Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A compilation of the TSA things going on right now.

As you probably know, the TSA has implemented new procedures that many are taking objection to. I'm going to try summarizing & compiling the intelligent arguments being made.

The new imaging technology is now being questioned for it's:

1) Violation of privacy

2) Lack of clear safety

3) Lack of effectiveness

4) shady process of selection

5) Other unanswered questions and Stupidity

Discussion on those topics:

1) Violation of Privacy

The Advanced Imaging Technology, "AIT" is actually one of two types of magines backscatter X Ray or Millimeter wave. The energy is weak enough that it doesn't pass through skin, but it does pass through clothing, and after rastering your body, and an image of your naked body is created.

You can opt out of the imaging, but you get the famous "thorough pat down" If you don't want the pat down - which includes a TSA agent touching your genitals through clothing and reaching into your pants, then you don't get to fly. There have been cases where the TSA has told individuals who have opted out of both and decided to go home, they will be subject to a potential $11,000 fine.

On their blog, TSA attempted to dispel the idea that the pat downs were invasive with a non-sequitur argument about AIT, instead of attempting to show any empathy for those who feel violated or offering an alternative to being seen naked or being groped.

For a while, the TSA said that there was software that blurred out the images of your genitalia and face to the screener, but that seems to be no longer the case. They are in pursuit of technology that simply shows a generic human outline and dots in the places where the machine detects anomalies, but this is not available yet.

The TSA has stated very recently stated that you may
1) have your pat down done in a private room
2) have the pat down witnessed by a person of your choice.

Given the TSA's recent record of disgusting behavior while giving pat downs, I suggest that you request to have it videotaped by a friend's cell phone(update- this will not work. see below). They will say that you are being videotaped now, but that data belongs to them, not you. It can easily disappear.

Very recently, a man in San Diego was arrested for stripping down to tight fitting underwear, hoping to avoid both a pat down after opting out of AIT. He was arrested, and his iPhone confiscated. It does sound like his lawyer is attempting to recover the iphone and video footage.

More information at the TSA website

2) Lack of Clear Safety.

The TSA has said that there have been government groups (FDA/CDRH) and an independant group at Johns Hopkins that have declared these devices safe, however a growing community is challenging those claims.

2a) Backscatter -

A group of Biophysicists/Biochemists at UCSF have stated they believe that the numbers have been fudged to call the scanners safe, and the comparison with xrays during flight is faulty logic.

Here's how the logic is faulty. (I'm a mechanical engineer, heres how I understand it)

Xrays that you get during a chest Xray or even those from space you incur during a flight, pass through your entire body. Backscatter xrays bounce off your skin. Since the backscatter beam is weaker, in order to get an image, they have to scan your body from top to bottom with a thin beam. Therefore the effective volume of your body being exposed during backscatter - a line of skin and the tissue underneath it - is much smaller than that of the Xray, or the "3 minutes of radiation during a flight"

An approximate analogy would be laying on a bed of nails. The force is distributed across the entire body surface. Now lay down on just one nail(or a line of nails) - a very concentrated surface area with the same force magnifies the stress at a given location, and creates a dramatially different result.

The UCSF scientists have stated that these scanners can compromise the health of:
a) Travelers over age 65
b) Women sensitive to mutagenesis-provoking radiation leading to breast cancer.
c) Those with compromised immune systems
d) Children, as the effects of radiation has not been fully investigated
e) Pregnant women, as the effects of radiation has not been fully investigated
f) Men, as radiation can lead to sperm mutagenesis.
g) It is unknown if there has been investigation as to whether it has been determined to be safe to the eyes or the thymus

They have also questioned how the machine is maintained to prevent the amount of radiation from increasing.

Additionally, Biochemists/Biophysicists at Johns Hopkins have stated that they are uncertain if backscatter is harmful or not.

2b) Millimeter wave -

This technology doesn't use XRays, but radiation closer to the Radio frequency. (Remember that ALL waves in the electromagnetic spectrum are technically radiation- including visible light. The difference is whether the radiation causes ionization of the substrate it passes through.)

Los Alamos as made models suggesting that DNA can be torn apart using this frequency of waves

That's about all that's known - it's not used widely elsewhere, or at all on humans, for that matter.

It should be noted that the FDA & CDRH can and certainly has changed their mind quickly about decisions they have made to approve medical devices. A medical device company must prove that their device is both safe and effective, and if the numbers say differently, the device is recalled.

Given the number of people being exposed to these technologies, I see the risk as very high.

The FDA has replied to UCSF.

I'm still reading through the letter. It's pretty detailed, however the UCSF group is has responded saying they're writing a careful letter pointing out their errors.

3) Effectiveness

Many people have said that these machines are ineffective as it only goes skin deep, and doesn't detect anything that has been surgically implanted or placed inside a body orifice - and a gap in the security is now visible.

CBS reported in Sept 2009 that Al Qaida can and has already used methods that will twart the equipment currently being implemented in the airports. That's right, an Al Qaida suicide bomber used a bomb hidden in his rectum to kill.

Pistole has recently commented that cavity searches will not be conducted, effectively leaving a "hole" in security.

Blogger Bob at the TSA blog says these machines can have detected “powdered drugs the size of a thumbprint,” but that they are not looking for drugs.

Can these machines detect Sanitary napkins?

Can these machines detect Tampons -- which happen to look a lot like little sticks of dynamite?

There are plenty more holes in security that have been known by high ranking TSA personnel for quite some time. Airport security is more theatre than it is function.

Myth: There are no better alternatives:
Fact: Israel is at much greater peril than the United States, and has much better security measures at their airports.

4)Shady selection practice of Backscatter X-Ray

-There is a guy named Michael Chertoff who was the head of Homeland Security/ TSA.

-He quit when GWB left office.

-Then he started a consulting/security firm called the Chertoff Group, and using his ties with government officials, advised the purchase of $160,000,000+ worth of Backscatter machines.

-Rapiscan got the contract.

-Rapiscan is a client of Chertoff.

With little irony, Stephen Colbert pronounced them Rape-i-scan. (Very worth viewing, might I add)

Rapiscan is owned by a company called OSI systems, who's stock price has started to track downward in the past couple weeks. Sounds like wall street knows that they won't be getting much more business from the government.

The chances are very low that one of the following two things won't happen given the recent public outcry:

1) Judicial override of pat-down policy.
2) Legislation banning the use of AIT.
3) CDRH/FDA changing it's mind and mandating recall of Backscatter and/or MMW (I work in the medical device industry. Their opinion does change regarding safety and effectiveness of devices)

5) Other unanswered questions and stupidity.

-What if you’re gay?
-If I tell them I'm a gay male, are male screeners still going to pat me down, or will they get a woman to do it?

-What if I SAY I’m gay to get a woman to pat me down?
-What if I say I'm bi?

Please comment if you know what happens in this case.


There is an "opt out" for the airport, where private contractors may be hired instead of government TSA employees to perform security, but those private groups are still regulated by the TSA, and will have to use their procedures. The agents that groped the screaming 3-year-old at SFO have been private since 2006. A change to private security will not change anything except INCREASE cost, and probably decrease the pay of the security agents (if it's private, someone at the top is taking a big cut.)


The TSA has only very recently given Pilots the ability to skip the AIT and pat down. Makes sense, considering that they will be
1) in the cockpit, which has a gun
2) at the controls of a massive steel structure travelling 550mph loaded with jet fuel.

It essentiallly took the Pilot's union to file a lawsuit in order for this change to be made.


Do you have an Insulin Pump? "Leave it at home," says agent. The TSA has shown on many recent occasions that have very little sensitivity to people with medical conditions, medical devices, or prosthetics. This goes with people with poor education or social skills given power over the public.

For example, they bring to the surface your emotional scars of losing a breast or the ability to urinate normally, as well as showing it off to the public.

The TSA claims to be professional, but I have personally witnessed plenty of non-professional behavior. From a TSA agent saying "TSA means take stuff away" to another saying "I can't believe I get paid to tell people that they can't have liquids greater than 3 ounces" -- both in front of large public crowds, I seriously doubt their professional credibility.

I think a simple search in to the "professional" background of many TSA agents will reveal fast food, retail, telemarketing, and jail time of many.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Free Software Tools for Mechanical Engineers

The world is changing.

The garage tinkerer-become-entrepreneur of yesteryear is now a .COM entrepreneur. The men who once spurred economic domination of the western world are now writing lines of code. No longer do you need a factory to build wealth - and so our economy which was once based on manufacturing is now on the decline.

Those who once had a variety of carpentry tools, metal workshops in their basement are now turning to 3D CAD, CAM, rapid prototyping and the internet.

You are now sitting in front of the tinkerer's new workshop. You just didn't know it.

So I'm transitioning in my career, and what will I be doing to fill the time between different cubicles? You'd probably guess I'd be crossing off those bucket list items -- trekking in the Himalayas, ski bum at Tahoe, putting in two killer workouts daily in hopes of pulling off a 10 hour Ironman??

No - I've decided to sharpen my Engineering skills! (and perhaps invent a thing or two-- but that's all I'm telling you). I have certainly been neglecting plenty of things over the past 8 years at my current job as a medical device engineer, but mechanical engineering is a big field, and I have been inspired to become more competitive. Since I expect to have some free time during my job search, I'm going to be honing my skills, digging in books, reviewing old texts, and best of all, trying new things.

One problem. Generally doing many types of engineering from home mandates those expensive software programs available to you by default by working at Corporation XYZ. After all, I'm not going to WRITE software to assist the design of my gift to the world, right?

Fortunately, I'm a problem solver and the best tool any engineer can have is resourcefulness. After scanning the web, I've learned that there is plenty of free alternatives to the tools I've been using.

Here is a list of what I've found so far. I very much hope to make this an easy access point for other engineers, designers, and creators to find tools to solve their dilemmas.

This post will be under construction for quite some time, I imagine.

The heart of Mechanical design, but we're long past the days of AutoCad 14 and MS Paint. Solidworks is quickly becoming the market leader, followed by the likes of Pro/E and Autodesk's Inventor.

FreeCad - The best completely free 3D Parametric CAD software on the net.

Alibre - Low cost, professional grade. The first release of this software was heralded as "XCAD", and free liscenses were given out to the public. Nowadays, a 3D CAD package very competitive to Solidworks and Inventor is now available to you for $99.

AutoDesk Alias

Numerical Analysis & Modeling.
Matlab is the hands down king of numerical modeling in industry, but again, not cheap.

As always,
Wikipedia is frequently a good place to start.

SciLab is free, has many of the same features.

GNU Octave - numerical analysis program with syntax very similar to Matlab. I've noticed that Wikipedia entries on mathematic topics are beginning to crop up with Octave code included. Exciting!


Image J Developed by the NIH, this is great for analyzing Xray photos, but It's also useful for doing just about any analysis of greyscale. Simple and intuitive.

Gimp Photoshops's free cousin. Tons of power and easy to learn as tutorials are showing up EVERYWHERE online.

Blender - 3D graphics modeling and rendering. I haven't used software like this yet, but it appears to be very powerful.

Office Software

A free version of computing tools very similar to Microsoft Office.

Gliffy does what Visio does, but for free, and it doesn't take up any space on your computer.

Way more tools, with much wider scope than engineering.

Another good place to poke around.

What free tools have you found? I'll add anything you as a Mechanical engineer or Product designer/Developer see as useful to what you do.

(as a sidenote, my home computer is an Apple. Many programs of the programs I list will be compatible with multiple OSs)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Guest post.

A good friend of mine, Matt Mortensen, a both a fantastic chemist and photographer, has asked me to guest post on his photo blog.

You can find it here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Sweetest Thing

One thing that's happened in my absence here is that I became an uncle. Here's a photo of my niece Julia in her 8th month.

This was taken while shooting some photos for her & her parent's christmas card.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


If you haven't seen this yet, here it is. This guy is my new idol.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Good news is....

Good News: EK and I have spent 3 fun weekends in a row out of town, Much of it time for just the two of us.

Good News: My grandfather is feeling well and gaining weight after a few rounds of radiation treatments

Good News: My car is at 165000 miles and working great.

Good News: I just ran 18 miles on a relatively hot, humid day. Despite hitting a hard wall, I finished. Finishing 26.2 feels within reach.

Good News: I continue to discover great people around me.

Good News: I got to see my parents and niece yesterday. My niece is growing so fast.

Good News: 6 months for EK and I passed on Friday. We had homemade Pizza and super good chocolate.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


So there have been some emails flying around amongst my extended family in the run-up to the the family reunion, and some very interesting information about ancient lineage was shared, courtesy of the genealogists.

In fact, 4 different Norwegian lineages were shared, but my direct bloodline was dated back 13 generations.

That's right. I now know the name of my

1. Great
2. Great
3. Great
4. Great
5. Great
6. Great
7. Great
8. Great
9. Great
10. Great Grandfather.

Ready? Drumroll........

Ole Olsson Skjåstad, born in 1585. Yeah, not quite so glamourous that he's literally Ole, Ole's son.
and Skjåstad is literally his address. It was later changed when my Great Great Grandfather, Ole Ivar, moved to a more auspicious location down the fjord ;)

Perhaps even more interesting is the conversations my uncle had (some time ago) with some Norwegian relatives who seem to think/have some shaky research that we are descended from some early Viking chieftains from Denmark, and quite possibly,

Haraldr Blátönn.

You've probably never heard of him, but he's a pretty significant historic figure for a few reasons:

1) Harald is regarded as having united (if temporarily) Denmark, Norway, and Sweden under a single king
2) He's responsible for the Jelling Stones, claiming to have brought christianity to Denmark, and is mentioned in the Icelandic Saga Heimskringla, which I suppose is now going to go on the reading list.
3) Bluetooth technology is named after him.

Its pretty cool to have that reminder right on my desktop.

Now. Given my family's dental history, I'm going to go brush my teeth.