Screen Smarter, Not Harder

In the wake of the Christmas Day attempt at blowing up a Northwest Airlines flight heading from Amsterdam to Detroit, security officials have stepped up screening and other activities in an effort to increase safety and security.  Well, that’s ostensibly the reason.  One could be forgiven, though, for mistaking the increased activity as mere busyness for the sake of looking busy, rather than as rational steps that actually increase security.

tsa-flaws-web Thankfully, in the days immediately following the tightening of security measures, several of the dumber ones (requiring passengers to remain seated for the last hour of the flight, not allowing any carry-on items including blankets or pillows to be in their laps, and turning off the inflight entertainment systems so as to disable the flight tracking feature which shows where the plane is on a map) were quickly rescinded or pilots were given authority to relax the measures at their discretion.

It seems to me that if we are serious about increasing our security while flying, there are several things we need to do.  There are also things we need to stop doing as they are wasteful and do nothing to increase security.

We need to implement more thorough inspection of people and bags.  This should include the purchase and use of more full-body imaging devices, which can detect nonmetallic as well as metallic items hidden beneath clothing.  There are ways to work around privacy concerns but this is one of the most effective ways to find potentially dangerous devices that can all too easily be concealed during current screening procedures. 

The flip side of this is that we need to get smarter about whom we screen.  We spend too much energy putting grandma and grandpa through secondary screenings when they don’t seem to be a likely security threat.  Past affronts like making a mother drink her breastmilk from a bottle she was carrying on in order to prove it wasn’t harmful make a mockery of our security procedures and the freedoms we give up in order to be more secure.  Essentially, events like these and the thousands of indignities we suffer at airport security checkpoints across the nation are a sure sign the terrorists have won.

We need to start screening cargo.  While checked baggage now goes through security screening, almost all of the cargo shipped on planes (as well as all of it sent by container ship) does not undergo any inspection, relying instead on the government’s “trusted shipper” program.  Without a doubt, this is a serious gap in our security and could easily be something for a terrorist to exploit.

We need to get our intelligence services working together.  Time and again we learn (Monday morning quarterbacking, of course) that we had heaps of information about people who attempted or succeeded in hijacking or bringing down aircraft.  The relevant agencies need a better process for taking the information they have and acting on it.  The Nigerian man involved in the Christmas Day bombing attempt should never have been allowed to board the flight based on information we already had.

We need more accountability at the Transportation Security Administration about the effectiveness of security measures put into place.  Reports obtained by news sources have indicated that TSA screeners miss intentionally concealed weapons on passengers and in baggage at about the same rate screeners did prior to September 11, 2001.  This means that the massive investment and inconvenience we suffer is largely ineffective in increasing security.  The results of those tests need to be public and if improvements aren’t made, people need to lose their job.  While I can understand the security reasons for not disclosing which airports have the worst screeners, the composite scores should be available for all of us to see.

People in many countries around the world have to put up with intrusive and time-consuming security measures.  (In some countries that is because we invaded them and made the situation worse!)  That’s the price we pay for increased security.  At the same time, the price we pay should be commiserate with the security we are provided.  Right now, I don’t see that we’re getting a good return on that investment.

 

A Deep Conversation

Christmas Day I managed to have a muscle spasm in my lower right back.  I wasn’t lifting, bending, stretching or doing anything at the time.  The muscle just had an unexplained spasm.  The following day I went to the hospital and had an acupuncturist look at it.  Upon review it was decided that physical therapy would be more effective than acupuncture in this case.  So the following two days I came in for physical therapy.

After an ultrasound treatment (it’s a boy!) and twenty minutes of heat pad and traction, I spent an hour working with a physical therapist who stretched, pulled, and massaged my torso and taught me exercises I could do to strengthen my back muscles.

The staff seemed to really like that I spoke Thai.  This therapist in particular, who spoke English quite well, fell into an easy rapport with me and we ended up having a very wide-ranging conversation, mostly in Thai, over the two days he worked on me.

The conversation was, in fact, the longest conversation I’ve had with any Thai whom I did not already know.  We talked about language, life upcountry (where he went to university) versus in the big city (where he was born and raised), how Bangkok has changed in the past thirty years, and we even talked about the political situation in Thailand.  Generally, Thais are very hesitant to discuss politics with strangers, but he was very candid with me, although he spoke in very veiled terms since lèse majesté laws are strictly enforced in Thailand.  The long and the short of it is that he worries about changes that will inevitably come.

I walked away from our conversation with a deep sense of satisfaction.  Although I’ve lived here for more than four years, I rarely have the opportunity to interact in depth with Thais whom I don’t already know, especially on any meaningful level.  At the physical therapy clinic I must have been viewed as a pleasant change from the usual foreigner so was able to chat with the staff a great deal.

Interestingly, upon learning that I was married to a Thai – and being only slightly shocked that that Thai is a man – I was asked what seems to be a litmus test question: “Do you like Pattaya?”  Pattaya, a seaside resort two hours southeast of Bangkok, has a reputation for trashiness particularly with regards to sex for sale and, less so these days, child prostitution.  I answered that I had been to Pattaya only once, for just a few hours on an errand, and had found it very distasteful.  That seemed to be the right answer.

 

New Carpet Arrival

We’ve been in this condo just over two years and yet the process of decorating and remodeling never quite seems to come to an end.  This past week we received two chairs and a new carpet that Tawn had ordered, changing the living room’s look from this:

P1210555

To this:

P1210615

What do I think?  Well, I’m easily satisfied and each new thing seems to be another unnecessary addition to the house.  That’s not the type of feedback Tawn is looking for, though.  I think the chairs are okay, design-wise, although without arms I don’t find them comfortable enough to settle in with a good book.  The color disconnect between the chairs and the sofa is a problem – one or the other needs to change.

The carpet, though, is quite nice.  I’d like to see a little more color in it, but I think the pattern and the larger size makes the space more interesting.

Here’s a 75-second video that shows the whole install process for the carpet in super-fast mode.  Enjoy!

National Archives Videos

Did you know that the National Archives has a YouTube channel?  Well, it isn’t actually the National Archives’ channel but the result of a non-profit group that has purchased and posted DVD versions of several of the National Archives’ videos. 

Does it seem odd that they would purchase DVDs for public domain videos?  Several of the Archives’ videos are available only in low resolution and you are “encouraged” to purchase the videos from Amazon.com instead.  This seems wrong considering that the videos should be made available to all taxpayers and citizens without having to pay for them.

The National Archives’ fantastic collection of public domain videos includes all sorts of treasures such as footage from Adm. Byrd’s 1939-41 journey to Antarctica, a 1970 nature film depicting the four seasons at Yellowstone National Park, and a vintage film from the late 1940s about counterfeiting and its suppression.  Add to that Nixon’s Watergate speech and footage of the Hindenburg disaster.  There are all sorts of amazing things there.

Bob

The twenty movies that Public.Resource.Org has posted on YouTube are here.  I’ll share with you one very worthwhile treat, which I enjoyed this evening:  Bob Hope’s 1967 Christmas Special from Thailand and Vietnam.  One of Hope’s funny lines from the stage of one of the camps in Thailand: “They say that Thailand has never been conquered.  No wonder, nobody can get through that traffic.”  Ah, so it was that way back then, too?

Hope you enjoy this classic.

 

Getting My Thai Driver’s License

P1210594 What did I want for Christmas?  Not a new Din Tai Fung location here in Krungthep, although that did turn out to be an early and unexpected surprise.  What I really wanted was a Thai Driver’s License.  Yes, I drive in Thailand, and for the past four years I have used an International Driver’s License which anyone can obtain at your local automobile association office.

For the longest time, I’ve considered that getting a Thai Driver’s License might be an exciting adventure to write about.  With my International licence expiring the fourth of January, I decided getting the Thai license would be better than driving on an expired International one.

Requirements

My search for information began online.  There are any number of websites that have information about getting a Thai Driver’s License, all of which seem to have copied and pasted the information from each other’s websites.  The only official website, the one belonging to the Department of Land Transport, is only in Thai.  Let this be the new source for updated information for those of you wishing to get your Thai Driver’s License.  Here’s what you need:

  • Valid passport with a non-immigrant (and non-tourist) visa.  One signed copy each of picture page, visa page, most recent entry stamp and departure card.
  • Valid international driver’s license.  One signed copy of cover, English language permit page and picture/information page.
  • Proof of address in Thailand.  This is most easily done if you have a work permit.  One signed copy of all relevant work permit pages.  Alternatively, you can get a certified proof of address from your embassy.
  • Copy of your valid driver’s license from your home country or state/province.  Technically, you are supposed to have a translated copy of this information endorsed by your embassy but this does not actually appear necessary.

Unlike what other websites say, you do not need to bring two passport-size photos.  The Department of Land Transport (DLT) uses digital cameras for the licenses these days.  You also do not need to complete an application form.

Finding the DLT

I went to the DLT office located on Paholyothin Road across the street from Chatuchak Market and just a short walk from the Mo Chit BTS Skytrain station.  Take exit 2 and walk past the Civil Aviation Training Center which has a helicopter and single-engine plane sitting out front.  The DLT is the next complex on the street.

When I arrived at the DLT, I discovered that it is a very large complex with many buildings surrounded by lots of parking lots.  Asking the guard, he pointed me to building 4, which was around the corner and quite far back.  This part was a little confusing if you don’t read Thai as the building numbers are in Thai numerals.  Certainly handy to read Thai or have a Thai friend accompany you.

Once at building 4 I asked at a counter on the first floor and was directed to the second floor.  At the information desk the woman reviewed my documents to ensure I had everything I needed and then gave me a queue number.  I headed inside the packed waiting room and noticed that the current number was 560 and my queue number was 837.  Yikes!

Looking at the ticket, I noticed it said “Foreigner Counters 15-18” so I headed to that end of the room.  A woman approached me and asked what number I had and then escorted me to counter 18.   It seems that I bypassed 277 other people in the queue. 

The counters are actually cubicles and once inside, I sat across from another lady who spoke English quite well, although I made every effort to communicate with her only in Thai.  After reviewing the documents again she asked for copies of two additional pages in the work permit.  She waited while I walked to the lobby and paid one baht each for the copies from the ad hoc copy shop.  Back in the cubicle, she decided everything was okay paperwork-wise and sent me to the third floor for the eye tests.

Eye Tests

The third floor was a fun experience.  After going to the information counter I was pointed inside to the first of three stations.  At it sat a woman next to a large color blindness chart – a large circle composed of smaller circles made up of different colors.  She had me stand behind a line on the floor about three meters (ten feet) away and pointed at various circles and I correctly named the colors.  After about five circles she stamped my paper and pointed me to station two.

Station two was confusing.  There was nobody there to administer the test so I sat down and waited for a few minutes until the lady at station one came over and explained that it was a self-administered test.  There were two stools at a table and each stool sat in front of a metal box with an accelerator pedal and a brake pedal.  Some distance away were two other boxes that had a large red and green lights on them along with a black strip.

You pressed a start button on the table and then stepped on the accelerator, turning on the green light.  After a few seconds the light turned red.  The objective was to then step on the brake pedal as quickly as possible, before the LED lights on the black strip illuminated from green to red.  It took a few tries to get the hang of what was expected of me.  On the fourth try I was able to stop quickly enough, proving the rapidness of my reflexes.

The third station was a test of peripheral vision.  It was also a hygienic nightmare.  You placed your nose on a metal counter – no wiping between customers – staring straight ahead as the administrator illuminated red, green or yellow LED lights to the left or right of your field of vision.  You had to correctly name the color of lights while maintaining your forward gaze.  Two our of three correct and I passed.  Who knows what germs I picked up as well.

My eyes freshly tested, I returned to the second floor.  Fellow test takers who were Thai and were applying for their first driver’s license had to proceed to the fourth floor to take a written test and then outside to conduct a practical driving test.  Since I already have a driver’s license, neither a written nor practical test are required.

P1210574
Practical driving course

Conclusion

On the second floor I was back in cubicle 18 after just a few minutes’ wait.  The clerk entered the information, had me pay my 205 baht fee (about US $6.20) and asked me to verify that my name, birthday, etc. were entered correctly.  She then took my picture a few times and, once satisfied with how it turned out, chatted with me for a few minutes as the license was printed.

It is a one-year provisional license.  After the year is up, I reapply and am given a five-year license which can continue to be renewed so long as I’m legally living in Thailand on a non-tourist visa.

All told, it took me about an hour from when I entered the building until my exit, new license still warm from the printer.  Now when I see the crazy drivers on the streets here, I feel entitled to lecture them about proper driving habits.  After all, I am officially licensed to drive in Thailand!

 

I Got My Christmas Wish!

Christmas Eve in the Big Mango.  With all the lights and Christmas carols playing, you would swear you were in a Buddhist Christian nation.  And yet, you are not.

P1210561

Decorative lights adorn the pedestrian bridge crossing the Ratchaprarop – Rama I junction.  Louis Vuitton’s shop at Gaysorn plaza is in the background.

Stephanie arrived from Melbourne yesterday morning about 5:30.  Going back eleven years, Stephanie was one of the managers with whom I worked when I was based in Hong Kong opening the AMC Festival Walk 11 cinemas.  A few years later she moved to San Francisco for several months and lived with Tawn and me.  She has since moved to Australia and we see her every second year or so here, there or elsewhere in the world.

She’ll be our first guest in The Annex which means I’ll be working from my laptop instead of my office armoire.  That’s okay as the weather is nice and I’ve set up on the balcony overlooking the pool.  If it wasn’t for the construction noise from that new seven-level condo going up down the street, it would be quite peaceful.

Last night we met Tawn and headed to Central World Plaza for dinner.  While walking through the mall I spotted a large sign covering the entire storefront of what used to be a fondue restaurant.  Opening 2010: Din Tai Fung!

P1210567

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he is bringing me the best xiao long bao dumplings in the world.  Let’s hope this branch of the venerable Taipei chain will be better than some of their other foreign outlets, which are reportedly inferior to the locations in Taiwan.

I was so excited to see this that I wanted to text message Andy and Sugi immediately, which would have been about 7 am for them.  Thankfully for them I didn’t have their number on my phone.  Whew!

This evening Stephanie’s sister and brother-in-law arrive with a dozen of the in-law’s family members.  I’m not sure what the plans are for holiday dinner but we will see.  I suspect that Christmas celebrations will be minimal but we are planning something big for New Year’s Day.

 

No Hong Kong for Christmas

The big plans for Christmas this year were a long weekend in Hong Kong, since Christmas falls on a Friday and Gary, W and Eric were going to be there from LA.  To top it off, Aaron was going to be there, too, and Angel as well.  What a perfect time to meet up with everyone.  Sadly, it won’t be happening.

Tawn’s managing director decided that no more unpaid leave would be approved for the rest of the year.  It seems that twelve paid vacation days a year aren’t enough for Tawn, considering that we burned through those in the first six months of the calendar.  So we had to squash plans for our Hong Kong trip, postponing it until April.

The upside is that our friend and former roommate Stephanie is in town from Melbourne and had we gone to Hong Kong, we would have had to leave her to her own devices for a long weekend.  Now we’ll be able to enjoy spending time with her through her entire holiday here in the Land of Smiles.

P1210360.JPG

Rather oddly, the maintenance people here at the condo erected two Christmas trees on either side of the swimming pool, extension cords for the lights taped down along the terra cotta tiles.  It is very pretty just after sunset when the lights are on.

P1210535.JPG

We’ve set up our own Christmas tree, too, something we do some years and not others.  It is an artificial tree, of course, and one that I think looks particularly artificial.  In fact, there is a point where the whole thing becomes a bit of a caricature of the holiday tradition since neither Tawn nor I really celebrate Christmas.  I think we put the tree up some years more as a decorative item than anything else.

The plan is to call the nieces on Christmas Eve their time and report that, since Thailand is some 13 hours ahead of Kansas City, Santa has already arrived here and has said that he is heading their way.  Let’s keep that childhood innocence alive as long as possible.