Flying Naked

So, a guy tried to light his penis on fire on an airplane last week, and now we’re having a debate over whether or not passengers should endure virtual strip searches while going through airport security.

Frankly, I’m really frustrated with this penchant for reactionary politics.

Yes, we live in an era of terrorism; average Americans are finally aware that decades of eschewing global diplomacy (a political position perpetuated by a long litany of presidents who perceived the international community as a wild, wild West to their John Wayne) has left the rest of the world with a sour taste for America and Americans. Enter the suicide bombers, and the wannabe suicide bombers, whose sole goal has become to destroy himself and as many other innocents he can in order to send a political message that America has screwed up. Terrorists have no common culture, religion, or skin colour; terrorists are the down-trodden and miserable who have turned insane and murderous.

Now, of course, it is the federal government’s responsibility to deter terrorists from taking the lives of citizens. And certainly, terrorism is the kind of tactic that does not — can not, will not — work as a means of political activism. It only serves to radicalize the terrorist, and to shut down lines of negotiation. A terrorist will never terrorize the hegemony into changing; a terrorist only seeks gratification in communicating — through the most destructive and amoral means possible — his own pain at his own sociopolitical stature. In many ways, terrorism is an extension of the age-old adage: misery loves company. If a terrorist truly sought political change, he would realize that terrorist acts only undermine any constructive efforts towards that goal.

This fact is no more apparent than in the story of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber who tried to explode a Detroit-bound airbus on Christmas Day by igniting explosives sewn into the crotch of his underpants. Abdulmutallab is 23 years old — a mere child — who for reasons that have yet to be revealed to the public, was so frustrated and angry that he (allegedly) wanted to off himself and 290 other people in one mad, irrational, and ultimately immature act of fury and rage. His actions were insane, but he is only one in a long line of terrorists who, intoxicated by the emotional appeal of vengeance-begotten terrorism, have invented new ways to attempt to blow themselves (and those around them) up.

What frustrates me, however, is the reactionary approach America’s Homeland Security has taken towards deterring terrorists. Terrorists have stayed ahead of the federal government, primarily because the federal government keeps looking backwards in trying to stop terrorists. In the wake of 9/11, airport security was greatly increased, but little was done to secure harbours and sea ports, train stations or bus stations. When the shoe bomber attempted to ignite his own shoes on an airplane, new regulations required passengers to remove their shoes so they could be scanned by the X-ray machine. Would-be terrorists with liquid explosives ended the era of passengers being able to bring bottled water (or liquid medications or contact lens solution) onto flights. And now that the underwear bomber thought of shoving explosives down his underpants, the federal government is coming up with ways to scan passengers’ underwear in a convenient, hygenic, and “non-invasive” way.

The strategy that we will most likely see implemented in U.S. airports is the installation of full-body scanners which employ a couple of strategies to generate a digital image of a person without clothes, revealing any dense items hidden within a person’s clothing. One type of scanner, dubbed a “millimeter wave” scanner, creates a low resolution image using non-ionizing electromagnetic waves. Here’s some sample images released by the TSA:

Sample images from millimeter wave full-body scanner

Another scanner, called the “backscatter X-ray”, employs a low-intensity X-ray to generate an image of a body while stripping away layers of clothing. Here’s a sample image taken of a victim volunteer wearing a gun to demonstrate the scanner’s effectiveness at detecting hidden weapons:

Sample image from a "backscatter x-ray" scanner

Currently, the TSA is favouring the millimeter wave scanner because the low resolution, they feel, will minimize privacy concerns. Further, these scanners are being modified such that they will not save images, so that naked pictures of you (or your favourite celebrity) don’t end up on TMZ. In addition, these scanners are going to be set up such that the person holding the metal detector wand and waving you through the security checkpoint isn’t also looking at your naked form on their computer screen; instead, images will be transmitted to a different location in the airport where they will be reviewed by a security guard who sees the scans with the faces obscured. 

However, both strategies share in common the ability to detect objects — weapons or otherwise — that a person has hidden on their person. And this, I think, is an invasion of personal privacy.

Contrary to how most folks are criticizing the implementation of this full-body scanning technology, this isn’t a puritannical fear of having others being able to see you naked. All of that hullaballoo basically amounts to “Oh my God! You can see me naked even if I don’t want you too!”. Yeah, you’re not that cute, mister — no one is dying to virtually strip you down to your skivvies to drool over you in your birthday suit.

 The privacy concerns are completely about whether or not you, or I, or any other airline passenger has the right to privately carry a possession while travelling. Be it a piece of jewelry handed down from your great grandparents, a piece of medical equipment you don’t want your co-workers knowing you need, or a secret cell-phone you’re using to help conduct an adulterous affair — complete strangers (even ones who work for the TSA) should not have the ability to be aware of — and access to — items on your person you don’t want them (or anyone else) to know about. These full-body scanners are as invasive, and as unethical, as a virtual strip-search. And frankly, it’s not too far from a virtual cavity search, either.

Moreover, no amount of security will eliminate the threat of terrorism. Terrorists will be able to invent new ways to bypass these scanners, as they were able to bypass our ban on shoes and tiny bottles of shampoo on airplanes. To put it simply, a determined terrorist — particularly one who is willing to lose his life in the act of terror — will find a way.

Instead of trying to play an endless game of catch-up, why hasn’t the federal government revised its strategy on securing airports and other high-traffic areas? It shouldn’t be about constantly adding new (and admittedly, at least to the science geek in me, kinda cool) pieces of technology to the already long list of things to do at the security checkpoint — making the amount of time it takes to board a plane longer than most flights, themselves. Instead, how about screening passengers at check-in or flagging suspicious behaviour? How about actually disseminating no-fly lists to all relevant departments and keeping those lists up-to-date with information? Or better yet, how about altering our international policies so that folks are less pissed with us in general?

But, of course, that’s not going to happen, because it’s politically safer to close the security gap that allowed what has been done, than to scare the tax-paying public into paying for something with a story of what still could be done. Meanwhile, this whole fiasco is yet another reminder as to why I hate flying. I mean really, between:

  1. aforementioned security bullshit, and
  2. restrictions preventing me bringing most of my belongings as carry-on items, and
  3. charging me ($20 or more!) to check a piece of luggage, as well as charging me for food, entertainment and even blankets, and
  4. rude flight attendants, and
  5. grimy seats and floors that aren’t even cleaned between flights anymore, and
  6. overcrowded planes full of inconsiderate passengers and their screaming babies

… next time I travel, I’m taking the frickin’ train.

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Categories Categories Politics


Hyphen Magazine’s Notable Asian American Books of 2009

Hyphen Magazine posted its Notable Asian American Books of 2009.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve only read the illustrated one. Perhaps my New Year’s Resolution needs to be to read books for fun again.

Pacquiao vs Mayweather: take it to the ring, guys!

As my boss loves to tell me, everything about me makes sense except for one: my love of boxing. I’m smart (highly educated, at least), passionate (no kidding?), level-headed (erhm, sure), and rational (now I’m blushing) — so how is it that I can delight in watching a sport where two guys strip to their skivvies and beat each other to a bloody pulp with giant, plastic oven mitts?

The answer is simple, really. It’s not that boxing is a violent sport (although it clearly can be), it’s that there’s more to boxing than the pummelling. Boxing is actually a thinking man’s sport, as strategic as chess but far more exciting. In boxing, each boxer is armed with nothing more than his (or her) fists and his wits, and he is charged with disarming his opponents defense’s. The boxer must stick to a pre-determined strategy that minimizes his opponent’s strengths while taking advantage of his opponent’s weaknesses (Stay out of  reach? Move in tight to pin him down?) while adapting to minute-by-minute information (for example, determining that the right uppercut has connected most times, so altering the strategy to use that shot as much as possible). Moreover, the fight is more than street brawl; fights go for a pre-determined number of rounds and, in the event that neither boxer is knocked out, the winner is determined by the average score of three judges. These judges award points in each round based on how well each boxer does: this can include how many shots he has landed (vs. how many thrown), how active has he been (how many shots thrown vs. just standing there) and whether or not he looks winded. That means that on top of sticking to a strategy, a boxer must strategically increase activity or conserve energy to ensure that he wins on the score cards but still has the endurance to make it through the entire fight if he needs to.

And on top of having to do all that thinking, you’re getting punched repeatedly on the side of the head by a guy who can probably curl a Backstreet Boy with his biceps. Which means you have to have some serious presence-of-mind to maintain a coherent thought under boxing circumstances, let alone enough intellectual acuity to win a fight. Or let’s put it another way: as smart as I might be, I definitely couldn’t focus on my research if my lab-mates kept running up and hitting me in the jaw between aliquoting.

Another reason to love boxing? Well, it just so happens that this year’s current #1 pound-for-pound best professional boxer in the world (as judged by the sports premier magazine, Ring Magazine) is a Filipino boxer by the name of Manny Pacquiao (pictured above). In what other sport (short of something stereotypical like karate) can you see an Asian guy be unanimously praised to be the most testosterone-fueled, most athletically-built, most hardcore guy there is? Asian Men: 1, Emasculated Asian Man Stereotype: 0.

But, boxing also comes with it’s own kind of drama. Pacquiao, as it turns out, took Ring Magazine‘s pound-for-pound honour from one Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who is probably the best American boxer currently fighting. Mayweather is a flashy fighter, but beneath his over-abundance of personality, he’s amongst the fastest and most skilled boxers the sport has to offer. He boasts an undefeated record, and even wiped the floor with boxing favourite Oscar De La Hoya. Boxing fans and critics have long clamoured for a fight between Mayweather and Pacquiao, and recently they (we?) were gratified with word of a verbal agreement that the fighters would clash on March 13th, 2010.

With any scheduled fight, there comes an expected amount of hype. Fights generate more revenue when the fighters appear to be settling some sort of interpersonal gripe, and it’s not uncommon for boxers to jab verbally (via the press, who eats this stuff up) in the weeks leading up to a fight. This manufactured “beef” can range from one opponent calling the other weak or diminishing his recent victories… although, unlike in WWE, it’s usually not over a beautiful woman dressed in a blue and red sequinned cat-suit. But, in some cases, the pre-fight back-and-forth can cross a line that makes fans question whether there really are interpersonal issues involved, or if it’s all show business.

In the case of Pacquiao vs. Mayweather, the arguments stem from (what I would call) a rather racist charge against Pacquiao by the Mayweather camp. Basically, Mayweather’s father, Floyd Mayweather Sr., accused Manny Pacquiao of taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)  in order to achieve the level of athleticism that has allowed him to be the first boxer to earn seven championship titles in seven different weight classes (no easy feat because you essentially have to re-learn how to box, and chang eyour strategy, every time you change your weight).

The basis for this claim? Well, the Phillipines (apparently) make some of the best PEDs around, and Manny Pacquiao is Filipino.

As if the Phillipines are so swamped in PEDs that Pacquiao was walking down the streets of Manila one day, when he tripped and fell into a vat of human growth hormone.

Let’s be clear: that shit is racist. The accusations being lobbed against Pacquiao have nothing to do with any actual evidence that he’s taking steroids (except that he’s a buff Asian dude — ‘cuz like, what, Asian dudes can’t be buff?). Instead, it is equating the actions of criminals in the Phillipines with Manny Pacquiao’s morality and ethics. If Pacquiao were from Southern California, would Mayweather be accusing Pacquiao of having an addiction to frappucinos and surfer shorts? And by the same logic, my parents are from China, ergo my family must make our money manufacturing mercury-laden toys, right?

The really frustrating part of it all is that Pacquiao is willing to prove he’s not a druggie, but he’s not willing to jeopardize his performance to satisfy what he insists is a bogus charge. Mayweather’s camp has insisted that both fighters submit themselves to random blood and urine testing before and after the scheduled March 13th fight. Pacquiao agreed to random testing, but drew the line at random blood testing leading all the way up to the fight. He was concerned (and rightly so) that he could be woken up in the middle of the night a day or two before the scheduled fight in order to have blood drawn. Instead, Pacquiao wanted Mayweather to agree that testing be stopped a week before the fight to give both boxers a chance to rest and prepare for the big day.

And, that’s where we’re at. The biggest fight that boxing has ever seen — one that could generate obscene amounts of money — is being derailed over a racist accusation and a butt-load of drama.

Personally, I’m normally not one to spend money on HBO pay-per-view boxing (each fight costs something in the ballpark of $50 to watch!) but I would shell out for Pacquiao vs. Mayweather. Why? Mainly because I’m really not sure who would win that fight. Mayweather has a reach advantage (which he always uses to supreme advantage), lots of power behind his punches, an undefeated record, and lightning fast speed. Yet, Pacquiao is also an agile, active, and adaptible fighter who fights southpaw, which can often throw boxers in a conventional stance for a loop.

Which is my long, round-about way of saying that Mayweather and Pacquiao need to quit with the threats, the ultimatums, and the interpersonal drama. Stop with the posturing, and yes, even the racism — and take the fight to the ring, guys!

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Categories Categories Awesome Asians, Health and Fitness


Balloon Boy Parents Go To Jail

Do not pass “Go”. Do not collect $200. Sure as heck, do not get a reality TV show deal.

After executing an ill-conceived plan (that involved lying to cops about their 6-year-old son supposedly being in a weather balloon floating hundreds of miles above ground) to garner sufficient publicity to get a reality TV deal, Richard and Mayumi Heene are facing some jail time.

Larimer County Judge Stephen Schapanski, who chose to adhere to a plea agreement, sentenced Richard Heene to 90 days in custody, to begin January 11. Heene can spend the last 60 days of the sentence in a work release program but must return to the jail at night, the judge said.

Heene will be on probation for four years and must complete 100 hours of community service each year during that period.

Mayumi Heene was sentenced to 20 days in jail — less than the 60 days sought by prosecutors. The judge said her term would begin after her husband’s jail sentence ends, so at least one of them can be with their children during that time.

She was given the option of serving her time over 10 weekends. She also received four years’ probation and must perform 120 hours of community service.

The couple also must pay restitution, but no exact amount was announced in court. The judge ordered that they not benefit financially from the incident.

Cue all the people complaining that they should be punished more severely. After all the monetary damage done by “Balloon Boy” ($47,000 for the search as well as delaying air traffic at the Denver International Airport), as well as the fact that the whole thing was kind of a painful, embarassing train wreck, people are understandably pissy.

“In summary, what this case is about is deception — exploitation of the children of the Heenes, exploitation of the media, exploitation of the emotions of the people — and it’s about money. This was all done for the purpose of making money,” Schapanski said.

The Heenes pleaded guilty last month. Richard Heene was charged with the felony of attempting to influence a public servant, and his wife faced a misdemeanor charge of false reporting to authorities.

Richard Heene’s attorney, David Lane, said his client has expressed remorse and accepted full responsibility for what happened. He tried to convince the judge that Richard Heene didn’t deserve jail time because there was no violence involved.

On his client’s behalf, Lane asked that Mayumi Heene not go to jail.

“That is his primary concern. He has taken full and complete responsibility. Do not send his wife to jail. That is his plea,” Lane said.

According to the wife’s attorney, the couple is hated because of what happened. “It’s nothing that anybody should wish on anyone else,” he said.

But, personally, I think being labelled — forever, pretty much — as being amongst the worst parents in history, we should just call it a day and end the Heene family’s 15 minutes.

And meanwhile, the question that I keep wondering is this: if the “Balloon Boy” hoax was a botched publicity stunt, exactly how was the whole thing supposed to work? Were people supposed to go “Whew, thank God Balloon Boy didn’t fall to his death! Gee whiz, I was so entertained by that big silver balloon, that I want to see this whole family regularly, every Thursday night at 7pm on TLC, right after Jon and Kate”?

Can you get jail time for stupid?

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Categories Categories Asians Behaving Badly


Frank Wu to become dean of UC Hastings College of Law

Frank Wu, author of “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White“, will assume the position of dean at the UC Hastings College of Law. Here’s an excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle article on the story:

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