May 31, 2005


The Italian Version is being backed up, and may not function properly.

Update 11:13 Z: Backup completed succesfully.

May 29, 2005

Process Monitoring 

Chemical engineers go to greath lengths in order to optimize industrial chemical processes, and the main reason for it is money: a well optimized process will consume less energy and raw materials, and produce less by-products to be disposed of and more of the intended product of a better quality. And it will allow the company's owners to make more money more rapidly.

But no industrial process can work properly without constant monitoring and control. If the process conditions go out of specifications, the quality of the products will be degraded, and ultimately nasty things can happen with severe economical and safety implications. In a factory I visited, for example, a trivial error caused a whole batch of polyester resin to solidify in the mixing tank: it took weeks of work with jackhammers to clear the tank and return it to operation.

The main parameters to control in a chemical process are pressure (occasionally, degree of vacuum), temperature and flow and composition of the feed - fluid level in tanks is another important one. There are other more subtle parameters, too: the concentration of tomato paste is measured through its refractivity index, and in some cases products are monitored for density, viscosity etc. But often this is more like quality control, rather than process control - if you process runs smoothly as planned, the product will be OK too. Modern science and engineering invented a vast array of instruments to measure and control all of the parameters above in any range and circumstance. Indeed, it is not only the chemical industry that requires accurate process control, but also other fields: in aeronautics, a reliable measure of the fuel flow to the engines is important for both performance and safety; where my father used to work there were huge vacuum current rectifiers, and big vacuum systems aren't trivial to control. Mercifully, they have been substituted with solid-state power rectifiers. But they have a quite comprehensive control system as well.

A basic instrument in the temperature control field is the thermocouple: the junction between two different metals or alloys produces a difference of potential across it that is linearly dependant from the temperature of the junction in a certain temperature range.
This difference of potential is measured with instruments that basically are voltmeters calibrated to display a temperature in degrees instead of a tension in millivolts. For practical applications, the two sensing wires are enclosed in a sheat - made of stainless steel for the thermocouples I use currently and insulated with magnesium oxide powder in order to work up to 1200 C - there are a few different types of thermocuples (K, N, T etc) for different temperature ranges. Thermocuples are a reliable, rugged and fairly cheap devices to measure temperature in almost any range of practical importance and a variety of situations - ovens, furnaces, inside pipes and chemical reactors; in presence of aggressive fluids, mechanical stress, vibrations etc.

Other temperature sensors are platinum thermoresistances, based on the property of platinum wires of having electrical resistance directly proportional to temperature. These can be very accurate, but are also more expensive than thermocouples - not really because they use small amounts of platinum, but because their whole construction is more complicated and thermoresistances require more complex indicator electronics.

It's not that the old good gauge or fluid thermometers do not work anymore, but they cannot be used in many situations and are terrible if you need to transform the temp reading in an electrical signal to be transmitted somewhere else.

Pressure nowadays is most often measure used strain-gauge pressure transducers: at the core of these devices, there is a small semiconductor (silicon) resistor with its resistance proportional to the strain applied to it. A strain-gauge can be used for different applications, but in pressure transucer it is attached to a stainless steel diaphragm that is deformed by the pressure of the process fluid. When this resistor is excited with a fixed voltage (usually 10 V) and inserted in an electric circuit called Wheatstone bridge, it will give an output in millivolts proportional tho the fluid pressure. These tansducers are compact, rugged and often all-welded stainless stell for corrosion resistance. Not exactly cheap (I have a very high-accuracy one that costed about £500), but an excellent system to measure pressure. As I said above, gauge and mercury manometers are still used occasionally, but they're limited to indication, cannot transmit data.

For the task of measuring flow, there are different types of flowmeters: one is the rotameter, the same kind of domestic water and gas counters, in which the process fluid rotates a small turbine and the volume flown is calculated counting the rotations of the turbine. Cheap and simple, but not very accurate or suitable for certain situations.

The most popular gas flow meters and controllers are based on the thermal conductivity heat capacity of gases: semplyfying, the instrument measures the electrical power required to keep a sensor immersed in the gas stream at a fixed temperature, and the amount of power is proportional the the gas flow. The great advantage of this kind of meters is that they measure the true mass flow of fluid, not its volume, that is dependant from temperature and pressure. Good thermal mass flow meters are expensive, but work really well.

Other flow meters are based on the Coriolis force, the force exerted by a fluid in motion of the walls of an omega-shaped tube. From what I've seen, these are generally high-performance, very expensive ones. Flow controllers are simply flowmeters with a needle valve downstream the metering element - but more on this some other day.
There even are flowmeters based on magnetohydrodynamics that can measure the flow (of liquids only?) from the outside of a pipe, if I remember correctly.

Once you meter properly the feed to your chemical reactor, you don't really need to measure its composition. Anyway, there is also a lot of different sensors and instruments to measure in real time the concentration of a single chemical or a class of chemicals, or to perform an almost complete analysis of the products. This is the vast field of analytical chemistry: you can use IR spectrometers, mass spectrometrs, membrane sensors, other kind of sensors based on different chemical or physical properties...

The problem of measuring the liquid level inside a sealed tank may seem trivial, but it is not, especially if great accuracy is required. The classical sinker - or viewing slit - simply cannot do the job. Thus, ultrasonic and radar level meters have been invented (maybe also laser ones, but a laser beam isn't really something you want to mix with flammable liquids): their opearative principle is rather simple - send out some kind of beam that will be reflected, and measure how long it takes to go forth and come back in order to calculate the distance from the instrument to the liquid surface.

Soon, I will explain some of how the values thus measured will be used to effectively control chemical processes.

Update 30/05: I forgot to explain something about vacuometers. Pressure gauges and transducers work because fluids exert a pressure that in turn causes a slight deformation of some metallic part; this deformation is proportional to the applied pressure and can be measure. But in vacuum conditions, the pressure exerted by the few remaining gas molecules is to low to deform anything, so other methods must be used. There are vacuum gauges based on thermal conductivity and other based on electrical conductivity. Vacuum systems have quite a lot of applications in various fields: for example, mass spectrometers must operate in high vacuum, and crucial steps of the semiconductor manufacturing need to be carried out in vacuum chambers.
It may seem easy to seal a vacuum system - after all, the pressure differential is just 1 bar. But in practice, it's rather difficult: many processes are very delicate, and even tiny infiltrations of air or other gases can totally cock them up.

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May 28, 2005

Depressive State 

Today I'm not in a particularly bright mood (it happens, when your idiotic neighbours make one hell of a racket till late at night) and a read to some of my favourite blogs and news sources is not helping - together with facts of my real life.

It's all about regulations, nannism, and how these insane tendencies are reducing our life to a larval stage, suffocating creativity and freedom on a personal scale; flexibility and efficiency on the economic one.

For example, my and my colleagues will have to perform an electrical earth & insulation test on our office equipment - computers and such. Now, I can read the label on a printer: it already has the CE mark; complies with FCC regulations and a couple national standards more. And we have to test them again?? Call it a waste of time & paper.

Yesterday I also went to the department's stores to ask whether it is possible to trade in old, broken gas pressure regulators (those devices you have to connect to a gas cylinder in order to have the gas flow at the required pressure). The response was that no, new regulations are so strict that no company repairs regulators anymore. Common sense 0 - Nannies 2.

Not to mention what a poor pub landlord has to do in order to renew the licence:
Representatives of pub landlords complained of the complexity of the application forms, which they said require a total of 207 pages to be sent to eight separate authorities, rather than a single side of A4, as at present.

I guess Franz Kafka couldn't conceive something like that even in his worst nightmares.

Also, today I read The Smallest Minority, and what do I find? Yet another failure of England's criminal law and a glaring case of terminal idiocy. But it's all to save the children, you know.

And to top it all, Amritas reports about egalitarianism gone mad.

Shees folks, sometimes I'd like to go to some place like Colombia, where men are still Men, where issues are resolved with knifefights and such. You can find any kind of shortcomings in that way of life, but what's good in a world of enforced equality and regulations for any conceivable object, activity or situation? And where people are effectively stripped of the means and almost the right of self-defense?

At least, Italy is way behind England on this road. Not that there is no bureocracy over there, but Italians are unequalled masters in getting around, finding short cuts, staying under the radar... you get the idea.

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May 27, 2005

Sparse Thoughts 2 

What's wrong with fantasy authors? They are totally obsessed with trilogies. When I see at the library a fantasy book that seems worth borrowing, the fine print reveals that it's "part X of the Godknowswhat trilogy". Not to mention that often the three volumes are published one year from the other, argh... I'm still waiting for the latest Terry Brooks - ok, I know the good guys will win, but I hate to leave a story halfway. Not to mention the Book 3 of Fool's Gold, which I repute to be a very entertaining saga.

I understand that it was Master Tolkien himself to begin with a trilogy, but it doesn't mean that any other author must follow the same path! Stephen King in fact did not follow, and his epic saga The Dark Tower comprises of seven books...

It's a sweltering hot day here in London: partly cloudy sky, 29 C and 45% humidity at Heathrow. Girls are wearing thin and skimpy clothes, argh...

Last night, on the bus there were two Japanese girls, and I was so brash to tell them that I like the sound of Japanese language - and that's true especially when ladies are speaking.
But what really captured me is that one of the girls had a voice similar to Atsuko Tanaka, tha actress who gave voice to Major Kusanagi in Ghost In The Shell - and a lot of other characters in other series. A really sexy voice, I tell you.

And to end this gallery of incoherent tripe, meatballs! In Britain and the USA, they're regarded as a typical Italian dish, but I dissent. Not that my mum never makes meatballs, or that they're unknown in Italy proper - only, Italians don't eat them so often. And meatballs are usually a way to recycle leftover meat, especially (in my household) the boiled meat used for stock. I suspect that for some reason meatballs became very popular (overrepresented?) among Italian emigrants in the USA and other countries, and this led to the belief that meatballs are a typical Italian dish.

Ok, now I'm off to the exciting job of cleaning a 0.25 mm sieve - because I have to sieve a ground catalyst with it. A standard, off-the-shelf coffee grinder was used to grind the catalyst granules, by the way.

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May 24, 2005

The Correct Words 

Where is the European Union going to, as a matter of political structure? Not a dictatorship; maybe an oligarchy.

But I think there is an even more fitting definition: Tyranny Of The Law.

In this model of state, a huge corpus of laws and regulations will leave almost nothing, even private life, unregulated. The preposterously long EU Constitution is a prime example of it. The State, a collective entity with the face of thousands bureaucrats will define and legislate everything. What is dangerous (and thus admissible) and what is not; what can be called marriage, which ideologies are legitimate and which not.

Ultimately, this is system will end up in erasing the distinctions between ethics and morality on one side and law on the other: good and legal will be synonyms. And the Judges will be the priests and sciamans, the only ones initiated to the Word of Law, the ones who can interpretate it and dispense wisdom to the ignorant commons. The idea of individual rights will be meaningless and substituted by a system of immunities and privileges - more often than not given on the basis of class appartenance. Collectivism, after all.

That's a really horrible world to live in.

Ok, maybe I'm painting a too bleak picture, but I see many disquieting signs. The pervasive idea that there are no absolute rights, or its complementary that everything is a right. And rights are collective, not individual. The idea that the Judiciary should more or less dominate over the Executive and Legislative. The systematic attempts to destroy traditional morality and ethics in favour of a vacuous relativism.

The time to stand up and say NO is now.

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May 22, 2005

Mr Despicable 

George Galloway is a man I truly despise. He's a raving moonbat, a leftover communist, cozy with Saddam Hussein and his goons, but arrogant with Israel and whoever will not chop off his head if insulted.

First (well, not first, but let's just keep to recent events) we had his performance in front of the US Senate, where he hammered on the long-discredited story of the 100 000 Iraqi victims. And then, he textually defined the committee as "pro-Israel and neo-con".

Then I saw him on BBC, during a debate on the energy policy of Scotland* (Scotland has its own parliament and quite a lot of autonomy). Galloway gave almost no contribution to an intelligent debate of the issue at hand, bu uttered a lot of anti-American points: "They use 25% of world's resources; They drive stretch Humvees" etc.
Funny, the only stretch Humvees I've ever seen are in London. And I don't think that any significant fraction of Americans owns something like that. Then Galloway hinted to a shadowy conspiration between "nuclear industry" and British politicians, and ended up slamming Margaret Tatcher for the closure of coal mines - funny how even the hated coal (ok, it's from New Zealand, but they're brothers in ideology, I tell you) becomes useful ammo to slam conservatives.

That's the mark of the fanatic, of the raving moonbat. Punctuating each and every statement with anti-americanism, anti-Israel remarks (which are about 1 mm away from being anti-semitic) and conspirational talking points. I really fail to see how anyone without the same background can pay any heed to Galloway's rants.

But apparently all that was not enough, so he also stated that he will make the Palestinian flag fly from his Council's house - and on May 21th Galloway came out (of the closet?) and openly called for the boycott and political isolation of Israel during a rally of idiotarians and Islamists where also the destruction of Israel was called for (yes, in a figurate manner they say. Sure...).

If this isn't a hideous and despicable man, I don't know who is.

Update 23/05: Cristopher Hitchens has an even lower opinion of Galloway than me. And many more damning facts about this communist dictator wannabe.

* The debate itself was rather moronic: it presented the two alternatives of wind power and nuclear power as perfectly equivalent as means to generate all the electricity Scotland needs. But then the enviro-folks (and Galloway too) concluded that we have to change our lifestyle - probably going back to a pre-industrial world, eh? If you want to return to a lonely, shurt and brutish life, count me out.

All our lifestyle and wealth, health and cozy life are the results of scale and network economy. It's a wide subject, but you can't have, for example, modern healthcare without plenty of electricity and chemical industry and electronic - the R&D, production and distribution cycles are too deeply interconnected to have one thing without the others.

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Some Things 

Sunday afternoon, after a big night out with excessive drinking seems a good time for some rounding up (funny, because I bought a spray bottle of the herbicide Roundup to kill the weeds growing in the cracks of the pavement around my house).

First, let's add a couple of blogs that have mine linked: The Tone-Deaf Mushroom and Llano Estacado.

Around the Blogosphere we have Silent Running that finally got over the toilet infatuation, and now features... chicks! At The Daily Brief Sgt. Mom writes about the epic adventures of the American Pioneers - a recommended read. Cold Fury's Mike reports of midgets and lions - only to realize it was a hoax! Better off like that for the midgets, surely. Wretchard continues his analysis of the situation of the media. And finally, Steven DenBeste is falling for the Asian beauty (shame he doesn't have links to single entries - you'll have to scroll down to 20050521). Welcome to the club mate... when one starts to appreciate anime etc. it's only a matter of time before getting infatuated for Japanese girls too.

Anime is entering the mainstream culture in Britain too (it already did in Italy, curiously - one day I should write about that): now Garnier has a hairgel called Manga Head, which promises spiky manga hairstyles. You can even enter a competition to win a trip to Tokyo, on their website.

Speaking of Japan and Roundup, I just stumbled across this article about a Japanese import far less appreciated: the Japanese Knotweed. I have it in my garden, and it's a real bitch - on the same scale as the blackberry plant, but with no berries.

Update 23/05: DenBeste responds that he's been infatuated with Oriental women for a long time. It doesn't come as surprise... he's a founder of the club instead of a simple member!

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May 20, 2005

Different News 

Tim Worstall read my technical assistance request and passed it to his readers - thus, I got a few comments with a possible diagnosis.
A motherboard problem seems to be the consensus. Bloody hell, because an eventual MB replacement will be expensive, and almost surely come together with untold hassle. As far as I know, the MiTAC service centres in the UK are in Telford (England) and Paisley (Scotland). Maybe someone knows a backyard, dodgy computer repairer in London?

The same Tim, however, also wrote a post about the latest encouraging developments in the field of fuel cells and solar energy. In particular, Solid Oxide Fuel Cells are ahead of schedule regarding their cost effectiveness, and they are ready to enter the market for local electricity generation (small power stations, in other words) and combined electricity-heat cycles. They are not suitable for transport, but they may be installed on a ship or submarine, who knows. The military navies around the world are very interested in all-electrical ship for various reasons (one can be to mount solenoid guns on them), and SOFCs would offer an efficient and silent (if you're noisy, enemy submarines and ships will hear you with hydrophones from many kilometers away) generation system. Indeed, I've heard from someone in-the-know that Italy and Germany are working together on a fuel cells-powered military submarine.

Tim also mentions a plan to pump excess carbon dioxide from power stations (or hydrogen plants) into exhausted oilfields or the slaty aquifers under the bottom of the North Sea. I've been at a conference on this plan, and it sounds good and feasible. Carbon dioxide would stay there in a liquid or even supercritical state until it reacts with dissolved minerals to form carbonaceous rocks - in about 5000 years.

Also, efficient systems for the photocracking of water are now available: in future, we may have water cracked in our roof using sunlight, then hydrogen stored and burned during the night or cloudy days in SOFCs to produce electricity and heath. This is still engineering fiction (not science, because all this is already possible, but too expensive, difficult and unpractical to apply for domestic use), but maybe in 20 years it will be fairly common.

Efficiency of solar cells is up to 30%, but there are also extremely cheap and less efficent cells available.

What I figure for the future is an energy mix: traditional but novel power stations (clean coal processes, turbogas and pebble-bed nuclear) will still be necessary for the bulk production, but that will be locally integrated by a variety of renewable sources - wind, solar, biomass as a fuel, maybe even wave or tidal energy.

I think this is a realistic scenario, more than those who want to produce GW upon GW using only wind farms and sparse rows of solar panels. And, all this will allow us to mantain our living standards, while at the same time causing less pollution an using less resources - and causing less climate change, if human activities have a significant impact on it.

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Request Of Assistance 

If someone of my readers is familiar with MiTAC notebooks, I have a request for assistance.

My notebook, a 7521T in basic configuration, ceased to function. When I press the On/Off button, often it does not start - the power light turns green and the HDD revs up, but the screen remains black. After a few tentives it may start, but usually it freezes suddenly shortly afterwards.

The computer's battery does not hold the charge anymore, but I fail to see how this fact may be related to the problems I'm experiencing even using AC power.

I tried to reinstall Win2k Pro, but the installation program returned a "Disk error on unit C:", and anyway after completing the first phase of the installation the computer freezes making further advancement impossible. I have my HDD partitioned in two 10GB partitions, and I may install Windows in the D: unit, but I want to be sure there are no other problems before going that way, or it'd be wasted time.

Any help will be greatly appreciated.

Update 21/05: I'm writing this from the notebook mentioned above, which came suddenly back to life. I managed to reinstall Win2k, and so far everything looks fine.

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May 19, 2005

Green Explosives 

Yes, this is another long-awaited instalment in my explosive science series.

The idea of non-polluting explosives may seem a nonsense on first sight, but it's not so far fetched. When traditional explosives detonate, they also produce a certain amount of rather nasty chemicals - the black smoke of explosions (at least certain explosions) indicates the presence of particulate, which isn't the healtiest stuff; and there are other substances. The people most exposed to this form of pollution are the soldiers who use ornance for both training and combat, and the civilians in the operations area. Reducing the pollution from military operations is beneficial for both the friendly soldiers and the innocent* civilians (although, like all good intentions, sometimes it can backfire).

Basically (and a bit imprecisely, but bear with me) the energetic part of an explosive molecule are the nitrogen-oxigen and nitrogen-nitrogen bonds, while the carbon atoms work more like "fuel" and produce those toxic chemicals. So the explosives' scientists came up with the idea of producing explosives containing more nitrogen and less carbon - and nitrogen-nitrogen bonds. The ultimate molecule I've seen is constituted by two six-membered rings of nitrogen atoms joined by one vertex: it's almost totally nitrogen in solid form, with only four petty hydrogen atoms at the extremities (if I remember correctly, because I've seen that structure only quite a while ago): upon detonation, it will produce only nitrogen gas (and a little water vapour), that is innocuous. Also compunds containing carbon chains or rings in tensioned configurations contain a lot of energy per unit of mass, because energy is required to constrain the atoms in these unnatural configuarations, and it will released upon detonation. A typical tensioned hydrocarbon is cubane (I think it was experimented as a F1 car fuel) , and indeed octanitrocubane is a powerful explosive.

As a bonus, some of these newer green explosives are also more powerful that the traditional RDX-based ones. The drawbacks (there always are drawbacks) are that these exotic compounds are still difficult to synthetize and at the moment are much more expensive than traditional ones.

Not to mention current primary explosives (those used in blasting caps and initiators) often contain lead, and upon detonation this lead is released as fine particles of metal or its salts - it appears that much of the lead contamination at firing ranges is due to the lead azide of the caps, not to the bullet fragmentation.

Other concerns regard the fact that TNT, HMX etc are toxic by themselves, and their production leaves a great amount of toxic waste and spent but contaminated acidic solutions - although even green explosives may not be the best in this regard. Moreover, destruction of expired ordnance (which is usually done by open-air burning) poses environmental problems.

Other researchers, instead, are considering the use of metal (aluminium) nanoparticles as explosives and propellants, because the size of these particles can be adjusted in order to produce the desired combustion (or detonation) rate. Maybe these formulations are not exactly green in the widest sense, but they may allow to do away with lead and other heavy metals.

Ordinary rocket propellants often contain aluminium powder and ammonium perchlorate, which make a good propellant but are also polluting: better solid propellants would be a bonus. Actually, liquid oxigen/liquid hydrogen is a clean propellant, but those are probably the most dangerous cryogenic liquids to transport, store and use - maybe only liquid fluorine is worse.

*At least, we normally suppose civilians are innocent...

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May 18, 2005

Another Quick Update 

Still mired down in work, particularly in the inceredibly tedious task of fighting gas leaks from my system. It's truly unnerving, I tell you. The worst thing is that sometimes I notice a pressure drop (small, but I work on the edge of kPa) and I'm not sure wheter it's caused by a leak, or a temperature variation, or the lunar phase or what.

Also, my laptop's hard disk has serious problems - it may be its death throes - and I sprained my ankle at karate yesterday.

I'd like to write some more about "green" and insensitive explosives, but that will have to wait a bit more.

Update to the quick update: When blogging degenerates. See the pictures and read the story of a disturbing scientific experiments demonstrating how Newsweek is full of crap - plus horrific details about someone in Australia.

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May 15, 2005

Aggressive Cleaning 

Now, something completely different: how to clean stubborn dirt...

Today I tried to remove the limescale left by this hard London water on my kitchen's sink using a commercial cleaning fluid. I was only partially succesfull, given that the limescale grew through years of superficial celaning.

The best thing to remove limescale is to use diluted hydrochloric or nitric acid (say 5 - 10%), but there are serious drawbacks. First, those solutions surely aren't delicate on the skin. Second, they tend to corrode anything that isn't stainless steel or good quality ceramic (and plastic). Chrome-plated brass taps can be irremediably ruined byt this kind of acid cleaning. It's a shame, really, because you should see how diluted HCl eats away at limescale.

And how can you clean residues from the inside of alimentary plants? If foodstuff residues remain, bacteria and/or fungi will grow, and at least you'll have to discard the first batch of product when production restarts. In the tomato processing plant where I worked, they cleaned the sterile parts of the plants (of course, upstream the sterilizers bacterial contamination is a lesser problem) using first hot nitric acid, 30% in water and then 30% hot caustic soda. If you get hot soda solution on your hand, it may corrode its way through it before you can do anything about that. A pretty aggressive cleaning, but one must keep in mind that avoiding bacterial contamination is of paramount importance for canned foods. And the plants are all built with stainless steel. Alternatively, also a rahter diluted solution of hydrogen peroxide and peracetic acid in water can be used - or this goes after the acid/soda wash in order to perfect the cleaning. In those days, I was there only as a labourer, not a technician or supervisor.

If you have stubborn stains on your laboratory glassware, you can dissolve them using chromic mixture - a solution of chromic anhydride (CrO3) in concentrated sulphuric acid. It is an extremely strong oxidant, and it can remove basically any contamination. It was the preferred one in the alcyon days before environmental regulations - nowadays, people tend to use the toxic Cr(VI) as little as possible. You can substitute it with potassium permanganate (which is dark violet, and stains clothes like nothing else - maybe pure iodine), but permanganate and sulphuric acid tend to form the explosive and shock-sensitive compound Mn2O7.

The exhaust pipes of two-stroke engines tend to become clogged with oily and tarry residues, and thus they need periodical cleaning. No solvent is good enough for that stuff (which is horribly dirty - only thinking of cleaning your bike's exhaust will cause black, oily, smelly patches to appear on you hands), so the best way to eliminate it is to heat the whole exhaust using a gas torch (the kind used for roofing with tar), or in a wooden fire if you don't have anything better. Another method is to fill the exhaust with gasoline, drain the excess and then set it on fire. But this method is kinda dangerous: the gasoline vapours can explode... It is rumored that a guy tried it, and the vapours exploded: he found his exhaust in a field fifty meters away. But thoroughly cleaned, they say.

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I am diverse, You are diverse - etc 

Today from the bus I noticed an advertisement billboard for London's Metropolitan Police which was totally based on the concepts of "diversity": different life experiences, all the communities, and in the words in the background you could read "lesbian", "muslim" an many more.

One question is, shouldn't police be chosen on the basis of their capibilities for that kind of work?

But the real thing about that billboard is that it's clearly a product of the omnipresent Cult of Diversity. They (postmodernists, multiculturalists, tranzists & co, and even normal folks who fell in that trap) say that everything diverse is good, and you must love it just because it's diverse, and ask no questions, you ignorant racist troglodite!

Now, I enjoy some diversity - especially regarding food. I also enjoy to meet people from different places (East Asian girls particularly) and from different cultures. And, I reserve the right to dislike and even despise any meme I find unpalatable. Also, I think that cultural purity amounts to inbreeding, while mixing will bring about evolution.

But I think this kind of diversity (I despise this word, but I can't find a better term at the moment) is the natural and welcome side effect of a free and open society, where everyone has the same rights and is equal in front of the law*. Where people can come and go, do business, and most importantly freely express their ideas and opinions. Make a free and just society, and diversity will appear spontaneously.

The worshipper of Diversity, instead, see diversity as an objective in itself. They don't really care about liberty or justice, or individual rights. They only want Diversity to triumph and reign. And even less they care about such trivial things like effectiveness and efficiency. Your police force is ineffective because inane recruitment policies filled it with people not properly qualified for the job? Who cares, at least it's Diverse!

This also brings towards the fragmentation of society in communities separated along racial, ethnical or linguistical lines - all because it would be terrible, so un-diverse, if Little Coloured People were to have the same culture of the Evil White Men (I have to give some credit to Amritas for this kind of rants).

And so on we go, with "diverse" recruitment programs, affirmative action, ethnic quotas, proportional representantion and so on. And each time, some liberty goes down the drain, and the roots of our society are even more deeply buried under a pile of nonsense.

It seems impossible to stop this descent into the sewers without a complete reset, a revolution to sandblast all the layers of dried guano off the stone at the core, that has Liberty engraved onto it.

* I know that even such a society is a kind of utopy. It's just the one closest to be feasible, and the one that will give the best results.

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May 12, 2005

Supramolecular Structures 

A subject that is receiving a lot of attention nowadays is supramolecular chemistry, in which whole molecules are used as building blocks for bigger complex structures. This is closely related to the enticing subject of nanotechnology too. But the scope and proceedings of nanotech are often misunderstood: nanomachines will eventually be a reality (with all the risks and benefits of the case), but for the moment nanotechnology and supramolecular chemistry deal with organizing matter on a molecular scale, or just a bit bigger - nanometers, indeed.

Why are we interested in such things? Besides the irrepressible curiosity of humans (at least some), there are interesting practical applications: if you can control the structure of matter at molecular level, you can produce materials with exceptional properties. Very strong and/or very light materials; semiconductors; optical materials which are not only propagation means but can also perform operations onto photons (opening the way to optical computers); intelligent materials that can react to stimuli and change properties accordingly; and finally gain knowledge and even mimic biological systems.

Recently, I attended a couple of seminars on the argument: one dealt with the sophisticated novel spectroscopy techniques used to examine the intermolecular interactions. That is pretty advanced stuff, and I won't even begin and try to explain it. Let's just say that it's important in order to understand the fine details and thermodynamics (energy variations, basically) of how molecules interact with each other.

The other seminar was about much less intricated processes, and basically showed how certain molecules can self-assemble in particular architectures by simply adding metal ions. Self-assembly is the key here: those scientists did not force molecules together, but synthetized ones that simply will form certain structures because they can't do anything else, and because the thermodynamics are favourable. A cool one is a molecule that can go from linear (well, curved) shape to a helix one, shortening itself of a factor 7 simply adding Pb2+ ions - that may be useful as a micro-actuator, or as a basis for "artificial muscles". Self-assembly is also what biological systems do all the time, and very well.

On a slightly more philosophical note, in my opinion the self-assembly demonstrates that there is no need for a superior force to create everything down to the smallest details: once mulecules reach a certain degree of complexity - that isn't even so high - they will spontaneously self-assemble in more complex structures.

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May 11, 2005

United We Must Stand 

In the last few days, my blog received quite a few visits from Japanese domains (.jp) of users searching for "Ansar al-Sunnah" and similar search words.

I think this is related to this news story:

Japan continued struggling Wednesday to obtain information about a Japanese man believed to have been taken captive by an Islamic militant group in Iraq.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters, ''We only have a
lot of unconfirmed information'' about what may have happened to 44-year-old Akihiko Saito.''
Same old script, the jihadis said they will release the hostage if Japan withdraws its troops etc. Sadly, these Ansar al-Sunnah bastards are not reknown for their meekness: months ago, they slaughtered twelve Nepalese hostages.

Saito is a veteran of the Japan Self-Defense Force and of the French Foreign Legion, and worked in Iraq as a security contractor - as reported by Kyodo News, to guard electric lines (you know, those infrastuctures that according to pacifists were destroyed in the war, thus turning the Iraqis against the invaders).

I'm afraid I cannot say anything comforting to the Japanese: the people probably holding your fellow citizen are ruthless bloodthirsty savages, and it's unlikely he will make it alive. Unless Japan submits to the jihadis' requests, but that would be a defeat. United we must stand, or one by one we'll fall.

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May 09, 2005

Additions #4 

A few more links:

The website of the Multi-National Force Iraq.

The Religious Policeman - actually , the last post is dated Aug 2004, but it still gives an idea of how things go in KSA from the point of view of a guy who surely isn't and Islamo-fascist.

Another Saudi blog: Sowaleef, the diary of a teenage girl - boys (not many), fashion, chat, pop idols, reality shows... No political commentary here, but I think it's good to learn something of the everyday life in those places, of what really concerns the Commons.

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May 08, 2005

Pasta 101 

Today I feel in the mood to write something fun and light, escapist.

So, get ready for a brief introduction to the wonderful world of pasta!

Pasta is probably the most typical and widely known Italian food. Pasta is very simple, just durum wheat flour and water - some versions contain also egg and other ingredients, but your basic pasta is binary. Ancient Romans already knew mixed flour and water, and dried pasta was known in Sicily in the 12th century, where it was introduced by the Arabs (it's not clear whether it was an Arab invention or they just learnt about it somewhere else - however, durum wheat is also called Saracen wheat in Italy). A couple of centuries later, Marco Polo probably brought back from China the idea of thin and long pasta - noodles or spaghetti.

Nowadays, pasta comes in dozens of different shapes and sizes, but the basics are just a few: spaghetti, long and thin. Penne or macaroni, thin-walled cylinders grooved on the outside. Fusilli, with a helix shape.
Pasta is made by mixing water and flour, and then extruding the mixture through Teflon (for current qualities) or bronze (for fine products) nozzles - there are variations of these machines for special shapes. Pasta is then dried in tunnel ovens and packed - I worked in a pasta factory for a few weeks.
Home-made pasta is thinned using special hand-powered machines which press the soft dough between two steel rolls - something vaguely similar to the rolling of steel.

How to properly cook pasta then? Italians like it pretty hard, "al dente" that means you must feel it under your teeth. Only durum wheat pasta will hold the cooking properly. However, allow plenty of water - ideally, 1 liter for every 100 g of pasta, but basically pasta must be able to "swim" in the cooking water. Bring the water to a vigorous boil and add a good pinch of salt (according to taste) and then the pasta, all at once. Stir to avoid sticking and return to a vigorous boil. Take the cooking time on the package as a guideline, and taste your pasta to check when it's cooked - no more than 10 - 12 minutes, usually. It depends from type to type. Finally, drain it.

The most interesting thing of pasta is that it's extremely versatile: in Italy alone, there are hundreds of different sauces to dress it. Meat, vegetables, mushrooms - and you can make your own too. Today, for example, I cooked penne with pancetta (like streaky bacon, but cured differently) and asparagus.

The most basic recipe is to dress your hot, just-drained pasta with extra virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano (or Pecorino) cheese. Another simple but tasty recipe is known as Aglio e Peperoncino (Garlic & Chilli): while pasta - spaghetti, usually - is cooking, lightly fry in generous oil some chopped garlic and dried or fresh chillies (Italian chillies are red, horn-shaped and used mainly dried). You can make it all the way from mild to extra hot, just adjust the dose of chilli. When pasta is cooked, drain it and trow it in the pan together with the other ingredients to sautee all together for a minute or two, then serve and drizzle with grated cheese.

Well guys and dolls, I got hungry thinking about this stuff! I hope you can enjoy my culinary dissertations as well.

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May 07, 2005

An Advice 

Girls, if you have a big, fat and flabby ass, please DO NOT SHOW IT OFF wearing low-rise trousers. It will be better for everyone.

(Tonight at the pub there was a girl like that wearing such pants, and it was a pitiful sight.)

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May 06, 2005

Safe Absurdities 

Today I had to fill in a risk assessment form for my experimental facilities. Pages of paper (the forms, and the MSDSs, and the eplanations) and a good hour of time wasted to write down what I could tell from the very biginning: a system using only carbon dioxide at moderate pressures (< 150 bar) poses a low risk.

However, there are funnily absurd statements in the Material Safety Data Sheets:

Hazards Identification

Not hazardous

First Aid Measures (for gaseous carbon dioxide, mind you)

- After skin contact, immeditely wash skin with soap and copious amounts of water.

- After ingestion, wash out mouth with water provided person is conscious.

Accidental Release Measures

- Methods for cleaning up: [..] wash spill site after material pickup is complete.

Stability and Reactivity

Hazardous decomposition products: Carbon Dioxide

All this crap for a GAS that is only slightly toxic - mostly, asphyxiant. How the hell are you supposed to wash a gas off your skin? Or to swallow it? Or to pickup a GAS from the spillage site?

Every chemical you buy nowadays is accompanied by these MSDSs, pages and pages of paper, and time and money spent to redact them, only to tell things that chemists/chemical engineers should know by default. All these safety regulations are way past the point of diminishing returns, in my opinion.

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Manly Things 

Quite a while ago Kim Du Toit wrote 20 Things A Man Should Do. Even if it's a bit late, I'm up to the challenge:

1. Shoot a gun larger than a .22.
It's pretty hard to have firearms fun in Europe, but I shot a hunting rifle.

2. Teach a kid to shoot.
I have no kids, and consider #1.

3. Cook a meal out in the open (and I don’t mean a backyard BBQ).
Done, somewhat. But it was kinda like a BBQ.

4. Kill an animal which can kill you.
I killed a couple of mildly poisonous snakes

5. Taste a good brandy (no French cognacs need apply) and a fine single malt Scotch.
Done. I'd add to the list a fine aged Italiana grappa.

6. Visit at least eight countries outside your own continent, none of which speak your home language. I plan do do it.

7. Read any six Shakespeare plays.
Not done.

8. Win a solo sporting competition—anything that involves physical exercise.
Done, but I have to admit I'm not a very competitive guy.

9. Be part of a winning sports team.
Done. And winning is a good sensation.

10. Make love with a woman in a forbidden place.
I think the definition of forbidden place is pretty relative, but done.

11. Have a strange woman invite you home with her; and refuse her, because you’re married. I'm not married.

12. Build something tangible—out of wood, steel, brick, whatever.
Done, many times. And at the end usually I spend some time to gaze at the product of my work.

13. Sit up all night comforting a sick child.
Maybe I'll do it.

14. Tell the truth, where a lie would both be undiscoverable, and keep you out of trouble.

15. Watch at least one real virtuoso play a musical instrument—in any kind of music. (I’ve seen Eric Clapton, Itzhak Perlman, and Stephane Grappelli perform, and watched both Solti and Barenboim conduct the Chicago Symphony. Pretty humbling.)
Probably I've never watched a virtuoso of such caliber performing, but I've seen pretty impressive musicians.

16. Perform on stage (music, theater, whatever), to a large (500+) audience.
I performed on stage, but I don't think the audience was >500. Not sure tho.

17. Play at least one musical instrument competently.
I tried, but I have absolutely zero musical talent.

18. Make love to a woman at least ten years older than you are.

19. Tell a government bureaucrat to fuck off.
Almost done...

20. And finally: tell a true story to your grandchildren.
If I'll have grandchildren, I will.

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May 05, 2005

No More Sgrena 

This whole story has really fed me up. You know, we got Calipari, an Italian intelligence officer, dead on duty for a stupid incident; Giuliana Sgrena gained an inordinate but undeserved amount of popularity and relations between Americans and Italians are more strained. And possibly, the guerrillas/jihadis in Iraq received a sizable amount of money.

All this with no gains whatsoever.

Yes, the Italian agents in charge of the operation decided not to coordinate with the Coalition forces, and while there were good reasons for such a decision, it is also a dangerous and unwise one.

My beef now is with the closed-minded Americans (aka the America Fuck Yeah Brigade), who firmly believe that American soldiers are perfect and infallible, and thus started to bash Italy, sometimes with substantial arguments, but often armed with nothing more than prejudices, stereotypes and possibly outright bigotry.

Case in point, this piece (plus others I did not have neither the time nor the will to collect). Ok, Sir George blasts BBC mainly, but he fires upon Italy too.
I could respond point by point, but I really can't be bothered. I will let the American report speak by itself (Excerpts from the de-censored version downloaded from the MNF-I website):

I. (U) Recommendations

(S//NF) Recommend the Force Protection Working Group consider the use of additional non-lethal measures [Classified].

(U) Recommend that the Force Protection Working Group, in conjunction with MNC-I Information Operations, propagate a Public Awareness/Public Service Campaign to inform all drivers of their responsibilities for behavior when approaching and while at Coalition Checkpoints. This information could be posted on panels or boards at airports and other major transportation centers, as well as in pamphlets to be distributed from various locations, to include rental car agencies and border control points. This public awareness campaign should enhance safe operations by promoting mutual trust, cooperation, and confidence for Coalition Forces and Iraqi citizens as well as formally outlining expected driver behavior throughout the AOR.

(U) Recommend the Force Protection Working Group consider the following
points as they develop the MNC-I SOP for TCP operations:

• (S//NF) Different signs for ECPs, TCPs, and BPs. For example:
o (S//NF) Road Closed – Do Not Enter (for BPs).
o (S//NF) Coalition Checkpoint Ahead – Proceed Slowly and Follow Directions (for TCPs).

(U) Signs written
in Arabic and English should, where possible, also incorporate international
symbols to accommodate foreign nationals as they begin operating in Iraq.
• (S//NF) Highly visible and quickly deployable checkpoint and roadblock warning
signs for Soldiers on patrol.
• (S//NF) Standards for when and how to use spotlights and lasers.
• (S//NF) The use of hand-held signs as an alternative to hand-and-arm signals.

(U) Recommend a review of frequently established TCP locations to
consider the use of existing permanent highway overpass signs that warn drivers that checkpoints may be upcoming (e.g., "Possible Checkpoint Ahead – Next Exit").

(S//NF) [Classified: Gunner Duties]


(U) Further recommend a transition to a more driver friendly alert
signal by substituting devices such as rotating warning lights and sirens to
replace spotlights as early warning tools.

(U) Recommend periodic reviews of Right Seat/Left Seat Ride Relief in
Place procedures based on:

(S//NF) Recommend the MSC Commanders review MNF FRAGO 1269/5 2005
Dec 04 with subordinate commands to ensure thorough fratricide reporting and investigation of fratricide incidents. [Classified]

(U) Recommend development of a casualty post-incident procedure
reference guide to assist junior leaders in accurately preserving incident
scenes as much as time and the tactical situation allow.



(U) Recommend that no disciplinary action be taken against any Soldier
involved in the incident.

(U) Recommend that this report be circulated to all MNC-I Major Subordinate Commanders for use as an After Action Review tool.

These Recommendations demonstrate that there is room for improvement regarding the TCP and BP procedures, and also that a less than optimal setup of the BP that night was a contributory cause in the incident. Why some people find the idea that even the American military may commit mistakes so abhorrent is beyond me. And no, I'm not blaming America, ok?

But enough with all this disgraceful story now. I'm done with it unless there will be dramatic developments.

Update 12/05/05: Blogger Jeffrey at The Tone-Deaf Mushroom (now that's a weird name!) has an Open Letter To Silvio Berlusconi, and that's a piece I really appreciate for its pacate tone and level-headedness.

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May 03, 2005

Don't Believe The Hype 

Geez, this Sgrena story is a mess. Now Italy released its report (PDF) on the incident, which gives a slightly different version of the facts. Or better, it focuses on some aspects (ie, the lack of written procedures for some instances) that are treated only in passing in the American report.

The media are already hyping this as a "contradiction" of the American report or "damning evidence of American reticence", "tampering with the incident scene" etc, ad nauseam. Well, don't believe it: the Italian report is produced by a joint investigative effort, and for the main part it agrees with the American report. The only major disagreement regards the speed of the approaching vehicle. But the recommendations regarding re-assesment of the TCP and BP SOP are shared with the American component, so there is no major disagreement. The Italian report presses the point of inadequate set up of the BP that night, due to the facts that the soldiers on the mission only had limited field experience, lack of standardized procedures for such mission and a misunderstanding in the chain of command, that caused a BP supposed to be of short duration to last for almost two hours.

However, I still have to read and compare organically the two reports. But for now I can say, don't believe the sensational headlines. The Italian report does not contradict the American one.

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May 02, 2005

Explosive Orgy 1 

In this age of high terrorism risk (or at least, alert), important issues regarding explosives are detectability and traceability. These issues do not regard strictly explosive chemistry or technology, but are quite important nonetheless.

If explosives are easily detected, it will be harder for jihadis & co. to smuggle them into buildings, onboard planes or trains and such. The most common detection methods are trained dogs (which is, basically, a very sensitive sensor and alarm system for airborne chemicals) and automatic analyzers that do a very similar work. Once, at Gatwick's security check one of the clerks passed a tissue wad on my boots an then put it in one of these machines to check for explosive traces. Fortunately I never worked with nitrobenzene, otherwise it could have meant some time spent being quizzed by police on that occasion.

Some explosives - notably Semtex, but also its cousin C4 - are hard to detect with these techniques and X-ray scanners. For this reason, now Semtex contains additives that give it a distinctive odour and make it more visible under X-rays. Novel detection techniques which use every analytical "trick" available (well, maybe except NMR spectroscopy) are being tested and deployed, but it's a sort of losing battle, also against the malicious ingenuity of terrorists and other evildoers. In fact, even if effective, scanning people and luggage and vehicles causes time losses and money and an overall worse performance of transportation systems.

Traceability means the ability of tracking the origin of explosives, either seized before being used or from the explosion residues, in order to identify all the people involved in the plot. No two batches of explosive have exactly the same composition, but often these accidental differencies are too subtle to be really useful for investigative purposes.
The problem can be overcome by adding appropriate markers to each batch of explosive: the latest idea is to use glass microspheres containing a blend of metals codified for each manufacturer and batch. Glass will not be destroyed in the detonation, and it's not very difficult to determine which metals and in what amounts it contains, so this seems to be a good idea.

Getting late here... but stay tuned for Part 2.

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I notice I haven't had the time to write a lot of technology essays recently. Some readers may feel deluded, I don't know.

This happens because I also have a my research work to do and a life to live. My work sometimes demands me to do long hours, and often it leaves me intellectually exhausted, by no means in the right state of mind to write posts requiring some thought.

Also, on this latest Bank Holiday weekend, I preferred to do some gardening (actually, I'm trying to grow some vegatebles) and housework. And then I went out with friends - and realized that a tandoori mixed grill is much more stomach-friendly than a vindaloo chicken curry.

But I'll be back with a vengeance!

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The Report That Should Not Be 

The Multi-National Force Iraq has finally released the report (now, at 20:00Z of 2 May 2005, the webpage of the report is 404 - Not Found) on the Sgrena Incident. As often happens for reports regarding military/intelligence matters, the version released to the public was heavily censored to avoid disclosing sensitive informations.

I downloaded the PDF file and checked personally if the rumor was correct: yes, if you copy&paste the text of the report in a word processing program (I used Word97), most of the censored parts will become readable. Probably it was the mistake of some secretarial staff who prepared the report for publication.

I am reading the whole open report, but I can anticipate that some of the censored information are open secrets - i.e. the unit involved in the incident, the name of the Italian driver etc. Some details aren't really pertinent: the names of the soldiers at the Blocking Position for example. There's a lot of statistical info about IED and VBIED attacks along Route Irish and Route Vernon, and discussion of the SOP and other details of BPs. I think that it is advisable not to disclose these information because it is likely to favor the enemy.

The most juicy parts, from my point of view, are the accurate descripion of the accident and the timeline of the events leading to it. Plus, the findings and recommendations. But I'll write about about it when I'll finish reading. For now I can say that the Italians failed to coordinate properly their mission with the US forces, and this is the main cause of the incident.

Update 03/05: Austin Bay examines the leaked report using his military experience.

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May 01, 2005

Sleepless Blogging 

Something's keeping me awake. I went out, had two or three drinks, then I came back at barely midnight, watched the third DVD of Ghost In The Shell - Stand Alone Complex and finally went to sleep. But, at about four I woke up and couldn't sleep anymore, so I decided to turn on my laptop.

David at Rishon Rishon posted a while ago about the meaning of Passover for the Jews: I decided to weigh in with a bit of linguistical dissertation.

In Hebrew, Passover is Pesach - or a rather similar sound.
In Italian, Easter is called Pasqua, while there is no specific word for Passover - rather, it's commonly called Pasqua Ebraica (Judaic Easter, in a liberal translation).

Pasqua is a word used almost exclusively to indicate that particular day of the Christian (and sometimes Judaic) tradition. Now, it's no wonder that the Church uses a number of word of Hebrew origin, because Christianity was born out of Judaism in today's Israel.

The interesting thing is that Pasqua means Passaggio, which is the Italian word closer to the English Passover (it also has other meanings, like gangway - all related to the act of passing through). Clearly both Pasqua and Passaggio sound related to Pesach: it is possible that the root of this word was passed from Hebrew to Latin and then Italian through Greek (a lot of Greek words seeped into Latin). Or that it's a common root between both Latin and Hebrew - but this seems less likely to me.

And now, in unrelated news, Beth at My VRWC was interested in my post on Heavy Metal and my blog in general: welcome onboard! However, while France isn't exactly my favourite country, I won't step down to the level of making snarky remarks about the alimentary or hygienic habits of the French - they're not really relevant in foreign policy.

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