Your Top Ten Favorite Articles

The top ten favorites appear below.  Most readers access the blog through the front page. This table lists only direct references, as when a friend sends you a link to an article:

1 Ebola, Rats, Lice, and History, and Hans Zinsser Part 1 1.18 %
2 The Unfortunate Poisoning of Sergei Skripal 0.93 %
3 Catastrophe Theory for Dummies Part 1 0.56 %
4 How it all started…”Forecasting World Events” 0.55 %
5 The Russian SVP-24 Bombsight 0.45 %
6 Kim Jong Nam & Vladimir Kara-Murza; All About Poisons; Novichok 0.45 %
7 Address to Davos; Avoiding the New Dark Ages 0.45 %
8 The Senate Report, Torture, & Anatomy of Fear 0.44 %
9 Iran Protests 0.44 %
10 Russia: Psychoanalysis or Policy Analysis? 0.44

Novichok, Raman, and Why the Sea is Blue

If you want to know what goes on inside a nerve gas detection lab, read on.

(Guardian) Salisbury nerve agent attack: expert criticises lack of information. Quoting,

De Bretton-Gordon said he had reassured people who contacted him asking if he thought they were at risk. “…The CBRN regiment was disbanded in 2011 as part of a cost-cutting defence review. “I expect we need a new one as soon as possible,” he said.

He added that the UK was “blindsided” by the Salisbury attack. “…We thought we had considered everything but not this scenario. There are not many people around with current and deep experience of things like this…. Now we’re paying the price. If [Russian president Vladimir] Putin is responsible, he probably doesn’t think anything’s going to happen because we haven’t done anything about chemical weapon use in Syria and Iran.

I would quote the whole thing, but for “fair usage.” Read it. As for the lack of information, let’s take a virtual trip inside one of the labs who so assiduously worked to identify the poison as one of the Novichok agents. What follows is inevitably incorrect in detail, offered only because the actual capabilities are of necessity secret, and because nobody else has written it. It is a schematic view.

The most poisonous substances known are all organophosphates that contain fluorine. The organophosphates include many insecticides. The nerve poisons bind with acetylcholinesterase, putting it out of action, so that it cannot  break down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Without the “ase”, the “message” never stops sending. This has two effects:

  • It causes all the muscles in the body, both voluntary and involuntary, to spasm and then stop working completely.
  • The switched-on state of the neurons in the brain causes them to overload and die.

The remarkably small amounts of a nerve poison required to kill are because these molecules are designed for specificity. Upon entering the body, these poisons prefer to bind with acetylcholinesterase. To the agent molecule that does not hit this target, two other things happens to a nerve agent inside the body:

  • The molecule can be metabolized. Metabolism is the normal process by which nutrients, as well as bodily reserves, are recomposed to serve needs of the organism. Some substances that are not useful to the body, such as alcohol, are disposed of in this way. Since poison is not a food, metabolism doesn’t go all the way. With  Sarin, the metabolites are detectable in the blood. But Novichok is so potent, the metabolites are correspondingly less. On the other hand, it is less volatile.
  • The poison molecule can form an adduct.  The entire molecule of poison joins another molecule, probably something a little fatty — hence, a new compound.

Once inside the body, one of the above things happens. This means that the search for a pure sample relies on luck. With luck, some of the agent lands on a nonreactive surface, like a porcelain tile.  In the case of the brother of Kim Jong-un, a huge amount of VX landed on his face, ample for direct detection.

So we are really looking for footprints, not the assassin himself. Most of the Novichok doesn’t reach the synapses. Most of it clings desperately to the first approachable fatty thing. Among the infinity of choices, squalene comes to mind. It’s simple and ubiquitous.

If we have any sample of Novichok, it’s very small. We can’t taste or smell it. There isn’t enough for fractional distillation. But things have advanced a long way since the days of the beaker and alembic.  It has to do with why the sea is blue, Raman scattering, which also gives us a look at tiny bits of matter, much smaller than a grain of sand, perhaps microscopic.

This is why the Raman microscope exists. It illuminates the sample with a laser. All molecules vibrate like these Russian belly dancers, doing a Salsa Rumba (You didn’t know Russians can rumba? You should see their molecules!) If you’re in the audience, and tag a dancer with your laser pointer, she vibrates even more wildly. But she flings some of your light back at you (sequins?) The Raman effect shifts the color (wavelength) of the light just slightly, spreading the even green of your pointer into peaky green shades, the Stokes shift. A spectroscope attached to the microscope records all of this.

The dozens of peaky shades that come off the sample comprise the fingerprint of the molecule. Only Chiquita can do her rumba. If a move isn’t hers, it isn’t her. But we’re not looking for the Novichok, because it’s gone or hidden. We’re looking for adducts.

The number of possible adducts is staggering. If our microscope points at more than one at a time, the fingerprint is smeared. So we have to separate them. Two mainstream, commonplace methods are used, chromatography, and electrophoresis. Both amount to hop races for molecules, over an obstacle course that could be a viscous liquid, or a strip of paper. The speed of a molecule varies according to what it is. Talent is not required. So they separate out into bands, each one a pure adduct — or nearly so.

The workflow looks like this:

  • Field workers collect samples from the environment.
  • Processors  use many techniques, including   those described above, to purify the samples. Many steps are required.
  • Fingerprint makers deliberately combine known pure Novichok samples with various fatty substances, all pure, to make adducts. Each adduct has a Raman fingerprint, which goes into a database. Without this, there would be nothing to compare to.
  • The Raman specialists  examine the samples  with Raman microscopes, obtaining the fingerprints of the field specimens.
  • The data analysts compare the fingerprints of the field specimens with the fingerprints in the database.
  • Everybody works as fast as they can.

Even though we are comparing adducts, not the Novichok itself, the fingerprint is so specific, it takes very few comparisons to eliminate doubt.

Unlike older nerve agents, no simple chemical tests exist.  But even if a test strip existed that satisfies the NATO requirement, to detect wide area dispersal of tons of agent, it might fail when the agent is precisely delivered, as with an e-cigarette. And Novichok is not one agent. Developed in the age of designer drugs, it comprises over a hundred compounds. To effectively counter the Novichok family requires active machinery, a “lab-in-a-box”, not a test strip. It’s not impossible, but  expensive.

This  oversimplified article neglects the myriad techniques available to the modern laboratory.  I’ve tried to take at least a little of the mystery out of it. But we were terribly unprepared for this, even though the Novichok formulas were made public years ago.

It’s time to catch up.















The Unfortunate Poisoning of Sergei Skripal

It’s now being called a “suspected poisoning.” (Reuters) Russian ex-spy, daughter still critical after suspected poisoning in UK.

Sergei Skripal’s  wife and son predeceased him.  (Daily Mail) Cancer, car crash and liver failure: Mysterious deaths of wife and son of Russian ‘Spy with the Louis Vuitton Handbag’ This reminds of the ancient punishment of defeated kings, where the monarch is forced to witness the death of his dependents, before going to his fate.

But what motive could the Russians have had for this streak of primitive, cruel revenge? Though the U.S. has been victimized by quite a number of our own spies,  none have been executed. But I’ve always wondered whether the fatal fall of Edward Lee Howard was an extracurricular job. Or the KGB could have done it  as a matter of convenience. That his fall was an accident is remote.

One purpose of this blog is to develop reasoning skills. One of them is to recognize when a valid statistical sample with expected outcomes exists. To distinguish this from conspiracy synthesis is a skill of the first order. We look for:

  • Individuals with known involvement in espionage who have switched sides, or tried to.
  • Expected outcomes, provided by actuarial tables, with normal modifications for profession.
  • Outcomes markedly different from the tables.
  • Indeterminate cause of death in spite of thorough investigation.
  • Motive  of revenge, deterrence, or interdiction.

In the language of epidemiology, we would try to identify a cluster of events. A cluster is a set of coincidences, which can be used for statistical inference. But statistical inference goes out the window in the face of facts.

The deaths of  Kennedy assassination witnesses is such a cluster. But in this case, there is enough factual evidence to prohibit the conclusion  of widespread conspiracy.  But we don’t have to be conclusive. It is frustrating, but intellectually honest, not to force a solution. More topically, if Harvey Weinstein had alibis, such as, “I was somewhere else at the time”, for  each of the dozens of his sexual abuses. the cluster of accusations would imply no inference. But he does not.

In the case of Skripal, denials by the Russian state have no credibility, so the statistical inference remains valid. But when did statistical inference escape the legal protection of the accused? A suspect is innocent until proven guilty, right?

It actually escaped a long time ago, in the form of standards for civil code that are different from criminal code. Just as a reminder,

  • In a criminal case, the plaintiff is “the people”, argued by the state.
  • In a civil case, the plaintiff is a private party.
  • In a criminal case, the standard of guilt is “beyond all reasonable doubt.”
  • In a civil case, the standard is the weight of evidence.

O.J. Simpson beat a murder rap, but in a civil suit, was held liable for wrongful death. It was the same issue, killing somebody, with contradictory outcomes: innocent, but liable.

But now, in American society (and we’ll see how this relates to assassinations shortly) the standard of guilt has not just escaped  its cell, but vaulted clear over the prison walls. It is occasioned by the sudden acknowledgement of sexual abuses that are poorly addressed by the criminal justice system.  Society’s new remedy is to turn our backs to the alleged perpetrators, with consequences of social sanction that are much harsher than could be rendered by civil judgment.

This is a hot potato. The purpose of the above is not to value the change, but to outline that American society is continuing to evolve, with changing standards of behavior, guilt, and sanction. Our Russian “partners”, as Sergei Lavrov, would say, see the West through their own distorting prisms. They should read this carefully, because it pertains precisely to the issue of extrajudicial assassination on foreign soil.

We do not require proof of legal quality that Sergei Skripal has been the target of assassination. American society has moved beyond it. Statistical inference, as  with Harvey Weinstein, does just fine. The Russian defense, along the lines of  “you don’t have anything on us”, doesn’t play here. So when Russians decide to liquidate someone on foreign soil, every Russian foreign policy goal is at least slightly compromised. You can see it in the slightly yellow tinge of our eyes, what we call a “jaundiced” view, a slightly poisoned outlook towards Russians.

And there is the fact of pre-announcement. With respect to the betrayal of Anna Chapman et al., another name was mentioned, Shcherbakov. Quoting from  Did Putin approve of Litvinenko Assassination? ,

Whether there is still a black market in polonium, or whether there is a laxity of controls that would exculpate Putin,  is one of those questions that bedevils the fixation of blame. Russia is one of several  countries that run assassination squads on foreign soils. Currently, they are looking for Colonel Shcherbakov ,  the betrayer of Anna Chapman. Referring to Leon Trotksy, a Kremlin spokesman was quoted as saying “We have already sent a Mercader.”

Whether there is a factual contradiction in naming both Shcherbakov and Skripal is unclear. But what’s  good for the goose is good for the gander.

Maybe it is really important that Sergei Skripal, and his entire completely innocent family, die. Perhaps the Kremlin worries about disloyalty in the ranks. Perhaps the spaced killings are intended to keep up the whisper.

Some readers may be wondering if Vladimir Putin approved this. If anyone knows, it will remain the secret of those who possess it. But it’s a mistake to personify a country in a person. Russia has had a poison lab since1921, devoted to the development of novel and undetectable poisons. The autobiography of one of the directors, Special Tasks, by Pavel Sudoplatov, is actually available in the West. I cherish my autographed copy. When the lab was reactivated in the 90’s, it had a new asset, the Novichok agents.

The formulas of the Novichok family were made public by Vil Mirzayanov, so the detection problem is being studied. Unlike VX, chemically treated test strips are not available. But last year, research by Iranian chemists, undertaken with microscopic quantities, suggested that detection of the unbound substance is possible in a well equipped  laboratory.

But this is not the same as detection in the organism, where the agent is bound to tissue. VX exposure is usually detected by indirect enzymatic changes. Hence Novichok may remain an unsolved challenge, unless  the chemistry of the neuromuscular junction can be directly observed.



Reuters: What the U.S. should do about Putin’s nuclear threats

Reuters: Commentary: What the U.S. should do about Putin’s nuclear threats.

This is a terrible piece. It should be read carefully, and with great attention. It expresses every wrong question with great clarity, with delicate waffles that incite anxiety, as all good op-eds should. But like CNN — see CNN, Shame! Raise Your Standards! “Russia unveils ‘Satan 2 Missile”. Like CNN,  Reuters needs column inches. The reader gets a cheap scare, and then the comforting burp provided by a dish of Moo Goo Gai Pan.

These sins were preceded by a sin of (Newsweek) The U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Race Is Over, and Russia Has Won, by Scott Ritter. Mr. Ritter has impressive credentials, but fell on hard times, so I’ll proof the article for him. Quoting,  “The RS-28 is itself a wonder of modern technology, capable of flying in excess of five times the speed of sound,…”  Stop right there. It doesn’t fly. It is not an aerodynamic object. The maximum speed of the RS-28 is about the same as all other ICBMS, greater than 15X the speed of sound, and less than orbital, which is about 24X the speed of sound.

Here’s another juicy bit, the caption on the picture of the submarine:

And Russia is on the verge of completing the deployment of its own anti-missile shield, one that will seal off its air space to bombers, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, negating in totality America’s nuclear triad.

Where the hell does that come from? We’ve been trying to defend against one or two North Korean missiles for 15 years, with doubtful results. And RItter announces that the Russians are miracle workers? The article is yellow journalism of the worst kind, an incitement to hysteria for the sake of page hits. It’s crap.

We live in the age of MAD — Mutual Assured Destruction, as we have since the Soviets acquired their own substantial capacity to do to us what we could do to them. This has not changed. Both the U.S. and Russia possess substantial overkill. Literally, this means that each country has the ability to wipe out the population of the other several times.

Some of the new Russian weapons have potential for a decapitation strike. But it is a principle of the command structure of both  powers that someone will survive with command authority to end the existence of the opponent. Quoting Reuters,

Putin’s audience, made up of Russian lawmakers and other leading figures, frequently stood up and applauded his presentation, which culminated with the Russian national anthem being played.

It’s hard to understand why the audience would applaud a scenario that simulates the end of their own lives. That is the scariest part of the whole thing. It’s disgusting. But there is nothing we can do directly about sentiment in Russia. Our own understanding of the meaning and implementation of deterrence are what count.

Nuclear weapons may have staved off a major war for 73 years. But our species has apparently unlimited capacity for violence and cruelty. The free press has an important role in moderating this tendency. It is their responsibility to convey the concept of MAD, from experts who have actually been involved in its operational intricacy.  We are as secure as MADmen can be.

So now you know what I sound like when I get mad. Members of the press, this time, don’t go for column inches. Go for civic virtue.










Putin says shrinking labor force to limit economic growth

(Reuters) Russia’s Putin says shrinking labor force to limit economic growth. Quoting,

“This trend will stay for the coming years and will become a serious limit to economic growth,” Putin told lawmakers. “

Vladimir Putin, you’re right. But why? Why does our disorderly society outperform one structured by a few “masterminds”, free to implement supposedly optimal policies without conflict?

Alienation, provoked by the sense of personal impotence,  is the cause. You’ve tried to stem  it with patriotism. It fails to stir Russia to growth because it works only for followers. It fails with anyone who has the human  potential to participate, even to the minutest degree,  in changing society in a positive way.

These people need something else to flourish. In a dynamic society, thinkers comprise a much larger slice than you might think. They are all over the place. It  includes all those  who contribute, in the minutest way, their personal visions of society. In Russia,  these little seeds of thought scatter, without germinating, to the winds.  Their alienated owners live stunted lives. In Russia, the soil of change is barren.

In Russia, bad things happen to the best people. No society can waste so much human potential and flourish. No society can idealize a dark past to become a model for the future, and flourish.

Grandeur is part of the problem, not the solution. Jeff Bezos uses a door as his desk. Visible displays of wealth occur everywhere. But particularly in Russia, pride of wealth has displaced pride of innovation. I suggest you introduce the door.

When you look at us, you see a disordered bunch, and wonder, how can a society with so much misdirection have created so much of the 20th century, and continue our dynamism into the present? What is our secret?

It’s hidden in plain view. There are so many of us, who are much less than leaders, yet so much more than followers. We each have our spheres, some tiny, some large. We have the opportunity to influence, if just minutely, everything we touch. And we use it. You see chaos in what is really our garden of change. That’s our secret.

Having replaced the destructive disorder of the Yeltsin years with sterile concentrations of power, your next challenge is to create the soil of change, replacing alienation with involvement. You can’t supply the seed of what is to grow, only the soil. Pick a few weeds, but use no poison.

All the good thing will follow.