Murphy's Law: Use It, Or (Quietly) Lose It

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January 3, 2010: A Utah newspaper, using U.S. Air Force readiness reports obtained through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, revealed that the air force had, after September 11, 2001, bought $23 million worth of NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) weapons detection gear. The equipment was distributed to major bases, to increase defenses against terrorist attack. The newspaper headlines concentrated on the fact that, since then, much of the equipment had been unused, not maintained and, in some cases, no longer accounted for.

The real scandal here is that these kinds of purchases, made with great fanfare and publicity, rarely provide any security, and actually decrease safety. The problem is that when these devices sound an alarm, it's usually a false one. And the few times they actually do detect something, it's a legal item, like nuclear material used for medical purposes, or some innocent chemical that, under certain conditions resembles (to a chemical or biological weapon detector) something dangerous.

Security personnel, especially in dangerous times, have a lot to do. More work than the security personnel can handle. So what usually happens? Actions that serve no apparent purpose (like NBC detectors that cause false alarms, which require a lot of running around and paper work to deal with), are quietly put aside. This sort of thing commonly happens in wartime, in combat zones. When troops receive some new gadget, that seemed like a great idea back in the lab, but kind of sucks out in the field, they quietly, or otherwise, dispose of it.

The users of these well-intentioned gadgets, don't really want to create a lot of bad publicity. The troops realize that some of the gadgets they get are useful, and that even the best engineers and scientists have their bad days. Same deal with grandstanding politicians throwing money at a (real or imagined) problem. Best to just put a good face on it, take the goodies, and hope that it might be something useful. If not, keep quiet, so as not to discourage such generosity in the future.

 


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