Surrender your dignity: a sceptic’s critique of airport security

October 28, 2012

With me, it’s not so much a fear of flying as a fear of airports. Up in the air, you are in the hands of superb professionals who have a very obvious vested interest in doing their job properly and landing safely. Up in the air is relaxing. It’s on the ground that it gets nasty. Stephen Bayley, Prison, hospital … airport: surrender your dignity now. The Independent 20 May 2012

I felt additional sympathy for the staff as a result of the limited curiosity they were permitted to bring to bear on the targets of their searches. Despite having free rein to look inside any passenger’s make-up bag, diary or photo album, they were allowed to investigate only evidence pointing to the presence of explosive devices or murder weapons. There was therefore no sanction for them to ask for whom a neatly wrapped package of underwear was intended, nor any official recognition of how tempting it might occasionally seem to stroke the back pockets of a pair of low-slung jeans without any desire to discover a semi-automatic pistol. Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport

We shall never know the identity of the man who in 1976 made the most unsuccessful hijack attempt ever. On a flight across America, he rose from his seat, drew a gun and took the stewardess hostage.

“Take me to Detroit,” he demanded.

“We’re already going to Detroit,” she replied.

“Oh… good,” he said, and sat down again. Stephen Pile, The Book of Heroic Failures 


For many years commercial flying was seen as a glamorous experience. This glamour was captured in the recent ABC TV series Pan-Am, which featured the pilots and stewardesses of the airline in the early 1960s, at the beginning of the commercial Jet Age. Both the series and the airline have disappeared. Alas, the allure has gone from air travel too.

Things started to go wrong in the 1960s when hijackings became all the rage. In this period many of the hijackings were connected to Cuba. Pilots actually took plans of Havana’s José Marti runways on flights south to Florida, the routes where most hijackings occurred. Wikipedia has a list of Cuba – United States aircraft hijackings. The US government had to fill in a form, which they would then lodge with the neutral Swiss embassy in Washington, to get stranded aircraft, passengers and crew off the Caribbean island. It got more serious in the 1970s when radical Palestinian factions employed hijacking to internationalise their cause

Before the outbreak of air piracy people would enter airports as casually as we now go into department stores. Airports sheltered the homeless. According to research by sociologist Kim Hopper, hundreds of people once lived in airports. They were the perfect venue for those down on their luck; they were warm in the winter and had air-conditioning in the summer. They had running water and bathroom facilities, which were mostly empty for long periods of the day. And there was also a good supply of free food, either discarded by restaurants or left behind by passengers in a hurry. The homeless could sleep without being too obtrusive.

It was on September 11th 2001 that the whole experience flying would be transformed. Now we have to de-shoe and de-belt, take our laptops out, put all our liquids in those see-through bags and all the rest of the rituals associated with post 9/11 air travel. In a previous post about travel I mentioned the recombobulation areas, where you can recover from all these indignities. It takes about the same amount of time to travel through air today as a few decades ago, but getting off the ground has become an odyssey. There have been hundreds of incidents since the heightened security measures were brought in. Here are a couple of examples:

In 2007 a man nearly died from alcohol poisoning at Nuremberg airport after drinking a litre of vodka rather than surrendering it before boarding the plane. The 64-year-old man, who was switching planes on his way home to Dresden from a holiday in Egypt, was told at a security check he would have to either throw out the bottle of vodka or pay a fee to have his carry-on bag checked as cargo. He was soon unable to stand or otherwise function, and a doctor called to the scene determined he had possibly life-threatening alcohol poisoning, and sent him to a Nuremberg clinic for treatment.

But the worst thing you can do is crack a joke. Philippe Riviere, an Air France co-pilot joked at JFK that he had a bomb in his shoes was arrested. This led to a 12-hour delay of the New York-Paris flight. “It’s not very often that you find a co-pilot making such inappropriate comments,” Lauren Stover, a transportation security administration spokesman told The New York Times. “We have zero tolerance for those kinds of comments.” He was arraigned on charges of falsely reporting an incident and could have faced up to seven years in prison if he had been convicted. Judge Deborah Stevens Modica of Queens Criminal Court set bail at $7,500. I can’t find out what finally happened to Monsieur Riviere, but Philippe, if you are reading this, please let us know what happened.

But all this security rigmarole helps protect us, right? Well, according to security expert Bruce Schneier, it is more like theatre and has little to do with actually making us safer.
Schneier is highly critical of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the organisation responsible for airport security in the USA. One major problem with these measures is that they tend to be reactive in nature; policies are based on looking backwards at the terrorists’ previous tactics. Schneier describes how this plays out:

We screened for guns and bombs, so the terrorists used box cutters. We confiscated box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screened footwear, so they tried to use liquids. We confiscated liquids, so they put PETN (Pentaerythritol tetranitrate) bombs in their underwear. We rolled out full-body scanners, even though they would not have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We banned printer cartridges over 16 ounces—the level of magical thinking here is amazing—and surely in the future they will do something else.

The list of forbidden items doesn’t really appear to be based on any rational evaluation of risk, but on knee-jerk reactions. The search for contraband takes up a lot of TSA time and uses resources that could go to other things, including more worthwhile security measures. Sealing off the cockpit was the single most important remedy adopted. Planes can no longer be turned into flying bombs. What’s more the 9/11 type of hi-jacking probably wouldn’t work again; knowing they have nothing to lose, passengers would almost certainly fight back.

Airport security should be the last line of defence, and we need to recognise that it is not especially effective. Terrorists have hundreds of possible tactics and millions of possible targets available to them. What you end up doing is spending billions to force the terrorists to alter their plans in one particular way. This does not make us safer. It would be more cost-effective we need to concentrate our resources in ways that work regardless of the tactics and targets chosen by the terrorists. According to Schneier, intelligence, investigation and emergency response provide the most effective security for air passengers. The rest is security theatre. Why isn’t there a cost-benefit analysis of the security measures? The TSA doesn’t even analyse whether the security measures it deploys are actually worth it.

Academics, on the other hand, have performed some cost-benefit analyses on airline-security measures. The results are damning: the security benefits of most post-9/11 security changes do not justify the costs. In Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart provide some fascinating analysis of the functioning of homeland security. The total number of people killed in the years after 9/11 by Muslim extremists outside of war zones is around 200 to 300 per year. These deaths are tragic of course, but they are not evidence of massive destructive capacity. During the same period more people – 320 per year -drowned in bathtubs – just in the United States. Perhaps we need a war on bathroom furnishings! There is an important lesson here. Discouraging air travel costs lives. Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports caused by the new security procedures may cause many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination instead of flying. As driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra road traffic generated has been estimated to result in 500 or more extra fatalities per year.

I do realise that airplanes and airports still represent an important target for terrorists. They have a huge symbolic significance. 9/11 was like a cinematic event with enormous propaganda value. We need to be aware of what terrorists’ goals are. They are not ultimately out to crash planes, or even to kill people. Their primary aim is to instil terror. We must be very careful not to do the terrorists’ work for them, by heaping indignities on passengers and subjecting us to arbitrary and irrational security measures. This merely serves to spread panic. Schneier believes that we should refuse to be terrorised. However, I am reminded of a Spanish saying – el miedo es libre – which literally translated means fear is free. The basic idea is that we are all entitled to our own fears, rational or not, and no explanation is required. Schneier’s message night not go down well with the general public. Maybe we want the security theatre. We need the feeling that the authorities are doing something to protect us.

Flying trivia

October 28, 2012

Here is some trivia I have found in books and on the web about flying:

Who made the first flight in an aeroplane? We don’t know his name but he beat the Wright Brothers to it by fifty years. He worked for Sir George Cayley (1773–1857), an aristocratic Yorkshireman and pioneer of aeronautics, who carried out the first truly scientific study of how birds fly. Cayley correctly described the principles of ‘lift, drag and thrust’ that govern flight and this led him to build a series of prototype flying machines. His early attempts with flapping wings (powered by steam and gunpowder engines) failed, so he turned his attention to gliders instead. In 1804 he demonstrated the world’s first model glider and, five years later, tested a full-sized version – but without a pilot. More than three decades passed before he finally felt ready to trust his ‘governable parachute’ with a human passenger. In 1853, at Brompton Dale near Scarborough, the intrepid baronet persuaded his reluctant coachman to steer the contraption across the valley. It was this anonymous employee who became the first human ever to fly in a heavier-than-air machine. The coachman, so the story goes, was not impressed. He handed in his notice as soon as he landed, saying, ‘I was hired to drive, not to fly.’ A modern replica of Cayley’s glider, now on show at the Yorkshire Air Museum, successfully repeated the flight across Brompton Dale in 1974. But wings weren’t Sir George’s only legacy. With his work on the glider’s landing gear, he literally reinvented the wheel. Needing something light but strong to absorb the aircraft’s impact on landing, he came up with the idea of using wheels whose spokes were held at tension, rather than being carved from solid wood. These went on to transform the development of the bicycle and the car and are still widely used today. And that wasn’t all. Cayley was a remarkably prolific inventor, developing self-righting lifeboats, caterpillar tracks for bulldozers, automatic signals for railway crossings and seat belts. Even more remarkably, he offered all these inventions for the public good, without expecting any financial reward.


According to the Airports Council International, 88,032,086 people flew in or out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia, USA, in 2009. Hartsfield-Jackson was also busiest by flight numbers, with 970,235 in and out.


Which aircraft manufacturer has produced the most aircraft to date? Not Boeing or Airbus, but in fact the Cessna Aircraft Company of Wichita, Kansas, USA, which had built 192,967 aircraft up to 2010.


Aeroplanes do not dump the contents of their lavatories overboard. The waste is contained in a holding tank, which is emptied when the aircraft lands. Great care is taken to ensure that this tank is secure. Even if a mad pilot wanted to jettison it, access to the tank is located on the outside of the plane. On very rare occasions, ice can fall from aeroplanes. Some 3 million flights pass through British airspace every year; in the same period, the Civil Aviation Authority gets just twenty to thirty reports of possible icefalls. The CAA investigates all such complaints by checking the relevant flight paths. Over the past twenty years, they estimate that five people have been hit by small amounts of falling ice. In July 2009 a lump of ice the size of a football crushed the roof of a car in Loughborough, Leicestershire, but no flights were in the area at the time and the incident has been put down to a freak conglomeration of hailstones. If ice does fall from a plane, it is either water that has frozen on the wings owing to the high altitude (which melts off as the plane comes into land) or water from the air-conditioning system that has leaked through a faulty seal on to the fuselage. Aircraft toilets often add a blue chemical to the water to deodorise the waste and break down any solids, but any blue ice that falls to the ground is a result of a fault in the input pipe. It cannot come out of the toilet itself or from the holding tank, which is a fully integrated, sealed unit. In the USA the Federal Aviation Authority is equally adamant. No American has ever been hit by anything falling from an aircraft lavatory. Phone calls to the FAA complaining about brown droplets coming from the sky always increase during the bird migration season. The FAA also blames so-called ‘blue ice’ on incontinent birds that have been eating blueberries.


Modern sunglasses were a consequence of twentieth-century flight, designed by the American Army Air Corps in 1932 to keep the glare out of a pilot’s eyes.


During the Second World War, Native American paratroopers began the custom of shouting the name of the great Indian chief Geronimo when jumping from a plane because, according to legend, when cornered at a cliff’s edge by U.S. cavalrymen, Geronimo, in defiance, screamed his own name as he leaped to certain death, only to escape both injury and the bluecoats.


When the hideous sport of cockfighting was legal, the birds were taken to a pit in the ground where they fought to the death. These fights were quick and bloody, and for this reason, the “cockpit” became the designated name of the room on a warship were surgeons attended the wounded and dying. During the First World War, pilots, like the roosters, were inserted into a confined space to do battle, and so they named that space the cockpit.


The dashing image of First World War fighter pilots wearing long silk scarves had nothing to do with fashion. The open-cockpit biplanes were very primitive with no rear-view mirror, so the pilot depended entirely on his own vision to avoid or mount an attack. The scarf was used to wipe grease from his goggles and to keep his neck from chafing against his collar as he constantly turned his head while watching for the enemy.


The phrase “jet lag” was once called boat lag, back before airplanes existed.


Although air stewards had been operating since 1922, the first stewardess did not take off until May 15, 1930. She was Miss Ellen Church, of Iowa, who had written to United Airlines to suggest that suitably qualified young ladies might perform a useful function on flights. The airline was so impressed that they not only employed her but also gave her the job of drawing up qualifications for further recruits. Miss Church’s specifications were clearly modeled on what she considered her own best points: applications would be considered only from registered nurses no older than twenty-five. They must weigh no more than 115 lb. and not be more than 5 ft. 4 in. tall. Britain was slow to follow the lead set by America, perhaps fearful of a repetition of the strong hostility to the air hostesses shown by U.S. pilots’ wives. The first British air hostess was Miss Daphne Kearley, who made her first flight on May 16, 1936. Typing and cocktail-mixing were among the skills required, though her own account of the job suggested that the work consisted mainly of calming down anxious passengers and turning down marriage proposals. By the time British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) began to recruit stewardesses in 1943, the principal qualifications were already less demanding. At the top of the list were “poise” and an “educated voice.”


On June 15, 1928, the train “The Flying Scotsman” beat an airplane in a race from London to Edinburgh.


Why do kamikaze pilots wear helmets? Kamikaze is the Japanese word meaning divine wind, named after a typhoon that is said to have saved Japan from Mongol invasion in 1281 After the attacks of the Japanese air force on the Allies’ ships in World War II, “kamikaze” has universally come to mean a suicide pilot. Toward the end of the war the Allies began advancing toward Japan, and Japanese aircraft were often outnumbered and outclassed, resulting in a scarcity of adept pilots At the same time, the Japanese air force was assigned the task of assisting the Japanese ships in the Leyte Gulf The task was larger than could be accommodated, so Vice Admiral Takijio Onishi formed a Kamikaze Special Attack Force There were many volunteers to be pilots, but experienced and valuable pilots were turned away, with most kamikaze pilots being young university students Ceremonies were often held before missions, in which the pilots were given medals of honor Approximately 6,000 Japanese soldiers died in the kamikaze missions, and all are thought to have been volunteers. Given that kamikaze pilots knew they were to die, people sometimes wonder why they wore helmets In fact, the helmets weren’t worn to protect the pilots from dying, but to protect them from injuries during the flight so that they reached the target, to keep their heads warm and because the helmets housed radio earphones The helmets merely helped the pilots to complete their missions because the helmets were necessary to pilot the aircraft In addition, many missions were unsuccessful and if this was likely, pilots were encouraged to return to base and the helmets assisted with this Many say that the pilots didn’t wear helmets at all (and no pilots did at that time), but merely wore leather flight caps and goggles, but that these were worn for the same reasons—to help the pilot complete the mission,

Joseph Anton, Islamophobia and the rise of manufactured outrage

October 21, 2012

I have recently finished reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton. If you do not know the name, which he used during the years he was in hiding, came from the first names of two of his favourite writers, Conrad and Chekhov respectively. I have a confession to make – I have never read any of read any of his fiction. I was until three years ago more of a non-fiction reader. What’s more I am not sure his style would appeal to me. However after reading this engrossing memoir, I think I will have to try some of his novels.

The book is written in the third person. It begins when Rushdie learns about the fatwa against him. One thing that surprised me was that the government didn’t provide safe houses for the author. He had to pay for them himself. If the security services felt that a house was no longer safe, he would have to leave, therefore losing his deposits. His nadir 7 came in December 1990 when he met up with his accusers to try to find a solution. He even signed a statement affirming his faith in Islam. Despite this, his accusers weren’t placated. Rushdie felt sick with self-contempt, but this low point proved to be a turning-point. He decided that there was no point in trying to appease his opponents. He would never be able to get his detractors to love him. And so he decided to fight back. He travelled around the world giving speeches. He also went back to writing both novels and opinion pieces. He wouldn’t just go away, which is what many people would have liked him to do.

Rushdie has many friends among the literati; Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said, Harold Pinter and Paul Auster all stood by him. However, there is no doubt that he manages to rub a lot of people up the wrong way. I am a connoisseur of literary feuds and this book is a delight in this respect. Rushdie may have been facing the Ayatollah’s death squads, but he certainly wasn’t going to forget those he felt had done him down.

Rushdie was a man of the left who detested Thatcherism. Indeed, the Iron Lady makes an appearance in The Satanic Verses, subtly disguised as Mrs Torture. This did not go down too well with the Daily Mail, which Rushdie dubs The Daily Insult. The Mail had a long-running campaign about the cost of the author’s protection. Just the other day I came across this headline in the newspaper:

Not an ounce of gratitude: Salman Rushdie is set to make millions from book on his life as a fugitive from the fatwa. Any chance he’ll repay £11m taxpayers spent protecting him? I would have thought that one of the most basic functions of a state is to protect its citizens.

But more dispiriting for Rushdie must have been the attacks from the left, the most notorious coming from John le Carré, Germaine Greer and John Berger. There was an obscene attempt to blame the victim. Rushdie was criticised for not withdrawing the book. This was said to be arrogant. That these critics would so willingly jettison free speech I find quite shocking. There is no doubt that the West has had some pretty catastrophic interventions in the Middle East since the end of WWI, but the rise of Islamism is a catastrophe, especially for those who live under it. We do live in strange times. The right has suddenly developed an interest in gender equality and social progress, while the left ally often themselves with some very reactionary ideologies.

I have already blogged about my take on free speech. The basis of free speech is that you have to defend people you can’t stand. Because free speech is not just free speech for people you respect and agree with. As Rushdie says, you have to defend the Ku Klux Klan as well as Martin Luther King. This is the necessary price we have to pay. If you allow people freedom, there will be times when they abuse it. If you’re going to defend the principle, then you have to defend people who use the principle badly. It’s when people really upset you that you discover if you believe in free speech or not.

We are also witnessing a rise of what Rushdie calls manufactured outrage. There seems to be a right not to be offended. Alongside this we have the exponential growth of phobias. This is, I guess, a product of the psychologisation of society. In today’s Observer we discover that Nick Griffin, leader of the fascist British national end a tweet with Say No to heterophobia! Applying the suffix phobia is a way of closing down debate. Disagreement and dissent become a form of disease. We should counter odious arguments, not try to pathologise them

Islamophobia, which gained currency in the 1990s, is a term which I find problematic; Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity but a set of beliefs and customs. In a free society, you should be able to criticize all kinds of ideas without being classified as suffering from a mental disorder. It is a way of framing the debate in which criticisms of any aspect of Islam are looked upon as racism. It is possible to question the values associated with the religion without attacking the racial status of Muslim people. This blanket term undermines the distinction between criticism of Islam and discrimination against Muslim people. I agree with Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism“, who has stated that there is “no such thing as Islamophobia…. It is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”

This is a never-ending story. The latest episode has been with Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islamic video written and produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, using the pseudonym of Sam Bacile. The protests have led to hundreds of injuries and about 75 deaths. Fatwas have been issued against the video’s participants and a Pakistani minister has offered a bounty for the death of Nakoula. The video sounds rather tawdry, but I think that Obama was wrong to put pressure on YouTube to take it down. Curiously on September 17th of this year, in the wake of this scandal, an Iranian religious foundation headed by Ayatollah Hassan Saneii reaffirmed the fatwa yet again, raising the bounty from $2.8 million to $3.3 million. Their chilling argument was that Nakoula’s film wouldn’t have been if only Rushdie had been killed after The Satanic Verses. Rushdie believes that the threat has gone from real to rhetorical. Let’s hope he’s right. But I suppose you can never have 100% security and he’s had his fill of living in fear.

Word Stories # 1 TASER.

October 21, 2012

This week the police were involved in an embarrassing incident with a 61-year-old blind man. Here is Richard Littlejohn’s account:

Today’s high-velocity edition of Mind How You Go comes from Chorley, Lancashire, where police Tasered a blind man on his way to the pub.

According to the officer involved, he mistook Colin Farmer’s white stick for a samurai sword. As you do. It’s the kind of mistake anyone could make.

So when the stroke victim ignored an instruction to stop, the cop pumped 50,000 volts into him.

… Surely when Mr Farmer hit the deck, writhing in agony, the officer must have realised he’d made a terrible mistake. Instead he knelt on his back and handcuffed him.

Just as well Mr Farmer didn’t have a guide dog with him, otherwise this could have turned into Gunfight At The OK Corral.

 Today I want to look at the etymology of the word.The Taser was invented by a NASA scientist called Jack Cover who worked on it between 1969 and 1974. As a child Cover had devoured a series of children’s books about a hero called Tom Swift, one of those politically incorrect adventuring types. Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle was the tenth in the series and was published in 1911.  In it our intrepid hero is Africa on a quest to rescue a husband and wife Christian missionary team captured by pygmy savages in the jungle. Luckily he has an impressive weapon a rifle that uses electricity rather than bullets. This was what gave Cover the idea for his invention. So he decided to call it Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle, or TSER. However, this wasn’t catchy enough so he decided to add a gratuitous initial and make it Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, or TASER. It does sound like a tall story, but I saw it at the Inky Fool website and it is accepted by the OED.

I am proud to be a speciesist

October 14, 2012

On June 16 2009 President Obama was responsible for a heartless execution. This was not one of the numerous drone missions in Pakistan. Nor was it the operation to take out Osama Bin Laden, which took place nearly two years later  The victim, whose demise was seen live on national television, was a fly. The group which denounced this flagrant abuse of executive power was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). With more than 2 million members and supporters, PETA, which is led by English-born Ingrid Newkirk, has become the largest animal rights organization in the world. And of course it couldn’t be without its roster of celebrity backers including Alec Baldwin, Justin Bieber, Morrissey, Charlize Theron, and Roger Moore. Founded in 1980, its slogan is “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.”

I am always suspicious when people invoke the Nazis to bolster their case. One such example is PETA’s posters comparing factory farming with the Nazi extermination camps such comparisons are odious. I fundamentally oppose the ethos of animal rights activists: “The life of an ant and that of my child should be granted equal consideration.” This quote from Michael W. Fox of the Humane Society of the United States is typical of the misguided philosophy of animal rights activists.  I do not think that the life of an ant can be equated with that of a human and I am proud to consider myself a speciesist.

Today I want to look at animal experimentation for medical research, which PETA and many other animal rights groups oppose. I am unconvinced by the argument that animal research is ineffective. A quick glance at medical history will show that this is false. The list of vaccines, medicines, devices and procedures that have been tested on animals includes


Artificial hearts, hips and knees

Asthma inhalers

Blood transfusion


Cholera vaccine

Insulin for diabetes

Meningitis vaccine

Organ transplants



Polio vaccine

This makes for an interesting thought experiment. If these activists had been around 100 years ago many of these advances of the last century would not have happened. We would live in a world without vaccination, penicillin, transplantations and so on. Most of the activists don’t reject these benefits of modern medicine and indeed allow themselves to b treated with them. However, if they have their way in the future, what medical breakthroughs will not see the light of day. I see no reason why more progress should not be made in the future. And the efficacy of this research is irrelevant to animal rights activists, who would be against the research anyway. Of course if there are viable alternatives I am in favour of using them. By all means make the tests as rigorous and humane as possible. But I do not think that scientists engaged in this kind of research are wilfully going out to torture helpless animals. I am opposed to superfluous experiments but we need to be aware of how scientific experimentation works. Not all experiments are going to produce a result. However you learn from these non-results as well. And then there is the role of serendipity. In a 2000 article from Frederick K. Goodwin & Adrian R. Morrison .tell the story of how basic research with animals can and a stroke of luck led to major medical progress.

Australian psychiatrist John Cade asked what might be wrong in the brains of patients with manic-depressive illness and wondered whether a substance called urea would have therapeutic value. Testing his hypothesis on guinea pigs, Cade gave them a salt form of urea, which happened to contain lithium. The guinea pigs became unexpectedly calm. Further experimentation revealed that the urea had nothing to do with this result; it was caused by the lithium–a complete surprise to Cade. Having laid his foundation with animal research, Cade extended his findings by giving lithium to manic patients, who experienced an alleviation of their manic excitement without being sedated. This single discovery has revolutionized treatment of manic-depressive illness, easing the lives of millions and saving billions of dollars along the way. At the same time, it has opened whole new productive areas for brain research.

It would have been impossible to know a priori the health benefits of using guinea pigs. This was a surprise to Cade. But that is why you do research – you don’t know what is going to happen.

We are victims of our own health care successes. We have seen the eradication of so many infectious diseases; we barely remember polio or tuberculosis. Antibiotics have transformed the world. Unfortunately this very success has made us extremely vulnerable to the anti-science nonsense peddled by the animal rights movement.

Scientists and their families have long been the target of terrorism and the United Kingdom has been at the centre of this battle. Apart the delightful Ms. Newkirk, we have also given the world the terrorist group The Animal Liberation Front. Scientists who engage in this research are subjected to intimidation. The neuroscientist Colin Blakemore has had to live a Salman Rushdie-like existence with round-the-clock police protection from another of these terrorist groups, the Animal Rights Militia. Fortunately due to police action the situation has improved.

Rather than being on the defensive medical researchers should go on the offensive, making the positive case for animal testing and how it has saved millions of lives and made the world a better place. Scientists are not always very good at explaining what they do the general public. Of course it is difficult for serious scientists to compete with a self-confessed “press slut” like Newkirk and her band of celebrity dupes. If these deluded fanatics are allowed to prevail, millions of lives will surely be lost in the future. And many other people’s lives will be blighted by diseases that could have been cured.

Some gems from PETA’S Ingrid Newkirk

October 14, 2012

Here is a selection of quotes which I found on the Internet from PETA’S Ingrid Newkirk:

There is no hidden agenda. If anybody wonders about — what’s this with all these reforms — you can hear us clearly. Our goal is total animal liberation. Animal Rights convention, June 2002

I will be the last person to condemn ALF [the Animal Liberation Front]. The New York Daily News, December 1997

Pet ownership is an absolutely abysmal situation brought about by human manipulationHarper’s, August 1988

I am not a morose person, but I would rather not be here. I don’t have any reverence for life, only for the entities themselves. I would rather see a blank space where I am. This will sound like fruitcake stuff again but at least I wouldn’t be harming anything. The Washington Post, Nov 1983

Even if animal tests produced a cure for AIDS, we’d be against it.  Vogue, September 1989

We are complete press sluts. The New Yorker, April 2003

Our nonviolent tactics are not as effective. We ask nicely for years and get nothing. Someone makes a threat, and it works. US News & World Report, April 8, 2002

There’s no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They’re all animals. Washingtonian magazine, Aug 1986

The bottom line is that people don’t have the right to manipulate or to breed dogs and cats… If people want toys, they should buy inanimate objects. If they want companionship, they should seek it with their own kind. May 1993

I wish we all would get up and go into the labs and take the animals out or burn them down. National Animal Rights Convention, June 1997

Eating meat is primitive, barbaric, and arrogant. Washington City Paper, December 1985

Perhaps the mere idea of receiving a nasty missive will allow animal researchers to empathize with their victims for the first time in their lousy careers. I find it small wonder that the laboratories aren’t all burning to the ground. If I had more guts, I’d light a match. The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 1999

We’re looking for good lawsuits that will establish the interests of animals as a legitimate area of concern in law. Insight on the News, July 2000

One day, we would like an end to pet shops and the breeding of animals. [Dogs] would pursue their natural lives in the wild … they would have full lives, not wasting at home for someone to come home in the evening and pet them and then sit there and watch TV. The Chicago Daily Herald, March 1990

Probably everything we do is a publicity stunt … we are not here to gather members, to please, to placate, to make friends. We’re here to hold the radical line. USA Today, September 1991

Six million people died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses. The Washington Post, November 1983

I don’t use the word ‘pet.’ I think it’s speciesist language. I prefer ‘companion animal.’ For one thing, we would no longer allow breeding. People could not create different breeds. There would be no pet shops. If people had companion animals in their homes, those animals would have to be refugees from the animal shelters and the streets. You would have a protective relationship with them just as you would with an orphaned child. But as the surplus of cats and dogs (artificially engineered by centuries of forced breeding) declined, eventually companion animals would be phased out, and we would return to a more symbiotic relationship – enjoyment at a distance. The Harper’s Forum Book,1989

I openly hope that it [hoof-and-mouth disease] comes here. It will bring economic harm only for those who profit from giving people heart attacks and giving animals a concentration camp-like existence. It would be good for animals, good for human health and good for the environment. ABC News interview, April 2001

Humans have grown like a cancer. We’re the biggest blight on the face of the earth. Washingtonian magazine, February 1990

A cynic’s guide to doping in sport

October 7, 2012

We make athletes heroes at our peril. Athletes, for example, fix games. They cheat when they can. They can be cruel on the field – and off it, brutish; especially in their treatment of women. Just read the paper any day and be disappointed. But none of all these iniquities taken together, violates sport as drugs do alone. Athletics, like the other performing arts, is primarily a function of the body. Yes, it helps to understand well, the game you are playing, but, ultimately sports are physical. They require strength, speed, balance, hand-eye coordination, and often endurance. To succeed, the athlete must excel in at least one of these qualities, or even, in some cases, in an admixture of all.  …When athletes take performance-enhancing drugs they destroy that basic truth. Imagine if there were a drug that could improve a tenor’s or a soprano’s voice, so the notes were more pure. That would devalue all opera because the art would be false, the cognoscenti unable to trust what they would be hearing as true human beauty.    Think of that analogy with steroids and HGH (Human Growth Hormones) to sport. Frank Deford

Never a failed test. I rest my case. Tweet by Lance Armstrong in 2011

The tests are easy to beat. We’re way, way ahead of the tests. They’ve got their doctors, and we’ve got ours, and ours are better. Better paid, for sure. Besides, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body) doesn’t want to catch certain guys anyway. Why would they? It’d cost them money. Tyler Hamilton quoted in the introduction to The Secret Race

If I told them what I know, then goodbye to the World Cup and European championship. A statement Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes (see below) in 2010, which he subsequently retracted


Andrei Kivilev, José Azevedo, Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer. Unless you are a genuine cycling aficionado you probably won’t know most or indeed any of these names. They come from a counterfactual list of the  clean cyclists who would have won the Tour de France during Lance Armstrong’s seven-year reign Armstrong, as you probably know, was stripped of his seven triumphs by the US Anti-Doping Authority (USADA). The Texan cyclist who famously came back from testicular cancer, was a source of inspiration to millions, and has raised around half a billion dollars through his charities. He had never tested positive, but has now decided to stop fighting the charges against him. The list, which I found on a French cycling blog, must have been a complicated endeavour; it’s not a question of removing the Texan cyclist. You need to take out all the other cyclists who have been involved in doping. And of course this list is provisional, until the next scandal. One solution would be to wait ten years before announcing the winner of each Tour, although this would remove some of the excitement. The whole affair has been a subject for French schadenfreude. French-language tweeters have been joking about two of Armstrong’s famous compatriots and namesakes: Next we’ll learn that Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon and Louis couldn’t play the trumpet.

I decided to blog about this subject after I finished reading The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton. The book’s subtitle gives you a clear idea of what the book is about. Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs. The book provides a fascinating exposé of the dark underbelly of professional cycling. Hamilton was a teammate of Lance Armstrong during the 1999, 2000 and 2001 Tour de France and played a key role in his victories. Of course Hamilton may not be the most reliable narrator, having admitted to doping and been forced to give up the Olympic gold medal he won at Athens in 2004. This a problem when dealing with thee kinds of accusations – those making them may well be of dubious character and they may be benefitting legally and/or financially from their whistleblowing. But the story does ring true. Hamilton describes in detail the cloak-and-dagger operations of the cyclists to gain that competitive edge. Hof course it wasn’t just the cyclists. This was systemic abuse with a whole cast of shady characters including team coaches, doctors and UCI officials. One of the more disreputable characters in the book is Eufemiano Fuentes a doctor whose doping network among professional cyclists was investigated by the Spanish police Operación Puerto (Operation Mountain Pass) in 2006. More closely connected to Armstrong was another doctor, Michele Ferrari, who was given a lifetime sports ban by the USADA for numerous anti-doping violations

Hamilton, Armstrong and others took, first, testosterone, then the blood booster EPO (They had a nickname for it, Edgar, as in Edgar Alan Poe) before graduating to large-scale blood transfusions. The cyclists could have said no, but I can understand what motivated them. Economists have studied the problem of doping from the perspective of game theory – a Prisoner’s Dilemma-type interaction. Each athlete finds it optimal to take drugs; this results in a situation of generalized doping although each athlete would be better off if none of them doped

Doping is not confined to one period, country or sport. It went on at the time of Ancient Greece. In East Germany athletes did it for the greater glory of communism. And in the capitalist West it brings its practitioners fame and truckloads of money.

What is the harm? There are undoubtedly negative externalities. In Cheating in Contests a paper in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Preston and Szymanski listed four negative effects:

1)      It is damaging to athletes’ health

2)      It gives doped athletes an unfair advantage,

3)      It undermines interest in the sport,

4)      It undermines the reputation of a sport.

Julian Savulescu, a Romanian–Australian philosopher and bioethicist who teaches at Oxford University has a contrarian take on the doping issue. He contends that performance enhancement is the very DNA of sport and we should embrace drugs in sport rather than banning them. He believes that the sporting war on drugs is creating a climate of fear. How can we enjoy the spectacle if we don’t know who is clean and who isn’t? The ban is indeed bad for the health of the athletes. They currently use undetectable substances and methods with no medical supervision or responsibility. The type of doctors involved in the world of doping is of the most disreputable kind. Wouldn’t it be better if it was all above board? Honest athletes don’t have access to safe enhancement methods, giving cheaters all the competitive advantage.

When we talk about safety the risks of doping should be seen in the context of the risks entailed by many professional sports. The health argument is highly slippery; high level sport is just not conducive to health. I am not just talking about sports like boxing and American football. Tennis and soccer also put incredible strains on athletes’ bodies. Is medically supervised administration of steroids really much worse than the kind of risks many professional athletes face?

Savulescu does argue that the drugs should be consistent with the spirit of the sport in question and he does make some fine distinctions. Steroids do not give you some magical ability. What they do is enhance the effects of hard training and speed up recovery from injury. Steroids, growth hormone and blood doping actually mimic natural processes. However, in sports like archery and shooting, which test the athlete’s precision and accuracy, taking beta-blockers to reduce tremors would compromise the competition. It’s a moral minefield and in the future we may see gene doping, which is said to be undetectable.

There is one solution – create one league for athletes who dope and another for clean ones. Call me a cynic but I reckon the former would get higher television ratings, greater prestige, and ultimately larger financial rewards. We may pay lip service to the idea of purity in sport, but as spectators we want supermen battling it out. We pretend to be outraged about the stories of doping, but we are quite happy to play along and worship our heroes as long as we are not confronted with the truth.

Weird collective nouns

October 7, 2012

English is full of curious names for groups of animals. In The Story of English in 100 Words David Crystal talks about these words he lists some of them. I have added some more from Wikipedia:

A bellowing of bullfinches

A business of ferrets

A cackle of hyenas

A charm of goldfinches

A congregation of  alligators

A convocation of eagles    

A lamentation of swans

A mess of iguanas

A muster of peacocks

A pandemonium of parrots

A parliament of rooks

A piteousness of doves

A scourge of mosquitoes

A tittering of magpies

An unkindness of ravens,

A watch of nightingales

They go well beyond animals. Here are a few not related to the animal kingdom:

A diligence of messengers

A doctrine of doctors

A file of civil servants         

A hastiness of cooks

An observance of hermits

A non-patience of wives

A prudence of vicars

A sentence of judges

A superfluity of nuns

Crystal also produced a list of his favourite humorous ones:

An absence of waiters

An annoyance of mobile phones

A bond of British secret agents.

A bout of estimates

A clutch of car mechanics

A crash of software

A depression of weather forecasters

An exces’s of apostrophes

A lot of auctioneers

A mass of priests

A rash of dermatologists

A shoulder of agony aunts

A vat of chancellors (of the Exchequer)

A whored of prostitutes