Moulton Lava

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Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

I'm Sorry, Too

Judge Paul Mahoney, the presiding judge in the East Boston Municipal Court where Star Simpson's case was continued month after month for nine months, has finally dismissed the felony charges and called for an apology.

And well he should.

I, for one, am very sorry.

I'm sorry the well paid and highly trained security staff at Logan Airport were unable to distinguish a simple electric light bulb circuit from a nuclear detonator. And I'm sorry the officials of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts saw fit to spend nine months and Guvnor knows how much of the taxpayer's money on a criminal case that they must have known from the outset could not have gone forward on the basis of the "hoax" statute or the evidence.

Star Simpson is 20 years old. She was 13 years old and living in Hawaii when 9/11 occurred. When I was 13 years old and living in Omaha, I barely knew anything about what was going on in Boston, a thousand miles away from Nebraska.

But more to the point, it was 109 years before Star Simpson was even born that Thomas Alva Edison wired up the very first electric light bulb circuit — an electric power source, a piece of wire, and a light bulb. Today, that ubiquitous light bulb circuit can be found in your car headlights, in your table lamp, in your flashlight, strung out on your Christmas tree, in your children's twinkling sneakers, and embedded in colorful drinks served at the Rainforest Cafe.

I find it utterly astonishing that highly trained and highly paid security officials at Logan Airport are evidently unfamiliar with this ubiquitous circuit that has been part of American culture for 129 years, and unable to recognize it upon close inspection.

And I am chagrined that the Prosecutor in this case — Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley — honestly believed for nine long and aggravating months that he could prove in a Court of Law that Star Simpson intended to fool anyone (least of all Major Scott Pare of the State Police) with such a commonplace piece of everyday technology as a simple flashlight circuit with a dime-store 9-volt transistor radio battery and ten tiny lights arranged in an asterisk design to symbolize Star's name.

When I was a 20-year old undergraduate in Electrical Engineering at the University of Nebraska, I did what every other classmate of mine did. I wired up a light bulb circuit and stuck it inside a red clip-on bow tie to wear during Engineer's Week. That's how we greeted the visitors who came to see our projects. And that was in 1965. People laughed. They didn't panic and summon the Nebraska State Police to pull out semi-automatic Uzis and Prosecutorial Kiboshnikovs.

As a science educator, I am sorry to say we have failed miserably to educate the lay public, the police, and responsible public officials in the rudiments of the simple electric light bulb circuit — a battery, a piece of wire, and a light bulb.

To awe-struck officials like District Attorney Daniel Conley, Major Scott Pare of the State Police, and Massport spokesman Phil Orlandella, a genius of the caliber of Thomas Alva Edison must have been as a God to them, producing inconceivable miracles of artificial light the likes of which mere public officials can neither imagine nor shrug off as no big thang in this day and age.

Remind me not to carry an unconcealed iPod or an iPhone when picking up friends at Logan Airport. I wouldn't want to give them a scare.


Blogger AReader said...

Two points:

1. Security officers are not "highly paid" by any stretch of the imagination and

2. Bomb circuits are relatively simple, hardly more than a simple circuit where all components - battery, detonator, switch - are in series.

So you mock their lack of education or the lack of ability to perform a quick analysis of an electrical circuit being worn by someone in an airport?

This was one of the airports where one of the planes that was hijacked came from.

What was this girl thinking of?

I was in San Francisco on September 11,2001 and I can assure you everybody, children included, knew what was going on on the other side of the continent.

So your arguments do not follow from the premises because the premises are flawed.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Moulton said...

See this story in the Boston Globe, in which Major Scott Pare of the State Police is shown holding up the black hoody with Star's LED circuit board, for the benefit of the press photographers. As you can see, he is pointing to the circuit with the middle finger of his right hand, clearly unconcerned that the circuit might present any danger to himself or to Bill Brett, the Globe photographer.

Star Simpson had cooperatively yielded up her black hoody without the slightest resistance, and explained to the airport authorities that it was a simple piece of electronic artwork that she had crafted as a name tag for MIT Career Week, which was then in progress on campus.

Can you honestly say, after looking at that photo, that the Major Scott Pare was fooled into believing that Star's illuminated name tag presented a threat to anyone?

"What was this girl thinking of?"

She was thinking that she had gotten to the airport too late to meet the incoming flight of her boyfriend. Star had been up late the night before and had overslept the alarm. She threw on the first garment she could lay hands on and dashed for the 'T' to get to Logan Airport in time to meet her boyfriend's incoming flight.

The reason she went up to the Information Counter was because his flight had already arrived and thus was not posted on the monitors. He had already claimed his bags, left the airport, and taken the 'T' back to campus when she got there.

Have you ever arrived late at the airport to meet someone important to you? What would you be thinking in those circumstances?

"I was in San Francisco on September 11, 2001 and I can assure you everybody, children included, knew what was going on on the other side of the continent."

At 9AM EDT in New York on 9/11/2001, it was 4AM in Hawaii. 13-year old Star would have been sound asleep when all hell was breaking loose on the US east coast.

Go back to Pearl Harbor and look up how long it took for people in New York City to find out what had happened in Honolulu on 12/7/1941. FDR didn't deliver the Day of Infamy speech until the next day.

Would you now like to rethink your line of reasoning?

12:18 PM  
Blogger Cryptic Muse said...

My own experiences suggest that part of the problem might have to do with how security professionals are trained.

In my line of work, incident reports and directives often encourage the sort of profiling that has caused us considerable grief in recent years.

The intent is to foster a heightened state of situational awareness, which is vitally important to security, but what results in practice is an embarrassing misidentification of existential threats.

I suspect that somewhere in the Logan Airport security code there's a directive to treat as suspect any electric circuit – simple or complex; visible or concealed. Not without reason, since improvised explosive devices usually require strong instincts and quick reaction times.

What's outrageous about this case is the scale of the response.

Was it really necessary to surround the student at gunpoint, especially since she made no effort to resist, one might ask? Couldn't she have been discreetly pulled aside for questioning, asked to remove the device from her person and allowed to leave with a stern warning? Wouldn't that have calmed any ensuing panic and, in the end, saved the taxpayer a proverbial ton of money?

I don't think that ridicule is the appropriate reaction here. Security is a real need, but in our culture of fear, it can be blown out of proportion.

This incident, unfortunate as it is, can be a learning experience for all involved. The folks at Logan Airport must review their operating procedures as they pertain to threat identification and mitigation.

And students too young to completely comprehend our present security context could perhaps benefit from instruction in how even the most innocuous objects can take on sinister attributes with a little bit of adrenaline and imagination.

Just my two cents.

1:16 PM  
Blogger archosIDF said...

When I was around thirteen I gave my first presentation ever in high school.

On the inventor Thomas Alva Eddison. And his light bulb, among other things.

Only later did I learn that my late father's company, the AEG, had been started in the 19th century in Berlin by Emil Rathenau, a German Jew, as the Deutsche Eddison Gesellschaft, German Eddison Company. The name was later changed to AEG, Allgemeine Elektrizitätsgesellschaft, General Electric Company, which together with Siemens ruled the German market for electrical appliances, electric engines, generators etc. for most of the 20th century.

That was a great article, Moulton, not least of all because it triggered some precious personal memories of mine.

As an aside, Nicholas Carr in his great 2008 book THE GREAT SWITCH tells some interesting stories of the age of electricity and electricity becoming a utility in the early 20th century and how that could be a model of what will happen with computing in the 21st century.

2:18 AM  
Blogger Moulton said...

How uncannily odd, Archos.

On the way home from MIT last night, I was recalling my own first-time presentation in front of the class.

In my case, it was 1955 or 1956, when I was ten or eleven years old and in the Fifth Grade at Benson West Elementary School in Omaha.

We had come to the subject of electricity in our science book, and Mrs. Elliot asked me to demonstrate to the class the electric light bulb circuit using the school's little breadboard model (yes it really was a wooden breadboard) of simple circuits.

There were some batteries, some wires, two knife switches, and some light bulbs. They could variously be wired in series or parallel. Mrs. Elliot didn't really understand series and parallel circuits, so she asked me to present the demo.

I burned out one of the light bulbs when I put too many batteries in series and over-voltaged one of the flashlight bulbs.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Elliot was grateful that she didn't have to do the demo herself.

I have no idea if anyone in the class learned anything. But I enjoyed doing the demonstration to explain the difference between series and parallel circuits.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Chipper said...

hmm. reminds me of this

2:21 AM  
Blogger Moulton said...

The District Attorney saw the two cases as related, and sought to apply the same "Hoax Device" statute to both cases.

However, neither case met the definition of a "Hoax Device" under the law, as there was no intent to deceive anyone into believing the devices were anything other than what they really were — illuminated display signs. In the case of Star Simpson, it was her illuminated name tag for MIT Career Week. In the case you cite, they were illuminated advertisements for a cartoon series on television. Metropolitan areas are awash in illuminated advertising signage.

In neither case did the creators of the electronic signage ever imagine anyone would mistake them for a bomb.

For the Commonwealth to claim that the highly trained and well-paid security staff at Logan Airport could not distinguish a simple flashlight circuit from a bomb is simply ludicrous. Moreover, the Boston Globe story, published two hours after the 11 AM press conference, made it clear that the security staff at Logan "quickly determined that the device was harmless."

Hence there was no intent to deceive and no deception occurred.

One wonders if the District Attorney planned to deceive the Court into believing otherwise.

3:02 AM  

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