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.


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” 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.

Your name here arena

Anyone who has free time as a tourist in Chicago will obviously have a list of things to do and see, either partaking of the more cultural activities and enjoying some of the best natural history museums in the world, some great food or just marvelling at the skyscrapers that dominate the city, that based on average heights, gives Chicago the highest skyline in the world.  Obviously you will want to visit the observation deck in the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the US and the fifth tallest in the world.  Except that you cannot visit the Sears Tower any more and will have to make do with the Willis Tower instead.  Because the ‘naming rights’ have changed and even though the Sears Roebuck moved out of the building seventeen years earlier, the London based insurer decided to rename the building after itself.   

 It’s probably understandable that there are reasons for changing a name.  Wives often do it to remove their former married names, cities do it to remove the stigma of a dictatorship, for example Volgograd was formerly Stalingrad, even whole countries have done it following independence or to return to its original name, Zimbabwe was formally Rhodesia and its capital was Salisbury, not Harare.  Byzantium became Constantinople (it was a new city) which is now Istanbul, the original name in the Turkish language.  But the Sears Corporation was not overthrown by the proud freedom fighters of Willis Group Holdings yet against the wishes of over 97,000 people in the Facebook group against the name change, Willis Group still insisted on changing the name of the building from Sears Tower to Willis Tower.  And in fifteen years, the ‘naming rights’ will be available again, so the Sears – Willis tower may even become the ‘Cryptothinking Real American Palace’  tower and I am sure that there could be an acronym for short.

The whole issue of ‘naming rights’ is most prevalent in sporting arenas.  You can visit the UK and watch Darlington play soccer at the Williamson Motors Stadium,  I mean the Darlington Arena, no wait, it’s the 96.6 TFM Darlington Arena, make that the Balfour Webnet Darlington Arena, sorry, I meant the Northern Echo Darlington Arena.  At least that has Darlington in the name:  How about a visit to the Sun Life Stadium, formerly called the Joe Robbie Stadium, Pro Player Park, Pro Player Stadium, Dolphin Stadium and Land Shark Stadium in Florida?  Some of my friends in California now watch bands and basketball at the Power Balance Pavilion, not the Arco Arena.  The right to put your name on a building is big business.  On my visits to Indianapolis, I watched the construction of the new home for the Indianapolis Colts, named for the next 20 years Lucas Stadium at a cost of 121 million dollars. (Oh, and even the Indianapolis Colts were the Brooklyn Colts and owe their colors and origins to the Dallas Texans.)

Even airports are getting in on the act.  You cannot fly to Liverpool or Belfast City airports anymore; it’s now John Lennon and George Best airports respectively.  Orange County Airport in California is now called John Wayne Airport and ‘shurely’ that should have been Marion Robert Morrison, his real name.  Several American aviation authorities  are seriously thinking of allowing the naming rights to their to be sold, in Kansas, Detroit and Utah, although Phoenix did refuse to allow the Sky Harbor Airport to become Ashley Madison Airport, turning down $10m from the infidelity dating site of the same name.  But let’s assume this became a trend:  can you imagine how many children would be denied visits to Disneyland because their parents did not want them exposed to advertising when Orlando International becomes McDonalds Happy Airport with all the TSA security guards dressed in Ronald McDonald outfits?

But what happens when companies change their name or just go out of favor?  This happens frequently, for example the Philip Morris tobacco conglomerate is now Altria Group and the CIA and US State department contractor Blackwater has become Xe Services llc, pronounced ‘zee’.  How many cab drivers will reply “Which freaking one?” in response to “Xe Building, please”   Corporate headquarters names have changed however, for example, the  Standard Oil Building in Chicago  became the Amoco building following the change in the company name, which made its nickname of ‘The Big Stan’ a bit silly, especially as it is now the Aon Center.  In Houston, Enron Field became Minute Maid Park, but you could also go to the Toyota Center or Reliant Energy’s Arena.  There is also the Verizon Wireless Theater.  So when the world boycotts cars, bans oil, stops drinking Coca-Cola’s products and Verizon changes its name yet again, will all the street maps for downtown Houston become out of date overnight and FEMA drafted in to help the hundreds of Texans lost in their own city?

 But please, can we now stop?  It can go too far and anyway the locals will not keep up.  There is a pub in Wales that is known to all as ‘The Rat Trap’ and despite an attempt to change it the present owners were forced to revert to the former name because no one knew where it was.  On top, some places become so iconic or notorious that their names will never change, for example The Chrysler Building in New York or the remains of the Holiday Inn and St Georges Hotels in Beirut.  So no attempt at corporate branding will work here and anyway you may be better off as being known for owning the building:   The MGM Grand, The Bellagio and The Luxor casinos are iconic and all owned by the same company.  Purpose built, famous buildings designed with individual names.  Unlike the four Fifth Third sports fields or the four Verizon Centers or the various Coca Cola stadia worldwide.

 It doesn’t of course stop with buildings.  Literary prizes, sports leagues, even racing teams are named after those willing to pay.  Perhaps I could join in.  For a small nominal fee paid to my Cayman Islands bank account, you could have your name on the top of this post.  You can replace Cryptothinking with the name of your company, just imagine, you could be reading the Burger King Mid Atlantic Thought Generator, assuming of course you wouldn’t feel compelled to rush out and buy a beef sandwich or wasn’t held back because you work for McDonalds and they would disapprove of you frequenting a rival’s establishment.


There cannot be any doubt about it, the Americans are very proud of their country.  Wherever you travel in the United States, the Stars and Stripes are flown proudly, unlike in the United Kingdom where flying the Union flag is tantamount to admitting xenophobia and in England in particular, flying the English Cross of St George is accepted as saying that you are a ultra right wing fascist.  There are countless stories in the press where the over-zealous politically correct brigade have banned children from displaying flags least it causes offence – and that  even  highlighted in a report to the UK Government.  It went so far that during the 2006 soccer World Cup, some retailers, schools and major employers banned the flag completely.  Try doing that in America – there would soon be some sharp reminders and possible demonstrations of just how the west was won in the first place.

Americans are also proud of being Americans and take pride in their nation’s achievements – even those that are not, like single-handedly winning World War Two, cracking the Enigma Code and inventing the light bulb and jet engine, except that World War Two was a team effort, the British cracked the Enigma code and captured an Enigma machine before the Americans even entered the war and of course it was Brits Swan and Whittle who devoloped the light bulb and the jet engine respectively.  But I digress.  Americans are proud to be Americans and the 1,046,539 people who naturalized in 2008 probably are as well.  So I am surprised at how a lot of Americans try to dilute their nationality.

When I am asked the nationality of my family, I just say what’s on my passport, because that is what we are.  In alphabetical order, my family has American, Cherokee, English, Irish, German, Scottish and Welsh bloodlines, not including aunties and cousins, where you can throw in Caribbean and Moor as well.  That’s just the ones we know about, although I am sure that genealogists with enough time in the vaults in Utah would be able to find quite a few other nationalities as well.  Even the main family surname has possible French origins.  So, what nationality was the first man on the moon?  No-one is going to say Scottish-Irish-German-American (Neil Armstrong’s lineage), they just say American.  And that is my point.

Americans have a habit of saying that they are either Afro-American or Irish-American or Italian- American or <insert nationality here>-American.  A lot of fuss was made over President Obama as he is the first “Afro-American” President and what do you call him?  Well to my mind its just “Mr President”, the 44th holder of that office and the 39th American to do so (the first five US Presidents were Welsh and there may be another one if Hillary Clinton gains the Oval Office).  President Obama also claimed Irish roots on his recent visit there, so does that make him Irish-Afro-American? Wait, his father was African Arab from Kenya and his mother is from English decent.  So, should it English-Irish-Arabian-Afro-American? (Technically, President Obama is 50% Caucasian from his mother, 43.75% Arabic, and 6.25% African from his father.)  No.  Give me a break.  He was born in America to an American mother.  So he is an American. Period.

Now I can understand the imperative to maintain the (civilised) cultures and traditional values of your family, which often explains the reason the majority of us choose our belief system.  This is your heritage and the family history is important, especially when you need to explain to your children that they are not in poverty when they can’t have the latest X-Box game – poverty is what your grandfather knew living in that cave somewhere in Europe toiling 27 hours a day to put a meal on the table once a week.  From a shared heritage and history comes the nation and it shapes the society.  The US Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights that grants Americans their freedoms was mostly signed by Welshmen based on their values of fair play and liberty, although I suspect more as a way of sticking it to the English and take that for invading and banning the Welsh language.  Canada’s and Australia’s constitutions and governmental systems closely mirror Britain’s because that reflects the cultural history and the origins of a lot of the early settlers.  But you don’t hear people saying ‘British-Australian” in Sydney or “Australian-British” in London, in the same way as you don’t hear Welsh-British or Scottish-British or African-British.  

Into this must factor time.  If you are ‘fresh off the boat’, it’s understandable that you class yourself as “X living in Y”.  But your children will be Y living in Y and so will their children.  You wouldn’t dream of walking up to someone in Louisiana and saying they are not American because FIVE generations ago their father was kidnapped in Africa and brought to the US.  So why on Earth should that same person, five generations later, still identify as Afro-American, surely after nearly one and a half centuries it should be American, or at a push, American-African.   (The only reason aboriginal Americans say American Indian is to distinguish from Indians from India.)  As the generations pass and various families mix through marriage, more and more bloodlines are introduced anyway, so where do you stop? Will there be a huge family argument over whether little Chuck is Scottish-Irish-German-American or German-Scottish-Irish-American?

No.  I wouldn’t dream of concluding that the actual self-identification of Americans has anything to do with the federal grants and other advantages available as part of the various ‘Affirmative Action’ (or that oxymoron ‘Positive Discrimination’) measures in place, unlike the group of Italian-American professors did at City University of New York when they asked to be added as an ‘affirmative action’ category for ‘promotion and hiring’ in 1976.   If people want to create a nation, then they should be proud of it and willing to say that they are Oliviatanians from Oliviatania.   You have to find a point at which to stop otherwise, if the Christian Bible is true and you go back far enough, we are all Israeli anyway because it was Noah and his sons who populated the Earth after the flood.  Wow.  The first man on the moon was Israeli.  I must rewrite the history books.

If you are Welsh or British or American or Oliviatanian, be that and be proud of it.  By all means carry two passports just in case (you never know when Switzerland is going to invade) but I cannot imagine anyone in North Korea actually admitting they are American until the 101st Airborne get there.  So in the interim, if you are American, be just that.  Because you know there is not enough room on the form to write American-Cherokee-English-Irish-German-Scottish-Welsh and it will stop you having to argue with your grandparents over which order it should be written.

Boycott Kraft? boycott shopping

There are lots of things that we put off doing.  Work (unless our bosses are watching) and paying bills will be the two that will immediately spring to mind, but there is a whole list of things where given the chance, you would prefer to clean the cat’s litter tray before even contemplating of having to do ‘X’.  And ‘X’ isn’t on its own: most of us have a mental list of chores to avoid, in my case starting at ‘A’ and going all the way to ‘ZZ’.  Whilst this list will vary between individuals, I am positive that ‘grocery shopping’ will be in the top ten, just below cleaning the bathroom and slightly above washing the car after its been parked underneath a flock of seagulls all day.  Grocery shopping is not fun anymore and whether you are reading this in Beverly Hills, Beverley in Yorkshire or Bellary in Karnataka, you cannot truthfully deny this.

The first thing you do is have to work out what you want.  In past times this would have been easy, because consumer choice was limited.  When you walked in to the hardware store, you just said “6 candles please,” and the storekeeper would give you half a dozen of whatever he had in the box under the counter.  Today, however, this isn’t that simple, you now have to choose between alter, pillar, scented, un-scented, decorative, dinner….. the list is endless and can someone tell me how on earth Amazon can list 5,310 results for candles alone?  One candle shop boasts over 700 product lines and I suppose answering “Do you want scented or unscented, we have a nice aromatherapy range here…” with “no, I just want some light because my power has been cut off” wouldn’t really be appropriate.  No matter what you buy, you have to spend a lot of time working out what you exactly want.  You can’t just send your kid down the local supermarket to get some milk:  you have to specify which type: “full fat, low fat, reduced fat, fat free, organic, non-organic, lactose free, fortified, calcium enriched or even non dairy.”  By the time you wrote a simple shopping list, you pen has run out of ink, you’ve de-forested half of the States and you could have gone yourself and just about got back in time to go to bed.

That leads into my second point.  After working out what you want to buy, the second question is “where from?”  36 supermarkets in Beverly Hills, 9 in Beverley, 6 in Bellary. (That’s in India, by the way).  You have to answer all sorts of questions in your mind: ‘is my 2 rupees off at Y worth driving there for, or shall I pay three cents more at X so I can get W off on Z’ followed by ‘will I be able to park’, and ‘oh no, it’s 3:30 The place is going to be full of screaming kids in strollers’.  You could still ask your kids to go, but that assumes you could get them out of their rooms and promised enough cash to make them go for you.  Then you know that their choice of where to shop will be based either in the hopes of seeing that good-looking cashier is on duty, you know, the one who asked smiled at you and maybe just be available for a date, or, to avoid that good-looking cashier because they working today and certainly do want to go out on a date.  So, after you have argued with your partner over what to buy, decided where to buy it from and ruled out sending the kids on the grounds of cost, efficiency and the fact that you got tired of asking them, you realize that it’s no good, you have to go yourself.

And this is my third point.  You have to get ready to go and after the mental exercise in drawing up a shopping list and working out where to shop, you now have to decide on what to wear. Your choice of clothing will be based on where you shop, where you live and more importantly, who is likely to see you.  In Benghazi or Baghdad this could just be as simple as putting on a bullet proof vest under your veil, but in most towns and cities, be honest – you dress appropriately.  You can be too overdressed for Wal-Mart (seriously) or too underdressed for Safeway or Waitrose.  You can’t just walk out unshaved or in a pair of flip-flops because you can bet your bottom dollar you are going to bump into your friends from Church or your big boss from work.  And if you are famous or even infamous, you know that lurking outside every supermarket will be someone with a camera just waiting to take your picture and sell it to the Enquirer or the People.  The same applies in Wal-Mart, but the photographs of their customers end up on peopleofwalmart.com unless of course it’s John Travolta.  Nowadays you can’t go shopping for clothes because you have no good clothes to wear.

Which leads straight on to the fourth point, the hazards of shopping.  Assuming you have successfully established a list, worked out where to go and are appropriately dressed, now comes the real danger.  Forget the occasional mis-guided NATO air-strike, because that is rare.  The real dangers are at the supermarket itself, and I don’t mean the risk of photographs.  No, when you get inside, you are faced with the fresh fruit (salmonellae and e-coli), fresh eggs (salmonellae again) and the risk of obesity, heart attacks and diabetes from the abundance of high calorie food on display.  This does not include the caustic acids in the cleaning agents.  Then there is the risk of strains and injury from lifting the gallons of milk or the damage to your ankles from being rear-ended by the person talking on their cell phone whilst pushing a shopping cart.  Isn’t there a law against using a phone whilst driving?  This of course does not include the child in the cart next to you throwing cans on your toes whilst screaming in your ears, making you deaf.

After surviving all that, you carry your plastic bags back to the car, breaking your fingers in the process as the handles cut into your skin.  You then arrive home, only to find that you have been overcharged and you forgot the one thing you really went to get in the first place.  I’m sure that is why Amazon and online grocery shops are so successful: not because of the price, but its really is too much like hard work to go out:  you don’t have to get dressed to sit in front of a computer and you don’t risk being photographed, bombed or running into your boss when you have no makeup on and you are wearing last year’s fashions.

So after you ladled the melted ice-cream back into the container, got shouted at by your partner for forgetting things and put all the goods away, you realize that there is still nothing eat and you are destined to go back out to a drive-through for some burgers.  But that is after you finish cutting up the newspaper to hang behind the door because of course the one thing you intended to buy was a role of bathroom tissue.