Explosives or Not

We have earlier seen some quotes from the book The Golem: What You Should Know About Science. There are two companion volumes to this book The Golem Unleashed: What You Should Know about Technology and Dr. Golem: How to think about Medicine. These series of books by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch provide us with examples from these fields which most of the times are ‘uncontested’. For example in the first volume they discuss about the famous 1920 experimental confirmation of Einstein’s predictions in general relativity by Eddington. This experiment is told as a matter-of-fact anecdote in physics, where petty borders of nationalism could not stop physics and physicists. But in the book, as they show inspite of scanty or almost no positive evidence, Eddington “Concluded” that the predictions were true. This they term “experimenters’ regress”.

The experimenter’s regress occurs when scientists cannot decide what the outcome of an experiment should be and therefore cannot use the outcome as a criterion of whether the experiment worked or not.

The Golem Unleashed pp. 106

In The Golem Unleashed they present us with many examples of this from field of technology. One of the examples is from the Challenger accident which Feynman made famous by courtroom drama. In this case they call the “experimenter’s regress” as “technologist’s regress”.

Recently I read (all further quotes from the same link)an episode in India which would fit in very with these episodes. This is regarding baggage  scanning machines installed at Indian airports. They were brought at 2 crore rupees per unit in 2010. But in August 2011 they failed the tests on tasks they were supposed to do.

The scanners are called in-line baggage inspection systems as they scan bags that go into the cargo hold of the aircraft after passengers check in and hand over their luggage to the airline. They use x-ray imaging and “automatic intelligence” to verify the contents of bags and determine whether they include explosives.

Now one would think that this would be as easy as it gets. Either the scanner detects whether the explosives are present in the baggage or they do not. But it is not as simple as it seems so. Now when the tests were done, the testers found the machines failed.

During the tests, security sources said that a technological specification committee of officials from the IB, RAW, SPG, NSG, BCAS and the civil aviation ministry passed bags containing 500 gm of six kinds of explosives, including PETN and ammonium nitrate, as well as IEDs through these systems. The scanners did not flag any of these bags as suspicious, the sources said.

So after this “failure” the companies which supplied these machines were asked to improve upon the machines or to share the software to recalibrate them. But the companies and interestingly Airport Authortiy of India AAI said that the testing methods were at fault. Now the explosives were passed and the machines did not detect them, then how can companies say that the testing methods were not working?

The machines work on the so called 70:30 principle.

“Though it works on a 70:30 principle, if there is an explosive in the 70 per cent, it will throw up the image of each and every bag that has dangerous substances. We would like to emphasise that the systems supplied and installed by our company at Indian airports are of state-of-the-art technology and are fully compliant with current standards.”

The 70:30 principle refers to the “automatic intelligence” used by Smiths Detection machines to clear 70 per cent of the baggage and reject the rest, according to the Airports Authority of India (AAI). “The machines reject 30 per cent of the baggage, the images of which are then sent to the screener. These systems have automatic intelligence capability and have been tested against a wide range of substances considered dangerous for aircraft. The details and specifications are never disclosed, or else terrorists would understand the software,”

But if anyway machines are doing the job, why not do it 100%? And the funny thing is that they are not sharing the software, which is the main agenda of the proprietary software companies. This is a case where people realize that they are just Users of the software under question. This argument that  “or else terrorists would understand the software” does not hold. They don’t need to if the machine is going to reject a whole lot of bags And in anyway if there are bus/holes in the software, a thousand eyes repair them much faster than a few. And this is The companies further say that

“The technology or physics is that x-ray based system can’t detect explosives, it is only approximate detection of dangerous substances,”

Why is the AAI siding (they are rather defending the companies) with the companies is something worth pondering.

AAI people say “The problem could be due to the sheer ignorance of officers who lacked the skills to test for explosives,”

Still with no unanimity in the testing results, the case truly presents us with a “technologist’s regress.”

Delhi April-May 2009 Day 1

I am finally in Delhi after two year gap. Last time I was here was in the summer of 2007. Since then much water has flown below the bridge. But this time I am on an `official’ visit.

Anyways. Since the train tickets were not booked too early, there was no chance that I would have got any reservation. So had to fly. Then I tried for the `no frills’ flights. The week I checked them they were ~ [LaTeX code: $\sim$ ;)] 2.5 K. But the next week the same flight cost me ~ 4.2 K. So this was a `no frills’ flight whose cost nearly as same as that with a flight with frills.

During my last visit I had a fiasco with train which I was supposed to board to go to Nagpur, which is another story. That travelogue is still in analog form, have not yet blogged it. Two years down the line. But since then I become quite nervous and anxious when I am about to leave for a longish journey. During one or two days prior to the journey, I sort of become OCDed, I check the tickets and timings again and again. And as if I have lost confidence in myself, I confirm the date with others also. So this flight was scheduled on Friday the 24th of April at 17:10 hrs. So when I checked and rechecked the flight status, finally the day arrived and I was ready to go.

I reached the airport comfortably two hours before the departure. The check in was done in five minutes and I had the boarding pass in my hand. The airlines people were asking for photo-id from others, some how for me they did not. [Does my name and personality match so much?] So after I just went ahead with the security check of mine and the cabin luggage. I put all my accessories in the bag itself. And was myself clean. I waited for my turn before they would frisk my body with a metal detector. It seemed like eternity. Finally my turn came. As I did not have any metal things, the security guy did not have the much to do. But he was a bit taken aback with my waist watch. I mean those of you who remember the Fastrack advertise of girls hanging ulta from trees and asking यार टाईम क्या हुअा है? will understand. So the way he was standing he could not obviously understand the placing the watch on my waist and then not being able to make any sense out of it. He asked me to take it out, and had a look at it, so as to understand what kind of watch was that. But then, finally he gave up, put the watch down along with the security stamp on my boarding pass. The cabin luggage [bag] also had been cleared for security.

Then I went to the waiting area. I called up people to bask on my achievements of clearing the security check so quickly. There is a Cafe Coffee Day counter, inside the security area.
So after ordering a cappucino I sat with a view of the airplanes just about to board. Every now and then I would also have glimpse at the flights that had just taken off. Having sips of coffee with such a splendid view are moments to be cherished.

In the waiting area, aptly called so, people come from the security checks wait there for some time and then go for the flights. This for me was like wathcing a time-lapse movie when I was having my sips of coffee. Just outside the waiting room, the world is entirely different. There are all kinds of activities and vehicles going around there, in seemingly chaotic manner. But, there is clearly a method in this madness. How do these people communicate with each others, I do not know, but everyone was seemed to know where they wanted to go.

While waiting in the `waiting area’ I browsed through a lot of newspapers. Most of it was trash. Babes in skimpy clothes, ads for which I had least interest and politics. With the soaring temperatures of summer, it seems that election heat is also increasing. But, this time around I have least interest in who is going to be in power. Anyways, the day before was the Phase 2 of elections in Maharashtra. So the news papers had quite some photos of the people who had successfully voted in these elections.

They say that the percentage of people who came for voting is on average ~ 50%. So this is supposed to be worrying trend. Out of all the photos that I saw, there was one of an old lady. People posed with blackened fingers to assert that they had indeed voted. The indelible ink. This lady was about 70 years of age. And they had put the indelible ink on her middle finger. And she was showing a blackened middle finger with pride to the entire nation. Where is the moral brigade now? Won’t anybody charge her of obscenity in public place?

In the middle part of ceiling in the waiting area, they have created a glass ceiling. Not the one which is here but the real one. Well, one can say that, this is a glass ceiling which separates the flys and fly-nots [literally, no pun or metaphor intended], but then I rest my case. The view from this ceiling was amazing. The sky was blue and a few white clouds here and there were coming in view. From the large ventilation pipes overhead, this little [well, not very little] window gave a different view as to tell the passengers awaiting there in the waiting room that the sky above was waiting for them. Every now and then a flight would be visible. moving across the skyline. There were two people who were cleaning the glass above. They cleaned the very glass which separated them [fly-nots] from the rest of us [flys]. But, this, I think is true in our society everywhere. People from the oppressed lot are used to oppress people. I felt bad about them and all the cleaners and other people who are class 3 or 4 employees. They see so many flights, everyday. They are ones who make the operation of the entire airport possible, but they may in all their lives never get a chance to fly. They are like birds with their wings clipped, so that they cannot fly.

Well, coming back to the flight, they announced that there will be 10 minute delay in the flight, as the incoming flight from Goa was late. So, I was a bit disappointed. After a lot of wait, and it was not 10 minutes definitely, we boarded the flight. The air crew from the previous flight tended to us till we were seated. I had booked a window seat this time, as never I had had a window seat.

Well then the ‘cabin baggage’ nicely tucked in the overhead compartment, I sat, watching the view outside from my little window [this time I mean it]. The flight plan was announced by the hostess, with names of the captain and the attending staff being told.

”हम दिल्ली जाएगें”

She said in a sweet voice. Well after a few minutes from that, the plane finally began to move. I had a sigh of relief. But soon this relief turned to frustration, as for the next 20-25 minutes we were on the runway. This gave me all the views of the airport, especially the slums around it. Heaps of garbage and kids playing on it, seemed like a shot straight out of Slumdog Millionaire [see my post here]. When Danny Boyle had landed in Mumbai, he must have seen these kids and made it into the first part of the film. I saw two flights land from a bug’s eye-view. So finally after a long wait we were on the runway. And we ran away to the sky…

When the flight is gaining altitude [as they call it], you experience a force, which is not very pleasant. One could see the almost completed Worli-Bandra sea link, from a bird’s eye-view. I could recognise many of the areas, like Mahim creek and all that. But that was it. We flew Westwards towards the sea, never to comeback to the city of Mumbai below. With the acrobatics the plane was performing, there was an illusion, with the position that the plane was in, the sea went up. Till I could see out of my window, I could just see grey waters below. The experience was very dis-orienting.


We soon went over the clouds and the picture above would make you see what I saw. The clouds seemed like a carpet [cotton] spread over the entire area below. It was an amazing sight…


Soon the light began to fade, and sun from a blazing yellow went towards deep orange.


The horizon seems endless from this height. The contrast in the colors below and above horizon during Sunset become most stark. Below, you have a dark mass of unknown regions, the horizon it self becomes blazing line of orange. And above that you have a gradient from orange to dark blue. It thought I saw a few stars here and there…


So the final moments of Sunset in the picture above.


And this is what the horizon looks after the Sunset. This condition stayed on for a while. Then the darkness ascended. Now both the sky above and the land below were darkened. No visibility. This is the twilight.

Soon the one could see lights here and there in the land below. At a few times I saw intense orange lights [Sodium vapor ones], but apparently randomly placed. I could not find any structure in them.

Soon the formless light structures, gave way to villages and hamlets. One could make out the roads, which were straight and were lighted regularly. The cities from above looked like fractal structure. The sight was amazing.

Delhi, light everywhere…

All was Light…

But, unfortunately I could not get it pictures, or was it for my eyes only.

Seemed like golden and silver dust has been sprayed in the darkness of the night and what forms is the city below. Streams of cars and highways were in all directions. The cars coming towards us were all yellow, and those away were all red.

The flight lands after a long delay.

We are finally in Delhi, it is officially announced.

So much for the first day.

Dunno whether be able to continue this for the later days..

till then ciao

D