Why security and safety theatre is the worst

Safety and security are brilliant. Safety and security theatre is bullshit. If you support safety and security theatre measures, which includes nearly all routine airport security, you are helping to make everyone worse off and nobody safer.

Whilst world-travelling over the last month, I discovered that most European carriers [1] now allow the use of small electronic devices except for actual RF transmitters throughout the flight – including take-off and landing. Which isn’t surprising, because there isn’t and never has been any evidence that they ever have (or indeed potential that they ever could) do anything whatsoever to harm a plane.

However, most Asian and Australian carriers [2] still make you switch off your Kindle during take-off, despite the clear evidence and overseas best practice confirming that this is bullshit. This is solely because of safety theatre, enforcing archaic rules for no reason.

There is some (still only hypothetical) evidence that interference from actual RF transmitters could harm older aircraft, so banning mobile phone use in aircraft which haven’t actively been demonstrated to be phone-safe is for the best. It reflects the evidence-based precautionary rules which have made air travel the second-safest transport mode in existence [3].

However, efforts to provide mobile phone cells on modern aircraft which are certified safe have also flagged on many carriers, because they are required to overfly countries whose non-evidence-based regulatory requirements prevent it (chiefly China and the US, although US carriers do at least provide ground-cell-based wifi domestically). So online internet connectivity is a painful process confined to a few carriers, where it generally doesn’t work very well. Entirely because of dumb, non-evidence-based safety theatre.

Security theatre, meanwhile, is the one thing which makes short-haul flying unequivocally worse than 15 years ago, despite the immense improvements in the in-flight experience. The only thing which can prevent a terrorist attack on a flight is intelligence on terrorist groups. If a terrorist gets anywhere near an aircraft, that is an epic and terrible failure in security policy on a par with letting him blow the damn thing up – which, in any case, he almost certainly will be able to do despite the security theatre currently in place.

When a country is ruled by ignorant fuckwits and its security agencies are incompetent, as with the USA in 2001, evidence which would have got the 9/11 gang arrested even by the Keystone Kops long before any attack took place is ignored, terrorists gain access to planes, and terrible things happen. This is followed (hopefully) by improvements in intelligence, and (certainly, because people are stupid) by additional useless security theatre.

This is why getting a plane to America is now even more unpleasant than it used to be. It’s why you can’t take nail clippers on a plane, despite the fact that even McGyver could do no more harm with them than his nails. Even the US TSA floated the idea of resisting the ban on small pointy objects in 2013, on the grounds of its obvious uselessness, only to be shot down by grandstanding politicians screaming TERRORISM!!!!!.

When a country is not and its security agencies are not, as with the UK in 2006, a major terrorist gang gets intercepted and arrested long before they get anywhere near an aircraft with their ridiculous plot [4], and nothing bad happens at all. This is followed (hopefully) by improvements in intelligence, and (certainly, because people are stupid) by additional useless security theatre.

Which is why you [5] now need to stick your tubes of piles and herpes ointment in a transparent bag for public viewing, drink breast milk in front of random strangers, and pay $6 for a bottle of water airside. It’s why – if flying to the US or Australia – you can’t even buy duty free gin in the departure airport (or are forced to check it as cargo and hope it turns up in some random corner of the arrival airport within a few hours of your luggage).

As with safety theatre rules, security theatre rules don’t apply consistently across countries, because they are all made-up bullshit. If there were any need for them, they would be universal. For any rule which does apply universally – like, say, the transport of lithium batteries in hold luggage, or the prohibition on firearms in the cabin – this reflects the fact that it is evidence-based.

I’m not arguing that we should compromise on safety for the sake of convenience [6]. But if every airline, airport and regulator worldwide adopted EU rules on electronic devices on all aircraft (they’re fine), RF devices on tested aircraft (they’re fine), and Hong Kong’s rules on liquids, belts, and shoes (they’re fine), then flying would be a better experience, and the level of public safety would not be diminished at all.

Instead, for the sake of nothing but appeasing ignorant morons, we still have to arrive two hours early for a plane in order to queue endlessly whilst someone’s grandma gets interrogated over the forgotten nail clippers and syrup of prunes in her handbag.

[1] BA and Ryanair, who represent a decent cross-section. Probably there are some who don’t.
[2] Cathay Pacific and Qantas, likewise.
[3] Rail is safest, obviously.
[4] The plan would have failed due to its physical impossibility even had the plotters made it onto a plane – at best, the leaders could have burned their own dicks off, like the Nigerian gentleman whose Christmas 2009 was even worse than mine. Nonetheless, I accept that preventing people from burning their own dicks off on aeroplanes is for the best.
[5] Yes, you, specifically. You do all of these things. I know you. I know where you live.
[6] This is an argument I am happy to make in general, but I’m not using it in this piece.

Long-haul flying: we’ve never had it so adequate

Something which gets neglected by most travel writers – I think because long-haul economy-class flying is inherently a bit shit – is the immense extent to which the actually-flying bits of the long-haul rigmarole have improved over the last 15 years. The pre- and post-flying bits have worsened, of course, which makes short-haul flight far, far worse, but that’s a story for another piece.

At the turn of the millennium, by no means all planes flown by serious airlines even had seat-back in-flight entertainment (IFE). The last time I flew long-haul on a BA plane with only ceiling CRT screens was in 2002; the last time I flew long-haul on a US carrier (who count as somewhere between top-tier and third-world) which had them was in 2004. Surprisingly, the last time I ever flew long-haul without seat-back entertainment was on Air Canada in 2008.

But back then, even seat-back IFE was shit. You had perhaps eight channels playing on a continuous loop, so once you’d watched a film, you were stuck with whatever was next on the channel for 90 minutes until the loop ended, or joining something else completely halfway through. So even if there were channels featuring things you might reasonably want to watch, it was still a frustrating process. The same was true for music: at best, there might be one radio station vaguely to your taste, which repeated every two hours.

If you had a decent laptop, it’d be twice the size of your seat tray and would have a battery life of an hour or two. There were no power sockets in economy. If you were ridiculously dedicated to work, you might bring a second battery, taking your laptopping time up to a grand total of three hours. The concept of doing anything other than work was fairly ridiculous, not least because downloading films in the first place would have taken you all month and most of your disk space.

So you were often left with books, which are obviously a great medium, but a bit of a pain in the arse to lug around, especially if flying 20 hours for a two-week trip away.

Compare all of this with now, where any half-decent carrier has a video-on-demand system. As I’ve discovered on this Cathay Pacific flight, any carrier which isn’t from an English-as-first-language country [*] will end up with a fairly average range of videos to watch. Qantas are exceptionally good at VOD programming. BA and Virgin aren’t bad. But even Malaysian Airlines has enough to keep you occupied for 12 hours if you don’t mind watching HBO re-runs (and come on, there are worse ways to spend 12 hours).

If you do object to HBO, you also most likely have a Kindle with every book you own on it, a tablet or small-form laptop onto which you’ve pre-loaded your own favourite TV shows, music and online long-reads to catch up on, and you have access to AC and USB power sockets. The only thing you’re missing is the internet (unless you’re on Emirates, in which case you have all the fun of 1998-era dial-up internet, or above the continental US on a domestic flight). Noise cancelling headphones cost under $50.

And if you’re on an A380 or B787, newer thin-material seat designs, airflow systems and lighting systems mean that you can pack more people in without making legroom worse than it was in a 2000-era 747-400, you can breathe better and feel less groggy, and you’re subjected to lighting patterns designed to maximise sleep and wakefulness and minimise jetlag.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re not built to sleep in upright seats, and once a flight goes over the nine-hour mark even a Broadwalk Empire marathon starts to lose its appeal. Economy-class flying is still more of a chore than a joy; otherwise nobody would pay the price of a car to travel in the premium classes. And the improvement is largely down to wider improvements in the electronics industry, rather than anything specifically to do with carriers improving.

But that doesn’t negate my point. Long-haul flying is a hell of a lot better than it was when I was a callow youth – even though back then I was able to drink solidly through the whole thing and not worry about the destination consequences of hangover, no sleep and horrible back pain…

[*] insert your preferred first language if not English.

Of course I’m fucking cynical, that’s why I’m alive and not in gaol

I’m not dead

Mashudur Choudhury, a chap from near enough to where I grew up that it might as well be the same place, went off to Syria to die.

His leaving letter to his missus went, “what good is a husband, father, brother that sits in comfort, sleeps in comfort, eats in comfort but neglects the cause of women being raped, children being attacked, mothers being decapitated, and daughters being murdered?” – this is, in case you’ve lost track of Syria, people being murdered by the government of genocidal lunatic Bashir Assad, who is backed by (not genocidal! Yay Russia! So much progress!) lunatic Vladimir Putin.

Homage to catatonia
I don’t want to minimise the extent to which Choudhury is terrible. He is very terrible. Syria is pretty terrible. Choudhury seems very much like the Stalinists who Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia, who were dogmatic and were as keen to execute non-dogmatic leftist fighters as they were to shoot fascists.

But, rather as with Hausa women in northern Nigeria being kidnapped by organisations that combine Hausa and Wahabbi dogma to come up with something that is revolting, again, what the fuck are we doing intervening in this?

Between 1958 and 1965, my dad grew up in Lagos, the capital of Christian, trading, southern Nigeria; my granddad was one of the most impressive engineers I know who shaped modern Lagos; my grandma was a teacher (I wish she wasn’t also a massive bigot who non-stop tried to get my granddad to move to Australia because there weren’t any blacks left there, but she was).

45 years later, I worked in Lagos, because I was the person at the London office of the multinational consulting firm I was with who said “yes I have family ties to Nigeria; yes I’m willing to do this”. It was the best thing I’ve ever done and the most painful thing I’ve ever done. I knew that I could never live there, but I hated it far less than every other consulting assignment.

My mum was Welsh; every progressive thing that my family did feels like it erases the Welsh side of the myth. Now I live in Australia, and I don’t feel even slightly at home in England (London doesn’t count), and the concept of English as opposed to British revolts me. I find UKIP people revolting, and obviously Australia is racist as hell in some ways, but I love the fact that at least Australia – correctly – assigns British people as British, rather than the bullshit divisions between British people that dickheads like Salmond or Farage wish to impose.

I’m British more than I am Australian, but if grandstanding fuckwits abolish Britain on me, then I’m sure as fuck more Australian than I’ll ever be English, Irish or Scottish.

CBA’s Netbank platform was never vulnerable to Heartbleed

The suggestion has been doing the rounds, at least at the more paranoid/self-fancying end of the technology spectrum, that the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA)’s Netbank online banking platform might have been vulnerable to the Heartbleed vulnerability.

TL/DR: it wasn’t.

Heartbleed only hit sites that use certain versions of the OpenSSL secure toolkit, with its Heartbeat function enabled. Netbank runs on SAP for Banking, implemented by Accenture. SAP for Banking is not affected by Heartbleed, which you’d expect given that it runs on Microsoft IIS (“Microsoft” and “open” go together like anchovies and custard). This isn’t a great surprise: no major western-world banks’ online banking platforms were ever vulnerable, because of the massively proprietary, as well as security-crazy, way in which online banking software is developed.

So why all the derp? Well, CBA’s non-transactional Commbank.com.au website does use OpenSSL, was apparently vulnerable to Heartbleed, and was apparently patched after the Heartbleed news broke. You don’t use your Netbank credentials to log into Commbank, it isn’t linked to your secure data, and it uses a different security certificate from Netbank.

This created some scope for confusion – and the scope was fully brought to reality by the combination of utterly stupid PR people, and self-satisfied circle-jerking techies happy to spread unjustified fear among CBA customers.

CBA published a blog post that completely failed to explain the difference between the two platforms, and then responded to comments asking for clarification with a meaningless copy-paste of the original post. Rather than doing the basic research that went into my post here, a whole bunch of tech folk who should know better then went crazy with the “WE DON’T KNOW IF OUR NETBANK PASSWORDS ARE SAFE OR NOT, WOES!!!!!!” line.

Stop it. Your Netbank passwords are safe. Someone in CBA’s PR department needs a long walk off a short pier, is all.

(thanks very much to Johnny and Chris for pointing me towards technical details here. Any screw-ups in this post, of course, are solely my fault.)

The Teaches Of Peaches*

I don’t normally get teary over the death of celebrities. Just out of recent far-too-young deaths, Amy Winehouse and Philip Seymour Hoffman have contributed far more to life than the rest of us ever will, and yet I was a bit sad, rather than losing-it sobbing, for those two.

Peaches Geldof wasn’t an artist on either of their scale. As far as I’m aware, she was a perfectly competent TV presenter – but not of shows that I’d consider watching in a million years, or indeed ever have watched. And yet despite me being fully aware of this,¬†her death¬†yesterday hit me harder than any dead celebrity I can remember. To the point of actual sobbing.

It’s always projection, and sure, this is projection. When Peaches lost her mum aged 11, I was 20 and had lost my mum aged 10 – so I was aware of what it was like to group up having lost your mum at that age from my own experience, even before you factor in the press vultures who followed her around for her entire life.

The single thing that felt worst, in my mind at the time**, about my mum’s death was the way it was reported as a top headline in the local newspaper (which I suspect is part of why I hate small towns and rejoice in the destruction of local newspapers. Big cities, where nobody knows your business unless they are your friend or you are actually famous, are the way forward). Multiply that by all of the newspapers, all of the time, forever, and you get Peaches’ entire life. Imagining how anyone could cope with that is painful.

On top of that starting point, there’s the sheer compressedness of her life. While I’ve done whatever I’ve been up to in the 15 years since Paula Yates died (which feels like about last week, and has mostly consisted of writing about things, sometimes for money), Peaches has gone from a child who lost her mum, to being the mum of two kids who are now in the same place she was 15 years ago, and that I was in 25 years ago.

But understanding the reasons why this pushes my trigger-buttons doesn’t make feel it any less real. Yesterday I was genuinely upset, to a level I rarely reach about anything, about the death of a total stranger. Suddenly some of my sneery judginess about the people who went full-mourning crazy for Princess Di feels a bit less clever and a bit more twattish.

(I’m not going to send flowers to a total stranger’s funeral, or swear at people on the internet for not caring about a stranger’s death, though. I think that’s probably still a boundary everyone would do well to maintain.)

* I hope neither Peaches would mind the title.
** The mind of a 10-year-old is a stupid place, but this is the single thing that I was most able to deal with and be cross about at the time.

The Dorkiest Fun-Spoilingest Thing Ever Written About Breaking Bad

This joke does the rounds a bit too often:

It doesn’t work.

In the show, because Walter White is a salaried professional, his insurance covers the same procedures that national healthcare insurance schemes generally cover in the sensible world.

The nature of the extremely expensive experimental cancer treatment for which he needs the money isn’t specified in the show – but quite often, such a treatment wouldn’t be deemed cost-effective for funding by the UK NHS, Australian Medicare, or the Canadian, French or German systems either. Like many experimental treatments, it also quite likely wouldn’t have had any effect – which is why insurers and national healthcare systems alike are reluctant to provide funding outside of clinical trial groups.

Now, if someone unemployed or casually employed (ie almost everyone from the subculture Walt visits after heading out on the meth-making trip) had gotten sick, that would have been a story where the outcomes were actually different in the US and the rest of the world…

Only sentimentalism could have saved the Australian car industry

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the news that Toyota will follow its fellow foreign-owned carmakers GM Holden, Ford and Mitsubishi in ending car assembly in Australia. But at least from an economic point of view, there shouldn’t be.

The basic problem for the Australian car industry has nothing to do with unions or pay rates, despite the government’s outrageous lies to the contrary. It’s far simpler than that. Australia is a country of 23 million people, with a new car market of just under a million a year, while car manufacturing is an industry with massive economies of scale where the most efficient factories have annual production levels of more than half a million a year.

Less than half as many cars per worker…

Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK in Sunderland, which is famed for being one of the most productive plants worldwide, is about to increase production from 500,000 to more than 550,000. To knock out those half a million cars, NMMUK employs 6,000 people, and supports around 23,000 jobs in the UK supply chain. So that’s about 80 cars per worker (labour is not the whole story, but it’s a tolerable proxy, and accurate job data is easier to find than full input cost data at plant level).

Toyota Australia employs 2,500 people to produce 100,000 cars year, which is about 40 cars per worker. In the rest of the industry (as of now-ish, before Ford and Holden begin their shutdown), 1200. So carmaking in Australia employs 6600 people directly, for a total of 220,000 cars per year, or about 33 cars per worker (as you might have expected, Holden and Ford are less efficient than Toyota).

Scaling the supply chain in line with NMMUK employment (i.e. assuming Australian suppliers are as inefficient as Australian carmakers) would suggest that about 25,000 supply jobs will be lost when the Australian industry shuts down. Scaling it in line with Nissan output (i.e. assuming Australian suppliers are just as efficient as UK suppliers), you’d assume about 10,000 jobs will be lost.

…and 21,000 jobs, not hundreds of thousands

Data from IBISWorld suggests the actual number of jobs in the industry at risk is about 15,000, somewhere in the middle. So the total number of job losses when the car industry shuts down, including knock-on effects, will be about 21,000 [*]. This is roughly equivalent to the number of public servant jobs the federal government is currently cutting.

(the number of Australians in employment is 11.6 million, as of December 2013; the number of unemployed Australians is 716,000).

These 21,000 jobs are being lost because the Australian car market isn’t large enough to support an efficient domestic carmaking industry, even if every single car Australians bought were manufactured domestically. A large, remote, resource-rich and wealthy island of 23 million people has more productive uses of time and resources than subsidising industries that require greater scale than can possibly be achieved domestically, and where we’ve never excelled at exporting. Economically speaking, we would do better to buy new cars from South Korea, import second-hand cars from Japan, redirect the labour and capital involved towards things we are good at, and spend the subsidy money on things that we actually need.

But whence will come the V8 Supercars of the future?

Economics isn’t the whole story. It’s possible that having a carmaking industry is so important to Australia’s wider culture and self-image that it is worth protecting, whether by direct taxpayer subsidy or by higher import tariffs (which are a tax on everyone who buys a car, whether it is domestic or foreign-made). If Australia agrees as a society that this is the case, then continuing to subsidise carmaking is a completely legitimate decision – just as is the case for the large subsidies that go to farmers.

But if you think that the car industry has closed because wage rates are too high, you are wrong, and you believe the toxic bullshit the Liberals are seeking to peddle in order to erode everyone’s employment conditions. If you think that the decision to stop subsidising inefficient lossmaking industries will cost Australia money, you are wrong, and you believe the economically illiterate bullshit Labor is seeking to peddle in order to bash the Liberals. The only grounds on which to support a domestic car industry are sentimental grounds.

[*] Wider estimates of up to 200,000 job losses have been published in various ‘newspapers’. These are lies.

The idle musings of John B