Archive for November, 2010

Bring. It. On.

November 29, 2010 2 comments

Busy weekend!  Potluck at Mennonite Church, plus wonderful meals lovingly prepared by MrsDoF (not even Wikileaks can find out how much weight I gained), and cleaning up two basement rooms.

Plus, some bitchin’ new tires on my bike.  Dual-compound, shredding engineered tread pattern, amarid bead with puncture-resistant casings, 26×2.2.   Winter’s coming: my old tires were great but they were getting a little worn; these are even better.

Glad to be going back to work today though.  I get restless.

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RFID chip from library book

November 27, 2010 4 comments
RFID chip from discarded library book

RFID chip from discarded library book

Diane was looking at a beautiful children’s book that she’d bought online.  It was a discard form the San Diego County Library.  We read recently that demand for “picture books” is declining as parents internalize the mistaken idea that “chapter books” without pictures are better for their young children – to the extent that libraries are getting rid of them.  In the back cover of the book, she noticed a sticker without any writing on it.  She picked at the edge of the sticker but it wouldn’t budge.  “How can I remove this sticker?” she said.

It was an RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) sticker, consisting of a printed antenna with a little computer chip in the middle.  The antenna collects power for the chip and re-transmits a code when passing through a sensor.  The sticker was most assuredly not made to be removed without damaging the book.  She didn’t want to set off any alarms carrying the book around.  Not likely, I said, but let me see.

There was a little bump in the sticker – that would be the chip itself.  I lifted it out with my pocketknife.  It’s about two and a half fingerprint ridges wide.  The sticker will remain where it is, antenna and all… but nobody’s home.

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Book Review: Founding Faith

November 26, 2010 3 comments

Founding Faith bySteven WaldmanI don’t remember who recommended Founding Faith, How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty to me, but it’s certainly been worth the time to study.  As a non-historian I’ve been irritated by the polemical tone of articles I’ve read on this topic: either the Founding Fathers were deep and profound Christians who really intended to establish Christianity, or they were cold, logical Deists, aloof from all religious influence.  Neither of those perspectives rang true in my understanding of the FF’s as complicated men figuring out the implications of the Revolution they’d started.

The author Steven Waldman is a faith-head himself, a co-founder and editor at BeliefNet, which promises “Inspiration, Spirituality, and Faith” for its readers.  That in itself made me a little apprehensive; was it another compendium of highly questionable FF quotes scrambled together with rhetoric on Our Christian Nation?  As it turns out, no.  The book is all about context: he lays out a detailed story which I will attempt to summarize in a few bullet points:

  • Pilgrims and early settlers came here for “religious freedom”, all right; theirs, not yours.  Faith-on-faith persecution was shaping up here just about as it had been in Europe.  The FF’s saw that one coming a mile away.
  • In particular, the colonies were Protestant. Catholicism was persecuted, devalued, and Catholics were second-class citizens – and at 2% of the population, a hated minority as well.  (And God help you if you were Quaker or Jewish.)  Baptists were new and swiftly growing due to a religious revival that could only flourish in the context of no one Protestant faith having the upper hand.
  • Washington saw that for the continental army to function, it would need to be multi-faith.  It simply wasn’t practical to insist that everyone worship in a particular way. Interestingly, Catholics fought in the Continental army despite their low status, which influenced Washington’s perspective and also put me in mind of the heroism and sacrifice of gays who serve in today’s military.
  • Then as now, religion was a major motivation for war.  Patrick Henry: “Let it come!… Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!”
  • Even so, church attendance was a fraction of what it is today.  This may have been partly due to the fact that society was far more agrarian and  automobiles and nice roads were still 125 years in the future.
  • The original Constitution didn’t spell out rights; the Bill Of Rights was a promised addition to gain Baptist support.
  • The actual process of wording the First Amendment was hotly contested and full of political compromise.  The FF’s were NOT of a single mind, either with each other or, as the years passed, with themselves.  Each of them pursued a spiritual journey of their own, which is described insofar as it is relevant to the topic of the book.
  • The FF’s didn’t hold one view their whole lives either.  If anything, they mostly gravitated toward Unitarianism as they got older (except Patrick Henry!)  But in their voluminous writings it is possible to find small quotes which, taken out of context, support almost any understanding of them.  Taken as a whole, one might conclude that they felt entanglements between religion and government are bad for both.
  • The 14th amendment extended federal protections to citizens of the states. A number of important court cases are described that shaped how it is applied today.
  • No, they didn’t found the country to be Christian, and in the context of extended writing most of them didn’t intend for the states to have carte blanche of establishment either.  It is Waldman’s understanding that they would have liked how things have turned out.

That’s 378 words to describe a 208-page book (not counting 55 pages of Notes which I am still reading), so it’s definitely a short version. As I read I referred to my copy of the Constitution to compare early wording with current and amendments, and found it helpful to have a Google window open as well. It is a nuanced and worthwhile account likely to be rejected by people who want the FF’s to be their comrades-in-arms on one side or the other of the current culture wars.

But therein lies my dissatisfaction with the work; the author writes as if he is lecturing faith-heads and secularists who have been bound and gagged in front of him.  He says things like; “Yes, Thomas Jefferson – hero of modern liberals – believed in intelligent design”.   Just tell me, Steven; don’t assume I’ll be shocked by it.  He does this to both sides, and it’s distracting in the way of a movie actor who turns toward the camera and says something to the audience.  And he often attributes success against adversity to faith, the mechanism of which is still quite opaque to me.  But that is a minor quibble, because he deconstructs myths from both sides while sticking scrupulously to the topic of the book.

He performs thought experiments based on his readings of the FF’s: what if they were Governors instead of Presidents?  How (decades before the 14th Amendment) would they apply the 1st?  His assessment is that  each in their different ways, they’d think a state or local establishment of religion was a bad idea regardless of its legality.  Or this example on the posting of the Ten Commandments:

“Franklin would have caused the most mischief by agreeing to the posting of the Ten Commandments but only if all the other religions in the area also got representation.  Under Governor Franklin, the courthouse would have become a museum to all religious traditions – passages from the Quran and Bhagavad Gita side by side with the Ten Commandments”

Waldman’s recounting of liberal and conservative fallacies sounds about right to me, as does his understanding of the Founder’s various intents, based as it is on extensive study of original sources as well as historians (which status he disclaims).   I found his speculative chapters at the end very interesting.  But it’s hard to end without a “What the hell do I know?”  In my defense – against the charge that I have read only a handful of non-polemical books about Church and State – I would have to say that there may only be a handful of such books, that are accessible to non-experts who do not have unlimited time for learning the history of the issue.

Next book review: The Control of Nature, by John McPhee

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I get email: TSA holiday travel edition

November 25, 2010 7 comments

This is from Kent Ashcraft, sending out another one of his email missives:


When I was an active duty Marine, I was forced to submit to random drug testing. Several times a year I had to urinate into a bottle under direct observation of another person – fairly intrusive, if you ask me. If I’d felt it were a violation of my Fourth Amendment rights, I would have protested loudly, but it wasn’t. It was merely a condition of my employment. Today I am self-employed and no one can force me to do such a thing.

Likewise, the full body scans (or pat-downs) at our airports are intrusive, but not a violation of our rights. They are merely a condition of being allowed to fly on a commercial airliner. Whether they are necessary or effective in preventing terrorist attacks is debatable, but that is their purpose in any case.

Here’s what I find ironic here: Many of the people who are most indignant about the TSA’s screening procedures didn’t bat an eye when the Bush administration authorized warrantless electronic surveillance a few years ago, for exactly the same ostensible purpose. And that program actually was Constitutionally dubious, since the people being searched weren’t even aware of it. But many of those who approved of that are now going all ACLU on us. I’m not going to suggest this has anything to do with whose administration ordered the body search program, but I have a sneaking suspicion these protesters wouldn’t have had a problem with it four years ago.

At any rate, although air travel is becoming more and more of a major hassle, at least we know that up front. It’s like when I go to my doctor for a prostate exam – I’m well aware I have a fairly intrusive search in my immediate future, but there’s no way around it so I accept it. And that’s my advice for my holiday-traveling friends.

Happy Thanksgiving,   Kent

Right, Kent, and warrantless wiretaps are just a condition of being allowed to talk on a commercial telephone network.   Actually you have a really good point about people not taking violations personally until it actually touched their person.  It’s just one of the many things we do to innocent people in the name of safety.  And Janet Napolitano wants to do it on trains and busses too, because who knows?  Terrorists could attack there too.

You say that because you are self-employed, no one can force you to do such a thing.  How far from mainstream employment, commerce, education and travel will we eventually have to be, to have any boundaries at all?

Where does it stop?

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Five thousandths of an inch can cost you a tooth

November 24, 2010 6 comments

One of my upper lateral incisors is shaky.  It is painful and sensitive, so I went to the dentist yesterday.  Its lower counterpart was colliding with it in the bite, causing strain, and the x-ray shows the ligature space between the root and bone has eroded noticeably in the two months since my last checkup.

That tooth is already “compromised” which is a way of saying it has history.  Years ago it needed a root canal; years later it split vertically and had to be capped.  Then it was one of the four teeth that broke in my bike accident six years ago and the crown had to be replaced.  So yeah, it ain’t the best, but it’s an important tooth and I really want to keep it.

Anyway, the dentist removed between five and ten thousandths of an inch of material from the inside surface of the crown to provide clearance between the teeth; he called this; “adjusting the bite”.  I guess my skull is changing shape as I get older, so the teeth are moving a bit. We might have been too late, it’s wait-and-see.  In a week or two, we’ll know.  Improvement, if any, will be gradual and today it hurts just about as much.

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If we’re living inside a hologram

November 23, 2010 Comments off

According to some theorists, we might be living inside a hologram.

hologram disk, spinning

Probably not this hologram though.  I don’t think it has room for the awesome meatball sandwich I had for lunch today.

(It’s actually a toy; a steel disk with a bump in the center and a diffraction grating on the other side.  This is a close-up of it spinning on a tabletop.  I thought it was pretty so took a picture.)

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Documentary review: Waiting For Superman

November 21, 2010 3 comments

MrsDoF and I saw Waiting For Superman at the historic Normal Theater this evening.  It’s a documentary about how bad our schools are, who is to blame, and the solution to it all.

Wait, did I get it wrong?  Is the documentary really that simplistic? That’s how it struck me.  All right, one thing at a time then:

How bad our schools are:

In spite of doubling what we spend on education, our kids rank behind twenty-or-so other nations in math and science, but first in self-esteem.  (Cue YouTube videos of kids doing stupid stunts and crashing hard.) Certain schools can be identified as “dropout factories” where as few as half of the kids even graduate, and of those who do, only a few go on to college. The social cost of these schools is enormous; it’s actually a threat to national economic security.

One major insight of the film is that over time, dropout factories contribute to poverty as much as poverty contributes to the failure of the dropout factories.  Even “good” schools are doing the job they were designed for fifty years ago; tracking a few to college, more to skilled labor training, and the majority as laborers.  In the post-war economic boom, this was a viable model, but in an information economy, it isn’t.

Who’s to blame:

Well the bad ‘ol teacher’s unions are to blame, basically.  The worst five percent of teachers are short-circuiting kids, so that they never catch up.  Teachers get bulletproof tenure after only two years in the system, so there’s no way to fire them, and no way to reward outstanding teachers.  Every year, schools shuffle around bad teachers they can’t get rid of. This is known as the “lemon dance” or the “turkey trot”.  In New York, the district simply warehouses awful teachers at full pay.  Grr! So frustrating!  And the teacher’s unions are “the largest single contributor to political campaigns, and most of their contributions go to Democrats.”  (Cue ominous music)

The Solution:

Charter Schools!  The documentary followed the cases of several children who struggled, whose parents were struggling to keep them in better schools where bad teachers can be fired and good teachers rewarded.  One heartbreaking case was a woman who was working overtime to send her child to a parochial school.  All kept up on paperwork to get them applied to a lottery to get into a charter school.  All pressured their children to do homework.

And not just any charter schools, but KIPP (which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, which have been getting stunning improvements over regular public schools.  They have tighter rules for teacher productivity than regular public schools, and put more pressure/apply more support on kids to succeed.  Yea!  Our country is saved as long as we find the courage to bust the teacher’s unions and model public education on the KIPP schools!  Or get rid of public education altogether!

OK, wait a minute…

When I see two systems that perform at wildly different rates, the differential might be in the system itself, but I also want to look at the inputs. Are the systems acting upon identical challenges, or is there some kind of filter going in?  The documentary suggests without examining the assumption that public-charter KIPP schools and ordinary public schools have comparable student bodies.  The major dramatic focus is on the random lottery that selects admissions, so it has to be fair, right?

This is the major logical flaw in the documentary’s premise, and it’s right there on-screen for anyone who is willing to see it.  Yes, it is “fair” (whatever that word means in this context), but the student bodies are not equivalent.  The first input filter is that the kids in those gymnasiums tensely awaiting lottery results, have exceptional parents.  Their legal guardians have gone to the extent of working overtime to put them in better schools, of going to parent-teacher conferences, and of going through the not-at-all-simple application process to get their kids into the KIPP academy.  These are the parents who, once the child is accepted, are willing to sign a contract that says they will extend the educational process into the home. This is wonderful and I wish all kids had parents who were that available and who cared that much, but kids don’t choose their parents.  It’s one hell of an input filter.

The second input filter is that KIPP schools accept fewer special-needs kids than normal public schools.  And the third filter is that if kids underperform or cause problems in a KIPP school, they’re not obliged to deal with them; they can ship ‘em off to a lower-performing school.  Taken together these filters put the lie to (mostly for-profit) charter schools’ claims of having found a magic formula to fix education.

Another thing that made me uneasy is that the documentary contains a couple of Conservative dog-whistles.  One is the “Bad DOE” whistle, in which the Department Of Education is at fault for everything.  Another is the “Bad Union!” whistle.  Cheap-labor conservatives have had it in for public employee unions since pretty much the first one, and they’re not exactly being honest in how they play it either.  I’ve learned to take any Conservative claim about any union with a grain of salt.  For instance, when the national teacher’s union supposedly wouldn’t vote on a proposal to trade tenure for higher salaries (cue footage of union convention leaders looking ashamed and nervous) I really had the feeling something was being, uh, left out of the story.

And Cons love privatization; the free market is their preferred model for anything whether it fits or not.  They want to privatize schools, airbase security, the TSA, the EPA… they’d privatize the Fire Department if they could.

And where the film tosses aside funding concerns, the cruel fact is that schools in poor districts are poor, while schools in rich districts are rich.  Pointing to an average total spent on education belies that reality.  Excuse me, lies about that reality.

I might compare teachers to soldiers, who don’t make foreign policy, but are charged with fixing things when it fails.  Teaching is an impossibly difficult task fraught with idiotic political pressures.  This is undoubtedly the reason for the excessively generous tenure situation.  The latter won’t change until the former does.

Finally – and I’ll shunt this off to another post sometime – standardized test scores are at best a very crude measure of “success”.  Unless the information economy somehow generates wealth from people sitting around taking tests, I don’t know.  We’re entering a time in history where the stuff you know is of less economic value than how well you solve new problems.

Points of agreement:

Handing out automatic tenure after 2 years is indefensible.  The documentary notes that in Illinois, a public school teacher has only a 1 in 2500 chance of losing their professional license, versus 1 in 57 for doctors and 1 in 97 for lawyers.  Just as there are probably five percent of soldiers, cops, or fry cooks who do a disproportionate amount of damage, I have no doubt at all the same is true of teachers.  How about it, teacher’s unions?  Are teachers really that much better than everybody else?  That needs to be fixed right now, and hopefully the film will put some pressure on the unions to change it.  I just hope that the public will understand the need for specific political protections for teachers that will give them room to do it.

Expecting kids to fail – that has to stop.  The “soft bigotry of low expectations” is undoubtedly the greatest thing George W. Bush ever said (and I am mystified that it wasn’t included in the movie).

The idea that bad schools – in the long term – cause poverty rather than poverty causing bad schools is to me a dichotomy where we should be describing a feedback loop.  But it is an important insight anyway.

And finally, the message that kids go on suffering and our economy spirals downhill while so-called “adults” go on squabbling over political issues is, sadly, right on target.

Not at all finally…

How did the films creators overlook such glaring flaws in their analysis?  At the risk of armchair psychoanalysis, they might be desperate for a simple answer.  But there are very, very few complex problems that allow of a simple, ideologically clear answer.

If you saw the film, what did you think?


  • New York Times review of the documentary
  • Yes, I am fully aware that Guggenheim produced An Inconvenient Truth and has been an Obama supporter.  Doesn’t change one bit the cheap-labor conservative dog-whistles in the film.
  • It appears I am not the only one who found the film crucially flawed: Not Waiting For Superman
  • Washington Post: “Guggenheim edited the film to make it seem as if charter schools are a systemic answer to the ills afflicting many traditional public schools, even though they can’t be, by their very design. He unfairly demonized Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and gave undeserved hero status to reformer and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Guggenheim compared schools in Finland and the United States without mentioning that Finland has a 3 percent child poverty rate and the United States has a 22 percent rate.”
  • Blaming the teachers can’t overcome problems of poverty in educational achievement
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Bryan Fischer really IS a Dolt…

November 20, 2010 13 comments

I get regular emails from something called the American Family Association.  They exist to tell me what a family is, and the right way I should think about families.  For instance, (well primarily, actually) two gay people with a child is not a family.  They also defend important family values like bullying gays in school and boycotting businesses that support gay rights.  And how universal health care would be just awful for families, and in any case against God’s will. And side-issues like Superman comic books that are not flag-and-family waving enough.  And lately, killing people – apparently violence is a family value too because it helps us sleep better at night:

“We have feminized the Medal of Honor.
According to Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, every Medal of Honor awarded during these two conflicts has been awarded for saving life. Not one has been awarded for inflicting casualties on the enemy. Not one ….  That kind of heroism has apparently become passe when it comes to awarding the Medal of Honor. We now award it only for preventing casualties, not for inflicting them.
So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night?”

Ahh, the Culture Of Life.  Don’t you just love the smell of napalm in the morning?  I know I sleep better knowing that villagers in some mountainous hell-hole on the other side of the world are being killed by my taxpayer dollars.  He said this about the most recent award, which was for a soldier named Salvatore Giunta, who ran through enemy fire to rescue a comrade. The soldier was on 60 Minutes the other day; you can click through and watch for yourself.

Now you may be thinking; just what are Sargent Giunta’s balls made of?  I’m thinking, maybe “chrome-vanadium tool steel” or “tungsten carbide”.  In any case I have no doubts about his courage, which (despite the balls metaphor) is a human property not confined to the masculine side of the fence.  And yet he was modest about it, disclaiming any special action, as if everybody would leave cover and run though bullets.  As I watched, I kept thinking; “I’d pay real money to watch Bryan Fischer in that situation”.

Anyway, ***Dave has a running series entitled; “Bryan Fischer is a Dolt”, in which I think he uses he uses “Dolt” as surrogate for much stronger language.  He may be writing this series because 1) ***Dave lives in Colorado, where he is constantly exposed to the allergens that are the AFA and Focus On The Family, and 2) because he is a Christian and is getting a little tired of, um, Dolts spreading ignorant, hateful Doltism in the name of his Savior.  So this is kind of a hobby for him and he has elevated it to an art form.  None of the profanity or blasphemy that Fischer uses as an excuse to ignore his critics, but don’t mistake such gentility for lack of brutal efficiency.

His latest such public service is: ” Bryan Fischer is a Dolt: feminized heroism edition“.  He carefully read not only Fischer’s infamous “feminizing” column but also his response to criticisms about it.  Then he researched the Medal Of Honor, its history, and its meaning.  And then he dismantled the Dolt’s doltishness into the little pathetic pieces of, um, garbage from which it was made.  The short version is; the Medal Of Honor isn’t about killing, particularly, and it never has been.  And despite Fischer’s claims that Jesus would want us to KILL our enemies as brutally as possible, well, that doesn’t really hold up either.  In the sense of being not true, and fantastically twisted, pretty much.  And I wish I could make every AFA member read it.  Out loud.  On live camera.

Personally though, I find Fischer’s email newsletter quite valuable as a sort of helpful shopping guide – just not in the way he intends.  How else would I know that Mcdonalds and Home Depot have been making strides toward recognizing GLBT people as, you know, actual people?  I even use AFA’s email utility to contact the companies involved and thank them for their progressive action.  And I need a piece of test equipment that Home Depot sells, so that’s helpful too.  In any case I won’t be unsubscribing.

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Microsoft: ball-and-chain of the web

November 19, 2010 2 comments

I’m just getting into the O’Reilly book; HTML5, Up And Running by Mark Pilgrim.  In the preface he’s says that Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Opera all support many HTML5 features, and…

“The mobile web browsers that come preinstalled on iPhones, iPads and Android phones all have excellent support for HTML5.  Even Microsoft has announced that the upcoming Version 9 of Internet Explorer will support some HTML5 functionality.

To recap: the competing browsers have some support already, mobile devices have excellent support already, and Microsoft’s upcoming new browser will have “some” support.

I’m not an expert on any of this stuff, but I do study.  On my bookshelves I have all three editions of Patrick Lynch & Sarah Horton’s Web Style Guide and each of them devotes considerable space to testing websites so they will even work in Internet Explorer. Same with Horton’s Access By Design I have a few books on CSS dating back several years and each of them would be 1/3 thinner if they didn’t have to tiptoe around IE.  Dan Cedarholm’s Bulletproof Web Design?  You guessed it – nearly every chapter covers ways to make the web work in spite of Internet Explorer.

And here it’s the year 2010 and Microsoft is planning to give some HTML5 support real soon now.  When they do, I predict that books will continue covering how to make it work for Microsoft, and how it works for everyone else.

It’s like the biology class where today’s lesson is evolution, except Todd and Rodd Flanders are allowed to wait in the hall.

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TSA HULK is green monster of compassionate insight

November 18, 2010 4 comments

Who could fail to be moved by stories of cruel TSA agents traumatizing little kids, rape victims, and wives of heroic pilots? Threatening Draconian fines against people who just say; “Screw this, I’m taking the train!”? Zapping us with x-rays? (Unlike cell-phone radiation, the x-rays used in airport scanners are high-energy enough to be a real concern.) TSA agents have been foolish enough to tangle with Penn Jilette. There’s even a TSA HULK on Twitter, who said something very interesting:



I guarantee we will hear more stories of sadistic, perverted TSA agents fondling women and kids.  Any organization that large will have its share of pervs.  But spare a thought for the poor schlubb who finally found a stable job in a tough economy, only to have it morph into something they never bargained for.  No ordinary person wants to do that, and by definition most people are ordinary.  Even most TSA agents.  They’re thinking; “I have to ‘encounter testicular resistance’ on little kids?  Really?”

And Thanksgiving is right around the corner.  Yea!  We’re going to go see Grandma!  What will it be; the naked x-rays, or the assaultive fondling?  Get ready for some really tough stories out of the holiday travel season.

We have ourselves to blame for this, by the way. When you elevate any one principle above all others, absurdity is the inevitable result.  For example, if you elevate “Security” above “Common Sense” you get security theater, in which a great show is made of being Tough On Terrorism while actual terrorists laugh at us for the circles we’re running in.


  • Nobody wants their privates photographed or fondled, but some people have more reason than others.  About 1 out of 1500 people are born with ambiguous genitalia – they’d just as soon not have that known to strangers every time they travel.  Transgender people who live as their gender of identity but who have not had surgical treatments will face unwelcome scrutiny.  Cancer survivors with prosthetic breasts.  Anyone with any kind of prosthesis. And of course rape victims, children, and people with unusually strong standards of modesty.
  • Johns Hopkins doctor on TSA Scanners: “Someone is going to get cancer from those x-rays”.  It is difficult to calculate the odds of course but generally about the same as being in a terrorist attack in the first place.   Except for one thing: some people travel a LOT and anyway, are we planning on doing this forever?  Your kids may have 70 years of flying ahead of them.
  • Seriously, think twice before letting your child step into that scanner, or be touched by an agent, however well-intentioned.
  • Amtrak, anyone?
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