LEVI McPHERSON, a graduate student of analytical chemistry at the University of North Central Florida, is approached by agents of the Homeland Security’s Counter-terrorism Unit. The agency is recruiting Lee to study and expose the loopholes of screening instruments in airports. Struggling financially, he accepted the offer, making him a paid, benevolent hacker of the nation’s gateway. Yet Levi is horrified when an Airbus from Los Angeles disintegrated in mid-air.

At 40, when everybody’s career trajectory is going up, Levi’s still a poor graduate student, struggling financially. His research projects however, are worth million dollars. Researching the highly classified and heavily guarded secrets of detecting traces of explosives, what Lee know was a goldmine. The agency's offer is his financial break . So Levi tackles the problem like a scientist, detailing the loopholes of the aviation security and turning what he knew into a big time money machine.

JIM and JONATHAN of the counter-terrorism unit, where nowhere to be found after Charlotte International Airport, a hub of Delta Airlines closed abruptly because of instrument malfunctions in their security lines. And in a post-Osama Bin Laden’s era, the biggest blow to the United Stated after the 9/11 disaster comes unexpectedly when a passenger plane blew up in the skies of Washington D.C., in the heart of the nation.

Levi knew it was only the start of more troubles, so he recruits his fellow graduate students to counter the future attacks. They have to think like criminals—and scientists too. With the help of FBI counter-terrorism experts, Homeland Security and Transportation Security Agency, the team races to close and plug the loopholes Lee identified.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

How to Lose a Superbowl Gamble

American football season is winding down, culminated by Superbowl XLII (42). Everybody will be watching, and some people will be placing a bet. I'm a sports fan and I log a lot of hours watching ESPN. If stockbrokers watch the rise and fall of the market and makes money by placing bet on stocks, a sports fan should also.

Plan A was to rely on statistics to pick a team to place a bet on. ESPN's analyses are littered with numbers: total yards, total rush, completion efficiency of a quarterback, touchdown to interception ratio, etc.. I've learned early on that statistics don't mean anything. Even though 76% of the Sports Nation predicted that New England will win this year's Superbowl, it's not a guarantee that the Patriots will (I checked the statistics again, it's down to 64%. Is it because Tom Brady is injured?). Again, statistics doesn't mean anything. Statistics are only figures to describe a model. To quote my professor before " Figures don't lie, but liars figure". Here's a new one I got from a seminar, it's called the Gaussian Nugget; "(Computational) models are to be use, but not believe" (Rephrased from Econometrics). Even the people who made a career using statistics once said "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them." (Richard J. Herrnstein). If I can't rely on statistics, I need an alternative way of beating the house in Vegas. Scrap plan A.

Plan B came two years ago when a local news featured an elephant from a Texas zoo. This elephant had predicted the past 5 winners of the Superbowl. The handlers of the animal will show the logo of the teams vying for the championship ring and then the animal will predict the winner by pointing the team's logo. Five straight years, the animal was right. A 5-year winning streak, an unblemished record.

There are anecdotal evidences that animals can predict the coming of an earthquake. If animals can predict when an earthquake will strike, then they should predict winners of big games. Faultless logic.

That year, the elephant predicted the Seattle Seahawks over the Pittsburgh Steelers. With a little bit of hesitation, I went on-line, placed a wager on the Seahawks using my credit card.

The Seattle Seahawks lost the game, and I lost some bucks--money down the drain. I told my friend about the incident, he laughed and gave me an advice to only bet on sure things.

This year, I haven't recieved any superbowl party invitation yet; so this Sunday, most likely I'll be watching the game in my living room, on a high definition flatscreen TV, rooting for the New York Giants, but no gambling. There's no Plan C yet. I will be watching the game downing couples of beers with a bruised ego. I thought I beat the house in Vegas. Prediction and a guarantee are two different things. Damn animal!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Written Exams and Coffee

Preparing for my last written cumulative exam (out of 8), I followed my routine for the past months: a visit to my favorite starbucks coffee shop, check the library for references and then sit on my favorite study table at the science library. Then I'll be reading for the next 8 hrs. A full time job. Although I hate to take exams, I don't mind studying, that's why I can't believe I'm paid to study (and do research, teach undergraduate students).

As I was paying for my coffee, I heard the guy next to me asking for the "strongest coffee" starbucks can offer.I don't need the strongest kick to study for this exam, because this will be my last (mosdef, most definitely). Besides, I only need a half pass (Grad school is wierd, they have whole pass and half pass), and to top everything, I am allowed to bring a "cheat sheet". The "cheat sheet" will be my small notebook, with all the formulas and thoughts I gathered from the readings.

Sturbucks and preparing for an examination is perfect combination. Trust me, I'm a professional graduate student. Without coffee, my attention span decreases to an hour, instead of 3.

Friday, January 4, 2008

New Year 08

Everybody usher in the new year differently. Mine is simple and traditional: I write resolutions and keep them. How? I compose goals for the year in bold letters, stick the reminders on a huge corkboard in front of my bed so everyday of the year, I can see my goals. Psychologists call this "constant feedback". By being constantly reminded by your list, you are more likely to achieve the goals you set.

I don't have a wallet, only a money-clip. Sandwiched between the money-clip are my credit cards, my school ID and my driver's license. In addition to my yearly goals, buried between my credit cards is a small note with the list of my yearly and lifetime goals.

During the waning moments of the 2007 BCS Championship, University of Florida head football coach Urban Meyer was reading a note from his pocket. When a reporter asked him after the game what the note was, he replied, "It's too personal to discuss, but I had kept it for almost five years now in my pocket". I bet my whole life that the note is a list of his goals (and one of it is surely winning the BCS Championship). He's a psychologist, an expert motivator and a world-class coach, he knows the strategies in achieving goals.

So what are my goals for the new year? It's to personal to discuss. Did you make a list for yourself?(and by the way, things that I usually do during the first week of a new year are:

a. Change my passwords. Passwords are like underwears, you constantly change them, and just like any underwear, you don't show them to anybody :)

b. Clean my computer desktopc. Back-up my data. Transfer all the previous year's data to an external hard drive.d. Check my bicycle gears and breaks.e. Read magazines I missed during the previous year. Clean my email mailboxes.among other things)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Face of a Nation

After a long 11- hour flight from the Philippines (at the other side of the globe relative to the US), I arrived groggy at the Los Angeles International Airport. I waited impatiently for my papers to be updated by the Immigration, US Custom and Border Protection ( I can't remember the agency's real title).

Lining up waiting for my turn, I wathced the TV for advisories. From the TV tube came a black person barking orders to visitors how to fill up the declaration papers. You need to declare foods, agricultural products and money more than $10,000 before entering the US. This is one way to protect the nation from unknown diseases. From the TV announcement again was a white person talking about border patrol and then a hispanic lady adding some comments. The advisory ended with a slogan saying " US Custom and Border Protection, the face of our nation".

I then realized, the face of the US nation is actually faces ---because the U.S. is a melting pot of cultures. When it was my time to be interviewed, it didn't bother me that the officer didn't spoke perfect english. Officer Nguyen is Asian, specifically Vietnamese. It didn't bother me when he didn't understand my english telling him I'm a graduate student in analytical chemistry.

Since I was beaten by the long travel, I made some mistakes filling up the papers. Out of boredom, officer Nguyen jokingly asked me with authority on top of his Vietnamese accent, "You don't want to make mistakes in chemistry right? You don't want to mix things that will explode?". Of course I will not. But because probably of my accent, he heard otherwise, and I insisted I'm an analytical chemist, who detects traces of the dangerous materials instead of making it.

After the officer stamped my papers, took my fingerprints and photo, I was out to get my bags from the carousel, preparing for my other ordeals: another 4-hour flight to Chicago and then a 2-hr flight to Florida, my adapted State. It will not surprise me to see the many faces of the United States along the way, in the airport, the coffee shop, and intersate 95.