Archive for the ‘stupidity’ Category

I kvetch a lot about snow days on this blog, because the North Dakotan girl in me is annoyed and appalled at how my little town in southeast Ohio shuts down as soon as a dozen snowflakes stick to the ground.

But this North Dakotan girl also knows the difference between a snow flurry and a blizzard. When the weather forecasters tell you that a foot and a half of snow is about to whomp your town, you locate your flashlights, make sure you’ve got food in the house, and then you hunker down.

“Hunkering down” ≠ getting in your car and driving.

And so I am amazed and appalled at how New Yorkers compounded their quandary by putting their cars on the streets where snowbanks could form all around them and block the plows. People! When Minneapolis got an equal dump of snow earlier this month, did you see the Minnesotans turning their city streets into impromptu parking lots?

I feel for the folks who are camping out at the airports and train stations. Their predicament was a stroke of rotten luck. But the motorists? Except for those few who were responding to an emergency, they were captured by hubris and willful stupidity, which they then inflicted on the whole city. It makes me think of this very cool puzzle/one-person game my kids got for Christmas, where you try to unsnarl gridlocked traffic …

… except that in real life, there’s negative fun and everyone loses.

Oh, and staying home in a blizzard isn’t a sign of the “wussification of America,” no matter what Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s thinks. Real men are smart enough to hunker down during the storm (again: not in their cars!!). They’ll have plenty of chances to prove their mettle when the digging out begins.

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Those of you with any contact to academia have probably already seen this fascinating first-person exposé of professional plagiarism, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Ed Dante” (whose name is as genuine as “Sungold”) makes a little over $60K annually churning out faux dissertations, term papers, and plain old essays. His story is a fascinating portrait of a guy who makes about 50% more than I do (and my Ph.D. is real!) just by having no scruples.

I’m enough of a dilettante to understand the appeal of conducting research all over the map. I’ve translated texts ranging from marketing blather to the inner workings of a Porsche. I’ve taught a religion class (though my training is in German history and gender studies) and I wrote a dissertation that immersed me in old German medical journals without a lick of formal medical training. So I grok the fun of roaming among every discipline except for math and animal husbandry (Dante’s two no-goes). What I don’t get is how Dante sleeps at night. Then again, with all-nighters right in the job description, I guess the sleep of the just is bound to elude him anyway.

On top of his amorality, Dante tries to shift blame to professors, who he alleges are too checked-out to catch obvious cheaters. This is complete and utter bullcrap. Let’s peer more closely at Dante’s tripartite clientele: spoiled rich kids, unprepared ESL speakers, and native speakers whose education has abjectly failed them. The rich kids are usually capable of the work but too lazy and too moneyed to bother. Dante says that we profs ought to be busting the latter two groups, however, because the disparities between their formal written work and other verbal expression are so glaring.

In rare cases, professors are negligent. My own university had a celebrated plagiarism case a few years back where a certain engineering prof overlooked multiple cases of plagiarism in the theses he supervised. It was celebrated precisely because it was an anomaly – and because the rest of the faculty were furious! The vast majority of my colleagues are adept at spotting plagiarized work and willing to call our students out on it.

So why aren’t we busting Dante’s clients? The reason is not laziness or laxity. It’s the impossibility of proving our case. Students with poor writing skills can avail themselves of tutoring services – and indeed they should, because they can’t expect remedial instruction in their regular classes. But tutoring services muddy the waters. Even the most diligent teacher can’t prove that a student hired a ghostwriter rather than consulting a tutor.

When it comes to garden-variety cut-n-paste Internet-based cheating, though, making the case is a snap. It’s remarkably easy to spot the paper that’s cobbled together from various websites and a student’s own prose. I caught three students cheating this fall. It’s not a pleasure – in fact, I’m always quite upset when I discover plagiarism – but it’s also far from rocket science. You just need to google a suspicious phrase  that jars with the student’s own style, and the source usually pops right up. Sometimes you need to slice and dice the phrase a bit to compensate for slight paraphrasing by the plagiarist.

What does this mean for our students’ educational experience? At Big Think, Pareg and Ayesha Khanna suggest that the easy availability of scholarly and semi-scholarly material online may spell the death of academic integrity as we know it. They fear students will cobble bits of the Web into a serviceable or even honors-level paper.

I think not. Cut-n-paste plagiarizing is easily minimized through three main strategies. You start by including a clear policy on academic integrity in each syllabus, which lays out a definition of the delict and the range of penalties. You then create assignments that resist simple cutting and pasting. I no longer assign a novel in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, for instance, because SparkNotes sadly proved too tempting. The second third (ooops!) strategy is to read carefully for style. The paper plagiarized through Internet bricolage reads like the patchwork that it is. It veers from Wikipedia-style prose to ad-speak, then devolves into jibberish (that would be the hapless student’s original contribution), only to soar to the loftiest heights of poststructuralist theory. Oh, and if your U.S.-American student writes of “colour” or “kerbs,” your next stop better be the Google.

Of course, a few students will still be rich or desperate enough to resort to the Dantes of the world. Their number is declining, I suspect. Most students would rather spend disposable income on fun (often, drink). Most students are not organized enough to engage Dante’s service in a timely way. Instead, they seek refuge in Wikipedia at 3 a.m., not realizing that their profs can read Wikipedia, too. Much as I’d love to see students make use of actual books in the library, at least their over-dependence on Wikipedia is likely to hurt Dante’s business.

At the end of the day, I wonder why anyone bothers to copy from the Web. The results are typically incoherent. Sometimes they’re unintentionally hilarious. My recent favorite? Definitely the paper that tried to explain patriarchy and ancient Roman sexuality with stuff swiped from Conservapedia on pagans, a neo-Pagan site called Nova Roma, and interview material from Starhawk – all unattributed, of course. Hey, I’d love to see Starhawk hobnob with Conservapedia’s founder, Andy Schlafly (spawn of Phyllis!). Thanks to my unfortunate student, I got to experience the next closest thing.

(The title goes back to a post on plagiarism allegations against Barack Obama in 2008. I couldn’t resist recycling it.)

(From ICHC?)

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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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It’s become a cottage industry, this business of coming up with new phrases to fit the acronym TSA. Read the two following stories and see if you can come up with a better title.

Story 1: Multiple breast cancer survivors have reported TSA harassment due to wearing a breast prosthesis. A Charlotte-based flight attendant, Cathy Bossi, underwent an “enhanced” patdown because as a survivor, she worried about radiation exposure from the naked scanners. MSNBC reports:

The TSA screener “put her full hand on my breast and said, ‘What is this?’ ” Bossi told the station. “And I said, ‘It’s my prosthesis because I’ve had breast cancer.’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ll need to show me that.’ “

Bossi said she removed the prosthetic from her bra. She did not take the name of the agent, she said, “because it was just so horrific of an experience, I couldn’t believe someone had done that to me. I’m a flight attendant. I was just trying to get to work.”

This is just one reason why exempting the pilots from screening solves nothing (apart from relieving the government from worrying about the pilots walking out on their jobs). (Bossi gives additional detail on her experience here.)

But there’s more. MSNBC continues:

Marlene McCarthy of Rhode Island said she went through the body scanner and was told by a TSA agent to step aside. In “full view of everyone,” McCarthy said in an e-mail, the agent “immediately put the back of her hand on my right side chest and I explained I wore a prosthesis.

“Then, she put her full hands … one on top and one on the bottom of my ‘breast’ and moved the prosthesis left, right, up, down and said ‘OK.’ I was so humiliated.

And the stories just go on: a woman with a pacemaker, another breast cancer survivor, a man who uses crutches, a woman whose hip replacement hardware trips all the red flags, now more than ever … and that’s just in this one brief MSNBC report.

Story 2: At Detroit’s airport, Thomas Sawyer, a retired special-ed teacher, was selected for secondary screening after his urostomy bag showed up on the naked scanner. A bladder-cancer survivor, he needs to wear this bag to collect urine, since he had to surgically trade in his bladder for more years of life. Here’s how MSNBC reports the rest of his experience:

Due to his medical condition, Sawyer asked to be screened in private. “One officer looked at another, rolled his eyes and said that they really didn’t have any place to take me,” said Sawyer. “After I said again that I’d like privacy, they took me to an office.”

Sawyer wears pants two sizes too large in order to accommodate the medical equipment he wears. He’d taken off his belt to go through the scanner and once in the office with security personnel, his pants fell down around his ankles. “I had to ask twice if it was OK to pull up my shorts,” said Sawyer, “And every time I tried to tell them about my medical condition, they said they didn’t need to know about that.”

Before starting the enhanced pat-down procedure, a security officer did tell him what they were going to do and how they were going to it, but Sawyer said it wasn’t until they asked him to remove his sweatshirt and saw his urostomy bag that they asked any questions about his medical condition.

“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.”

Humiliated, upset and wet, Sawyer said he had to walk through the airport soaked in urine, board his plane and wait until after takeoff before he could clean up.

(Read the whole story here.)

There are so many layers of horror in these stories, I hardly know where to begin.

Anyone who has survived the pain, indignity, and fear of cancer and its treatment deserves nothing but kindness and compassion. I know that first-hand, having seen my spouse and my sister suffer. The same is true for every other disease and disability. People suffer enough from nature’s ravages; why add human callousness to the mix?

Passengers deserve to be heard, not ignored, when they try to explain their medical situation. As far as I can see, the TSA response is repeatedly, hey, we’re just doing our job, so get out of our way. (Subtext: STFU.)

No one – regardless of their physical ability – deserves humiliation. The TSA may appear to be applying policies “consistently” by not exempting passengers with disability or medical conditions, but the ultimate effect is profoundly discriminatory. If you wear a prosthesis or an ostomy bag, your choice is to face humiliation – or remain grounded, regardless of how far away you live from loved ones. The ableist impact of the TSA procedures is yet another instance of ostensibly “same” treatment resulting in gross inequalities.

And how ’bout that vaunted TSA professionalism? There’s no private space available when Mr. Sawyer asks for it. The officer responds with an eye roll. Neither of the two agents have the basic human decency (never mind professionalism!) to apologize.

As for a “private” screening being a right? Mr. Sawyer had to fight for it. Ms. Bossi was given it. Ms. McCarthy never even had a chance to demand it; her humiliation occurred in full public view.

Mr. Sawyer’s experience wasn’t as clearly sexualized as that of the breast cancer survivors, but all of these people are being harmed by the confluence of the rampaging security state with ableism and contempt for bodily autonomy.

One other factor is in play, too: the obviously woeful training of TSA officers. Badtux explains just how perfunctory his own training was when he once began a similar government job. Badtux views the inconsistency of TSA grope-searches results largely from half-assed training. Obviously the erraticness becomes even more egregious as soon as TSA officer lay hands on non-normative bodies: children, gender-variant folks, and people with disabilities.

Be that as it may, the TSA is still in violation of its own policies. Here’s what its website says about “assistive devices and mobility aids”:

  • Security Officers will need to see and touch your prosthetic device, cast or support brace as part of the screening process.
  • Security Officers will not ask nor require you to remove your prosthetic device, cast, or support brace.
  • During the screening process, please do not remove or offer to remove your prosthetic device.
  • You have the option of requesting a private screening at any time during the screening of your prosthetic device, cast or support brace.
  • You have the right to refuse the offer of a private screening; however, you will need to allow the screening to be conducted publicly if you wish to proceed beyond the security checkpoint.

The TSA has clearly violated the second point. Also, re: point one, there’s a difference between touching the device (a breast prosthesis, say) and moving it around in a way that draws public attention to the fact that it is indeed a prosthesis. The TSA also violated the fourth point in these stories.

In the face of the TSA breaking its own rules and violating basic human rights, Obama says only this (again via MSNBC):

“I understand people’s frustrations, and what I’ve said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety. And you also have to think through are there other ways of doing it that are less intrusive,” Obama said.

“But at this point, TSA in consultation with counterterrorism experts have indicated to me that the procedures that they have been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing.”

In other words: underpants bomber! underpants bomber!

Maybe it’s hard to imagine now, President Obama, but someday you too will likely live with a disability. This is not just an issue that affects a few unlucky elderly people. Many people living with disability are young or in their middle years. Disability is in all of our futures, unless we die young and violently. It will touch all of us, whether we’re now temporarily able-bodied, partially disabled, or living with disability 24/7.

There’s got to be a more compassionate course. How ’bout we start with some well-trained bomb-sniffing beagles, serious security for cargo, and real checks of employees working behind-the-scenes at airport? That might keep the TSA so busy, they’d have no time to mess with ostomy bags and prosthetic breasts.

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I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe during this explanation of the new TSA policies:

(Go here if you can’t see the clip.)

It perfectly sums up the Homeland Security response:

Q: So why do I have to go through all of this?

A: 9/11.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

(But hey, what’s with all the questions? Don’t you know loyal Americans just do as they’re told? Have we gone soft since the heyday of that great American, Joe McCarthy?)

This snippet from Colbert includes some of those moments when Colbert’s parody is uncomfortably close to actual bigotry, and you wonder if the audience is laughing with or at homophobia. Ditto for Colbert’s use of “hermaphrodite,” which is exactly the term his character would use, but – ugh.

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

Kudos to Colbert for raising a question that’s been bugging me too: What genius came up with the name “Rapiscan”?

Dave Barry complains in this NPR interview about finding out from the TSA that he’s got a dire physical condition: a blurred groin. Less jokingly, when host Melissa Block repeats the TSA line about the grope searches not being punishment for folks who opt out, Barry replies:

Well, I would say whoever wrote that it’s not punitive was not having his or her groin fondled at the time.

Jessi at The Sexademic has some satirical ideas on how to protest the searches.

Badtux the Snarky Penguin offers some darkly accurate new slogans for the TSA.

And finally, Daniel Solove at the legal blog Concurring Opinions shows us the fun to be had with a TSA Playmobile kit!

Sadly, the TSA Playmo set is no longer sold in stores, so you’ll just have to check out the rest of Solove’s wickedly wonderful post.

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I’m deeply troubled by some of the memes surfacing in the right-wing discussion of the TSA invasion of privacy. The worst is the claim that Muslim women are exempt. That simply is not true.

What is the truth? Well, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has issued some recommendations for Muslim women:

  • If you are selected for secondary screening after you go through the metal detector and it does not go off, and “sss” is not written on your boarding pass, ask the TSA officer if the reason you are being selected is because of your head scarf.
  • In this situation, you may be asked to submit to a pat-down or to go through a full body scanner. If you are selected for the scanner, you may ask to go through a pat-down instead.
  • Before you are patted down, you should remind the TSA officer that they are only supposed to pat down the area in question, in this scenario, your head and neck. They SHOULD NOT subject you to a full-body or partial-body pat-down.
  • You may ask to be taken to a private room for the pat-down procedure.
  • Instead of the pat-down, you can always request to pat down your own scarf, including head and neck area, and have the officers perform a chemical swipe of your hands.

Note that these are recommendations for how Muslim women should respond! I have copied them verbatim. They are not phrased as policy demands on the TSA, and CAIR is most assuredly not a major Beltway player. The recommendations focus solely on how individual women can respond, and they’re almost painfully polite: “you may ask” and “you can always request.” Even Miss Manners would be more assertive! (In fact, Miss Manners has a keen sense of social justice. She would surely note that “a private room” is actually a right that already exists under TSA rules.)

And yet, the headlines at right-wing sites announce “CAIR: TSA Can’t Pat Down Muslim Women” (that’s Fox News, not the extreme fringe).

How is the TSA actually responding? Here’s how Janet Napolitano answered when a reporter asked whether Muslim women would be exempt:

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

Napolitano’s key quote from the video:

Adjustments will be made where they need to be made. With respect to that particular issue [the sensitivities of Muslim women], I think there will be more to come.

That’s a far cry from announcing an exemption.

Meanwhile, during yesterday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearings, TSA chief John Pistole clearly stated that no one would be exempted from the new screening protocols on religious grounds.

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN (R-NEVADA): Are you going to, you know, allow certain groups to be exempted from that because of, you know, religious beliefs?

PISTOLE: Senator, we try to be sensitive to each individual and in groups that have particular sensitivities as to whether it’s head-wear or certain garb or sensitivities about being viewed or touched and everything. So we try to be sensitive to those issues. At the same time, the bottom line is we have to ensure that each person getting on each flight has been properly screened. And so we have options such as, if somebody does not want to go through the advanced imaging technology, it is optional. They would just do the walk- through metal detector and then–and have a pat-down that would identify any possible items.

They can request private screenings. So if they don’t want to be screened in public, they can go to a private area, have a witness with them.

And so we try to address those concerns in every way possible, recognizing, again, in the final analysis, everybody on that flight wants to be assured with the highest level of confidence that everybody else on that flight has been properly screened, and including me and you and everybody.

ENSIGN: I realize this is a difficult question for you, but–so are you going to make no exceptions, then?

PISTOLE: Everybody…


ENSIGN: No, no, I–let me–maybe not (inaudible) my question. If somebody is–a random screening. I just got randomly screened at the airport. For whatever reason, my number seems to come up quite often.

But if that, you know, happens and either the imaging, OK, was one of the options or, you know, the pat down–let’s just say I don’t–I don’t want either of them because of religious–because of religious reasons. What happens to me?

PISTOLE: So while I respect and we respect that person’s beliefs, that person’s not going to get on an airplane.

ENSIGN: OK. And there will be no exceptions because of religion.

(I trimmed this for length; see the uncut transcript here.)

Despite the fact that Ensign has trouble spitting out the question, Pistole’s response is clear: Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, no one gets to opt out of both the strip-search scanner and the grope-down.

The right-wing outcry over Muslim women even asking for religious sensitivity is ironic, given the way Muslim women are treated when flying. Consider this incident, which happened to a native-born American citizen before the new protocol was implemented:

Nadia Hassan, 40, a suburban Washington, D.C., real estate agent, says she was traveling from Dulles International Airport to California on Jan. 5 when she was ordered to remove herhijab before going through a metal detector. She refused and a security officer conducted a full-body search in view of other passengers, even though she had not set off the metal detector. She says another officer told her she had to go through the added security because of her scarf.

“To target women in head scarves blindly, it’s ignorance,” she says.

(Source: USA Today)

Of course, the TSA denies it does this (see the article just linked). The TSA denies pretty much everything. (And did you know they’re just trying to keep up safe?)

The new policies spread the humiliation Hassan endured to all Muslim women. CAIR reports:

CAIR offices have already received complaints, particularly from female travelers who wear hijab, about being subjected to the new pat-down procedure. …

One traveler wearing hijab, a 56-year-old Muslim flying out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, told CAIR the TSA screener patted-down her entire upper body, including, head, neck, chest, and hips, with the backs of her hands. The Muslim woman said she had “no idea” how invasive the procedure would be and would otherwise have opted for a private room or demanded to know why she was selected for secondary screening.

[NOTE: The woman had been referred to secondary screening even though the metal detector did not go off, a phenomenon reported frequently to CAIR by female Muslim travelers.]

Bear in mind, that Islam calls all believers to modesty, men as well as women. Not all Muslim women choose to wear hijab as expression of modesty and piety. However, even those women with bare heads still regard modesty as a virtue. The new procedures trample on all Muslims’ religious sensibilities, along with their basic human right to privacy.

Update 11/18/10, 4:30 p.m.: This should already be clear from my comment policy in the sidebar, but any comments hating on Muslims, women, or anyone else will not be permitted. Let’s keep it civil. Also, comments that are grossly ignorant of Islam won’t be approved, either, because they amount to anti-Islamic propaganda even if that’s not the author’s intent.

Update 11/22/10, 9:50 p.m.: If you liked this post, you might want to check out my other commentary on TSA violations of basic rights to privacy, dignity, and bodily autonomy.

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When the TSA is questioned on its procedures, its first go-to excuse is that they’re keeping us safe. If you press harder, a favorite second-line rationale is that they need to treat everyone the same – even toddlers and the elderly – because the alternative would be “racial profiling.”

Sure, the TSA may be treating everyone the same. That doesn’t mean they’re being treated equally, however. Some people are more vulnerable than others. I’ve already touched on the likelihood that a grope search would trigger a rape survivor’s trauma. Newsweek has a good in-depth analysis of this issue.

I’d argue that children are also vulnerable to being traumatized. Two nights ago, in response to an adult conversation that in retrospect I wish I’d postponed until after the kids were in bed, my eleven-year-old son, the Bear, said: “Do you remember when the security guy searched inside my waistband in Belgium? Are they going to do that to me again?” His eyes welled up. Granted, he cries easily – a trait he inherited from his mother – but he seemed deeply upset at the prospect of a replay.

Now, imagine a child who’s actually been sexually abused. How will she or he react to being groped, no matter how officially and “professionally?”

Today, TSA head John Pistole (is that a pistole in your pocket? … oh never mind) told an NPR interviewer that children twelve and under would be exempted from the enhanced pat-down:

We did not do frankly a very good job of communicating initially that there would be an exemption, if you will, from the thorough pat-down for children 12 and under.  That was under review when the policy came out, and so we have clarified that.  It does not apply to children 12 and under.

(You can hear the interview at NPR.)

Frankly, I don’t think that this exemption existed until today. Goldblog cites an incident about ten days ago where an eight-year-old boy was selected for secondary screening after he went through the metal detector. Yes, the boy’s genitals were checked, and his father was appalled. I suspect Pistole’s volte-face (or flip-flop, for the Francophobes still out there!) is a reaction to the public anger about subjecting children to intrusive groping. I think he and Janet Napolitano realized that anything smacking of pedophilia could doom their program. Hence the age of thirteen, when, apparently, children are no longer children. But pray tell how, exactly, a thirteen-year-old will process the experience differently than a twelve-year-old?

While there’s been an upswell in outrage about children being groped, there’s been almost no public attention to another group that will suffer disproportionately: people who are trans or intersex, or who for whatever reason don’t conform to sex/gender expectations. A couple of days ago, GallingGalla left a comment here that vividly highlighted the real dangers and humiliations awaiting her:

Apparently, TSA considers us to be terrorists simply by our existence, as they have issued directives indicating that people dressing in what they, the TSA, perceives to be the “wrong” clothing are more likely to be terrorists. I guess, since they think that trans women are “really men”, we must be hiding bad things in our lady clothes.

Along with that, I shudder to think about the harassment and sexual assault that is *sure* to follow the discovery of “non-standard” genitals.

It is because of back-scatter machines and pat-downs that I do not fly. I don’t have the privilege to “opt-out”; I simply *cannot* fly, as my very person will be in danger.

How long will it be before photos of people stripped naked by back-scatter machines wind up on 4chan or local “she-male” porn sites?

(I quoted most of it; the whole comment is here.)

Of course, the TSA policy both taps into and reinforces the trope of the “deceptive” trans person. It sets trans passengers up for public humiliation and violence. TSA personnel are not even trained to search a child with sensitivity. What are the odds that they will react calmly and reasonably to non-standard genitals?

Trans men are worried too, as evidenced by this anonymous comment at BoingBoing:

I’m a trans man (FtM transsexual), and I’ve NEVER packed when I go to the airport b/c I’m sure my dick would show up looking like plastic explosive in my pants. My home airport only has the n00dscanners, so now I am not entirely sure what I should do. Either way, it looks like I’m destined for molestation at the airport. Pack, and be singled out for a pat-down based on what shows up on the scanner, or not pack and have the TSO end up concerned/confused when the “enhanced” pat-down turns up the fact that I don’t have any balls for “resistance”.

I have a flight planned in January. I’m pretty nervous about it.

Those are pretty terrible choices. And in case anyone was reassured by the blurriness of the naked-scanner images that had been stored at a Florida courthouse and leaked yesterday by Gizmodo? The resolution on those is much lower than the machines are capable of delivering. The TSA has told the New York Times that the machines are able to image a sanitary pad. They weren’t able to say, however, whether the pad would trigger an enhanced pat-down.

Update 11/17/10, 11:10 p.m.: Edited above to add the material from Goldblog, where he notes that the war on terror is colliding with the war on pedophilia – and so far, terror is winning.

Update 11/22/10, 10:40 a.m.: See also this post by Rebecca at The Thang Blog on how the new procedures have effectively grounded her as a trans woman.

Update 11/22/10, 3:30 p.m.: … and similarly, this piece by Bridgette P. LaVictoire at Lezget Real, who stresses the humiliation and danger to which she’ll be exposed. The mainstream media remains (predictably) silent.

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When the TSA first announced its rollout of body-scanners, my first thought was: What about privacy? My second: Are they safe?

While privacy is obviously and inarguably a massive issue, the facts aren’t quite as evident on the question of safety. Back in January, Lindsay Beyerstein made the point that one of the two types of scanner – the “backscatter” technology – uses x-rays, yet the machines are not subject to the sort of rigorous testing expected of medical equipment. Even CT scanning equipment, which is operated by trained medical personnel, has resulted in a distressing number of overdoses from wrongly calibrated machines, some of which were uncovered only after the FDA and the New York Times launched an investigation starting in late 2009.

TSA employees have no medical training – none! – and we have no reason to believe that they are prepared to recognized machine malfunctions. Indeed, they are so unprepared that one TSA employee told a pregnant traveler that the machines emit less radiation than do sonograms – a stunningly ignorant statement, given that ultrasound doesn’t rely on x-rays at all. (The pregnant woman was subsequently bullied into the body-scanners by repeatedly refusing her a pat-down.)

Lindsay also raised the question of cumulative radiation. How much is safe? I would argue that no matter how small the dose of x-rays, it is only justified if it will save lives, and if safer techniques would not produce the same results. The Israelis manage to make it work without routine body scans, primarily through painstaking intelligence on potential terrorists – no x-rays needed. (Link via the excellent overview of issues at Sister Sage.)

My husband has had cancer twice. It was treated with radiation the first time around. He’s had lots of CTs – too many – and caught some of the fall-out from Chernobyl back in 1986. He does not need any extra x-rays. My kids don’t need any extra x-rays. Nor do you or I, dear reader.

If I were a TSA employee on the front lines, I’d also want to know how much of an occupational risk I was running. On the one hand, the intensity of the radiation is purported orders of magnitude less than used in medical x-rays. On the other hand, what’s to keep the x-rays contained? The name “backscatter” is not reassuring on this score. TSA operators are spending entire workdays in close proximity to these devices.

The other type of strip-scanner does not use ionizing radiation. It relies on millimeter waves. Some questions have been raised as to the safety of terahertz waves, which may have the potential to essentially “unzip” DNA, but terahertz waves are not identical to millimeter waves, just adjacent to them in the spectrum. (Two abstracts on terahertz waves are here and here. My main takeaway is that their safety is not yet well researched.)

On its website, the TSA simply asserts that millimeter-wave technology is safe; it does not supply any data or link to any studies. I just ran a PubMed search on “millimeter waves” and “safety,” which turned up only six hits, only one of which seemed relevant. A review article in Health Physics from 2000 raised the question of whether occupational exposure (that is, of the sort some TSA employees experience) could result in hazards such as burns or cancer; I can’t access the full text, so I don’t know what they concluded.

It is striking, in any event, that PubMed yielded so little information on the safety of millimeter-wave scans. Business Week reports that their health effects are “largely unknown,” and that the president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements favors conducting a study that would assess their safety. Much of the information on the web conflates millimeter waves with the terahertz spectrum and thus appears less than trustworthy.

In short, the TSA may be correct that the low intensity of the energy from both types of scanners makes them unlikely to create a real health threat. If I were a frequent flyer or a flight crew member, I would still wonder why there’s so little hard information on their safety.

More importantly, I worry about a the lack of medical/technical oversight. Largely uneducuated low-level employees are operating these scanners. If a scanner were wrongly calibrated and delivered much higher doses, who would know?

At the end of the day, I still think the best health-related objection to the strip-scanners comes from Revere of the now-dormant but wonderful blog, Effect Measure. Revere applied his skills as an epidemiologist. He noted that any machine purporting to catch every would-be terrorist will have a substantial number of “false positives” – people who are flagged though they’re innocent. Precisely that is now occurring, as evidenced by the story of passenger Christine Holland (who subjected to a grope-search after the scanner suggested she was carrying contraband). Revere calculated how many false alarms would be raised by a machine with only a 1 in 100,000 false positive rate:

According to the Department of Transportation, during the last year there were about 710 million enplanements (US carriers, October 2008 – September 2009; excludes all-cargo services, includes domestic and international). That would produce 7100 false alarms, about 20 a day. How many passengers carrying explosives would the technology pick up? Well, we’ve had exactly 2 since 2001 (Richard Reid the shoe bomber and the current underpants bomber), or .25/710,000,000 enplanements (it’s actually less because enplanements have decreased substantially since 2001). So the probability of an alarm being correct is about 1 in 30,000 or .000033.

(Read the whole thing here.)

I swear Revere argued at some point that screeners will eventually become inured to false positives and thus won’t be alert if a real threat were to appear. I can’t find where he said that, but it’s a key point, so I’ll make it anyway. Add to this the tremendous waste of resources that goes into checking for liquids and gels, printer cartridges, baby formula, and other innocuous items. Now add the diversion of TSA energies toward thoroughly frisking and groping everyone from Jeffrey Goldberg to little kids.

In other words, the biggest health risk from the scanners is that we’re actually less safe from terrorists than we were before. Anyone else feeling queasy yet?

[Variation on my usual "I'm not a lawyer" disclaimer: I'm also not an M.D., a physicist, or an epidemiologist.]

Update 11/14/10, 9:40 p.m.: According to Agence France Press, serious scientists have raised concerns about the x-ray machines. Michael Love, a scientist who runs an x-ray lab at the Johns Hopkins medical school, stated that “statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these X-rays.” In April, scientists at UCSF wrote the White House Office of Science and Technology, saying, “While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.”

Update 11/15/10, 11:10 p.m.: Here’s the full text of the letter (.pdf) from the UCSF scientists. The potential health risks it outlines are compelling enough that I’m not about to let my kids go through a backscatter machine. I’m also floored by how little study has been done on their safety.

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(Trigger warning for descriptions of sexual violence and violations of bodily autonomy.)

In the face of TSA claims that the new “enhanced patdowns” don’t constitute groping, what do actual passengers have to say?

Predictably, most people are sheeple, and many apparently are willing to believe that losing our civil liberties are the price we have to pay for protecting our freedoms. But a few people – mostly women – have spoken publicly about feeling terribly violated. I’ve collected a variety of their voices. You’ll notice I’ve drawn on a wide variety of sources, including some you might consider fringy. Yet there’s no reason to discount these people’s stories. This post attempts to foreground their stories and voices rather than my analysis. We would do well to listen to them.

Rosemary Fitzpatrick, a CNN reporter, was subjected to a private grope screening after her underwire bra tripped the metal detector:

According to Fitzpatrick, a female screener ran her hands around her breasts, over her stomach, buttocks and her inner thighs, and briefly touched her crotch.

“I felt helpless, I felt violated, and I felt humiliated,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that she was reduced to tears at the checkpoint. She particularly objected to the fact that travelers were not warned about the new procedures.

Unsurprisingly, former victims of sexual assault are finding their trauma triggered by being violated in a place ostensibly devoted to their safety! Celeste, a survivor of rape, is quoted at the Pagan Newswire Collective:

“What they did to me, in full view of everyone else in line, was like being sexually assaulted all over again.  I was in shock.  I hate myself that I allowed them to do this to me.  I haven’t been able to stop crying since.” …

Coming back from Chicago, Celeste, like increasing numbers of travelers, was forced to make a difficult choice – either allow strangers to see her naked or allow strangers to touch and squeeze her breasts and groin in full view of other travels and TSA agents.  “This was a nightmare come to life,” Celeste says, “I said I didn’t want them to see me naked and the agent started yelling Opt out- we have an opt here.  Another agent took me aside and said they would have to pat me down.  He told me he was going to touch my genitals and asked if I wouldn’t rather just go through the scanner, that it would be less humiliating for me.  I was in shock.  I couldn’t believe this was happening.  I kept saying I don’t want any of this to happen.  I was whispering please don’t do this, please, please.”

Since Celeste didn’t agree to go through the scanner, the enhanced pat down began.  “He started at one leg and then ran his hand up to my crotch.  He cupped and patted my crotch with his palm.  Other flyers were watching this happen to me. At that point I closed my eyes and started praying to the Goddess for strength.  He also cupped and then squeezed my breasts.  That wasn’t the worst part.  He touched my face, he touched my hair, stroking me.  That’s when I started crying.  It was so intimate, so horrible.  I feel like I was being raped.  There’s no way I can fly again.  I can’t do it.”

But a history of sexual violence is not the only intersection with the TSA violations. Disability is also amplifying the trauma in some cases, as a 49-year-old woman wrote to libertarian blogger John W. Whitehead:

I was subjected to a TSA rub down in Pittsburgh in September. There is no patting happening. The officer ran her hands over every square inch of my body, firmly pressing into my flesh in every area when I declined to have myself irradiated. Being a recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome, I am extremely aware that my body needs protection from anything that is unnatural or unnecessary, and excess radiation is on my list of things to avoid. Unfortunately, the rub down elicited some trauma issues, and when I got upset and started crying, they started the “pat down” all over again.

Whitehead definitely has an anti-state, anti-Obama agenda, but I see no reason to doubt the first-person accounts he has collected; this issue seems to be rousing people who are right, left, and libertarian, while the mushy middle marches through the scanners without a peep. He also heard from a flight attendant:

They didn’t tell me it was a Full Body Scanner. I was not made aware that I even had an option to be patted down instead. After the scan, I was still patted down on my breast area because I was wearing my flight attendant wings. I truly felt molested. As a female traveler, I already have to deal with personal safety issues. In the past, when I have gone through the security line, I have experienced two of the TSA men standing staring at me, and I could overhear them deciding whether they thought I was attractive.

Understandably, flight attendants’ unions are urging them to insist on a private screening with a witness, and they report that a number of flight attendants are in contact with the ACLU, lodging complaints, and even preparing lawsuits. The leaders of two pilots’ unions, Mike Cleary and David Bates, have urged their members to avoid the radiation involved in body scanning, but each of them also noted the violation involved in the enhanced patdowns:

One pilot described his experience as “sexual molestation,” according to Cleary’s letter. Bates wrote, “There is absolutely no denying that the enhanced pat-down is a demeaning experience.”

We’ve also got oral interviews with a couple of women who’ve had bad experiences – one of whom submitted to the patdown, another of whom refused. The first comes from an interview by Alex Jones. Yes, he’s a Truther, but that doesn’t disqualify this woman’s testimony:

(Posted originally at Jones’ PrisonPlanet.)

Note that Michelle, this mother of two was not automatically given a same-sex screener, and she had to insist on having a woman screen her daughters, an 8-year-old and a young toddler. Her story starts at about 04:00: “They touched. And it was not back of hand. … It was a male officer that patted me down.” (Jones argues that this is sexual assault, for what it’s worth.)

A young libertarian gal, Meg McLain, had heard that the procedure routinely requires breasts be squeezed and twisted (“it hurts!”) and she refused to “let them touch me in ways that I’m not comfortable with.”

Around 2:15 on the clip, she says, “Its getting to the point where I feel more physically molested than if some random guy actually came up and molested me. It’s more intrusive than that.” Meg demands to see a manager, and within 30 seconds there are five or six TSA agents and a dozen cops. They wouldn’t let her touch her stuff. She kept posing questions, and one of the officials yelled at her whenever he doesn’t have an answer. They cuff Meg to a chair. One of the agents rips her airline ticket in half. She’s sobbing and can’t even reach her face to wipe it. They deliver a thirty-minute lecture on terrorism.

So maybe we should all just cave in to the strip-search machines? Well, it’s not so simple. Consider  this woman’s report of the groping she got after a TSA body scanner erroneously showed her carrying something (she never learned what) under her clothes. Yes, she docilely went through the scan and still wasn’t spared the humiliation of a full-on grope.

Michelle’s 8-year-old gets the last word: “Mom, why did they do that?”

Update, 11/17/10, 12:20 p.m.: Here’s another story of groping, this one from a young mother who was traveling with her baby. I’d say if the agent can feel your individual labia, they’ve definitely gone beyond any definition of a “reasonable” search.

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On the surface, government-authorized TSA groping seems like it falls on the spectrum of sexual assault. Ethically, it definitely violates consent. Legally, the situation is murkier.

In my jurisdiction (Ohio), “sexual imposition” (Ohio Revised Code 2907.06) seems applicable, if you read it in isolation from the rest of the code. Its definition begins:

(A) No person shall have sexual contact with another, not the spouse of the offender; cause another, not the spouse of the offender, to have sexual contact with the offender; or cause two or more other persons to have sexual contact when any of the following applies:

(1) The offender knows that the sexual contact is offensive to the other person, or one of the other persons, or is reckless in that regard.

I think it’s hard to argue that the TSA and its officers are not acting recklessly. It should be obvious to any sentient person that groping of breasts and genitals is will be experienced as offensive.

Furthermore, you can’t really make the case that no assault is occurring because passengers freely consent to the procedures. The only way I can travel from Ohio to California to visit my family next month is by air – period. I need to see my dad. The TSA is presenting people with a “choice” of being stripped naked by the body-scan machines, or undergoing an “enhanced patdown,” which amounts to groping by a stranger – or not getting on the plane. That is no choice at all. Moreover, as of October 21, signs at the security checkpoints in the Columbus airport said nothing about what alternative screening would entail. They most certainly did not warn passengers that their genitals would be touched. Passengers are being taken completely by surprise when that occurs. Thus, ORC 2907.06 (A) (3) would apparently apply:

(3) The offender knows that the other person, or one of the other persons, submits because of being unaware of the sexual contact.

But here’s a wrinkle. Ohio law defines “sexual contact” in pretty narrow terms:

ORC 2907.01(B): “Sexual contact” means any touching of an erogenous zone of another, including without limitation the thigh, genitals, buttock, pubic region, or, if the person is a female, a breast, for the purpose of sexually arousing or gratifying either person. [my emphasis]

In other words, the law has a mens rea requirement that limits it to cases where the perpetrator is getting off on the touching.

The TSA will of course argue that there’s no sexual intent or arousal and thus the procedure doesn’t amount to sexual assault. In fact, that’s exactly what TSA minion “Blogger Bob” has been asserting at the official TSA blog:

Also, there is no fondling, squeezing, groping, or any sort of sexual assault taking place at airports. You have a professional workforce carrying out procedures they were trained to perform to keep aviation security safe.

No “groping”? That’s an outright lie.

Does professionalism and training eliminate the possibility that at least some TSA employees will get a sexual kick from their groping? Of course not. Problem is, we can’t know who’s secretly getting some jollies and who isn’t. Unless a TSA officer makes crude comments in front of witnesses, you’ve got no case under Ohio law.

But here’s another wrinkle. Federal law takes a broader view of “sexual contact.” Here’s how U.S. Code Chapter 190A, dealing with “sexual abuse,” defines it in Section 2246 (3):

the term “sexual contact” means the intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person

Note that humiliation, harassment, and degradation all fall within the law’s definition. As Jeffrey Goldberg reports, the intent of the TSA is that “enhanced patdowns” will humiliate and harass flyers so that we’ll all march docilely through the body-scanners:

I asked him [the TSA officer] if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. “Nobody’s going to do it,” he said, “once they find out that we’re going to do.”

In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? “That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re trying to get everyone into the machine.” He called over a colleague. “Tell him what you call the back-scatter,” he said. “The Dick-Measuring Device,” I said. “That’s the truth,” the other officer responded.

So the intent to humiliate, harass, and degrade is definitely present – as a matter of policy! The problem here is that (as far as I understand it) federal law only applies to certain highly-circumscribed locations, including an airplane in flight or federal prisons. Even though the TSA is a federal agency, it wouldn’t necessarily be subject to this definition.

But why don’t state laws take on this broader definition? I’d love to see it adopted in every state. We can all think of instances where it’s not clear whether a groper is getting a sexual buzz or is just power-tripping. Your average public-transit groper might fall into this gray area. (And while we’re at it, some cases of medical assault – in childbirth or otherwise – could fall under this expanded definition, too, as long as they involve intent to humiliate or degrade.)

Broadening the definition to include “an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, and degrade” wouldn’t eliminate a mens rea requirement. It would simply update the law to acknowledge that the motives behind sexual assault are a muddy mixture of power and sex.

In short, I don’t think we can make a case, legally, to try TSA officials (be they policymakers or lackeys) on sexual assault. We can make an excellent case for reforming definitions of sexual assault.

So do we have any legal recourse when it comes to TSA groping?

Well, I’d argue that routine molestation of passengers is unconstitutional. To me, it’s blindingly obvious that “enhanced patdowns” violate the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

There’s no probable cause. No warrants have been issued. I guess some people might consider groping a “reasonable” response to terrorism. If so, why not permit cavity searches as well? Surely they’d be more likely to catch the next would-be bomber.

I really hope the ACLU will take this on. So far, they’re just considering possible action.

[Standard disclaimer: I am not trained as a lawyer! This above represents my best understanding as a layperson.]

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When I flew out of Columbus a few weeks ago, I was stunned to see the new machines arrayed at the checkpoint. Ours is a relatively podunk airport, and I’d hoped the body scanners would come either late or never. I eyed the machines queasily, calculated how much time I had to squander on security, and decided that I wouldn’t miss my flight if I stood on principle.

When I got to the front of  the line, I bravely announced to the TSA personnel that I chose to opt out of the body scanners. I walked through the metal detector. “Now where do I go?”


“I don’t want to go through the scanners. I’m opting out. That sign over there says I’m allowed to. So where should I go?”

“You just went through the metal detector, right?”

“Yes, but … don’t you want to pat me down?”

“No, you’re done.”

I grabbed my computer, wiggled into my shoes, and hightailed it for the gate before anyone changed their mind.

But that’s not how every airport is handling the opter-outers. Indeed, Columbus may have to change its policies. Here’s what happened when, faced with the new body-scanners at Baltimore-Washington International, Jeffrey Goldberg opted for a pat-down instead.

When I made this request, a number of TSA officers, to my surprise, began laughing. I asked why. One of them — the one who would eventually conduct my pat-down — said that the rules were changing shortly, and that I would soon understand why the back-scatter was preferable to the manual search. I asked him if the new guidelines included a cavity search. “No way. You think Congress would allow that?”

I answered, “If you’re a terrorist, you’re going to hide your weapons in your anus or your vagina.” He blushed when I said “vagina.”

“Yes, but starting tomorrow, we’re going to start searching your crotchal area” — this is the word he used, “crotchal” — and you’re not going to like it.”

“What am I not going to like?” I asked.

“We have to search up your thighs and between your legs until we meet resistance,” he explained.

“Resistance?” I asked.

“Your testicles,” he explained.

‘That’s funny,” I said, “because ‘The Resistance’ is the actual name I’ve given to my testicles.”

He answered, “Like ‘The Situation,’ that guy from ‘Jersey Shore?’”

Yes, exactly, I said. (I used to call my testicles “The Insurgency,” but those assholes in Iraq ruined the term.)

(Read the whole thing. It’s trenchant, highly entertaining, and right – as in “correct,” not “neocon right,” although that’s Goldberg’s usual beat.)

Whoa. I have never linked to Jeffrey Goldberg, and I may never do it again. But sometimes, even proponents of bombing Iran write something that’s so eminently sensible – and so funny – that it deserves a nonpartisan audience.

All of this leaves me wondering what my husband and I should do the next time we fly with our kids. Up ’til now, I thought the answer was obvious: opt out with the kids and spare them indoctrination into the creeping-fascist security state (not to mention exposure to superfluous radiation). Now, I’m not so sure. I picture them in a future therapists’ office: “Mama? Oh, she wasn’t all bad. Sure, she had her impatient moments, but we always knew she loved us. If she just hadn’t let the TSA molest us …”

(This is one of those occasions where I resort to sarcasm because the alternative is molten rage. Most of parenting consists of moments lost in the surging river of time. One moment that is still present and razor-sharp for me? When a Belgian airport security official subjected my Bear – then aged 9 – to a search that involved reaching inside the elastic of his sweat pants.)

I’m starting to wonder if we should all opt out of “the Dick-Measuring Device,” as Goldberg terms it. What would happen if we filmed the ensuing searches and put them on YouTube? Could we completely overwhelm the system if even a third of us opted out? (Yes, we’d all miss our planes, which is why this would probably never work.) What if apparently harmless moms like me started to yell, “Get your paws of my ladyparts!” when TSA agents failed to meet, um, Resistance?

Or we could take a page from Goldberg and just repeat “vagina” until TSA officials give up out of sheer embarrassment. I have no problem talking about the “crotchal area” (best whacko neologism since “refudiate”!) until the proto-fascist security state waves us through. For good measure, I think a carry-on full of sex toys might amplify the guards horror. But don’t worry – I won’t try that if the kids are flying with me.

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Frustrated private kitteh from ICHC?

Raw Story (via Alternet) is reporting a new level of privacy violation on the web:

New software released by Cisco Systems Inc. on Wednesday makes it much easier for banks, retailers, and other businesses — including your employer — to monitor the mountain of data on social networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

The new SocialMiner software tracks the status updates, forum posts, and blog posts of customers and potential customers in real-time, giving businesses immediate information about consumers’ opinions and preferences. It’s pretty cheap, too: “It can also be purchased for use with a non-Cisco contact center system, Cisco officials say. In each case, SocialMiner costs $1,000 for the server and $1,500 per agent license.”

(More here.)

Now, if we lived in Europe, relief might be in sight. The same article notes that the EU is moving to stiffen privacy protections on Google, Facebook, and more. When I conducted historical research in Germany, archivists insisted on denying access to hospital records that were 80 years old, beyond the horizon where they must remain private. I suggested blacking out names, and they did that for me. (We were all very reasonable about this, but then, Sungold Research Inc. is not a profit-making corporation.)

Americans like to think of privacy as their prized value, but actually German law is far out in front of us. Folks learned from those little experiences with the Gestapo and the Stasi. I’d expect Germany to set the tone for European legislation.

For us stateside bloggers, the extension of data mining reminds me that a layer of pseudonymity, however thin, can avoid a host of hassles. If you’re a professional writer looking to promote a freelance career, then pseudonymity might cost you. The rest of us are likely to be hit by a storm of spam. (Does a product like Spam, almost fully alienated from nature, come to us like the weather? Or am I confusing this with “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”?)

Alternet poses the problem as employers snooping. That’s not my worry. My program chair is aware that I blog. I just don’t want to receive even more penis spam, aimed at my nonexistent penis!

Anyway, the rise of data mining strikes me as another good reason to play a tomato on the Internet. This is a very fine day to be “Sungold.”


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(Nauseated kitteh from ICHC?)

The AP is reporting that John Kasich has bumped Ted Strickland from the governor’s seat in Ohio.

That’s the only race that hung in the balance for me, semi-locally. From here on out, given Kasich’s record on higher ed, it may well be my own job that’s hanging by a thread.

Perhaps ironically, my husband passed his citizenship interview earlier today. He hasn’t taken the oath of citizenship yet. It’s not too late for him to back out. (Not that I expect he will, but hey, he’s still got the option. Envious, anyone?)

Also in Ohio politics: Boehner, our new Speaker-in-waiting. Isn’t it a bit of a pity that his name can be misread as “boner”? I mean, a friendly boner is generally rather nice. Boehner? Well, he’s just a dick.

(Sorry for the cheap shots, but I haven’t been this bummed since 2004. And 2000. And 1994. And 1988 and 1984.)

As for the country as a whole? Well, the kitteh above says it all.

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I can easily imagine the impulse to chronicle one’s sex life in a diary. I can’t imagine turning it over to one’s friends. That’s what Karen Owen, a recent Duke grad did, except she framed her sex list as a mock honor’s thesis and sent it as a Powerpoint to three of her friends. One of them wasn’t much of a friend and forwarded it to, well, the whole world.

It’s amazing to me how an otherwise apparently intelligent person can still think that anything in electronic form is likely to stay private. Even I, who came of age when Facebook wasn’t capitalized and was a literal book, know this. Of course, it wasn’t just Owen’s privacy that was violated. Half of the baseball and lacrosse team had their privacy violated, too, through no fault of their own. She was utterly reckless with their privacy.

You can read all about it at Broadsheet and Jezebel, if you want the salacious details. I’m more interested in what’s not being discussed. First and foremost, Owen writes of an encounter (“Subject 5″) in which she was completely blacked out. This is normally considered to be sexual assault. Under North Carolina law, it appears to be second-degree rape:

A person is guilty of rape in the second degree if the person engages in vaginal intercourse with another person … Who is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless, and the person performing the act knows or should reasonably know the other person is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.

It’s odd that neither Broadsheet nor Jezebel is calling this rape. Broadsheet doesn’t even mention it. Jezebel breezes past it:

With one subject, the author blacked out and doesn’t remember having sex, but doesn’t seem troubled, by her own account.

Owen doesn’t have a duty to prosecute it. However, a feminist website surely ought to call it by its rightful name. A situation where one partner is blacked out isn’t some “gray” situation. It is not marginal or borderline. It is sexual assault, period. That doesn’t change just because Owen seems to boast that “I had somehow, in my black out state, still managed to crawl into bed with a Duke athlete.”

I’m also surprised (though I shouldn’t be) at how gender is affecting the way people interpret this incident. Imagine if the genders were reversed. There’d be more feminist outrage at how the “subjects” were exposed to shame, instead of Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet saying the guys were “pantsed.” There’d be less unfeminist outrage – as expressed on the Today Show – that a girl did this. There’d be a lot more shaming of the “subjects,” who would also be at higher risk for desperate acts. We’ve all heard of young women and gays who’ve committed suicide after their sex lives were broadcast without their will; I haven’t yet heard of a heterosexual male doing the same. That still doesn’t make it okay to treat a guy’s privacy like a dirty tissue. Not even if he’s an alpha male!

To be clear, I don’t want anyone to be shamed. I don’t want anyone’s privacy to be violated. I’m just struck by the hypocrisy, and how it’s toxic to everyone involved.

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If you follow collegiate football, you probably saw this incident when it occurred two weeks ago. If not … well, I barely picked up on it myself.

My university’s mascot is the Bobcat – as is only fitting for a cat lady like myself. Unfortunately, when Ohio University got creamed by Ohio State a fortnight ago, Rufus the Bobcat decided to pounce on Brutus the Buckeye. (I will leave you to explain how a tree nut – the buckeye – could get a name like Brutus, because I haven’t a clue.)

The man inside the cat – one former OU student by the name of Brandon Hanning – premeditated the pounce for a whole year. In fact, that’s why he tried out for the mascot gig. After the game, he was unrepentant:

“I honestly don’t know what gave me the idea,” he said. “I just thought it would be really funny.”

After Ohio State and OU played back in 2008, Hanning said he realized the two teams would play again in 2010.

“I thought it would be really cool to beat (Brutus) up, and I realized we were playing them again (this) year, so I thought I’d try out for (the part of Rufus),” he said.

On Saturday, Hanning recounted how he got dressed up and went down near the cheerleaders.

“Ohio State’s band was all over the field and they made a tunnel,” he said. “I saw Brutus walk out with a big flag, and I took off down the sideline. As soon as he started running, I just ran out to do it.”

After the incident, Hanning said that Brutus didn’t say anything to him but was obviously angry.

“It’s been mixed reactions really,” he said about the feedback he’s gotten since the game. “All the people that I know thought it was awesome. But some people that I don’t know didn’t like it too well.”

(Source: The Athens News)

Yeah. The Athletic Department was so unamused that Hanning is banned forever from impersonating Rufus again.

I agree it wasn’t an especially clever stunt. I personally have been involved in much better ones, like the time we band members each dropped a dollar bill on the field during a pregame show at USC. The ensuing pictures of the refs picking up the cash were precious. (It helped that USC had recently gotten busted for violating NCAA rules.) When it comes to college pranks, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. Rufus landed on the wrong side of that line.

But did he deserve to be punished in perpetuity? Consider this. Had the brawl involved players instead of a cat and a nut, would anyone’s career have been forcibly ended? At my university, football players routinely get arrested for assault, drunk and disorderly, DUI, and more. As of this writing, an OU football player is facing charges of breaking-and-entering a house last spring – and there are lots of similar cases at other universities.

Then there’s the sterling example set by our head football coach, Frank Solich:

Around 9:45 on the evening of Nov. 26, 18-year veteran Athens (Ohio) police officer Krishea Osborne was ending her night shift and driving home when she noticed an SUV facing the wrong way on a one-way street. And still moving. She approached the vehicle and found Ohio University football coach Frank Solich “slumped” against the steering wheel, “pretty much drooling on himself.”

“He was not seeming to understand what I was wanting from him,” says Osborne, who adds that Solich could not locate his driver’s license and had to be asked three times to put the car in park. “He reeked. Somebody that smells that bad has had more to drink than just the three drinks he claims now. I’ve been doing this for 18 years, dealing with drunks around here and he definitely had more than three drinks, in my opinion.”

The former Nebraska football coach, who had just finished his first season in Athens and had spent that November evening having drinks at a Mexican restaurant called Casa Cantina in downtown Athens, later refused a Breathalyzer test and was charged with driving under the influence. He pleaded no contest, was fined $250 and had his license suspended. Although he was not fired from his coaching post, Solich began the humbling task of seeking redemption in the court of public opinion, right smack in the middle of the holiday season.

(Source: New York Daily News)

Not only did Solich keep his job; he’s been raking in massive bonuses and fringe benefits. (In the course of a year, he rakes in as much as ten Professor Sungolds.) He’s still here, coaching us to glorious moments like our 43-7 loss to OSU.

Hanning will never get to play Rufus again – even though he has broken no laws.

Double standard, much?

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Seen on a roadside sign – y’know, one of those with moveable block letters? – next to a gas station in Athens, Ohio:

Remember 9/11

Soft drinks 99¢

(Sorry no photo; I’m a Luddite regarding my cell phone.)

Even my 10-year-old Bear understood how tacky this was.

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And yes, you likely are promiscuous, even though you may not think of yourself that way. At least, that’s the implication of a quiz that appeared at Big Think this week. Now, you know I’ve got a soft spot for internet quizzes, but it usually runs toward Hello Quizzy (aka OK Cupid) and similar silliness. This quiz purports to be serious! scientific! and will tell you about your “sociosexuality.” Blogger Marina Adshade at Big Think found it incumbent upon her to translate “sociosexuality” as “promiscuity.”

Whatever you call it, I found the results shocking – and not because the quiz branded me a slut. I am shocked at the shoddy methodology that’s trying to pass as “science.”

Go take the quiz and tell us how you came out, ‘kay? I will wait below the LOLcat.

(Shocked, shocked kitteh from ICHC?)

I’ll come clean: I landed in Finland, which according to Adshade is the #1 mecca for the promiscuous. Funny thing, though. I answered that I’ve been with just one partner over the past year and expect to stay with him, and only him, for the next 30 years, should we be so blessed to both live that long. I ‘fessed up to the one-night stand, though that’s a real definitional tangle. Does oral sex count? What does it mean when your “casual” partner is never a rank stranger, but always a friend or someone in your larger social network? What about friends with benefits, where the benefits were infrequent and very much subsidiary to the friendship? What about one-night stands that morph into several nights? What about “casual” sex that leads into a years-long relationship? (All of these questions hint at my classic MO until I met my husband.)

I like to see how quizzes spit out different assessments, so I varied my responses some – keeping my truthful answers to the first two questions, and also holding fast to my tolerant (but not really celebratory) answers toward casual sex. I also copped to some fantasies but not to daily ones, and held that answer constant, too. But I played with the number of “one-night stands,” and see here: I stayed in Finland until I claimed (okay, lied) never to have had one. That moved me down just one rank – to New Zealand.

I suspect study-abroad applications will spike for Finland and New Zealand, if this “research” gets out to the general public.

But seriously: what a way to view promiscuity! I don’t like the term anyway, because it almost always leads to slut-shaming. I’d prefer to stick with “sociosexuality.” Whatever you think of the terminology, it seems silly to brand a fortysomething, married, monogamous gal with a handful of youthful adventures “promiscuous” just because she refuses to condemn the pursuit of pleasure, youthful or not. Or because she fesses up to fantasies – which I suspect is what drove my score sky-high. I’d love to know how Jimmy Carter (he who famously “lusted in his heart) would stack up.

I enjoy silly quizzes, but sometimes the line between science and internet meme is very thin indeed. Not to mention, there are also some very good reasons for people to engage in “casual” sex, as Monica Shore reminds us at Alternet (originally at Carnal Nation). Shore’s article is buttressed by a few preliminary stats from Heather Corinna’s much more scientific survey on “casual” versus “committed” sex. I’m eager to hear about Heather’s results once they’re made public, because I think she asked the right questions here and here.

See y’all in Finland? If not, where will I find you?

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Why let an ideology or worldview compete on its own merits when you can spread it as propaganda to tender young minds? Better yet, how ’bout paying to download it into young brains? That’s what’s happening with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which – as best I understand it – is a mishmash of “reason,” capitalism, untrammeled competition, and unenlightened self-interest.

I first got wind of this earlier in the week, but feared things had gotten even further out of hand today, when Jill at Feministe quoted from this post by Eric Hague at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency:

I’d like to start by saying that I don’t get into belligerent shouting matches at the playground very often. The Tot Lot, by its very nature, can be an extremely volatile place—a veritable powder keg of different and sometimes contradictory parenting styles—and this fact alone is usually enough to keep everyone, parents and tots alike, acting as courteous and deferential as possible. The argument we had earlier today didn’t need to happen, and I want you to know, above all else, that I’m deeply sorry that things got so wildly, publicly out of hand.

Now let me explain why your son was wrong.

When little Aiden toddled up our daughter Johanna and asked to play with her Elmo ball, he was, admittedly, very sweet and polite. I think his exact words were, “Have a ball, peas [sic]?” And I’m sure you were very proud of him for using his manners.

To be sure, I was equally proud when Johanna yelled, “No! Looter!” right in his looter face, and then only marginally less proud when she sort of shoved him.

The thing is, in this family we take the philosophies of Ayn Rand seriously. We conspicuously reward ourselves for our own hard work, we never give to charity, and we only pay our taxes very, very begrudgingly.

Since the day Johanna was born, we’ve worked to indoctrinate her into the truth of Objectivism. Every night we read to her from the illustrated, unabridged edition of Atlas Shrugged—glossing over all the hardcore sex parts, mind you, but dwelling pretty thoroughly on the stuff about being proud of what you’ve earned and not letting James Taggart-types bring you down. For a long time we were convinced that our efforts to free her mind were for naught, but recently, as we’ve started socializing her a little bit, we’ve been delighted to find that she is completely antipathetic to the concept of sharing. As parents, we couldn’t have asked for a better daughter.

That’s why, when Johanna then began berating your son, accusing him of trying to coerce from her a moral sanction of his theft of the fruit of her labor, in as many words, I kind of egged her on. Even when Aiden started crying.

You see, that Elmo ball was Johanna’s reward for consistently using the potty this past week. She wasn’t given the ball simply because she’d demonstrated an exceptional need for it—she earned it. And from the way Aiden’s pants sagged as he tried in vain to run away from our daughter, it was clear that he wasn’t anywhere close to deserving that kind of remuneration. By so much as allowing Johanna to share her toy with him, we’d be undermining her appreciation of one of life’s most important lessons: You should never feel guilty about your abilities. Including your ability to repeatedly peg a fellow toddler with your Elmo ball as he sobs for mercy.

Look, imagine what would happen if we were to enact some sort of potty training Equalization of Opportunity Act in which we regularized the distribution all of Johanna’s and Aiden’s potty chart stickers. Suddenly it would seem as if Aiden had earned the right to wear big-boy underpants, and within minutes you’d have a Taggart Tunnel-esque catastrophe on your hands, if you follow me.

Johanna shouldn’t be burdened with supplying playthings for every bed-wetting moocher she happens to meet. If you saw Johanna, her knees buckling, her arms trembling but still trying to hold aloft the collective weight of an entire Tot Lot’s worth of Elmo balls with the last of her strength, what would you tell her to do?

To shrug. Just like we’ve instructed her to do if Child Protective Services or some other agent of the People’s State of America ever asks her about what we’re teaching her.

(Read the rest here.)

Unlike Jill, I quoted nearly the whole thing so that you’d have a fighting chance to realize that this is, indeed, satire. Myself, I first thought it was “by real,” as my Tiger says – maybe because the default framing of anything on a major feminist blog is “outrage” rather than “funny”? But this piece is, in fact, very, very funny. Anything that evokes Elmo in the same breath as Ayn Rand and throws in a poop joke or two has great comedic potential.

But now that we’ve had our LOLs, here’s true and rather sinister side of this story. The Ayn Rand Institute is indeed out to capture the minds of young ‘uns, starting with college students. And this is no spoof.

The latest issue of Academe (the journal published by the American Association of University Professors) includes two articles detailing how the Ayn Rand Institute is channeling funds through the charitable offshoot of a major bank, BB&T (which I confess I’d never heard of until now):

Stipulations range from the seemingly benign—funding for faculty and student research and support for a speaker series on capitalism, leadership retreats, and the establishment of Ayn Rand reading rooms—to the sharply contentious. At Western Carolina University, for example—as at UNC–Charlotte—in addition to the creation of new courses involving required reading of Rand, the original 2008 agreement included a condition that faculty members who teach the new course on capitalism “shall work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and have a reasonable understanding and positive attitude towards Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.” In this and other agreements, the BB&T Foundation’s close ties to the Ayn Rand Institute, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Irvine, California, are evident. The institute’s stated mission is to work “to introduce young people to Ayn Rand’s novels, to support scholarship and research based on her ideas, and to promote the principles of reason, rational self-interest, individual rights, and laissez-faire capitalism to the widest possible audience.”

(Read the whole article by Gary H. Jones here, plus a case study by Richie Zweigenhaft on how this all shook out at Guilford College in North Carolina.)

I find this absolutely chilling. Imagine if a donor said I had to teach David Irving, the infamous Holocaust denier, in my Nazi Germany course. Or if I were required to teach Phyllis Schlafly in my Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies! I do mention them both – but certainly not with “a positive attitude.”

The corporatization of the university has advanced so far that this new incursion on academic freedom isn’t entirely surprising. It is, however, breaking new ground. And why am I not surprised that it’s spearheaded by precisely a movement whose “philosophy” (if it deserves to be dignified as such) meshes neatly with that of a corporatized university, where units are pitted against each other according to shady metrics, and where pillars of a liberal education such as Classics face possible extinction because they don’t generate enough revenue?

The irony, of course, is that if Ayn Rand’s acolytes really believed in the free market, and if her ideas were truly so stinkin’ brilliant, there’d be no need for such shenanigans. Rand’s ideas would succeed on the open market. Full stop. No donations required.

So, no, Rand’s not being taught in nursery school – yet. I have to wonder, though, if the ARI is only waiting on the release of a pop-up book version of Atlas Shrugged .

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I’ve been bowling. I didn’t really bowl. I just sort of dropped the ball.

I’ve played softball. Right field. I ran from those long pop flies. Ran away, just to be clear. If, by some odd twist of magnetism the ball landed in my glove anyway, I … just sort of dropped the ball.

But dropping a baby? Nope, I haven’t done that yet, though I birthed two of ‘em and hauled them from Germany to the U.S. and back, multiple times. The worse I ever did was to donk the two-year-old Bear’s head on the car as I tried to wrestle him into his carseat.

And so I find this just incomprehensible (via the Nation):

Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the father of SB 1070, has a new target in his cross hairs: “anchor babies,” the ugly epithet used to label children born of undocumented immigrants. The senator’s newest legislative provocation would allow Arizona “to refuse to accept or issue a birth certificate that recognizes citizenship to those born to illegal aliens, unless one parent is a citizen,” as he recently explained to his supporters. Crudely labeled “anchor baby bills” by the media, similar efforts are brewing in California, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Congress. On July 28, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham became the latest to join the assault on birthright citizenship, calling it a “mistake” and announcing that he may introduce a constitutional amendment to deny automatic citizenship to the children of immigrants who “come here to drop a child.”

(The rest is here.)

I am trying to picture where said immigrants are dropping a child. In the supermarket? In the middle of a busy intersection? In right field? Personally, I’d recommend that last option, as no one is likely to notice.

You know who’s really dropping the ball? Our media. Bless the Nation – but honestly who else is even reporting on this critically? And who (outside of a marginal cat-themed blogger) is criticizing this awful “dropping” metaphor?

It sounds like the Cabbage Patch Kids. We should be so lucky. No one’s talking about deporting a Cabbage Patch Baby.

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