Review: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday MachineThe Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am of two minds about this book. Either:

* Everyone in the world should read this book

… or …

* No one should /ever/ read this book.

When The Big Short first came out, I heard about it on NPR, listened to a review on Planet Money, listened to an interview with Michael Lewis on Planet Money, heard several more people talk about this book, and then decided not to read it for ‘rage management’ reasons. Planet Money recently released their recommended books about the crash and the economy and, this time around, I felt enough time passed between the crash and now that the rage would be a lesser rage, that I would not throw my Kindle into the wall, and the teeth grinding would be lessened.

The Big Short is a concise history of Wall Street from 2003-2008. By following the lives, and trades, of several sets of investors who saw the crash coming from miles away, the book delves deeply into the world of mortgage backed securities. As well as anyone can, it explains bond trading, tranches, credit default swaps (CDS), collatoralized debt obligations (CDOs), and synthesized CDOs which are CDOs made, bewilderingly, of other CDOs. Then the book goes on to talk about the crazy trader at Deutsche Bank who ran around selling CDSes on everything, the bond trader group — who used to be equity traders — who went short on everything they could find, the doctor come hedge fund manager who fought endlessly to tell his investors that these no-doc, negative amortizing adjustable rate mortgages with 2 year teaser rates were going to blow up and they did not listen, the kids from Berkeley who tried to make a killing and the people who actually went long on these things.

The pinnacle of the book is the "Wing Chau" scene, where the equity trader met someone on the other side of his trades who, in 2006, when bonds were already going bad, was convinced of the status quo forever and ever. Then the equity trader went home going "oh my god…"

The game was rigged. In theory Americans would refinance every two years from one terrible mortgage to the next to generate endless fees to dump into endless bonds that pretended to be "riskless." In the end, the mortgage deals blew up and the huge bundles of bonds were not riskless. Housing did not increase in value forever.

And yes, the few people who saw it coming made hundreds of millions off the crash, but at what cost to society as a whole? Most of them left, never to return to the game. They made their money but the cost to themselves was so high it wasn’t worth it anymore.

It’s a story of massive collective delusion, of outright greed, of fraud, of lies, of gamed rating agencies, of banks shifting massive untold risk on to their shareholders, of normal banking becoming too ‘boring’, of an industry who sucked up trillions of dollars and produced nothing, and of people who were playing with things they had no hope of understanding. A story of a giant game played with people’s homes and people’s ignorance on a mass scale and turning the American homeowner into just one dot in a giant Ponzi Scheme that was bailed out, no questions asked, by the US Government with even more of the American homeowner’s money.

The book has an incredibly hooky style. It’s clear. It’s concise. It’s sarcastic. It’s entertaining. It’s compulsive. It reads quickly. It’s also a drive by on a twenty car accident on a freeway. I want desperately to recommend it but I feel everyone who reads this book will promptly sell their house, pull their money out of the banks, and go live on a compound somewhere in Western Michigan.

Seriously two thumbs up but now, when I read the economics blogs — all which recommend the Big Short — I am always going to think about one bond trader screaming at another one: "I’M SHORTING YOUR HOUSE!"

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Follow the Arab World Protests

Egypt is melting down and it is an exceedingly big deal. The causes are complex, the people are angry, and as the Arab world’s most populous nation, it is a major strategic US and Israel ally. Not only that but somehow the entire country fell off the Online Map this morning — a fairly breathtaking technological feat.

Meanwhile protests continue also in Yemen and Jordan.

Instead of going on and on about it, here’s some useful links:

Al Jazeera’s Anger in Egypt — English Language, lots and lots and lots of clips, interviews, and analysis. Rumor has it that the Egyptian police raided the Al Jazeera offices in Cairo today…’

The Guardian has live updates.

Wired has a follow the Arab World Protests Online page.

Egypt’s Internet Shutdown Can’t Shut Down Massive Protests.

The Daily Show on the sources of unrest is spot on. Team W! Team O! Team Twitter!

Andrew Sullivan (over at the Atlantic) is doing a great job following everything going on with posts, links and clips.

My Response to the Response to the Response to the SOTU

Anyone these days can have their official response to the SOTU speech. This isn’t so much a response as what I wish Obama would have said.

SCENE: Obama comes out and shakes hands with the Notorious Aisle Whores. He waves to the C-SPAN camera because it is the only love C-SPAN will get until the call-in show. He goes up to the podium and scans the crowd and tries to look Presidential.

“My fellow Americans, I will make this brief because we’re all busy and, besides, House is on at 10.” Obama turns around and looks right at John Boehner who, in a strange way, matches his chair. “John, can I borrow your iPhone?”

Boehner, confused, hands it over. Obama holds it up to the crowd.

“We all know what this is. You, there, Congressman Fiddlepot, I can see you tweeting your constituents from here. If you don’t have one yet you will. You will have one in a month when Verizon rolls them out. I want to talk about this little device for a moment.

“This device was conceived, designed, built, and tested by a publicly traded American company staffed with American engineers and scientists. Many of these smart engineers and scientists were educated here, in America, in our land grant public universities. Many attended our public school systems. The core research for the microprocessors, the materials, the batteries, and the screen were made possible by federal research grants to our schools. Every day, they work together on the Internet, invented by the Department of Defense. It uses GPS, also invented by our Department of Defense, bounced off satellites — satellites whose launch mechanisms were invented by Government programs, put in place by Government programs, and then opened to commercial enterprise. Verizon’s new network is subsidized by the Government so they have the money to build infrastructure. Apple is now even opening new markets with their apps and app stores, which is generating new business — built, running and developed by Americans who learned how to build it with the help of Pell Grants to pay for school. When you go to buy your new device from the store, you drive on taxpayer-invested roads. All this to bring Angry Birds and Twitter to you on the floor of Congress.

“And not only that. Surely you have seen the news about Iran and Tunisia. This device is bringing more freedom, faster, with less bloodshed then all the bombs we dropped in our two ongoing wars. This is a tool for global communication, for spreading ideas, and for bringing together peaceful protest. And it comes from here, America. This is how we should approach allocating taxpayer money — not as a burden of taxation but as an investment in our future. /This/ is the future.  Our grand technological future.

“I agree the tax code is an absolute mess. I agree we can make budget cuts — and not just in discretionary spending. The Federal Government is a sprawling nightmare. We can work together to get worked out. But every time you pass around another tweet, I want you, the lawmaker, to think about where the money goes. Only American innovation makes us great and we only get there from paying for the infrastructure, research, technology, student loans, research grants and schools to make that happen.

“We can beat the Chinese.  We can beat India.  We just need to say, we want to be great scientists and engineers again and make it happen.

“It’s not an iPhone. It’s a FreedomPhone. Make your calls and your tweets, but remember that it took us to get there.

“Barry, out, yo.”

Obama gives the iPhone back to Boehner and saunters on out of the gallery. He stops and gives C-SPAN a thumb’s up.

Okay, it’s full of hyperbole, but I don’t have a staff of professional speechwriters!

An Ugly Intersection

One of the questions I have seen bantered back and forth through the vitriol on the Internet is: “If Jared Lee Loughner was obviously schizophrenic and full of disorganized and confused thought, as many people who interacted with him reported, why did he not get help?”

Some thoughts on why:

1. Schizophrenia appears in young men around the end of puberty, between 18-25.

2. By time it starting showing obvious, overt signs of disorganized thought, he was unlikely to still be on his parent’s health insurance. It was only this year that a child could be on the parent’s health insurance until age 26.

3. According to reports, his father didn’t work and his mother had an hourly job with the city. Who knows if they even had health insurance, or if the city health insurance plan covered mental illness, which it probably did not.

4. He couldn’t hold a job and didn’t have any health insurance himself. The few jobs he had were big box stores and sandwich shops.

Getting into a psychiatrist, getting evaluated, getting seen meant seeing a doctor. That meant having coverage because the family was unlikely to have the cash on hand for psychiatrist visits. Even being involuntarily committed to a hospital for emergency treatment meant the uninsured going to a hospital where there would be incurred in-patient costs, doctor costs, medication costs. The costs for medications alone to help curb the effects of schizophrenia would be incredibly prohibitive for parents making little money and, of course, he would be totally uninsurable going forward because had he seen a doctor he would then have a “pre-existing condition.” And he would have that for the rest of his life. Those medications meant constant ongoing, expensive costs.

If he had gotten diagnosed — which was a very expensive and probibitive hill to climb to begin with — maybe he could have eventually gone on Medicaid, but at what toll? To live in poverty so he could get medications to control the hallucinations?  That’s an option, but he would have had to get there, first.

The stark reality is that this country has terrible support for childhood and late adolescence mental illness but the seriously mentally ill can stroll casually into a Sportsman’s Warehouse and buy a gun with an extended clip. This says more about our priorities as a society than anything else that has been said the last five days about what happened in Tuscon. The system failed.

We stand at an ugly intersection of where health care for the mentally ill is prohibitive but gun access is trivial. We cannot have one and have the other and expect to live in in safety. We either put up with “nuts with guns” who kill little girls or this changes. If anything comes out of this tragedy, I hope we at least begin to talk about how difficult it is to get people like Jared Lee Loughner help long before it is too late.

Civility

Years ago, Terry Gilliam made an excellent and understated movie called “The Fisher King” starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. Jeff Bridges starts the movie off as an incredibly popular “shock jock” who specializes in making shocking statements to rile up his audience — popular in the 90s, popular now. A disturbed young man calls in to ask Jeff Bridges about something during the call-in show and Jeff Bridges’s character, playing to his audience, makes some nasty comments to the disturbed kid. The disturbed kid then takes a semi-automatic into a high-end restaurant and massacres the diners, including Robin William’s character’s wife.

There’s a saying: “Politics is Hollywood for ugly people.” Politics has always had a certain entertainment aspect to it. Saying utterly ridiculous things and getting them repeated in the media is a time-honored tradition since Benjamin Franklin Bache published the politics gossip rag the Philadelphia Aurora. Politicial speech has a certain one-ups-manship to it where, in the heat of a campaign, the more outrageous a statement, the more the base is fired up to go out and vote. And in this call-and-response environment where one is surrounded by one’s followers, one is tempted to say some pretty ridiculous things.

However, someone running for political office indicates that person wishes to be, ultimately, a leader of men. And a leader of men has to be cognizant of how their words will resonate, not just with the base or with trying to “get” the enemy, but with other people, out there, who might be listening — who probably are listening. Those people may not hear your remarks to “reload” or “use Second Amendment Solutions” as rhetorical campaign speech. They may take it literally. Saturate the airwaves with enough of this rhetoric and it will reach out to someone, somewhere.

This rhetoric of guns and murder and “getting them” in our political speech isn’t just Internet mouthbreathers. It’s everywhere: in political commercials that play during campaign seasons 24/7, on YouTube, on Facebook, on the Sunday talk shows, on Twitter, in newspapers, and on talk radio. It even leaks onto NPR. It’s inescapable and it has clearly gotten out of control.

My entire point is this: If you wish to stand up and put yourself forward as a leader of men, you need to be mindful of what is coming out of your mouth, the tone you take, and how it might be received. You might think it’s fun to use gun and violence in your political speech to score points and add a little swagger but more than your followers are listening. You know it will be picked up by partisan press and repeated and amplified a million times. It may be a young man with easy access to semi-automatic firearms with schizophrenia and command hallucinations who listens to you as one of the many authorities floating around and it just… helps things along. You simply do not know and it is your job to lead. If you lead with vicious speech full of violence, you will reap what you sow.

Also, I absolutely agree with the Mighty God King.

There’s other things here — how does someone with schizophrenia walk into a sporting goods store and buy a semi-automatic, why was he never given help, why did our health care system fail yet again, etc. etc. but the root, the core, is a culture currently seeped on TV and the Internet and the radio with violence against elected officials and it’s got to stop.

DADT

After the final repeal vote for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Senator Burr of North Carolina (R-NC) released an interesting statement. No, he did not personally support repealing DADT but he voted for the repeal anyway because his world was no longer this world. He’s an 80 year old man legislating on the morality of 20-somethings, and his view on the world is no longer their view of the world. The world has moved on.

People forget that the military was integrated by a stroke of a pen by Harry S Truman long before interracial marriages were legal or civil rights passed. The military, stoic and conservative, has always been on the bleeding edge of civil rights for a very simple reason: if you want to serve, here’s a gun. We need bodies, go go go. The military cannot afford to be picky in an all-volunteer army and here they were being told to be picky.

The end result of DADT was 13,000 people given involuntary honorable discharges regardless of their performance. It instituted date rape — sleep with me or else I will claim you’re a lesbian. It fostered an atmosphere of fear when the fear should be those guys over there shooting, not being kicked out for filling in a same-sex name for life insurance benefits.

So first goes the military, and then when the world fails to end, goes everyone else.

What the McCains of the world are railing against and gnashing their teeth and swearing vengence on is not the integration of a small population of the military with the rest of the greater population of the military. They are railing against their world ending. The morals of their generation are passing and the new generation isn’t quite so uptight about things. Generation Xers and the following generations simply do not care about gay or straight or lesbian or bi the same way their forebears did. We have Ellen on daytime TV and Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother and gay friends on twitter and on facebook and gay blogs and it’s all out there. As a voting block coming to age and coming to power, we don’t care. It is not an issue for us. Senator Burr was amazingly cognizant of this simple fact: on this issue of Civil Rights, Generation X is just going to wait until the Boomers all die and give the gays integration with the military and eventually gay marriage and universal gay adoption and gay equality. You can either roll your eyes and scream and yell and freak out or move on.

Yay for a victory. It will be interesting to see how the changes are implemented.

The post is brought to you by lekhonee v0.7

Extending the Bush Tax Cuts and Obama’s Deal

Here’s how a tax cut for those making piles and piles and piles of dough works for those of us who do not, due to various circumstances and life choices, make piles and piles of dough:

Step 1: Take out a shiny new Chinese Co credit card with an introductory low low teaser rate and a huge limit.
Step 2: Take a huge cash advance on that Chinese Co credit card.
Step 3: Find the richest person with the biggest house around.
Step 4: Give cash advance to said person.
Step 5: Watch said person light money on fire.
Step 6: Go pay interest payments on that Chinese Co credit card in perpetuity.

So much for all those campaigns on fiscal responsibility and ‘having to get our house in order.’ We get to extend the tax cuts and the estate tax over $5 million thing and some sort of payroll tax holiday and the unemployment insurance extension. I am for one of these (the unemployment insurance extension) which will, of course, sunset because it’s for people trapped in awful circumstances, and can only see the rest becoming permanent, which are for people who are not.

The payroll tax break is supposed to sunset in a year but really? Honestly? It will be extended forever and ever because we need to protect our middle class voters in a time of recession that will certainly still be going on and we cannot place burdens on our middle class when we are not. Isn’t the money coming out of Social Security? How does that get paid now? Magic fairy dust? And having the big tax cuts expire in an election year? What genius thought that up?

You know, I’m not big on pushing Mish, he’s a little bit on the crazy side, but I think here he is pretty much right. And on the other end of the spectrum, Krugman says pretty much the same thing.

They should have asked me. I would have recommended printing $800 billion in small bills, giving everyone in the US a marshmallow, having a huge bonfire, and inviting everyone. At least we would have gotten toasted marshmallows.

Over at Naked Capitalism there’s a nice post that has a chart with the stimulative effect of various spending programs. Food stamps, unemployment insurance, building stuff people use — all good stuff. Everything else? FABOOSH.

But hey. All those people getting more money can use it to invest in more Chinese businesses.

This crap is like the TSA arguments. Circular and stupid.  No way to win because no one with a spine will stand up and say “this crap has to stop.” Oh, by the way, we are wasting more government funds to put crappy video messages about scary scary brown people in Walmarts because, you know, that’s where terrorists from Pakistan go. Walmart.  Presumably to buy socks made by the Chinese.

On Wikileaks

I am torn on the latest dump from Wikileaks. On the one hand, the United States needs to be able to conduct its dealings on a world stage with the security standbys of “integrity, confidentiality and availability.” Diplomats need to be able to prove they are who they are, have confidential communications with other parties, and do so securely. This is basic security: they need to be able to have the dealings they need to have, no matter the content, without fear of unauthorized prying eyes. Otherwise, it is very difficult for people who have to have sensitive conversations as a routine part of their job to have these sensitive conversations. A government needs to work behind closed doors from time to time to function properly.

On the other hand, this is the same United States government that wants to read my email and see me naked if I want to fly to Detroit. I want to have sensitive conversations too.* I want to not have the government peer at my daughter’s body “for her own good.” I find my sympathy a bit limited. When I see heads of state complaining of feeling their privacy has been violated, I want to give them a Club Membership and a Beanie. It has a propeller. Welcome to the Club: it’s nice of over here.

We live in a data-centric world and, if data wants anything, it wants to be free. It’s like pollution: pour a little into a stream and the whole fish stock is contaminated. We generate so much data even on a daily basis as individual human beings that simply attempting to analyze it all or even record it is currently prohibitive.** Data is just noise, for the most part; a denial of service attack on our higher brain functions. To do anything with data, it has to be correlated and sifted and sorted. To get the right data across the right functions, the data has to be, above everything else, shared.

This is where the government is way behind the curve. Most of the three-letter agencies have been working in absolute silence for their entire existence. But now, data has to be shared to make any sense of it. There’s just too much data coming from too many points and it all needs to make sense. And going from a full confidentiality environement to one with availability of data is actually and honestly a hard problem. Data is going to get everywhere. It is going to leak. It is going to pour out the cracks. This is what data does.

Hard problems are hard.

The DoD immediately banned USB drives***. Lots of people started screaming and yelling about espionage or treason****. There’s a few hair shirts. From what I have seen — and I admit I haven’t sat down to read the cables, only the NYT summaries of the cables — there’s nothing really amazing or breathtaking in there. The Chinese Government attacked Google. People think Iran getting the Bomb is Bad. I have seen people yelling with hands clutched over their chests that it will end transparency in government — although this is staggeringly unlikely. The government is not particularly transparent to begin with; that’s the entire point.

So ANYWAY, To Sum Up, My feelings in Exciting Bullet Point Form:

* When journalists get juicy information they publish it. Where they get it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s verifiable, it gets published. That’s what journalists do. Or at least they did once upon a time. And not all foreign journalists are super nice to the People In Power.

* … and this is healthy, because Democratic Governments really and truly need an adversarial press to keep it honest. This is why we have enshrined the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press as some of our highest cultural ideals. The government needs to be exposed and of course a government will do anything they can to repress information that got out of their control. That is what governments do. These sort of things are good for governments. It’s like getting a flu shot. Sure, yeah, we’ll have a few months of retrenching but it might make some people think. It is the job of the people to keep their elected officials plausibly honest and it is the job of journalists to pour data into the heads of the people.

* And it is not like foreign countries are going to stop hosting systems with Wiki software. In fact, it’s kinda fun! Except for the DDOS parts; those are a little annoying.

* Meanwhile, the Federal Government is learning what lots of us in industry have learned: defending data while still making it usable and useful and safe is really freaking hard.***** What do I always say? Security is hard and encryption is slow. Yes, I absolutely believe that people who need AIC should get AIC while sharing data between two parties. Yes, I feel the State Department should be able to work in a confidential atmosphere. Yes, I feel this is important for the security of the United States. But see points A, B and C, above.

* There’s a balance to be struck between what the governments can do and what the people know. We need to rediscover that balance.

* Ta-da! Behold what the Slashdot crowd and security crowd has been yelling about for years: privacy is important. And not just for people in the public sector. For everyone. FBI back doors into ISPs and unauthorized wiretapping and tracking cookies and naked scanners and you name it. Privacy is important. It is. It really is.


* Sure, I can. I know how. It’s not that difficult but it is time consuming and nonstandard and key sharing/rotation is annoying.

** Although, dear God, who knows for how long. I can run a MySQL DB on my laptop and mine hundreds of gigs of data. I can buy a T from Best Buy. A T! And I made a fool out of myself in graduate school asking: “Why would you ever need a T of space?” Why indeed.

*** Yeah. Well, good luck with that. Physical security of teeny devices that can look like bananas or coke cans is a bit challenging. I hear the TSA has some new machines to search people for plastics, I guess. I would fill all the USB ports with rubber cement but I know that’s really not workable because it blows up service contracts.

**** Not sure how treason works with a foreign citizen living in a foreign country but whatever. We don’t let details get in the way of a good soundbyte.

***** I know this initiative has been going on for a while now, actually.

On the TSA

Security conferences are a little microcosms of the security industry mindset.  Everyone herds excitedly to the talks with the new, big, lurid hacks because offense is super sexy.  We all ooh and aah as someone with a Powerpoint deck demonstrates some explosive breach of known security.  Then the talk is over and immediately we’re herded to the vendor aisle where the vendors shlep an array of expensive pieces of hardware.  Seen the attack?  Now here’s the countermeasure!  It will only cost you $100,000 and several hundred man-hours to get up and working but you don’t want to be subject to that attack you just saw, did you?  The CTOs and CEOs, many with MBAs instead of engineering degrees, shake hands, watch demonstrations, take cards, promise to make calls because this hoopy new equipment will stop that very scary new attack because wow was that scary.  They have room in their budgets, they promise.

As a security professional, my brain isn’t wired right.  I love hot new attacks.  I find them fascinating.  I read about them obsessively. I should be working but no, I’m reading some new way to take out a database with a well crafted command.   But I’m also an engineer and I know that an offensive demonstration sells expensive, and somewhat dubious, defense hardware and defense is big business.  Yeah, you need a big heap of hardware these days to run a secure network, I’m not claiming you don’t, but I also know that the sexy new attack may also be mitigated, not with another $100,000 expenditure, but with a few hours of expert code review.  I have a dollop of doubt gleaned from many years of experience.

But that doesn’t stop the anxious CTO or CEO who has a mandate and, instead of doing threat modeling and risk analysis, wants to fix the problem quick with a new piece of hardware because wow that Powerpoint deck was pretty scary.  Everyone get to work!  Plug this in!  Make system changes!  So it goes.  It keeps us all employed.

Terrorism is a physical security problem that cannot be stopped at the gates of an airport.  If a terrorist has reached an airport, the terrorist has breached many layers of other security — real security and law enforcement.  It is far too late.  The system has failed.  At that point, only three things mitigate the attack: reinforced doors on airplanes, passengers who will not be cowed, and people who blow themselves up are generally not the sharpest tack in the pile.*  That’s it and those goals have been achieved.  Past that, putting money into police and emergency response would be useful.  It’s a crime and like any crime it’s essentially random; it’s an externality whose real risk probability is low.  If you have 300 million fliers and 1 terrorist, then you deal with the problem when it happens because searching for the real risk at the point of entry is futile.**

Logic and good engineering dictates we model for high probability risks when securing our systems and work to mitigate those risks. However, the Powerpoint deck for global terrorism offensive attacks is super hot: it shows buildings blown up and dead people in the streets and bodies and planes crashing into buildings.  It’s damn scary.  Worse, it makes the stakeholders unelectable if such a thing comes to pass.  Non-engineers sitting in elected or appointed office look at those Powerpoint decks and Get the Fear. They then walk out down the aisles of vendors afterward and they say: “I will take one of everything.”

The TSA is not a security organization.  They don’t serve any real security purpose.  Other people in other government organizations deal with the real work.  No way can people hired from ads off the back of pizza boxes and given 40 hours of web-based instruction know what to do if they encountered an actual terrorist.  That’s absolutely absurd.  The threat model shows the probability of an actual terrorist in an airport line instead of, say, just mailing the bomb, is infinitesimally low. It’s an acceptable risk to put non-security personnel in security positions.  It makes for a great government work project in a recession.    And wouldn’t a terrorist with an actual live bomb just blow himself up in one of those backscatter machines?

The TSA does serve a very important purpose to the Federal Government: Marketing.  They market security.  They have SIGNS.  And UNIFORMS.  They give people Very Meaningful Looks.  They stand around in airports with big machines that go bloop like great big advertisements full of warm fuzzy safety.  They market for elected leaders who want to show they are keeping us all safe.  They’re like the election time TV advertisements except with groping.  Go through the bloop machine!  Don’t you feel safer now?

Take off shoes, take off jackets, throw out liquids, get pat downs, go through scanners — none of it serves any actual purpose except to sell to a jittery public who feasts on capitalist marketing a feeling of security because real security is hard and doesn’t always succeed.  That’s the hard truth the public will not accept: we are unable to defend against all risks.  It’s not physically possible. But the Government will give you a pleasant illusion.  To sell warm fuzzy non-offensive security when faced with a real (if lame) attempt, the TSA must buy more machines that go bloop because someone in a suit watched a very scary Powerpoint deck indeed and some smiling vendor was standing with their card right outside the demonstration.  If they don’t install the machines that go bloop, what do they do?

Funny thing, the Government, under money pressures, now has to provide a strategic, risk-based assessment of their security countermeasures starting Real Soon Now.  The machines that go bloop and the new security measures must be in place before the risk-based models go in.  The TSA has not turned in any risk assessments of the new machines to the GAO to justify the purchases and they won’t because the risk of finding someone real with their current operation is so tiny and the risk of something going wrong with the machines is so much greater that the purchase can’t be justified.  But they don’t need risk assessments because, at the core, the mission isn’t security.

My stance on the TSA is well known.  I don’t like such obvious wastes of money, and I especially don’t like it with machines that go bloop and may or may not cause skin carcinoma.  Nate Silver has an interesting article on the hidden costs of extra airport security.  But next time you go through security, you should ask for a Coke with your grope — at least with a Coke, you get a Coke!

I have more stuff, about how security has a customer service and customer expectations model to it, about how the TSA needs to think of itself as a customer service organization first, about how the entire organization has to be rethunk, but this post has gone on long enough. The TSA is here to stay.  They provide too much CYA to lawmakers to ever disband.  But to save us all money, they should just pull the plugs on the machines and send us all through.  It will help with global warming, at least.  If they unplugged the machines, would you ever be able to tell?

Here’s the recruitment pizza box. You can find it a bunch of places.

Threat Level’s discusson on TSA training.  40 hours of web based instruction and 60 hours on the job!

Here’s the GAO report I cite.  I cannot find if their position has changed but as far as I can tell, no risk management study has been completed.


* If you think strapping a bomb to your nads is smart then I have some equipment I can sell you!

** The argument here is “but the attack is huge.”  Yes, that’s possible, but the point stands: if the terrorist gets on the plane there are bigger problems with the system.

Thanks For Paying Taxes. Here’s A Receipt.

Over on Planet Money:

Thanks For Paying Taxes. Here’s A Receipt. : Planet Money : NPR.

I have been saying this for years.  People pay their Federal Taxes and it feels like it goes into a black hole.  Hell, me too.  One of the reasons I am going to vote to re-up all my County Executive people is that, on a quarterly basis, they send me a breakdown of the County taxes and how much is paid into what and they just put that in last few years.  I love this.  They are great communicators via twitter and email and reports — if you live in Howard County, re-elect, people, because, man.  They actually respond.

People pay these enormous Federal Tax bills.  God knows I do.  And no one knows where the money goes.  I feel furious about my money being spent on bombing brown people but I cannot tell you how much I am paying.

You can go to the PDF direct here.  Go read it.  This isn’t a liberal or a conservative issue.  It is a “Government today in 2010 with fancy computers ought to be able to generate this through an automated process, dammit.”  We can send probes to blow up people in Pakistan but we cannot send a damn receipt.

I believe this so strongly I might take this PDF and send it to all my Congresscritters and start making a serious nuisance of myself.