Saturday, August 26, 2006

Inbox Syndrome (updated)

The one big problem with going on vacation is coming back. This gets worse when you're in management: all of the people who depend on you to make decisions, who will not have certain meetings without you present, take the matters that require your input and defer them until you get back. So, you walk into the office on Monday morning and get slammed.

That was my week this past week - a hectic week of running from meeting to meeting, returning phone calls, answering the hundreds of emails that had piled up during my absence, and working ridiculously long hours to get caught up.

Unfortunately this didn't leave much time for blogging. I'm working on catching up on that now... ;)


First it was inbox syndrome, now it's "Major Project Go-Live Syndrome". There is a major project going live in two weeks, and another one going live at the end of September. I am the project manager for both, so I haven't had much time to blog over the last week or so. You can look for a new post from me in the next three days.

Friday, August 11, 2006

London Terrorists Named

Earlier today, the Bank of England issued an order freezing the assets of 19 of the London terrorist suspects who had allegedly planned to blow up airplanes over the Atlantic headed to the US. In issuing this order, the Bank of England named the 19 suspects affected by the order:

ALI, Abdula, Ahmed
Date of birth (DOB): 10/10/1980
Address: Walthamstow, London, E17

ALI, Cossor
DOB: 04/12/1982
Address: Walthamstow, London, E17

ALI, Shazad, Khuram
DOB: 11/06/1979
Address: High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

DOB: 10/03/1984
Address: London, E4

DOB: 21/02/1981
Address: Leyton, London, E10

DOB: 09/10/1981
Address: London, E14

DOB: 23/04/1978
Address: High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

KAYANI, Waseem
DOB: 28/04/1977
Address: High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

KHAN, Assan, Abdullah
DOB: 24/10/1984
Address: London, E17

KHAN, Waheed, Arafat
DOB: 18/05/1981
Address: London, E17

KHATIB, Osman, Adam
DOB: 07/12/1986
Address: London, E17

PATEL, Abdul, Muneem
DOB: 17/04/1989
Address: London, E5

RAUF, Tayib
DOB: 26/04/1984
Address: Birmingham

SADDIQUE, Muhammed, Usman
DOB: 23/04/1982
Address: Walthamstow, London, E17

DOB: 24/05/1980
Address: High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

SAVANT, Ibrahim
DOB: 19/12/1980
Address: London, E17

TARIQ, Amin, Asmin
DOB: 07/06/1983
Address: Walthamstow, London, E17

UDDIN, Shamin, Mohammed
DOB: 22/11/1970
Address: Stoke Newington, London

ZAMAN, Waheed
DOB: 27/05/1984
Address: London, E17

Thursday, August 10, 2006

"The Explosive Cocktail"

A CNN article today tried to shed some light on the liquid explosive the London terrorists were trying to use to blow up airplanes:

A senior congressional source said it is believed the plotters planned to mix a British sports drink with a gel-like substance to make a potent explosive that could be ignited with an MP3 player or cell phone.
The sports drink could be combined with a peroxide-based paste to form a potent "explosive cocktail," if properly done, said a U.S. counterterrorism official.
"There are strong reasons to believe the materials in a beverage like that could have been part of the formula," the official said.

Like most news articles, this one contains a few elements of truth, but is likely wrong in other areas. In particular, I cannot think of anything strong enough in a sports drink that could be used to make an explosive that could take down a plane.

More likely, the terrorists were planning to use a different, and more chemically potent liquid (perhaps acetone) in the sports-drink bottle and combine this with the peroxide-based paste on the plane. Acetone looks just like water, and if you dissolve green dye in it, it would look like Gatorade. Acetone peroxides are notoriously explosive, and one (triacetone triperoxide - or TATP for short) is a common explosive used by terrorists. Most recently, TATP was reportedly used in the London subway bombings.

In short, the liquid in the bottle may have been planned to look like a sports drink, but there is no way I can see it could have actually been the sports drink.

In short, making a passenger drink a few gulps of any "beverage" they are bringing on the plane would catch this type of thing. Acetone is quite toxic and so are all the other liquids I know of that are potent enough to make explosives. This is why, for example, they are currently making mothers drink some of any baby formula or breastmilk they are bringing on airplanes.

Liquid Explosives: The London Terror Plot

Earlier today, British and Pakistani authorities busted a major terrorist plot to simultaneously detonate explosives aboard multiple airplanes traveling from Britain to the United States. According to news reports, the terrorists were planning to carry bottles of a "British version of Gatorade", mix them with a gel-like substance and detonate them with an MP3 player.

As a trained chemist myself, I am surprised they have ever allowed passengers to bring liquids onto airplanes at all, especially since 9/11.

Many of the terrorist threats around airplanes that have come to light prior to this one have involved terrorists bringing premanufactured explosives onto an airplane. However, it is quite feasible for a terrorist to actually make the explosive compound on the plane itself. Essentially a plot like this would work as follows:

  • The terrorist would bring two chemicals with him onto the plane: Compound A and Compound B. Both Compound A and Compound B are chemically stable. Compound A would likely be a strong acid (which would almost always a liquid), while Compound B may be a liquid, solid pellets, or a powder.
  • While on the plane, the terrorist would mix Compound A with Compound B and shake the container. The strong acid (Compound A) would then react with Compound B to produce Compound C - a chemically unstable molecule capable of detonation.
  • Depending on what Compound C is, it may spontaneously detonate on its own, or the terrorist may have to detonate it with a spark, by heating it, or by passing an electric current through it.

This same method could also be used to produce a poison gas that would kill most/all of the passengers on the plane. For example, in gas-chamber executions in the United States, a solid (sodium cyanide) is dropped into a liquid (sulphuric acid) to produce a poison gas (hydrogen cyanide).

There are many chemical combinations that could be used to wreak mayhem onboard an airplane, but most of them involve a bottle of a rather nasty liquid (such as a strong acid) being combined with some other chemical. If the terrorist cannot bring the liquid component on the plane, the rest of the plot will fail.

The major problem with liquids is that many of them look alike. Sulphuric acid and nitric acid look just like water, and if you put some sort of dye in them, they could be made to look like any beverage someone might want to bring on the plane: bottled water, Coca Cola, Gatorade, etc.

If we know that terrorists are plotting against us, and we know this type of attack is possible, there is a compelling reason not to allow passengers to bring liquids aboard the plane. In addition, there are very few reasons that someone actually needs to bring liquids on a plane. They serve drinks on the plane, and a mother who is formula-feeding her baby can bring powdered feed, and mix it with water on the plane. Yes, passengers may want to bring bottles of alcohol from exotic destinations, or things like this, but those items can be stored in checked luggage. Travelers regularly bring colognes, travel-sized shampoo bottles, and the like, which are are too small to store enough liquid chemical to cause real damage - perhaps these in small quantities could be allowed, but I would suggest the majority of liquids should be prohibited from being carried onboard an aircraft by a passenger.

Given the risks of allowing liquids on planes, and the plot that came to light today, I would not be surprised if the current ban on passengers carrying liquids is continued for a long time.

On the lighter side: Caribana Parade

This week, I am on vacation in Canada. On Saturday last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Caribana parade, a major Caribbean-style carnival they hold in Toronto every year. This year was one of the best they've ever had: over a million people attended the Saturday parade, and despite that, there were no significant incidents of violent crime.

Here are a few pictures I took:

Some of the costumes in the Caribana parade are quite expansive. Some take months to build and can cost thousands of dollars. This was one of the more impressive costumes I saw.

Here is a close-up of the same guy as the photo above.

This costume was pretty.

I was amazed to see these small kids in the parade. The girl on the right looks no older than 4. These kids are taking a break from dancing, and are riding on the parade float.

A steel drum band on a parade float. There were several in the parade.

A dragon costume.

I found this float a bit funny. The poster on the left is an ad for Riyad Mohammed, the real-estate agent (whose picture looks a lot like the guy in white standing on the float). The one on the right is for "DJ Riyad", a party disc-jockey whose float this is. I wonder if Riyad Mohammed the real-estate agent and DJ Riyad are the same person.

Like most of the floats, this one had a generator, a major sound system, and was festooned with a large array of speakers booming out soca and reggae music. This particular DJ was quite good.

Another steel drum band.

A costume (taken from the back).

Another costume.

This costume was huge.

A group of masqueraders dancing.

A group of masqueraders resting during a pause in the parade.

Another steel drum band.

Two costumes.

A masquerader dancing behind the cab of a parade float truck.