Cops, Control, and KoolAid: some thoughts on Madeline Ashby’s “Loss Prevention”

Madeline Ashby and I have a history.   We’ve known each other for years, attended the same writing workshop, stood by each other in times of personal distress.  We bonded over that time, not least over the fact that each of us has experienced misfortune at the hands of border officials:  Madeline, a US citizen, at the hands of my own countrymen; mine at the hands of hers.  If there was anyone I would expect to find common ground with on such matters, Madeline Ashby would be there at the front of the line.

And yet.

America's Best Foot Forward.

She posted her Master’s thesis online last week:    “Loss Prevention: Customer Service As Border Security”.  A bit of speculative fiction sits at its heart, a story called “Welcome to the Jungle” (also posted over on boingboing under the more concise title “Surfaces”).  It’s probably impossible for me to be objective about this work — not just because Madeline is my friend but because, well, I’m all over the damn thing. Our respective border experiences explicitly inspired her choice of subject matter; the epigraph is an excerpt from this very ‘crawl.   I pop up repeatedly in the text.  The document is dedicated to one Andrew Beaudry, the truncheon-wielding douchebag who maced me back in December 2009.  There’s no denying that the project, as it exists, would not exist were it not for those fond memories of Port Huron.

Impossible to be objective.  But I’ll try to get as close as I can.

This is unfamiliar territory for me.  It’s not the kind of thesis I’m used to:  no formal data collection, no quantitative analysis.  The centrepiece — the “Results” section, or maybe the “Methods” — is a piece of unabashed fiction, describing a day in the life of a Customs officer sometime in the near future.  It’s an example of something called “science fiction prototyping” which is apparently gaining currency among the design crowd.  If I understand it correctly, it amounts to constructing what-if scenarios as a way of product-testing the future, and in one way it makes sense:  our brains are built for narrative after all, not statistics.  It’s easier to internalize data when they’re presented in a way the brain finds intuitive.  I’m not entirely sold on the model — slapping the word “prototyping” onto a genre that’s been playing what-if for over a century strikes me as more of an exercise in rebranding than genuine innovation — but I’m all for making future scenarios more tractable to an audience.  In this sense, “SF prototyping” is to the futurist what the Chernoff face is to the statistician.

The difference, though, is that Chernof faces are based on data — eyebrow tilt scales to standard length, breadth of nose might represent body mass, and so on.  In the case of “Loss Prevention”, I’m not entirely certain what data are being presented.  I’m not even entirely sure what was being researched:  border security is repeatedly described as belonging to a class of things called “Wicked Problems”, but that class is defined so broadly as to be virtually intractable. (In fact, the first quoted characteristic of a wicked problem is ”There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem”, which to my mind reduces the functional utility of the concept somewhat.)  If someone held a gun to my head I’d hazard that a “wicked problem” is any really, really tough problem with multiple underlying causes and no one-size-fits-all solution;  and I’d have to question whether anything so vague warrants such formal taxonomy (and, apparently, so much attention in the literature).

Madeline herself admits  that “Instead of pursuing more traditional research methods, I strived to something very similar to what I do as a science fiction writer. The age-old dictum to write what you know extends to the areas of design, as well.”  Well, yes.  But research, by definition,  involves venturing into the realm of things you don’t know, the better to learn about them.  Sticking to what one knows seems to miss the very point of the exercise.   Madeline didn’t even formally interview a relevant expert who sat on her own committee, on the grounds that “he has already written extensively on the subject”.  I find this odd:  the author of this thesis is curious and pretty quick on the draw.  I would not have expected her to read through an expert’s “extensive writings” and not be left with a single follow-up question afterward.

All that said, though, it’s hard to disagree with “Loss Prevention”’s basic argument — that we should replace the everyone’s-a-potential-tewwowist approach to border security with a “customer-service” model.  It’s hard not to smile at Madeline’s unrepentant highlighting of the parallels between customs lines and the cattle-processing techniques used in slaughterhouses, (I’d much rather reserve the word wicked for those Ashbyesque insights than waste it on Rittel & Webber’s woolly neologising).  And it’s impossible to fault many of the techniques that make appearances in the story “Surfaces”, if for no other reason than that I’ve experienced them myself at border crossings and can attest that they work.  Friendly conversation works better than hostile intimidation; indirect full-spectrum lighting is more pleasant than bare-knuckled fluorescence; multilayered security/passenger-assistance works better than a single fortified embankment at the end of a long room.   Elsewhere in the thesis Madeline describes these as “shovel-ready” measures but they’re not really; the shovel went in years ago, the measures long-since implemented far and wide except along North American borders.

In fact, there’s only one truly speculative element in “Surfaces”, and that’s, well, the surfaces: interactive touchscreens that line the chutes where livestock wait their turn at the booth, walls that serve up advertisements and tourist info at a touch — and it’s that touch that matters, because the walls also read your fingerprints when you tap the interface.  The system grabs your ID and runs a background check before you ever get to the front of the line.  Madeline acknowledges throughout the thesis that such measures are likely to be controversial, but in the story at its center you see no such interrogation:  the protagonist simply thinks The system works, and we close on a smile.

And yet there are so many ways that system might not work.   Suppose privacy-minded folks start wearing gloves when passing through Customs? Do we outlaw handwear in airports?  Suppose people refuse the bait, choose to keep their hands to themselves?  Do we taser them if they don’t tap an ad for the Airport Hilton?  Do we escalate the tech, install lasers to scan people’s irises from across the room, then go on to banish sunglasses?  Does the avoidance of unobtrusive data-mining become suspicious in itself, do people who haven’t tapped the wall get automatically routed to Secondary on the grounds that they’re more likely to be hiding something?  I don’t know if this is a wicked problem per sé, but it’s certainly a bitch of one; yet “Surfaces” doesn’t interrogate it at all.

It’s this lack of interrogation, this willingness to take things on face value, that I find most disquieting about “Loss Prevention”.  It uncritically repeats the oft-heard claim that border personnel’s jobs are “difficult and dangerous, and it should come as no surprise that after a while, some of these individuals can become jaded…”

Jobs that get you murdered.

No.  Stop right there.  BPO’s jobs are not especially dangerous: cab drivers suffer four times the homicide rate of even real cops, those men and women who actively seek out and hunt down the bad guys, who high-grade their experiences to greater risk.  Your average 49th-parallel border officer, in contrast,  sits in a booth processing tourists and truckers.  In terms of the risk of violence at the hands of your fellow primates, border guards might as well be selling running shoes next to your average cabbie.   And if you want to look at risk to life and limb from all sources, they’ve got it even easier:  they’re better off than roofers, truck drivers, and farmers among others.  Real cops don’t even make the top ten when you look at  mortality from all criteria.  Border trolls don’t even show up on the scope.

Jobs that just get you killed.

I don’t know quite how to reconcile such data with these faith-based claims of chronic danger faced by BPOs.  Nor do I know what to make of the fact that Madeline followed the dual tales of our respective border ordeals with “I recognize now that my experience and Peter’s are the exception to the rule.  Both Canadian and American border security personnel are put through rigorous training before they begin their work…  most every traveler has at least one annoying story about clearing  customs, but they will have several more boring stories to go with it.”   Or maybe I do know, a little: I know, at least, that that back-pedalling little caveat has the same logical structure as “For every innocent person Texas may have executed, there were several who deserved what they got.”  Even if factually true, one would be hard-pressed to cite it as any sort of mitigation.

Still:  is it factually true?

I cannot speak to Madeline’s experience.  In mine, intimidation and hostility has been the norm when crossing into the US; polite and friendly interactions have occurred less than half the time.  Apparently Madeline has fared somewhat better— her thesis recalls the times she “smiled” her way past Customs desks and “sweet-talked agents”, prior to her own moment of awakening.   So perhaps it’s me; maybe I just have some knee-jerk hatred of authority figures, maybe I put out some kind of hostile vibe that the guys in uniforms react to.  Maybe I’m the common denominator here, maybe I’m asking for it.  That was certainly the presumption of a lot of those who weighed in back when Squidgate was in the news.

And you know, maybe they had a point.  “Surfaces” speaks of eye contact between guard and civilian as though it were a good thing, something to be cultivated, but I’ve lost count of the people who’ve told me that the reason they never have trouble crossing the border is because they know enough to never make eye contact with the guards.  As if simply looking someone in the eye is a challenge, an act of defiance deserving of countermeasures.  (It is, of course.  Amongst dogs and gorillas.  Which should tell you something about the kind of border guards these people are used to encountering.)

At any rate, I’ve lately been in a position to test that hypothesis.  I’ve travelled a lot over the past few years:  to Cuba, to Australia, to France, through Iceland, repeatedly to both Germany and Poland.  I’ve never had a problem at any of those borders, even though I crossed most of them as a convicted felon.  The one time I was pulled into Secondary (entering Australia), the guards were friendly and cooperative, going so far as to engage me in conversation about the kind of books they enjoyed (try that on at the 49th parallel:  a US border guard who reads books.  What a concept.)  They pretty much behaved the way Brandy Schumacher does in “Surfaces”— and as a result, crossing all those borders was a delight.  (Yes, even Cuba.)

So it’s not just some general hate-on I have for authority figures.  Nor is it eye contact (Europeans don’t seem threatened by the sight of human pupils).  In my case there are two obvious correlates to a smooth border crossing:  either the existence of a criminal record, or the non-involvement of Americans.   (I suppose I should say North Americans; I haven’t experienced anywhere near the same level of grief from Canadian Customs, but I’ve encountered so many horror stories from others — non-Canadians, mainly — that I’m perfectly willing to expand my condemnation to include border guards throughout the continent.)   It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to figure out which of those correlations is most likely to be causal — although I suppose you could argue that border guards might be more polite to criminals such as myself because they’re more afraid of getting beat up.

Nor are we talking only about my experiences, judging by a recent survey of travelers that rated the US border “the world’s worst” by a 2-to-1 margin.  The same survey reported that “more than half of visitors found American border officials rude and unpleasant”.  That’s a majority, folks, and it’s entirely consistent with my own experience.    So in light of these data, what are we to make of “Loss Prevention”’s apologetics?  It cites no data to support the claim that most border guards are well-intentioned and diligent;  no data to support the claim that the job is especially dangerous.  The numbers I’ve been able to unearth would suggest exactly the opposite.

“I recognize now that my experience and Peter’s are the exception to the rule.”  The “now” implies that Madeline Ashby has changed her mind, that she began the exercise subscribing to the notion that the system was systemically flawed but has since learned that it consists of mainly decent folks who do their dangerous, difficult jobs pretty well.   What inspired the change in perspective?  What new data countered the old?  Maybe she conducted some kind of systematic survey.  Maybe someone pressured her to toe some party line, and she caved.   Maybe she simply hopped down to the border for the equivalent of one of those “ride-alongs” so commonly recommended by advocates of law enforcement— you know, the ones who urge you to see the real story for yourself, for all the world as though the presence of a civilian riding in the back seat won’t have any impact at all on whether cops choose to beat the crap out of this homeless man, or send that drunken injun on a “starlight tour”, no sirree…

The point is, she doesn’t say.  The back-peddle exists in a vacuum, with no explicit context to give it weight.  And in light of that lack, I have to ask myself a question about my friend and colleague Madeline Ashby.

I have to wonder if she’s simply drunk the Kool-Aid.

This entry was posted on Thursday, December 1st, 2011 at 7:47 am and is filed under misc, Squidgate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

28 Responses to “Cops, Control, and KoolAid: some thoughts on Madeline Ashby’s “Loss Prevention””

  1. Jubal

    A sad story…

  2. Madeline Ashby

    Well, I certainly hope not. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. I was influenced by my advisor, Ken Hudson, who has trained Canadian border personnel. The language of the original thesis was a great deal more inflammatory, and he asked that I change it to better reflect the experience and training of border guards globally — not just the Americans who skew the data. As you say, your experiences crossing other foreign borders have been much better, in part because the customer service is just plain better. It’s important to recognize those experiences, because they provide such a strong counter-example to the American one. There’s also the fact that (as I recently blogged) I grew up with a dad who specializes in surveillance technology. It’s always been present in my life.

    Something else that provided data for me was everything I read in the Bordertown design studio. We had a whole syllabus, much of which involved the evolution of border policing over time. One paper on that syllabus was about the negative experiences had by travelers (including immigrants) at the Canadian border. We also met with CBSA personnel. I tried to get in touch with them (and with personnel in the Citizenship and Immigration office) for further interviews. They refused. I documented that.

    But I agree with you that there wasn’t enough original research — it’s the one thing I would change about the whole thing. That’s why I’ve applied to the Subtle Technologies festival this year. I want to do a workshop with more people, so they can tell me what their ideal border experience is. I mean, I spent ten weeks with designers informally telling me what they’d like to change, but I’d like to expand the set.

  3. Chris Pepper

    > The point is, she doesn’t say. The back-peddle exists in a vacuum, with no explicit context to give it weight. And in light of that lack, I have to ask myself a question about my friend and colleague Madeline Ashby.

    So she didn’t say anything to you before she published, and you have now blogged the question but still haven’t asked her directly? Strange friendship!

  4. Peter Watts

    I did not know that your advisor worked with these guys. You didn’t think that his request to tone things down might not qualify as a conflict of interest?

    Also, if the scope of the project was meant to be global, I’m surprised that your recommendations and conclusions focus so heavily on measures the rest of the border community has already taken; a global perspective would relegate those to more of a local footnote applicable only to North American backwaters, rather than the final focus of the whole work.

  5. Thomas Hardman

    Peter, I can’t speak as someone who frequently crosses borders; the last time I was in Canada, for example, was back in 1976, and I was a teen traveling with parents. They looked us up and down and asked “business or pleasure, why do you come to Canada?” and Dad said “just visiting!” and they waved us in.

    Yet I do hear a fair number of horror stories, but generally I hear more complaining about boarding domestic flights here in the State. TSA is generally a bit more intrusive than Customs, and TSA has all of the time in the world, comparatively, to dig through people’s backgrounds via credit checks and flying history. So why is TSA more hard-nosed than Customs?

    TSA is responding to a massive failure, not of the airline industry, but of the intelligence and law-enforcement communities. Think of it as a scaling along the spectrum of likelihood versus consequences. We’ve seen what can happen when you let the wrong people get aboard jetliners, and it was downright catastrophic in so many ways… yet it was essentially a one-incident event in that it all happened within hours on the same day. Yet the countermeasures will be ongoing probably for so long as there are jets and government agencies.

    At the borders, whether it’s personnel entries or cargo, the really high-risk events are almost even more unlikely than a repeat of 9/11, but the known risks of “normal scales” are pretty much ongoing all of the time everywhere. For example, people smuggling endangered wildlife for the exotic pet trade, casual transport of medium quantities of contraband (from kiddie pr0n to personal stashes of dope), that sort of thing, it’s damn near one in a few dozen people who can be expected to be trying that sort of thing. It’s hardly world-threatening stuff but it’s the task of the Customs folks to prevent it.

    I’m not sure that Madeline’s ideas would be of much use to prevent that sort of thing, though they might be fairly useful at screening for the folks who have genuinely bad intentions. For that matter, they might take a look at the idea of having a waiting room were everyone is guaranteed to cool their heels for an hour, watching crap television on a touchscreen in front of them. Now, there might be a real problem with false positives in the case of actual intelligentsia having mental meltdowns if forced to watch a full hour of “All My Children” or “Days of Our Lives”. Then again, the system might be thought to work if the exact same programming caused the terrorists in the crowd to leap to their feet exclaiming “this is why your civilization must die for the good of all mankind” and then proceed to try to ignite their underwear bombs. We note in passing that the difference between the cultured intelligentsia and the terrorists is that the intelligentsia don’t (usually) wear explosive knickers. Bomb-sniffing dogs can probably discern who is which.

    Yet I can’t come to terms with it actually being thought useful, for example, that anyone brought to tears by the revelation of Who Shot J.R. is clearly a returning citizen of good standing, or a foreign aficionado of all things culturally “Statesian”.

    My conclusion? Not entirely a bad idea, but “needs work”.

  6. Seth

    I hate to see friends fight but when principles are involved the gloves should come off, and the gauntlets should go on.

    That said the idea of passive information gathering should be a moot point once everyone gets an RFID tag stuck in their neck at birth. Or more likely I see things headed towards EVERYTHING scanning fingerprints and irises. The ubiquity of touchscreens and little cameras would allow for some pretty outrageous amounts of data collection not just in customs but everywhere in the developed world.

    Will reserve judgment on the thesis until I have a chance to read it properly.

  7. Hljóðlegur

    Madeline – printed that bugger out and will be interested to read.

  8. demoscene Val

    Based on a skim (and I want to look at it more closely) there does appear to be data in this paper . . . not personally collected field data in the manner of a hard science paper, but definitely research with hard numbers to it.

    That said, I think transparency is more important than a veneer of politesse.
    I don’t want to be a customer. I find the entire capitalistic analogy problematic* (see digression below).

    Certainly, many of the category of people who have direct control over border policy in NA would look favorably on solutions which draw from capitalism as a ‘functional’ paradigm. This is why the sort of approach Madeline appears to me at this point to be suggesting might seem like a palatable alternative to the current arrangement that might also appeal to those in power. There’s a strength to that.

    But thus far, I’m not satisfied. I’ll read more. Because there may be interesting ideas in here, even if I disgaree with the way the core argument of this thesis is phrased, and am chilled by the notion of being subjected to yet more commercialized covert sousveillance.

    *digression: To me, the central problem about crossing borders (as a somewhat informed person who does not have a degree in international relations or its equivalent) is the way international freedom of movement is currently structured. It is a privilege limited to those human beings lucky enough to be sponsored by countries which have the resources and reputation to underwrite the illusion of their freedom of movement, or entities or individuals who have the resources and connections to gain visas or other rights of passage. I understand that is a problem bigger than Madeline’s thesis, but the idea of a bandaid rankles me a little.

    sidenote: I assume from context that the posted I am commenting on was posted in the spirit of an entry to a letters column in a scientific journal, or a review, hence public.

  9. demoscene Val

    p.s. I assume your defense was successful. Congratulations Madeline!

  10. Jean-Louis

    As long as we’re being anecdotal… I haven’t had any dramatic experiences with U.S. Customs or TSA, but, in recent years (i.e. the last 15), crossing the U.S. border has almost always been somewhat unpleasant. In fact, looking back through a lot of travel experiences over the years, the only worse border crossing experience I can think of involves a 1990 border guard in Hungary (and I wasn’t the target), i.e. a quasi-Communist vintage border guard. That says something… Of course, such border guards have mostly disappeared with European unification.

    Could the rudeness of North American border guards be a way to get us to approve continental integration? Looking at the Harper Conservatives’ readiness to give in to just about any U.S. demand, one wonders…

  11. Aaron

    US annexation of Canada? Is that something that’s even on the radar? It may be up north, I suppose; I wouldn’t know — but unless I’ve been living under a really big rock for the last decade, no one here in the US is even tossing the idea around.

  12. demoscene

    I think what he means, Aaron, is a sort of equivalent to the EU which likely would be slanted heavily in favor of the US, not annexation.

    And if we’re being anecdotal I have my own stories to tell . . . 80% of the times I have interact with US border guards it has gone badly. 0% of the times I have interacted with Canadian border guards has been a problem.

  13. Leona

    Boo to manned (or even womanned) borders, period. Away with patrol guards. Down with entry requirements. Vanquish the visas.

    The only things we need are digital passports that warn us when we are about to cross the polity lines, and which can also download the legal system of the jurisdiction we’ve just wandered into, while alerting it of our arrival…

    Transgressions / non-constructive contributions within each domain are simply attached to economic penalties.

    Friendships within which debate is admissible are… pretty darned awesome. Although I wouldn’t be this calm if it were me. Madeleine has nerves of steel! Also, has this thesis been defended yet? Or is this a preview/draft ahead of that event?

  14. Aaron

    demoscene, I would argue in response that the US is already a sort of equivalent to the EU, one which has had a near 150-year head start on EU-style Gleichschaltung. Annexation would therefore be the correct model, whatever it ended up being called.

    Way to go for the full Locksley Hall, Leona!

  15. Madeline Ashby

    To anyone who’s curious regarding my defense: yes, it’s been defended, and yes, I have graduated. I now have a M.Des. It’s my second Master’s.

    For anyone who’s worried about Peter and me: don’t be. After commenting here, I phoned Peter up and told him about some of the constraints I was under (for example, I could not interview Ken Hudson as an expert, because he was my advisor and there are regulations regarding that), and he understood. Simply: I learned a lot more than I could write in three months. That’s why I want to continue the research. I asked him if he were truly angry with me, and he said he wasn’t.

    As for why we had not communicated about this document beforehand, it’s been an eventful year for both of us. Last fall, I needed him more than I ever have before, and he was there for me without fail. I depended on Peter so much during these times that I simply did not want to bother him any further when spring and summer came, especially during his illness, recovery, and writing of Echopraxia. Likewise, Peter didn’t consult me before this review, likely because he’s been critiquing my fiction writing for years now and knows I can stand up to it.

    I’d have answered some of these questions earlier, but I lost my voice yesterday and have been fighting a cold all weekend. I apologize if I gave the wrong impression with my tardiness.

  16. Peter Watts

    Yeah, I now have a greater understanding of the shit that went down during the course of that degree. Among other things, turns out Madeline was forced to insert those platitudes — again, with absolutely no data to support them — on pain of failing her defense. I had serious reservations when I audited one of those classes a couple years back; at this point, the evidence suggests the whole damn program is an exercise in basket-weaving and/or propaganda.

  17. Jeff L

    Great posting and responses here. I have to admit I’m intrigued.

    Read about your insane ordeal as it was happening, Peter, and have great sympathy for how you dealt with it. I’ve been back and forth to Canada several times over the years and a few of those got inappropriately dicey, as opposed to my traveling through Russia and Eastern Europe, which were uneventful.

    Personal feelings aside, however, I find the fact Madeline “was forced to insert those platitudes” disturbing. This strikes me a categorically unscientific. Not that she had much choice, apparently, so I don’t blame her. I’m sure she wrote a very interesting, informative thesis, one I’d maybe like to download and read.

    But the big brother constraint she was under kind of gives me the willies. That kind of shit is pulled by people who want to maintain the status quo, not expand the circumference of our knowledge. Not her fault, as I wrote, but I don’t enjoy having to read between the lines. Like you wrote, Peter, it’s a heavy handed conflict of interest. I’d almost like to hear the reasons she told you over the phone but I’m sure that’s privy.

    And that’s fine, I guess.

    I personally tend to think the primary issue is fear-based, hegemon-status tactics (US, mostly) versus more forgiving, non-hegemon status tactics (everyone else, except maybe China). The US seems terrified of everyone now, quietly, in the aftermath of 9/11, but probably even before. Thus our tactics reflect a “strike hard before they can possibly strike you” mentality. Which keeps citizens of both countries scared, I’ll give the border patrol that. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, they set a precedent that discourages politeness and worse. I honestly don’t think they could change the culture now if they tried.

    Thus your inserting of platitudes, Madeline, maintains the unchanging, unchallenged status quo. It might only represent your advisor’s viewpoint, I’ll admit, but the hell is he so afraid of?

    Good post! I’d love to read more viewpoints on this.

  18. Anonymous

    > “Among other things, turns out Madeline was forced to insert those platitudes — again, with absolutely no data to support them — on pain of failing her defense.”

    That’s one of those moments that just deflates all your faith in the university system. 🙁

  19. Esebian

    Wow, Andrew Beaudry looks like a model member of the kind of people who fucked up the US.

  20. Leona

    Defended? w00t! Then congrats are in order.
    I am in quite in awe of all you masters/phd -holding people. You can pooh-pooh the system all you want but I remain completely in awe. Awe with knobs on 🙂

  21. ajay

    The one time I was pulled into Secondary (entering Australia), the guards were friendly and cooperative, going so far as to engage me in conversation about the kind of books they enjoyed (try that on at the 49th parallel: a US border guard who reads books. What a concept.)

    Happened to me once when I got pulled aside by airport security at LAX; first thing the guard pulled out of my carryon was a Tim Powers novel and we spent the next five minutes discussing his books. (Consensus was that Declare is easily his masterpiece.)

    Good job he never got as far as checking the rest of my carryon. Because I had two books in there, and the other one was “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”.

  22. Sheila

    If she’s not burned out on the subject, maybe she could revisit it without the same constraints. now that she’s defended her thesis and such.

  23. Hljóðlegur

    @ajay – haha! I know someone who tried to cross into Canada in September 2001 with a copy of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” – they made him wait while they removed parts of his rental car looking for … I don’t know, an Atomic Bomb, maybe.

    @ Madeline – The thesis reads as policy proposal? A persuasion piece on changes to procedure and general managerial directives, which is the way public policy changes come about (in the US, anyway). Interesting stuff! Plus it suggests further study, as anything speculative should. I think the better-trained sugar-n-spice interviewer idea is plausible, and would save sweat and tears all around. No need to whip out intimidation on everyone at the outset, because the majority of travelers and border patrol officers just want to get through the transaction without hassle.
    Glad to have read it.

  24. 01

    Well, on one hand, I kind of get along with US Border services decently. On the other hand, I always enter (and leave) US by plane and tend to treat TSA and other security personnel with no small amount of caution. Then again, I have a certain hard-gained experience in dealing with uncanny, petty and paranoid temperament common in some environments (including, but definitely not limited to, physical security).
    But, to get closer to the meat of “what would make for a better border security” current that seems to be implied in this discussion, I think that US border guards and other “homeland sec” folks are extra-bad, beyond what could be ascribed to alleged (since I have not performed any IQ tests on US border workers, and would rather continue not participating in any such projects in the future) low intelligence, alleged poor human resources management, or even general noxiousness of highly structured employment environments in general or unpredictable byzantine corridors of the enforcement establishment specifically (And I say this as someone who doesn’t have anything in particular to begrudge them for on a personal level – while rarely pleasant, they haven’t beaten me up or anything 😉 ).

    Personally, I have no idea what is it that makes the “US border services” species of army ants so odious… Though one has to wonder if being a part of inherently pointless and inefficient processes of “post 9/11” security theater with its apparent inability to actually divert a competent attacker can be considered detrimental to an employee’s attitude and soundness of mind ;).

    Oh, and Peter, congrats on the marriage! Looks like I should visit this place more often…

  25. Hank Roberts

    I’ve never forgotten driving from Vancouver BC back home to Seattle, in around 1972 — the US border guy made all six of us (1956 Chevrolet, lots of room) pull everything out of the car, open everything up — found nothing. He finally opened the glovebox with an ‘Aha!’ and pulled out the only thing in it — a Bayer Aspirin tin; snapped it open and found — Bayer Aspirin.

    He took one of them out, licked it, frowned, and put it back in the tin with the rest of the aspirin, snapped it shut and put the tin back in the glovebox and told us to go on into the US.

  26. 01

    I wonder if all the more-or-less friendly “you’re a swell guy, but don’t diss the hornet nest” advice ended up as some kind of vampire handling manual in DS 🙂

  27. Ester Corfman

    you should update more often great read, also like the theme of the page.

  28. Thomas Hardman

    Well, Mr Watts (or is that Doctor? ;)) Maybe this is back on topic to the article, or maybe not. If you want to avoid annoyances with border guards, this might be the place for you to cross: