Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Innocous Star of Boston lead me on


A girl named Star hit the front pages of the Boston papers not long ago. Star Simpson, an MIT student, was at the airport, going through Security, when all hell broke lose. She was wearing a PC circuit board populated by blinking LEDs connected to a 9V battery. Not too imposing, but to the TSA folks, a suspect device. Push all the alarms. Get on the walkie talkies. Close the perimeter. This is the Post 9/11 world! Shut down the airport. Chaos necessarily ensued. What would the old time Boston comedian Jack Burns say? Probably something like: ‘Katy bah the doah?’

In this age where everything has changed, you may not be aware that MIT students have also changed. Few have sheathed calculators on their belts. Some like Star, have the look of the slacker, if an achieving one, in this case with vividly dyed hair. And SocketToMe embroidered on her sweatshirt back. Artsy. But techno artsy. As in Performance Art meets Radio Shack. Thus the Hello World breadboard and Nine-Volter.

We smell headlines. The Boston Herald tabloid went through this kind of fire drill earlier when it sold some extra papers ragging on the Social Disruption Duo that placed LED-screen devices near Boston hot spots [including the Mass Ave bridge that connects MIT with the Christian Science Center. To promote the Cartoon Network’s AquaTeen Hunger Force.

Nobody wants to be in the Security line in the first place, much less wait for a little old lady that cant get her shoes off or a blinking college kid that should know better. The story has legs.

I can give you an idea of the full-page headline the Herald ran along side a full-page picture of Star. The words have initial capitalization. big capitalization. M.I.T. standing not for ‘Moron in Transit,’ but instead, ‘More Idiotic Tricks.’ They trashed our little Star.

I have some kind of idea about electrical engineering. I think I would have seen the LED board for what it was: non-threatening. Pretty obvious.

On the other side of the river from the Herald we have an MIT student publication, The Tech That headline is a little different. “MIT Sophomore Arrested for Innocuous LED Device.”

What strikes me is this dichotomy in thinking and knowledge. Our culture really doesn’t expect our airport personnel to be able to use any level of common sense to analyze what they are looking at. As long as it is electrical, it is magical and dangerous. Of course, most people would agree with city councilor who said, ‘In this day and age, you can’t play around.’

A state trooper who must have paid attention somewhere in school used the same term that The Tech used: ‘innocuous.’ Meanwhile the Government Accountability Office told it sent investigators to test security along the Canadian border and was able to easily simulate the cross-border movement of radioactive materials and other contraband with no border patrol agents anywhere in sight. Don't blink. You will miss something.

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