Dept. of Oceangoing Gadgets

Longtime Heathen watchers will recall that Mrs Heathen and I take an annual rejuvenating nerd cruise with Royal Caribbean every winter. Each time has been aboard one of RCI’s Freedom class ships, which are sort of amazing and shocking in their size and scope — 154,000 gross tons and 339 meters long. To put this in context, a Nimitz class supercarrier is “only” about 333 meters long, and has a lower displacement, and they land planes on it. Regularly, apparently. At one point, these boats were the biggest cruise ships afloat, but that’s no longer true.

Because, I guess, they thought bigger was always better, RCI eclipsed this class in 2009 with the Oasis class, at over 225,000 gross tons and 360 meters long. Given the sheer size and scope of the ships we’ve been on, I find that hard to wrap my head around, but there it is.

Perhaps because of issues of gravity or fear of hubris or something, though, RCI’s absolute newest ship is actually smaller. The Quantum of the Seas isn’t bigger than the Oasis boats, but it’s materially more advanced in every other way. Gizmodo writer Adam Estes took a ride on one and wrote about it. If you ignore his utter lack of fact checking re: the boat’s size, it’s a fun read. (He states it’s the third largest ship in the world, but a host of tankers and transport ships dwarf it; it is, however, the third biggest cruise ship in the world, behind the two Oasis boats that preceded it; the Freedom boats are in 5th place.)

Dear Marriott: Bite me, you money-grubbing jackasses

Check this shit out. They’ve been smacked by the FCC to the tune of $600,000 for blocking personal wifi devices in a conference center in order to force people to use their overpriced service.

A spokesman for the hotel, Jeff Flaherty, had this bullshit to add:

“Marriott has a strong interest in ensuring that when our guests use our Wi-Fi service, they will be protected from rogue wireless hotspots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks and identity theft,” he wrote in a statement without responding to Ars’ direct questions.

Yeah, right.

Airport Mall Cops Attempt to Screen Passenger POST-FLIGHT

Christ, these goons are ridiculous.

The short version is that Minneapolis man has, for some reason (and there’s no reason to assume it’s a valid reason), been placed on the “extra scrutiny” list by the TSA — but they somehow managed to forget to give him the third degree before boarding. So, obviously, the logical thing to do is screen him after the flight.

Um, right.

Fortunately, the passenger simply refused to comply and walked away, since the TSA has no power to detain you. (They did threaten to call the Denver police and have him arrested, which is remarkable in and of itself, and entirely aside from the fact that it’s a completely empty threat.) And, of course, the DHS and TSA won’t actually discuss why this man is on the extra scrutiny list, even with the man himself, so there’s no way to resolve the situation.

A Dee-luxe Apartment in the Sky

Gulf carrier Etihad has a new class of service on some long haul flights: Residence. There’s one per A380. It’s a 125 square foot, three-room suite usable by one or two guests. Yes, it includes its own bathroom.

Residence on Abu Dhabi to London costs a cool $21,000 each way, but that’s a pretty short flight by comparison. For a real long haul — say, London to Sydney via Abu Dhabi — you’re looking at forty grand each way.

Click through. There’s video.

I want to go back to the TSA scanner story for a minute

First, I neglected to point out something, well, Gibsonian:

In addition to their physical attacks, the researchers also experimented with more inventive digital ones. They found that they could infect the scanner with malware—most practically for an attacker by picking the lock on the scanner’s cabinet and physically installing the malware on the PC inside. Once installed, that malware could be programmed to selectively replace the scan of any passenger with a fake image if he or she wore a piece of clothing with a certain symbol or QR code…

A similar approach is used in Gibson’s Zero History, wherein special T-shirts are printed up that, when seen by London’s security cameras, cause the wearer to be erased from the footage.

Second, note this: the security researchers had a very hard time finding machines to test with, because “security.” Security through obscurity is a terrible idea, and never does very well, but the entire process makes it clear that effectively NO adversarial testing has been done with these machines at all. That’s impossibly stupid, and further proof their acquisition was little more than a boondoggle. If you’re going to put in a security system, it makes sense to have someone who knows something about security probe it for weaknesses. That clearly was not done here despite the enormous costs of the machines.

No, no, no, no, no.

It’s very sad that this Malaysian airplane has apparently crashed, killing all aboard and forcing CNN to go 24×7 on nearly information-free coverage. And it’s absolutely tragic that these people lost their lives. But every aviation event is not a reason to impose new security measures, especially when we don’t yet know exactly what happened.

Note the final graf in the linked story:

IATA said more than 3 billion people flew safely on 36.4 million flights last year. There were 81 accidents, 16 which were fatal with 210 deaths.

Air travel is mind-bogglingly safe. Sometimes, freak events will happen. Sometimes, crashes happen that don’t point out a need for an improved screw, or additional passenger hassle while boarding. It may very well be that this is one of those times. The fact that a couple guys on board had fake passports isn’t even particularly alarming to me; I assume some number of people fly on fake passports every day.

Remember, too, our ID fetish for air travel isn’t a safety measure — every 9/11 hijacker had valid, legal ID. It’s actually a handout to the airlines; before 9/11, tickets were effectively transferrable, which made it harder for airlines to fuck you over change fees.

Giant Shocker: Those TSA scanners? Useless, according to an insider

Politico has more:

We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop.

Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines.

“They’re shit,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.

We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.

On the upside, the monitoring parties DO get to see you naked, so there’s that.

Seriously, don’t miss this. The author is the guy behind the Taking Sense Away “inside the TSA” blog from a few months back.

This. Is. Awesome.

This man is brilliant.

A MAN bought a first-class ticket and used it to have free meals and drinks at the airport’s VIP lounge almost every day for nearly a year, Kwong Wah Yit Poh reported.

The itinerary for the ticket was found to have been changed more than 300 times within a year, and the owner of the ticket used it to enjoy the facilities at the airport’s VIP lounge in Xi’an in Shaanxi, China.

The rare case was discovered by a China Eastern Airlines staff member, who then decided to investigate.

When the ticket’s validity was almost up, the passenger cancelled it for a refund.

WaPo to TSA: Drop Dead

Over at the Post’s Wonkblog, Dylan Matthews wonders why we don’t just get rid of the TSA entirely after taking a commuter flight not subject to the TSA’s loving embrace.

TechDirt breaks it down:

In short: there’s little to no evidence that the TSA has saved a single life in stopping terrorism. While it may have prevented specific plots, that energy just went towards other plots and attacks. Yet the costs of the TSA are immense, and we’re not just talking about hiring all those people to feel you up at the airport, or even the super expensive naked scanner machines. It’s the costs to all of us — the public who travel. The fact that you have to get to the airport hours before your flight, stand in a very long line to be scanned or felt up and generally humiliated — that’s a massive waste of time and productivity for everyone, for apparently no benefit at all, other than security theater.

He’s not wrong.

So, about those airport weapons

So, as I mentioned last month, somebody is making a point of assembling weapons made entirely of objects found inside airport security checkpoints.

Nothing will come of this, of course. Bruce Schneier explains why:

So, what’s the moral here? It’s not like the terrorists don’t know about these tricks. They’re no surprise to the TSA, either. If airport security is so porous, why aren’t there more terrorist attacks? Why aren’t the terrorists using these, and other, techniques to attack planes every month?

I think the answer is simple: airplane terrorism isn’t a big risk. There are very few actual terrorists, and plots are much more difficult to execute than the tactics of the attack itself. It’s the same reason why I don’t care very much about the various TSA mistakes that are regularly reported.

He’s completely right. As usual. 90% of the money and effort spent on the TSA checkpoints today is wasted, and we’d be better off if we used those resources for other things.

Great Job, TSA

In twelve years, they still haven’t managed to stop any terrorists, but they’ve cost billions in lost productivity, hundreds of millions on boondoggle sweetheart deals on the porno-cancer-scanners, and thousands of stories like this where innocent people are given the third degree for, basically, flying while brown.

If you work for the TSA, you are part of the problem.

Things I Wish I Knew

How, when I was checking in at exactly 24 hours prior to my flight, my boarding pass for my Southwest flight home tomorrow is A52.

I get the first 15 are reserved for Business Select. That’s fine. But I refuse to believe that 36 other people checked in before I did.

IOW: WTF?

The TSA is an aggressive, metastatic administrative CANCER

They’re expanding to Amtrak — and this time, their doofuses will be armed.

“Our mandate is to provide security and counterterrorism operations for all high-risk transportation targets, not just airports and aviation,” said John S. Pistole, the administrator of the agency. “The VIPR teams are a big part of that.”

Some in Congress, however, say the T.S.A. has not demonstrated that the teams are effective. Auditors at the Department of Homeland Security are asking questions about whether the teams are properly trained and deployed based on actual security threats.

Civil liberties groups say that the VIPR teams have little to do with the agency’s original mission to provide security screenings at airports and that in some cases their actions amount to warrantless searches in violation of constitutional protections.

“The problem with T.S.A. stopping and searching people in public places outside the airport is that there are no real legal standards, or probable cause,” said Khaliah Barnes, administrative law counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “It’s something that is easily abused because the reason that they are conducting the stops is shrouded in secrecy.”

T.S.A. officials respond that the random searches are “special needs” or “administrative searches” that are exempt from probable cause because they further the government’s need to prevent terrorist attacks.

Emphasis added. So, the TSA can search when and where they deem necessary, and the Boarder Patrol can search you without probable cause as long as you’re within 100 miles of the border. Oh, and in case you missed it, it turns out the NSA dragnet data is used by the DEA, too.

T.S.A. officials would not say if the VIPR teams had ever foiled a terrorist plot or thwarted any major threat to public safety, saying the information is classified. But they argue that the random searches and presence of armed officers serve as a deterrent that bolsters the public confidence.

Really? No, what I see is a bunch of tinpot jackasses jumping at every opportunity to parade around playing soldier.

So long, Fourth Amendment!

The Times on the TSA

This is solid:

It is time to stop pretending that annoying protocols like these are all that stand between us and devastation. The most effective security innovation post-9/11 was also the simplest: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, which has made it virtually impossible to hijack an aircraft.

Dept. of No Surprise

30 months after their rollout, the TSA has finally complied with the law mandating public comment on their porno-cancer-scanners.

97% of respondents hate them. This is, of course, in stark contrast to the mealy-mouthed push-polls the TSA has been touting saying people don’t really mind them.

Time Zones: Not new. Still poorly supported.

It really irritates me that, while I can set a time zone on an appointment, I cannot set flights in my calendar so that they appear properly regardless of where I am. I ought to be able to say flight 123 leaves Houston at 10:00 CDT and arrives in DC at 1 EDT, and have it work. But it doesn’t appear possible.

Grr.

Yet another reason to hate the TSA

They tried to fuck with Chewbacca.

Peter Mayhew, the man who played Chewie, is over seven feet tall and, like many very-tall men when they get older, needs a cane. Given his height, it probably shouldn’t surprise you that his cane is rather long.

The TSA in Denver apparently thought the cane as too long, and were threatening to confiscate it — and would have, if Mayhew hadn’t Tweeted about the incident, and had enough Twitter followers to make sure the situation came to the attention of American Airlines, who prevailed upon the TSA to stop being douchebags.

This, of course, is only possible because he’s a celebrity with tens of thousands of Twitter followers, and because he’s a million-mile flier with American. Remove either of those factors, and the TSA would’ve bullied a man out of his goddamn cane.

Dear TSA, and everyone who works there:

Eat SHIT, you know-nothing, cowardly whiners. Hysteria and idiocy reign, again.

Let’s play a game. It’s called “measure risk with math!” I know, I know: the TSA is no good at either measuring things OR at math, let along rational thought, but bear with me.

First, let’s figure out how many airline passengers there have been in this history of American commercial aviation. It’s going to be a big number, since the FAA reports that there were 732 million passengers in 2012 alone. Let’s assume we’re talking on the order of 10 billion, then, which is probably low, but is also probably in the right ballpark (though I will eagerly accept corrections, provided they come with a clear rationale or, better, data).

Now let’s estimate the number of knife injuries or attacks that have happened on planes, ever. That number is harder to get, so as an upper bound let’s just start with the entire death toll on 9/11. It’s obviously risible to consider all those deaths as the result of the box cutters, but using that enormous number should put to rest concerns that I’m underestimating actual knife attacks in the air.

So, out of an estimated 10 billion passengers, we had about 3,000 injuries/deaths.

Good thing the TSA is protecting us!

Let’s look at this another way, which is to compare average knife injuries per year to the number of passengers per year. By annualizing the data, we can compare it intelligently to the chances of death or injury from other unusual events, to better understand what other activities we should ban or limit using “knives on planes” as the clear, logical border for permissible vs. impermissible.

Again, I’ll put my thumb on the scale against my position here, and count all 3,000 losses in 2001 as knife losses, but I’m going to divide it by 13 to pull an average per year since then. That yields a laughable 230, but vs the 700 million person-flights a year (here, at last, I may be using a slightly-too-high figure for average person-flights, but I think it’ll come out in the wash).

Using these ludicrously-overstated figures, we see 0.00003 percent chance, per year, of a knife injury or death on a plane. You are significantly more likely to die in an accidental plane crash. Or be legally executed. Or be struck by lightning. Or die from a bee sting. Or an earthquake. Or be killed by a dog.

Obviously, the next logical steps should be to ban going outside in the rain; eradicate bees; forcibly relocate folks from fault zones; and euthanize any dog over 15 pounds, as all these ideas have as much logical backing as keeping small pocketknives off planes.

People are insanely, irrevocably stupid. And the TSA is worse than most.

United: We Never Stop Fucking You; also, Hilton Hates You Too

Apparently, there is now only one daily from the Naples area back to Houston, so despite being done early I’m still waiting until 5:12 PM to fly home.

This is my fifth — and final, it turns out — year attending this conference here in Naples. Each year, the flight options have gotten worse. United reducing service (because fuck you) is just one more reason I’m glad I won’t have to come back here, or to this hotel either.

You: The hotel? What’s wrong with the hotel?

I’m glad you asked! It’s called the “Waldorf Naples,” but this is a goddamn lie. At some point, Hilton bought the real Waldorf, and immediately set about ruining that venerable hotel name by applying it willy-nilly to garden variety “full service” properties in pseudo-lux destinations like Naples. It’s not a Waldorf. It’s a run-down Hilton with delusions of grandeur. The rooms are shabby, the carpet’s worn, and they’re too snooty to have vending so you have to use their shop or coffeebar if you want a Diet Coke. Before 8, it’s just the coffeebar — where a 12 ounce bottle of DC goes for $2.85. Because, again, fuck you.

Every time I’ve stayed in a hotel since 2009, I’ve mentally compared it to the Hyatt Place hotel I used in Overland Park. Absolutely no hotel emerges from such a comparison looking good. Hyatt’s created a line with everything you need and nothing you don’t, and with a brandwide culture of “yes” when guests ask for things. It’s not fancy, but it’s done very well. There’s no full service restaurant, but you can get sandwiches and whatnot made to order 24 x 7. The wifi works well, and is included. The free breakfast is full of fresh fruit and good cereal options. I love some high-end stuff in my life, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that the whole IDEA of “high end hotel” is being executed very, very poorly; I haven’t seen a single so-called fancy hotel in the last 4 years I’d choose over a Hyatt Place, if given the option.

Here’s a shocker.

In a recent study of airline performance, United came in dead last. This represents a bit of a reversal, since pre-merger Continental was frequently at the top of these studies — or, at least, sharing top billing with Southwest (who are still on top in terms of customer complaints per 100,000 passengers — 0.25 vs. United’s 4.24).

It’s a nasty irony that the 1999 story of onetime basket-case Continental’s resurrection and triumph was called From Worst to First.

Congratulations, we guess, to the management team that’s managed to bring this full circle!

The TSA: Fucking things up even when they try to do right

So the big news today is that they’re going to allow pocketknives on planes again, which is nice since, you know, disallowing them had absolutely nothing to do with reality in the first place. Bully for them.

However, the new rules are, like everything that has anything to do with the TSA, arbitrary and capricious. As detailed here, the maximum permitted blade length is 2.36 inches, or 6 cm. The diagram in place clearly includes a Swiss-Army type knife, which was at first encouraging, since they come in essentially two sizes — and the one used as an example is obviously of the larger variety, and therefore should be the same size as the one I (and millions others) carry.

Except it’s been scaled down for the diagram. The normal-sized Victorinox (which is to say, most of them) are 3.5 inches long closed, and include a main blade that measures not quite 2.75 inches long (about 7 cm). Wenger’s knives are slightly smaller — 3.25″ closed, with a 2.5″ blade.

Nobody, to my knowledge, sells a Swiss knife of the size used in the diagram, but you can bet your ass that a shit-ton of TSA goons will have fancy new-to-them second-hand Swiss knives the week after this goes into effect (April 25). Travelers will see the Swiss knife in the diagram, think they’re cool, and have them snagged by the jackass patrol.

Nice.

WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?

Here at Miscellaneous Heathen, we don’t usually go in for the sorts of year-in-review bullshit you see elsewhere, but this time around my “list of cities visited” is at least nominally interesting. I count only places that were destinations, not cities I flew through (though, to be fair, I also didn’t connect for any flights this year):

  • Dallas, TX
  • Tuscaloosa, AL
  • Jackson, MS
  • Hattiesburg, MS
  • Laurel, MS
  • Naples, FL
  • Dubai, UAE
  • Abu Dhabi, UAE
  • Al Ain, UAE
  • Louisville, KY
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Washington, DC

Odds are this is a calmer list than 2013 will produce, given our accelerating sales calendar, but it may be a long while before there’s any more international travel.

Shocker.

Turns out, that United merger thing isn’t going so well, and it couldn’t happen to better group of customer-hating, user-hostile jackasses:

United has the worst operational record among the nation’s top 15 airlines. Its on-time arrival rate in the 12 months through September was just 77.5 percent — six percentage points below the industry average and 10 percentage points lower than Delta Air Lines. It had the highest rate of regularly delayed flights this summer, and generated more customer complaints than all other airlines combined in July, according to the Transportation Department.

The airline even angered the mayor of Houston, Continental’s longtime home and still the carrier’s biggest hub, when it unsuccessfully sought to block Southwest Airlines’ bid to bring international flights to the city’s smaller airport, Hobby.

The United-Continental merger is weighing on the company’s finances. It took a $60 million charge in the third quarter for merger-related expenses, including repainting planes. It also took a $454 million charge to cover a future cash payment to pilots under a tentative deal reached in August.

While most large airlines reported profits this year, United has lost $103 million in the first three quarters of 2012, with revenue up just 1 percent to $28.5 billion. Its shares are up 7 percent this year compared with a 12 percent gain for the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index and a 24 percent gain for Delta.