Archive for the ‘Federal’ Category

That’s right, for once we’ve got news of air travel becoming more convenient instead of less. This is thanks to a recent study conducted by the FAA into updating and changing their policies on passenger electronic devices. The study found that the electronic device policy, which has remained virtually unchanged since 1966, was out of date (real shocker there). When the policy was put in place, there were concerns that the electromagnetic field of an electronic device could interfere with the planes equipment, particularly navigation and communication gear. But this has proven to be a mostly unfounded concern. There are virtually zero instances of personal electronics affecting a plane (one o the only cases I could find was a few years ago when a traveler’s blackberry was picking up air traffic communications while on the runway, and the traveler’s cellphone was subsequently bought from him by the airline to figure out how that happened), and modern electronics operate with much less power and on much tighter frequencies than they did fifty years ago, and the airplanes themselves are much better shielded against any kinds of electromagnetic forces or radiation that could impact their functioning. So it seems that this was an overblown fear, one which we can finally move past.

In fact, the FAA study found that one in three travelers had flown and forgotten to turn off an electronic device on at least one occasion. So if your cellphone was going to make a plane fall out of the sky, it would have happened by now. And that got to the root concern of the FAA study, that the policy was not only outdated, but that it damaged the public perception and credibility of the FAA. This rule, one which has been the frequent butt of jokes and which no one has seemingly been able to come up with a good justification for, made the FAA look outdated and like they didn’t know how to keep up with the pace of technology. And while that may not seem like a serious concern on the surface, that is anything but the truth of the matter. The FAA is a safety organization, and a lack of confidence in their decision-making process and in their rules causes fewer people to adhere to them. In the case of the electronic device policy, this has led at worst to some highly publicized drama with celebrities (looking at you Alec Baldwin), but there are a lot of rules that if not followed can have deadly consequences, ones that may not seem apparent on the surface. That’s why it’s so important that the FAA maintain at least some semblance of credibility with the public, because as it stands they’d look like a joke if it weren’t for the TSA being there to make the FAA look smart by comparison.

So what is the end result of this navel gazing by the FAA? Well, they will be changing the standards on electronic device use depending on the plane you are on. Some will be the same as now, the most out of date planes, and those will be few and far between. The bulk of flights will switch to allowing certain electronic devices to be used during taxiing and low altitude portions of the flight in addition to normal usage at cruising altitudes, and the final class of flight, the most modern aircraft, will allow full electronic device use. And the FAA says that there are plans to have 20,000 aircraft upgraded for full electronic device usage over the next few years.

There is one caveat to all of this though; cellphones aren’t part of the package. They are doing a separate study looking into cell phone usage and possible policy changes, but that one is much hairier and is going to take more time. Still, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t loosen restrictions at least somewhat for their use, and as soon as they do, you’ll hear about it here.

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One of the most exciting new technologies that has been steadily gaining steam is 3D printing. Much like the advent of file sharing music and video files, it is a technology poised to completely upend the manufacturing industry as well as countless others as new uses for the technology are being discovered; NASA even recently did experiments with 3D printed pizzas! And with companies like Staples planning to offer cheap and accessible 3D printing, we will soon see people from all walks of life using the technology in innovative ways. One of those innovations occurred just this month, and already has been making waves: the first functioning 3D printable gun.

The design and first working model was made by a Texas law Student who was inspired by early anarchist writings to make the design and distribute it for free online. Within a couple days of announcing this, the design was downloaded more than 100,000 times before the U.S. State Department intervened and demanded the designs be taken down while they examined their legality. While they have yet to issue a decision, it seems highly likely that the schematics violate the U.S. ban on undetectable firearms as well as international arms laws. The crux of the issue lies in the fact that the printed firearms are undetectable to most metal detectors and have no serial number or other traceable information, making them the perfect weapon for criminals. This concern was only exacerbated when within a week, a modified version of the schematics that made the guns sturdier and more accurate was revealed (though thankfully not posted online) as well as the production of the first 3D printed bullets.

Luckily, people have taken notice. Homeland Security issued a nationwide alert about the firearms, warning that metal detectors would be insufficient to detect them and that in the long run it would be impossible to keep the files from spreading online (even as we speak, they are being hosted and downloaded on file sharing sites all over the world). Senators and congressmen at the state and federal level immediately proposed bills explicitly banning the firearms and their production, and unlike most gun control legislation these have little to no opposition; in fact, it’s expected that the NRA will take a stand against them. On top of all of that, the technology is still prohibitively expensive as 3D printers are not widely available yet, and most companies that offer such services either outright refuse to make printable firearms or charge prices far in excess of buying a regular firearm.

While this new innovation is alarming, we have plenty of time before it manifests as a real threat, and it seems that everyone from  government to private industry wants to address this long before that time comes. Still, better safe than sorry, so I’d recommend sending an email or making a phone call to your local congressman or senator to let them know that you want to see this threat taken care before it goes from possibility to reality.

Officials in Britain’s National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) as well as local governments and businesses are considering raising parking rates in an attempt to force people to walk more and get more exercise. The goal is to curb the rising obesity rates in Britain’s population which have increased nearly fourfold over the past 30 years to 24% as of 2009. Still, the UK pales in comparison to the US which still holds the number one spot for fattest asses on the planet with a whopping 36% obesity rate. NHS research has shown that Britons are walking less and less, which is one of many contributing factors to the rising UK obesity rate (McDonald’s is undoubtedly taking a top spot on that list of causes though).

So how do you get people walking more? Apparently, NICE decided to go with “Make them!” as an answer. The idea is that by raising parking rates they will effectively price people out of driving unless absolutely necessary. On paper, this could almost make sense. After all, many cities are adopting demand-based electronic parking meters that change prices based on availability, raising rates as available parking fills up so that there’s almost always open parking in a given area. The success of using a free-market system like this for parking to meet both consumer and municipal goals (convenient parking and positive revenue flow respectively) has been well researched and documented; in fact, nearby San Francisco has implementing this system with great success as part of a case study run by Professor David Shoup (and as all you Shoupistas know he is THE authority on parking systems and economics). And there’s no denying that folks aren’t getting enough physical activity these days. But once you look beyond the surface, the gaping holes in this idea become clear.

The first logical fallacy in this plan is the idea that many people are CHOOSING to drive rather than NEEDING to drive. It’s the same type of thing that happens when celebrities talk about how everyone can take a little time out of there day for yoga or a workout or a colon cleansing or whatever, they have no concept of how much easier having an army of servants and personal assistants and personal trainers and nannies make the minutia of life, and how much harder it is to find not just the time but the mental energy and motivation to put some time into yourself during the day. It’s the same thing for many people that are driving, particularly those who are working class. It’s been proven that the poorer you are, the farther away you’ll be from fresh sources of food such as a grocery store; for example, there are no actual grocery stores within the city limits of Detroit! So there really is no other option for many working class folks than to drive to get their groceries. Same goes for a lot of other everyday things; a significant amount of people have to pay their bills in cash for instance, or don’t have buses that can take their kids home, or are working two jobs and simply don’t have the time to walk somewhere. For these folks, who don’t have the luxury to forgo driving as part of their day to day routine, this parking hike is going to place an undue burden on them, essentially just making it more expensive for the less affluent to go through their day.

This will also hurt businesses anywhere a policy like this is in place. When a parking market system is used to raise or lower parking rates so that there is always available parking in a commercial area, this benefits everyone. Businesses make more money because their customers can always find parking to reach them, and customers are only looking at paying a little more for convenient parking if it’s a busy day. By contrast, the NICE plan of essentially pricing people out of parking so that they have to walk will leave numerous empty spaces in front of businesses that won’t get filled, thereby driving away customers that might have shopped there. Which ironically will lead to people shopping at home online more, and only increase their lack of physical activity. And of course on top of all of that, the truly obese will hardly be affected by this at all because they’ll still have access to convenient handicap parking and rascal’s waiting for them at the entrance of the grocery store.

So at the end of the day, all this policy would do is make life harder and more expensive for the working class while having virtually no effect on the wealthy or those who are desperately in need of more exercise. And let’s not forget that all these parking rate revenues go into government coffers, making this yet another way that big government is trying to pay it’s bills by taking money out of the back pocket of the working class. But hey, what are they supposed to do, actually provide basic nutritional education to children in school and revamp the school lunch program to have healthier, balanced meals?

Now, those of you reading this who are stateside like myself may be thinking “Why should I care about the British nanny state?” Well let me tell you why. As you may or may not know, New York city mayor Michael Bloomberg passed a ban on sodas larger than 16 oz a little while ago, in the interest of combating obesity. Some have been calling for Mayor Bloomberg to implement a similar parking program in the projects of New York, both by raising rates and literally eliminating some parking spaces in the projects and reducing the number of NYCHA issued parking permits. So we could be seeing these same misguided, nanny-state policies coming to the U.S. because apparently government, not willpower and motivation, is the solution to too many people being fat and lazy. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think that Americans are way too fat and need to exercise more, but that will take a concerted, across the board effort that addresses the many root causes of the obesity epidemic in this country, not by trying to price our waistlines into shrinking at the meter.