Saturday, October 07, 2006


TSA's "Alice in Wonderland" Semantics

I was enduring the ritual humiliation inflicted by the Transportation Security Administration at the San Francisco airport when I fell, like Alice in Wonderland, into a semantic rabbit-hole where the TSA used words in ways that made no sense.

As we were being herded through the inspection lines and approached the scanning machines, one of the TSA martinets instructed us to remove our shoes and any jackets or coats. I was wearing a sleeveless sweater vest ( like the ones here) and the woman in front of me was wearing flip-flops -- not the usual kind but some kind of high-style thong style where the flat part was held on by extremely thin strand of material (like the ones here). I said to her "those aren't shoes" and she smiled in agreement, but the TSA person standing nearby overheard us and said "yes they are -- if you're wearing them on your feet then they are shoes." I was thinking "if I wrapped my feet in clear plastic wrap, maybe that would count as shoes to these people" when the TSA guy interrupted my thoughts and told me I needed to take off my "jacket" and put it through the scanner.

Even a hothead like me knows that there is no way to win a debate with TSA workers because they follow rules by the book, but in my research and teaching I'm very sensitive to what words and categories mean (I've just spent six weeks talking about this in my Information Organization and Retrieval" course at UC Berkeley). I didn't think that the woman's flip flops were shoes and I didn't think that my sleeveless sweater vest was a jacket. But I was pushed over the edge by what happened next.

We all have heard about the alleged plot to blow up airplanes with liquid explosives. In response, the TSA for a time banned all liquids in carry-on bags, but after this hysterical overreaction caused lots of delays and problems, they revised the policy to allow limited amounts. Here's the policy as posted on the United Airlines web site:

Liquids, gels and/or aerosols are now permitted through security checkpoints. Items must fit in one clear, re-sealable quart or liter-sized plastic bag, in containers of 3oz/90ml or less. Examples include: shampoo, suntan lotion, creams, toothpaste, hair gel, hair spray, liquid cosmetics and other items of similar consistency.

I interpreted this to mean that I could take up to 3 ounces of any of these items and so I packed some toothpaste and shampoo in my carry-on bag. I looked at the toothpaste tube when I packed it, noticed that it said its capacity was 4.3 ounces, but since I had used almost all of it and I estimated that the remainder was less than ¼ the length of the full tube I was sure it was OK to take it.

But I'm sure you can predict what I happened next in the alternative semantic universe inhabited by the TSA. They studied my bag as it went through the scanner, and I then I had to endure the violation of my 4th amendment rights while they rummaged through my bag in public to find the offending toothpaste tube.

The TSA worker held up the tube and said "we have to confiscate this tube because it is more than 3 ounces." I said "but it is mostly empty -- is it now illegal to carry empty containers on airplanes?" His reply of course did not address the semantic absurdity of his statement because empty containers don't contain bomb-making ingredients, and keeping these ingredients off planes is the justification for the policy. All he said was "Do you want to talk to my supervisor?"

I muttered something about feeling like Alice in Wonderland and then said "keep the damn toothpaste."

-Bob Glushko

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