Wednesday, November 24, 2010


TSA searches

There's been a lot of talk lately about the new TSA guidelines for inspecting air travelers.  (Briefly, submit to an invasive X-ray scan -- which has unknown risks for radiation exposure, and is known to produce de facto nude pictures, which the TSA have tried to keep off the Internet with limited success -- or submit to an invasive pat-down, which is apparently thorough enough to warrant an instant sexual harrassment lawsuit anywhere else.)

Since I'm an Israeli citizen, you already know where I stand on such nonsense.  Israel has a proven system, which has worked extremely well for the past forty years, in which the security risks are the only ones getting the pat-downs -- with human beings deciding who the security risks are, and on the whole doing an excellent job.

It's true that the Israeli system -- described in detail here -- is difficult to scale, and is in fact well-suited to the thousands of travelers Israel might see on a given day, not the tens of millions who pass through American airports every day.  Personally, I think that this is a excellent opportunity for hi-tech solutions.  (We already have, so I hear, computers smart enough to recognize a particular human face a high percentage of the time.  So we ought to be able to scan crowds at airports, looking for the faces of known terrorists, and alerting a security officer if one is spotted.  Could we enhance such systems, so as to identify suspicious behavior?  I think we could.)

I hasten to add that such electronic systems should never do more than alert a human being, who would then go to double-check.  But such solutions, so far as I know, have not been attempted yet.  I think it's worth a try.

Here's another thought or two, inspired by Glenn Reynolds' recent Popular Mechanics article on the subject.  The current American system looks for objects that could be used as weapons; the Israeli system looks for people who might employ such weapons.

It seems obvious to me that the latter approach is the correct one, since people are the bottleneck... and since just about anything can be used as a weapon.  (I wouldn't like to think about what new procedures the TSA would put into place, after a skyjacking carried out entirely by unarmed black-belt terrorists.  Would we then have to be handcuffed to our seats for the entire flight?)

And let me observe this -- keeping an eye on the potential weapon, and not on the person wielding it, is the philosophy of gun control.  This is the school of thought that says people are good, but weapons are bad, and that we must remove all weapons in order to deal with violent crime.

This philosophy sounds good, but has never been borne out by experience.  Communities with heavy gun control tend to have higher rates of violent crime, because armed criminals know that their victims will be unarmed.

So now we are trying this same failed philosophy on our airliners, by disarming the law-abiding passengers, so that in the process we'll also (hopefully) disarm any would-be terrorist hidden among them.  We're also inconveniencing the law-abiding in a major way by depriving them of anything that has been used before as a weapon... thereby basing our security on the notion that the terrorists won't come up with anything new.

And, in the process, we're seeing what gun advocates have always predicted we'd see.  It's impossible to remove all guns from society, they say... but even if you could, you'd then see the strong prey on the weak with knives, with chains, with iron bars, and anything else they can get their hands on.  No matter how many of these things you outlaw, the outlaws will find something they can use to overpower the innocent.

So we disallowed sharp objects on planes... and got a shoe bomber.  Then we got alerts about explosive liquids, so all liquids were disallowed.  Then we got Captain Underwear, causing the authorities to decide that they must now check our underwear.  Where does this process stop?...  It doesn't.

In what way does this make sense?


Thursday, November 11, 2010


On Gerrymandering

Zombie has a great primer up on gerrymandering -- also known as the Congressional practice of making your district contain only (or nearly only) the voters who support you, even if your district winds up looking like a pretzel.

(Or like a salamander... which is what Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts did, nearly two hundred years ago; hence the name.  See here for more background, and the cartoon that gave the practice its name.  It turns out that Mr. Gerry didn't originate the practice named after him; it was done in 1788, under the direction of none other than Patrick Henry, to keep James Madison out of Congress. )

This is a subject of some sensitivity to me, and not just because I live in the state that made gerrymandering famous.  Some of the most ridiculously gerrymandered Congressional districts in America are here in Massachusetts, and my own -- MA-04, the home of the unfortunately re-elected Barney Frank -- is one of the worst of all.

As Zombie points out, gerrymandering is by no means limited to one party, but it has been the specialty of Democrats for a long time.  This may now change; redistricting of Congress happens every ten years, after the decennial census required by the Constitution, and new districts for each state are drawn up by that state's legislature, where Republicans have made impressive gains.  So in 2011, Republicans will be in a position to get some of their own back.  (There's a spirited discussion going on in Zombie's comments, arguing whether or not Republicans should now gerrymander in their own favor.)

Could Congressional districts be drawn up in a more fair (i.e. nonpartisan) manner?  It seems that mathematicians have been arguing about that for some time, but aren't agreed on the best way to do it.

(I must say, I like some of the proposals offered in Zombie's comments.  This one looks promising -- restrict the census to what the Constitution requires, namely the number of people per household, without ethnic info or voting registration or anything else.  I think it's naive to assume that this would do away with gerrymandering... although it does mean that, if a politician wants to make a "safe" district for himself, he'll need to gather the demographic information on his own, instead of the Federal government doing it for him at taxpayer expense.  I'd like that.)

Personally, I detest the idea of "safe" seats.  There's a reason these people need to stand for re-election every few years, and it should not be a mere formality!  With very few exceptions, I refuse to vote in uncontested elections, and I wish we had a lot fewer of them.  So I'd be against a redistricting solution that preserved "safe" seats, even if the representation is fair (e.g. 45% of the state voting Democrat and 45% of the districts "safe" for Democrats).

Instead, I'd much rather we divvy up the districts themselves.  Every census comes two years after a statewide election, in which we can determine what percentage, statewide, voted for each major party.  Fine; let the redistricting, after the census, try to preserve that ratio, district by district, with a major priority being to keep each district as compact and geographically contiguous as possible.  If it's not feasible -- say, if a state voted exactly 50% Democrat and 50% Republican, and the best we can do for one district is to make it 55% Republican -- then let that be balanced out in another district, which would therefore be 55% Democrat.

Neoneocon has more to say on this, here and here.  And Zombie has posted Part II of the previous essay, listing ten of the worst gerrymandered districts, ten more that don't even bother to be contiguous (have they no shame??)... and some ridiculous honorable mentions.  (I'm surprised to see that only one Massachusetts district made the cut, and for an honorable mention at that... although sure enough, it's mine, MA-04.)


Wednesday, November 03, 2010


The Day After The Election



With Congress firmly in Republican hands, and the Senate still controlled by the Democrats, we can expect some old-fashioned Capitol Hill gridlock -- which, to those of us who think the government has been doing all too much, is not a bad thing.

It does mean that the Republicans won't have much of a chance of undoing President Obama's massive changes of the past two years -- but, given that there was never a chance of Republicans getting a veto-proof majority in the Senate, that wasn't really in the cards anyway.

Yesterday's conservative radio commenters were hoping for better results, and seemed very concerned that the Republican party would misinterpret this as a victory for them.  It's not -- it's a rebuke of the Democrats, and not an overwhelming one at that.  The big story this year was of the Tea Party people, who stood up across America and declared that they'd been Taxed Enough Already... and were willing to do something about it.

No doubt there will be establishment Republicans who miss the message, and continue to contribute to out-of-control spending.  There will also be Tea Party candidates, now Senators and Congressmen, who distance themselves from that label; every new group on Capitol Hill has a few who quickly forget why they were sent there.  But hopefully, this will be just about right -- the Congressional Republicans have enough power to assert themselves against the Administration, but not so much that they'd lose sight of the basics.

Congress now has a job to do -- to stop the overreaching Obama Administration from overreaching any further.  We'll see if they are up to it.

It'll be interesting now, as well, to see the President's reaction.  Now would be the time for him to reach across the aisle, something he's so far been very resistant to doing.  It would also be a time for him to be gracious, acknowledge that The People Have Spoken, and pay attention to what they are saying.

Personally, I don't think he'll do it; it's not his style.  I hope I'm wrong.

In the meantime, it seems that Massachusetts has reverted back to its status as a Democrat stronghold.  Governor Deval Patrick (known locally as Obama-lite) is back, as is my Congressman whom I despise, Barney Frank.  It's too bad.  But perhaps I should have expected it.

One more thing to watch out for -- what will the House and Senate do, between now and January?  Will this be a lame duck session that acts like a lame duck, as most of them do?  Or will they try to push forward with as much overtaxing, overreaching, and overspending as possible while they still can?  There have been many dark predictions of the latter.  Stay tuned.

UPDATE:  The President has responded, sounding as though he may indeed be more willing to compromise with Republicans than he has in the past.

UPDATE 2:  Nicely put!
Barack Obama helped elect 255 Democrats to the House in 2008. This year, he helped elect 240 Republicans to the House.

Now that’s bipartisanship.


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