Blogs > Liberty and Power > Mall Rats

Dec 28, 2010 12:30 am

Mall Rats

Over at, Jason Ditz reveals that the TSA is now extending its bureucratic reach to shopping malls. Will Americans protest this further federalization of the private sphere? The fizzled resistance to the TSA's grope-down policy is not an encouraging sign.

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Andrew D. Todd - 12/30/2010

The "big box" retailers and the shopping mall merchants are going through their own paranoid outbreak, if one may use that slightly Assange-ian concept. Reduced to essentials, there is a new application you can get for your cellphone, in which you point the cellphone's built-in camera at the barcode of an article on the store shelf, and the cellphone instantly quotes you a mail-order price. If you like the mail-order price, you push a button to close the deal, put the object back on the shelf and walk away. Everything else happens automatically. For certain large classes of objects, this mail-order price is almost always better than that which can be obtained in the store.

Now, of course, the more thoughtful people have already known what was likely to be cheaper on the internet, but this application makes "due diligence" so painless that everyone does it. Of course, after a certain point, they stop troubling to go to the "big box" store in the first place. As more robots are introduced into the process of filling mail-orders and shipping parcels, the advantages of mail order will increase. A "big box" retailer cannot compete very well, because people get in the way of the robots. If you have customers wandering up and down the aisles, you cannot have robots, and you are committed to a certain expenditure in staff.

Now, of course, a store can make a good living selling cheap stuff, stuff that isn't worth shipping mail-order. It can do even better with food, which is often perishable. However, this represents a blow to the store managements' pride. Threatening behavior, therefore, consists in pointing a cellphone camera at everything.

Andrew D. Todd - 12/30/2010

Terrorists attack airplanes for the very good reason that airplanes are comparatively vulnerable. Airplanes are lightly built, and highly flammable, and untoward events may very well cause them to crash. At the same time, aircraft are highly mobile, and can be taken places according to the terrorist's convenience. Most other transportation equipment, not needing to be light enough to get off the ground, is the reverse. It tends to travel along prepared routes, such as railroad tracks, and its movement can eventually be contained by roadblocks or the equivalent. The terrorist who takes over a land vehicle sooner or later finds himself in the position of holding a static building, which has a rather higher ratio of windows and doors, relative to its size, than most buildings.

Passenger trains are not very vulnerable to terrorism. Look at the two European train bombing cases. They both occurred in morning rush-hour, and both involved what we would call subways rather than commuter trains, ie. cars with outsize doors, standing-room-only, no room for a train conductor to move around, if there had been one. The attacks involved "backpack bombs," containing twenty pounds or more of explosives, and steel shrapnel for greater effect. However, each bomb only managed to kill about ten or twenty people:

Here are a series of English cases, involving people who "heard voices," and wandered around small towns, shooting whoever they met:

And an American case, involving an automobile in suburbia, rather than small towns:

The terrorists, for all their effort, were not able to score greater "bags," on per-man basis, than people with steam coming out of their ears. Their bombs were only effective to the extent that passengers were crowded together. These conditions obtain in subway cars, but they also obtain in elevators, and in waiting lines in offices, supermarkets, etc. People will put up with being "sardined" for a few minutes, but they won't do it for any length of time.

Long-distance trains are, of course, much less crowded than commuter or subway trains, and make worse targets. The basic structure and running gear of a railroad car are built more or less "like a tank." It is possible to "harden" passenger cars by dividing them up into compartments, after the fashion of a traditional European train. I ran across a comment by a British railroad expert, discussing the characteristic nineteenth-century American "open plan" car with the observation that "... it also assisted sociability, and Americans loved to talk to strangers, wherever they went." (Ellis, p. 226). It was understood that a self-respecting Englishman, fastidious in his acquaintance, would naturally prefer an enclosed compartment, with its own separate door leading out onto the station platform. One could bribe the ticket collector to insure that no one else was allowed to share one's compartment. An eventual compromise was the side-corridor coach, built like a sleeping car, with compartments, but with a corridor as well. At one point, the London Underground (subway) had first-class cars built on the compartment system, catering to a type of passenger who was effectively in transition from the horse-cab to the motor-taxi.

[Cuthbert] Hamilton Ellis [1909-1987, Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, Associate of the Institute of Locomotive Engineers], _The Pictoral History of Railways_, 1968.

This would have to be modified somewhat as applied to American railroad cars. Dividers could be placed between rows of seats, extending from the side of the car to the center aisle. The overhead baggage compartments could be fitted with kevlar doors, and special blow-out panels could be fitted into the car roofs, the same system employed for the ammunition compartments of tanks. Long-distance trains are about the only trains for which TSA-style security could be implemented without bringing the system to a complete stop, and they are also the case where there is the least danger.

The kind of transportation equipment which involves crowding, typically buses or subways, is precisely the kind of equipment which would be brought to a complete halt by any kind of security.

The airlines feel threatened by improvements in passenger trains. In Europe, where fast passenger trains have been given full encouragement, and trains run as fast as two hundred miles an hour, regional airlines are being slowly but steadily driven out of business. As a matter of physics, trains can keep on going faster, and airlines, hemmed in by the speed of sound, cannot compete effectively. Trains have run experimentally at more than three hundred and fifty miles an hour. If one views the TSA as a "captive bureaucracy," it is understandable that it would seek to sabotage any means of transportation which competes with the airlines. The TSA would attempt to saddle all other forms of transportation with whatever liabilities the airlines labored under.