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Manchester bombing

Dear Reader,

It has come to my attention that a bomb was detonated yesterday in Manchester, lets be clear. From the report so far this bombing was an attempt to kill and maim as many people as possible, a cynical and cowardly act aiming at a soft target.

Now right now the UK goverment need to do something, they need to find out if it was a lone criminal or a criminal acting with help from others. Now one of the things which I think is important is to identify the explosive used.

The nature of the explosive will give some clues as to how it was done and the level of help which the bomb maker had. Paul R. Haddad et. al. in Journal of Chromatography A, 2008, 1182, 205–214 explain how to use ion chromatography to identify homemade inorganic explosives such as ANFO, black powder, sugar / chlorate and sugar / perchlorate. In the interests of public safety I will not suggest which of these is most suitable for making bombs. But I can tell you that it is possible from the post detonation fragments to sometimes work out which explosive was used.

For example nitrate anions are characteristic of ANFO (ammonium nitrate / fuel oil) and black powder, while sulfate and thiosulfate are characteristic of black powder. Black powder is the technical term for the “gun powder” made from potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur.

From the chlorate / perchlorate explosives it is possible to detect chloride and either chlorate or perchlorate respectively. The information about the nature of the explosive will help the police trace the bomber backwards. In some ways it is similar to an arson investigation. I know that with careful gas chromatography it is possible to identify the brand of petrol used to light a fire. This is a useful thing to know as it is sometimes possible to recover a petrol can from a suspect or obtain CCTV film of them buying petrol shortly before the fire is lit.

Joseph Almog et. al. in Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2007, 52, 1284-1290 does consider the question of how to detect urea nitrate which is another explosive which is sometimes made at home by terrorists. One option for the detection of this explosive is to use para-dimethylamino cinnamalaldehyde, this forms a rather interesting red coloured substance with the explosive. This is reported by Rinat Rozin and Joseph Almog in Forensic Science International, 2011, 208, 25-28.

I downloaded the details of the crystalline solid from the CCDC and here it is. What you should note is that the dimethylamino group is flat, this is an indication that the nitrogen is sp2 hybridised and thus the dimethyl amino group is part of the pi system of the molecule. I think that the nitrogen lone pair is part of the pi system.

molecules of the urea and paradimethylaminocinnamaldehyde thing

Acetone peroxide has also been the subject of some research, this is an explosive which has been used in the past by terror bombers, the explosive is a too sensitive for it to be attractive to the military or the legal explosives industry so when it is found then it is a sign that some “lone wolf” terrorist or other person who can not gain access to “normal” explosives such as TNT has been going about their horrid activities. Likewise I think that the use of urea nitrate and the fuel / chlorate (and perchlorate) mixtures suggests that it is an explosive made by the bomber themselves (or by someone close to them).

Black powder and ANFO are not so clear these are explosives which have legal purposes which can also be made illegally. Black powder is used in fireworks and also sometimes in firearms. Already one group of terrorists (Boston marathon bombers) used fireworks as their source of explosives.

The use of nitroarene and nitroamine explosives such as TNT / picric acid and RDX would suggest to me that the bomber had outside help in the form of someone who could supply explosives such as Semtex to them. It is not uncommon for some trace of the explosive to survive the detonation event so even if a readymade high explosive was used it may be possible to work out what the explosive was. What this means to society is that even while the bomber is dead it maybe possible to work out from physical evidence some clues to what happened and where the bomb came from.

Forgive what ?

Dear Reader,

It has come to my attention that the Swedish prosecutors have chosen to give up on the Julian Assange case. Now Julian is upset and angry, he is saying that he will not “forgive and forget”. I have to ask the question what has he to “forgive”.

My understanding of the word “forgive” that it is a verb (action word) which means to decide that someone or something which has done some wrong to you should not be punished or pursued for that wrong. Instead you have chosen to allow to let the thing go. For example if you catch your child eating your slice of cake out of the fridge, rather than holding it against them for the rest of time you might (and I hope you will) choose to forgive them for this act of theft instead of chasing them for it for the rest of time !

So my reasoning is that to be able to forgive you have to be the wronged party, I have to ask the question of “how has Julian been wronged”, and “who has wronged him ?”.

He complains about having his name “slandered”, being detained for seven years and having his family life disrupted. Now I will go through these points one by one.

Now Mr Assange has been accused of a serious crime which is quite rightly repulsive to decent people, I am not able to make a judgement in a legal sense here as legal judgement should be made in a real court with a real judge and not in the “court of public opinion”. Thank goodness we do not have trial by media !

But if Julian had wanted to he could have gone to Göteborg or Stockholm to get the matter over with. If he had been so sure that the case against him was a tissue of lies then he could have made steps to clear his name, I am sure that in terms of reputational harm that his cooperation with the police / legal system would have counted in his favor. He could have painted himself as the sad victim of a malicious accusation, rather than a person who attempts to avoid justice.

Mr Assange has been involved in a thing called Wikileaks, and he wants openness in goverment. Now a intellectual hero of mine (Louis Dembitz Brandeis) who was a Judge in the USA commented

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants

Now I am sure that it would be hard for Julian to disagree with the idea that a goverment official accused of some crime should cooperate with the criminal justice system and either clear his / her name or accept whatever fate (sentence) they get if they get rightly convicted. Consider Jonathan Aitken, he was an immoral man who lied in court and he was sent to jail. But he did clean up his life in jail. Equally it is hard for anyone to argue that Jeffrey Archer should have been allowed to escape justice.

I am sure that if Jeffrey Archer had run off and hidden someone rather than going to court that Wikileaks would have been unlikely to have approved his action. I reason that if Julian is so keen on openness that he should have applied the principle of openness to himself and cooperated fully with the legal system.

The next thing which he complains about is his “detention”, some UN body (a rather misguided one) has stated that “Mr. Assange had been subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty: initial detention in Wandsworth Prison in London, followed by house arrest and then confinement at the Ecuadorean Embassy

The “confinement at the Ecuadorean Embassy” was not ordered by either the Swedish or UK state, it was self imposed.  hit the nail on the head perfectly when he pointed out that Mr Assange has hidden himself away from justice rather than having been confined by the state.

Maybe by the same logic of most of the panel I have also kidnapped myself by going for a walk, a walk I wanted to go for. To my mind the logic of the UN panel is deeply wrong and twisted. It is interesting that one member of the panel (who disgreed with the others) Vladimir Tochilovsky who is a law academic quite rightly expressed the view that “Mr Assange’s situation amounted to “self-confinement” – and was therefore outside the panel’s remit” (Summary on the Telegraph‘s site).  It is at the end of the opinion issued by the UN panel. For anyone who wants to read it here it is

“Individual dissenting opinion of WGAD member Vladimir Tochilovsky

  1. The adopted Opinion raises serious question as to the scope of the mandate of the Working Group.
  2. It is assumed in the Opinion that Mr. Assange has been detained in the Embassy of Ecuador in London by the authorities of the United Kingdom. In particular, it is stated that his stay in the Embassy constitutes “a state of an arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”
  3. In fact, Mr. Assange fled the bail in June 2012 and since then stays at the premises of the Embassy using them as a safe haven to evade arrest. Indeed, fugitives are often self-confined within the places where they evade arrest and detention. This could be some premises, as in Mr. Assange’s situation, or the territory of the State that does not recognise the arrest warrant. However, these territories and premises of self-confinement cannot be considered as places of detention for the purposes of the mandate of the Working Group.
  4. In regard to the house arrest of Mr. Assange in 2011-2012, it was previously emphasised by the Working Group that where the person is allowed to leave the residence (as in Mr. Assange’s case), it is “a form of restriction of liberty rather than deprivation of liberty, measure which would then lie outside the Group’s competence” (E/CN.4/1998/44, para. 41(e)). Mr. Assange was allowed to leave the mansion where he was supposed to reside while litigating against extradition in the courts of the United Kingdom. As soon as his last application was dismissed by the Supreme Court in June 2012, Mr. Assange fled the bail.
  5. The mandate of the Working Group is not without limits. By definition, the Working Group is not competent to consider situations that do not involve deprivation of liberty. For the same reason, issues related to the fugitives’ self-confinement, such as asylum and extradition, do not fall into the mandate of the Working Group (see, for instance, E/CN.4/1999/63, para. 67).
  6. That is not to say that the complaints of Mr. Assange could not have been considered. There exist the appropriate UN human rights treaty bodies and the European Court of Human Rights that do have mandate to examine such complaints regardless whether they involve deprivation of liberty or not.
  7. Incidentally, any further application of Mr. Assange may now be declared inadmissible in an appropriate UN body or ECtHR on the matters that have been considered by the Working Group. In this regard, one may refer to the ECtHR decision in Peraldi v. France (2096/05) and the reservation of Sweden to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.
  8. For these reasons, I dissent.”

The comments about his family life are rather silly, Mr Assange choose to isolate himself from his family. I am sure that if he was sent to a Swedish prison that he would be allowed to be visited by his family.

Synthetic cannabinoids vs PCP

Dear Reader,

Sadly it has come to my attention that a couple in the USA rather than having the good sense to either go home to a bedroom, rent a hotel room or hide inside something like Ford transit van decided to have sex in the car park of a restaurant. Secondly it appears that both of them may well have been high on something which lower inhibitions. The “young lady” in a rather unladylike manner did some things which I will not discuss further. While her lover was reported to have blank stares and to have made animal noises (<sarcasm>Oh how romantic !</sarcasm>).

The Daily mail got things wrong by commenting that the man was arrested for having PCP on him stating that it is synthetic marijuana. Trust me it is not ! PCP is a rather nasty drug which is phencyclidine (Angel dust) which is a dissociative hallucinogen.

There are some very different molecules which are very different to PCP such as JWH-018 which bind to the same receptor as THC does. These are what are often sold as “synthetic marijuana”. I regard them as a very nasty class of drugs, if you are stupid enough to consider taking one of them then I suggest you watch this US Navy film about the story of the sailor who takes spice.

While those twits who are considering doing “bath salts” should watch this one !

As the military doctors in the film saym “its not worth it”.


Dear Reader,

It has come to my attention that an accident has occurred at Hanford, for those of you who do not know Hanford is an early nuclear site in the USA in Washington. At this site plutonium was produced, the plutonium used in world war two for nuclear bombs was made there inside the reactors.

I will not pretend that the site is in great condition, there are some serious problems with the way that radioactive waste was stored on the site. What happened was in the early days that neutron irradiated uranium was dissolved in nitric acid. This fuel solution was then processed to recover the uranium.

The first process used was the bismuth phosphate process which I regard as a very dirty process which generates a vast amount of secondary waste. The mixture of plutonium and everything else in a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids had the oxidation state of the plutonium adjusted with nitrous acid.

Then the plutonium was precipitated using bismuth phosphate, this process separated the plutonium from the uranium and the vast majority of the fission products. The waste solution from this process was then made alkaline with sodium hydroxide before being placed in large steel tanks. The problem with the Hanford site is that it has many different radioactive waste stores and different buildings, so it is not a simple site. But I think that the single skinned tanks containing the alkaline waste are the worst thing on the site.

It is not clear exactly what has happened at the site today, but I think that the worst case accident could never be as bad as Chernobyl. The majority of the radioactivity is inside the tanks. There is a program of tank emptying, the contents of the tanks are being removed and then conditioned to reduce the threat that it poses. A good review of the site can be seen here.

I know that in the Soviet Union that a high level waste tank at Mayak exploded (Kyshtym accident). Here ammonium nitrate and acetates are thought to have reacted violently in the waste store thus ejecting waste from the tank. At Hanford ammonium nitrate and acetates were not present in the waste. Thus the waste in the tanks is more chemically stable. The waste does form some hydrogen as a result of the radiolysis of water. But the hydrogen is a less scary fuel than the ammonium nitrate / acetates.


This should have been in Camera

Dear Reader,

The recklessness of some people drives me to a new level of distraction, I have chosen to not name the case or the newspaper in this blog article but I will tell you the story. Some irksome pest tries to build a homemade bomb, this homemade special fails. Then the news paper reports the court case explaining how and why it failed to detonate.

What I think is that any public discussion of a failed bomb is an educational moment which we are better off without. The problem I see is that building any complex gadget is hard when you have to make everything yourself. Having had an interest in electronics I can tell you that many gadgets have taken a lot of development work to get to the level which the public now considers “normal”.

Also having been in the business of developing chemical processes, I can tell you that the creation of a process (or even just the implementation of an existing process)  can take a lot of work. One of the things which always makes it more easy is a knowledge of how someone else did it successfully and an understanding of what went wrong the last time.

The knowledge that a particular method or material is unsuitable for a task is a great help, it saves a lot of time and effort. The reason is that a person will not go chasing after something which does not work. By publishing a truthful discussion of how a bomber failed the newspapers are helping the next generation of bombers by improving their knowledge.

Some years ago I was told something interesting at the ITU in Germany, they commented that a large fraction of illicit plutonium samples which have been intercepted contain red materials. They believe that the Soviet intelligence services leaked some misinformation about “red mercury”. The story is that “red mercury” greatly increases the ease of building a working nuclear weapon.

By releasing this crazy story about a spoof material, the Soviets were attempting to  waste the time and efforts of would-be nuclear terrorists. By encouraging them to chase a false lead it would have helped world peace. The reason is that every hour and dollar a terrorist spends looking for ways to obtain and use this material is a hour or dollar which they could not use one something which is more likely to provide them with a weapon. Very clever I think !

I have to ask why the facts of this type of case be discussed in public, and why the newspaper staff did not have the sense not to self censor what they published.

Hamburg airport

Dear Reader,

It has come to my attention that a irritant gas or aerosol has been released in the airport today causing the site to be closed down. One reports suggest that a pepper spray was discharged by “some clown” into the ventilation system. Some of my readers might want to know what is in pepper spray, these sprays are typically capsaicin and the other active chemicals in chill peppers in a solvent with a propellant to allow it to be discharged as a spray.

Capsaicin is quite a simple compound, here is a picture of a molecule of it.


DNA at home

Dear Reader,

It has come to my attention that in Germany some very strict laws exist against any DNA experiments outside “licensed sites”, for example the Daily Mail comments how people who do DNA experiments at home may now face three years of jail. I have to ask a question, “is it reasonable to ban all work on a particular field ?”.

Like it or not DNA experiments at home have been possible for over 20 years. Back in the early 1990s they were being considered in popular science magazines. Now for less than 2000 US$ you can get a home microbiology lab in which you can do DNA experiments.

My worry is that yes it might be possible to do some rather antisocial or criminal acts using DNA or DNA modification tools, but on the otherhand if we were to ban every tool which can be used to commit a serious crime then we will end up banning everything. For example I can make a quick list of some easy to misuse household items

cars, petrol (motor fuel), condoms, knifes, biro pens, matches, disposable pocket camera, cricket bat and water pipes.

Now in the interests of public safety I am not going to tell you how to do some very nasty things with these items, I am sure that many of my readers will spot quickly in this list some rather disagreeable possibilities but I think that the cost to the health, safety and welfare of soceity by banning these items would clearly outweigh their misuse.

The problem is that many tools can be used both for good and for bad, for example the uncommonly silly argument in Saudi Arabia against women driving includes.

3 – It also leads to women going out of the house a great deal, but their homes are better for them – as the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said – because those who love to drive enjoy it very much, hence you see them driving around in their cars here and there for no purpose, except to enjoy driving.

OK one can argue even from a nonislamic point of view that aimless driving is wrong as it results in needless air pollution, but it is unreasonable to ban the use of a tool which has many legal and good uses because it is possible to use it for evil purposes. For example maybe if someone who is not as nice as me ended up with this computer they could be blogging with it right now on rather nasty topics. They could be writing hate speech or very obscene poetry.

Equally a woman could drive a car to enable her to go and visit the hospital, members of her family or her place of lawful employment rather than somewhere where she might commit an illegal or immoral act. I know in Saudi Arabia that they take a very harsh line on theft, one might have to consider the question of should they ban all driving as a person might drive a car to a bank, rob it and then drive away from the bank with the stolen money.

There does come a point where we have to regulate some items as they have extreme misuse potential, keep in mind that a gun is a length of metal tube. A 44 revolver has a bit more than just a length of tubing but at its core it is a bit of pipe. A shotgun is even more simple. It has very few moving parts and it is a length of steel pipe fixed to a lump of wood, it is also an item with clear misuse potential. I can think of quite a few different types of crimes you can commit with a gun.

Well to get started we have vandalism, armed robbery and murder. I am sure that my readers will be able to imagine some other misdeeds which can be committed with a gun such as illegal hunting (poaching) but we are not here to make a long list of misdeeds. But it should be clear to the reader that while a case can be argued for banning or restricting some metal pipes like the 9mm UZI, the AK47, the Tec-9 and some others, it would be unreasonable to ban all metal pipes. For example I live in a house which has metal water pipes which deliver drinking water and hot water which heats my house.

Equally it would be reasonable for Germany to ban home experiments with some classes of cells and microbes, for example Yersinia pestis (black death), Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) Spanish flu and some other nastys. I could even accept as reasonable a law which banned all experiments other than those with a whitelist of organisms.

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