Distant pangs

A few thoughts on Open Lands, by Mark Taplin

In 1992 the United States and Russia agreed to let their citizens travel without restrictions within each others’ countries, quite a development given that the Soviet Union only ceased to exist in December 1991 and there was still plenty of Cold War hangover on both sides.


Mr Taplin, a cultural attache at the US embassy in Moscow in the 1980s, took the opportunity to go to some places that were previously forbidden and to write about what he found. Part travelogue, part economic study of a country in crisis, and part ethnographic investigation of a diversity of ex-Soviet characters, this book is the result.

It is great on people. The impoverished vulcanologist of Kamchatka and his fish-soup making wife, the tin-pot secessionists of Kabardino-Balkaria, the over-organising tour guide in Tuva, all could be characters from the modern equivalent of a 19th century Russian novel. Perhaps an undiscovered Gogol, with that blend of stoicism and fatalism in the face of the plainly unacceptable or surreal that is both Russia’s iconic national personality trait and the demand that it makes of all visitors.

It is also a great blend of history and modernity. Mr Taplin takes the opportunity to review the history of places that he visits, and illustrate then with personal stories of the people across whom he comes. And he combines this with stories from his own road as he tries to make sense of what the history means for the present day.

Thinking big

It is also great on dreaming. To his credit, and perhaps demonstrating the book’s appeal to those who like to venture from the trail, Mr Taplin makes attempts to follow long forgotten paths in an effort to bring meaning to what could otherwise be seen as a depressing tour of some low priority provincial Russian regions.

Most entertainingly, but also ludicrously, he hatches in Moscow (seven time zones away) a plan to follow the trail blazed by George Kennan, the explorer not the diplomat, who visited Kamchatka in 1865 and (p 245):

ascended the Abacha River in a whaleboat; climbed over the mountain range behind the capital on horseback; rafted down the Kamchatka River to Klyuchi, a village at the foot of Kamchatka’s highest volcanoes; trudged over the high ridges of the Middle Range; struggled up the trackless west coast of the peninsula  and then wintered among the nomadic Koryaks, who carried Kennan and his companions across the frozen tundra in dogsleds, sheltering them in sooty teepees.

If this all seems a bit dramatic in the light of modern cruise shipping to Kamchatka, these sorts of impossible itineraries do rather seem to have been de rigueur for real explorers back in the day. I recently read Turkestan Solo, in which Ella Maillart, a Geneva-born hardcore explorer, describes amongst other things her crossing of the Kyzylkum Desert in western Uzbekistan by camel in winter on an expedition she put together on the hop and on a shoestring in the 1930s. They bred them tough back then, apparently.

The net result for Mr Taplin is less glamourous. He ends up on a horrifying truck ride with a coterie of serving military folks with a sideline in smuggling, some charmless days in the truly charmless Klyuchi including being, in a marvelous Sovietic twist, a near neighbour to Stalin’s granddaughter, and an effective exile back to Moscow courtesy of local officials for whom the end of the Cold War still seems to be news. For extra colour we have the mysterious figure of Leonid, whose overweening blandishments and toady assistance mark him out immediately to readers of spy novels as a sympathiser with the authorities and someone definitely not to be trusted.


There are many possible morals to the story. The boringness of the previously forbidden places particularly struck me, hardening my prejudices against the abuse that eventually emerges from powerful systems that are not transparent or open to external challenge. Why they would bother to make these places closed to foreigners, or for that matter to Russians, is a question best left to the historians. I recall a story of Eric Newby’s about being forbidden for security reasons to take photos of bridges on his Big Red Train
Ride, despite the fact that all details including photographs of the bridges were published in a book that was freely available in the West and that he even carried with him. I remember holding my camera with particular caution around unimportant railyards on the train, suggesting that this secretiveness was still part of the atmosphere in the early 2000s.

Even when Mr Taplin does go somewhere that seems intrinsically interesting, dreariness is his constant companion. The book has a set of reviewers with whom I make particularly poor company. No less an authority than the Economist describes the book as identifying in particular the “soul destroying ugliness” that communism foisted on its subdued populace. Every traveller to Russia will recall some incident like that that befell Mr Taplin in the cafes of Vladivostok, and all budding Kremlinologists will recognise the political machinations of that far-eastern town as typical of the madness that descends when “democracy” is grafted on to autocracy and has not yet had time to grow firm roots.

Despite the bleakness of the future in prospect for Russia’s farflung provinces, there is
something positive in this account also. Laughing and crying are never far apart in Russia, and it seems as if Mr Taplin is partly trying to find out why it is that he is sufficiently interested to even bother to visit these outposts of fading empire.

Perhaps he is captured by the same romantic travelling spirit that defines all problems as challenges, all grotty bedding-down places as experiences, all inedible chow as an opportunity to discover a new cuisine, and all uncomfortable journeys as chances to see the world a new way. It is the dream that some cleaner, more magical dream is just around the next bend, that a visitor can peel back the facade of crumbling infrastructure and ruined lives and reveal the delight and cleanliness of an upcoming civilisation rampant. It is probably also a reminder of how pampered one quickly becomes in the feedback-form-filling west.

Which is just as well. Because without this superimposed meaning, the unremitting poverty, decay and despair could make it rather hard to cope with a journey like this one: the underlying thought of all travellers being “at least I don’t have to stay”.

Last line

Overall Open Lands is an excellent addition to my library, such as it is, an interesting record of how it was in the mid 1990s as the support systems that sustained economic life in previously-important parts of Russia broke down, and excellent vanity travelling for places that I may not reach for some years. So thanks to the Wellington man who commented on a previous post pointing me in its direction.

In particular, I have always been interested in the border between Russia and Mongolia in Tuva, a line on the map where two forgotten places meet. It was reported as being impassable in the early 1990s when I was near there (although there was no risk that I would actually go in any case), but now I have heard that some folks on the Mongol Rally pass through, which is clearly the sign that mass tourism is just around the corner.

Cut and run

The good people at San Francisco airport have a millimeter wave scanner, which they use, as per normal procedures, to scan departing passengers.

So when I had the joy just recently to fly through America, I was presented with the usual choice.

  • endure the millimeter wave scanner (about which more below), or
  • subject myself to an “enhanced pat-down” (subject of the infamous “don’t touch my junk” video, from a traveller who took objection to it in November 2010).

In the event the choice was made harder for me by the airline schedule and by the enormously long immigration queue I had had to wait through, because if you ask to avoid the scanner, it takes time to make an officer available to do the pat-down. What this meant was that, on one side of the decision scales was a quick scan (there was no one in front of me in the queue) and catching my plane, and on the other side was the scan-free pat-down, missing my plane, staying overnight in San Francisco and doing it all again the next day.

In the end I resignedly surrendered my principles, skipped through the scanner, and rushed to get on my plane which, as if to reassure me, ended up leaving early.

Who cares

It turns out that I need not have been so concerned. It doesn’t seem sensible to subject oneself to more x-rays than you need to, even if the machine they use at some airports gives a trivial dose by comparison with the rays one would absorb during the flight.

But in fact I was subjected to the millimeter wave scanner in San Francisco, which raises far fewer health concerns. The European Union issued a report saying that x-ray backscatter machines should not be used if millimeter wave devices are available, and banned the use of backscatter devices in their airports.

Still horrible

It remains a horrible thing to have to do. You stand in the machine alone, having been divested of your phone, your valuables, some clothes, and some of your dignity. You stand still, your feet on the little yellow feet marks that show you how to stand, isolated suddenly in the relative quiet of the transparent box. You hold your hands up in front of you, following the directions of the agent a few feet away, and aping the cheerless pictogram attached to the machine at eye level. A gesture of surrender to the might of technology and the bureaucracy that has determined that this is For Your Own Security.

The process is anonymised, clinical, optimised to process the greatest numbers of widgets with the least possible delay. Those doing the scanning been denuded of judgement, weary conveyor-belt workers following the rules, directing the endless stream of travellers through the bottleneck and onward into obscurity.

There is a whirr, the arms of the machine come to life and quickly spin around. Anti-climax. And you are done. You stroll out into the freedom and relative calm of the secure area, repatriated with your belongings, who have been through a similar process with more dangerous x-rays.

The future

More amazing, the world accepts that this process is just how you get on a plane. As the TSA reportedly told this man, “By buying your ticket you gave up a lot of rights”. To me it seems more like the distopian vision of some early twentieth century serialist than the considered best efforts of a far-sighted twenty-first century government.

Of course, I am sceptical about the value of airport security in general. But still. Since they do not seem to find anything particularly helpful, and the terrorists are in retreat in most of the world, I do wonder how much longer this madness can continue. I see the process has been streamlined for frequent flyers. How long will it take for the rest of us?


PS One of my favourite things about airport security is the sign that says, in essence, “All airport security screening is by consent, but if you do not consent, you will not be allowed to fly.” So cynical.

Free to roam

Spare a thought for the hapless international air traveller. Not only is s/he subject to confusing and illogical security requirements and passenger safety announcements, but s/he must also furnish him/herself with a passport at his/her own expense, and fill in various forms as the price of admission to another nation.

I am essentially hostile to the whole idea of passports. Partly because they are unnecessarily difficult to use,but more fundamentally because I can not see why free people should be required to let governments know where they are going, or why. Passports are obviously useful given that the world is separated into states and governed by governments, but they have become an overly powerful instrument of control, and I think our lives would be better if we radically scaled back their use. This will be tricky, but I have some ideas.


As noted, passports are very useful. I can see two main purposes. One, they let you go from country to country, and two, they enable you to identify yourself to others as definitely being you in a highly-trusted way.

If we weighed up the costs and benefits of passports, then I think we would overall conclude that they make the world a better place and therefore should be retained rather than completely abolished (at least while we still have this old-fashioned world split into states that like to define their own citizens and control their own borders).

But we could cut down the costs of getting and using passports for travelling across borders (purpose one) without losing their essential usefulness as a means of identification (purpose two). This would make the positive contribution of passports to the overall welfare much bigger, and generally make the world a better and more positive place to be.

The point of the identity checks at the border is basically to try to figure out whether an arrival will be of benefit to the country s/he is visiting. It is very difficult to answer precisely that question on an individual basis though. So the bureaucratic response is to divide arrivals up into categories and apply rules to them that, it is hoped, might help separate the wheat that a country wants to admit from the chaff that it wants to exclude.

I find this idea remarkable:

  • First, it seems highly improbable that one could identify anything useful about the benefits a new arrival will bring to a nation from a passport photo, a few answers on a form, and some questions put to you by a usually indifferent border-based bureaucrat.
  • Second, practically everyone is admitted anyway – they are almost all short-term visitors and they almost all go home again as planned, so the passport information and the form responses must be irrelevant in almost all cases to the question of whether to let someone in or not. In practice, the form is used to try to figure out if a visitor is likely to stay longer than permitted – and therefore should be forced to used the more circuitous immigration process. There is no read on the number of false negatives, i.e., people who are turned away or don’t bother to go through the process but who would have had a major positive impact on New Zealand.
  • Third, the evidence is that immigration is essentially a good thing in the long-term. On UK evidence the biggest downsides are to lower-skilled workers in an economic downturn (presumably on the basis that the immigrants themselves are lower-skilled), limited to the first few years and concentrated on migrants themselves, i.e., new migrants compete with earlier migrants rather than with long-established citizens (see also this). Immigration does not seem to drive up welfare payments on this evidence, and it seems hard to believe that we would run all of this complex system to try to detect the people who might come to New Zealand to get free health care.
  • Fourth, not only does getting a passport cost money and involve major hassles (although Armenia seems like a great place to be a citizen based on this survey since they don’t charge for it at all), but the costs of processing all those passengers is high as well. The New Zealand government will spend $183 million in this year on processing all those people, some or all of which is presumably paid by the travellers themselves as the price for their intrepidity in choosing to cross a border.

How did we get here

In practice in New Zealand we have to run an open immigration policy to compensate for the enormous outflow of people to Australia and other points abroad every year.

But I fear that passport control at borders, while well-motivated, has gradually become an instrument of oppression rather than freedom. Rather than starting from the point of view that governments should have to have a good reason to detain anyone at the border, we start from the point of view that people need permission to cross, implicitly saying that we need to stop everyone. Travellers need to prove themselves qualified to be allowed to cross the border, rather than governments taking responsibility for establishing who should not be able to and not molesting the rest of us.

The police are specifically prevented from detaining citizens unless they have some reasonable reason to think that they are doing something dodgy. The recent furore over Arizona is a demonstration of how strongly-held this principle is, even in the case of suspected illegal immigrants. If the police were set up like the border services, however, they would be empowered to stop everyone, and those detained would need to demonstrate at their own cost why they should be allowed to be free to go. This seems very bizarre.

Of course, we all submit, more or less resignedly, to these controls. As Proudhon had it in the middle of the nineteenth century (quoted by Mr Scott in his brilliant book Seeing Like a State):

To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about … To be ruled is at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevenued, reformed, redressed, corrected.

Partly we may have evolved this system because visitors don’t vote and immigration controls are a way to be seen to protect the nation from the image of ravening hordes washing up on one’s shores from an uncertain world. To me immigration control seems like a bureaucracy that has developed its system in its own interests, rather than in those of the public it is supposed to serve.

What must be done

Fortunately, I think there are many practical things that can be done to strike a blow for freedom, while still retaining passports for the moment:

  • Just let anyone in from particular countries – At the moment, New Zealand lets in anyone from Australia very easily (and vice versa), although travellers still have to fill in the forms. We could extend the same arrangement to everyone from the UK and USA to start with and see how that goes.
  • Target individuals of interest – This is how Customs go about their job of border protection, i.e., they look for people they think might be doing something dodgy, and then focus their enforcement energies on them. All the other people get to pass by unhassled. Airlines check a person’s name and photo at check-in anyway. The New Zealand authorities could review this information while the person is in flight, and then re-inspect only the people who were of interest.
  • Inspect people’s passports randomly – Since almost everyone who shows up at any border is just a visitor planning to go home to their own country, and almost everyone gets in anyway after answering some questions, there seems little value in inspecting everyone’s passport or running the complex immigration process. Instead there could be an approach based on randomly checking the identities of a few persons, and everyone else could just wander in and find their bags, and meander off to do whatever they came to New Zealand for in the first place.
  • Collect information once – There is clearly value in information on people coming and going between countries. In particular, it is the only regular, frequent data the New Zealand government collects on the skills of people joining and leaving the economy. This is why the form includes a question on occupation. Even then, one would have to wonder how reliable the responses are and there are many questions on the form (for example, name, date of birth, nationality, passport number) that are simply repetitive (given that you have to hand over your passport anyway), and other data (for example, flight number, port of embarkation) where the data could easily be got elsewhere without having to hassle passengers for it. In any case, it is not at all clear to me that all the information put on the form is actually used and useful (address information being a primary example, and don’t even talk to me about the fingerprints that the US authorities take on entry).
  • Only collect information from a sample of travellers – Following this train of thought a bit further, why not simply collect the information from passports automatically on checkin (this is name, date of birth, and nationality, and presumably destination and flight number), and then ask every tenth person to fill in the form. The sample size would still be big enough to deliver useful statistical information, but most passengers would be free of the hassle of bothering with the form.

All helpful steps on the way to greater practical freedom for citizens of the world.

The perils of travelling the nation

It is no secret that I have no time for Winston Peters. I therefore present a list of all New Zealand electorates in descending order by the proportion of the party vote for New Zealand First. Use it as you wish. Travel guide, highlights reel, warning sign. Over to you.

New Zealand First’s overall share of the vote was 6.59%. So anywhere with a number south of that (Kaikoura and below on the list) appeals. Good on you, people of Epsom. Not so much, people of Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty. How could you?

Electoral District NZF votes Percentage Total votes
Tauranga 5455 14.90 36620
Bay of Plenty 4569 12.63 36177
Coromandel 3813 11.03 34564
Waiariki 2058 10.94 18807
Rotorua 3326 10.55 31517
Tamaki Makaurau 1948 10.45 18648
Northland 3330 10.19 32665
Te Tai Tokerau 1950 9.86 19782
Hauraki-Waikato 1758 9.83 17893
Whangarei 3340 9.68 34512
Whanganui 3035 9.53 31858
Te Tai Tonga 1544 8.76 17629
East Coast 2536 8.53 29743
Papakura 2680 8.48 31621
Taupo 2833 8.39 33747
Ikaroa-Rawhiti 1516 8.30 18262
Otaki 3057 8.12 37633
Waikato 2549 8.10 31467
Te Tai Hauauru 1445 7.94 18188
Wairarapa 2738 7.82 35021
Hamilton West 2475 7.72 32049
Hunua 2626 7.42 35411
Manurewa 1861 7.36 25277
Rangitikei 2305 7.26 31731
Taranaki-King Country 2252 7.26 31038
Dunedin South 2522 7.15 35251
Rodney 2688 6.97 38563
Invercargill 2213 6.84 32355
Te Atatu 2081 6.75 30835
Kaikoura 2236 6.55 34128
Waitakere 2011 6.46 31122
Manukau East 1703 6.32 26960
New Plymouth 2137 6.30 33932
Christchurch East 1801 6.26 28749
Rimutaka 2148 6.26 34333
New Lynn 2081 6.18 33685
Wigram 1948 6.04 32230
Hutt South 1974 6.00 32914
Waimakariri 2131 5.92 36016
Mangere 1466 5.86 25007
Tukituki 1995 5.85 34098
Rangitata 2084 5.80 35931
West Coast-Tasman 1931 5.72 33766
Dunedin North 1706 5.69 29965
Pakuranga 1847 5.67 32595
Palmerston North 1870 5.66 33038
Northcote 1865 5.65 33030
Napier 1893 5.58 33907
Nelson 1913 5.42 35267
Hamilton East 1786 5.37 33249
Waitaki 2010 5.22 38541
Maungakiekie 1753 5.18 33831
Christchurch Central 1391 4.96 28024
East Coast Bays 1657 4.94 33535
Clutha-Southland 1556 4.89 31831
North Shore 1806 4.86 37181
Mana 1667 4.84 34425
Port Hills 1609 4.83 33282
Selwyn 1750 4.75 36851
Mt Roskill 1513 4.68 32330
Helensville 1648 4.60 35809
Mt Albert 1494 4.53 32999
Rongotai 1640 4.45 36879
Botany 1278 4.40 29034
Auckland Central 1403 4.10 34206
Ilam 1350 3.95 34169
Ohariu 1478 3.91 37828
Tamaki 1421 3.76 37782
Wellington Central 1132 2.88 39372
Epsom 959 2.61 36769
Maori Electorate Totals 12219 9.46 129209
General Electorate Totals 135325 6.42 2108255
Combined Totals 147544 6.59 2237464

The source data is on the Electoral Commission website. You can also get my version (sorted and with all the other parties’ votes removed).

On pre-echoes and their practical relevance

A sort of book review of Tiziano Terzani’s book, “A Fortune Teller Told Me”

Told by a fortune teller in the 1970s not to fly at all during 1993, Mr Terzani, an Asia-based journalist for significant Western newspapers had a long time to consider his dilemma . Did he follow the advice of this prognosticator, change his professional life profoundly for a year, and implicitly accept that his western, scientific scepticism of those who predict futures was not the full story. Or did he ignore the advice, scoff at what might have been his fate, and continue to scoot about the place on planes?

The result of his decision forms the background for this thoughtful, charming and brilliant book, recently re-read after being unexpectedly found on a friend’s bookshelf. First published in 1997, it is many things: a brilliant literary travelogue through the countries of South-East Asia, a meditation on globalisation and the consequences of economic development, and an exploration of the world of fate and fortune-tellers – a personal tour through the layer of mysticism and superstition that underlies society, particularly in the east.

Mr Terzani venerates the past. He struggles to review the present dispassionately because he sees economic progress as fundamentally compromising traditions he has long respected – in his view progress evens out the differences in the world and makes the world a less interesting, less human place. And he is therefore fundamentally sceptical as to whether the future is a cause for hope or for despair.

I particularly like mysticism as a counter-point to our age of common sense, and cause and effect. It seems to me that practicalities too often intervene before motivation, by which I mean that ideas are killed by a thousands tut-tuts because it is thought that they won’t work even before the question is asked about whether we really want to pursue these ideas or not. The fact that there is no alternative is not a good argument for anything: it undermines the very creativity and participation that is helpful in resolving our societal dilemmas.

The effect of all this rationalism is that there are fewer and fewer places for non-rational thinking to hide in the world. Religion, art, dreams, superstition. These are powerful expressions of the limits of human reasoning, and the importance of surprise, principles, and unpredictable connections between ideas to our continued ability to flourish.

So, to my mind, all power to art, unpredictability, dreaming, foolishness, and creative thinking in the world. Boo to too much rationalism, over-assessment of the inherently unpredictable, and the intellectual arrogance of decision-makers choosing before they really understand. More scratch and sniff. Less wait and see.

To that end, I present my theory of pre-echoes. The idea is simple: once you have decided to do something, other people can get an idea of what is going to happen in the future as a result of your intention. So I am driving from Wellington to Auckland, and a friend sends me a message asking if she just saw me crossing Fort Street in downtown Auckland. I haven’t got there yet, but the pre-echo of my future arrival was already detectable. Or your mother suddenly pops into your mind, and a minute later she calls you. A coincidence from one point of view, but a pre-echo from another – you know that she is going to call because she has decided to. I think of it as like a radio on some distance away on a windy day. Sometimes you can just catch enough to know the name of the tune, sometimes events intervene to prevent it.

This is clearly a rather whimsical idea. Since it is impossible (I think) to test, it is fundamentally unscientific. I am surprised by many things every day, despite the existence of pre-echoes, and so clearly my theory is either not foolproof or it needs substantial refinement to fit the facts as I encounter them. My theory is also not especially helpful for predicting future events – another standard test of the quality of theories. It does not prevent people changing their mind or limit the ability of free-will. And I know not what the transmission mechanism is from someone else’s made-up mind to my own.

If I were in a mood to defend the science of my theory, I might note that science has moved along rather a lot over time and in surprising directions. The earth (not the sun) was once thought the centre of the galaxy, cholera was once thought to be caused by dirty air, radiation only showed up at the turn of the nineteenth century, vitamins remained a mystery until the 1950s, things thought impossible (space travel, mobile phones, decent coffee at petrol stations) have become reality. No reason to doubt, therefore, that science will stumble across pre-echoes at some point.

All of this science talk is all very well, but that is not, of course, the point of my pre-echo story. Pre-echoes come from a different world that exists alongside the world that we all accept as real every day. A world where time’s arrow does not necessarily travel in a single direction. A world where what would be called magic and dreams have a function and an effect. A world where things are connected in much more complex ways than the cause and effect story that we imbibe with our mother’s milk. A world, let’s face it, rather more intriguing and mysterious than the one we actually inhabit.

It is the same world from which come basic western superstitions. Some that I respect, for better or worse, are the importance of the 1st of the month for luck in the month following, a fear of doing anything too important on Friday the 13th, casting some salt over my left shoulder if I drop any on the floor, saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, and wishing on rainbows and over birthday candles.

Happily for me and my theory, Mr Terzani talks about something similar, referring to the thoughts of the prince soon to become Buddha in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha when sitting on a hill looking at a river:

It strikes him that once the measurement of time is waived, the past and the future are ever-present – like the river, which at one and the same moment exists not only where he sees it to be, but also at its source and at its mouth. The water which has yet to pass is tomorrow, but it already exists upstream; and that which has passed is yesterday, but it still exists, elsewhere, downstream.

There are eddies and tributaries, dams and irrigation schemes, but that does not affect the basic point about the connectedness of what we call the past, present and future, and the powerfulness of the idea that our concept of time is not the complete answer.

Mr Terzani goes on, while looking at a river intersection in Laos:

It seemed to me that that conjunction and mingling of muddy waters was, like life – mine included – made up of so many streams. It seemed that past, present and future were no longer distinguishable one from another: they were all there, in that relentless flow. Fifty-five years had slipped away like the great river rolling towards the China Sea; the rest of my time on earth was already welling up in the Himalayan slopes, already underway moving towards me along the same channel, clearly defined and counted to the last hour. If I had had a higher perch than that hill I might have been able to see more of the river, in both directions. And thus could I have seen more past, more future?

This connection of past, present and future is a powerful theme throughout the book as Mr Terzani consults the most famed fortune-teller he can find in every country that he visits. As a journalist, he reports the differences and similarities in how they ply their craft, and gives his views on whether they actually have any unique capabilities. Rationally speaking, he assesses if they are sufficiently accurate in telling him his own past (something they all do as part of the process) that he can ascribe them some credibility as advisers on what is going to happen in the future.

As the book goes on and the number of fortune-tellers grows, he sadly concludes that most are in a business like any other, i.e., selling predictions of the future that others are willing to pay for. They have a standard patter, and present a hodge-podge of culturally-influenced generalisations that are true enough for enough people to sound profound, while any firm predictions are couched in such a way that they can not be obviously wrong. But predicting the future is not really the point of fortune-tellers, in his view. They are not actually selling predictions. They are selling a combination of reassurance and warning, helping people feel better about their pasts, and more secure or cautious – depending on the story – about their futures.

But intriguingly, Mr Terzani also continues to accept that there might be something in it. That there might be some fortune-tellers who really can do as they say on the tin. He quotes from a London-based fortune-teller called Norman, responding to the question of whether he can really predict the future:

‘Not 100 per cent, otherwise we would no longer have any responsibility for our actions’, he said. ‘The cards read the shadows of things, of events. What I can do is help people to change the position of the light, and then, with free will, they can change the shadows. That I really do believe: you can change the shadows.’

Which feels a bit to me like my pre-echo theory. Sometimes you can pick up the shadows of future events, without really knowing how or why.

Fascinatingly, it turns out that the author did in fact avoid an air crash by following the advice he was given 16 years prior. A helicopter he was meant to be on crashed near Siem Reap, Cambodia in March 1994.

There is also an interesting minor riff on the complexity of cause and effect throughout the book. Once the web of influences becomes sufficiently complicated, any event can start to look like magic, and disentangling what is actually responsible is more an act of story-telling than it is of science.

The chain of cause and effect that links human affairs is endless, and that means they remain without a real explanation. I was on that ship as the result of an infinite series of ‘becauses’, of which it was impossible to establish the first. That is the maddening thing about destiny – and the wonderful thing.

There is always an inexplicable bridge of San Luis Rey, where different people with different stories, coming from different places, meet by chance at the moment when the bridge collapses, to die together in the abyss. But the first step of each of the journeys which end in the assignation cannot be retraced.

In my case, any starting point that I might fix – the fortune-teller in Hong Kong, the escape from death in Cambodia, the decision in Laos, even my own birth – was not it. Perhaps because, when you come down to it, there really is no beginning.

It seems to me this question comes down, as usual with interesting things, to a question of underlying beliefs. Perhaps human action is like the weather, i.e., something that is very complex but fundamentally based on a few, knowable rules. If it is, then we could look forward to a time when the future can be predicted with total accuracy. All that is needed is enough information on the right things and sufficient computing power and time.

Mr Terzani meets a meteorologist who says that his science has almost reached this point. At present, the meterologist says that scientists can predict the weather with 99 percent accuracy for the next three days (I am not sure this is true of the weather forecasters I rely on, but however). The next step, says the meteorologist, is mastering the theory of chaos, and this will enable exact weather predictions two or three years in advance.

“Why can you not predict human actions”, inquires Mr Terzani, perhaps archly. “They too have complex causes and effects”.

Back from a cold place

The Coldest March – A review of the book by Susan Solomon

There is something at once compelling and horrifying about the stories from the heroic age of polar exploration. Perhaps the compulsion is the horror. A few absurdly hardy men, an indifferent, hazardous environment, a minimum three year stay at a tiny outpost of civilisation built on the shores of a frozen sea, and all to get the opportunity to spend three or four months hiking across the un-mapped interior, fighting every day against starvation and the cold, to see who will be the first to reach a point on the globe that looks no different from any other.

The mindset of explorers is hard to explain or to justify – the huge imbalance between apparent risks and reward, and the enormous effort required to undertake an expedition with deeply uncertain outcomes seem near assured to induce a bout of head-shaking amongst the mums of the world. Climbing mountains, visiting space, or plumbing the depths of the world’s oceans have similar characteristics. One gets the impression that the scientific goals, while worthy and important and looming large in the story of Antarctic especially, are a justification after the fact. Really the reason why is just because we want to see if we can do it, and in particular to see who can do it first.

There are many excellent accounts of and books on Antarctic exploration in the early years of the twentieth century. Amongst them are Scott’s diaries, Shackleton’s “South”, Roland Huntford’s biography of Shackleton and his account of the race between Scott and Amundsen, Apsley Cherry-Gerard’s “The Worst Journey in the World”, Douglas Mawson’s “The Home of the Blizzard”, and (from a little later on) Admiral Richard Byrd’s “Alone”.

One could be forgiven for thinking that there wouldn’t be much to add to this impressive record, particularly in the case of Scott’s last expedition, whose arc is so well known: the first expedition with Shackleton – later his rival, the long preparations for the second, the hard trudge to the South Pole only to find that Amundsen had beaten them there by a month, and then the walk back towards safety, fatal to all hands, with the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers found in the tent that was their final camp, and the bodies of Evans and Oates never found where they fell earlier on the trek.

The competing hypotheses for what went wrong are also well-known, chief among them incompetence (especially by Scott – the competing views of history have him as either a true hero in the classic British mold, or a noted bumbler whose hopelessness determined his fate), disease (scurvy), poor preparation (wrong equipment, not enough dogs, poor rations), poor execution (too much walking, too much time spent on science), or bald misfortune.

Like authors before her, Ms Solomon reviews the main elements of Scott’s polar story, and wants to put forward her view of what went wrong. But, as an Antarctic weather expert, she has another hypothesis to test. She says that, while in Antarctica for her research on the ozone layer, she grew interested in the question of whether unseasonably cold weather in the March of Scott’s return trek could provide another explanation for some of his miseries and ultimately his demise.

Armed with new weather data from automatic stations placed in the 1980s along the path Scott took, and with all the data from Scott’s expedition carefully analysed by Dr George Simpson, Scott’s meteorologist, in his report of 1919, she finds support for her view: an unpredictably cold March was a major contribution to the untimely death of Captain Scott and his party. This is a clear-eyed reassessment of Scott’s story, not a hagiography. Ms Solomon does not shirk from pointing out Scott’s mistakes and failures – indeed, Scott himself was forthright about his errors – but Ms Solomon’s argument that weather played a fatal role is calmly argued and carefully supported through the text.

Along the way, Ms Solomon provides an education into important aspects of the Antarctic environment, and unearths some genuinely new insights and ideas about what might have happened down at the bottom of the world nearly a hundred years ago. I will leave you to read the book for yourself but the ending struck me as particularly inspired – a genuinely new take on a well-known story: a twist in the tail, if you will, informed by the new information from the weather record.

As well as a lot of new data, Ms Solomon brings one clever approach to the narrative. At the start of each chapter she presents a scene of a mythical, modern-day Antarctic visitor that demonstrates key information on Antartica and the main challenges facing a traveller walking to the South Pole pulling a heavy sledge, e.g., the basic geography, the impact of different temperatures on the ease of travelling across the surface, what counts as appropriate clothing, the effects of blizzards, or the dangers of frostbite. These scenes at the start of every chapter could easily come across as superficial or trite, but actually they really work to bring home the reality of the difficulties faced by Scott in getting through, and the unfairness of many criticisms levelled at him after his death (one expects mostly by those who had never experienced the environment themselves). These vignettes make it clear how tenuous the continuation of human life is in Antarctica. Even very tiny mis-steps lead inexorably to catastrophe.

Overall this book is an excellent addition to the stories of Antarctica. A compelling reminder of Scott’s herioc journeys, and the fine line between success and failure in any great endeavour, but also a genuinely new take on a very well-rehearsed historical issue, complementing the first-hand accounts of the explorers with analysis that has only become possible with modern weather data.

Ms Solomon’s book perhaps contributes to a reassessment of Scott, who was lionised in the first years after his death, and then came to be seen as an amateur who essentially killed himself and his party through his ineptitude and poor decision-making. These two views of the man still compete for attention today. No one element can be said to be the cause of the tragedy. There are many things that could have, should have or would have been done but for. Yes, if Scott had moved more quickly and started earlier on the polar hike (like Amundsen with more dogs and no ponies, which prevented a start in October), or yes if the diet of the party and its equipping and preparation had been better (more time on skis, better sleeping bags), or if Scott had consistently made choices with higher margins for error rather than choices that should have been okay but were not, then the outcomes could have been different.

But the polar party did keep generally to their planned timeframe. They expected to be returning across the last few hundred miles of the barrier in March as the winter came quickly on. And so they made very careful scientific assessment of what weather they should expect. As Ms Solomon shows, nothing in that assessment was seriously awry, and nothing could have led them to expect the weather that they ultimately encountered. As Ms Solomon concludes, the weather took their lives.

This book also inspired me to look more closely at the details of Cherry-Gerard’s wait at One Ton Camp at 80D South depot for Scott’s polar party, who were then struggling to what would be their deaths a mere 100 miles further south. To my mind this episode goes down in history as amongst the greatest moments in polar exploration. My personal list also includes Shackleton’s decision to turn around less than 100 miles from the Pole in 1909 when it was clear that he could be the first to the Pole but only at the price of his life and those of his party, Oates walking out of the tent to his death on the return journey with Scott, in a indescribably noble attempt (on his own birthday, no less) to save the lives of those he was travelling with, on the basis that he thought was slowing them down through his sickness, and Douglas Mawson’s nightmarish sledging expedition with two comrades in 1912 when one fell into a crevasse with much of the expedition’s food and equipment, and the other comrade died from what is now suspected to have been vitamin poisoning from eating dog liver, leaving Mawson, terribly unwell himself, to struggle back the last 100 miles alone.

Apsley Cherry-Gerard questioned many times in the course of his post-polar life whether, had he broken his orders and headed further south, he might have saved Scott and the then three remaining members of his polar party. Surely the physical challenges associated with such a mercy dash were enormous – Cherry-Gerard had no idea where Scott was, strictly limited cooking fuel and food for himself, his companion Dimitri Gerof the dog wrangler, and the dogs they travelled with, and unique difficulties with the cold environment (his glasses were not the ideal equipment in freezing conditions since they soon frosted up from condensation, rendering him effectively blind). In addition, by the time they reached One Ton Camp Dmitri was ill and the dogs were in a poor way. So even if he had gone further south in direct contravention of his orders, getting back could have been a very dicey proposition. In addition, the polar party were not expected at One Ton camp until March 10 at the earliest, and so, at the time when he had to consider the issue, there were no concerns at all for the welfare of Scott and his group.

As far as I can figure it, the distances are as set out below. You can see how achingly close the two groups were – from my reading a decent day’s marching was 12-15 miles, and in a good day with dogs pulling the sledges a party could cover as much as 30 miles. One degree of latitude is 69 miles.

Date Cherry-Gerard location Scott’s party location Distance between
Feb 26 77D52′ (Hut Point)
March 3 79D29′ (One Ton Depot)
March 5 79D29′ Near 81D S ~ 105 miles
March 8 79D29′ 80D45′ S ~ 87 miles
March 10 Left for Hut Point 80D31′ S ~ 71 miles

Scott, Wilson and Bowers died around 29 March 1912 at about 79D40 – around 11 miles from the supplies at One Ton camp, and only a few days good marching for healthy men from the safety of Hut Point.

On pre-flight security and which bits matter

So much for passenger safety announcements. Now for searching passengers.

The overall summary of what follows is that we seem to do a good job of searching folks – certainly far better than the much- and seemingly-justifiably-maligned TSA in the US. (See also this, rather damning recent report). But there could be more information made available about its effectiveness, and there must be real questions about whether most of what goes on is really worthwhile at all in terms of reducing the risk of air crashes.

The law

First, I find, it is always good to start with the law in our remarkably law-abiding democracy.

By a notice issued under Section 77B(1) of the Civil Aviation Act 1990, the Aviation Security Service (part of the Civil Aviation Authority) is required to screen all passengers and undertake searches of passengers where reasonable, “if necessary”, for planes that carry more than 90 people. There are also requirements on airport and airline operators to maintain security procedures under Part 108 of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules.

This law is required of New Zealand because it a contracting state of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO – a part of the UN) and a signatory to Annex 17 of the Chicago Convention 1944, which requires contracting states to meet various security measures to protect the travelling public as well as flight crew and ground personnel.

The long list of no-nos

The list of things that the Aviation Security Service (AvSec) is required to search for under the screening notice (see pages 2-4) is long and divided into categories:

  • Firearms, guns and weapons (including catapults, flare guns, and toy guns of all types)
  • Pointed and edged weapons and sharp objects (including axes – don’t worry, there is already likely to be one on board for safety reasons if you need it – ice skates, pointy walking sticks, swords, and throwing stars)
  • Blunt instruments (baseball bats, but also fishing rods and skateboards)
  • Explosives and flammable substances (including explosives, grenades, mines, ammunition)
  • Chemical and toxic substances (including batteries, pepper spray, anything that could spontaneously combust, radioactive material, poisons, or fire-extinguishers – don’t worry about that last one either, the crew have one).

For international flights, passengers are also searched to ensure they are not carrying more than the prescribed amounts of any liquids, aerosols and gels, and are doing so in the prescribed way (i.e., in a transparent bag with nothing else in it).

This search is required by another notice from 22 March 2007. “Liquids, aerosols and gels” includes, of course, water, but also shaving foam, soup, mascara, toothpaste, and hair gel. Interestingly, the order does not contain the 100 ml limit, nor the rule about putting things in a see-through bag – although it does require the screening to be “reasonable”.

This list applies from 1 August 2011 replacing a list from March 2011 which in turn replaced one from August 2002. Unfortunately I can’t find on the CAA website the previous directives, so I do not know how they have changed over time, but it looks like they are altered relatively seldom. I am not sure either why the restrictions on liquids, aerosols and gels are not included in this one notice (since they were put in place before this notice was re-issued, so it would seem tidier to have just one screening notice). However.

Lots of screening going on …

The numbers involved in all this screening and searching are pretty substantial:

According to AvSec’s 2010 Annual Report (the one to June 2011 does not appear to be online yet), in the year to June 2010, it screened:

  • 4.5 million international passengers
  • 5.7 million domestic passengers (the rest of the 9.5 million total domestic passengers were passengers on planes with fewer than 90 seats)
  • 15 million pieces of hand-luggage, and 5.5 million pieces of hold luggage (meaning on average each screened passenger had 1.5 bits of hand-baggage and only 1/2 of a piece of checked luggage).

… and therefore a high cost

All of this work means substantial costs:

  • AvSec employs 800 people. (Interesting 60% of them are men, and two-thirds are aged between 40 and 60. Perhaps ex-police or military folks?)
  • It charges $10 per international passenger (down from $15 in 2010) and $4 per domestic passenger (down from $5), a charge that you pay as part of your ticket.*
  • The total cost of screening was $70 million in 2010 year (note that that also includes air-side security – i.e., checking that crew and groundstaff meet security requirements).

And it holds passengers up a bit: for just over a minute internationally, and just under a minute domestically, they say. So if AvSec screens 10 million people a year, that is 10 million minutes a year (or approximately 19 person years) spent queueing, which is quite a lot of time, to say nothing of the hassles of getting undressed and dressed again, and taking one’s computer out of one’s bag.

The restrictions on liquids seem a particular source of difficulty. In one month (May 2010) AvSec intercepted 10,000 passengers (about 3% of international travellers) who were not meeting these rules and therefore, presumably, had had to have some of their prized liquid possessions confiscated, thrown away or consumed before their time.

And does it work

The interesting question, of course, is whether all this is worthwhile. Does it work, i.e., does it find anything and, more complicatedly, is the reduction in risk generated by this search work really worth the costs of achieving it – both the $70m costs to passengers of running AvSec, and the hassles for passengers of taking off clothes, unpacking bags and waiting in lines.

Unfortunately there is little information in AvSec’s Annual Report that would let you figure this out. There is nothing on how many prohibited items are found, nor on how many passengers are found carrying these things.

There are reported 21 instances where a restricted item was found after the screening point, i.e., where AvSec failed to find something that it should have. Unfortunately it is not explained how these were found, nor how many items in total were found at the screening point, so it isn’t possible to figure out how effective AvSec is. We don’t know how the process works that found the 21 items (how regular it is, how reliable it is as a measure of the effectiveness of the screening), so it is not possible to draw any real conclusions. That said, 21 items seems like bugger all in the context of 10 million screened passengers.**

We do know that, of the 21 items, 19 were “unauthorised and prohibited” whereas 2 are described as “unauthorised dangerous” items (page 50), although it isn’t clear what that means. And the service also reports a 1% failure rate of agents under what sounds like standardised testing to see if they find stuff. The CAA conducted 11 compliance audits in the 2010 year, including at least one on passenger and baggage screening performance. It seems odd that the CAA would do these audits – AvSec is part of the CAA, so it looks like the agency is auditing itself. But perhaps we can be reassured to know that the American TSA also conducted a review and pronounced itself satisfied that AvSec met its screening requirements.

AvSec reports 1 formal complaint for every 423k passengers, or around 25 “justified complaints” against officers in the course of the year, which doesn’t seem like very much, suggesting they acquit themselves well in interactions with individual passengers. AvSec also reports a curious 1.25 complaints from airlines (perhaps the quarter of a complaint was a barely decipherable mumble).

In summary, there are few obvious reported problems with the service. It clearly achieves its major goals. As the Service reports on page 51, in 2010 there were “No in-flight security incidents”, and “No airside security incidents”. It also says, more heroically, that there were “No dangerous goods introduced into aircraft”. I say that this is more heroic only because I can not see how AvSec would know what got on to aircraft.

A better approach

So as far as we can tell from the limited reporting, we don’t seem to be screening too little, i.e., there don’t appear to be big risks to the flying public from the current level of screening, and AvSec seem to do a potentially unpleasant job with a reasonable degree of applomb. The trickier question is whether the approach to screening could be changed or the level of screening reduced, and some of these substantial resources saved without an increase in danger to the travelling public.

Because there is one thing that stands out obviously from the long list of prohibited things that AvSec looks for. Strangely, AvSec is not being asked to screen for people who are likely to want to hijack or blow-up airplanes. Aside from the items that are dangerous to airplanes in themselves (like items that might self-combust), all the things that AvSec looks for require another ingredient to be dangerous, i.e., they require someone who wants to cause harm. And there is nothing in the screening approach that is intended to find these people. It is as is if the police were to hunt for burglars by searching everyone’s house for stolen items, or stopping every car to look through the boot, rather than focusing on more directly on finding those who steal.

AvSec seems to understand the importance of searching for potentially bad people. It talks about in its Annual Report (page 47) the importance of “reliable intelligence gathering and dissemination” to counter terrorist threats to aircraft, while also recognising that “the current threat to New Zealand aviation is relatively low”.

The consequences of our approach to airport security were obvious in 2007 with New Zealand’s second recorded hi-jacking, an incident where a woman endeavoured to hijack a flight from Blenheim to Christchurch with a knife without great success (the plane landed safely at its destination), but with injuries to the two pilots and a passenger who intervened. The hijacker was subsequently sentenced to nine years in prison  for her crimes. Because she was flying on such a small plane, neither she nor her bags would have been screened prior to boarding.

The hijacker is a great demonstration of my point because she was on bail for threatening to kill and possession of a weapon when she got on the plane. It turned out at the trial that she had a very long and tragic criminal history, with 27 previous convictions. We didn’t search everyone getting on board the flight from Blenheim to Christchurch, but could we not have at least searched her, given the history?

After a May 2009 review, the Minister of Transport (correctly in my view) decided not to change anything about domestic security screening following the incident, but instead to look at ways to isolate the cabin from the passengers in smaller planes. The costs (at around $160m) were said to be prohibitive to screen all passengers.

A better approach, I think, would be to alter the screening approach. Instead of stopping everyone and screening everyone, we should search only crazies and dangerous people. I suspect the reason that we do screen everyone for dangerous items is because it is easier than finding dangerous people, and it makes it look like we are doing something, even if it is unpleasant for the vast bulk of people who are not of any interest from an aviation security point of view. The “screen everyone” approach is what emerges as the definition of security when the problem is given to a bureaucracy that doesn’t want to be blamed if something goes wrong.***

Conclusions and stable doors

I have read with interest the security blogs of Bruce Schneir in the course of looking at this issue. He is a very firm critic of the American TSA and its approach to security, describing most of what they do as “security theatre” designed to make travellers feel more comfortable but not actually making them safer.

He is also very critical of the escalation of requirements over time, pointing out that changes in the security screening are mostly responses to particular terrorist plots. Liquids, aerosols and gels are restricted thanks to these guys. And, at least in America, thanks to this cat, you are required to take off your shoes (which thankfully isn’t required in New Zealand).

Mr Schneir says it well:

A short history of airport security: We screen for guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. We confiscate box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screen footwear, so they try to use liquids. We confiscate liquids, so they put PETN bombs in their underwear. We roll out full-body scanners, even though they wouldn’t have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We ban printer cartridges over 16 ounces — the level of magical thinking here is amazing — and they’re going to do something else.

His point is that we are shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. In my view, New Zealand does not present sufficient risk to have a stable in the first place.

We also used to screen every bag for biosecurity risk items (mostly fruit) on passenger arrival. It is interesting to see, therefore, MAF recently moving towards the approach that Customs takes to looking for contraband, i.e., it will try to stop only passengers of interest and stop holding the rest of us up.

Perhaps this is a consequence of falling budgets. But at least it means I can hope that the CAA will learn from its fellow agencies, and either get rid of bag screening entirely for domestic flights, or move to a more sensible system based on individual customer risk rather than searching every bag.


* To me there are real questions about why passengers are paying for security requirements decided on by the CAA. If the government wants to scan passengers, it should pay for it from taxes and prioritise that spending against all its other priorities. Otherwise the temptation is to over-screen because the passengers who are paying for it are not in a position to disagree. But that is a post for another day.

** I note that the TSO says that “Since January 2010, advanced imaging technology [their x-ray scanners] has detected more than 300 dangerous or illegal items on passengers in U.S. airports nationwide.” In that time the TSA has scanned hundreds of million of travellers passengers. Which does rather suggest there isn’t much to find – calling into question the whole need for this security in the first place.

*** Interestingly, some also say that the “screen everyone” philosophy is actually harmful rather than wasteful – because x-ray scanning can cause cancer. Which is why some types of scanning have now been banned by the Europeans.

PS My favourite question about aviation security:

Q. Can I take my wedding cake on my flight?

A. You can take a wedding cake as long as it is solid, and does not have a liquid, cream or jam filling.