Thursday, August 17, 2006

What's in a face

I'm back. I've managed to fly half way across the country and back without getting blown up by someone else's toothpaste. I've recovered from post-conference hangover [1]. I'm slowly getting over the shock of having had to wear formal / semi-formal clothes, as well as the calamity of discovering that Starbucks in Atlanta close at 5 pm on Sundays (and then they wonder why the South lost the war). I've even managed to make my obligatory morning trip to the library and grab plenty of fuel to feed Veena's 2006 Booker Mela.

All of which means it's time to post again. And while I try to remember all the deep meaningful posts I meant to put up, here's a motley collection of snippets to keep the blog going.


One of the cool things about being a business researcher is that you never know where the next big idea is coming from. Take this whole Indra Nooyi deal, and this picture of her that's been doing the rounds of the blogosphere (hat-tip: DP and Amit Varma). In all the fanfare about her achievement and the lessons we can learn from it, everyone, it seems to me, is overlooking a key variable. The ability to have good passport photographs taken. No seriously. Go look at that picture again. Notice the neat hair, the eyes open and intelligent looking, the natural smile, the ever so slight tilt of the head. Do you or anyone you know have a picture from your past where you look even half as human? I certainly don't (as I've blogged about before)

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the ability to photograph well may be a key determinant of corporate success. It's not hard to imagine how this works. People with good passport photographs get picked for interviews over the rest of us, because they look like the kind of people the recruiter would want to work with. People like me get their resumes forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security as a safety risk. As a result people who photograph well gain more valuable and varied experience, and before you know it they're heading major multi-nationals while their less fortunate brethren are still hanging about boring other people with their baby pictures. So it's not about being a housewife, or the schools you go to, or how hard you work - it's about being able to hold your head up, say cheese with vehemence and not shut your eyes a split second before the flash goes off. If I never get to be the CEO of a billion dollar MNC, it's all the fault of the guys at Guddi Studios.


And speaking of the Department of Homeland Security, the New York Times informs me that airport security officials are now using facial expressions to screen for possible terrorists. The article reads:

Taking a page from Israeli airport security, the transportation agency has been experimenting with this new squad, whose members do not look for bombs, guns or knives. Instead, the assignment is to find anyone with evil intent.

The officers observed travelers’ facial expressions, body and eye movements, changes in vocal pitch and other indicators of stress or disorientation. If the officers’ suspicions were aroused, they began a casual conversation with the person, asking questions like “What did you see in Boston?” followed perhaps by “Oh, you’ve been sightseeing. What did you like best?”

The questions themselves are not significant, Mr. Robbins said. It is the way the person answers, particularly whether the person shows any sign of trying to conceal the truth.

Right. And of course there's no other reason why anyone could possibly be stressed or disoriented at an airport, airlines / airports being as super-efficient and extra courteous as they are. And clearly no passenger who wasn't a terrorist could have anything better to do than have casual conversations with random security agents. And obviously all of us like nothing better than a cosy, warm chat with someone wearing a uniform and a gun.

What annoys me about this is the way it tries to justify what is basically irrational prejudice under the guise of scientific screening. Forget all the important sounding terminology, what this process is basically saying is that we're willing to give security officials the right to harass and persecute anyone they feel like based on no evidence but their own gut instinct. Given that the decision to interpret behaviour as 'signs of trying to conceal the truth' or 'indicators of stress and disorientation' is entirely subjective and therefore not subject to review, any and every abuse of power could now be justified by saying that the victim 'looked suspicious'. Our ability to use this kind of intuition to understand other people is suspect at best. Our ability to do so in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual context where what constitutes 'normal' behaviour is highly dispersed is even more open to question. What do you want to bet that this kind of screening will greatly increase harassment of minority groups?

You could argue, of course, that if this kind of screening brings down the risk of a terrorist attack it's still worth doing. Three things. First, even if you believe that we should sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of (possibly) greater security, that's still no reason to hide behind some quasi-legitimate special program. Let's call a spade a spade and say that from now on we want security officers to have the right to selectively pick whoever they want, based on their own unquestionable judgement, and search / interrogate them in whatever way they choose. Personally, I'm against such a policy, but at least it doesn't pretend to be scientific. [2]

Second, isn't this already happening? Are we really to believe that security officials don't already use their intution while checking people? Can you imagine a security guard letting someone through even though he / she seemed to be acting suspiciously? So it's not clear to me what this program is going to achieve, except give security officials more power to bully people and make them less accountable. You might say, they'll be better trained to recognise suspicious behaviour, but personally I'm unconvinced that such training will work. Besides, if it does work, why limit it to some select officers, why not just train everyone, instead of creating some sort of special program?

Third, I'm not against screening per se. It's the subjective, non-verifiable basis of screening I object to, because it makes it impossible for the procedure to be debated or held accountable. If you were to introduce a procedure, for instance, where all men of a certain age group who had visited a particular set of countries in the last six months would be pulled aside for questioning, I might actually be okay with that, even if it meant that I would get pulled into the net. The difference is that a) we can test the statistical basis of that kind of an objective procedure better than we can that of something as nebulous as 'suspicious behaviour' b) we can hold law enforcement officers accountable - they don't just get to pick on whoever they like, they have to follow clearly defined rules and c) this makes the procedure predictable, so that the individual still has choices, albeit a more circumscribed set of them.

Meanwhile, if I tell you I'm going off for a few days and don't come back, it's probably because my flight was delayed by three hours, I couldn't get coffee, and when I refused to engage in a discussion about the book I was carrying with the flatfooted guard at the security gate I got strip-searched, interrogated and sent to Gitmo.


Speaking of screening, the other people who are really screwing this up are car insurance companies. In the last two weeks, I've got offers from at least four of them, all informing me that I have preferred driver status and that I should take the opportunity to lock in the historically low insurance rates.

This would be great, except that a) I don't own a car b) I don't drive, hell, I don't even have a driver's license. Whatever else being a preferred driver may or may not entail, you would think actually getting behind a wheel and driving would be pretty much a requirement. Apparently not. Ah, the wonders of modern technology.


Finally, from my weekend reading, Kierkegaard's delightful description of a diary by Kierkegaard - absolutely essential reading for someone who enjoys blogging:

"How, then, can we explain that the diary has nevertheless acquired such a poetic flavour? The answer is not difficult; it can be explained by his poetic temperament, which is, if you will, not rich, or if you prefer, not poor enough to distinguish poetry and reality from each other. The poetic was the extra he himself brought with him. This extra was the poetic element he enjoyed in the poetic situation provided by reality; this element he took back in again in the form of poetic reflection. That was the second enjoyment, and enjoyment was what his whole life was organized around. In the first case he savoured the aesthetic element personally; in the second he savoured his own person aesthetically. In the first case the point was that he egoistically, personally, savoured what in part reality gave him and what in part he himself had impregnated reality with; in the second case his personality was volatilized and he savoured, then, the situation and himself in the situation. In the first case he was in constant need of reality as the occasion, as an element; in the second case reality was drowned in the poetic. The fruit of the first stage is thus the mood from which the diary results as the fruit of the second stage, the word 'fruit' being used in the latter case in a somewhat different sense from that in the first. The poetic is thus something he has constantly possessed by virtue of the ambiguity in which his life passed."

- Soren Kierkegaard 'The Seducer's Diary' (translation by Alastair Hannay)

[1] Discovery of the week: Spending three days on a steady diet of nothing but cheese, canapes, chocolate, alcohol and coffee can wreak serious havoc on your system.

[2] And while we're about it, how about reading people's palms to figure out if they're terrorists. Or getting everyone who goes through security to drink tea and then get special psychic forces to read the leaves? Hey, it MIGHT work. Here's to the Deparment of Homeland Tarot Readings.

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orion said...

fun read !! nice.

km said...

So you are saying a pair of hot twins have a 50-50 chance of making CEO?

I'd say that sounds *about* right.

Patrix said...

I don't believe you don't have a car or don't drive one in the land of the plenty. Compact Living proponents would love you :)

BTW which Starbucks store in Atlanta closes at 5? I lived there for five years and they stayed open until at least 10 on Sundays. So unless you went to the hood, I can't really imagine where that might have happened.

ggop said...

Good to see a new post. I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms :-)
Wait for five years before taking a look at any of your photos. You will always like them (assuming you have less hair, more weight with age!)

Swathi said...

so many topics - Atlanta, the new Pepsi CEO, Booker Mela, airport security and Soren Kierkegaard - wow! i dunno what to comment on.
but yes, i loved the Booker Mela link, would try and contribute.

Just Mohit said...

Hey man, good to see you back!
BTW, I think you were talking of me when you said that "not becoming CEO" directly related to "bad photos"!
And on "a) I don't own a car b) I don't drive", I can only say, "et tu falst"!!!

m. said...

have those morons never seen little kids together? little boys looking at littler younger brothers have totally murderous "i'm going to thulp you" expressions! sheesh....

*gurgle* i loved that crack about the Deparment of Homeland Tarot Readings!

i like coming here immensely - you cover a lovely assortment of subjects! :)

30in2005 said...

Man, you can sure write one long post - my whole lunch hour is gone before I know it!

As for a good passport size pic being imperitive for success, I fear I shall never reach great heights as frowning and looking a bit possessed (and I mean simultaneously) is my speciality!

Falstaff said...

sach1tb: Thanks

km: Sure, why not?

patrix: yes, they would wouldn't they. Though this has little do with the land of plenty and more to do with the fact that I've never really learnt how to drive.

It's the Starbucks opposite the Peachtree Mall / MARTA station. Just around the corner from the Marriot, which is where I was staying.

ggop: good plan, except that I weight about as much as I used to 8 / 9 years ago, and haven't lost any hair.

swathi: Good - look forward to your contributions to the Booker Mela

just mohit: :-).

m: Thanks. And yes. Though now that I come to think about it, kids are actually the perfect terrorist recruits. They look all innocent and nobody suspects them, but they're dumb and heartless, which means that getting them to blow themselves and other people up should be a cinch. I think as an added safety precaution the authorities should ban kids under ten years from flying. Even if it doesn't actually make us any safer, at least it will make flights a hell of a lot less annoying.

30in2005: Ya well. Now if I had a good passport snap I would actually have a life and wouldn't write such long posts. As it is, I've really got little else to do.

Himanshu Nautiyal said...

If you have not already seen the 5 tips to be more photogenic. Here's hoping for that career boost!

Anonymous said...

awesome post dude
".....discovering that Starbucks in Atlanta close at 5 pm on Sundays (and then they wonder why the South lost the war)"
thats is hilarious.
your blog will definitely be on my must visit list..keep up the good work
- rs

puzzled said...

But what do you show as ID? People here don't seem to accept anything but driver's licenses!

Falstaff said...

rs: thanks

puzzled: Pennsylvania has a resident's ID (as I suspect do most states) which looks just like a driver's license and is official state ID for people who don't drive.

Matt Cox said...

What a tremendously long blog post. But an interesting read, nevertheless.