Beyond Security Theater: Unsecured Theater, and the Shanghai Metro X-Ray Machines

Not long after the 9-11 attacks, Bruce Schneir, a US security expert, coined the term “Security Theater.” The original definition was made in his book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World, but for the purposes of this post, let’s use the definition presented in this easily accessed essay from the New Internationalist:

Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards.

In essence: dumb terrorists will be fooled while everyone else  is inconvenienced. And, it goes without saying, the smart terrorists will find vulnerabilities (for an example of a smart fake terrorist, see Jeffrey Goldberg’s classic debunking of the security at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport).

Which brings me to the x-ray machines that Shanghai installed in recent months at subway stations across the city (every station I’ve visited, at least) in advance of the massive Expo 2010 (World’s Fair) opening May 1. These have been the subject of much derision from locals and expats (for a contrarian view, see “Confessions of a Shanghai security staffer“), largely due to the fact that they are staffed by teenagers, most of whom appear to be more interested in text messaging and/or checking out the hottie with the fake LV bag. In any case, to my mind, these x-ray machines don’t qualify as “security theater” because they project incompetence, not security. An example: last night, just after 10:00 PM, I entered the People’s Square station. If it’s not Shanghai’s busiest, it’s certainly in the top three, and if you were going to install x-ray machines in only one subway station, that’d be the one. Below, the x-ray machines just outside of a line 1 gate, as I found them last night (ie, switched-off):

After the jump, the Hengshan Road station, 15 minutes later, as I exited: Continue reading

Scrap on the Beach

The staff of Shanghai Scrap has been traveling for the last week or so – three continents, 15,000 miles, in a week or so, actually – and thus posting has been light to non-existent. But, thankfully, we have found a port to call our own: Guarujá, Brazil. We’ll be spending a week on assignment here, meeting members of the local recycling industry – including this gentleman, whom we found on the beach this afternoon. According to him, aluminum cans are going for $.75/lb., roughly, and he’s not happy about that market at all.

While traveling I’ve had the time to read Michelle Mercer’s terrific Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, a careful examination of Mitchell’s work from Blue, to Hejira (Shanghai Scrap’s all-time favorite recording). It’s not a music biography, though, so much as a careful consideration of how memory intersects with imagination to create art. Highly, highly recommended – whether you’re a Joni fan or not.

Posting to be intermittent for the next few days.


For the next day or so I’m lost in a sea of acronyms, terrific street food, and unexpected good fortune. Posting resumes on the weekend, I believe.


Photo: The Improvised Welding Mask

[Note 11/13: A couple of folks have left comments expressing doubts about whether, in fact, the mask in question was used for welding. It was.]

I’ve just returned to Shanghai after 12 days of roaming up and down Guangdong. I’ll have a bit more to say about some of what I saw down there in the coming days. For now, though, I leave you with what stands as one of my favorite photos out of several hundred that I took down there. It was taken this morning, just at the point where I was putting down my camera after deciding that – twelve days into the trip – there was nothing new for me to note. At just that moment, my traveling companion for much of this trip – a gentleman known to some as Big Dog – elbowed me and said: “Look at that guy’s welding mask.”

“What welding mask?” I asked.

“That one.”

“What are – Oh.” [Click to Enlarge]


Thoughts on Guangdong, the state of China’s economy, and an essay on Obama in China, all upcoming – after a night’s rest.

Photo: Friday Night in the drought-striken Bei Jiang Riverbed

A companion photo to the one in the prior post, taken around 8:30 PM, Friday night.


He wasn’t the only person down there. Couples wandered beneath the bridge arches, hid in its corners and shadows; groups of college-aged kids lit campfires and got high; here and there, grandparents wandered in circles, pointing out the few remaining stars to the one or two grandchildren trailing behind them.

Photo: the Bei Jiang River running dry through Qingyuan

Regular readers might have deduced that Shanghai Scrap is in the midst of its own version of the Deng Xiaoping’s famed Southern Tour over the last week or so. This afternoon, as part of this sally through Guangdong Province, I arrived in Qingyuan – a city that I visited a few years ago, before it was devastated by a ten-month drought. According to China Daily, rainfall is down 14% over the first ten months of the year, and some 55,000 hectares of farmland have been “shriveled.” Pointedly, the same article notes that – despite the drought – the region is still supplying significant amounts of water to Hong Kong and Macau. Whatever the cause, the view of the Bei Jiang River from my hotel window suggests something is seriously amiss in these parts. Click to enlarge:


What Tijuana and Zhuhai have in common.

[UPDATED: With apologies to everyone who emailed to point out that I’d mis-spelled Tijuana in the title! It was a long day … I’d spent hours at the border.]

Below, a photo of the Macau side of the border crossing into Zhuhai, China (for those not familiar with the region: despite the fact that China has sovereignty over Macau, the border is still treated as international). I took it late this afternoon, when – it seemed – the entire population of Zhuhai was trying to get home in time for dinner. Quite honestly, the photo doesn’t do justice to the size of the crowd. The image would need to be expanded to the right, by a third, for a complete, er, picture.


From what I could tell, most of the people in the line were Zhuhai locals (that is, locals who live on the other side of the border with Macau). And most of them were carrying shopping bags from shops that – presumably – one can’t find in Zhuhai. I suspect that many were also carrying luxury goods that – due to China’s high taxes on such items – are much cheaper to buy in Macau and Hong Kong.

What was most striking to me about this massive late Sunday afternoon migration was how much it reminded me of border crossings along the US-Mexican border. On Sunday afternoons, those crossings are often jammed with Mexican citizens returning from shopping trips in the more developed US, their packed trunks weighing down the rear ends of their cars. There, as in China, citizens of the less developed country spend weekends shopping in the more developed one (and running businesses largely based upon their ability to make such trips). I realize, of course, that there are differences, as well.