Moar adventures with the TSA

I forgot to note that, on leaving Chicago for Houston, I was again groped on the buttocks by the avid agents of the Transportation Security Administration. Once again the see-you-naked machine showed a yellow patch on my lower back, and so I was once again thoroughly goosed. (The same patch showed up a short while ago when I went through security at Houston’s Hobby Airport, but they just swiped my tuchus lightly.) I’m not sure what it is about my rump and lower back that sets off these machines, but I swear that I haven’t had buttock implants, and there’s no metal in there.

In Chicago, they not only goosed me, but swabbed my hands AND my computer for explosives (none were found). I have no idea why they did this.

But the saddest thing I saw was this guy in a wheelchair in Houston, who got the most thorough examination I’ve ever seen. I didn’t want to take a lot of photos with my camera, but I saw them not only pat him down thoroughly, but put their fingers underneath his waistband and run them completely around his body.  I can imagine what that felt like! And then they patted down every part of his body and thoroughly inspected his wheelchair. I’m starting to get damn sick of this stuff. What about this man made them think he was more of a potential terrorist than anyone else?

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  1. eric
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    What about this man made them think he was more of a potential terrorist than anyone else?

    AIUI, its simply that the sitting posture and presence of loads of metal make it easier to conceal weapons and bombs.

    • Ann German
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      It was the beard – profiling

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I think the swabbing of the computer and hands is random. I’ve had it done sometimes over all my electronics.

  3. Posted April 11, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, in your case, “TSA” most decidedly stands for, “TOUCH SOME AR5E,”

  4. Michael Day
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    TSA: “We like evolutionary biologist butts and we cannot lie…”

  5. steve oberski
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    According to a recent slashdot article, the TSA Paid $1.4 Million For Randomizer App That Chooses Left Or Right.

    The app randomly chooses whether travelers go left or right in the Pre-Check lane so they can’t predict which lane each person is assigned to and can’t figure out how to avoid the random checks.

    • ploubere
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      $14 mill! I would have made it for $50k, and still felt guilty for overcharging.

    • Sarr
      Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      They paid HOW MUCH for a random number generator?!?! They coulda just used for fucks sake!

      • Lurker111
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        Or a used Bingo machine. Odd balls go to the left; even balls go to the right. No more balls? Reload.


        As far as that goes: Vegas blackjack shoe. Red cards, one side, black cards, other side.

        In both of these cases we don’t have a random number generator as much as a random shuffle generator. They’re not quite the same.

        • Derek Freyberg
          Posted April 12, 2016 at 9:36 am | Permalink

          Back in late 2006, I went to Peru with my daughter. When we arrived at Lima airport, we went through immigration, then picked up our bags, then went towards Customs. There was a frame (like a metal detector, but bigger, since you had luggage) at the entrance to the Customs area, and you pushed a button on one of the verticals. A light on the frame (red or green) turned on for a few seconds – if green, you walked through; if red, you had to stop and open your bags. I bet the Peruvians did not pay $1.4M for that – all it needed was a clock that sensed when the button was pushed, say to the tenth of a second, and turned on the red or green light according to that tenth-of-a-second digit (I don’t know what the percentage red versus green was).

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

        Or, as was pointed out, most computer languages have a ‘random’ function built in.

        (Okay, it’s only pseudo-random, and probably not strong enough for encryption – but we don’t need that, anything vaguely random will do for this application).


        • jeremyp
          Posted April 14, 2016 at 6:47 am | Permalink

          For that particular application, a good pseudo random number generator (PRNG) would be fine. By “good” I mean not the old Unix rand() function, which I found in 1986 to my cost – when trying to write a coin toss emulator – alternates between even and odd numbers.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 14, 2016 at 6:55 am | Permalink

            Well, as Derek Freyberg suggested, probably all you need is for the gadget to clock the nearest tenth of a second of when the operator pushes the button and select red or green accordingly. Or make it the nearest hundredth for good (overkill) measure.


  6. Posted April 11, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    The millimeter-wave machines have a high false positive rate, something like 50%. They are practically useless. Just there for show and because the TSA spent a fortune on them and won’t accept that they are a sunk cost. I love the fact that passengers are “randomly selected” for these scans to avoid “profiling.” So a little old lady can get scanned while a guy who looks like Osama bin Laden can sail through.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Did you hear about the grandmother who had her knitting needles confiscated? The TSA were afraid she might knit an afghan.

      • ploubere
        Posted April 11, 2016 at 3:17 pm | Permalink


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      Speaking of useless security gadgets that the buyers wouldn’t admit were useless…


      • jeremyp
        Posted April 14, 2016 at 6:58 am | Permalink

        I remember watching the Panorama programme in which that device was exposed as fraudulent.

        I see the maker went to prison for fraud in the end. I think a murder charge would be more appropriate if it could be shown that people have died because of it.

    • jeremyp
      Posted April 14, 2016 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      If I were a terrorist looking to get a suicide bomber onto a plane, I would definitely make sure that they looked more like my grandmother than Osama Bin Laden. This is why racial stereotyping… sorry: profiling … is nonsense.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 14, 2016 at 6:58 am | Permalink

        I’d also improve their odds by making sure they were on the $85 pre-screened list…


  7. DrBrydon
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Nine out of ten times (and I travel two to three times a month), my right ankle shows up as yellow. The worst (meaning most over the top) TSA screening was in Eau Claire, WI, of all places. There were about forty passengers in the whole place, but TSA was determined that the next 9/11 wasn’t going to start from Eau Claire. They were pulling things like USB flash drives out of peoples bags, and examining them.

  8. GBJames
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    They did the special swabbing thing the last time I went through, too. I suspect it was because I had several boxes of chocolates in the bag and that stuff probably looks like explosives under an x-ray.

    • eric
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Swabbing happens, in my traveling experience, much of the time. It seems to be becoming SOP after the x-ray check. The first time I had it happen to me was many years ago, probably 2003 or 2004. I distinctly remember it because as a chemist, I was really interested in what machine they might be using and how it worked. Was it a mass spec of some sort? GC? Nerdy minds want to know. So I asked. The operators didn’t know. I was both scientifically disappointed and analytically outraged. How can you possibly understand what the machine is telling you if you don’t even know what sort of machine it is?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 11, 2016 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        Haha! I like the term “analytically outraged”. That’s what I felt when my radiologist feed me a line that gamma rays were from nature while x-rays were man made so the machine they used gave off X-rays. Good grief, NASA really got ripped off with the Chandra X-ray scope then.

        I pretended not to notice his stupid answer and asked a Phd student who makes the machines when I went on a nuclear reactor tour at work. The answer was between X-ray and gamma ray but more gamma ray.

        • eric
          Posted April 11, 2016 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

          Neither of those answers is very good but they’re, well, moderately close. Historically Curie et al. didn’t distinguish and called everything x-rays. Modern technical usage is to use ‘gamma’ to refer to high-energy photons that come from nuclear processes (fusion, fission, other decay modes), and ‘x-ray’ to refer to high energy photons that come from non-nuclear processes. X-rays are typically lower energy just because nuclear processes tend to be so much more energetic than other physics processes. However, both nature and human science can produce x-rays that are the same energy as a gamma. In those cases you basically have two names for the exact same photon and which name you use just depends on how it originated.

          The radiologist is close because for probably the last 20-30 years many high-energy photon sources in human medicine are x-rays – i.e., non-nuclear processes, with the photons produced on the spot using a vacuum tube or something like a synchrotron. Before that, things like dentist’s x-rays were technically gamma ray machines because they used a Cs-137 source. AIUI most don’t any more. (21st century rule of thumb: if you drink it, its gammas as well as betas and possibly alphas. If they shoot it at you, it’s x-rays.)

          …and there’s your nerd pedantry for the day. 🙂

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted April 11, 2016 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

            Yes the machine does create the X-rays. That’s not even really hard. The student said that the wavelength was closer to gamma rays.

            The difference between what you said and what the radiologist said has everything to do with how the two of you perceive me. The radiologist was dumbing things way down. He was a well regarded researcher and teacher but he assumed little ol’ middle aged female me didn’t have the brain power to understand what he had to say. Paternalism in medicine is awful (even when females deal with other females). I suppose they encounter lots of dumb people so they assume I’m one of them. If you could corner the interns, they usually behaved differently once they realized you had a couple neurons that could fire. I suspect it is generational or at least I hope it is because it will get better.

            • Posted April 12, 2016 at 6:45 am | Permalink

              That’s one reason why, when I go to a new doctor (physician), I generally find an opening to tell her/him that I have a PhD in biology and used to teach at a major medical school. I’ve always found that I get explanation of their procedures, often detailed, that at least make sense to me.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

                I have no hope. I’m female and a non scientist. I am basically a monkey to them.

      • Posted April 12, 2016 at 1:10 am | Permalink

        Well, nobody knows what is in the machines they are using any more. Those who are bitterly opposed to modern science (we know about them) don’t understand, e.g., that cell phones and all our other electronic gadgetry that have become so necessary to us in only about 20 years, are all based on quantum mechanics (transistors, of course).

      • Derek Freyberg
        Posted April 12, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        I believe the machines sense volatile nitrates (e.g. the nitroglycerin that forms the “bang” part of dynamite), I would guess by infrared spectroscopy but I don’t know. Most explosives are nitrate based – and I think terrorists were just stealing military explosives.
        The problem with that is that the European terrorists, at least, are shifting to triacetone triperoxide (made from common materials – nail polish remover and hydrogen peroxide – and no nitrate to be caught by a machine or sniffer dog).

  9. ploubere
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    My 84-year-old dad, before he passed away, would get regularly patted down because he invariably had some nail clippers or something in his bag. And yet the TSA failure rate is 95 percent.

  10. Puddintane
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    A couple of comments:

    1. The poor guy in the wheelchair does need to be thankful that the screener (they are NOT officers) did not look down his pants or stick his hand all the way down the pants. That happens far too often.

    2. If you are ever told by the TSA that you must to go a private room for further groping, just say NO. A private room grope is violative of the administrative search doctrine:

    “Moreover, the possibility for abuse is minimized by the public nature of the search. Unlike searches conducted on dark and lonely streets at night where often the officer and the subject are the only witnesses, these searches are made under supervision and not far from the scrutiny of the traveling public.”

    See United States v. Skipwith, 482 F.2d 1272, 1275
    (5th Cir. 1973)

    A private room with a locked door is NOT within the scrutiny of the traveling public.

  11. Pliny the in Between
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Years before the TSA, I was traveling with a buddy to Chicago after a conference. He suddenly got pulled out of line while we were talking and interrogated when they x-rayed his briefcase.

    When it was over, the screener let us see the image that caught their attention.

    He had three cigar tubes in the case for the three nice cigars he bought in the conference city. His wind up travel alarm clock was in their too as well as a recharger with a nice coiled cord that was lying between the cigars and the alarm clock.

    I looked at the xray and the security guy laughed when I told my friend I would have just shot him if I had seen that xray at security.

    Needless to say we all took more time imagining what our stuff would look like in two dimensions

    • Posted April 11, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      “Needless to say we all took more time imagining what our stuff would look like in two dimensions.”

      No kidding! I’ve been mulling this over since I saw PCC’s inadvertently slightly risque photo (with Dan Barker, at the Hili dialogues). Maybe the TSA saw it too. It’s also rumoured that he’s got balls of steel, given the many verbal attacks from crackpot’s that he’s had to fend off.

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Relief is just $85 away…

  13. Merilee
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 4:26 pm | Permalink


  14. George
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I go through the full scanners rarely, but recently coming from Germany and connecting in Dulles – there is no TSA pre check for C concourse.

    I am not used to pulling everything out, shoes off etc. But the scanner always flags my right upper arm – of course its my big guns!!

    Seems that they may set the machine to flag the most suspicious point in any scan. Then they pat down that spot to be extra sure?

    To avoid this I could go to the arrivals for no connections and come back through the TSA pre line, but then I am all the way to the main terminal. Probably not worth it.

    • GBJames
      Posted April 11, 2016 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      The watch-you-naked machine always detects my left hip as a hazard. They tell me it isn’t the metal hip replacement. Maybe the scar is what it sees.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 11, 2016 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

        Ugh. I’m going to get felt up for sure then after surgery and radiation for breast cancer.

  15. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Check with your local pharmacist, Jerry. Pretty sure there’s an over-the-counter ointment available to clear up that nasty yellow patch on your lower back and rump.

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    The last time I was outside of California was exactly 1 month before 9/11 (in NYC) and all 4 subsequent trips from San Fran to Los Angeles and all 6 to Camp Quest have been by bus or car.

    I am now grateful for this situation.

  17. Beverly
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    This happened to my 84 year old mother who was traveling with my sister. They lifted her out of her wheelchair so they could pat her down and inspect the chair. They actually inspected my mother more thoroughly than my sister.

  18. Posted April 11, 2016 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    PCC – have you considered therapy to unlock your lost memories? Is it possible that you were drawn up into an alien space ship once and ‘probed’? Maybe something broke off that shows up on TSA scanners but can never be found?? Kind of like the Catholic host which turns to body and blood and then disappears when looked for?

  19. cornbread_r2
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    After being patted down on multiple occasions — even after no metal of any kind was detected on me — it’s been my contention that the TSA is in the drug detection business as much as it is in the anti-terrorism business.

  20. Roger
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    Off topic a little but I tried cashing in some penny rolls at a couple banks the other day and they said they couldn’t do it because of the Homeland Security Act lol. True story.

  21. David Duncan
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    “I have no idea why they did this.”

    Two words: ‘makework’ and ‘control’.

    Man, that TSA agent needs to go on a serious diet. Why is it that (so many) Americans are so fat?

    TSA = “tit squeezing authority” and “testicle squeezing authority”.

    I think some of these TSA agents need to be charged with assault.

  22. Momus
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Easy answer they’re lazy. Running someone some like you through additional screening makes it appear they are doing their job with little risk of a positive which would actually force them to make a decision and take action.

    They may even be required to perform X screenings a day and so take the easy way.

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