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Aug 06 2013

Weapons of mass deliciousness

Every single time I have brought Theo chocolate bars home as a gift, my bag gets flagged by the TSA and has to go through a full explosive swab down and a rescan. For chocolate. Every time.

Thanks for getting rid of all of my extra buffer time and making it so I couldn’t grab any breakfast, TSA. Time for some low blood sugar flight crankiness…at least I don’t have a middle seat.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    gussnarp

    Sometimes I wonder about their explosive testing. It seems to result in quite a few false positives. If you’re travelling with infants and toddlers you can bring drinks for them in excess of the 3 ounce/1 ziploc rule, and I used to bring boxed milk for my little ones. They usually want to take the toddler liquids and swab them, since they’re letting you through with them. This delay is part of the cost of travelling with kids, no biggie. But one brand of milk kept swabbing positive. Seems like it might be worth looking into why this is, but I expect there’s no one at TSA or no process for noticing this and asking the question.

    Probably not related to your chocolates, since that seems like a random decision to screen.

    Or is it?

  2. 2
    apfergus

    I flew the day after the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden and they swabbed the hands of nearly everyone in line. About 10% (including me) resulted in false positives. How does anyone think their chemical sniffer do-dads are effective?

  3. 3
    machintelligence

    About 10% (including me) resulted in false positives. How does anyone think their chemical sniffer do-dads are effective?

    To use the answer with maximum snark: Since no one managed to blow up a plane, there must have been no false negatives. What more do you want?

  4. 4
    vernonbalbert

    When a piece of carry-on luggage I had tested positive I had a talk with the agent and was told that the test covers a set of chemicals that can be found in such a wide swath of products (such as hand lotion) that they get a ton of non-explosive positives. Basically, the tests are useless for isolating explosives and it gives the TSA an excuse to search your luggage.

  5. 5
    biogeo

    Hey, I get that it’s annoying, but we all need to do our part to help out in our government’s War on Terrific Candy.

  6. 6
    lpetrich

    I’m perplexed by that also. Does the system try to estimate how many of each chemical element there is? That would be possible with neutron activation.

    An explosive is fuel and oxidizer together, so it have to have an oxidized composition: enough oxygen to make water from hydrogen and CO2 from carbon. A big problem: water is oxidized, though it has no carbon, or at least much less carbon than hydrogen. Also, many explosives store their nitrogen as nitrates and the like, so many explosives contain a lot of nitrogen.

    Let’s see what typical biological materials and synthetic analogues like plastic have.
    Plastic – unoxidized to partially oxidized. Nitrogen sometimes present, sometimes not
    Carbohydrate, wood – partially oxidized, little nitrogen
    Fat – close to unoxidized
    Protein – somewhat oxidized, some nitrogen

    As to chocolate, it’s largely fat, so it wouldn’t be very oxidized or contain much nitrogen. So I’m perplexed.

  7. 7
    PDX_Greg

    Low blood sugar flight crankiness + Theo bar supply sounds like a problem with a built-in solution.

  8. 8
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Ipetrich:

    Security Theater doesn’t have to make sense.

  9. 9
    Gregory in Seattle

    I’ve heard that the foil Theo uses is opaque to x-rays, which results in a thin, suspicious looking bar in the scan. My mother went through similar shit a few years ago, when bringing home a round stained-glass light catcher as a souvenir: the way it looked in the scan meant 20 minutes of figuring out what the obviously dangerous weapon really was.

    It might be useful to put the chocolate in a quart zip baggie and send it through the scanner separately.

  10. 10
    Hatchetfish

    I’ve had no confidence in those for several years now:
    In hindsight I am nearly certain that, thanks to one of my hobbies and absent mindedness, I once flew with traces of at least one compound on my hands that probably should have set off sirens and resulted in my being tackled and restrained while it was verified that it was only traces. I was indeed hand swabbed. Nothing. “Have a nice flight sir.”

  11. 11
    seraphymcrash

    Last time I flew to Mexico I made the mistake of holding my earbuds in my hand. That triggered them to swab my hands, and when they tested the swab the screen turned bright red and said “EXPLOSIVES DETECTED”. Now if I had been making explosives, would announcing to me that they had been detected explosives the intelligent thing to do? Wouldn’t I just detonate them while standing in the crowded line? Moronic.

    The security guard just looked tired, and said he had to clear me. He took me out of line into a small room, and we were joined by another very old security guard who said nothing and stood in the corner and looked uncomfortable. They made me strip to my underwear, and then proceeded to firmly feel my genitals. It was disturbing for me, but it was also clearly disturbing for the security guard. Then I got dressed and was free to go.

    None of this makes any sense to me. I went through a body scanner before the hand swab, which supposedly can see through your clothes. What’s the point of grabbing my junk? I was wearing briefs, and it was pretty obvious that there was nothing in my underwear.

    When the whole thing was over, the guy looked at me and asked if I would like to file a complaint. I hadn’t said a word complaining up to this point, and just wanted to leave, so I said no.

    Fucking security.

  12. 12
    lpetrich

    The metal-foil hypothesis seems plausible, though it may have to be a rather thick foil. I’ve found some tables of X-ray absorption coefficients: http://www.nist.gov/pml/data/xraycoef/

    One can test this hypothesis more directly, by doing searches for pictures for “X-rays foreign bodies” and “X-rays foreign objects”. You’ll find a lot of them, including some that may be helpful, like a spoon inside a dog.

  13. 13
    Trebuchet

    Perhaps “Death by Chocolate” just has a different meaning for the TSA.

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