Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

April 17 Links: The Ecuadorian Tourism Agency, and Other Air Travel Pranks


Ecuador, attempting to prove that it's indistinguishable from Costa Rica, tricks a tour group thinking they've gone to Costa Rica into believing that they were going to Costa Rica when in fact, they were taken to a part of Ecuador that was, apparently, indistinguishable from Costa Rica.

I'm really not kidding:

As Ecuador residents arrived, not in Costa Rica but another Ecuador airport, Tena, where they were given fake stamps in their passports as they went through a staged passport control. No attention to detail was spared as huge posters were placed over the welcome billboards at the airport. Adverts depicting Imperial beer and 'Esencial Costa Rica,' Costa Rica's national brand, were displayed in the airport to throw the group off the scent.

Even fictitious immigration documents and car licence plates were created to make the group think they were in Golfito, a port town in Costa Rica. On top of all that organisers used mobile phone and GPS blockers to keep passengers from using technology to discover the hoax. (...)


In more serious airline news, the Congressional Research Service, a policy-analysis agency within the Library of Congress, released a 20-page report titled Terrorist Databases and the No Fly List: Procedural Due Process and Hurdles to Litigation. Footnote 41 (of 201!) reads:

Prior to 9/11, aviation security was handled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA ordered air carriers not to board certain individuals who were deemed a threat to aviation safety. On 9/11, this "no fly" list contained 12 names.

Somehow, I guess I assumed that there were more than twelve people on the no-fly before 2001. But then again, in hindsight, it seems very strange that no one saw any issue with allowing passengers to carry-on a box-cutter and enter the cockpit through the unlocked door.


Elsewhere in long memoes from government agencies I enjoyed reading this week: The IRS explains that yes, Virginia, there is an income tax, and no, this one weird loophole in the [tax code / Constitution / Paperwork Reduction Act] does not make you exempt, including this gem:

Some individuals or groups claim that taxpayers may refuse to file federal income tax returns, or may submit tax returns on which they refuse to provide any financial information, because they believe that their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination will be violated.

The Law: There is no constitutional right to refuse to file an income tax return on the ground that it violates the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. As the Supreme Court has stated, a taxpayer cannot "draw a conjurer's circle around the whole matter by his own declaration that to write any word upon the government blank would bring him into danger of the law." United States v. Sullivan, 274 U.S. 259, 264 (1927). The failure to comply with the filing and reporting requirements of the federal tax laws will not be excused based upon blanket assertions of the constitutional privilege against compelled self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment. (...)


And, happy tax day; here's a cool chart:

A strange, convoluted heatmap; the key indicates that the value varies from "-4% of income" to "+4% of income".

...visualizing how much of a tax bonus/penalty you and your (childless) spouse (would have) received this year for filing as married, rather than single, as a function of income and income split.

Taxes are weird. Here's an even weirder chart:

An even more convoluted heatmap, badly nonconvex.

Taxes are really weird. Happy tax day; figures brought to you by The Upshot; interactive versions on their site.


Solidarity forever, now come to the internet:

Some of us on the Gawker Media editorial staff have decided to try to unionize. Here's a brief explanation...

Generally speaking, Gawker Media is a very good place to work. So why do we want to unionize? I cannot speak for everyone, but for me, these are the motivations:

  • Every workplace could use a union. A union is the only real mechanism that exists to represent the interests of employees in a company. A union is also the only real mechanism that enables employees to join together to bargain collectively, rather than as a bunch of separate, powerless entities. This is useful in good times (which our company enjoys now), and even more in bad times (which will inevitably come).

(more at link)

WaPo, meanwhile, thinks that "unions have taken on a kind of retro cool among the youth of today."


Solidarity, of course, is key to constructing the perfect human pyramid: Physics students at the University of Leicester conclude that, with proper composition of personnel, a human pyramid of six layers should be theoretically possible:

[T]he students calculated that the largest pyramid must consist of men, women and children in order to distribute the weight efficiently – and a pyramid of this kind would in theory be able to reach a height of six tiers.

In comparison, a male-only pyramid would only be able to reach a height of four tiers if the men involved were of the weight of an average male, 83.6 kg. This is because similar-weighted individuals would put too much strain on the people at the bottom of the pyramid -- and an average male would not be able to hold the weight of more than four-tiers worth of people before the pyramid would come crashing down. (...)


And, returning to jokes in the airline industry (and more specifically, just the TSA again):

A researcher who specializes in the security of commercial airplanes was barred from a United Airlines flight Saturday, three days after he tweeted a poorly advised joke mid-flight about hacking a key communications system of the plane he was in.

Chris Roberts was detained by FBI agents on Wednesday as he was deplaning his United flight, which had just flown from Denver to Syracuse, New York. While on board the flight, he tweeted a joke about taking control of the plane's engine-indicating and crew-alerting system, which provides flight crews with information in real-time about an aircraft's functions, including temperatures of various equipment, fuel flow and quantity, and oil pressure.

FBI agents questioned Roberts for four hours and confiscated his iPad, MacBook Pro, and storage devices.

List of items confiscated from Roberts: iPad, MacBook, ten external drives, one Bluetooth adapter

On Saturday night, Roberts faced more fallout, this time from the airline itself. Shortly after passing TSA screening and arriving at the gate to board a San Francisco-bound flight, members of United Corporate Security were there to stop him from getting on the plane. They told him United officials would inform him by mail of the reason within the next two weeks. Roberts was able to book last-minute travel on a Southwest flight and arrived in San Francisco late Saturday night, three days ahead of a presentation he's scheduled to present at next week's RSA security conference. (...)

The EFF, predictably, is concerned about the chilling effects of mistaking security analysts for terrorists:

[We'd] like to see companies recognize that researchers who identify problems with their products in order to have them fixed are their allies. It would avoid a whole lot of trouble for researchers and make us all more secure. (...)

...and that's our show. Remember to tip your TSA agents, and don't so much as think about airplane security while in airports, airplanes, or, for that matter, a 50-mile radius of either.