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Archive for November, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, while trying to understand why body scanners are ineffectual, I found this great clip. Trouble is, it’s in German. Now, I could fix this, because I’ve done a fair amount of professional translating, German to English. But more trouble ahead: We were heading into final exams, and I know how much time it would take to insert the subtitles, having done it once before. I figured I might tackle it after I finished grading, even though the main expert’s Bavarian accent is atrocious.

Now that my grades are in, I found the same clip via Clarissa’s Blog – this time with English subtitles. They contain more infelicities than if a pro had done the job, but the translation is perfectly serviceable. (When they say “plaster,” they mean “band-aid,” in American English.) I’m pretty confident the translation isn’t Clarissa’s, but we owe a debt of thanks to this person (I suspect a native German speaker) who took the time to do a conscientious job.

In any event, you will understand more than enough to be alarmed.

This, folks, is why we could double our national debt investing in these scanners and not be appreciably safer.

(Go here if you cannot see the clip.)

If any of my chemist readers is itching to pen a guest post on thermite, I will gladly publish it. (I know there’s at least one of you out there!)

The scanners are, of course, only part of the problem. Another loophole could allow a bad guy to sneak through 24 ounces of Evildoer’s Goo (thermite specifically? I dunno).  Jeff Goldberg recounts this three-way rendezvous between himself, security über-guru Bruce Schneier, and a TSO in Minnepoo:

We took our shoes off and placed our laptops in bins. Schneier took from his bag a 12-ounce container labeled “saline solution.”

“It’s allowed,” he said. Medical supplies, such as saline solution for contact-lens cleaning, don’t fall under the TSA’s three-ounce rule.

“What’s allowed?” I asked. “Saline solution, or bottles labeled saline solution?”

“Bottles labeled saline solution. They won’t check what’s in it, trust me.”

They did not check. As we gathered our belongings, Schneier held up the bottle and said to the nearest security officer, “This is okay, right?” “Yep,” the officer said. “Just have to put it in the tray.”

“Maybe if you lit it on fire, he’d pay attention,” I said, risking arrest for making a joke at airport security. (Later, Schneier would carry two bottles labeled saline solution—24 ounces in total—through security. An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. “Two eyes,” he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.)

(Read the rest here; it’s hysterical, precious, and horrifying, all at once.)

See? If it says saline, it must be saline! And not thermite!

Wherever the new scanners are coming online, they actually intensify an existing threat: that of a bomb aimed at passengers being shepherded toward the security checkpoint. Even if only 20% of flyers are directed to the scanners, without any opt-outs or false alarms – well, that’s enough to slow the lines noticeably. In busy airports, the waiting times will balloon, as will the crowds, once the new scanners become more routinely used. They’re simply slower than the old magnetometer.

Schneier makes this point in the Goldberg piece just cited: we’re creating sitting ducks. In the Thanksgiving edition of the New York Times, Roger Cohen channels Osama bin Laden in a busy U.S. airport and observes:

bin Laden might also wonder at just how stupid it is to assemble huge crowds at the Transportation Security Administration’s airport checkpoints, as if hundreds of people on planes were the only hundreds of people who make plausible targets for terrorists.

Feeling safer yet?

So far Germany, at least, isn’t squandering its money on naked body scanners. But then, its watchdog media (ZDF is a publicly supported TV network) are actually doing their job right.

And really … if the intent of the grope-down was to save us from the underpants bomber, why weren’t “enhanced patdowns” implemented way back in early January 2010, when our memory of him (and our gullibility) had just hit another local maximum? After all, that’s when Chertoff traversed the airwaves to sing the praises of Rapiscan technology. “Enhanced patdowns” are a better bet than the scanner for actually catching the next underpants bombers (though I’m positive there won’t be a clone; next up will be the booty-bomb.)

Of course, I’m not defending the grope-downs. Not at all! I’m just pointing out that the timing of their introduction had nothing to do with “homeland security,” as it has been sold to us. It had everything to do with the first major rollout of the naked body scanners, however. They were a punitive means of guaranteeing compliance and organizational efficiency from the flying herds of American sheeple. Otherwise, we would have gotten the grope back in January, for sure.

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PB&J Caturday

This has got to be my stupidest Caturday entry in a long time – probably ever. I thought this clip might be dredging the deepest, dumbest depths of YouTube, but then I saw the video of the same kitteh dancing to Britney Spears. It gets even worse, folks.

YouTube also offers kittehs singing that old Christian Sunday School tune, “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy down in My Heart.” That one’s unbearable, even for my kids.

But my seven-year-old Tiger adores this PB&J kitteh.

I do not. Especially after five viewings. Watch at your own risk.

(If you can’t see the video, click here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)


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Best Thanksgiving song ever? “Alice’s Restaurant.” Hands down.

(Then again, I can’t think of another T-day song except for “Over the River and through the Woods,” which was written by another kick-ass American dissident, Lydia Maria Child, who fought for the rights of slaves, Indians, and women. Her song wasn’t political – unless I’m missing a subtext – but I do want to know more about her.)

If you don’t know “Alice’s Restaurant” – or if you haven’t listened in a while – here’s Arlo Guthrie playing it a few years ago, with scenes from the “Alice’s Restaurant” movie interspersed. (The original lyrics are here, but Arlo updated and edited them a bit for this performance.)

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

Astonishingly, my very Republican, anti-hippie, draft-dodger-deprecating dad loved this song. He used to play it on the piano all the time when I was a little kid in the early 1970s. My sibs and I would sing along and dance. Only later did I read all the spoken-part lyrics and wonder: what’s a father-raper? By then I was maybe twelve and able to plunk the tune out myself on the piano. I was also abundantly old to realize my dad was not a good person to ask.

“Alice’s Restaurant” has been running through my head the past week or so, and it’s not just in honor of Thanksgiving. I’m thinking it’s time for a new edit of its final lyrics (with apologies to Arlo):

And the only reason I’m singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, or maybe you’re just tryin’ to hop a plane without gettin’ all irradiated and nekkid-scanned. So if you find yourself inspected, detected, infected, neglected and seee-lected for a backscatter scanner,  just sing, “Officer, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.” And opt out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t grope him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re batshit and they won’t grope either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends, they may think it’s a movement.

Maybe it’s not a movement. Maybe it’s just one guy who convinces a couple of other people to opt out.

Or maybe you don’t care about opting out in the airport. Maybe you’re okay with people viewing your, ahem, junk. (Geez, I hate that term as much as I hate “vajayjay!” Now we’re stuck with it!)

Isn’t there something in your life, though, that just has to stop? Isn’t there some occasion that demands you sing a bar of “Alice” and just opt out? (And no, I don’t mean an irritating relative at your Thanksgiving table … though I just learned that my sister’s husband’s father’s third wife conducts training (??!!WTF??!!) for the TSA, so perhaps it’s just as well I missed out on this years family gathering in California, even though I’m aching to be there.)

If you’re ready to sing a bar of “Alice” – well, I’ll join in on the harmony. And I might – just might – sing it solo at the Columbus airport a week from today.

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Just in time for the holiday season, American capitalist ingenuity offers a stylish solution for the traveler who values privacy and/or modesty. Behold:


Jeff Buske of Rocky Flats Gear is selling protective undies. (Via the New York Daily News.) This is the cute low-rise model, shown in always-fashionable Threat Level Orange. The figleaves are made of a powder-coated metal intended to block backscatter x-rays and terahertz waves, along with background alpha and beta radiation. Less sexy designs feature a larger panty and broader figleaf to shield the ovaries. Bras and bra inserts are available too, as are briefs to protect the dudez’ junk. Some products (not these undies) are evocatively priced at $9.11.

I’m a bit creeped out by the other basic design for women, which features hands that are supposed to protect but frankly look like they’re groping. Personally, I would go with the cute figleaves. Check out the five-pack of the low-rise panty, featuring every color on the DHS threat level rainbow!

I think Stephen Colbert seriously needs to do a segment on these undies. Maybe they protect against bears, too?

I have no idea what would happen if you wore one of these through a naked-body scanner. You’d probably get the grope of your lifetime. Still, I marvel at American inventiveness – yet another reason to give thanks!

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You probably caught the story a couple of weeks ago about Dubya seeing the remains of his mothers’ miscarriage in a jar. As New York Magazine reported:

After Barbara Bush suffered a devastating miscarriage, “she said to her teenage kid, ‘Here’s the fetus,’” [George W.] Bush told [interviewer Matt] Lauer, “gesturing as if he were holding the jar.” According to the Post, Bush says he got special permission from his mom to recount the private incident in print. Lauer reads an excerpt from the memoir where Bush, who had to drive his mother to the hospital, wrote, “I never expected to see the remains of the fetus, which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital.” In the interview, he tells Lauer, “There’s no question that affected me, a philosophy that we should respect life,” adding that, “[The anecdote] was really to show how my mom and I developed a relationship.”

As Knitting Clio explains, it’s actually not surprising that Bush mère and père were pro-choice, like other Republicans of their day. Dubya thus couldn’t claim a lifelong affinity for the anti-choicers. Given his fondness for conversion stories (e.g., the tale of how he was saved from alcoholism), it makes perfect sense that Dubya would present a dramatic tale to explain his departure from the family’s pro-choice legacy. Bush Jr. has denied that it was meant as a political morality tale, but it’s been received as one anyway.

What I originally found astonishing about the story was Barbara Bush’s apparent presence of mind. How many of us, in the midst of a miscarriage, would think to catch the fetal remains and put them in a jar? Grisly as it may sound, the remains might have been medically useful, indicating whether the miscarriage was complete, though I imagine her doctor performed a D&C regardless. I thought this was mildly strange but also strangely admirable.

Showing the remains to her son was a bit odder. Dubya offering this story to illustrate an evolving relationship? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother dimension of weird. Once upon a time, my mom showed me her gallstones in a jar. (Said jar resided in her medicine chest for at least decade, and might still be there.) Even accounting for the difference between gallstones and a miscarried fetus, I wouldn’t consider my mother sharing her gallstones a key event in our relationship. Frankly, I thought Dubya would’ve been well advised to just let the story stand as his anti-abortion conversion tale – full stop.

Today, the fetus-in-a-jar story took a turn for the outright bizarre. Here’s Politico’s transcript of Larry King interviewing Barbara Bush (via Shakesville):

KING: You also disclose, Barbara — George discloses something very personal about you, which he says you gave him special permission to write about. He wrote that when you once had a miscarriage, you showed him the fetus in the jar.

BARBARA BUSH: No, really, the truth is …

KING: We touched on it before. But we didn’t elaborate.

BARBARA BUSH: I didn’t put it in the jar.

KING: What?

BARBARA BUSH: It’s not in the library. No …

KING: I know.

BARBARA BUSH: George — Paula put it in the jar. And I was shocked when she gave it to him to. But, you know, memories dim a little bit.

“Paula” is evidently their long-time housekeeper. Why, for heaven’s sake, would Dubya tell the story differently after checking with his mother before publishing it? Barbara says memories dim, but why present this as the truth if they have two different recollections? Methinks her son is just in the habit of truthiness.

But the oddest thing of all is that Barbara Bush’s housekeeper would be handling a miscarried fetus. This raises all sorts of unsavory questions, such as where the fetus resided before it was placed in the jar. Did Paula handle the fetus on her own initiative, or did Barbara ask her to package it? And why would Paula give the fetus to Dubya?

Still left unanswered: the burning question of where that jar is now. I’d originally thought it went to the hospital with Dubya and Barbara – end of story. Now, all we know is “it’s not in the library.” Perhaps in the conservatory? With Professor Plum and a candlestick?

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I’ve been so serious these past two weeks, it’s time to take a brief break to gloat. As my long-time readers know, neither of those modes is my usual. I’m not typically a single-minded terrier, and I try not to be too smug. But sometimes The Kitty just has to pounce on an injustice when it’s fresh and new and potentially reversible. The TSA debacle pushed all of my buttons: Possible harm to my kids? Check. Sexualized violence? Check. Creating novel forms of bodily experience? Ugh – check. Trampling the rule of law? Checkmate!

So let this be my “Moment of Smug,” to paraphrase Colbert. Over the past few days, my post debunking the right-wing meme of TSA favoritism toward Muslim women drew thousands of hits – with this result:

In case you can’t quite read the graphic – and even if you can (because hey, I’m gloating!) – my post, “Not Exempt,” is the first listed on Google after the breaking news links. The first. Number one. Nummer eins. Woo hoo!

Starting tomorrow, instead of all-TSA all-the-time, I’ll be going back to a broader mix of posts. But for a few sweet moments, I’m going to savor my ascendancy over Fox News. Yes, I realize my post floated to the top of Google mainly because 100,000 other posts all regurgitated the same right-wing distortion, while I offered a fresh view. In spite of this, I know many readers merely sought to confirm their wingnutty views. (From my comment spam folder: a commenter with the clever handle “fuck you” tells me to “get fucked.”)

Never mind the haters. I’m still tickled that my information rose above the scum of Islamophobic disinformation. I guess I assumed disinformation always wins because it never fights fair. Some of us feel an inconvenient obligation to the truth, which hobbles you in the fight. It’s lovely to see that sometimes the truth does rise to the top. I’m happier yet that my post might have planted a few seeds of awareness in the minds of people who were sincerely questioning.

Thanks to my readers – old and new – for hanging with me! I’m not dropping the TSA story. You can expect updates when I feel moved to provide them, but they’ll be jumbled in with my usual mishmash of sex, feminism, parenting, kittehs, and any stuff that catches my fancy or pisses me off. For those playing along at home, I’ve put together a list of my TSA posts to date:

Also, if you’re not reading Cogitamus, do pop over there. Lisa Simeone has been covering the abuses of the security state in depth for years. Her co-bloggers are excellent too – among them litbrit, who like me wants Sarah Palin to explain her “wild ride.”

It remains to be seen if the TSA will really be forced to revamp their policies. So far, they seem terrified of losing face. In the meantime, though:

(Smug kitteh from ICHC?)

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Am I the only person struck by the Orwellian weirdness of calling a grope-down an “enhanced” pat-down? The term seems to originate with the TSA. Their pusillanimous shill, “Blogger Bob” at the official TSA blog, ran a post titled “Enhanced Pat-downs” back on August 27. The language is theirs. (Weirdly but typically, in that post Bob never defined what the “enhancements” would entail. Now we know.)

Has anyone else made the connection between “enhanced” pat-downs and “enhanced” interrogation techniques? I haven’t seen anything on the terminological connection, neither in the mainstream media nor the blogs I follow. My husband and I each independently saw a connection. What do you think?

While chipping away at different facets of the TSA debacle, I’ve been haunted by bigger questions – ones much harder to answer than how safe the scanners are or whether the grope-downs constitute “sexual assault.” These are existential questions for the United States, for democracy, for our basic decency and humanity: How did we come to this pass? How is it possible for my country to commit acts that in any other context would be deemed sexual assault? How can Americans allow our government to commit them in our name?

We – the American people – haven’t just become more fearful since 9/11. We’ve become more callous, too. From Afghanistan to Guantanamo, we have tolerated torture that promises to “keep us safe.” No wonder a silent majority appears prepared to tolerate virtual strip-searches and government-sponsored groping. As Adam Serwer argues eloquently at TAPPED, many of those livid at the TSA abuses supported the PATRIOT Act and every subsequent grotesquerie aimed at Muslims and foreigners. These folks are only angry now that we’re feeling the reach – nay, the grab – of the security state on our own flesh.

I have to wonder if Abu Ghraib, in particular, lowered the bar for sexual abuse. The differences between the sexualized torment inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the new TSA procedures are important, of course. President Bush never publicly affirmed the Abu Ghraib abuses, while President Obama has publicly defended the TSA. The torment inflicted on the Abu Ghraib prisoners was considerably more severe, including the outright rape of children, according to Seymour Hersh, who first broke the scandal.

However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Abu Ghraib coarsened us – that it put sexual abuse on the menu of techniques routinely employed by the security state. Sure, Lynndie England went to jail for her deeds, but her commanding general, Janis Karpinski, was merely relieved of her duties. Donald Rumsfeld, who Karpinski said authorized the abuses (and I believe her), lives the comfortable life of a retired war criminal. Rummie’s former boss is currently profiting handsomely from a partially-plagiarized memoir.

At the same time, it’s probably an oversimplification to say the new TSA policies are a direct descendant of Abu Ghraib. It seems equally likely that they sprang from the same source – a willingness to allow democracy, the rule of law, and basic human rights to be abrogated after 9/11.

The post-9/11 climate, in turn, has deeper roots. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a symposium on “Islamophobia” at my university. One speaker said that the hatreds that took hold after 9/11 violate America’s greatest values. Another speaker contended that our paranoid responses are very American indeed, reaching back to the xenophobia of the so-called Progressive Era and beyond.

They were both right.

The United States has a tradition of championing justice and equality, liberty and privacy. It also has a tradition of racism, inequality, xenophobia, and willingness to jettison the rule of law in wartime. Unfortunately the gap between the two traditions has often been a gulf between ideals (the first tradition) and practice (the second).

At that forum, we watched an ABC Primetime segment that tested Americans’ willingness to stand up for a Muslim woman being refused service in a shop:

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

If you tear up at the clip – well, I did too. And then I asked myself why civil courage should seem so exceptional and so deeply touching.

I’m beginning to think the public outcry over naked body scanners and grope-downs might just force a change at the TSA. Today, John Pistole finally admitted that the agency went too far in one case where a screener reached inside a woman’s underwear. As these stories multiply, the pressure on Pistole, Napolitano, and Obama will continue to mount.

Let’s say we win the struggle against TSA abuses. Let’s say they agree to keep their hands off our genitals and to reserve the naked-body scanners only for cases where there’s probable cause. What next? What would it take to dismantle the out-of-control security state that spies on its own citizens and kills and tortures brown people overseas, all in the name of freedom? Which tradition will we choose – that of liberty and justice for all, or safety at any price? As a nation, will we continue to be the six people who perpetuated abuse or the twenty-two who stood by silently? Or will we have the courage to become the thirteen who spoke up?

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