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Our Newfound Fear of Risk (schneier.com)
338 points by fejr on Sept 3, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 193 comments



I think it's become a cultural thing, unfortunately. I've spent the last few years seeing the world, and the difference in attitudes between the people of many other countries and Americans at home is striking. We've become a fear-based culture.

I have an anecdote from a month or two ago. My girlfriend--she's German--and I were in Boston's central park, where there's a wading pool for children. The place was extremely busy with families and children everywhere--and also crawling with police. As the mother next to us ushered their 9-year-old into the pool, the mother loudly told her, "If anyone touches you, you scream!" My girlfriend laughed out loud at the silliness of it (the child was within eyeshot, in a pool filled with other children and families, in broad daylight, and surrounded by police) and commented to me about how afraid Americans are of everything.

Now that's just an anecdote. But we're seeing bits and pieces of this everywhere. Parents fearful of pedophiles around every corner. TV commercials about new drugs, scaring us into thinking we have some painful disease. ("If you've had chicken pox, the shingles virus is already inside you..."). People like the Free-Range Parenting blogger getting harassed and hounded. The ballooning security and surveillance apparatus. The militarization of our police, and draconian and unfathomable laws and sentencing requirements. The TSA, which is pure theater in service of fear. Bits and pieces.

I find myself increasingly thinking that the fear-based environment in the US is not a place I would want my children to grow up in. It breeds a dangerous us-vs-them (the brown people, the druggies, your neighbor) mentality and leads to suspicion and hatred.

Unfortunately I don't know what to do about it other than move to a different, more emotionally stable country. Culture is hard to change and takes a generation.


Which leads to a culture where everyone is afraid of touching kids that are not their own. It's really sad.


When my own kid was very young I was paranoid about touching him in public. It didn't stop me, but I was mindful of it, and I would occasionally feel I was getting extra scrutiny by some parent; a man not at work in the daytime, holding a young boy's hand.

Feh.


This strikes me as odd. As a parent (dad) of two, I wouldn't ever dream of feeling odd about holding either of my kids' hands - or even for that matter chasing them down when they run away screaming (which happens often).

Just a counter data point here.


I didn't feel odd for the act, I felt uncomfortable with the assumptions or speculation implied by the scrutiny. No one likes to be distrusted, regardless of the context.


I wear a shirt that says "Free Hugs", and I've had many adults take advantage of it. The other day, a kid asked me and I got all weird and "can't"... I don't wear that shirt anymore.


Absolutely true. My g/f coos at other people's kids, but I look the other direction. The last thing I want is a liability for friendliness.


The most unfortunate part isn't that we worry too much -- it's that we worry about the wrong things. Not enough people seem to be concerned about the unaffordability of health insurance, or the fact that 401k plans are unlikely to cover retirement.


I'm suspicious that this is constructed, and is precisely the idea. American TV is one long stream of things to be afraid of-- other than the things you should be afraid of. It's distraction.


I think people, deep down, know the difference between real and fake threats. People like getting worked up about fake threats, because they know they don't actually have anything to fear -- any more than from a scary movie. If the TV was always going on about real-life stuff that made you feel uncomfortable -- who wants to watch that?


Boston's a poor example. It's possibly the most socially-conservative place on earth I've ever lived in other than a Muslim country.


Tangent: I lived in Boston for a while. I'm glad to read stuff like this as it reminds me that it wasn't me.

PSA: Boston is not liberal, except a little bit in the abstract NPR "latte sipping" academic sense. Culturally it is unbelievably, stiflingly conservative, far more so than "red states" for example.


I dated a cute girl from Andover, MA for a while. Andover is a little upscale town just north of Boston, kind of a well-off suburb.

She hated that I wore a tiny bit of gold jewelry (gold cross from my grandmother) because "that's what non-white people wear", so away that went. She hated that I wore T-shirts because... probably similar reasons. I took her to a beach on the Cape, and she wore... black. Covering her whole body. Formal black clothing. I mean basically, if you transplanted a Puritan circa 1750 into the modern age, you'd get this woman. She had never lived anywhere else. And then after breaking up with her, I looked around and it was all I could see... races not even interacting at all, both white and black people having REALLY limited "socially acceptable" clothing choices, etc.

I don't want to bash Boston too hard. I lived there for like 8 years. It has the best sports bars around, but this unfortunately only adds to its "provincial" reputation. Boston Harbor is really nice. The fact that Boston barely has any beaches (at least compared to, say, Long Island) was just weird for me (growing up on LI, I took the miles of beaches for granted, I guess).

I have a lot to say about Boston, both positive and negative. But yeah, socially? Can you even get more socially conservative while still being politically liberal?


That's astounding, but not surprising. The wealthy 'burbs of Boston are even more stifled than the city or Cambridge.

Boston should have been Silicon Valley. It had all the pieces, everything aligned, best of the best. But it's not. I think there's a really good argument to be made that this conservatism is why. All the really smart people ran away first chance they got.


Sadly, a startup (thredup.com) that I worked for did too and I decided not to join them, mostly because I had reached a point in my life where uprooting to the opposite coast was unfortunately no longer an option (and I had already spent 4 years in a previous life in Cali)...


I completely agree, as someone who grew up in East Europe and is now in the US. The contrast between my childhood and what I see here is huge. And before someone counters that I come from an uncivilized place let me say what I saw 4 years ago while living in Amsterdam. Kids who were in 3rd or 4th grade would bike to school alone, crossing streets with traffic and so on.


> Unfortunately I don't know what to do about it other than move to a different, more emotionally stable country. Culture is hard to change and takes a generation.

That seems extreme. The situation you describe seems directly under control of the parents. Eg you can solve this for your child by simply not subscribing to that culture.


It's not that easy. Not subscribing to the culture of most parents tends to result into isolating your child.


Yet Germany has institutionalized the same mentality on a more abstract level.

"Global warming might be happening, shut down the energy industry!"

"We can't use nuclear power, someone might get cancer! Keep mining coal and etching solar panels!"


That's a ridiculous comparison, The fact of the matter is that those decisions are completely logical. Whether or not global warming is happening, we will run out of fossil fuels and fissionable material eventually. Solar is renewable, self sustaining. By building out solar Germany is reducing there dependence on foreign countries and securing there future; Possibly helping to reduce global warming is just icing on the cake.


>That's a ridiculous comparison, The fact of the matter is that those decisions are completely logical.

I don't think shutting down an entire industry in a knee jerk reaction is logical. Gently paring down fossil fuel energy consumption is logical. I think the extreme reaction is the illogical mentality that he was talking about.


It's more than a knee jerk reaction though, there are a lot of reasons to speed up the switch to solar and renewables. Global warming may have been a catalyst, but it was going to happen eventually and they figured sooner rather than later.


Yes, but if you want to do something about global warming it'd be a lot smarter to keep the nuclear power stations running and take coal plants offline instead. Nuclear power has a spotty safety record overall, and the consequences of a mistake can be acutely disastrous, but coal is likewise a chronic disaster.


> Nuclear power has a spotty safety record overall

This is so incredibly false it's on par with stating "commercial aviation has a spotty safety record overall".


I disagree. There have been lots of low-level safety violations, and it's easy to find examples of chronic mismanagement. By 'spotty' I mean lots of small flaws, a few big ones here and there. Certainly, it has a good low ratio of deaths per megawatt of power generated, but such metrics are not the whole story.

I'm very pro-nuclear, but don't think there's an mileage in blowing off safety concerns.


Agreed, I'm all for nuclear power personally and that is a somewhat less logical position, but the irrational fear of nuclear power is more of a worldwide phenomenon than a German one. All I'm saying is I think comparing American fear-culture to Germany's decision to quickly move to solar is at best apples to oranges and at worst completely nonsensical.


First mover advantage. Germany's early embrace is going to look pretty smart, in retrospect.

Ditto Google's early drive for lowering watts per flop in their data centers and seeking lower costs of energy.

GDP (economic growth, however it's measured) has tracked fossil fuel consumption. Some smart people are working to decouple the two.


Solar is renewable, self sustaining

The sun is, but what about the raw materials needed to make the panels?


Solar panels do have some low-reserve raw-materials requirements. CSP (concentrated solar thermal power) rather less so, though it has higher costs and isn't as easily deployed widely (PV can be installed pretty much on any existing structure, CSP generally requires its own dedication installations).

Though really, all this says is that even under a renewables scheme, we're not going to be able to provide power at the level some have come to expect for the population we've now got (7 billion) or are projected to have (10 billion).

The bigger problem from my PoV is that the existing financial and economic systems discount the sustainability capabilities of even a partial capacity provided by renewables to the point that little if any of it gets built -- the biggest hazard I and some others (Gail Tverberg is a pretty notable leading voice, Richard Heinberg another) see is that the financial and economic systems collapse well before energy or other limits fully impose themselves.

And yes, others note that renewables as presently envisioned draw heavily on nonrenewables for fabrication and construction:

https://www.readability.com/articles/oqtyksza

http://www.countercurrents.org/adair301110.htm

The fact that providing energy needs under a renewables basis is going to be really hard doesn't make nonrenewables any better -- they're only going to work until they don't and we fall off a cliff.

What's your suggestion.


Though really, all this says is that even under a renewables scheme, we're not going to be able to provide power at the level some have come to expect for the population we've now got (7 billion) or are projected to have (10 billion).

This is best viewed as an engineering problem; those are much easier to solve than social problems.


It's not an engineering problem to the extent that you've got populations whose very existence depends on these energy streams.

At that point, it becomes a rather pressing existential problem.

You cannot simply "engineer" more energy into existence.

Yes, there's quite a bit more energy striking Earth every day from the sun than humans use today. However it's not in forms we can utilize directly, other than simply basking in it. The most widespread process for converting sunlight into useful energy is about 1% efficient, we're already using 14% of all its productivity on the planet, and using it to replace existing fossil fuel uses would require another 21%. That's plants, and for humans to directly utilize 35% of all net primary productivity strikes me as manifestly infeasible.

Source: Jeffrey Dukes, "Burning Buried Sunshine"

http://globalecology.stanford.edu/DGE/Dukes/Dukes_ClimChange...

And the lack of an engineering solution means that this is a social problem -- that's the fundamental conflict here: deciding how to allocate scarce resources.


Well, either we find a way to give people what they want, through efficiency or new energy sources, or America keeps bombing the Middle East. And I expect viable fusion to be easier to solve than the politics of a world running out of energy.


Bombing the Middle East is going to be producing markedly diminishing returns by and by. It's not a permanent solution.


The fact that providing energy needs under a renewables basis is going to be really hard doesn't make nonrenewables any better -- they're only going to work until they don't and we fall off a cliff.

What's your suggestion.

My suggestion is to pick our energy sources carefully. Solar panels mean a dependence on China, which is hardly a departure from our current foreign dependence. Maybe there is no energy source that doesn't put us completely at the mercy of another nation, but who knows if that's the case? No one, because renewables are marketed as inherently endless. I'm not a civil engineer, so I don't know all the details and I can't tell you what the best system is. I defer to the actual experts on that. But I can tell you that the endlessness of renewables may be technically true, but often not at all in practice. That's all I'm getting at.


Solar panels mean a dependence on China

If you're referring to rare-earth production, my understanding is that this is more a matter of where mining operations are considered viable and acceptable (largely on a basis of environmental impacts). The elements themselves are relatively abundant in the Earth's crust, they're simply not concentrated as other minerals have traditionally been (though we've done a rather good job of ensuring that concentrated ores no longer exist).

Materials dependence is also different from fuels dependence. In the latter case, short-term interruptions can have massive disruption effects on whole economies. Look at what possible military action in Syria is doing to current oil prices, let alone the disruptions of the 1974 and 1979 oil embargoes. Were material flows interrupted, what would be disrupted would be additional energy systems development, but existing systems would continue to function fine (modulo maintenance and retirement).

the endlessness of renewables may be technically true, but often not at all in practice.

There's a fair bit of truth to that. Many renewables technologies are dependent on specific and limited materials, or on complex technology stacks: PVs also require an extensive chip-fabrication infrastructure. Once it's established and producing it's pretty efficient, but having to build it from scratch would be a challenge.

You're touching on issues that many who are looking at future paths (generally: "collapse", "transition", or some combination / variant of these and other options) with cold, clear vision see.

My point is that whatever challenges renewables offer, they're out only hope, so if it turns out that they do have profound limitations, we'd best start getting used to that idea. If this means going back to animal power and firewood -- well, we have a rough idea of what sort of population can be supported on that technological stack. And I don't paint renewables as necessarily being sufficient for present-day (or even technologically advanced) lifestyles, though I suspect they might be able to offer that.


My point is that whatever challenges renewables offer, they're out only hope

Ok, we're on different pages then. I don't dislike renewables. I think at least one of them is probably the way of the future. I just dislike the black-and-white way renewables vs. nonrenewables are addressed.


I just dislike the black-and-white way renewables vs. nonrenewables are addressed.

Then do some research.

I've, literally, dedicated the past 9 months to figuring out what the hell is going on. And one way or the other, we're going to run out of fossil fuels in any practical economic sense (there will always be some coal, oil, and natural gas underground, but the ability to extract it and gain useful economic productivity from it will eventually expire).

You can quibble over whether we've got enough to last for 5 years, 50, 500, or 5000, but they will run out. Almost certainly at some point in the timespan I've just given. Very likely sooner rather than later for oil (on which we're tremendously dependent for anything involving transportation), and likely not much longer for gas and coal. And those timespans are well within the span of existing human history. Which is to say: we're facing the very probable end of industrial civilization of humans on Earth.

It's also hardly a "green" or "liberal" viewpoint: the finite nature of fossil fuels was realized quite early in the Industrial Revolution. William Stanley Jevons is often mentioned ("The Coal Question", 1865), but he was beat by 76 years by John Williams, "The Limited Quantity of Coal in Britain", 1789. More recently, M. King Hubbert (petroleum engineer), Hyman Rickover (US Navy admiral), and Colin Campbell (petroleum engineer).

It's geology, physics, and math. Not ideology.

And even if we've got reserves to last a million years, the environment can't take it. CO2, mercury, sulfur dioxide, particulates, and other pollutants from coal, oil, and gas will kill us.

We're stuck between those two prongs.

And beyond energy, there's a host of other resources which humans have done an exceptionally good job of drawing down. As if it's our job (and I could make a fair case that it has been).

And, as with any coldly rational bottom-line focused employer, once an employee has provided all the useful work they can provide you, you let them go.

That's us: humanity is very close to having worked its way out of a job. And no, the Universe doesn't offer unemployment insurance, welfare, or a pension.

Think it over. Do some research. See what conclusions you come to.


You're so eager to defend renewables you're projecting opinions you want me to have, on me.

What I mean is I don't like how anything that is grouped into "renewables" is considered to be equally perfect. Like, "It's not fossil fuels so it's the holy grail". Nevermind that hydro backs up rivers and solar panels require rare earth metals. This sort of mindset, I figure, will hamper our ability to choose the best renewables. I'm not saying we should stick with fossil fuels.


What I mean is I don't like how anything that is grouped into "renewables" is considered to be equally perfect.

In which case, you're projecting opinions on me which aren't correct.

In the world of energy sources available to humans, there are two classes:

Renewables which replenish given time.

Nonrenewables which don't.

For all of human existence save the past 250 years, we've depended virtually entirely on renewable resources. Which isn't to say they didn't have negative impacts on the land humans occupied. Deforestation and desertification are very common in human history and prehistory.

For the past 250 years or so we've had coal, oil, and gas. The chart looks roughly like this: https://plus.google.com/photos/104092656004159577193/albums/...

There are a handful of other nonrenewables which are sufficiently abundant that they might be able to address some of our energy needs (mostly electricity -- transportation, liquid fuels, and chemical feedstocks remain a major issue). They have some pretty tall technical challenges however. Thorium reactors are more probable, fusion rather less so: we've been unable to reach technical let alone commercial viability with 50 years' research during the period of maximum abundance.

And there's a very clear relationship between energy, economic growth, and population: http://ourfiniteworld.com/2012/08/29/the-long-term-tie-betwe...

Anyhow, as I said: list out your options. Figure out how viable they are, and what the negatives are.

A list of questions I like to keep in mind:

1. How Much Energy is Returned for the Energy Invested (EROEI)?

2. Have the claims been verified by an independent third party?

3. Can I see the alternative energy being used?

4. Can you trace it back to the original energy source?

5. Does the invention defy the Laws of Thermodynamics?

6. Does the inventor make extravagant claims?

7. Does the inventor claim zero pollution?

8. Can I see blueprints, schematics or a chemical analysis of how it works?

9. Infrastructure Requirements -- Does the energy source require a corporation to produce it? How will it be transported and used? Will it require new engines, pipelines, and filling stations? What will these cost? Who will pay for them and with what? How long will it take to build them?

From: http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/052703_9_questions...

Have fun.


>The sun is, but what about the raw materials needed to make the panels?

like silicon?


Solar energy technologies, for example, will require half the current world supply of tellurium and 25% of the supply of indium, the report says.

http://www.euractiv.com/sustainability/rare-earth-shortage-h...


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stirling_engine

There's more ways to harness solar energy than photovoltaics.


Panels are not irreversibly diluted or consumed. They just "fall apart" at the molecular level and have to be recycled.


Recycling has its limits. I've mostly looked at this with regards to lithium (critical in Tesla's EVs, though other rare earths are also limiting, perhaps moreso).

With present known reserves (including recent finds in South America -- Bolivia as I recall), there's not enough lithium to build batteries for an EV for the entire world's population. I believe the number I came up was about 1 in 10. And that's for one generation of vehicles.

Turns out that you can recycle batteries. But the process recovers only 90% of the lithium. After about 7 generations, you've lost over half your original stock.

With sufficient energy, you can extract virtually anything from seawater (even stuff like uranium). But that "with sufficient energy" prerequisite is pretty much specifically the challenge we're looking at.


"With sufficient energy, you can extract virtually anything from seawater (even stuff like uranium). But that "with sufficient energy" prerequisite is pretty much specifically the challenge we're looking at."

Not so much. There is plenty of energy... I mean tons... with one caveat: it's not always on.

But there's no reason that extraction of minerals from sea water couldn't be a daytime-only thing.


They are not even remotely the same thing.


Related: at the PARK this weekend, and heard all the following utterances in the span of ten minutes from some parents: "NO RUNNING!" "IT'S DANGEROUS HERE" "YOU'RE GONNA GET HURT" "NO RUNNING!"

Talk about instilling fear and creating risk aversion. Sometimes you just have to let a child find out for themselves what's safe and what isn't. What you can get up and dust yourself off from and what you can't.

It's hard to do (I say this as a parent of 5 year old boy), but you have to resist the urge to hover over them and caution or approve their every move.


Having grown up with parents who acted like this I can say it makes for a miserable childhood.

I wasn't allowed to even ride my bike past one neighbors house on each side when I was a kid because my parents were convinced I would be kidnapped. I couldn't go to a friends house without my parents walking me all the way up to the door and then I had to report home every hour or two or they would call the police as if I was missing. They wouldn't even let me use sharp silverware because I might have hurt myself accidentally. And don't get me started on learning to drive....

I realized only in college how sheltered my life was when I noticed how everyone else was living their lives while I was constantly afraid I was going to die any minute. It has taken years to undo the damage and I honestly despise my parents for it (among other reasons as well).


On the other hand, many people don't have a healthy fear of automobiles, considering the lethality of the physics involved in a collision.


I bet his parents drove him everywhere and therefore he has no issues with cars.


I'd bet that much of the issue stems from the decline in birth rates among middle/upper middle class parents relative to the days of yore. When you only manage to pop out one or two kids, at great career sacrifice and monetary expense, each one seems to matter more than they did back in the day.

Also, paradoxically, the safer things get the more people worry about the dangers that remain. This is rational. Say doing this or that during pregnancy results in 1 in 10,000 women dying during child birth. If 1 in 100 women die during child birth anyway, it's not a big deal. But if improvements in medical technology gets the base rate down to 1 in 10,000, then suddenly you're talking about doubling your risk.


I would say it's got less to do with the perceived (even subconsciously) value of the children, and more the experience of the parents. For the first child, you're often hyper-conscious of threats and problems. With later children you've better assessed what's important to pay attention to and what isn't.


In case anyone didn't notice the implied point here: a far greater percentage of children are now the first child.


Anecdotally speaking, this is not true. My parents always joke that I was the "test subject" for their parenting experiments, and my (younger) sister is the one on whom they actually applied what they learned. Growing up, my life was pretty care-free. My sister on the other hand is definitely suffering from "helicopter parenting."

Gender probably has a lot to do with it. I'm a guy, so I don't have as much to worry about (whereas girls are perceived as more vulnerable to things like rape, etc.).


I can confirm this was a big issue with our children. Our first we tended to treat like porcelain... eventually we've learned through experience that kids are more resilient than you may otherwise think.


I became a parent later in life, and I do think that is a factor. In addition to how hard it is to have a kid, I personally have a much greater sense of my own mortality now then I did in the early 20s. It's hard not to let this color the way I parent.


Direct quote from a friend:

"First kid - food drops on the clean floor - burn the food sterilize the place. Second kid - food drops on the clean floor - wash it and give it back to him. Third kid - she ate the cat's dinner? It's the cat's problem, not mine."


As a parent of young kids, I can attest that many parents in my peer group are constantly reminding their kids not to be careful NOT due to a fear of risk -- but rather from wanting to avoid an injury that's going inconvenience everyone.

If your child crashes his bike and gets a bloody knee on the playground, your relaxing afternoon at the park is most likely over and now you have a crying child, bloody clothes, a damaged bike wheel, and potentially another child who is now screaming because you have to leave the park to go find bandages. If your child breaks her arm, it's even worse -- off to the hospital you go, followed by a child who can't take a bath or get dressed by herself for a month.

Do some parents take this to an extreme and deny their kids some fun? Sure. But a lot of times, it's just about trying to maintain a level of mindfulness so that everyone can continue having fun for the afternoon.


That argument reads to me like this: "If my kid injured himself, I would be inconvenienced - so let's take extra steps to make sure I am not inconvenienced."

And to your point, there are cases where this is valid - when the inconvenience would extend beyond just "oh my afternoon is ruined" and into "everybody's afternoon would be ruined".


>>If your child crashes his bike and gets a bloody knee on the playground, your relaxing afternoon at the park is most likely over and now you have a crying child, bloody clothes, a damaged bike wheel, and potentially another child who is now screaming because you have to leave the park to go find bandages.

Well, yes. This is called parenting: it is expected that, as a parent, you will have to endure a certain amount of inconvenience so that your kid can learn to ride a bike. Now, if he or she is endangering other kids while learning, then it's valid to step in. But thinking about your own convenience sounds a bit selfish.


If the only way humans could learn was through directly physical stimuli, we'd be scratching dirt and running down antelope still.


In theory, there is no difference between theory and practise.

In practise, there is.


Even if, as I presume, you are trying to spell in Australian/Commonwealth English, it should be "practice" here because it's a noun. Only the verb is "practise".


Yeah, that's still a weak point in my spelling. I'm generally pretty good and most misspellings are only typos, but that one's always an issue for me. Curious.


Everyone? I've only witnessed this behavior as a way to avoid inconveniencing themselves.


I was going out for a walk with my daughter the other day and had the following conversation with my wife:

Her: Don't let her run on the sidewalk.

Me: What? Why?

Her: She's not wearing pants, just a dress.

Me: ...OK... what exactly is the relationship between these two things?

Her: There's nothing covering her knees, she'll hurt herself if she falls on the sidewalk.

I couldn't even fathom the connection without having it spelled out for me. I, of course, completely ignored the whole conversation afterwards.


Wait... so nowadays kids aren't supposed to scrape their knees, elbows, arms, hands, and in fact basically everything?

Because that's what we did when I was young.


I don't recall pants ever helping in that regard.


There's also the problem of fear of litigation. I'm from a part of the world that is not as lawsuit-happy as the U.S. Amongst other things, medical treatment is very cheap here and people laugh at labels like "warning: device heats up when in operation" (seen on an iron made in the USA).


> I'm from a part of the world that is not as lawsuit-happy as the U.S.

This is because the safety net is non-existent here. If something really bad is about to happen, you know you're going to fall all the way down to the bottom. The solution? Sue the hell out of everybody.

> Amongst other things, medical treatment is very cheap here

Yup. Exactly the opposite in the US. When the hospital bill requires a second mortgage, covering the costs via money awarded in a lawsuit might be the only solution.


I think the absurdity is not lost on some of the people writing the copy for these safety warnings. For example, after Liebeck v. McDonald's (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_v._McDonald%27s_Restaur...), companies started printing tautological statements like "WARNING: HOT COFFEE IS HOT" on the cups.


I have a co-worker who is so risk-averse, she literally pushes her 4-year-old in the stroller to each piece of playground equipment - so she doesn't have to worry about running; even walking at the playground is forbidden for her child.

Yes, I'm a parent, but. . .


Free Range Kids is a good resource for helping parents feel like good parents when they fight the urge to hover and over-protect.

http://www.freerangekids.com/


Are you saying there weren't overprotective parents before? This thread is full of a lot of confirmation bias / society is going to hell in a hand basket type of discussion. Boy, kids these days, right? I'd like to see some facts because I don't find it very credible.


There have been a number of studies -- middle class children in Western countries now never go more than a couple of meters from their front door on their own.

Growing up in the late 60's in New England, my parents kicked us out of the house in the morning during summers and no one thought twice about us unless we didn't show up for dinner.

Children in American live under house arrest, they are used to having people with guns in their schools. They have no freedom to play, think or do much of anything which isn't scheduled. The whole concept of a "play date" is so twisted and sick as to be beyond comprehension. And all of this is because of some weird belief that children are in more danger today than any time in history. It's not true, the rates of child abuse, kidnapping, and everything else that parents are scared of haven't changed much from when I was a kid.

I would never ever raise a child in the States....


I'm raising 5 of them in the States right now. I freely ignore most of these social mores. In our neighborhood my kids are among the most popular playmates. They actually went out and found friends so most of the children in the area know them. We don't trap them in the house and in fact frequently force them to leave so they aren't glued to the computer or Netflix.

We've had broken bones, cuts, scrapes and other injuries but they all know how to do limited first aid and are pretty cool in a crisis. I'm not worried about them at all.

My experiences are entirely anecdotal but it's an example showing that you don't have to feel trapped by those social mores.


sounds like negligent parents waiting for a CPS visit to happen to enforce those social mores :) Fortunately, you seems to live among similarly "negligent neighbors".

Once, we picked up an obviously lost dog on a mountain road and dropped it at the first fire station after the phone on its collar resulted in a voicemail. It was during our 1st year in the US and the thing "what if the dog was stolen and we stopped by police while the dog is in our car" didn't even cross our mind. Now after 13 years here, i'm wondering what i'd do if it was say a child (and there is no collar with the phone to leave voicemail) ...


We got visited once. Turns out the CPS for the most part isn't really interested in Parents who love their kids enough to let them experience a little pain. They were there less than 30 minutes.


i knew that! :) you're just lucky to have negligent CPS as well :) Sounds like you're living in Negligent State of America ... err ... scrap that, as it is from another opera


You seriously had CPS called on you? By neighbors?


They don't tell you who reported you so I don't know who. As I said though it was basically a non-issue. They have to respond to reports but we were in no way considered a danger to our children. Others experiences may vary of course so don't generalize from mine.


I don't understand your last sentence. For most of what you list, nobody is forcing American parents to do this, they just choose to. Nothing stops you from letting your own children do things on their own.


There are numerous laws that enforce the no risk world on parents. These are things I did as a kid that are now illegal:

Rode in the back of a pick up truck Rode a bike without a helmet Sat in the front seat of a car before I was 8 years old. Swam in a pool that didn't have a fence around it Set off fireworks in the street in front of our house on July 4th Walked to and home from school alone (not illegal, but against the policy of our public school, and if we ignored it, I suspect we'd get a visit from child protective services).


Almost none of those are good ideas. Walking alone is an exception; it's very easy for one momentary lapse to cause death or permanent damage in any of the others.

One of mother's best friends died riding in the back of a pickup truck; car accidents are common, but all that happened in her case was that the road had a pothole, she fell, and happened to hit her head too hard and in the wrong spot.

My girlfriend in college fell on her bike while she was going down a hill and passed over some gravel. Her helmet was destroyed. All she needed was stiches, but if she hadn't been wearing a helmet, she probably would have gotten a concussion.

These are just anecdotes, but the point is that taking a small cost (riding safely in cars; wearing helmets on bikes) is far worth it, because the cost is small, and the benefit in the unlikely case is huge.

It's not illegal where I live to not wear seatbelts in the backseat of a car, but I do anyway. I also use condoms when I have sex, and I wash my hands after going to the bathroom.

There's a big difference between systematically overestimating small risks, and blithely allowing black swans to shit all over your life. I hope you never allow your child to do most of those things, and I hope you never do most of them yourself. The world isn't as scary as the TSA wants us to think, but it can still ruin your life in a heartbeat.


Almost none of those are good ideas.

You're right; riding in the back of a pickup truck is not a good idea. It's either a great idea and lots of fun for short distances on low-traffic roads at low speeds, or the only way to get work done because getting into and out of the cab takes too long.

it's very easy for one momentary lapse to cause death or permanent damage in any of the others.

As it is when swimming, hiking, driving, swallowing food, shaving, etc. Everything that's worth doing carries risk.

One of mother's best friends died riding in the back of a pickup truck; car accidents are common, but all that happened in her case was that the road had a pothole, she fell, and happened to hit her head too hard and in the wrong spot.

Just so I'm clear, I'm sorry to hear that. But that doesn't mean that nobody should ever do anything fun, ever, just that they should be mindful of the risks and take appropriate, measured, noninvasive precautions.


>As it is when swimming, hiking, driving, swallowing food, shaving, etc. Everything that's worth doing carries risk.

I don't think I could die if anyone made a momentary lapse of judgment on hacker news; and yet here we both are.


I'm here too, but be aware that sedentarity is one of the greatest real threats to people nowadays (threadmill desks are still not widespread).


The point isn't whether they are good ideas, but to illustrate that perception of risk really has changed. So much so that the anti-risk mentality has been codified. No kids wore helmets 30 years, now they have to by law. I'm just surprised that people would argue with the premise that people are more risk averse now.

With that said, while almost always ride with a bike helmet, when I was in NYC this summer, I joyously rode the Citibikes around without a helmet. I would have been a less happy, less human person if I took your advice and didn't ride around NYC just because I didn't have a helmet.


>I'm just surprised that people would argue with the premise that people are more risk averse now.

I'm very clearly not arguing with that, but there's a difference between the TSA existing and wearing bike helmets.

I'm glad you didn't die while riding without a helmet, but I don't think there's any core part of the human experience that depends on eschewing small, cheap safety practices for massive risks.


There are lots of social pressures to conform. It's also a lot harder to let your child spontaneously play with others if all the other parents require playdates before your kid can see their kids.


>Play date or playdate is an expression primarily used in the US for an arranged appointment for children to get together for a few hours to play.

This is from wikipedia. Pardon my language, but what the actual fuck. An arranged appointment for playing? I really feel sad for kids now in America.


Anecdote: at least one woman was arrested because her kids were playing outside:

http://www.abc15.com/dpp/news/local_news/water_cooler/texas-...


Where would you raise a child? It's no different in Canada.


Talk to some older folks.

My dad describes walking to school with other schoolchildren in Montreal in the 1950s. They'd be alone, without adults, going miles.

When playing, they were out dusk to dawn on city streets with no adult supervision.


I have talked to older people. I'm sure the 1930s were really when kids were raised right and learned the value of a dollar! And in the 1910s kids contributed to society by doing agricultural work. And in the 1890s...

I would absolutely not prefer to be living in the 1950s than in the 2010s. Society has improved in many ways in the U.S., particularly if you are not a white male, even if perhaps children aren't allowed to wander as freely in large cities. Perhaps Canada is different.


That's a straw man. No one said we should return to 1950. The point was that, on the specific issue of attitudes towards risk, we should be more like we were in 1950.


Like being afraid of Nuclear Armageddon?

But I get your point, the whole helicopter and intensive parenting should go. Though I do think it's caused somewhat by the excessive need to make children excel in a successively difficult and competitive society.


That proves nothing other than your dad grew up in a particular way.

The question the post you were replying to posed was: is this actually a new phenomenon? Or is it simply good ole day syndrome?

I suspect it's more the latter.


Well, the whole city was the same. It wasn't just his parents. And any other adult of the same age I've asked has described similar experiences.

Now I see daycare children on leashes in Montreal. Quite often. That didn't happen in the 1950s.

This isn't something' easy to quantify, unfortunately.


It's not just his dad. Watch Lassie or Leave it to Beaver or Andy Griffith and take notes on what was considered good wholesome parenting at the time. When I grew up in the 70s I'd say if anything the typical parent was even more hands-off. It was absolutely nothing like what is considered proper now.


they generally wouldn't show the beatings on broadcast television...


Do you have any anecdotes (or stronger evidence) to show that the sort of behavior lamented by some in our day existed (or was indeed rampant as your suspicions suggest) N years ago? (where N is anywhere between 20 and 200)?


I did the same thing in Toronto in the '80's, except for the walk to school bit, I was bussed then. I walked to the bus stop, across roads and whatnot.

You don't have to talk to people that old, the mass retardation of parents is a relatively new thing.


I did that and I'm born in the mid 80s (not the US). Today I don't ever see kids going anywhere by themselves.


Here's someone who was willing to accept some risk in order to help her son learn on his own:

http://www.nysun.com/opinion/why-i-let-my-9-year-old-ride-su...


I get dirty looks from other parents (and grandparents especially) when my daughter and son (5 and 4 resp.) are climbing and jumping off of things at the park. They've become quite talented at jumping from fairly high heights (relatively).


As a parent-to-be, this is the one thing that scares me most. You can't learn risk assessment while living in a bubble. Which means I'm going to have to watch my kids run into problems I know I could prevent because what they learn from the experience is more valuable than preventing the situation.

That is a terrifyingly difficult decision, given the potential consequences.


If you start very early, you'll give them the wherewithall to mitigate and avoid the worst situations.


Sounds familiar. The most scaring part is that one moment you rant and laogh at parents telling their children to carefull. And then you turn around, see you kid something you don't like and guess what you do? Exactly the same thing.

Only speaking for myself, but more often then not I just don't have the patience to NOT say it. But I try most of the time at least.


I think there's a huge difference between "be careful" and "don't do that". The former is just reminding the child to be mindful of their actions, which is a good thing. The latter is saying to avoid anything that could get you hurt even a little bit, which is very much not.


I'm a fan of this TED Talk: 5 Dangerous Things to Let Your Kids Do He explains some ways to help kids learn to be safe around dangerous things. http://www.ted.com/talks/gever_tulley_on_5_dangerous_things_...


Conversely I once genuinely heard this streaked by someone to the kids they were herding around a supermarket: "if you two want to run around and make noise, go do it in the car park". Perhaps she was too far the other way...


I joke constantly with my wife "Don't! You're going to break your arm!"

hilarious - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XBb-YYszLI


When you treat adults like children, and children like babies, you get exactly that. And that's why a hundred years ago 14-year olds were captaining their own ships, and today you have 40-year olds who can't do their own laundry or balance a checkbook.


I don't think there's that much of a difference between now and then, just people paying attention to different things.

I know kids who were certified to fly airplanes by themselves at 14. We don't let them captain ships anymore, but that doesn't mean there aren't any capable teenagers anymore, they just do other things.

There were plenty of useless humans around a hundred years ago as well. We don't hear about them much, because why would anyone talk about a random 40-year-old who can't balance a checkbook a century later? The capable people are the ones who get remembered. The less-capable ones don't tend to be remembered much outside their family, and within that, there are plenty of stories floating around about Aunt So-and-so who never moved out of the house, never got married, never found work, etc.


There are have actually been a few young people sailing around the world solo in the last few decades[1]. I'm sure for each of those there are many who perform more mundane tasks or have jobs doing things like ferrying or tours. It's perhaps not as illustrious as it once was. Instead of captaining a ship we now have young people starting companies, trading one kind of venture for another.

1. http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/eco-tourism/stories/5-teens-who...


I also wonder if it's related to decreased birth rates in modern times - parents have fewer children than a century or two ago, so losing a single child to an accident of some sort is much more costly to the family, hence the increased risk aversion.


I have another explanation: If you have more kids, you don't have time to watch after them all as much.


I doubt that losing a child has ever been less than awful no matter how many you have.


Certainly no less emotionally awful, but less economically consequential to the family. Incentives matter.


I'm sorry, but I'm going to call bullshit unless you can actually cite a reference showing some significant number of 14 year old ship captains in 1913.


If you count fishing and crabbing, and possibly ferrying, I would be unsurprised in the slightest.


David Farragut comes to mind, although I don't know if the plural (i.e., many 14 year olds) applies.


I found this article trite. It's merging 3 disparate concepts which have complex explanations, and deciding instead it's to do with risk.

Militarization of the police force is a big one for example - that has practically nothing to do with risk and everything to do with politics and budgeting. It's "tough on crime" writ large, with people then demanding to see the results of all the money being spent which isn't needed - so enter military surplus and suddenly every small town has an APC and a SWAT team but absolutely no need for one (and usually insufficient training). And once you have those things, every problem starts to look like it needs a SWAT response since you've got to justify having them.

Of course that's just one facet of it, there are others but it's totally disingenuous to pretend its some irrational fear of risk driving any of this.


Militarization of the police force is a big one for example - that has practically nothing to do with risk and everything to do with politics and budgeting. It's "tough on crime" writ large,

This seems like a contradiction. It has nothing to do with risk, yet the people who want it are the "tough on crime" type. Don't you think that those people see NOT being tough on crime as a risk?


To re-state sibling ryguytilidie's point: risk aversion is the root cause. Risk aversion is the reason why voters favor politicians perceived to be "tough on crime", feeding the whole process you described.


It was a lot easier to tolerate risk when people had a common Big Picture. This could be provided by religion, ideology etc. Such attitudes still hold in some places, e.g. Amish communities seem more resilient after school shootings [1].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amish_school_shooting#Amish_com...


And when the Big Picture is fractured, trust disappears.

I see the anti-vax craze as primarily an issue of trust and control. "I don't trust Those People (the doctors)" or along the lines of "I need to control everything, including my vaccine schedule".


Or perhaps, "I can't control nearly anything anymore, so I'm going to get super focused on those few things I still can control, like my child's vaccine schedule."

People have spent decades now having their lives turned upside down by forces they're told they can't control: market movements, giant corporations, unresponsive political systems. Rather than pushing back and trying to assert some control over those things, which would require collective action, they focus inward instead on those things in their lives that they know they can control. It almost doesn't matter if their interventions there make things better or worse; it's more about giving the feeling of being In Charge.

It's like the CEO of the failing company who spends all his time micromanaging the colors on the company Web site home page. He can't give an order that will turn the business around, but he can give an order to change those colors. Which makes him feel like he still has some control over the future, even though he really doesn't.


I like your version better.

After all, in modern society we delegate an awful lot of stuff. Shoe making to shoe makers, security to police and military, health care to doctors, teaching to teachers, etc. etc. etc. The stuff we delegate is so close to 100% of our lives, the actual difference is lost in the noise.

On top of that, the little that most people do control is meaningless to their own lives. You do customer support at Big Widget Factory Inc. How is that relevant to you?

Probably home schooling is also an offshoot of this phenomenon.


Your explanation sounds a lot like what certain studies have been showing.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/08/10/jennifer-silva-w...


I think it's motivated a lot by fear of autism, which contributes the vindictiveness. It also seems to be an offshoot of the anti-science left, which embraces natural food, loathes agribusiness, and prefers alternative medicine to the hated big pharma. I think it's grounded in Romanticism [1]. There's definitely a mistrust of doctors, but I don't see it as being generically about control.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanticism


Indeed. Repeated use of scapegoats like "communists" and "terrorists" may make up for our move away from religion as a source of shared ideology [1]

[1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scapegoating#The_.22scapegoat_m...


I'd wager that our increasing reliance on technology in all walks of life - education, anti-terrorism, policing, medicine, health etc. - also plays a role in fanning our fear of risk.

I _think_ technology tends to offer us two things: (a) an illusion of meaning, as risks are reduced to a discrete set of numbers in excel sheets or databases, and (b) a false sense of control, because we try all sorts of actions (like the ones Schneier mentions) to reduce some of those risks.

Then of course there is the cultural angle.

> Risk tolerance is both cultural and dependent on the environment around us.

I'm from India and our willingness to tolerate or overlook risk is fairly high (I don't mean that in a good way, because most of the times we are fairly blasé about our personal/collective safety or about taking preventive actions almost to the extent of devaluing individual lives). But, for what it's worth, we are therefore more willing to tolerate violent risks like the ones Schneier mentions for longer.

Note: 2011 Schneier reference to a research study analysing risk and culture - https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2011/09/risk_toleranc...


Sorry, but there is no remotely possible U.S. political world in which Afghanistan is not invaded after September 11. If avoiding military action after an attack on that scale is your standard for a "smart about risk" society, you'll be waiting a long, long time.


The U.S. could have participated only in targeted strikes against Al Qaeda, leaving the rest to local forces as a local matter that isn't our business, and not tried to occupy the country and engage in nation-building.

If they had done just a targeted strike against Al Qaeda, larger in scope but similar to what they did against Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, we probably could have gotten Bin Laden years earlier and not spent more than a decade trying in the morass that is Afghanistan.

Our mistake was deciding that we needed to get rid of the Taliban and build a democratic nation from what was left after they were gone. There was never any hope of that; the Taliban just fled to the hills, to Pakistan, or just blend in with the local population because many of them are the local population. We have failed at building a nation that can take care of itself after we leave; within a year or two, the Taliban will be in power again.


Overthrowing the Taliban was almost a prerequisite for those types of strikes. The initial strikes and action in Afghanistan by special forces and CIA were almost completely reliant on assistance from the Northern Alliance - for which over throwing the Taliban was always the goal.

The initial air strikes (unguided from the ground) were totally useless. It wasn't until they got SF/CIA on the ground working with the Northern Alliance that they could get it working.

In any case, it would never have been as simple as 'leave it to the local forces'.


The U.S. could have participated only in targeted strikes against Al Qaeda, leaving the rest to local forces as a local matter that isn't our business, and not tried to occupy the country and engage in nation-building.

This is more or less our current counterterrorism strategy in the wilds of Pakistan or Yemen. While I'm skeptical that such a strategy could have seriously damaged 2001-era AQ's ability to operate inside Afghanistan, I also don't think I'm qualified to debate its merits today. But that's not my point.

My point is that if another 9/11-scale attack occurred and the bad guys were in Yemen and the Yemeni government was not extremely helpful in bringing those responsible to heel, that "drones and spies" strategy could never be the limit of our response. It's just not politically practical, not even close. When Schneier talks about the "waste" of a war in Afghanistan, he should remember that the entire time Bush was sticking around trying to nation build, the Democrats were making political hay that Iraq was a sideshow and that we weren't spending enough attention/money/troops on Afghanistan. And indeed when a Democratic president was elected, he proceeded to spend more attention/money/troops on Afghanistan.

Once it was established that AQ was responsible for 9/11 and that the Taliban were not going to give them up on our terms, a major military incursion was politically inevitable. It's a little more dicey just how inevitable a long-term occupation was: President Gore presumably doesn't have to deal with an Afghani-Hawks-By-Convenience wing of his own party, and maybe gets out quick. But Schneier doesn't make this distinction: He seems to be imagining a world in which the war never happens at all because we properly measured its risks. I happen to think he's wrong about the risk/reward tradeoff of aggressively rolling up AQ and their support networks, but I'm sure he's being Utopian if he thinks he's in anything but a tiny minority who would be against a massive military response to another 9/11-like event.


If they had done just a targeted strike against Al Qaeda, larger in scope but similar to what they did against Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, we probably could have gotten Bin Laden years earlier and not spent more than a decade trying in the morass that is Afghanistan.

If it were so easy, they would probably have done that anyway as an opener. But it isn't.


In 1984, the US funded IRA bombed the entire UK government, nearly killed them all. The UK did not invade Northern Ireland or Ireland. The police investigated, made arrests and people were convicted.

Acting humanely is not that hard.


It did not 'nearly kill them all.' It killed five people, none of whom where in the cabinet although they were senior party members. The UK didn't have to invade Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland was (and is) UK territory and there was already a substantial active military presence. For about 25 years the British army sent fresh soldiers off to do a tour in NI to toughen them up.

In short, you have no idea what you're talking about.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brighton_hotel_bombing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles


Oh yes I do.

Sounds like you think the IRA were freedom fighters. Did you donate?

So, what is your definition of "nearly". The cabinet were in a hotel that had the holy crap blown out of it. What injuries would be good enough for you for "nearly"? We they not hurt enough for your definition? Or was it soem sort of collateral damage?

As it happens, I despised that Thatcher Tory government with a passion and always will. Trouble is, I tend to think targeting and NEARLY killing an entire government is probably worse.

On the other hand, two of my close relatives got hit by Harrods building materials as that blew up, and I was personally 15 mins off being blown up in the Guildford pub bombing. I experienced what US funded IRA were capable of.

Incidentally, to really mess with your head, I sort of support the idea of a united Ireland. Problem is, neither mainland Uk or Ireland actually wanted Northern Ireland... Glad we got the solution of self governance. It was always my logical solution. Govern yourself, and if you still want to blow each other up, well, go for it. Or, govern.

Buy yes my friend, I know a thing or two about Northern Ireland. And I will never ever forget, especially in this US age of "Terror", that the IRA were funded by American dollars, freely given by American people, not in any way frustrated by the US government.


> It did not 'nearly kill them all.' It killed five people, none of whom where in the cabinet although they were senior party members.

The article you quote says 5 were killed and 31 were injured...


link to US government funding? Or are you referring to private funding by US citizens?


Private funding. It's well known the ira raised funds from easy coast cities.


"It is known." Yea im aware of that... The comment I was replying to gave the impression that it was the USG specifically doing the funding.


I really liked how the US responded in Afghanistan in September-November 2001: sending in CIA and special operations forces to ally with anti-AQ and anti-Taliban forces, on a hundreds of millions of dollars total budget. That had almost all of the upside and virtually none of the downside of a big invasion.


A very good account of that part of the war is "First in: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan " by Schroen, Gary. He was the chief of the first CIA team to operate inside Afghanistan. A great read, just not what you´ll expect of a CIA operation, everything is donne in a much more "common sense" way than you may think.


Yeah, one of my favorite books.

Eric Blehm's "The Only Thing Worth Dying For" covers the same time from the perspective of the ODAs rather than CIA.

(The thing I still don't understand is what moron at Group decided to let the battalion leadership deploy to the field, rather than remaining behind. They caused a bunch of friendly fire incidents and generally lost the initiative CIA and the ODA/ODBs had gained. It seems like it was just a bunch of useless 1990s-military senior officers who wanted to have cool stories to tell.)


Thanks for the heads up. I am going to buy it today.


There's also no risk of the US being invaded by Afghanistan. The risk to the US was and is always very minor, akin to a tiny fraction of the number of people killed by cars or going to be killed by climate change. The US didn't have to spend trillions mitigating that risk, even if you assume those trillions did mitigate the risk.


The direct military risk was small. The risk to global stability and the markets via the risk to the price of oil as part of a complex of destabilizing elements was much larger than that, though whether you judge it as large or small itself depends on various opinions and definitions. However, if you're the sort of person who's going to talk about risks in terms of things like "killed by cars", it should be pointed out that taking action to protect the price of oil is not immediately obviously wrong. Raising the price of oil substantially affects millions, if not billions, of poorer people a lot, and could prevent entire economies from raising themselves out of poverty.

Which suggests that if you want to end the US's involvement in the Middle East, you should probably be vigorously supporting shale oil, even if you believe it may have some negative environmental impacts. If they no longer have a knife to the jugular of civilization as we know it, it's a lot easier to ignore them.


And did that invasion change anything? Were the Taliban or al Qaeda eliminated by that invasion? Did you notice that the exact same justification was used to attack neighboring Iraq?

Sorry, but I happen to have lived through that year and the years following, and I know that given an America that lived up to its own hype, an invasion was easily avoidable. It's just that such an America doesn't exist. Too bad for us all.


Even if the invasion was required, nothing required us to occupy the place for a decade and counting, turning it into a perpetual war.

Hook up with the Northern Alliance, bomb the hell out of their enemies, set them up, leave. They can't hold on to power? Oh well. The point has been made. The country returns to dictatorship and chaos? Well, that happened anyway.


You may recall the last time something like that happened to Afghanistan, it led to the whole civil war that resulted in the rise of the Taliban and AQ in the first place.


As opposed to this time, which is leading to a whole civil war that's probably going to result in the rise of the Taliban again?


Yes "adverse" consequences always occur in countries we don't understand and don't particularly care about, no matter what awful things we do to them. (Next door in Iran, how did that Mosaddegh coup turn out?) The only real argument is over how much wealth will be transferred to our military-industrial complex, and how many Senators will get to go on another junket as a result? On those questions, I vote "less" and "fewer".


The interesting question is to turn this point on its head.

The conventional wisdom (before 9/11) was it was "too risky" to fight back against hostage takers on an airplane. That bit of social engineering led to a huge force multiplier when trained pilots turned civivian aircraft into cruise missles.

So, the origins of 9/11 have to do with mis-understanding the real risks we face. The opposite of ignorance is education, however. Its not per-se a totalalitarian police state. Which is where we seemed to have ended up.


"That bit of social engineering led to a huge force multiplier"

Its possible to use this technique to predict the next set of attacks:

1) High levels of security theater mean long entrance lines in front of (perceived) high value targets. Therefore instead of attacking the high value target the security theater is protecting, the line of people waiting to enter gets attacked. I get nervous waiting in lines knowing any terrorist who isn't an idiot has their sights on me.

2) Whats the prevailing wisdom for suspected violence in a school? Lockdown, shelter in place, sometimes for hours. Perfect target conditions for a poison gas attack and/or arson. Yeah yeah I know what I'm told, but under actual attack I would have no desire to die so rather than shelter in place I'd GTFO as soon as the cattle herders start yelling. The safest armor against a weapon is being well out of its range, not a cheap door lock.

I would predict the odds of both of the above as near 100% in the near future. Its just logical. The next step would be to identify the perpetrators as mostly Saudi citizens (yet again) and therefore invade Iran. Or Syria. Or whoever else needs an excuse right now, while the bubbas back home wave flags to support the troops.


1) High levels of security theater mean long entrance lines in front of (perceived) high value targets. Therefore instead of attacking the high value target the security theater is protecting, the line of people waiting to enter gets attacked. I get nervous waiting in lines knowing any terrorist who isn't an idiot has their sights on me.

This isn't going to happen because a bunch of people in line at an airport isn't a high-value target. I mean it would suck, of course, but 'bunch of people get blown up at an airport' isn't nearly as worrying as 'large plane falls/is steered out of the sky and into downtown.' It doesn't have much value to terrorists because it's not as scary and it won't generate vast numbers of photographs.

Yeah, it seems obvious, but it's wrong. Because killing people is not the whole goal on terrorism. Making people panic is. We have lots of mass shooting incidents in the US, but there's relatively little political will to change the gun culture here because people are rarely (ie never) confronted with pictures of the aftermath. Similarly, if a line of people at an airport were killed, all the public would see would be ambulances and body bags. They would feel sorry for you but would not actually care that much on an emotional level. What made the 9-11 attack so clever, and devastating, was that the attacks were staggered in time so that you had people flying planes into some of the world's most famous buildings on live television. The last time anyone saw large amounts of stuff getting blown up for real on TV was during the first Gulf War.

Yeah yeah I know what I'm told, but under actual attack I would have no desire to die so rather than shelter in place I'd GTFO as soon as the cattle herders start yelling.

We have enough school shootings that we have some data on this. If you are running around trying to escape then a) you're an easily noticeable target and b) you're probably going to be in the way of law enforcement firing back at the shooter. I don't find your approach any more sensible than suggestions that everyone should be armed and that the possibility of a gun battle will be a sufficient deterrent. Given the number of people who engage in shootouts with the police, this is plainly not the case. Looking to sneak out makes sense, departing in a disordered GTFO fashion is just panic.


At risk of never flying unmolested again--you do realize that you've identified the lacking qualities in the aforementioned attack plan, and that those can be readily addressed by such simple actions as hitting more places at once over a longer period of time?

The entire point of the article is that that sort of a analysis is ongoing, is that when you try to deal with an opponent you are dealing with something actively exploring a solution space.

That's what makes the security theater so annoying--it's clear that there are a dozen ways to stage a successful attack were one so inclined, none of which would be stopped or even slowed by our current (or any forseeable) measure.

I think people need to realize that the number of Bad People in the world is really small, and that they shouldn't give up freedoms in hopes of somehow decreasing their exposure. Large state and private groups are much more harmful, especially because they turn Not Bad People into Annoyingly Inconvenient And Impersonally Malicious People.


That's what makes the security theater so annoying--it's clear that there are a dozen ways to stage a successful attack were one so inclined, none of which would be stopped or even slowed by our current (or any forseeable) measure.

Yes, but not a very large-scale one. You might like to consider that stuff like the NSA is also part of the security theater; the ambiguity over just what it is listening to, combined with the perception that it has a universal reach, primarily benefits the US in that it keeps antagonists awake at night worrying about the security of their own networks.

I think people need to realize that the number of Bad People in the world is really small, and that they shouldn't give up freedoms in hopes of somehow decreasing their exposure.

True, but it's also unrealistic to be indifferent to an obvious danger. I neither want nor intend to use the fire extinguisher in the corner of my kitchen, but I don't consider its purchase to be a waste of money.

Large state and private groups are much more harmful, especially because they turn Not Bad People into Annoyingly Inconvenient And Impersonally Malicious People.

I don't really agree with this - it's a retread of Rousseau's 'noble savage' theory. Of course, some people get radicalized is response to western actions, but some people are bigoted assholes to start with. Recall that one of Bin Laden's primary beefs was that the US had a military base on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia (by Islamic standards), and this was just intolerable. Disapproving of US military installations on your non-US soil is entirely reasonable, blowing people up over it is not. Although the US had hand tangles with AQ before 9-11 (eg the USS Cole bombing, among others), the western response had been quite restrained, indeed proportionate. I don't think it's the inherent fault of the west that AQ is built upon an a reactionary and quite absolutist religious viewpoint (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qutbism).

Now, I do think that when you consider Islam is ~1400 years old and look at where Christianity was at a similar stage in its history, it might well be that schisms, reformation, and sectarian violence are just stages that you would expect Islamic society to go through; but that doesn't impose any obligation on us to accept the role of punching bag.

I don't share your belief that scale is the problem, and if we just keep everything local and avoid the formation of large states or corporations we'd have peace.


This isn't going to happen because a bunch of people in line at an airport isn't a high-value target.

Tell that to the 35 people who died in a bomb-blast at Russia's biggest airport.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/24/us-russia-blast-ai...


OK, unlikely to happen. Did that make any great change in public consciousness? Obviously not.


Did that make any great change in public consciousness? Obviously not.

It was Russia, not the US. If you aren't russian you are unlikely to have any idea how it went over.

But more generally, "small" terrorist attacks happen way more frequently than the big ones, I expect that is because they are easier to pull off. White power types kill a handful of people each year in the US but you don't hear about them if you aren't tuned in because (a) they aren't brown (b) they are small events.


You're making my point for me. There are a fair number of small scale terror attacks, and they don't change things that much because they are small. I grew up in Ireland and the UK, I have had plenty of occasion to consider small-scale terrorism since it was a very frequent occurrence at that time.


I could have sworn your point was that small-scale attacks aren't going to happen because they aren't as scary.


The problem with both of those plans is that they involve attacking humans, in crowded places where heavily armed forces will rapidly respond and probably kill you as an attacker.

Terrorism now is focused more on systems disruption. Buy a $300 bomb, go to any one of bazillions of miles of pipeline, blow it up, cost the USG/Shell Corporation millions. Buy a cheaper bomb, go to any power substation, blow it up, cost the economy however much it loses and as a bonus, cost the government a bit of legitimacy as its denied the opportunity to provide services to its citizens.

If you truly are that confident, I'll put some money on the table at good odds (for me, since you're almost certain of winning). But if you're not truly 100% confident and can still be convinced, I recommend reading Brave New War, by John Robb. It's a fantastic overview of the tactics, strategies, and organization of modern (post Iraq occupation) terrorists. It comes very highly reviewed from higher-ups in the MEND insurgency.


Prior to 9/11, at least in the U.S., hijackers typically "simply" wanted money or to be flown elsewhere. As long as those demands were met, there were no casualties. So it wasn't that it was "too risky" to fight back - it was that hijacking was generally not considered life-threatening. The original reactions on 9/11 were not due solely to "social engineering", but to prior experience.


That high-pitched noise you heard was the point, zinging swiftly over your head. All the pre-9/11 "experts" who told us to bend over and let the goat enthusiasts have their wicked way with us, didn't do so in a nuanced, situationally-aware fashion. They said, "always cooperate with hijackers." The fact that organizations existed the purposes of which were to kill Americans and destroy American resources, was blithely ignored by the "experts". Only through long conditioning did they cow the general public enough that four or five dudes with really short knives could hijack a plane. While the last plane was still in the air, the general public realized what bullshit that had been.

When "experts" talk about "risk", it's never "things are pretty good and getting better". (I.e., it's never the truth.) They always want us to fear more, and as a result pay more. It's not different now.


No, didn't miss the point - just didn't agree. Pre 9/11, we didn't have a plethora of "risk" experts telling us what to do. Most people listened to news - good, bad, or indifferent - parsed it for themselves and acted accordingly - not according to what the seldom-heard-from experts said.


How old are you? How long ago did you start watching the news? Because your rosy description of news media in times past does not accord with my recollection. Keep in mind that CNN started in 1980, and has always been a parade of blustery talking heads, in between the on-scene disaster reports. A particularly vivid memory of "expert" opinion (of risks to children), much hyped in the media, later debunked: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanic_ritual_abuse#Investigat... Earlier in the last century "yellow journalism" featured the same sort of media output, but the reason that term fell out of use was not because Hearst died but because all journalism changed to that color. I mean, how was our war with Iraq different from our war with Spain?

It's tempting to see 9/11 as some sort of watershed, especially if it had a personal impact. In fact, it was just a bit more of the same. What the "experts" are telling us now, is also that.


So it wasn't that it was "too risky" to fight back - it was that hijacking was generally not considered life-threatening.

==What about the risk of <operating from the wrong premise>?


> U.S. political world in which Afghanistan is not invaded after September 11

Agree and I wish we would have done exactly that instead of conquering Iraq.


I'm currently sitting in JFK. I found this article interesting (as I do most of Schneier's writing) and almost read parts of it aloud to my wife who is sitting across from me. It then occurred to me that discussing rational responses to terrorism while sitting in an airport would likely be ill-advised...


It's probably the ideal forum.


"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." - FDR


I recently started a job in the aerospace industry, and it's still taking me a little bit of time to get used to the concept of risk, simply because it:

  1) is rarely addressed in education (nowhere in sciences nor humanitites)
  2) is an extremely "scary" word
  3) is difficult to visualize.
The combination of all three of these factors means that people don't realize that risk is an everyday thing: there are probabilities and outcomes that you need to weigh in order to make the decisions properly. Risk management is big if you're managing multi-million dollar contracts or huge rockets, but it seems to never filter down into the common psyche, which is disturbing. Humans have successfully managed risk to fly planes and go into space, so we have the models to make these decisions, yet we don't seem to be able to properly apply it on the ground.

Is the solution more education? I think so, but in a different light: people need to accept that bad things happen, and that you can model the probabilities and work out for yourself what tradeoffs you're making. Rarely is it all good and bad, and by estimating the expected value, you get the opportunity to say "no, this costs too much" in response to all-out "safety" measures.


This new trend of a kinderocracy is troubling to say the least. If we are not able to accurately assess risk, how will society at large manage social norms and not turn into a police state?

One of the main things that parents fail to realize is that most of the child abusers are actually not pedos in the park with slr cameras. "about 60% of perpetrators are non-relative acquaintances, such as a friend of the family, babysitter, or neighbor. About 30% of those who sexually abuse children are relatives of the child, such as fathers, uncles, or cousins. Strangers are perpetrators in only about 10% of child sexual abuse cases." -VA.gov http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/child_sexual_abuse...

My guess why society at large has actively been ignoring the reality of child is abuse is that we as humans and families obviously want to be able to "do something" to protect their children. Saying that non-relative acquaintances are the most likely to be abusers is not going to go over well, but hell I could be wrong.


I've been talking about risk for a couple years now.

Kids today have no idea what a reasonable risk is because most of them have not be allowed to make any life choices (or for that matter, any choices at all), so when they hit adulthood, they have no real idea whats a reasonable risk or not. I think we will see this effect odd parts of our society more and more as time goes on.


Bruce is always the voice of reason. Too bad the people in charge are the voices of insanity.


As Bruce points out, people who are personally responsible for things when they fail are not insane in being risk averse. From their perspective, they are just playing it safe. Maybe we should be finding a way to make no one personally responsible for failures. But this sounds counter-intuitive, as personal responsibility is acknowledged as an effective mechanism to make people do their work right.


> Maybe we should be finding a way to make no one personally responsible for failures. But this sounds counter-intuitive, as personal responsibility is acknowledged as an effective mechanism to make people do their work right.

I think that a good middle-ground is what happens with judges in most of EU. In most systems you cannot directly sue a single judge for some misconduct that happened during a process. What you have to do is to sue "the state". Another judge will then judge the matter but then it is you vs the state, not against a single person; it is the state that takes care of all the legal things and legal costs. This gives the judges the freedom they need to be severe but just. Without this protection they will always be afraid of being sued by the losing party, especially when the losing party is a big, rich corporation.

Obviously, to counterbalance this exceptionally high degree of defence enjoyed by the judges, the state usually punish the judge with a fine or a suspension. But the intermediation of the state is able to rebalance the risks: if you do something wrong you risk a big fine, but you will not be dragged personally in a 10-year process that will destroy your career and your finances.


Maybe we should be finding a way to make no one personally responsible for failures.

No, we need to stop making a small group of people, namely, the government, responsible for very large failures, by making them responsible for things that have a very large scope. Instead, a much larger group of people--i.e., everyone--need to each be responsible for a much smaller scope, so that no one person, or small group of people, has to bear by themselves the consequences of a large failure.


Our fear of risk associated with exploration comes to mind. Why haven't we sent someone to the Moon (again) or Mars?

Compared to early sailors, mountaineers, and polar explorers we seem to have lost the tolerance for dangerous exploration. Otherwise we should have by now sent a person on a (potentially) one-way trip to Mars.


My greatest fear is that it will never get better.


I think it can get better, but it's going to require a collapse of the whole system.


Maybe people drove after 9/11 to avoid the TSA -- not because they thought planes were riskier.


The TSA is an aberration of risk aversion, so Schneider's point still stands.


The pussification of America is not new.


If risk-aversion is the central issue here, there should be a higher risk involved with a) shooting or otherwise harming civilians when you're law enforcement, and b) taking away liberties when you're the lawmaker. But with a dysfunctional justice system and a voting system that cements the broken 2-party regime, this won't ever be the case.


Anyone else read this as "Our newfound fear of Riak"?

I got half way through the article until I re-read the title...


Hmm. Read this as "newfound fear of RIAK" - either spent too much time on datastores lately, or need my eyes tested.




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