Thursday, August 29, 2002

TSA Update
I have heard nothing from TSA about a start date. I managed to get ahold of an 800 number for TSA HR. You are told "Everyone is busy leave a message and we will call you back within 24 hours." I have twice left messages with no results. After a while you begin to wonder if you just fell through the cracks or something.

I suspect the truth is they are having problems getting enough people together to form a class. But the delay and the inability to get in touch with anyone is frustrating and not a positive thing. I suspect TSA will have people with offers taking other jobs rather than wait several weeks.
Blogging Friends
My friend Tantek now has a blog. Not much there yet but if you have any interest in the internet, San Francisco, or raves watch that space.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Travel Tip
I don't agree with all of Gary Leff's views on the TSA, but his site pointed me to an excellent tool for anyone searching airfare, rental cars, or hotels. Check out If you are a frequent flier it pays to go look at Gary's site for his mileage tips.
Usability And Yahoo!
The past couple of years I've done a decent amount of usability work. Looking at web sites and computer programs and recommending ways to improve their ease of use. When I would interview with a potential client they would almost always ask what sites I admired. My answers were almost always Yahoo and Ebay. I'll talk about Yahoo in a second. I picked Ebay and still do because they present a massive depth of information to an expert user but still offer lots of ways for a novice to get involved without having to spend hours learning.

Now Yahoo has finally ticked me off and they are off my list of usable sites. Why? It is mostly that annoying flash based advertisement stuff. Yahoo has been my home page so every time I opened my browser I got some dorky looking computer monitor jumping all over the place. Sorry, I don't want that from my portal. I'm on DSL so I've hate to imagine the bandwidth hit all that Flash puts on modem users. The only reason I've hung onto Yahoo so long is I like their news summaries and search engine. But I can get news somewhere else (Yahoo is mostly AP wire anyway) and their search engine is the massively usable Google under the skin so why not just go to Google.

My new homepage is Google. Bye Yahoo!

Why is this happening at Yahoo? They have changed their focus. Instead of being user driven, they are now client driven. Their clients want you to see ads, so they push ads. That is Yahoo's right- they have to make money, but in the long run they will be shooting themselves in the foot. They will drive away users pushing down their ad revenues. Brand loyalty on the web is elusive and running TV commercials won't keep an audience if they find they have to put up with annoying ads to get to the content they desire.
Stupid News
Yahoo has a AP story on the top news items about the amount of water lost due to urban sprawl. CBS News has the same story with the title Suburban Sprawl Blamed For Drought. I don't think the headline writer read the story. In the 8th paragraph it says:

"Sprawl hasn't caused this year's drought, but sprawl is making water supply problems worse in many cities," she [Betsy Otto, senior director for watershed programs at American Rivers] said. "We need to stop treating storm water like it's a waste product, and treat it like the precious resource that it is."

So if the people responsible for the press release that triggered the story, and this is an environmental group press release story, specifically say sprawl did not cause the drought how the hell can the headline say that.

Are today's journalists that stupid?
Halloween In August
I was visiting a Longs Drugs store near me yesterday. They have already stocked for Halloween. Masks, candy, and half an aisle of those smiling orange plastic jack-o-lanterns. I guess with the need to start Christmas decor in September we have had to move Halloween into August. But there is something inherently non-spooky about hot summer nights so I'm not sure having it on August 31st is going to work. Can't we wait until October to put out the Halloween stuff and start Christmas in November?

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

TSA Application Tips
I'm getting a lot of search engine hits from folks looking for information on the TSA application process. You are welcome to read about my experiences (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) but I thought I'd condense some of my knowledge in one place.

To find TSA jobs visit the TSA web site. You should check out the Job Fair pages as well as the Employment pages.

The first thing you'll want to do when you get your TSA assessment appointment is get copies of the critical government forms. Since you can't depend on TSA sending them to you, you should grab them online.

Form SP 85P Public Trust information can be downloaded here. Alternatively complete the online version at and print it. Because the web based form will error check it will catch problems. But you will likely have to copy that data onto another SP 85P form because the web based version will not print properly on all printers- a limitation of browser based printing.

Form 93 Medical history can be downloaded here

Both of these are in Adobe PDF format so you'll need the Adobe Acrobat reader. If you don't have it you can download it here.

Use the PDF versions (or the web based SP 85P) as working drafts and then copy them to the forms the TSA will give you. There is a ton of information you will need and you will want to collect it before you begin the assessment process. Additionally, be prepared to show ten years of history on SP 85P. I know the form and the web site ask for seven years, but when I arrived at the assessment they wanted ten. Your mileage may vary, but be prepared for the full ten years.

When you go to the center take along two forms of ID. I used my driver's license and passport but any two IDs will work. Remember one must have your photo and both must have your signature. If you don't have them you won't be allowed in. If you haven't memorized your social security number do so or bring your card with you. You'll need to write it multiple times.

Bring your last two pay stubs. These will be required on the first day of the assessment if you pass the computer testing. If you are a veteran bring a DD214 and your current military ID card to demonstrate your status.

Bring a lunch or a snack. You will be there longer than you expect. Water will be available but little or no food. Some people were there over 12 hours with no access to food. TSA recommends you bring a lunch so listen to them.

The best way to prepare for the tests is to get plenty of sleep so you will be alert and ready to go. There will be plenty of time to complete the computer testing so take your time. There is no need to rush through any of the tests. The exception is any testing that requires quick decisions. You'll know that part when you get to it. The computer tests display your remaining time so you do not have to worry about watching a clock or your watch.

You will not be allow to use your cell phone or pager in the testing center. Do not plan on being able to contact anyone during the time you will be testing.

You do not need to dress up. You won't impress anyone with your Armani suit. Dress in comfortable clothing that won't distract you from the testing. On the second day you will need to be able to lift and move quickly so dress accordingly.

The testing is well designed to determine if you meet the requirements called out in the TSA job description. If you meet those requirements your will most likely have a job offer at the end of the process. But the rules are strict and they are not going to let you slide on any of them. Improper paperwork will cause you to fail just as surely as failing test grade. So go into the process prepared and you will end up with that job offer.
15 Minutes Ain't Enough
I have been rather worried about whether 100 hours of training is enough to produce an effective security screener, but I was willing to give TSA the benefit of the doubt. Now the San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that members of the supposedly elite TSA Mobile Screening Force got a grand total of 15 minutes training before screening baggage:

Dozens of members of an elite team of federal airport screeners received as little as 15 minutes' training before starting to inspect baggage for bombs, a development critics call a threat to passenger safety and a violation of the law Congress passed to tighten aviation security after Sept. 11.

The screeners are members of the Transportation Security Administration's Mobile Screening Force, which is intended to move from airport to airport as it "leads the way" in the federal takeover of aviation security. The screeners are currently inspecting baggage at airports in Dallas, Providence, R.I., and at Norfolk (Va.) International Airport, which the TSA touts as a national model for 100 percent screening of checked baggage.

"They handed us a swab and told us to wipe the bags this way and put us to work. The whole thing took 10, 15 minutes tops," said one of about 80 screeners operating explosive trace detection equipment at the Norfolk airport.

I'm willing to cut TSA some breaks, but 15 minutes of training for a device that the manufacturer recommends between two to six hours of training depending on the machine in question. And TSA's response:

TSA officials have acknowledged that some Mobile Screening Force members have received "abbreviated" training to do baggage screening, but they insist that because the screeners have expert supervisors and never make independent decisions, the shortened training does not violate the law.

The law requires 40 hours of classroom training and 60 hours of on the job training for "security screeners". I'd say this is a pretty clear violation. It doesn't say "supervisors must be trained". It says everyone must be. Heck, why not just have some monkeys do the job? As long as they have supervisors we'll be fine.

Of course, that is a ridiculous notion, because we want frontline people who have some savvy and can detect bombs without having to ask permission. A supervisor can't be everywhere and if we are going to rely on a few supervisors to make all the calls then we had all better start showing up six hours before the flight because it will take an eternity to screen all the baggage.

Folks who know the systems are stunned:

Former Federal Aviation Administration security chief Billie Vincent was stunned to learn of the scant baggage-screening training.

"Fifteen minutes training on a trace detector is ludicrous," said Vincent, an aviation security consultant. "Even 40 hours training is ludicrous, because there's a big difference between learning how to operate the machine and knowing how to detect explosives."

Sounds like we will search all the bags and not know what the results mean. So after the plane blows up we can probably go back and figure out what went wrong. Lot of good it does then.

Perhaps more damaging in the long run is that these poorly trained screeners are working on what is supposed to be the pilot program. All sorts of decisions are likely to be made based on how things go at Norfolk. As Vincent the former FAA security head noted:

"That's nonsense that these (baggage screeners) don't require 40 hours of classroom training and 60 hours of on-the-job training," he said. "What you have just told me is that the (pilot) experiment in Norfolk is totally meaningless. It's all based on a false premise, because the screeners don't know what they're doing."

Vincent noted that the law also mandates that "a security screener may not use any security screening device or equipment . . . unless the individual has been trained . . . and has successfully completed a test on the use of the device or equipment."

The Norfolk screeners said they were never tested or certified in the operation of the bomb-detection equipment. They say requests for proper training have been ignored.

When screeners questioned their supervisors on such issues, one screener said, "They shrug their shoulders and say, 'Don't worry about it.'

Remember, those people saying "Don't worry about it" are the people that are going to cover for the shortfalls of their workers. They are prepared to ignore the clear dictates of the law, the recommendations of the people that built the equipment, and the opinions of experts in the field. Why should be trust them again?

Norfolk screeners said supervisors were required to clear any bags that set off an explosive-detection alarm. However, a source said that the "expert" supervisors were fellow mobile force screeners who had gone through 40 hours of classroom training -- but that a majority of them had not completed the required on-the-job training.

Oh, we should trust them because they haven't completed the required training either. Oh goody!

I'm willing to give TSA slack on a lot of issues. Things like the current non-TSA screeners being stupid I'll cut them a break on. Not doing things 100% under their control in clear violation of the law that set them up gets zero tolerance from me.