Shocking Things The TSA Gets Away With


To many people, airport security is something of a necessary evil — a royal pain in the behind that they tolerate because ultimately, it’s designed to keep us safer. But a new study into the Transportation Security Administration raises questions about just how well the agency actually protects us. Airport screeners have been accused of everything from sleeping on the job to stealing and accepting bribes. And many are not really penalized for their actions.

An audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed some shocking behavior by TSA agents stationed at airports around the country. In several instances, agents were found sleeping while on duty. Other agents might as well have been asleep given that they allegedly let people pass through to the secure zone of the airport without actually going through the screening process.According to the report, the agency has processed 56 cases of theft by TSA agents over the past three years. That included one agent at Orlando Airport who confessed to swiping more than 80 laptops from passengers. (These neglected to make an appearance on the agency’s new Instagram feed of confiscated goods.) Other disciplinary issues involve things like “neglect of duty,” credit card abuse and even bribery. In one such case last year, TSA agents were accused of pocketing bribes from drug traffickers in Los Angeles.

TSA Agent asleep
TheeErin, Flickr

The number of allegations against TSA employees runs well into the thousands, but the GAO says few of the agents were adequately punished for their behavior. In some cases, TSA agents were disciplined by their superiors after very little investigation, while in others, agents guilty of misconduct barely received a slap on the wrist.

The findings of the audit are unfortunate for an agency already facing public scrutiny. Just recently, the TSA came under fire for telling a 15-year-old girl that her clothes were too revealing. They have also been criticized for racially profiling passengers, and aggressively screening young children.

Gadling Gear Review: Dream Water

TSA restrictions mean that I can only give up so much space in my bag to concoctions. I like the idea of somewhat more natural ways to get over the jitters and sleeplessness of travel, but there was no way I was going to pack Dream Water, a TSA-friendly-sized product that claims to help you sleep, for a carryon-only, big trip. A recent overnight seemed like the ideal scenario for checking it out.

What is this stuff, anyway? It’s a mix of melatonin, GABA, 5HTP and a few other things, in a 3-ounce serving that you can slurp down before you go to bed (or if you can’t sleep on the flight).

Here’s how I tested it, giving up my innards for science. I slugged back one dose the night before I had a dawn flight and the other in my hotel room in L.A. where I had a one-night stay. I typically sleep badly in both those scenarios. Early morning flights have me waking up repeatedly the night before I fly. And I need three or four days on the road before my inner security system mellows enough to let me sleep well in strange places.How’d it work? Well, okay … I guess. I was genuinely sleepy after taking it at home, I crashed pretty hard in my own bed, though I did not stay asleep any more than I usually do. And in my hotel, well, the “enthusiastic” couple in the next room assured that even if I was going to sleep, I was not going to do so until they finished their exertions.

If you want to know more about what’s in this stuff, there’s a breakdown on Dream Water’s natural ingredients page. You’ll have to do your own sleuthing if you want to know more about what exactly GABA, melatonin, and 5HTP do for your sleep. I have tried all kinds of things to overcome travel sleeplessness and I find that a combination of melatonin at night and sunshine by day is the best solution, though I’ve been known to pack pharmaceuticals for time changes that are more than three or four hours. Jet lag is a drag, right? That’s why I was up for trying this even if it carves into my limited space for liquids in the carryon.

But my results were inconclusive. I’m not convinced I couldn’t get the same results by taking melatonin, a remedy many of travelers swear by. I didn’t love the taste – it’s weirdly artificial – but that’s not what makes me raise my eyebrows. It’s that while I did fall asleep pretty fast after drinking a dose of this stuff, I didn’t stay asleep any longer than I usually do, either at home or while traveling. I didn’t have any weird side effects either; that’s good, but sleep is precious and I’d have liked to get more of that.

The folks that distribute Dream Water say it’s available now in lots of airports on the other side of the security wall, so if you want to try it out on your long-haul flight, try picking some up at the airport. Right now, a six pack is $38.99 directly from Dream Water but there are much better prices if you look around. If you want to try it yourself, there’s a promo for a single serve, you pay shipping and handling of about $3. Me, I’ll stick with melatonin and a nightcap.

Highway Hypnosis And How To Avoid It

hypnosisI’ve logged about 4,000 road miles (all solo) in the last few weeks, most of it in stunningly monotonous landscape. Fortunately, I’ve never fallen asleep at the wheel, but I’ve definitely had to pull over for a power nap on a number of occasions in the past.

What I tend to get is “highway hypnosis,” also known as driving without attention mode (DWAM), or “white line fever (I always thought that was a reference to a different kind of white line, but what do I know?).”

Highway hypnosis is a trance-like mental state brought on by the monotony of the road. In other words, you’re zoning out, and while one part of your brain is still able to operate your car, the other half is in la la land. If you’ve ever driven a stretch of highway and have no memory of it, you’ve had white line fever, baby. The important thing to take away from this is that it’s nearly as dangerous as nodding off at the wheel.

A 2009 survey conducted by the CDC cited that nearly five percent of adults had fallen asleep while driving in the past 30 days. Those are some scary statistics, as are those from a 2007 National Sleep Foundation poll that stated more than one-half of American drivers (at the time, over 100 million people) had driven while drowsy.

Thousands of people die every year due to drowsy-driving and highway hypnosis-related crashes. Some experts claim falling asleep at the wheel is more dangerous than driving while intoxicated, because you have zero reaction time. With highway hypnosis, your reaction time is so compromised, you may as well be asleep.

With Labor Day weekend looming, I thought I’d provide some tips on how to avoid highway hypnosis, and what to do if you need to pull over for some zzz’s, after the jump.roadPreventing highway hypnosis

  • Listen to music. When I’m getting tired, it has to be loud, fast, and I have specific songs to get me going.
  • Avoid driving at times you’d normally be asleep.
  • Avoid driving on a full stomach. I will attest to the dangers of this. Before driving back from Santa Fe a week ago, I devoured a final carne adovada plate – with posole and a sopapilla – to tide me over until my next New Mexican food fix. I regretted it the second I got behind the wheel, and no amount of caffeine could help.
  • Caffeine, caffeine, and more caffeine, but if it makes you want to jump out of your skin, know when to cut yourself off. An edgy, irritable driver is a danger as well.
  • Roll down the windows for some fresh air.
  • If you have a headset or Bluetooth, call someone to help keep you alert.
  • I play mental games, like testing my memory or recalling conversations.
  • Take regular breaks to stretch your legs.
  • Shift around while driving. I use cruise control so I can bend my right leg, and I also do one-armed stretches and neck stretches.
  • Keep your eyes moving to avoid zoning out. I also keep eye drops on my console because mine get dry on long drives.

energy drink
Time out

  • If you need to pull over for a power nap at dusk or after dark, don’t choose a rest area (great for pit stops, not exactly known for savory characters, even during daylight hours). Find a well-lighted, busy location, like a gas station, fast food restaurant, or large hotel parking lot if you can swing it. Personally, I avoid stopping at deserted rest areas all together.
  • Keep your cellphone charged and at the ready in case of emergency.
  • Lock all of your doors.
  • Crack a couple of windows, but no more than a few inches.
  • If you’re in the middle of nowhere and just can’t stay awake, you may have no other option than to stop at a pull-out or side road. Just try to avoid this if at all possible and drive to the next exit.
  • Be honest with yourself: if you know a nap isn’t going to cut it, suck it up and get a motel room, campsite, or sleep in your car. Being behind schedule sucks, but being dead: much worse.

[Photo credits: hypnotism, Flickr user elleinad; road, Flickr user Corey Leopold; rockstar, Flickr user wstryder]

Watch this video to learn how peppermint oil and a really bad hairstyle can help keep you alert!

How To Stay Awake Without Caffeine

Sleeping In Seattle: The Consequences Of SAD

depressionI recently mentioned my somewhat reluctant decision to relocate from Seattle when the right opportunity presents itself (A job and nice one bedroom in Berkeley, North Oakland or Boulder anyone? Anyone?).

While my move was precipitated by a layoff in February, I’ve known for a year that a relocation was necessary, regardless of my affection for my adopted city – despite my beautiful, relatively affordable apartment just two blocks from Lake Union and my peaceful, tree-lined neighborhood full of pretty houses brimming with gardens and backyard chickens. Even though I can walk everywhere, crime is virtually nonexistent and my landlord rocks.

The real reason I’m leaving Seattle is because I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and arthritis (due to a bizarre infectious disease acquired in Ecuador three years ago). SAD is thought to result from a shift in the body’s circadian rhythms, due to changes in sunlight patterns (think of how certain mammals hibernate in winter). Shorter, darker days also increase the amount of melatonin, a hormone linked to the regulation of sleep and waking, released by the pineal gland. Perhaps my being a Southern California native is to blame (although I’m officially a resident of Colorado…it’s complicated, I know).
seasonal affective disorderIt took me a long time to commit to a move to the Pacific Northwest, despite my love of the region, because I was concerned about the climate. But, like many before me, I was seduced by a record-breaking Seattle summer three years ago when the temperature soared into the upper 80s and the sky remained a clear, vivid blue. The job prospects appeared promising and an incredible sublet fell into my lap. I was in Seattle for the weekend for work and a month later, I was living there. It was like I’d hijacked myself.

My friend Chris has lived in Seattle since 1994. We were hanging out during my visit when I announced I was going to move. “It’s not usually like this,” he cautioned. I was busy gaping at Mt. Rainier in the distance.

He didn’t lie. I’ve been waiting for the weather to be like that ever since. I was filled with anticipatory dread before my first winter, which is why I’d initially only committed to a sublet. It turned out to be the mildest winter Seattle had seen in years, causing me to mock the locals I’d met. “Just wait,” they told me ominously (for a different viewpoint, check out my Gadling colleague Pam Mandel’s ode to Seattle winters, here).

The last two winters – which have been harsh, even by Seattle standards – have kicked my ass. It’s not the “snow” we’ve gotten; I love snow. But Colorado averages 300 days of sunshine a year, and it has a tolerable, dry cold. Seattle cold seeps into the bones, and summer is a negligible term for most of that season. I actually didn’t realize I had post-infectious arthritis until two years ago, when the Fourth of July dawned wet and dismal, and my joints felt like they’d entered their golden years overnight.

Since then, I’ve experienced varying intensities of arthralgia in my hands and knees as well as low-level to serious fatigue. As a runner, this was problematic and my depression increased because I had turned from physically active, adventurous outdoor fanatic to couch potato. I often required daily naps, which wracked me with guilt.

Not until last summer, while visiting my former home of Boulder, Colorado, did I fully realize the impact Seattle was having on my physical and mental health. On my first morning, to quote a SAD-suffering friend, I felt like “someone had turned the world’s lights back on.” I marveled at the sunshine and warm air. I shocked myself by effortlessly doing a three-mile run – the first half uphill. Every day, I stayed outside until sunset. My arthritis had vanished. I felt like me, again: the spaz who can’t stand to be indoors when the sun is shining. I was productive and active and a much, much happier person. I had the same experience while in northern Chile in August.

I returned to Seattle and wham! I morphed into the worst of the seven dwarfs again: sleepy, grumpy and lazy. Work circumstances forced me to postpone a move, and it seemed like every day it was either pissing rain or the sky was low and leaden. I had difficulty concentrating on work, and was irritable and overemotional. Desperate, I sought the care of an excellent psychiatrist, who combined talk therapy with antidepressants.sun

While getting laid off sucked, it was also a strange relief. The one thing tying me to Seattle was gone. The thought of leaving is disappointing, but life is too short to live embedded in the couch. The economy is picking up in the Bay Area and I’ve had some very promising job leads.

It’s hard to admit that the color of the sky exerts such influence over your mood. However, I’m not alone; according to Mental Health America, three out of four SAD sufferers are women.

My advice: the sooner you admit it, the sooner you can get on with living. Whether you require phototherapy, antidepressants, extra Vitamin D, counseling, acupuncture, warm-weather vacations, or relocation, the bottom line is that SAD is very real and can have a devastating impact upon your quality of life as well as your personal and professional relationships and career. And, like a romance that’s not quite right, it’s not worth sticking it out. Me? I’ve decided that Seattle is ideal for the occasional weekend fling.

Signs you may be suffering from SAD (these symptoms are most likely to occur in winter, but some forms of SAD do occur during the summer)

  • Inability to concentrate or increase in irritability
  • Feelings of sadness, unhappiness, or restlessness
  • Fatigue and/or lethargy
  • Anxiety
  • Increase in appetite/weight gain
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increase in sleep and daytime sleepiness
  • Loss of interest in work and activities you once enjoyed

Where to get help:

Talk to your health care provider, who can refer you to a specialist. For additional information and support, check out the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA) website.

[Photo credits:girl, Flickr user Meredith_Farmer; clouds, Flickr user CoreBurn;sun, Flickr user Warm ‘n Fuzzy]

Home Moving Tips

SkyMall Monday: Pillow Speaker

SkyMall Monday pillow speakerWhile some people enjoy falling asleep to the soothing sounds of music or the television, the noise can disturb others. Whether you’re at home trying to sleep next to your spouse who prefers peace and quiet or on a plane where you want some background noise to drawn out the passengers around you but also don’t want to disturb them, trying to sleep while also listening to music can be a challenge. I know that I enjoy listening to music while sleeping on planes but I also don’t want to be that guy providing a soundtrack for everyone within five rows. So, finding a way to listen to music, sleep and do it all discreetly is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an economy class seat. Thankfully, SkyMall knows that headphones can be uncomfortable when you’re sleeping and people prefer to rest their heads on their own pillows. That’s why they sell a product that combines the sleep benefits of a pillow with the audio abilities of speakers. That’s right, it’s the Pillow Speaker.It may be easy to sleep with headphones in your ears while you are seated upright on a plane, but that isn’t the case when you’re laying in bed or curled in a first class lay-flat seat. That’s where the Pillow Speaker comes in. You simply plug your iPod into the pillow, rest your head as you normally would and enjoy your music through the speaker built right inside. Who doesn’t want audio components stuffed into their pillows? You can’t spell comfortable without treble*.

Think that listening through headphones is the only polite way to enjoy your music when other people are around? Think that pillows should only be filled with feathers? Well, while you toss and turn all night, we’ll be dreaming about the product description:

No batteries or ear-buds are necessary — you can use the MP3 Pillow Speaker to enjoy music or TV without disturbing others. A great gift for teens or adults, the MP3 Pillow Speaker also helps relieve stress and tension as you drift off to sleep listening to soothing sounds from your audio source.

One must assume that the speakers maximum volume is quite low if it won’t be disturbing anyone around you. That, or since everyone else around you will have the headphones on, they won’t hear your pillow. You’ll be free to relieve stress and tension as you drift off to sleep listening to the soothing sounds of Gwar.

Don’t torture your ears with uncomfortable earbuds. Fall asleep listening to your favorite music while also enjoying your own pillow thanks to the Pillow Speaker. Just don’t turn the volume up too loud or listen to audiobooks of trashy romance novels while in public.

* Not at all true.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.