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January 19, 2006

Paranoia in the Wilderness

While Congress is using one hand to thrash W about his tendency to eavesdrop in ways that may not be entirely consistent with the framers' intent, they're doling out cash to the Department of Homeland Security with the other so we can enjoy enhanced surveillance on the sidestreets of even the nation's smallest burb.   
Today's Washington Post includes detailed coverage of the heartwarming story.  You see, DHS has lots of money to spend on state and local security-enhancing measures - $750M this year last time I checked.  Most towns choose to spend this bounty on boring stuff like police radios and the occasional jet.  But many have now decided that no nook is to small to escape notice, preferably assisted by klieg lights and a zoom lens.  And local first responders are learning that staring at fifteen video displays on an eight hour shift is more stimulating than a six pack of Dunkin' Donuts java.  Friends and family do such unpredictable things when observed unobtrusively in their native habitat.

What Happened to the Stoplights?
The police chief isn't helping to make the case for his department when he says things like this:  "People don't notice things, now technology is there to do that."  Hmmm.  Aren't cops supposed to notice things?  Isn't that what they're getting paid for?  Maybe, but according to Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, "nothing will be happening most of the time. Multiply that by several cameras with nothing happening, all the time."  Mr. Scott, who gets federal funding to write guidelines for police procedures, is never happy when the need for procedures is replaced by the need for software.

To be fair, the locals are in a real pickle.  The money from DHS is flowing at a rate that is causing them to scurry around wildly looking for overflow receptacles.   "It was difficult to be able to find something to use the money for," said Ridgely, MD police chief Merl Evans.  DHS kind of insists that the money be used for "target hardening" and "the cameras fit in real nice."  So does a Viagra prescription, and it's a whole lot cheaper.
Bellows Falls, VT, which the Post turns into a poster child for insecurity, has just made the prudent decision to place sixteen video cameras on guard duty, which doesn't sound like many until you discover that the nation's capitol only has nineteen and the BFPD gets by with eight full-time humans on patrol.  If you assume every two cameras is the functional equivalent of one strapping gumshoe, the BFPD might find itself voted into oblivion at the next meeting of the Bellows Falls town council, whose members, unlike DHS, come face-to-face with the taxpayers' wrath up close and personal.
Bellows Falls, Safe and Secure
Well, if nothing else the videos are providing much-needed entertainment for the men in blue.  Chief D. L. Meadows has fond memories of the time he nabbed a crime in progress.  "I was sitting in my office, and watched him break and run" as officers arrived, Meadows said. "It was great. I mean, I enjoyed it."  What/who did this guy break?  And why did he enjoy it?  Now the locals don't have to wait until Saturday night to get their fix of Cops.

But local folk, terrified of roving bands of hoodlums on rural streets, need no more convincing then this:

"Within the last two or three years, we've had one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight -- at least eight windows broken" downtown, said Patricia A. Fowler, 56, co-owner of Village Square Booksellers. She went on, "We know we have a problem, and maybe this will solve the problem."

We now know with absolute precision that the number of windows broken in Bellows Falls during this crime spree lies somewhere between 0 and another impossibly small number and that Patricia will gladly sacrifice her personal privacy in a hopeless quest for a negative crime rate.  It amazes me sometimes how little Americans value their liberties.
Hi, Honey
Some privacy advocates are concerned by the lack of clear surveillance policies.  And depending on where the prying eyes are pointed things could get dicey.  "Hey Chief, isn't that your wife with Trooper Jones leaving the Motel 6?  Again?"
January 23, 2006

Intelligence Prevails!

Somewhere in the far reaches of Bethesda, MD, cloaked in an impenetrable shroud of secrecy lies a humble agency called the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.  When I ran Google Earth on their address, I got a nice hi-res image of their campus on my screen, but every attempt I made to save it so I could post it on the site led to the results shown to the right.  This is a crew that doesn't want to be found.
And maybe for good reason.  The NGA, not to be confused with the NSA, is in a pretty straitforward business.  They take detailed pictures, mostly from satellites, and make these images available to those having a need to know.  Many of these folks happen to work over in Fort Meade, the epicenter of the NSA.  While the NSA is engulfed in controversy, the NGA is going through an agency makeover with corporate overtones.  

I remember working at a company called Bellcore.  Somewhere along the line our executives got it into their heads that our culture needed a bit of spiffing up.  More like an overhaul.  So they hired a bunch of consultants who injected a scripted serum called the "Bellcore Way" into our arteries.  This crew evidently moved from victim to victim perpetrated this crime, each time changing the title to "X" Way, X being the name of the unfortunate firm undergoing cultural shock therapy.  A word to the wise:  when your executives have decided that you're so far gone that they need to remake your culture, it's time to polish up your resume.  Even if they're right, the place will be crawling with management consultants that will make your life miserable and you're probably too far gone for any consultant to fix you up right anyway.  Jump!

Well, it looks like the "X Way" team found the NGA.  This otherwise profoundly secretive organization has proudly announced the establishment of a new "Vision Statement".  This is usually the first step in the "X Way" road to hell.  It customarily reads like the forced confession of a fallen communist apparatchik.  Here are the key goals, followed by my customary smarmy commentary:

Remember, this is only step 1 in the 14 step NGA Way process.  Think of the agony that awaits these wretched souls.  By June there will be blood on the streets of Bethesda.

The NGA At Night
January 25, 2006

Creative Extermination

The Germans have found a wonderful new pest control technology, and it avoids the use of those messy and toxic insecticides!  Scientists at the Max Planck Society have learned that plants will kindly permit their genes to be manipulated in a way that causes them to emit a curious smell when they are infested with a particular variety of voracious caterpillar.  The odor attracts another species of insect that exterminates the parasite.  Here it is, strait from the press release:
What twisted mind thought this insidious scheme up?  The hapless caterpillar settles in for a hearty meal, the enjoyment of which ironically triggers the release of the gas that will lead to his demise.  But it doesn't end there.  Like Odysseus and his crew caught in the trance of a Siren's Smell, killer wasps make a nest of the helpless creature, who is probably beginning to suspect a trap by now.  Too late.  The nesting process results in a slow, painful death as hundreds of hungry wasp babies gradually consume the host.  Had enough?  I haven't.  Now that the wasp babies have made a meal of their host where are they going to turn for food?  So the process ends with the mass starvation of a generation of wasps.  Can you imagine a more grim spectacle?  Where's the DDT.

This mutation can turn up naturally in humans.  My wife has discovered that I'm blessed with the "insecticide gene".  Seems that when I've ingested some spicy or noxious new recipe to which my body has yet to build up a resistance I'm prone to my own particular brand of emission.  The "cry for help" attracts its own wasps - in this case my angry spouse.  She has tried to beat the gene out of me, but it's a stubborn bit of DNA.

What's That Buzzing Sound?
"Corn plants emit a cocktail of scents when they are attacked by certain pests, such as a caterpillar known as the Egyptian cotton leaf worm. Parasitic wasps use these plant scents to localize the caterpillar and deposit their eggs on it, so that their offspring can feed on the caterpillar. Soon after, the caterpillar dies and the plant is relieved from its attacker."
Avian Flu Update

Last time we talked the avian flu was mutating in strange and potentially dangerous ways in Turkey.  The good news then was that the virus had not mutated quite enough to cause concern.  Now we have a few more details - turns out there are three mutations one of which "allows the flu virus to bind to the receptors on the surface of its host's cells."  That's bad.  And yet Maria Cheng, of the World Health Organization (WHO), said, "it is not clear what role this particular change plays."  I've got my hand up.  The role it plays is that it causes the virus to bind to US.  Not birds.  That seems clear enough to me.  Peole seem to be paranoid about all the wrong things these days.  Video surveillance cameras aren't going to protect us against a domestic avian flu outbreak.
January 26, 2006

Neither Snow, Nor Rain, Nor . . . 

The US Postal Service has a great reputation for braving the harshest elements in a Herculean effort to deliver our junk mail.  Every now and then they encounter a situation that causes them to abandon their lonely, bracing trek.  Like the other day when a kid was running around South Troy, VT with a BB gun, which led the local postmaster to declare a temporary lockdown.  As Ralphie's mom was wont to say - "Somebody might have got his eye shot out!"
Quote of the Day

The Wash Post reports that BB&T, a large bank that does lots of business in the DC metro area, has decided to abandon financing ventures in which municipalities are using eminent domain to evict hapless property owners.  This was positioned on the front page of the business section as a move by BB&T to take a stand on the right of governments to throw you out of your house whenever it suits their purpose.  Here's the quote, direct from the lips of W. Kendall Chalk, chief credit officer for BB&T:: 

Say Your Prayers, Letterdude
This incident is eerily like the closing scene from "A Christmas Story", in which Ralphie very nearly does shoot his eye out by stupidly shooting his new Red Rider at a metal sign and watching the errant BB fly back into his glasses.  The kids in South Troy are up to a bit less good.  This one in particular was wandering around taking potshots at street signs and other common BB targets when one bounced off and hit an employee of the Postal Service.  This is probably a felony and, given the security fad and all, I would have expected a full mobilization of the VT National Guard.  The fact that they're all in Iraq may have dimmed those prospects.  The postmaster did the next best thing and mobilized South Troy's finest while halting mail deliver in the town until the fiend was apprehended, which took place more than 4 hours after the shooting..  
The South Troy Record-News quotes Det.. Sgt. John Cooney:  "It was a good cooperative effort between the agencies leading to some peace of mind for the neighborhood."  In a place like South Troy I would think they get just about all the peace of mind they're inclined to handle.  To the contrary, I'd expect them to embrace a bit of excitement and horseplay.

I guess the Postal Service just ain't what it used to be.  According to their spokesperson, Maureen Marion. "From the Postal Service's perspective, whenever there's a safety issue we will suspend delivery in the area where that safety issue takes place until such time as we can come to a resolution."  Not taking any chances, are they?

"Our number one concern is a philosophical and principle-based one.  We do a large amount of commercial lending. . . . There is the potential for abuse of eminent domain."
Let's parse that:

"Our number one concern is a philosophical and principle based one" - Translation:  We're doing this for altruistic reasons, - yeah, we'll probably lose some money, but somebody has to draw the line somewhere and, dammit, this is it.

"We do a large amount of commercial lending.  There is the potential for abuse of eminent domain." - Translation:  Most of our business is really retail banking - you know, the people who are pissed because of that Court decision - so we've got nothing to lose here.  This makes good business sense.

January 30, 2006

The Sad State of Airline Food

You know airline food is getting bad when passengers turn to their traveling companions to supplement the meager, unappetizing fare laid before them by harried flight attendants.  I just endured a flight from DC to Maui - eleven hours of culinary wasteland now thankfully behind me as I discover wonderful new things like the "Wailea Itch", a bourbon, rum, fruit juice concoction that comes complete with an umbrella, tropical fruits, and a back scratcher - the latter presumably to satisfy the resultant itch.  I gave back the scratcher and asked for a refill.  But at no time during my journey was I so desperate that I resorted to cannibalism.  Alas, others are not so fortunate.
My Favorite Airlplane Fare
Some guy in Fort Lauderdale got so fed up with his meal that he leaned over and took a bite out of his seatmate.  This occurred while the plane was still sitting on the tarmac.  Having filled up on human flesh, the loon takes a dive onto the runway.  To be fair, the flight was bound for Newark, so the guy didn't have Maui to look forward to.  Though he was taken to the hospital, the Broward County sheriff's office would make no comment on his condition.  I'd venture to say that this fellow was in a condition that was considerably less comfortable than that which he enjoyed before his meal;  that those Broward County sheriff's deputies caused him to regret ever thinking about munching on his traveling companion and advised him that, next time the urge strikes him, he should make sure to indulge in a jurisdiction far from Broward.  In short, this guy will not be welcome in Broward County.  Let's hope he doesn't show up in Maui.

A short one today - I'm in Maui, after all, and I've can hear the surf.
February 1, 2006

One More Reasons to Listen To Your Mother

Remember how mom used to bug you to tie your laces so you wouldn't trip and scrape your knee?  This is a lesson most of us have learned the hard way despite mom's plaintive admonitions.  Some guy in England is still learning, and there's no reason to believe that he is now acquainted with the error of his ways.  He was browsing around the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where many priceless artifacts are on display.  Naturally, his shoes are a knot short of fully laced, so the first staircase he encounters presents a journey that ends with the destruction of a group of priceless Qing Dynasty vases, which happened to be sitting precariously on a window ledge just waiting for the useful idiot.
The Fitzwilliam Exhibit Hall
There's a couple of things to be learned from this episode.  First, listen to you mother.  Second, if you're the curator of a prestigious museum with responsibility for some of the world's greatest treasures, don't leave them sitting around on windowsills.  It's OK to put them behind glass, preferable at a safe distance from well-known hazards like staircases and the like.  This is not a "Please Touch" museum for kiddies.

I'd say the perpetrator probably hasn't learned his lesson.  According to Reuters the dolt "left the museum shaken but undamaged".  I can't imagine some guy breaking stuff at the Smithsonian and leaving in anything less than a state of utter disrepair inflicted by former Marines with residual testosterone to soak up on hapless idiots.  The Fitzwilliam curator, Duncan Robinson, had this to say:  "It was a most unfortunate and regrettable accident but we are glad that the visitor involved was able to leave the museum unharmed."  Doesn't it strike you that the balance between life and property may be tilted a bit to the right in Duncan's mind?  The only thing he left out was his relief that the vases were there to break the clumsy oaf's fall.  What's a priceless vase if it spares a broken bone or two?  

Mr. Robinson also had a word or two for the folks out there who are bound to criticize the museum's display technology - "Whilst the method of displaying objects is always under review, it is important not to over-react and make the Museum's collections less accessible to the visiting public."  Once again, maybe just a slight too permissive for comfort.

Well, I'm being pretty hard on this English guy but I was once an idiot and I haven't renounced my credentials.  Once when I was traveling to Greece on business we visited the Parthenon, where they have lots of marble busts on display (the ones the English didn't take back to the British Museum).  Idiot that I am, I'm thinking that these great marble busts from ancient Greece are there for the touching.  After all, you can walk right up to them!  When you get that close, it's hard to keep your hands off, which I didn't.  One difference between Greek security guards and English security guards - the Greeks have guns.  And, while I'm sure they're not afraid to use them, I had no interest in testing the hypothesis.  I only touched one of those Greek busts, and I didn't come anywhere near breaking it.  Since I didn't get arrested, I have to admit it was worth it.