Wednesday, May 16, 2012

19 May 2011 – Chemical Weapons Destruction update


Between spending most of the past week writing a paper on the status of Libya’s chemical weapons (CW) destruction process in the context of the current crisis in that country, and wasting two fantastic hours last Saturday watching The Destroyer melt Acuras with his face, the word “destruction” has been on my mind a lot lately. 

Figure 1 - In Asgard, they understand that incineration is far superior to hydrolysis as a CW destruction methodology

So it’s not surprising that, whilst perusing the riveting Gossip and Style sections of the Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday last, a headline all but jumped out at me: “Last of bulk mustard gas destroyed at Deseret Chemical Depot.”(Note A)  This naturally drew my attention away from the neighbouring article, which described the remarkable case of a chap ingesting his 25,000th Big Mac a mere 39 years after consuming his first, and caused me to dig into my back-files on the US chemical weapons programme to refresh my memory.

Deseret is one of the facilities that’s a plague to dabblers in the CW world, because it’s one of two names applied to what is essentially the same place.  Technically, the name of the facility is the ”Deseret Chemical Depot”, but due to the fact that it’s associated with the Toelle Army Depot and is located in Toelle, Utah, it tends to get referred to in international fora, and from time to time even by the Americans, as “Toelle” (pronounced “Two-Ella”).  Although not the oldest CW-related site in the US (that honour belongs to Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland), Toelle is far and away the largest.  When the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997, the depot held more than 13,600 tons of CW agent - roughly half of the entire declared US stockpile - in close to a million different containers and projectiles. 

Figure 2: The US CW Stockpile at entry-into-force, 1997

The grand total of munitions stored at the depot was staggering:

H, HD, HT (Mustard)
105 mm artillery shells: 54,663
155 mm artillery shells: 63,568

GB (Sarin)
105 mm artillery shells: 798,703
155 mm artillery shells: 89,141
M-55 free-flight artillery rockets: 17,353

155 mm artillery shells: 53,216
M-55 free-flight artillery rockets: 3,966
M23 land mines: 22,690

Additionally, the depot also held blister and nerve agent in one-ton bulk storage containers and spray tanks. 

Figure 2 - 1-ton containers of distilled mustard (HD) stored at the Deseret depot, 1998 (there’s more mustard in this picture than Libya has left in its stockpile)

Such a vast quantity of weaponry and toxic chemicals - much of it aging (some of the mustard dated to the Second World War, while the depot also held quantities of pre-WWII Lewisite, as well quantities of Tabun(GA) that had been captured from the Nazis during the War) - posed a wide variety of challenges to destruction.  Mustard, for example, tends to polymerize (thicken) in storage, becoming first gluey, then gelling, and finally taking on the consistency of a hockey puck.  This makes it impossible to destroy by hydrolysis, necessitating incineration.  However, due to the nature of production processes used at the time the mustard was synthesized, a good deal of it turned out to be contaminated with mercury, imposing much tighter emissions controls and necessitating the installation of very fine filters, scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators on the incineration equipment (and consequently pushing costs through the roof; at last report, the US CW destruction programme was projected to cost well over $40B by the time it is complete in a decade or so).  Different agents and weapons posed different problems; one-ton containers tend to be easy to drain and destroy, while artillery shells have to be defuzed and drilled first.  Land mines contain fuzes, too.  Worst of all were the M-55 rockets, which - because they have thin-walled aluminum bodies - tend to develop leaks, making them horrible to handle, and which contain fuzes, rocket motors, high explosives and batteries.  The technology that had to be developed to demilitarize VX-filled M-55 rockets was nothing short of staggering.

Unlike the Russians, the US tackled the hard stuff - the mines, shells and rockets - first, and left the easy stuff (the ton containers) for the end.  Completion of the bulk mustard destruction process therefore means that Toelle is getting near to the end of a programme that got underway in 1996, before the Convention even came into effect.  Only a small quantity of munitions remain to be destroyed, among them about 350 shells where the mustard was so badly polymerized that it was impossible to remove the agent from the projectiles.  Such problem cases tend to be destroyed by contained explosion in specially-built mobile destruction facilities.

Figure 4 - the US Army Chemical Materials Agency’s Explosive Destruction System (EDS) can safely detonate and decontaminate up to 6 CW projectiles at once

The staff at Deseret also plan to destroy the above-mentioned Lewisite and Tabun munitions by early next year.  Once this has been taken care of, all that will remain at Deseret are the “solid waste management pits” - old munitions dumps dating from decades ago, when munitions were destroyed in the open air (which is now forbidden by the Convention).  Most of the personnel will be transferred to the Toelle Army Depot, and the destruction facility will be closed.

The impending closure of the Deseret/Toelle CWDF brings up an interesting problem that the States Parties to the Convention will have to wrestle with at this year’s Conference of the States Parties (coming up in Nov-Dec 2011 in The Hague).  In 2009, there were 13 CW destruction facilities (CWDFs) in operation around the world: one in India, four in Russia, and eight in the US.  India has since completed its destruction programme and closed its CWDF, and the destruction operations at Kambarka in Russia, and at Newport, Indiana and Dugway, Utah have likewise come to a close.  Libya began destroying chemical precursors at its CWDF (at Rabta, with three sub-sites at Ruwagha east of Waddan, about 700 km southeast of Tripoli) last May, and commenced mustard destruction there last fall, which was going well up until the hydrolysis equipment broke down and repair parts could not be obtained due to the present crisis.

The decline in destruction activities is inevitable as CW stockpiles continue to fall; more than 62% of all declared CW have been destroyed to date; and it is relevant because the vast bulk of inspection activity conducted by the OPCW - more than 85% of inspector-days - is related to continuous monitoring and verification at the destruction facilities.  Article VI (or “Industry”) verification accounts for only about 1/6 of the Organization’s inspection activities.  Once all the weapons are gone, not nearly as many inspectors will be needed.

But it won’t be a smooth decline.  The final deadline for destruction of all CW is 29 April 2012.  Both Russia and the US have advised that they are likely to miss this deadline, probably by many years (and it now looks like Libya could miss it, too).  The difficulty from the perspective of the Organization is that CWDFs that have been operating for many years now are coming to the end of their programmes, while some others - for example, at Kizner and Pochep in Russia, and at Blue Grass, Arkansas and Pueblo, Colorado in the US - are still under construction, and in some cases won’t commence operations for years.(Note B)  As a result, there is going to be a gap of several years during which there will be a much smaller need for continuous monitoring and verification at CWDFs than there has been for the past 14 years.  This means that the OPCW is going to have to cope with direction from the States Parties to significantly downsize both the Inspectorate and its operational budget for 2-3 years (or even longer, if construction on new CWDFs proceeds slowly) - and then will have to expand both again once the new facilities begin destruction operations.
This won’t be easy; trained chemical munitions specialists are no longer common, because there are no longer any large CW programmes in the world.  The generation that supplied inspectors to UNSCOM, UNMOVIC and the first generation of the OPCW is retiring.  The OPCW now has to make inspectors instead of simply hiring them with years of experience.  Unfortunately, there is no alternative to downsizing; States Parties will not accept having the Inspectorate grossly underemployed for several years; and although it would be highly desirable to reorient allocated inspector-hours to Industry verification, for political reasons this would be impossible.  Every year the Technical Secretariat attempts to increase the number of Industry inspections by 5-10 (there were 208 Article VI inspections in 2009, but more are required, the argument being that the true threat of CW proliferation is no longer at CW storage and destruction facilities, but rather at small, flexible, multipurpose batch production plants), and every year it takes days of intensive wrangling between States Parties to agree on the total number of Article VI inspections - generally with the Western European and Other Group (WEOG) demanding more inspections, and the Non-Aligned Movement, led or goaded on by India, Cuba, South Africa, Iran and China, demanding fewer inspections (often as leverage to wring more Article XI, or “Economic and Technological Development”, money out of the Organization - but that’s a topic for another CoP).  So simply quintupling or sextupling the number of Industry inspections to keep the Inspectorate busy, however desirable it might be, is just not an option.

The wrap-up of the bulk mustard destruction programme at Deseret illustrates how time moves on, things change, and international organizations - if they want to remain relevant - have to change with them.  Dealing with the downsizing of the Inspectorate, a significant trimming of the Organization’s budget (in 2009, verification accounted for €34.9M of the Organization’s expenditures of €71.3M - Note C), and the impending non-compliance of the US, Russia and possibly Libya with the Convention’s destruction obligations, are sure to make for fascinating fodder at this year’s Conference of States Parties. 
A good thing, too, because as some of you probably know from first-hand experience, Den Haag in December is a lot more like Jotunheim than Asgard.



C) ibid., 63.

Monday, May 14, 2012

11 May 2011 – Uncommon scents


Fascinating news this week out of Vanderbilt University.  In a report published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vanderbilt professor of biological sciences and pharmacology Lawrence Zwiebel and his laboratory team are credited with discovering a compound that may prove thousands of times more effective than contemporary chemicals at repelling mosquitoes and other pernicious insects.(Note A)

The state of the art in bug repellents today is DEET (N,N-Diethyl-3-methylbenzamide), a yellowish oil developed by the US Army after its experience with malaria in jungle warfare during the Second World War.  It entered civilian use in 1946 and is the key active ingredient in most insect repellent sprays.  DEET works primarily by activating a mosquito’s olfactory cells that are optimized for detecting 1-octen-3-ol, a volatile organic compound present in human breath and sweat; it also works because it activates some of the olfactory receptor neurons that are also activated by natural repellents, e.g., eucalyptus oil.  Basically, it’s an odour that mosquitoes just don’t like.  It’s not without problems; for example, DEET is a mild fish toxin and a skin irritant, and it’s recently been discovered to be a mild acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, similar to carbamate toxins and insecticides (or organophosphorous nerve agents).  Health Canada prohibits sale of DEET in concentrations higher than 30%, and has recommended against using concentrations higher than 10% on children.

What makes the new compound so much more effective is the way it impacts a deeper layer of the mosquito’s olfactory system.  Mosquitoes have an array of exquisitely sensitive olfactory cells called odorant receptors (ORs) located on their antennae, and it has been known for some time that different ORs are activated by different chemicals.  This enables the mosquito to find its primary food, i.e., blood, by looking for and following the wide array of different volatile organic compounds emitted by mammals.  In order to attack the mosquito through its ORs, it would be necessary to target all of the different receptor functions, which would mean finding a mixture of chemical compounds that covers every possible chemical target - and there are a lot of them.  Obviously, this would be impractical.  The vulnerability of the mosquito olfactory system lies in how the activation messages from individual ORs are transmitted to the mosquito’s brain.  Each OR complex is connected to the brain via a special cell called an OR co-receptor (ORCO) which receives an activation message from the OR and converts it into a general signal to the brain.  Zwiebel’s team has been trying to find a chemical compound that directly activates the ORCOs instead of trying to target the individual ORs - and it looks like they’ve found one.  Dubbing it “Vanderbilt University Allosteric Agonist” or VUAA1, the chemical simultaneously “turns on” all of a mosquito’s ORCOs at once, overloading its olfactory system and preventing it from receiving any of the olfactory cues it needs to find food.

What’s nearly as interesting as the discovery is how they did it.  Over the past ten years, the chemical and pharmaceutical research and development industries have been revolutionized by computerized microsynthesis.  Instead of each synthetic operation and all of the subsequent testing for a new compound being performed by a human in a fume hood with Bunsen burners, Florence flasks and pipettes, the operations are now all carried on in miniaturized, computerized laboratories operated by complex robotics.  New chemicals can be synthesized in microlitre quantities (amounts far too small for a human to manipulate) and tested against arrays of other chemicals or biological samples much more rapidly and comprehensively than ever before.  This makes it possible to take a “broad-brush” approach to synthesis and analysis.  Rather than try to guess which chemicals might do the job, Zweibel’s team, using Vanderbilt’s high-throughput screening facility (originally installed for drug research), decided to “throw the kitchen sink” at the problem.  They ran computerized test runs using the full array of 118,000 small molecules normally employed in drug testing against genetically engineered human embryonic kidney cells that had been modified to include mosquito ORs. The computerized test runs found numerous chemicals that activated one or more individual Ors - and also identified a compound that activated them all simultaneously.  This is the compound that became VUAA1.  The researchers note that it could serve as the basis for similar chemicals promising broad-spectrum control options for all manner of scent-oriented pernicious nasties.(Note D)

The project, which was originally designed to identify new solutions to the ages-old problem of malaria transmissions, was funded by the National Institutes of Health using money provided from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, and it offers a potentially fantastic solution to malaria-stricken nations.  Previously, the only solution to the anopheles mosquito was to kill it, and the importance of programmes aimed at controlling mosquito populations has been underscored by the disastrous EPA decision in the early 1970s to ban DDT (1,1,1-trichloro-2,2-di(4-chlorophenyl)ethane) and to restrict funding to developing nations that continued to use it.  The UN has placed annual malarial infections at 20M+, and deaths at ca. 850,000, 90% in Africa, and mostly among children under 5; other credible estimates are higher.  If VUAA1 proves to be as effective as this new research is suggesting, it might be possible to simply neutralize mosquitoes as disease vectors without having to resort to insecticides - even largely harmless ones, like DDT - to kill them.

The next step, according to the project’s scientists, is to try to modify the compound by eliminating parts of the molecule that don’t contribute to its activity.  Once that’s done, they have to test the resulting, trimmed-down compound for toxicity - especially mammalian toxicity.  This is a fairly important consideration; one of the problems with identifying good, broad-spectrum insecticidal compounds is ensuring that they don’t kill us, our animals, or our plants.  Earlier this week, news reports out of New Zealand alleged that the deaths of 7 tourists since January at the “Downtown Inn” in Chiang Mai, Thailand, were the result of poisoning by chlorpyrifos, an organophosphorous insecticide commonly used to kill bedbugs.(Note B)  This is an old, old story; after the DDT ban in the US, farmers switched to organophosphorous insecticides like malathion (S-1,2-bis(ethoxycarbony)ethyl O, O-dimethyl phosphorodithioate ), which is as effective an insecticide as DDT, but which has much higher mammalian toxicity.  While there is no record of any fatalities resulting from DDT use in the US or elsewhere, the human health impact of malathion is significant.  When Pakistan began spraying with malathion in the late 1970s after the DDT ban, for example, 2800 out of 7500 spray men were poisoned, and 5 of them died.(Note C)

Most of chemistry is common sense, and it makes good sense to use the least hazardous chemical necessary to get the job done.  It also makes sense to deter if you can, and destroy only if you must.  If VUAA1 pans out, it will be one of the most significant advances in insect control technology in a generation.  Here’s hoping.




C) W.N. Aldridge, J.W. Miles, D.L. Mount and R.D. Verschoyle, “Malathion Not as Safe as Believed - 5 Die - 2,800 Poisoned”, Archives in Toxicology, 42:95-106, 1979.

D) I’d be remiss if I failed to note that, from a defence perspective, computerized microsynthesis and analysis setups are also ideal for rapidly identifying supertoxic compounds in small, easy-to-conceal laboratory settings.  The future of chemical warfare (and especially chemical terrorism, if our enemies decide to get serious about it) is not in huge plants producing tons of mustard or nerve agent; it’s in small-scale custom synthesis facilities capable of fast-turnaroud computerized batch production.  And the future of identifying new toxic chemicals for warfare or terrorist use lies in microsynthesis.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

6 May 2011 – Virtual necking, demography, and robots

“I’m afraid the Holodeck will be mankind’s last invention.”

– Scott Adams, The Dilbert Future


Stephen King once said that everyone’s mind is like a sink, and we all have a different filter that strains out the gunk at the end of every day.  One of the unusual things that got caught in my mental gunk-filter this week was an article about how robotics researchers in Japan working at the Kajimoto Laboratory of the University of Electrocommunications are in the final stages of perfecting a device for kissing over the internet. 

Yeah, you heard that right – it’s a machine for recording oro-lingual input, transmitting it digitally, and recreating it at the other end.(Note A)  It’s not such an alien concept, really; after all, a fax machine is just a device that optically scan pieces of paper, recording white pixels as zeroes and dark pixels as ones, transmits the numbers over a phone line, and recreates them as a picture at the other end.  A traditional telephone did the same thing with sound waves absorbed and transformed into electric current by a piezoelectric receiver, and turned back into sound waves by a piezoelectric transmitter at the other end.  Hell, a telegraph machine uses a simple switch to send on-off pulses over a wire, which were then turned by an electromagnet back into clicks.  This dandy new gadget is the direct lineal descendent of a Morse code key.  It just happens to be one that you stick in your mouth.

I don’t imagine I need to describe where, given human inventiveness, this sort of development is likely to lead; suffice it to say that it’s likely to involve the words “hardware interface” and could eventually render “sexting” as anachronistic as hoopskirts.  But thankfully, we’re not there yet, and the proof is in the “hardware interface” that has been developed at Kajimoto.  Take a look at a picture of the device in use.  It might sound hot in theory, but in practice it’s about as erotic as a breathalyser.

“You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French council; and they should sooner persuade  <404 ERROR>

As I see it, this is all part of an interesting and potentially very problematic trend.  In addition to using robots in innumerable applications designed to free humans from dangerous tasks (for example, measuring radiation levels in buildings at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant), Japan is leading the world right now in the development of anthropomorphic robots.  Japanese robotics engineers are pushing the envelope for all they’re worth, trying to bridge the “uncanny valley” that separates creatures (and features) that humans can identify with from those that we cannot.(Note B)  The more outrĂ© examples tend to be the ones that make the news – for example, “female” robots designed to hit the runway as 95-pound fashion models (Note C), or child-sized robots designed to serve as surrogates for childless couples (Note D).  There are of course other examples, but decorum forbids mentioning them here.

Compared to the internet kiss-transmitter, attempts to develop convincing anthropomorphic robots represent the opposing end of the spectrum of seamless human-machine interface engineering.  Developments in this fascinating field are proceeding apace.  According to a recent (and admittedly hilarious) Google search, somewhere between 2034 and 2037 the US government will be fielding “autonomous attack drones” or even an “autonomous robot army”; by 2050, sex with robots will be “possible”; by 2056, robots will be given the same rights as humans; and by 2059, humans will have “domesticated” robots.(Note E)  Leaving aside the wisdom, propriety and morality of giving rights to machines that we have not yet domesticated (let alone dimming the lights, putting on some Barry White, and cracking the Spumante Bambino with something that is physiologically indistinguishable from us and self-aware, but is legally a non-person), clearly the popular zeitgeist expects roboticists to bridge the “uncanny valley” at some point in the near future.  No pun intended.

Okay, so why should we care?  Well, not to come off like a waxen-haired televangelist, but there’s something a little pathologically misanthropic in seeking interpersonal interactions with a machine instead of with a real person.  The idea that a child-shaped robot is a desirable sop to the unsatisfied maternal/paternal instincts of humans who didn’t have children of their own is a little chilling.  And not to wax too apocalyptic, but there’s something else that Japan is known for that bears an interesting correlation to their fascination with the non-human.  It’s that fact that Japan has by far the lowest total fertility rate of any G8 country.  In fact, Japan’s TFR of 1.21 children per woman (estimated for 2011) stands at 215th out of 220 states and regions.  Replacement rate to maintain zero population growth is roughly 2.1 children per women.  With a TFR of 1.21, Japan’s population is declining faster than just about any population in the civilized world.(Note F)

 I’m not the first to mention this; far from it.  Pundit and self-described “demographics bore” Mark Steyn noted it years ago in America Alone, the book that got him hauled before three separate “Human Rights” commissions and tribunals for alleged “Islamophobia”.  One of the phenomena he noted was that national fertility rate statistics tend to be deceptive; while the UK, for example, boasts a TFR of 1.66, that is an average figure comprising very low fertility rates for native Britons, and much higher fertility rates for immigrant communities.  The disparity in fertility rates, Steyn argues, is changing the ethnic, religious and socio-cultural makeup of Western nations that have attempted to mitigate their own declining birthrates through expansive and liberal immigration policies.  Japan, which does not have an “expansive and liberal” immigration policy, more accurately reflects the rapidly declining birthrates common among industrialized Western nations.  It is worth noting that Japan’s neighbours on the low end of the TFR scale include nearly all European nations, eastern and western alike; while the top end of the scale includes the African, Middle-Eastern and South Asian states that are the points of origin of many of the larger and growing immigrant communities in the West.

To the extent that changing demographics are a matter of strategic concern for Western countries, one of the larger issues meriting investigation must be the fact that a combination of declining birthrates in industrialized nations and much larger birthrates among immigrant communities is rapidly transforming the sociocultural makeup of the West.  In the context of the ongoing “war on terror”, the fact that states of concern, and the slow-to-integrate immigrant communities that come from those states, have a much higher TFR than the countries attempting to stem the tide of Islamism and the jihadism that comes with it, is surely a matter of strategic interest.  Canadians – or at least those with a passing knowledge of our own history – should be more sensitive to this phenomenon than most; after all, it wasn’t all that long ago that Quebec nationalists were talking about “la vengeance des berceuses.”  That did not come to pass, of course; Quebec society, in the violence of reaction against the stultifying grip of the Church, embraced the libertine excesses of the 1960s with far greater enthusiasm than did the rest of Canada, and the impact on Quebec’s TFR was noteworthy. 

Today Quebec’s TFR (1.74) is slightly above the Canadian average of 1.68.  Some have suggested that this is due to the high TFR of large immigrant communities.  But if we look at the data, there does not seem to be any obvious correlation between the TFR of a province, and the proportion of that province’s population listing a place other than Canada as their place of birth.

This chart (prepared with 2006 census data from StatsCan) compares total fertility rates (TFR) per province against the proportion of each province’s population listing a place other than Canada as their place of birth.  There are some preliminary conclusions that may be drawn; first, that the maritime provinces are not popular as a place of settlement for new immigrants to Canada, while BC and Ontario definitely are; and second, that if we eliminate the maritime provinces as a clustered anomaly, there appears to be a very loose, inverse, correlation between the proportion of a province’s population not born in Canada, and the total fertility rate of that province.  This would appear to fly in the face of the theories posited by inter alia Steyn.

But perhaps it’s only certain segments of the immigrant community that affect birthrates?  The next chart compares provincial TFRs against the proportion of provincial populations contributed by immigrants from high-TFR regions, i.e., Africa, West Asia and the Middle East, and South Asia (again, using 2006 census data):

Again, the correlation appears to run counter to the arguments posed by Steyn et al.  If we once again deduct the Maritimes, where proportional representation by immigrants is very small (perhaps too small to enable us to draw robust conclusions), then what this chart appears to show is in fact an inverse correlation between provincial TFR and the proportion of the provincial population contributed by immigrants from high-TFR regions.  Ontario and BC, after all, have the two highest provincial representations by immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, and two of the lowest fertility rates in the country; while Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with low representation from these regions, have TFRs above the Canadian average.  It is, of course, also likely that the overall low representation of immigrants from these regions on a national level (4.7%) is too low to have a significant impact on aggregate provincial TFRs.  It is equally possible that these data, which are 5 years old, are no longer representative (but they do post-date Steyn’s book).  The census currently under way will provide new numbers that will enable us not only to conduct more accurate investigations into demographic change in Canada, but also to look at how change itself is changing over time.

If there were an observable correlation between immigrant representation and TFR, then in theory the quickest way to neutralize the transformative effect of differential birthrates between native and immigrant populations in Western states would be to effect the integration of new immigrants as rapidly as possible.  This may be what the charts are showing. It has also been posited that declining birthrates throughout the Western world are at least in part a consequence of the welfare state, which provides means of support for aging citizens other than the traditional primate method of guaranteeing familial stability by having children.  The problem, of course, is that support programs are paid for by taxpayers, and the more citizens who avail themselves of such support in lieu of procreating, the fewer citizens there will be in the next generation to provide the revenue to pay for the continuation of the programs.  This is the heart of the “unfunded entitlements” dilemma overshadowing the present US problems with long-term deficits (and also the heart of the demographic pothole that China is facing as a result of its one-child policy).  It is also the basis of the principle that because voting public largesse, availing one’s-self of it, and declining to procreate are all individual choices, the resultant inevitable societal decline – as Japan’s citizens, with their catastrophic TFR and, as a consequence thereof, equally catastrophic public debt problem are discovering – is also by definition a choice.

Politicians in Washington have been decrying the accumulation of debt that will have to be paid “by our children and grandchildren.”  They should consider themselves lucky; with a TFR of 2.05, Americans, their horrific spending habits and massive debt notwithstanding, are at least more likely to be able to dig themselves out of their hole than anyone else in the Western world, because unlike the rest of the West, they’re at least still having children to leave their debt to.  The situation is far more precarious in countries that are racking up enormous, historically unprecedented levels of public debt, but whose populations, instead of having children, are designing anthropomorphic child- and spousal-replacement droids and trying to figure out how to swap spit over the internet.

I guess if there’s a moral to the story, it might be one that was mooted on Futurama a few years back:

 Anthropomorphically yours,



(A) []
(B) []
(C) []
(D) []
(E) []
(F) []

Monday, May 7, 2012

28 April 2011 – The stench of victory


A whiff of putrefaction, a savour of rot, and the smell of post-mortem decay was in the air this past week as folks awaited the culmination of an eagerly-anticipated event of international significance. 

I refer, of course, to the extremely rare blossoming of Amorphophallus Titanum – the infamous ‘corpse flower.’

This sort of thing doesn’t happen very often.  Native to Indonesia (specifically, western Sumatra), the corpse flower, which is also known as Titan Arum, derives its popular moniker from its name in the working Malay tongue: bunga (“flower”) bangkai (“cadaver”).  The name was awarded in recognition of the colossal reek that the thing emanates as part of its reproductive strategy; you might call it the ‘Drakkar Noir’ of the plant kingdom.  It has been cultivated worldwide, especially in tropical botanical gardens, but there have only been about 135 flowering events outside of Sumatra in the past century.  This makes the opening of the horrid, two-metre-tall blossom an event of some significance.  Last weekend, for example, saw crowds flock in their thousands to gardens as far apart as Hawaii (note A) and Switzerland (note B) to witness the opening of the gargantuan flowers.  You can even view the events via time-lapse photography on the internet.(note C)  Perry the Corpse Flower, which resides at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, even has his own Facebook page.

Figure 1 - an Amorphophallus Titanum in all its blooming glory.  Note the erect spadix, centre of the flower’s olfactory puissance

What does all this have to do with Defence, you ask?  Well, the search for stench-inducing compounds – putrescent chemical agents, or ‘malodorants’ as they’re commonly known – is pretty much as old as warfare.  There are sound evolutionary reasons for this.  Most things that smell bad, after all, are generally also bad for you to eat, or to otherwise introduce into your body (e.g. via a puncture wound).  Animals tend to shy away from the smell of rotting flesh, as this usually indicates a kill site.  The purpose of malodorants is to capitalize upon ingrained responses to bad smells to convince people to voluntarily cease what they’re doing and/or leave an area, generally for riot control purposes (I mentioned this tangentially in a post last August).  It also, of course, attracts creatures that prefer dead prey over live (vultures, for example).  In the case of Amorphophallus, the stench serves to entice the insects that pollinate it: carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies of the family sarcophagidae (literally, “corpse-eaters”).  Insect pollination, incidentally, is necessary because while both male and female flowers grow within the same inflorescence, they bloom a few days apart, preventing the thing from self-pollinating.

For humans, there is an additional layer of complexity to the problem of designing chemicals to cause aversion.  Natural biological olfactory revulsion is overlain both by a significant socio-cultural matrix, and by large variances in individual responses to given odours.  This makes figuring out a broad-spectrum malodorant that will be effective against everyone in a given group a challenging proposition.  Researchers investigating potential candidate compounds in the US, for example, have documented widely varying responses among US test subjects from different ethnic backgrounds.  Americans of recent Japanese descent, for example, appear more tolerant of human fecal odours than the average US citizen, due possibly to the centuries-old widespread use of night soil as fertilizer in a country that has traditionally had a very low domestic ovine population.  At the same time, test subjects of Japanese descent seemed to be less tolerant than the average US citizen of the smell of rotting meat.  This, it has been postulated, may be due to the much greater historical prevalence of meat in American than in Japanese diets. 

Within such broad cultural generalizations, of course, individual preference may skew results with even greater margins of error.  We all know people, for example, who are repulsed by different odours, or who seem to be more sensitive to certain smells than other people are (one explanation for the increasing prevalence of workplace posters asking folks to use sense when applying scents).  Given such variation on the individual level, how is it possible to find something that, not to put too fine a point on it, is likely to make everyone sick?  Well, one way is to go to the chemicals that lie at the source of the smells.  Lest we imagine that this is a simple prospect, here’s a list of some of the floral volatiles that have been detected emanating from a blossoming Amorphophallus: ketones, hydroxides, nitrophenols, anisoles, acetic acid, acetophenones, pinenes, terpinolenes, benzaldehyde, beta-pinene, bicyclogermacrene, citronellol, dimethyloctadiene, E,E-alpha-farnesene, estragole, ethyl acetate, ethyl alcohol, geranial, geraniol, isohexanoic acid, limonene, methyl-butanoate, -benzoate, -butyrate and –isobutyrate, myrcene, cresols, phenylmethanol, sabinene, skatole, sulcatone, sulfanes and trimehtylheptadiene. 

The flower is a literal cornucopia of complex organic compounds, some of the latter of which are the truly interesting ones.  Organic sulphur compounds and skatoles have played key roles in the development of malodorant chemicals.  The Israeli Defence Forces, for example, reportedly developed a riot-control mixture known as “skunk.”  Based on common organic products (including yeast and baking soda), “skunk,” which replicates the odour produced by the eponymous beastie, may be dispersed as a liquid or mist, leaving rioters smelling “less than fresh.” According to at least one news article, the stench of the compound can linger in clothing for up to five years.(note D)  The organic compounds in question – methyl and butyl thiols (sulphur compounds) commonly known as “mercaptans” – are also found in rotten eggs and garlic, and are produced when vulcanized rubber (which contains sulphur) is burnt.  Mercaptans are some of the most potent odorants in existence, detectable by the human nose in concentrations as low as 10 parts-per-billion (ppb).  For this reason, certain of these compounds (originally ethanethiol, now t-butyl mercaptan) are added to natural gas, which is naturally odourless, in order to make leaks detectable.  Mercaptans are preferred for these applications because they are less dangerously reactive than other very smelly compounds, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulphide.

High-grade malodorants may have reached their zenith in two compounds produced for the US military: “US Government Bathroom Malodor”, which smells exactly like the name implies; and “Who, me?” a compound developed during the Second World War that was intended for use by resistance forces to demoralize occupying German troops, but which was allegedly discontinued because of the difficulty of dispersal (the disperser often ended up smelling as bad as the target.  Self-contamination is not an unusual problem when dealing with chemicals potent in ppb concentrations).  The “Bathroom Malodor” mixture actually contains some of the same volatile organic compounds given off by the corpse flower, including skatole, hexanoic acid, and various thiols.  Other compounds have been tried as well.(note E)  Unfortunately, a lot of the original archived documentation on malodorants once held by is no longer available.  The website closed down some years ago, and the URL has been camped by a site offering dog training tips.

The question has been raised whether malodorants constitute “chemical weapons” under the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Those who argue that they do base their position on the Article II definition of “toxic chemical” as “any chemical which through its action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals.”  The argument hinges on whether malodorants impact “life processes”, i.e. whether the physical revulsion resulting from exposure is a biological/physiological reaction or a purely psychological one – i.e., are you fleeing and/or vomiting not merely because you’re grossed out, but rather because the chemicals are interacting with your body chemistry?  There are, after all, chemicals that will force you to vomit; they’re called “sternutators”, and have been in use since the First World War (Adamsite, aka diphenylaminechlorarsine or DM, is one example); but there is no experimental evidence to suggest that malodorant compounds actually induce a physiological reaction.

Beyond the variance in responses, perhaps the most significant complicating factor in trying to design an effective malodorant is not the legal status of the compounds, but rather the fact that personnel can become inured even to horrific smells through long exposure to the individual odorous compounds used in formulating the mixtures.  This is not an uncommon animal response when acute irritants become chronic; we are adaptive creatures by nature, and can learn to put up with a surprising amount of discomfort and annoyance in order to avoid facing up to unpalatable alternatives.

All of which to say that, while our friend Amorphophallus may smell truly awful, it at least has the virtue of not lasting very long; the magnificent spadix droops, and the colossal blossom collapses and dies only 24 hours after blooming into its full, reeking majesty.  Would that all irritants were as transitory.




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Friday, May 4, 2012

NATO, Kosovo and Crisis Management

Well, it's about bloody time.

If you've noticed the new header on my blog, you'll note that I've finally gotten around to publishing my dissertation on Kindle.  It's now available at - 439 pages, all the NATO you can stand, and then some.

If you're at all interested in the topic, head on over and check out the sample.  I hope you find it useful.