Virgin America

I flew Virgin Atlantic for the first time recently, for a day trip to San Francisco. I enjoyed it. I can’t remember the last time I actually enjoyed getting on a plane.

The first really standout bit was when the Seattle ground folks put on music and a name that song contest. They handed out free drink tickets for each winner, and a second free drink for singing along through the PA. I was initially a little skeptical — I really wanted some peace and quiet — but it’s better than airport CNN. They seemed to be having a genuinely good time, and they had me smiling by the time I got on the plane.

On the way home, I splurged for a $50 upgrade, figuring that I needed a drink or three, and some food wouldn’t hurt either. The seat was comfy, and the flight attendant was friendly, conversational and appeared to be enjoying himself.

If I lived in San Francisco (their US hub) I’d be a convert. As is, I’ll likely fly them when I can.

If I was one of those pedantic bloggers who tried to tie everything back to the blog title, I’d talk about the value of the unexpected. But really, give them a chance if you’re headed on a route they fly.

Chaos in the Airports! Baa! Baa!

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Some days the snark just writes itself:

The group that created Smokey Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog has a new potential icon: Stephanie the airport screener.

A $1.3 million ad campaign launched this month teams the Ad Council and the Transportation Security Administration trying to change behavior of passengers who no longer automatically accept post-Sept. 11 airport security procedures. The public relations push explains the terrorist threat and the reasons behind annoyances at checkpoints.

A passenger focus group conducted for TSA by New York City business consulting firm Blue Lime found that “unquestioning compliance has diminished.” Passengers say they are more afraid of missing their flight than they are of an airplane being attacked, the 73-page Blue Lime report found. (“TSA ads aim to get fliers on board with security measures,” USA Today)

Stephanie Naar has been in the news before, as part of the TSA’s wasting our money on jackboots badges. Not sure (yet) if the image is her. I’ll snap a pic if I see the ad.

PS to TSA: there’s a good reason McGruff and Smokey were animated.

Photo by Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty. Races purely coincidental.

Travel Chaos

NARA (National Archives) published notice in the Federal Register on October 27, 2008, of TSA’s submission to them (see Schedule Pending #3) of a proposed Records Schedule for Secure Flight Program. The actual Proposed Schedule was not published in the Register, only notice that you can request it and file comments on whether NARA should approve it. The 30 day window to request from NARA a copy of this proposed Records Schedule, along with NARA’s associated appraisal reports, closes November 26. This can be done easily via email – see my request below. After providing a requester with these documents, NARA must wait 30 days for the requester to file comments – and to take all comments into account prior to deciding whether to approve the schedule. Destruction of records requires the approval by NARA of a Records Schedule – see 44 U.S.C. Chapter 33 Disposal of Records. Presumably TSA wouldn’t start collecting domestic airline passenger records under Secure Flight, for program testing purposes or otherwise, without the ability to legally destroy them.

Making a request to NARA for TSA’s Secure Flight Records Schedule, and participating in the comment process, sends a message to NARA that the public is interested and concerned about TSA building files on the travel history of ordinary Americans. To make this request, cut and paste this into an email…

If you don’t want the government building a database of the travel history of innocent Americans, take a minute to visit Papers, please and send in a request.

Crime in Barcelona

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While having a wonderful time in Barcelona, I took the metro a fair amount. Over the course of 8 days, I saw 2 turnstile jumpers, (40€ fine) 3 smokers (30€ fine) and didn’t see as one friend got pick-pocketed (reported fine, one beating).

So which crime annoyed me most? The apparently worthless invasion of privacy.

There were cameras everywhere. They seemed to have no deterrent effect whatsoever. Now, maybe crime was really rampant before they put the cameras in. Maybe they’re being used to track down criminals. It’s hard to judge. But my Catalan friends say that the crime has been like this for a long time.

Someone should come up with a pithy quip about those who trade privacy for a little promised security.

Photo: Amlwch to magor.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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There have been a couple of interesting stories over the last week that I wanted to link together.

Verizon Employees Snoop on Obama’s Cellphone Records (followed shortly by “Verizon fires workers over Obama cell phone records breach“) and “4 more Ohio officials punished in ‘Joe’ data search.”

There’s a couple of things happening here. The first is that everyone who works in an organization with lots of personal data knows that snooping has gone on forever. But organizations are changing their approach. They
are now starting to audit and address that snooping.

The second thing is no one seems all that surprised. Companies have been hiding the problem, and when they own up to it, their customers don’t all quit en masse. (It might seem hard to stop having an Ohio drivers license, but then, Joe’s already proven you can get by without Ohio licenses.)

We actually saw something similar in the NSA wiretapping case. Much of what we’ve learned about what happened has come from insiders stepping forward to say that it was wrong. They’ve given information to journalists so that we can have an informed conversation, because in their professional judgement, the terrorists already knew we were spying on them.

So I see this as a very positive new school step. We’re talking about a problem. The sky isn’t falling. It turns out that for some things, the watchmen watch each other.

Now, that’s not to say we should rely on them to do so. But it’s an interesting phenomenon, and one we should look to include in system design. That’s often really tough, because pointing out mis-behavior can seem like a “betrayal. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, we should just do so with a full understanding of how hard it is to change human nature.

Photo by Zog the Frogman.

Tidying up Art

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In “Tidying up Art” Ursus Wehrli tells the TED audience about not only how to tidy up art, but has a great example of how apparently simple instructions can very quickly lead chaos to emerge.

And it’s pretty darn funny after the audience doesn’t know how to respond to his first couple of jokes.

Terrifying Financial Blacklists Falling Down

There’s a list, maintained by the UN security council, of people who can’t have their money. Once you’re on the list, there’s no way to get off.

The global blacklisting system for financiers of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups is at risk of collapse, undermined by legal challenges and waning political support in many countries, according to counterterrorism officials in Europe and the United States.

In September, the European Court of Justice threw the future of the United Nations’ sanctions program against al-Qaeda and the Taliban into doubt when it declared the blacklist violated the “fundamental rights” of those targeted. The Luxembourg-based court said the list lacked accountability and made it almost impossible for people to challenge their inclusion.

See “Terrorism Financing Blacklists At Risk” in the Washington Post.

Ephemeral Anniversary

Yesterday, Nov 17, was the sesquicentenary of the zero-date of the American Ephemeris. I meant to write, but got distracted. Astronomical ephemeris counts forward from this date.

That particular date was picked because it was (approximately) Julian Day 1,000,000, but given calendar shifts and all, one could argue for other zero dates as well. The important thing is to pick one.

There are some who think that this would be a better date to use as a zero-time computer timekeeping than what most of us use presently. It has the advantages that almost all of the Julian/Gregorian calendar skew comes after this (Russia being the major exception) and far enough back that nearly all time-and-date calculations you need to do with quick math can therefore be just adding and subtracting. And it has a nice scientific tie-in.

Other common zero-dates are 1 Jan 1904 (picked because if you pick this date, you can calculate all the way to 2100 assuming that leap years are every four years), and 1 Jan 1970 (picked because this was the last day that The Beatles recorded music in Abbey Road studios — actually, their last date was Jan 4, but close enough).

Diverse Preferences for Privacy

A Wide Diversity of Consumer Attitudes about Online Privacy shows this picture of Flickr users setting privacy preferences: green is public (default) and red is private.


I hope Flickr shares some of the underlying data. I don’t know what anyone would do with it, and there’s two ways to find out. One is to talk, the other is to release the data. (For privacy reasons, coded to a broad anonymity set, like the zip code in the US, or groups of postal codes elsewhere.)