Sorry, Mr bin Laden, sir…

AFTER the 9/11 attacks in 2001, federal authorities in the US began compiling a list of people deemed a threat to airline security and therefore not to be allowed on board commercial flights. The no-fly list quickly grew beyond the likes of Osama bin Laden to include many other names and aliases, some of which were hardly unique.

There was, for example, a “T. Kennedy” on the list, as a result of which Senator Ted Kennedy was delayed on a number of flights, even though his given name is Edward. The list also included “Cat Stevens”, the former name of the British singer who changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and who was banned from entering the US for some years. This led to Catherine Stevens, the wife of Senator Ted Stevens, being grilled by zealous Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers.

According to The Washington Times, security personnel have even been banning some federal air marshals from flying. Presumably these officers – who ride incognito on passenger jets, carrying weapons so they can foil hijackers – equip themselves with ample ID, but even so they have trouble talking their way on board if a name matching theirs is on the list.

“Joshua Hall tells us that outside the Royal Mail sorting office in Salisbury, in the south of England, there are two adjacent slots for posting letters. The sign above them reads: “Please Use Both Letterboxes””
The good news is that the TSA seems finally to have grasped that in a nation of 300 million people there may be more than one person sharing a particular name, and has announced that if your name happens to match one on the no-fly list, all you need to do is provide the airline with your date of birth. This can be stored on their database to show that you’re not the person they suspect you might be.

However, “bad people” have birth dates too, and the TSA may not know them all. So how will the TSA be sure that the date of birth you provide isn’t that of a potential malfeasant, and that you and the malfeasant aren’t one and the same person? Come to that, what will they do if you aren’t the same person but your birth dates happen to match?

Oxygen of publicity

DRINK it up! “Helps with jet lag and fatigue, boosting your immune system, hangovers, fresher looking skin and purifies drinking water.” John Brown was intrigued, and not only by the unusual grammar. This was not just another quack cure. This was on sale exclusively from the duty-free trolley on Continental Airlines.

What was it? Liquid oxygen, that’s what. As Astronomer Royal for Scotland, John Brown is perhaps better informed than some passengers about the properties of oxygen – and he certainly wonders, as does Feedback, about the advisability of carrying it in aircraft cabins, let alone selling it to passengers in small bottles with a dropper.

“Just add it to water, juice, or directly under your tongue, to revitalize while you are flying,” the label continues. “Bottle provides two months supply. Family friendly, safe and healthy for everyone, every day.”

Since the label says it’s liquid oxygen, who are we to argue, though we can’t help thinking that it might merely be a liquid that releases oxygen, like hydrogen peroxide – the possession of which has got people locked up in the UK’s high-security Belmarsh jail facing terrorism charges. They wouldn’t be selling something like that on planes, after all. Would they?

What’s that in Rhode Islands?

DID you know that 1000 grams equals 6.7 human kidneys, 1.7 basketballs or 7.1 wireless computer mice? Nor did we, so we are grateful to Dion Dermott, Lydia Hopper and Peter Hay for directing us to, which converts sensible units into not-so-sensible ones if you ask it to.

Meanwhile, Matt Buck directs us to two Wikipedia pages on the subject. One, accessed via, attempts to give you a handle on such “units” as double-decker buses and football fields, while the other, available via, details units like the helen. This is the amount of beauty required to launch a thousand ships – so a millihelen is the beauty required to launch one ship.

Our own research took us to, which lists conversion factors between imperial and metric weights and measures. Nothing odd about that, you might think, except that it includes the fact that one ounce equals 28.35 grams, whereas one apothecaries’ ounce equals 31.1035 grams. Is this a sensible unit or a silly one?

Massage for masochists

FINALLY, Stephen Ward’s local physiotherapy clinic emailed him a newsletter telling him, “Remember, you’re a human being, not a human machine! Slow down. Make some time just for yourself. Your [sic] deserve it! Why not try a relaxing and distressing [sic] massage.”

As we confirmed for ourselves, and as Ward preserved in the screen shot he grabbed, until recently they said the same thing on their website, but now they’ve corrected it.

From issue 2664 of New Scientist magazine, 09 July 2008, page 80