Friday, August 31, 2012

Always Charming

Temple Grandin never fails to impress...

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., world-renowned specialist in facility design, livestock handling, and animal welfare, successful author, and champion of persons living on the autism spectrum was interviewed by Indre Viskontas this week on one of my favorite podcasts, Point of Inquiry.

In course of a very lively hour Dr. Grandin offered her perceptions on animals, children, the internet, the Mars Curiosity rover, pink slime, and more.  She is a seriously interesting person who offers us a very special perspective on our humanity.

Her life story is told in the movie Temple Grandin in which she was played by Clarie Daines in an award-winning performance.  She has also spoken at TED.  Her talk there is a fine way to begin to understand her if you don't have an hour for the podcast or a couple for the movie.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Help! Police!

Be sure of your target and what is beyond it...

Many years ago world-renowned firearms instructor Jeff Cooper established some simple and universal rules for all gun handlers.  Those of us who passed through his school were told in no uncertain terms that we must make these four rules elements of our character.

  1. All guns are always loaded.
  2. Never point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target.
  4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

Is it possible that the NYPD does not teach these rules to their officers?

At 9:03 am Friday 24 August 2012 Jeffrey Johnson confronted former coworker Steven Ercolino as he arrived at Hazan Imports on West 33rd Street in New York City.  They had never gotten along and Johnson blamed Ercolino for his being laid off 18 months earlier.  Johnson drew a pistol and shot Ercolino five times in the head.  Johnson then concealed his pistol and walked away.  Alerted by a witness two NYPD police officers pursued Johnson as walked down Fifth Avenue in front of the Empire State Building.  As veteran officers Craig Matthews and Robert Sinishtaj approached Johnson he drew his pistol as he turned and pointed it at them.  Matthews and Sinishtaj drew their sidearms and fired a total of 16 shots in Johnson’s direction.  Their bullets hit Johnson nine times and he collapsed to the sidewalk where he died moments later.  Problem solved.

Just one more thing.  Matthews and Sinishtaj also wounded nine bystanders with their fusillade, striking three with pistol bullets and injuring six others with bullet fragments.  We may take some comfort in the knowledge that none of the bystanders’ injuries appear to be life-threatening but that is certainly the result of dumb luck, not the skill at arms demonstrated by Matthews and Sinishtaj, two of the professional marksmen the NYPD has on offer.  Johnson certainly had to be stopped but this was a sad piece of work on the part of these public safety officers, their trainers, and their leaders.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Weathering the Witch-Hunt

Letting an 82 year-old nun break in to your weapons-grade uranium storage facility is not without its consequences...

If there was an Academy Award for thoughtful, incisive writing on security leadership I'd nominate Nick Catrantzos for his two-part essay on the recent Oak Ridge Y-12 fiasco.

Now if you let three geriatric peaceniks roam around inside the wire at the national defense complex where the DoE keeps all the country's spare atomic bomb parts you should expect a drubbing.  You may expect your industry's regulator, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), to send you a tersely worded memo saying things like:

"...our preliminary fact-findings reveal that contributing and direct causes of the security event include an inappropriate Y-12 cultural mind set, as well as a lapse of discipline and performance..."


At first the lesson seemed to be simple.   If any part of your security system is broken fix it, or ask that it be fixed - in writing - until it is fixed or until you are granted an exception - in writing - releasing you from pursuit of the deliverable for which the tool was provided.  In this case that lesson would be a little too simple.

In Part One of his pointed and pithy essay Catrantzos let's us in on a bit of a shocker.  The NNSA itself held the contract with G4S and was responsible for operational oversight until after the failure, which is when they transferred the contract to the engineering company operating the site - Babcock and Wilcox, and only then sent them the letter blaming them for the security breach.  With clients like these...

Part Two is even better.  If you have ever failed an audit, watched helplessly as a program slid inexorably out of control, or been woken up by news of some catastrophic screw up by a member of your team, you will recognize the wisdom of Catrantzos' advice. If none of these things have ever happened to you then you must read his essay so that you are ready for the day when they do.

Image credit: Adam Brimer

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion

Another excellent book by David Lewis-Williams...

Two of my favorite books in recent years were David Lewis-Williams' The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (2002), and Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods (2005). The Mind in the Cave figured heavily in a paper I wrote for my Masters and I have looked forward to additional synthesis of his ideas.  Inside the Neolithic Mind is an important work about the significance of early religious structures, but I remain most interested in trying to understand what happened in the cave.  

To this list of my favorite books by Lewis-Williams I can now add Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion (2010).  In it Lewis-Williams' returns to the cave and the neurology of the Homo Sapiens who left signs of their emerging religious sensibilities on its walls.  The core of his argument, literally and conceptually, are found in chapters five through nine, where he applies his deep knowledge of archeology and anthropology to questions surrounding the origin of the religion impulse and all its subsequent accretions. Lewis-Williams makes a compelling case that we modern humans are prone to religious experience - the numinous or the mystical - due to our neurology and biochemistry.  Once we had religious experiences our efforts to contextualize them resulted in religious belief - orthodoxy.  Religious belief among members of small social groups resulted in religious behavior - orthopraxy.  While Lewis-Williams accepts religious experience as all but inevitable, he is no fan of traditional religious organizations and their tendencies toward political intrigue, coercion, and violence.  

In some ways Conceiving God is his most personal book to date.  There is an edge to his early and closing chapters that theists (and some accommodationists) may find off-putting , but Lewis-Williams is not nearly so abrasive as some of the new atheists and he's a better writer.  On balance I found his work bracing and a welcome return to the cave where our humanity took form.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Some Days You Eat the Bear

Some days the bear eats you... 

It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that a rather shrill piece titled, "Security experts prepare steps to deal with 'active shooters'" was released by the very same paper - the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel - that published Meg Kissinger's balanced and thoughtful article, "Red Flags Missed In Mass Shootings"  Maybe their editor was going for that whole "fair and balanced" sort of approach?

My favorite quote in the whole frantic mess is:

"'Anybody who is operating these facilities, you do have your guard up a lot more than you did 20 years ago because we're seeing the frequency on a national and international basis,' Smith said." 

Seems Mr. Smith is unaware that violent deaths at work occur half as often as they did 20 years ago and that the frequency and severity of mass murder has not changed. With mass media writers like Joe Taschler feeding him Chicken Little prognostications who's to blame him?

Don't get me wrong. I'm pleased enough to have everyone's attention when it comes to creating sensible security policies and conducting shelter in place drills, but we might assure our employers and clients that the problem is not getting worse it's just getting more media coverage.

PS, the article does offer up a
handy infographic as a side bar.  Ironically, it contradicts the tone of the piece.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Making Sense of Senselessness

Unlike many of their peers, two reporters make positive contributions to the public discourse...

Amid the din surrounding recent public mass murder events two journalists have taken the time to dig beneath the needlessly lurid and frequently simplistic surface details of recent public mass murders.

They join a handful of well-written pieces I've seen in the past month that address this complex issue with balance, thoughtfulness, and depth.  They never once resort to hyperbole or fear mongering.  Both articles call us to think, rather than merely react.  We're fortunate to have minds like theirs on the crime beat.  We need more talented voices like theirs contributing to the public discourse on this topic.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Hands Off Domestic Right Wing Terror?

"We have met the enemy and he is us…"

It remains to be seen whether or not Wade Michael Page, perpetrator of last week’s mass murder at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was an active member of a white supremacist terror cell (doubt it), an ideologically motivated “Lone Wolf” (probably not), or a depressed sadsack who chose a public murder-suicide in alignment with his twisted world view.

On 10 August 2012 Homeland Security News Wire published an article, Domestic terrorism by members of extremist groups a serious threat: FBI, that is much better than their usual “Anything-GWOT-Is-Good” puff pieces.  It refers the reader to several interesting papers that have not received all the attention they might have in a less partisan atmosphere:

The most disturbing theme in the article was the reporting from Thomson Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon to the effect that conservative political backlash has hampered investigation of right wing domestic terror groups.  Homeland Security News Wire closes its report with this troubling paragraph:

In the wake of the controversy the study triggered, and charges of political motives, DHS disbanded the small team of analysts assigned to study “domestic non-Islamic extremism,” which had produced the report. The department now largely concentrates on threats from Islamic extremists, and analysts are monitor law enforcement and domestic intelligence issues are divided in their opinion as to how much resources and energy various government agencies now devote to monitoring non-Islamist terrorism threats.

Much as we would rather not think about it, domestic terrorism has been an element in American politics at least since the close of the America Civil War.  The enemy within has always looked much more like us than those from without.  We must not forget that now lest we turn our backs on a potentially dangerous truth.

Image credit: 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

More MRO Magic

The entire MSL delivery system in one photo...

The HiRISE camera on the MRO took a family portrait of the MSL and all the parts it used to pass safely through NASA's Seven Minutes of Terror on its way to the surface of Mars in Gale Crater.  The heat shield protected Curiosity from the friction generated by entering the atmosphere at 3.6 miles per second.  The largest supersonic parachute ever deployed on Mars opened at Mach 1.7.  The Sky Crane lowered the MSL to the ground at 1-3/4 mph. 

I know the Curiosity landing has been done to death across all the usual news media outlets, but I'd much rather marvel at this technological triumph than commiserate about workplace violence, mass murder, and active shooters, so get over it!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Not Exactly Beach Reading

Three textbooks from the summer session...

This is the text for the SM-402 Security Risk Assessment course I led this summer at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. It's a worthy and more accessible successor to the classic, Risk Analysis and the Security Survey, by James F. Broder.

There were two texts for SM-403 Private Investigation Principles, I'm teaching at Saint Mary's this summer. It's written at the tech school/undergrad level which is okay but sometimes the author comes across as a Baby Boomer who is trying a little too hard to be hip for the youngsters. I recommend it for instruction with those minor caveats. 

This is the second text for the SM-403 Private Investigation Principles course. It's written in a very accessible style and is surprisingly strong on the human element. That shouldn't be a surprise but some interview and interrogations systems take an adversarial tone or proceed in a rather scientific fashion. Yeschke endeavors the would be interviewer to indulge his or her human side in the interest of collecting information, evidence, and eventually admissions and confessions in a ethical and effective manner.

Monday, August 6, 2012

HiRISE Spots Curiosity

As if surviving the Seven Minutes of Terror wasn't accomplishment enough...

NASA's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on the MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) snapped a picture - from orbit - as Curiosity descended by parachute to the surface of Mars.  Of course, it's not even the first time HiRISE has clicked the shutter on another NASA Mars probe.  In 2008 it captured an image of the Phoenix lander as it arrived for its stay near the Martian north pole.

Amazing stuff, and we could all use a little amazing these days.

Curiosity Has Landed

It's 12:31 am and the MLS has "wheels on Mars."

Images from the hazard cams are on the flat screens at JPL.  Great job, NASA!  Woo hoo!  Awesome, just awesome!  Bedtime...

UPDATE: NASA is reporting that the tri-lobed smudge visible on the horizon is the dust plume created as the discarded Sky Crane crashes to the surface 2000 feet away from the MSL!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Pot of Dark Roast, the Internet, and Some Spare Time

Number of worker deaths due to homicide in multiple-fatality incidents...

Some have expressed concern that the death toll in workplace mass murder incidents is on the rise.  I offer the following for your consideration and analysis.  If anyone has the missing numbers (2007, 2000-2003) or more granular detail (1995-1999) please let me know.

2010, 17% of 401 deaths in multiple-fatality incidents = 68 due to homicide

2009, 23% of 355 fatalities = 82 homicides

2007 multiple-fatality incidents not charted by the BLS


2000-2003 multiple-fatality incidents not charted by the BLS

1995-1999, 19% of 2,949 = 575* (or ~115 per year over five years)  

*"The category includes 173 multiple-homicide incidents claiming 535 workers’ lives, plus 34 murder-suicides claiming an additional 40 workers’ lives beyond the assailants who committed suicide in these incidents.”

UPDATE: Here's another article on the same topic by James Allen Fox at his Crime & Punishment blog - No increase in mass shootings.

I Must Be Severely Out of Sync

But the "best movie of 2012" leaves me cold...

Beasts of the Southern Wild is regarded by the Sundance crowd and many, many others, even Roger Ebert, as some as some sort of masterpiece.  It certainly has its clever, quirky moments and visually striking scenes. At its center is a charming and spirited performance by five year old Quvenzhan√© Wallis , who plays Hushpuppy, the protagonist through whose eyes we view life in The Bathtub, a dysfunctional community of raw characters living in a rude collection of shacks somewhere in the bayou outside The Levee.

In order to create this masterwork director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Luci Alibar expose  Hushpuppy and other children of The Bathtub (and the actors who played them) to all manner of jeopardy, ignorance, poverty, parental neglect, eating off the floor, beer-swilling, rum-chugging, child abandonment, meals of dog food, burning houses, verbal abuse, family violence, a hurricane, storm surge, forced evacuation, life in an emergency shelter, rotting carcasses, splattered blood, a brothel, and a herd of pigs made up as giant, carnivorous (?!!) aurochs.  I suppose it must be some sort of high-minded allegory, but I’m not feeling it.  As Hushpuppy tells the audience in a quieter moment,

Sometimes you can break something so bad, that it can't get put back together.


Friday, August 3, 2012

SpaceX In The News

NASA selects SpaceX to return Americans to space...

Press Release
(Hawthorne, CA) – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) today won a $440 million contract with NASA to develop the successor to the Space Shuttle and transport American astronauts into space.

“This is a decisive milestone in human spaceflight and sets an exciting course for the next phase of American space exploration,” said SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk. “SpaceX, along with our partners at NASA, will continue to push the boundaries of space technology to develop the safest, most advanced crew vehicle ever flown.”

SpaceX expects to undertake its first manned flight by 2015 – a timetable that capitalizes on the proven success of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft combination. While Dragon is initially being used to transport cargo to the International Space Station, both Dragon and Falcon 9 were designed from the beginning to carry crew.

Under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative’s base period, SpaceX will make the final modifications necessary to prepare Dragon to safely transport astronauts into space. These include:

  • Seats for seven astronauts.
  • The most technically advanced launch escape system ever developed, with powered abort possibilities from launch pad to orbit. SpaceX will demonstrate that Dragon will be able to escape a launch-pad emergency by firing integrated SuperDraco engines to carry the spacecraft safely to the ocean. SpaceX will also conduct an in-flight abort test that allows Dragon to escape at the moment of maximum aerodynamic drag, again by firing the SuperDraco thrusters to carry the spacecraft a safe distance from the rocket.
  • A breakthrough propulsive landing system for gentle ground touchdowns on legs.
  • Refinements and rigorous testing of essential aspects of Dragon’s design, including life-support systems and an advanced cockpit design complete with modern human interfaces.
  • SpaceX will perform stringent safety and mission-assurance analyses to demonstrate that all these systems meet NASA requirements.
With a minimal number of stage separations, all-liquid rocket engines that can be throttled and turned off in an emergency, engine-out capability during ascent, and powered abort capability all the way to orbit, the Falcon 9-Dragon combination will be the safest spacecraft ever developed. 

About SpaceX 

SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches the world's most advanced rockets and spacecraft. With a diverse manifest of more than 40 launches to resupply the space station and deliver commercial and government satellites to orbit, SpaceX is the world's fastest growing launch services provider. In 2012, SpaceX made history when its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle to successfully attach to the International Space Station—a feat previously achieved by only four governments. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft are carrying cargo, and one day will carry astronauts, to and from the space station for NASA. Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, SpaceX is a private company owned by management and employees, with minority investments from Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Valor Equity Partners. The company has more than 1,800 employees in California, Texas, Florida and Washington, DC. For more information, visit 

End Press Release [hyperlinks mine]

NOTE: Okay, okay, NASA has other CCiCap partners:

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I'd Cross My Fingers

If that would help...

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover is fast approaching the Red Planet for one of the most ambitious planetary exploration missions of the 21st century.  That would be an unalloyed pleasure if Mars wasn't also the graveyard of more than half of the flybys, orbiters, landers, and crawlers humankind has sent there.  

Unless something goes wrong before then, late Sunday evening (12:30 am Central 5 August 2012) Curiosity will treat its fans to Seven Minutes of Terror as the rover descends in a steerable entry vehicle - sheltered from friction behind a heat shield, then by parachute, then by rocket motors, then by sky crane.  Remember, the Martian atmosphere is "too dense to ignore but too thin to help."  What could go wrong?

If it survives its very complex  delivery to the planet's surface NASA has 23 month's worth of scientific exploration planned for it in Gale Crater.

If, like me, you want to follow the progress of Curiosity (and the fate of our $2.5 billion investment) there are many sites to choose from before resorting to the traditional media outlets.

I may cross my fingers anyway...

Update: An hour and five minutes to cruise stage separation.  Watching the Universe Today's YouTube channel coverage and NASA's live feed from JPL.   

Reupdate: Curiosity has landedIt's 12:31 am and the MLS has "wheels on Mars."  Images from the hazard cams are on the flat screens at JPL.  Great job, NASA!  Woo hoo!  Awesome, just awesome!