted all of them and they send a card every so often to mark their progress.

W-BDSM reporters find empty building

It was a slow Tuesday in the News Room.  No-one had been shot, stabbed or maimed, all the politicians had run out of mistresses and thanks to Planned Parenthood, there were no more little Terminators running around.   As usual, the weather proved as unpredictable as ever and refused to provide a flood, tornado or record-breaking extremes, remaining really pleasant.    Even the traffic was smooth, because for some reason no-one had caused a three car pile-up whilst shaving, drinking Starbucks and applying mascara at the same time.  That story about the parrot who sits on the shoulder of the skate-boarding, cute dog with the droopy ears would have to wait because the dog was in the ‘Rehab’, which everyone knew was really the vet’s office and he was being ‘fixed’ following that incident with the Mayor’s pedigree poodle.  The senior producer of the 60 minute long  ‘Evening News at 10’ was getting desperate as there was only three hours until broadcast when the spotty faced intern ran into the office shouting “just seen this on Facebook …………..”

Three hours, 2 minutes and 30 seconds later, after live pictures from the ‘W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available’ helicopter flying overhead, the award winning Jane ‘Auto-cutie’ Carter-Butcher seamlessly handed over to reporter Chuck Conners stood outside the very quiet, dark and obviously closed little shop owned by Patel Singh in a nearby resort.  Chuck Conners looked at the camera and in a solemn voice said “The W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available Team is here tonight to bring you an exclusive report.  At 4:30 this evening, tragedy and potentially fatal injuries were prevented when Mr Patel Singh selflessly applied a band-aid to Nancy Skipsey who had cut her finger on a kitchen knife whilst cooking breakfast at her home 50 miles away.  Mrs Skipsey, who stopped at this store on her way to ………. “    Back in the newsroom, the Senior Producer turned to the intern and said “that was close.  I was running out of excuses to get Chuck and the guys from Outside Broadcast van a night out in that 5 star hotel and casino just down the road from Patel’s shop”

Now I don’t know if this has actually happened, but those of you who have watched television news shows recently could imagine that this just possibly true.  For almost every report, the studio based anchor will go live to some poor reporter stuck out in the field, irrespective of the fact that the news they are reporting on happened twelve hours ago and there is absolutely nothing to see.  How many times have you seen reporters outside the registered office of some multinational company in London or New York on the weekend when the story is about some environmental issue 3000 miles away on another continent?  One would swear that the reporters or unions have a contract that states a minimum of travel and overnight stays in top hotels will be provided as part of the salary.   Unless twitter, Facebook or MSNBC are your sole news providers you will recognise this is becoming more and more apparent.

The development of light-weight cameras and communications technologies may have enabled Chuck to stand outside Mr Singh’s store for the 10:00 news, but is it really necessary?  And why would I want to look at photographs of 1 St James Square in London when I could be looking at a burning oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico and listen to the news anchor tell me the same thing.  If it comes to that, why can’t broadcasters use the footage obtained by a brave and often unknown journalist and distributed by the various news agencies instead of flying some celebrity reporter halfway around the world to report from some hotel in the ‘Green Zone’?  Admittedly, governments in particular have become more aware of the power of the media, especially in war, so they corral reporters in some ‘safe’ location.  If you acknowledge that, there is no point having Jane Carter-Butcher finish her nails, stand on a balcony and report as news the same press release as the 20 other channels are doing for their own 6:00 news show, reporting a war happening  miles away.

There is another point as well.  If you are dispatching a news-team to cover a natural disaster, instead of getting in the way, consuming what could be scarce local resources and fuel, empty the van of its three tons of equipment, fill it with relief supplies and help the aid effort.  Or you could take a leaf out of Greenpeace’s book:  when they carry out a protest, they film it themselves and release the footage.  You don’t hear of news channels saying that in order to limit their carbon footprint, they are not sending a camera crew, reporter and associated equipment to Cancun or Venice to cover the latest Climate Change Conference either

No.  ‘W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available’ is proud that it has the latest in Satellite uplinks and a helicopter.  They also need to prove that they cover the community as part of their licence.  So whilst they may want to be seen to be ‘out there’ and show off their van with the ‘W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available’ logo to the locals, please can we do it with a degree of thought.  Because I am positive that one day, whilst Chuck reporting from outside an empty house that was once owned by some notorious criminal in case the Station’s parent company is going to take their toys back, the little banner going across the screen will be saying “Extra-terrestrials have landed on the White House Lawn”.  But we will not have coverage of that because Chuck and his colleagues have been sent elsewhere so instead we have yet more scenes of empty buildings or deserted parking lots hours after the action.

And in case you wondering, ‘W-BDSM Action News in HD, colour and 7.1 stereo where available’ anchor Jane Carter-Butcher is actually award winning.  She took the prize for best meat dish at a local carnival and thanked her mother, who in Jane’s words “really knew how to skin the butchers sausage.”

Don’t find a hitman on Facebook or MySpace

When she next logs in to her social networking sites, there is a young mother from Philadelphia who will perhaps see that amongst the advertisements for baby powder, Pampers,  “29 secrets for a flat belly” and “secrets of low-cost car insurance in Philadelphia”, there just may be a few for Joe’s Gun Stop, with a special offer coupon for a Beretta 92FS nine millimetre or a used Walther PPK, together with one for “Uve, Gotten, Nochance Defence Attorneys, a professional law firm”.  Because I am sure that anyone who is silly enough to try and solicit someone to kill the father of her baby on Facebook doesn’t understand that this is public and that her travels across the interweb are tracked, not by the supposedly big evil governments of the world, but by companies trying to segment the market and serve more meaningful advertisements. 

When I walk into my local bar, the barman will not waste time in trying to sell me the new beer he’s just got because he knows that is not what I drink, but he will offer me a new cognac.  It’s the same when you have dinner party, you don’t serve nut cutlets when you know that your guests are dedicated to saving the planet by eating cows.  Similarly, if you are that type of company, you are not likely to start advertising your new line of whips, handcuffs and leather hoods in the “Bible Discussion and Study Meeting Chronicle” although you may take a chance on the “Catholic Times”.  Knowing your audience and market is not a bad thing because if a person constantly orders take-out pizza online, they may just be interested in a new pizza palace that’s opened half a mile away or an offer for gym membership if they care what the calories are doing to their stomachs. (cue “29 secrets for a flat belly”) This also helps prevent having half of the world’s dead trees stuffed through your mailbox in an attempt to sell you hearing aids and mobility scooters.

Although a few people will know about companies called ‘Behavioural Market vendors’ and how they maintain data on millions of people collected from numerous sources, from public records through to internet use, the majority will not care.  And the majority of people will not care that every time they use the internet or click on a website, they are leaving a trail of where they went and what they looked at.  But they will start shouting about the lack of privacy on Facebook or Myspace and condemn the evil corporations whilst at the same time letting third market companies such as the profitable and very low profile BlueKai or Acxiom collect even more information about them and refine their databases.  Acxiom alone has about 1500 pieces of information on nearly everyone in its database, including 96% of all Americans.  The datasets are available to anyone to buy and use for their next marketing campaign, allowing them to select their target audience more accurately.  Add in the fact that the electronic address of your computer is tied to a locality and hey, 200 potential BDSM club members who are young and fit because they belong to the local gym and don’t order pizza.

This brings me back to our miscreant mother from Philadelphia.  She must have been pretty silly to think that she could solicit a murderer on Facebook and get away with it.  Not because we all know someone who knows someone or that there are just those mean-spirited people who trawl Facebook for pictures of their children’s’ teachers enjoying themselves, but because just somewhere a marketing database will be adding ‘potential gun purchaser’ to her profile and now, as well as all those advertisements for baby products, ‘Chucks Carnage Contractors’ will be sending her the resumes of Stiletto Stalone and Machine-gun Murphy.  Talk about a full inbox. 

I do wonder, however, why there are so many behavioural specialists and profilers in law enforcement.  Because assuming you can get the purchase requisition through the buying department in the first place, I am sure that some company somewhere could provide you with a list of “Male, University educated Saudi Arabians born in 1957 who live in Pakistan and have purchased pizza, pornography, a subscription to the Nuclear Power newsletter, nitroglycerine and timers”.  It also works for selecting politicians:  Instead of a Criminal Records Check, you could automatically rule out “Austrian Catholic-educated ex-choirboys interested in amateur painting” as your next potential head of state because you just happen not to want to merge your country and don’t want to invite the Americans, British and Russians to the capital for the next 40 odd years.  Just imagine how far this could go:  Want to market specialist laundry services to Californian born and Washington-based college interns working in the Whitehouse with an interest in cigar humidors perhaps? 

We leave electronic fingerprints behind us every time we surf the interwebs.  Try it.  Clear out your internet browser, do a search and then see how many ‘cookies’ are left behind.  One researcher did that and found that looking up the word “Depression” on a dictionary site left behind 223 pieces of code that enabled drug companies to advertise anti-depressants.  It has happened to me:  Some friends wanted to load some maps of the area around my home in France to their GPS and the next day the ads on one of the American newspapers I read was for a  ‘Automobile Récepteur GPS’ together with a list of ‘marchands avec Offre exceptionnelle’.  Absolutely fantastic, but not really what I wanted as my friends had already left and had used a paper map instead.

So the next time you need a hitman, don’t place an advertisement on Facebook, or Myspace or ‘look at me being silly pages’.  You wouldn’t dream of placing a notice in the paper saying “Murderer wanted for Hire, apply to Apt 16 Rue De Joyeux Morte, Saint Armand. tele 12.65.65.45” with your full name.  Because you know that you are likely to get a visit from some very nice policeman with a very big gun and some handcuffs.  The same is true on your social networking site, because even if the prying neighbour missed it when she was distracted with the pictures of that first grade teacher drinking a glass of wine, you can bet your last coin on the fact that companies like BlueKai or Acxiom will see it and flood you with suitable advertisements.  And you will scream and twitter about Facebook, or Myspace or ‘look at me being silly pages’ selling your data when really it was your fault for forgetting to clear your browser’s history in the first place and the real people collecting all that data on you is a marketing company, not the Government or the very nice guys who run social networking sites.

There is a famous quote by Albert Einstein:  “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I am not sure about the universe.”  I think I would want to modify that slightly: “Three things are infinite: the universe, marketing opportunities and human stupidity; and I am not sure about the universe.”

You know is a Fake Mcdonalds Pic

You have all watched the scene in countless crime dramas where our heroes look at an emailed picture of the kidnap victim and say something like “that the bush outside is a ‘bigusbloodyobviousplotdevicium’  that only grows in three places in the States, two of which are in Alaska and the third is …”  No attempt to say that “the sun was at 27 degrees and the shadows prove it had to be taken at 34°1119N 118°85W” will convince you that the FBI didn’t know our victim is in Altadena, California,  as this is close to production company’s studio and the other two places only exist in screen-writers heads.   But what I really marvel at it not the lengths our heroes went to in order to establish the location, using vast database lookups for the angle of the sun and botanical identification, but why on earth they didn’t just look at the metadata on the picture in the first place.

“Huh?” I hear you say. Well, let me explain.   Early photographers used to scratch the place and time on their negatives, but with the advent of digital cameras, this has become automatic with a few lines of code in the image that gives the date, time, camera, exposure and other information about the photograph.  Add in the fact that newer cameras and smart-phones add in location details and the exact serial number of the device used, there should never be any doubt over where our victim is being held, but this simple lookup will obviously make the 44 minute show last only 12 minutes and then there would be less time for the sponsors to try and sell you the new wonder cure for the latest made up disease that only affects America.  And don’t try to say this is too new:  JEIDA published Version 2.1 of the relevant standard the 1990s and this has been universally adopted by camera manufacturers.  The International Press and Telecommunications Council also first defined a standard for media files in 1979.

The reason I mention this is again McDonalds are on the back foot trying to quash a rather silly and obvious slander – and it’s not even Wednesday yet.  A photograph of a sign on a supposed McDonald’s restaurant door claims that (paraphrased) “they charge an extra $1.50 to Americans of obviously African decent due to associated crime”.   This fake picture first appeared a few years ago, yet during this week, over the space of a couple of days the image was sent all over the world to the associated hue and cry with the obvious reference to racism.  It wouldn’t take a genius to establish that this photo was faked and they could probably establish not only when, but where and by whom the photograph was taken.  No?  Let’s debate that.

My mother used to write the names of the people on the back of photographs, that’s why I knew that Jane was the daughter of Mrs Carter and that the butcher was involved somehow, for my mother had put a big question mark and wrote the butcher’s name in brackets after Jane Carter.  Underneath she had written “Church Picnic”, the time and date, the location and that the photo had been taken on Nancy’s camera and not her own (my mother had far too much time on her hands).  As I said, this information is now included automatically in photographs and facial tagging systems can now add names to pictures published electronically.   Another relevant fact that at least two companies are currently compiling databases of the metadata on all the images published on photo-sharing sites like Photo Bucket and Flicker, right down to the actual serial number of the camera, claiming it’s a service to allow users to identify their stolen cameras.

Pretty soon you could join the dots.  The next time there is a photograph of a half naked Senator flexing his muscles in a gym, a quick subpoena of the records would no doubt be able to show that either yes, it was taken by a camera belonging to Candy Melons of the Ladies of Professional Virtue Agency during the 43rd House sitting on the Preservation of Dried Grass Cuttings, World Warfare and Medicare Bill, OR, more than likely, it was taken seven years ago with Chuck’s camera phone late on a Friday night in order to have a joke with the guys as to how the Senator wasn’t working hard enough to develop his six-pack and look how puny he is.  But we all know that the former is more salacious and as they say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story, especially if it’s a politician or a successful international company involved.

But can you imagine what will happen to the data collected by these companies?  Let’s assume that either of the companies involved signs a contract with one of the photo-sharing sites.  How soon will it be before as a service to its customers, the site automatically publishes the properties of the photographs?  Then, when you shared the pictures of you with the ‘Happy Cows in California’ with your friends, they will know that really it was taken three miles from your house on one of those rare sunny days in Wisconsin and you never went on a trip.  Or the photograph on your Facebook page of your date was a stock picture downloaded in order to impress your friends.  And the whole issue of who the photographer was or where it was taken would dissipate because everyone will know that the picture was taken with Chuck’s camera in the foyer of some small town hotel and not in Monte Carlo as claimed.

Something however makes me doubt that.  Because what will happen is that the various start-up companies who collect and store this data will become take-over targets and the information will be sold.  The next time you log into one of the photo-sharing sites and upload an image, you will get loads of emails from camera stores saying “we notice that your Yakihama 1.3mp camera is now so last year and how about the new super 300mp model from CanCasio.”  Or worse, you get raided in the middle of the night by the FBI-CIA-DHS demanding to know why the image of the Senator in bed with the donkey that you sold to the GOP was taken by you in one of the White House bedrooms and exactly how did you get there?

However, if the use of this data can put an end to the endless fake photographs of non-celebrities and silly made up stories of big business, then we should be grateful.  It’s a small price to pay for the end of some of the more blatant lies that circle the globe and the question will not be why is there a photograph of X in Y with Z because we will all be able to tell that X was in A and the picture was taken by Z’s Public Relations manager.   And I’m off to buy an Exif information remover before the world discovers that my camera is not just last year, but last century.

Stop STOP signs for Earth’s sake

It had been a little while since I last heard from my ‘green’ friend, so in case her homemade bathroom tissue recycling plant had exploded, I thought it may be worth checking on her.  She answered her cellphone with an expletive and without pausing for breath, she announced that she wasn’t in the mood to talk as “I’m stuck in traffic driving in town breathing in all these fumes and you just know there’s going to be nowhere to park this truck and my mouth tastes horrible because the batteries have gone in my toothbrush” followed by another expletive and ”we have got to get this traffic off the roads and cut congestion.”  She then told me that anyway she wasn’t going to talk to me because I had called her a ‘green-o-crite’ and ended the call before I could explain why.

I thought of this yesterday when I was driving back home and realised that for all their sound bites about global warming and congestion, Governments are not serious about it.  For if they were, they wouldn’t have just forced me to come to a complete stop on a 40mph road because there a chance that Ethel would want to pull out of her little side street and it wouldn’t be fair to make the residents of those five houses wait for a gap in traffic.  So the traffic planners had made it a compulsory stop in all directions and I had to wait for the girl in front of me to stop shaving her legs and actually start off again.  So did the other five vehicles between her car and mine.  And of course, Ethel wasn’t actually pulling out of her little side street that day because she had lost her false teeth and couldn’t go out without them.  But, just in case she did, 12 vehicles had come to a complete stop, inch forward and stop again, just because some faceless person (probably Ethel’s nephew in line for a nice inheritance) had got out a can of white paint and painted a white stripe across the road.

Anyone who drives in the US or Europe will come across the compulsory stop.  Some of them make sense, for example when at the end of the road where you are about to drive over the cliff or into Ethel’s front parlour.  But there are many many more random stop signs that really could just disappear overnight and help reduce emissions and cut congestion at the same time.  If I didn’t know better, I would swear that the local traffic planners had shares in International Paints or needed that free paintbrush that came with the jumbo sized can of white paint in the local Home Depot.  And this is the paradox:  it’s almost universally known that stopped and slow moving traffic produces more emissions because the internal combustion engine is more efficient at higher speeds and congestion is made much worse by endless waits at traffic signals or having to stop because Ethel needs Fixodent for her false teeth.  Yet we get more and more compulsory stop signs.  It’s not because drivers don’t know it’s a bad idea to pull out into speeding traffic either.

The road to one hotel I use half a mile long and has two lanes in either direction.  It terminates at a four way intersection that is access to the hotel, an apartment complex and the rear entrance to a shopping complex on each of the other three legs respectively.  If you use this road you are unlucky if you see two other vehicles.  Yet half way up this road is an entrance to an office building with a compulsory stop sign in each direction.  And if you miss ignore the stop sign, the very nice police car that sits 100yds further up will do its imitation of a sound and light show and the very nice policeman inside will get out and give you a very nice ticket to appear in court for failing to stop.  It’s a good location for him as he can sit nice and quiet and meet his monthly quota because of a white line across the road.  Just realized, this kills three birds with one stone: It gives the policeman his monthly bonus, keeps the court system working and of course helps the government as well.  The extra fuel you have pointlessly used to stop and start again means you have to buy more, therefore paying more in taxation to the state and the federal government.

You think this is fanciful?  No.  Let me quote an example from the UK:  It took the incoming Administration to get the Department of Transport to allow traffic signals to be phased to allow free movement of traffic by installing sensors to trigger a succession of green lights or ‘green wave’.  Previously the Department for Transport (DfT) had discouraged the systems which reduce fuel use and thus resulting in less tax being paid to the Treasury.  But both Environmental and motoring groups say carbon emissions will be reduced following the official policy change.  A BBC news report states “But now, rather than seeing green wave systems as a ‘cost’ to the public purse, the DfT views them as a benefit” and quotes the Department as saying “Urban traffic control systems, like green wave, help tackle congestion and vehicle emissions in urban areas, and a number are already being progressed as local major schemes.”

It’s after reading this that I call most single issue green campaigners ‘Green-o-crites’ and doubt the willingness of governments to really stave of global warming.  For instead of trying to make me carry paper bags from the grocery store, why can’t we see a simple campaign to ease emissions through simple low cost measures – like removing some of the more pointless and totally unnecessary Stop signs on our highways?  I am sure that there are other spin-offs as well, for the redundant aluminium signs could be melted down for recycling (it takes 20 times as much energy to produce aluminium from ore) and a lot of the estimated $115 billion and 3.9 billion gallons of fuel that was wasted through congestion in the US in 2009 could be saved.  These figures are from a US government authorized study that also estimates the cost to the individual was $808 and 34 hours annually in the same year.

So perhaps the stopping of the stop sign could be one of the more easy targets for my green friend. You can even produce a campaign slogan for it, ‘Stop-signs Trouble Our Planet’.  Traffic congestion cut, emissions cut, aluminum production cut, oil production cut, less deep sea drilling  and I can get to the grocery store and back with my plastic shopping bag full of steaks a lot quicker.  Of course, that is assuming that all those so called environmental activists can actually stop attending conferences in Cancun and campaign for the real things that will help, not insisting that we cover the nation with windmills and stop whatever is the bete noire of the day.