Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Modern Superstitions

Being an enlightened citizen of our present era, you most likely place no stock in silly superstitions such as concerns about black cats or Friday the 13th. With the aid of science, modern society has put such ridiculous notions to rest once and for all... or have we?

Although now may not be the best time to buy stock in rabbits' feet, there are definitely some aspects of our lives in which superstition still reigns supreme. The best example of this can be found in travel by air. Consider the airport security checkpoint. Items not allowed through (find the complete list here):
  • scissors
  • pool cues
  • screwdrivers
  • wrenches
Let's also not forget that ever since some idiot failed to blow up a plane with his shoe, they've been x-raying and swabbing millions of sneakers every day. Now here's a list of some things that are allowed through the security checkpoint:
  • glass bottles or vases
  • sharpened pencils
  • fishing line
  • aluminum cans
What explanation can be offered other than superstition to explain why benign objects such as wrenches, pool cues, and screwdrivers are forbidden, but items that can much more readily be used as weapons are waved on through? Any rational person should be equally concerned about a glass vase that can be shattered and turned into a dozen sharp blades or a pencil that could easily be stabbed through one's neck, or a fishing line used to choke someone as they are about box cutters and knives. Of course, the only truly safe policy for air travel would be the 100% consistent policy I laid out way back in 2004.

The superstition doesn't end once you get on the plane, either. Once you've boarded you get to sit through the usual routine about the safety features of the aircraft, yadda yadda... "Your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device..." Wait a minute. Quick, when was the last time a plane crashed into the water and people survived thanks to their floating seat cushion? Has there ever been such an occurrence?

On a recent flight I was on they asked people to take off their headphones "so you can hear the flight attendants" while they go through the safety spiel. Okay, that's a fair reason, but I've got a pair of those "noise reduction" headphones that cut out the background hum of the airplane (while still allowing you to hear most everything else), so I decided it would be okay to wear them anyway as long as I didn't plug them into anything. Well, shortly after they got through with their talk, the flight attendant doing the pre-flight walk-through of the cabin informed me that I had to take off my headphones. Fully prepared for this, I showed her the unplugged cord that I was holding in my hand as evidence that my hearing was not being impaired (not that it mattered anyway since they were done with their safety announcements). "It doesn't matter," she informed me, "you can't have on headphones, or have anything in your ears during take-off." Oooo-kay, sure. I took off the headphones, assuring the flight attendant that "I wouldn't want the plane to crash because of my ears."

Lastly, can anyone out there explain to me how exactly a "portable electronic device" is more likely to jeopardize the safety of the aircraft (or those within it) than say... a book? I'm not talking about devices that may "send or receive wireless signals," although the absolute ban on those doesn't exactly seem rational either—are they saying that the sophisticated redundant instruments in their multi-million dollar aircraft are likely to fail if someone turns on a radio? No, I'm talking about "approved portable electronic devices." You know, iPods, Nintendo DSes, notebook computers, that sort of thing. Would turning on one of these devices really somehow put the take-off and landing procedure in terrible peril? Is there something about physically ascending and descending that makes the aircraft's systems magically susceptible to failure due to even one rogue electron? Furthermore, are the people that make these rules aware that the vast majority of modern electronic devices are never really completely powered down? For iPods, Nintendo DSes, and notebook computers, "off" is really "sleep", since there is still some sort of electronic activity going on to keep track of (at a minimum) what time it is. It's a wonder that there aren't planes crashing during take-off or landing every single day.

Maybe some day we will be a society that is truly free of superstition, but let me assure you, today is not that day.

Categories: Culture, Sci/Tech


Blogger LotharBot said...

Some portable electronics have been known to interfere with ground communications in rare cases.

It's easier to say "shut everything off" than for everyone to memorize a list of what's allowed and what's not, and for the flight attendants to go around identifying all of the electronic devices people are running and comparing them to the list.

This leads to some devices being restricted that probably shouldn't be.

10:32 PM, June 27, 2006  
Blogger MatthewOfTheWest said...

Then there are those scientific superstitions. You know, the political and scientific doomsday sayers and such.

6:02 PM, July 08, 2006  

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