TSA asks disabled boy to walk

Wednesday, Feb 17, 2010 4:38 pm
William Barnes

The Philly Inquirer reports that a 4-year old boy with leg braces was made to remove the braces and walk unassisted through a medical detector prior to getting on a plane. There’s a lot of things wrong with this story, but there’s an angle I think is being ignored: what about the security guards?

Whenever something like this happens (see also, the 8-year old boy who was given a full body pat-down because his name was on a terror watch list) people rail against the unimaginative security guards who mindlessly apply stupid guidelines. Poor security guards.

They are given rules written by some people in a board room with two goals: avoid planes blowing up, and avoid getting blamed when planes blow up. So you end up with a rule saying something like: “Everybody must remove all metal from their body and walk through the metal detector.” It’s easy to sit back and say that, obviously, there should be an exception in the 4-year old’s case. But if you’re the guard, this puts you in a really awkward position. You could be fired for making up exceptions.

It might be argued that the TSA rule-makers intended for some common-sense to be applied by the enforcers, but what good does this do to the guy on the front-line who has to say to himself “Am I willing to risk my job over this?” I’ve never heard of a TSA regulation stating that a guard can choose not to apply a rule at his discretion. It makes me wonder. Could all these horrible applications of stupid rules be some kind of message from the guards? It’s not hard to imagine that faced with a choice like that, the guard might actually hope to bring some attention to the situation by enforcing the rule in the most robot-like manner possible. It reminds me of a section in the Illuminatus Trilogy where Hagbard Celine explains that all workers are unconscious saboteurs, just looking for a way to damage their employers by slavish adherence to the rules.

It’s part of a larger problem with employer-employee relationships: a lack of autonomy. Employees have to be very conservative in their application of rules or they get fired. Eventually, you end up with McDonalds. Every second of the employee’s work day is calculated and governed by rules. And maybe it works when you want to get a hamburger ready in 57 seconds, but it doesn’t work in a lot of other situations where giving the employee the freedom to think for themselves would really help customers.

We think about rules as being a way to protect customers (ie: by ensuring quality service) but what they really do is prevent creative employees from finding better ways to do their jobs. When you take your computer to Best Buy (for the record, I’ve never bought a computer from Best Buy) to get fixed (for the record, I’ve never taken a computer to get fixed), the kid at the store has a checklist he’s supposed to follow. Problem is, the checklist is probably written by a lawyer somewhere with the help of a consultant whose last computer was a Commodore 64. It will address some of the most obvious problems and then say format and reinstall everything.

Every time somebody says that someone should pass a law or make a rule telling employees they shouldn’t do something bad, I can’t help but think we’re asking people to be robots. Rather than try to encourage creative people who understand their jobs and do them well, we’re trying to turn jobs into something that anybody can do. I don’t dispute there are some good areas for regulation, but sometimes you have to come out and say: “We trust your judgment.”

How can the Toronto Library System be so backward?

Friday, Feb 12, 2010 2:38 pm
William Barnes

I just moved across the border from Mississauga to Toronto and I am shocked by the Toronto Public Library System. My first time at a Toronto library, there was a line of about 30 people waiting to check out books and just one employee checking them in. At the same time, there was this inexplicable “returns” desk with three employees at the counter and two more working behind them. It turns out that in Toronto, you wait in line to return books. Luckily for Torontonians, there was this sign:

This is what's wrong with the Toronto Library

And in front of the returns desk was a box that said “Book Drop”…which nobody used. In fact, as I waited in the interminable checkout line, several people walked up, looked at the drop box for a few seconds, and then got in line to return their books. Insane. In Mississauga, you either put stuff in the drop box or just left it in a stack at the returns desk. There was no line.

Today, I learned another thing that I just can’t wrap my head around. You have to return books to the same library you checked them out at (I’m not sure what the rule is for inter-library orders). That is just wrong. I will entertain the idea that there is some sane logistical reason behind it (they service a larger city with worse traffic) but together with the whole drop box thing, I can’t help but conclude that the system is just backwards.

The Ideal Library System

Here’s a few things that I think the ideal city library system would have. First, drop boxes. Second, the ability to return a book to any library you want. Third, the library you return it to does not send it back to the original library. There is no sense in having a book have a ‘home’ in a computerized city wide library system. Instead, the system should allocate books so that they are geographically spread out and pay attention to where consumer demand is. This would also encourage a naturally efficient distribution of niche books. If there is a particular demand for certain books or authors in one area (perhaps there might be more demand for Italian authors in a heavily Italian neighbourhood and more demand for sailing books down by the lake) then the book will tend to stay in the area where it is wanted. When a book is checked in, the computer could decide dynamically where to send it. And if I’m right about geographic patterns of demand, it will most likely stay at the library where it was dropped off. This will mean fewer trucks running around carrying books and I’ll have single handedly saved the environment. Go me. Fourth, the ideal library system would have the book I ordered two weeks ago and that was released in stores 6 weeks ago.