The Other End of Sunset

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Internet is now working!

It's been a long December,
and there's reason to believe,
maybe this year will be better
than the last.
--Counting Crows

On the whole, it has been an awful 2006. It's been surreal. 12 months ago, so much was different. Jeanne was alive. I didn't know so much that I know now.

But life is long, although life is short, and it's holiday time again. We are all atwitter with buying presents and wrapping presents and holiday parties and making sure that our wine list is good enough, since we have to keep up with the Joneses, whoever they are. And getting our feelings hurt because we didn't get a present from Susie or Johnny or Miss M or whoever.

I love opening presents. I hate holidays. What a conundrum, eh?

I'm on a plane, on my way back from India. My best friend is sleeping in the seat next to me, my Carpool Pal is sitting one row in front of me, and a few other work friends are within 10 seats of me. An unusual density from my company, I must say.

I haven't posted for a few days, in part because I couldn't find a theme to use as my central thesis. I think theses make the reading far more enjoyable. I can't imagine how journalists do it -- write columns and articles, day after day, with little respite. I find that many of my recent postings are drab and kind of dull; the interesting ones are largely about death.

Generally, I don't think death is a big seller. At least not death as I present it, in all it's glory and gore, with all the guilt and remorse and smelly, gritty reality. Nobody wants that death.

We want Rambo death -- only the bad guys die, the innocent never perish, and the blood is mercifully far away, only to be seen on the alternative, expensive cable channels that nobody watches. No, instead, we want the Bush version of death, one that involves religion, and heroism, and doesn't show the coffins.

Since like all authors, I must want readers, I need to post about something other than death.

So I need a new theme, a new meme, a new muse. But the only things going through my head are a bad cover version of "Achy-Breaky Heart" (really, don't ask), and a lot of cold medicine. I'm thematically challenged.

Which makes this posting somewhat more difficult. But we'll try anyway.

I'm listening to the Smiths. And feeling particularly cynical about the whole thing anyway.

Given my predilection for writing while on planes, I think I'll post about my favorite topic - airport security.

Airport security in India is even more humorous than security in the US. (Or perhaps I should write "humourous", in homage to the Britishness of the country about which I shall proceed to make fun?)

// Ok, gotta go into a side note here. That sentence was grammatically correct, and had the appropriate verb choice, tense, and (I think) declension. But MAN is it hard to read. Had I simply written the more common formation -- "... that I am about to make fun of." -- it would have been easier to read, yes? But the grammar would have been wrong and the grammar mosquitoes would have buzzed me in the night, biting me in most unpleasant places. Thus, I shall continue my quest for grammar, grace, and... oops, out of "g" words. Back to prose, double quick! //

Allow me to take you through a security checkpoint in Hyderabad.

First, you walk into the airport, through a crowd of people bustling about a waist high barrier. You show your passport and itinerary to some guy with a hat-through-epaulette (see the very first post on this blog, if you want more on the hats-through-epaulettes topic). Note, of course, that the itinerary is some piece of computer-printed paper -- nothing "official" about it. Wouldn't be too hard to create an itinerary to fit. Security theater, part one.

And it doesn't stop, of course.

Then, you walk into a queue to have your luggage scanned -- all of it. It goes through an X-ray machine, and the operator (in my experience) is barely even awake, much less paying attention. Actually, there are usually 3 operators or so, not just one (foreshadowing, a technique used by authors to generate interest...)

After your stuff passes through this stringent examination, the (several) people working the end of the conveyor belt, pick up each bag, and ask if you are checking this bag or carrying it on. If you are checking it, they strap it with that plastic wire-like tape (you know, the stuff that surrounds boxes on pallets?) and hand it back to you. No idea what this does, and the straps don't always stick together.

Regardless, armed with newly-strapped luggage, off you go to the normal check-in queue. With your boarding passes, the agents hand you little tags for your carryon luggage that stick on around the handle. These tags resemble the wristbands you get a clubs to show you are over 21. Every time I get one, I look for the bar; in case you are wondering, there is no spoon, no bar, and no point to these tags. You can't even write your name on them. They just hang there. But don't forget to put them on, although they seem stupid. You'll see why in a second.

The next step in this process takes you to customs and emigration. Where they check to make sure you have signed the form, but don't seem to check to see if you actually lied about anything. These guys are not very nice, which is not typical for the folks I interact with in India. But whatever.

We are almost to the end of this saga. Well, almost. You claw your way across this room to another set of doors, where your passport and itinerary are checked. Again. Keep in mind there are NO doors anywhere near us, you are in the bowels of some dingy building. And you just passed through customs about 25 feet from this check, in plain sight of the people manning this check. But whatever, let's check you again.

At this same time, some people have to show that their carry-on luggage fits in the little bin. I have never seen that in the States, but have now seen it twice in India. Whatever.

And finally you get to the X-ray line. Keep in mind that your bags have already been X-rayed, but let's do it again! There is a single standard X-ray machine in the middle of this glass room, flanked on both sides by the X-ray scanners that scan people - those doorways that you walk through to find out that you forgot to take your cell phone out. The men walk through the left one, the women through the right. But nobody pays attention to what the doorway says - regardless, you go over to another guy, about 10 feet away, to get wanded with one of those X-ray wands. Which, again, finds that you have forgotten to get rid of your cell phone. (The women go the other direction, about 5 feet, into a little curtained area to be wanded by a woman. Again, it doesn't matter if the doorway goes off or not, you WILL be wanded.)

At this point, the wand dude stamps something on your ticket, in faded and illegible ink, and you are allowed to go back to your luggage.

If you are lucky, the X-ray guys have finished looking at your bags, and (if so) they have stamped something on that stupid little tag you hung on the handle at the check-in queue. (You DID remember to put in on, right? If not, you are about to start this whole process over again!)

However, if, like your dear Author, you happen to have TWO carry-on bags, you are in trouble. "Why do you need two bags, sir?" asks the slightly condescending paunchy dude in a hat. Eh? Oh, right, security theater has extended to the threat of a second small bag on a plane.

For context, my two bags are a backpack that holds my computer, etc., and a man bag, made of leather, that holds magazines and the like - I keep it full for long flights. This bag bothered the security guy. Note, the bag has NO metal on or in it (other than the clasp), but its existence bothered the poor guy's soul. Why, indeed, would a man need two bags for a 24-hour trip home? Most definitely demonstrates nefarious intent.

I was then facing going back to the start of this whole charade, in order to check this bag full of magazines - and (by extension) facing a very long trip with nothing to read. However, my best friend, just coming through her wanding behind me, jumped in to help - "No, sir, that's my purse, of course!" says she.

Hmm, although this got my bag through security theater, I have to admit that it wasn't ideal for my masculine self-image - DOES the thing really look like a purse? Yikes. I've reached the height of metrosexuality. Apparently I'm carrying a purse - a LEATHER one, at that. Sigh.

But now, with this step, finally, you are through security. You can now prepare yourself for the soul-numbing prospect of spending hours under blinking fluorescent lights, on short, hard seats, with insufficient personal space, waiting to climb inside your shiny metal tube that will hurtle you towards home at 500 miles per hour; you are safely through security.

But wait, there's MORE!!!

Although you have spent the last couple of hours in the far interior of an airport, and there is no way in (or out), that doesn't involve this long, stupid dance, there is one more security stage. As you walk onto the plane, you are stopped by another set of security folks. This time, they HAND search your bags. Each and every pocket.

Remember I carry a computer backpack. It has lots of pockets. This search took forever.

And added what value? None that I can tell. But added a lot of time to the boarding effort for my 2 am flight.

So, now let's put on our security professional hats, shall we? Is this security effective, or is it simply theater?

Each of the barriers is pretty low - the only one I couldn't trivially find a way around was the main X-ray scanner (the architecture of the building prevented all the ways I could see of going around it). So, maybe all these repeated checks are designed simply to alleviate the risk of the cruddy actual security. In other words, since we can't prevent the security breach, perhaps we can detect it.

Might be true. Seems semi-reasonable as a hypothesis.

But I have a better one, thoughtfully provided by my eternally patient carpool pal.

There is an interesting characteristic of (seemingly) all transactions in India. Each job is done by one person, with four or five standing around "helping". For example, when you buy trinkets at the Cottage Industries store, there is the person who hands your basket to the cashier, the cashier himself, the person who takes the items from the cashier and passes them to the guy who wraps them in paper for you, the wrapper himself, and another person who passes the item back to you.

If I am counting correctly, that is 5 people to do one or two jobs.

And there is latency between each step - in other words, the process is SLOWER because there are so many people involved. This is not a unique example, it's true in many situations; much of the country is an applied lesson in the failure mode of over-resourcing non-parallelizable tasks (that'd be queuing theory, for those of you who are more logistically minded than computationally minded).

So, this theory, pointed out by Carpool Pal early in our trip, applies to the security theater as well - the people have to do SOMETHING, they might as well do additional checks. And since nobody should work alone, each additional, largely superfluous check should have 4 or 5 people. And there are lots of gates, and lots of airports across the country. Voila! Security can make a material reduction in the employment rate.

I think Carpool Pal is right. It's Keynesian economics transmogrified into daily life. The government is investing in pushing the economy towards growth.

Fundamentally, it's exchanging my time for their employment. I wonder what the exchange rate is for time into employment? Is there a market for the set the exchange rate (I clearly believe in markets for setting prices on all kinds of transactions)? Is the market efficient? Is it regulated? Does it involve hats?

A few closing comments are in order, I think. First of all, I used the masculine pronoun throughout, I think; this was not intended as sexism. Rather, it was descriptive - I don't recall seeing a woman anywhere on the playbill for the security theater (except for the person who wanded female passengers). So, the theater was more Elizabethan than modern. Second, I think I lifted the phrase "security theater" from Bruce Schneier, although I can't remember - it sounds like him, so it's plausible. Finally, just because I make fun of my time in India, I love it there - if you haven't been, you should go. Great people, great food, fascinating history. And it never fails to make me thankful for the accident of my birth.

I'm finishing this up on a flight to Seattle. I returned safely to my home, to SL and my dogs, to my friends and my life. My safe, clean, tidy life. Where I can worry about presents, picking the right cold medicine, and what I am going to say to an all-hands meeting later this afternoon.

I don't have to worry about the things that many people worry about - survival, feeding themselves, their children, or their habits.

Probably in the short run, my time doesn't matter; in the long run, we are all dead anyway. (All due respect to Paul Samuelson). Perhaps the trade of my time is a fair one, therefore.

And perhaps I should learn to be more like Carpool Pal, to have more patience, and a gentler sense of humor.

It's the holiday season. I am grateful.

The sea changes color,
But the sea does not change.
-- Stevie Nicks