August 11, 2006

The difference between good blogging and bad blogging

This is an entry by someone whom, whatever his other faults may be, happens to be highly competent in his chosen profession, which involves computer-based design and layout. The animated gif, like the one before it for Dan Rather, is basically unarguable in its conclusions.

This is an entry by a johnny-come-lately with no obvious knowledge of photography, and an apparent difficulty grasping spatial relationships.

It goes back to the theory, previously promoted here, of the knowledge donut. All bloggers have stuff that is too close to them that they cannot comment about, for work, personal reasons, etc., no matter how deep our insight into it may be. Glenn Reynolds writes a lot, but he certainly doesn't write about some titillating gossip from the law faculty at the University of Tennessee, his students' personal failings, etc. We also all have a vast universe of stuff we're completely unqualified to comment about and should probably avoid on that basis. You could describe these as two concentric circles around each blogger, with every blogger's circles taking up a different part of the space of all knowledge.

Blog entries are only useful to the common discourse if they're drawn from and based upon that realm of personal knowledge in between those two circles: the donut in between. If it's something you know a lot about but which is too close to you, you're unlikely to be considered objective. If it's outside your realm of expertise or ability, you have nothing useful to add.

My personal knowledge donut is quite small. I think I generally try to keep my mouth shut about stuff I don't pretend to understand, and there's lots of stuff in my personal and professional lives that I will never write about, out of professional and personal obligation. Other bloggers are less circumspect. We call these people "idiots."

Posted by BruceR at 12:29 PM

We really should take these stories with a grain of salt

For anyone reading Sonya Fatah in the Globe and Mail this morning, please don't throw away your salt shakers.

"An experiment to test the capacity of such combinations was carried out combining an easily bought hair cream, with sodium chloride, or bleach, says Dr. [Jay] Siegel, [director of the forensic and investigative sciences program at Indiana University].

'They used half a tube of Brylcreem and a cup full of sodium chloride and they put a crater in the ground with it," he said. "In a closed space like an airplane there is no question you can bring the whole plane down. Destroy it.'"

I'm going to assume, until proven otherwise, that it's Ms. Fatah and her copy editor, and not Dr. Siegel, who weren't really listening in Grade 12 Chemistry. For the record, bleach is normally a 5% solution of sodium hypochlorite. NaOCl, not NaCl. Big difference, as anyone who resisted the urge to put bleach on their dinner last night probably could have figured out. (Anyone tempted to eat Ms. Fatah's cooking, on the other hand, may wish to reconsider.)

UPDATE: It's been a long time since I took Grade 12 chemistry, too, but I can't think of any way that you could combine brylcreem (which is mostly mineral oil and beeswax) and bleach to produce a violent, crater-causing explosion. It seems to me the description above is missing a third element, probably hydrogen peroxide (which can react violently to bleach). Again, I'm going to presume this is the Globe's fault, and Dr. Siegel is not actually a complete idiot in his chosen field.

UPPERDATE: Let's try and be absolutely clear, before this gets completely out of hand. Doing final assembly of a bomb in flight (meaning connecting the igniter/timer to the substance to be detonated) is certainly plausible, and has been done. Sneaking a prepared explosive in liquid form (such as nitroglycerine) onto a plane is, as well: it's been done before. But any "expert" or journalist who surmises that this plot involved *creating* a chemical explosive from the reaction of two or more components *in flight* (ie, making an ad hoc chem lab out of the rest room) is engaging in unsubstantiated surmise, as will be undoubtedly borne out when more facts on this particular plot become known. (The other idea floating around, of a *prepared* liquid explosive contained underneath a false bottom in a large sports drink container is, certainly, also plausible).

How much liquid? Well, the 1994 bombing of Philippines Airlines Flight 434, which killed one passenger, was reported to have used around 2 fluid ounces (60ml) of nitroglycerine, which was enough to kill the passenger in the seat it was attached to and blow a hole in the internal floor below. To actually blow a hole in the plane itself with nitroglycerine, bringing it down, would require a somewhat larger amount: the Operation Bojinka planners were reported as planning to use the largest generally available (c. 12 fl oz) contact lens solution bottles to hide their explosive.

It should probably be noted that the Flight 434 plan, which also involved smuggling in the required two 9-volt batteries and wiring in hollowed out shoe heels, would have had a higher probability of being caught by airport screeners today, who are somewhat more sensitive about checking shoes.

UPPESTDATE: Friday's new proposed Canadian controls on chemicals (goodbye, chemistry sets) suggests another possibility: that Dr. Siegel actually said sodium chlorate (NaClO3), which would make somewhat more sense. It's not actually bleach, though, it's a herbicide (although it is sometimes used in the making of chlorine dioxide, which is used to bleach paper pulp and flour, to be precise), and certainly not something you want to confuse with your sodium chloride around the house. Sodium chlorate's explosive properties were best documented, I thought, in the recent Mythbusters episode about exploding Kiwi farmers' pants. I haven't tested it, myself, of course, but I can't say it couldn't be hazardous in combination with the organic material in something like Brylcreem. It might be pretty unstable, though, and there are much easier methods by weight, cost, reliability or effort involved to bring down a plane.

PS: I'm really hoping that Christopher Maughan's statement that it would take "half an hour" to brew up acetone peroxide (TATP) in the Star yesterday was not a verbatim quote from his primary source, security expert John Thompson. It takes considerably longer than that, and John's smarter than that.

Posted by BruceR at 10:22 AM