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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.


The assault pressure cooker

Dear Reader,

Recently it has come to my attention that a state senator (Stacey Campfield) in Tennessee has been poking fun at the gun control lobby with a picture of a kitchen autoclave with comments about the assault pressure cooker features which it has. I have never considered the tactical pistol grip on a pressure cooker but the forward carry handle makes it much more easy to move a large saucepan around.

While the NRA and the gun lobby are correct when they say that “guns do not kill people, people kill people”, and some of the antigun lobby are trying to use emotive pictures of evil looking guns to scare people into agreeing with them. I think that the likes of Stacey Campfield have missed a clear and important issue.

Now I want to tell you about a weapon which is cheap, easy to obtain and does not jam. It can be purchased from a good hardware shop without raising any attention, there is a zero second wait on this one, no background check. Soviet made examples of this weapon can be obtained in eastern Europe if you know the right person to ask, I doubt if one of these menacing looking soviet made ones will cost more than about 10 or 20 US$. I am sure that those who like the all American example can get one made in the USA, my one is a Chinese made model in a shocking red and black colour scheme.

It is a pickaxe, I am aware that Karla Faye Tucker in Texas used one to commit a murder. Now before the pro gun lobby get excited or the gun-control lobby suddenly want background checks for garden tools like forks, spades and pickaxes, we need to get something clear.

The pickaxe is a garden tool which is very useful for digging. It has many uses which are unrelated to its use as a means of committing murder. When society decides if we should ban an item we need to consider both the legitimate uses of an item and its misuse potential. I hold the view that for both pressure cookers and pickaxes that the legitimate lawful non violent uses of these items outweigh the threat to society posed by the misuse of these items. Thus we should all oppose a ban on garden forks, pickaxes and entrenching tools (foldable spades).

On the other hand we should regulate where and when we can wander with these items, UK law regulates the carrying of “articles made for causing injury to the person” (Swords etc), “articles adapted for use for causing injury” (D cells in a rugby sock or a toilet brush sharpened into a point) and normal tools and household objects being carried around for the purposes of violence such as a kitchen knife, hammer or axe hidden inside a coat of a person of a person going into a nightclub “articles intended for use for causing injury to the person“. While it is perfectly lawful and reasonable to keep a pickaxe in the basement, garden shed or in your hand while you are digging in the garden it is not reasonable to sneak around at 3 AM in dark alleys with it or to try to carry it into an ice hockey or football stadium.

While I hope that reasonable minded people will see that the pickaxe and autoclave should not be banned as they are useful tools which overall make a positive contribution to society, we should consider for a moment a new “garden tool” which is not so easy to justify. This is the TEC-9 digging device, the idea of this tool is that it flings metallic mini spades at the ground which break up the earth to make it more easy to dig. For harder surfaces such as concrete walls alternative steel cored minispades could be used, for very thick steel perhaps a depleted uranium minispade could be used together with an adapted tool.

For those of you who do not know the TEC-9 is a nasty example of a pistol, it is a very short barreled 9 mm handgun which will make it less accurate than a traditional pistol where the magazine goes into the handle so it is likely to be worthless for police use or for target pistol sportsmen. This “digging tool” has clear misuse potential and I doubt if many people (even experienced pistol users) would have the skill required to use it to dig holes in the garden. I also worry about the pollution of the garden with lead and copper, I tend to use carbon steel spades, forks and other digging tools. Also this pistol (digging tool) will create an almighty racket which will disturb the whole town while the alternative technology (garden spade) is cheaper, more easy to use and close to silent.

I hope that it is clear to my readers that overall the TEC-9 digging machine (pistol) will have a negative effect on society. We need to be careful to avoid being seduced by the argument that a object has a lawful use when it has a unlawful use which can harm society. In short we need to avoid allowing people to relabel items to try to evade or bypass laws. Sometimes the evasion through relabeling will increase the threat to society.

I have heard of a case of a man who went into a gay bookshop (I am not saying where or who) and asked for amyl nitrite, the people in the shop were rather aghast and told him that they were not allowed by law to sell him this drug of abuse. He was then told to go over the road to the hardware shop and ask for leather cleaner, he went there and asked for leather cleaner. The shop keeper asked him if he really wanted video head cleaner, he then legally bought a bottle of amyl nitrite which was sold as a household product (rather than as a drug).

Now I hold the view that amyl nitrite is a nasty drug, but it is a drug which has some lawful purposes. It has been used for the treatment of some heart conditions and it has been used as an antidote for cyanide. If those who want to sell it as a recreational drug are allowed to relabel it as a household product then it is likely that the general public (those who do not want to sniff “poppers”) are likely to be exposed to this harmful substance. I have nightmare visions of some person on their hands and knees cleaning the insides of their video machine with their heart pounding like a speared crocodile. These were the words of one chemist I know who was once exposed to amyl nitrite.

The stupid thing about this law was that it was a crime to supply the substance for use as a drug of abuse but it was not a crime to supply it for household use. I think that the law should either have not banned it for recreational drug use or it should have banned the sale of the substance to the general public. To my mind the law was a total ass, as much as a law banning the sale of gin to under 18s but permits the sale of ethanol loaded with juniper extracts to school children as a pencil case cleaning agent bearing the warning “Do not mix with Indian tonic water before drinking the resulting mixture”. For those of you for whom the penny has not dropped I have just made a reference to “Gin and Tonic” being drunk by school children.

We also need to avoid some silly hysterics, one student once said to me that a class of drugs should be illegal in Sweden because they can be used to cheat at sport. This is a silly argument for banning a substance from the general public as a whole. For example maybe I could cheat at sports by fixing car suspension springs to my shoes (maybe I could jump higher like Zebedee {from the magic roundabout} do not try this at home you are likely to come to some serious harm !). We could ban car springs to prevent the abomination and horror of bouncing Mark with his spring shoes but this would deeply harm the interests of Sweden. Imagine having cars with no suspension ! We should not ban something just because someone (with a vested interest) holds the view that this substance or thing has a potential (or well known) misuse.

What society needs when it considers bans for guns, chemicals and pressure cookers is reasonable and rational thought rather than a knee jerk reaction from either the “ban it lobby” or the “anything goes lobby”. We need to weigh up the harm which a ban (or lack of ban) will cause and compare it to the positive effects the things might have on society, only then can we make a sensible choice as what to ban and what not to ban.

Dose estimates

Dear Reader,

I have found an interesting document which is on the subject of the atomic bomb tests done years ago down under in Auz. Now before we get going, I do not want to get dragged into a debate regarding the rights / wrongs of nuclear bombs or the moral issues associated with bombs and their testing. What we will be dealing with here is just the reported facts.

A document has been released some time ago by the Australian government which gives estimates of the radiation doses which Australians were exposed to as a result of the bomb tests there.

What is interesting is that the doses are quite low, if the data in the document is true then the vast majority of the Australians were exposed to low doses of radiation. But before we look at the dose estimates lets look at what the current UK limits are.

The 1999 law (1999 Ionising Radiations Regulations) set the following yearly limits

20 mSv Radiation worker

6 mSv Trainees aged between 16 and 18

1 mSv The general public

While the 1980s Ionising Radiations Regulations set the upper limit for a radiation worker at 50 mSv per year.

If we look at table 7.27 in the report from down under we will see the results.

A. 78.9 % of the people involved had doses which were lower than the current UK limit for the general public (1 mSv). I hold the view that this low dose of less than 1 mSv is nothing to worry about.

B. Only about 4 % of people are in the above 20 mSv group, these are doses which would break current UK law for a radiation worker.

C. Very few people (19 people, 0.2 %) are in the above 50 mSv group. These doses are above the yearly limit in the 1990s for radiation workers.

D. About 6.3 % of the people had unknown doses, in some ways this is the most interesting and more worrisome group. Most of these people were in the Royal Australian Air Force.

What would be very interesting is if an alternative set of dose estimates or measurements exist from the same bomb tests. By the way if dose estimates get you angry, do not get mad at either me (I did not make the dose estimates) or someone else but do feel free to point out other dose estimates which you think are more trustworthy.

bomb maker goes free

Dear Reader,

I recently saw this story about a man who had been trying to make napalm to enable him to deal with egg throwing yobs. While I have a dislike of antisocial yobs I think that “death la napalm” is not a reasonable or just punishment for egg throwing. I have no idea how close to making napalm this man got, for public safety reasons I will not tell you how it is done, if the man had even come close to making a viable bomb or real napalm then I think he was very lucky not to get a long time in prison.

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