Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I'm the guy with the apple over his face

Preparing for a recent flight out of Bradley, in Windsor Locks, I was treated to the updated homeland security scan.

Obviously we are not terrorists, nor did we want any on board. So we followed orders.

My family was first directed through a "sniffer," a machine that puffs air at you to detect traces of explosives. No big deal.

Then we had to stand with our arms extended, palms up, while personnel went over us with sensitive metal detectors. It detected the wire embedded in my sternum during heart valve repair surgery, and, of course, the zipper on my pants.

The security guy declined an offer to view my sternum scar, which I would have happily shown him. I did have to turn my belt buckle and pants over, to make sure, I'm not sure what for.

Again, no problem. Seemed like standard stuff.

Then, I was in front of a counter, behind which stood a woman, who had all of my personal items: my key ring and pill case, my wallet, my cell phone, pens, change, and a few other odds and ends.

The woman started to chat with me, as if to pass the time pleasantly. That's a pill case. What kind of pills? she asked. Prescription pills from home that I use to quell my claustrophobia inside airliners, I said. Alprazolam. Xanax.

In a hushed voice she said she knew someone who got hooked on Ambien. "So sad," she said. I declined to explain to her that Ambien and Xanax are not similar or similarly used. What was going on?

It began to dawn on me that she was interviewing me, looking for signs of something. Maybe I seemed nervous, or not nervous enough.

Then we came to my wallet, which she opened without concern. She leafed through some family photos, my insurance card, and an ancient press card I'd never bothered to remove. "Oh, you work at a newspaper," she said. How nice!

Used to, I replied.

Then she pulled out a pack of assorted do-it-yourself business cards, including a version containing a Magritte painting of a man's face obscured by an apple. "Is this you?" she asked, laughing.


Then she pulled out a battery powered, credit card-sized magnifying glass that I had stuck in there and never used. This was what they suspected was a calculator. What's wrong with a calculator? Not sure.

Having answered that question, she gave my possessions back to me and we flew to Chicago on an Embraer jet.

No one I've spoken to has ever had his or her wallet opened and explored. Maybe she was new and extra zealous? I don't think so. Maybe she wanted to see my reaction to her pawing through my most personnel papers, doctor's numbers, bank statements from ATMs, a card of assorted passwords.

She crammed the looking glass thing back in the wallet and we were on our way, but the whole business left me with an uneasy feeling that would not lift. We were told that our family had been chosen at random for special attention.

Which is the dumbest, least effective way to catch would-be terrorists. Perhaps the random checks are intended to be a deterrent. That doesn't seem to make sense either.

The trip back to Bradley was uneventful.

But I still can't shake that feeling.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Few Simple Steps to Happiness

Scan the "health" magazines at Wal-Mart and you will recognize that versions of the same articles are published over and over.

There is always a story on how to quickly obtain a flat abdomen; the best way to lose weight; and the keys to higher quality sex. Freud famously wondered what women want, and apparently to this day no one knows.

Not even women. Especially not women.

The same holds for men, whom the magazines always portray as sleek, competitive business types obsessed with sports, sex with women, alcohol and adventure. But most men are not like that, just as few women achieve the weird look that marks the American female ideal.

Lists on the cover sell magazines, so you see "10 ways to trim fat," "12 days to six-pack abs," "26 ways to drive him wild in bed," "100 ways to get any woman you want," and so on. Have your cake and eat it too, in five easy steps.

All of the articles repeat the same advice, which everyone already knows: eat less, exercise more, and improve communications with your partner.

These adolescent issues coagulate in a new HBO series called "Hung," which features an impoverished man with a large penis who becomes a male prostitute for straight women. His pimp, a sensitive woman, has to keep reminding him not to behave like a Neanderthal.

The series is very amusing, and is sure to increase orders for cockeyed "penis enlarging" pills. These pills are sold in spam that you probably automatically discard. Yet these products are out there and even advertised on television.

This whole industry is an exercise in the placebo effect, because biologically speaking, there is no nostrum that will enlarge a specific part of the anatomy. Usually, things that make body parts bigger are bad.

Steroids increase muscle mass while destroying the liver and causing other unpleasant effects.

A steady diet of alcohol will enlarge one's liver to the point that it is a mass of fatty cells that no longer function. And, of course, no one wants to bulk up with cancerous cells. Bigger lymph nodes, larger eyeballs, enlarged gallbladders, swollen appendixes, growing prostates, thickened airways -- all bad, very bad.

Add it all up and neither men nor women take any prizes for brains, health or emotional well-being.

Maybe Freud was asking the wrong question.

Your quivering Voice Supposedly Gives You Away

Emotions are so complex that there really is no way to physically detect liars.

Yet people keep trying to devise instruments to judge stress levels, breathing patterns, perspiration, blood pressure, increased activity in the frontal lobes, and other types of functional brain scanning to distinguish between truth and falsehood.

The polygraph was once considered to be a scientifically dependable method of detecting lies, except that the act of being "polygraphed" creates an enormous amount of stress, and everyone feels guilty about something.

Except for sociopaths lacking a conscience, empathy, or remorse. Consequently, the polygraph is usually used as a prop on the unwary, to squeeze confessions out of suspects. The results themselves are not allowed as evidence in a trial.

Now a voice analyzer has been patented and the inventor, Charles Humble, of the National Institute For Truth Verification, (whatever that is), contends that vocal cords can give you away.

To paraphrase a bit of his lengthy press release:

Humble, the founder of the NIFTV, created the CVSA II (Computer Voice Stress Analyzer). US Patent # 7,571,101, for “Quantifying Psychological Stress Levels Using Voice Patterns."

It should be obvious to all that we speak differently when sad, angry, guilty, depressed, anxious, sleepy, bored, insulted, humiliated, praised, rebuffed, and on and on. Since there is no one location for "lying" in the brain, a lie must be gathered from an array of mysterious places in the brain.

This is why voice stress is no different than polygraph. Same idea, different technology.

There are less expensive ways of obtaining confessions, according to research conducted in China during the Korean War. Under duress, sleep deprivation, disorientation, and continual questioning, most people will ultimately confess to anything, just to end the torture.

People also make notoriously bad eye witnesses.

Scientists currently have to real idea of how the brain works. They understand the functions of nerves, and can detect activity in brains, but how do we think? No one has a clue.

Not even, thank goodness, people like Charles Humble.

Monday, August 3, 2009

To hell with the bill of rights

This may come as a shock, but victims of crime in this country do not have any special rights.

They have the same civil rights as anyone else. No more, no less.

That includes the right to a trial, to face accusers in court and to be considered innocent unless proven guilty. Defendants have these kinds of rights because they need protection from the state or federal governments, which in certain cases are trying to kill them, or lock them up for life.

The states and federal government enjoy a tremendous advantage over the average individual. As George W. Bush showed, the government can pluck people from literally anywhere and stick them in a prison indefinitely, without requiring that they be charged, or informed why they are imprisoned, and without any recourse.

That's why our Constitution guarantees criminal suspects certain rights. Like the presumption of innocence, even if "everyone knows" that the suspects are guilty. In a case like this, "victims rights" comes across as "No need to wait for a trial, let's string 'em up right now."

That's why upholding the Constitution is so important, even when dealing with people who allegedly murdered a doctor's wife and killed the couple's two daughters by tying them to beds and setting them on fire.

It is unsightly and even a bit frightening when the surviving doctor complains that the suspects have not been executed quickly enough.

Let's just string 'em up right now.

Lying about health care

Many of the opponents to health care reform seem to require some health care themselves -- mental health.

Members of the "Tea Party," (whatever that really is) contend that Hitler and Stalin both instituted government-controlled health care, with disastrous results. Yes, the two dictators killed millions of their own, but not through health care.

Nazi Germany relied on an out of pocket system, unless the patient was born with certain "defects," in which case he might be euthanized to keep the gene pool clean. In the Soviet Union, everything was government run, at least officially.

Most Russian doctors were women, and were not well paid. The authorities dealt with subversives by putting them in "mental hospitals" where they were drugged into oblivion and otherwise rendered mad.

But Hitler and Stalin are not the point here. No politician is suggesting that the government should take over health care. This is unfortunate because a majority of Americans seem to prefer a single-payer government system, like Medicare or the Veterans Administration system.

Meanwhile, emergency departments are increasingly becoming primary care givers, which does no one any good, insurance companies only issue policies to young healthy people, which does most people no good, or they charge outrageous and unaffordable premiums.

What is true, is that the United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a national health care system.

That's what history will record.