Brother Handl

I must apologize for my distant, adventuresome, and, alas, very naive Swedish relative Richard (our surname spellings differ for the common reason of the whim of some immigration official from long ago).

Richard Handl said he had the radioactive elements radium, americium and uranium in his flat in southern Sweden when the police showed up.

He said on Wednesday he had always been interested in physics and chemistry and “just wanted to see if it was possible to split atoms at home”.

Handl kept a blog about his experiments, describing how he created a small meltdown on his stove.

Only later did he realize it might not be legal and sent a question to Sweden’s radiation authority, which sent the police.

Oh My Brother!  When you are ill, do you now often call our cousin Dr. Dolph Handl in Stockholm?  Next time you have a legal question perhaps you’ll visit my haus first.

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26 Responses to Brother Handl

    • Handle says:

      He makes it seem like TSA doesn’t know about this stuff. Like he’s some kind of white-hat hacker, just doing a public service and letting the government or some company know of vulnerabilities of which it is thought unaware. Not always, but usually, the government is fully aware.

      And in this case, of course the TSA is, and of much bigger concerns than this. But DOT and DHS assess risk in a composite manner (severity * best guess probability) and make trade-offs. That’s why you’re going to get use electronic devices soon, something pilots have done forever (lots of iPads in the cockpit) and something that other countries allowed a long time ago. Sometimes the police state eases its grip off the throat a little.

      Sometimes it doesn’t – it’s still against federal law to talk on your cell phone while pumping gas, even though 1. Millions of people do it daily, and nevertheless 2. There’s not a single, documented, solid case of unintentional vapor ignition from portable electronics. If you start a gap pump and let it pool on the ground on purposefully light it on fire, you probably still won’t get much of an explosion – it’s almost impossible to get the underground tanks to BLEVE.

      It’s just like cybersecurity. We have Information Assurance teams on the defense trying to patch every hole, and we have offensive teams trying to find and exploit them.

      And just so with physical security. Of course, we have Red teams, OPFOR, SF, and Clandestine guys who, even before 9/11, were working out all the clever, awful things you could do on an airplane at different levels of boarding security. And of course they have a store of knowledge of many awful things they can still do at the most rigorous standards.

      And they are all a lot worse than what this attention-seeking amateur is showing here. Of course, it all depends on what you are trying to accomplish, and most threats have no use of what this guy is making.

      First of all, kinetic-momentum weapons like the the club or nunchaku or pewter slug are not very valuable in confined spaces like a crowded airplane. Even a good blade (or constructable glass / ceramic equivalents, which can be easily be brought on an airplane), is not all that useful.

      Mostly these days they seem to want the ‘shoe-bomber’ / ‘underwear-bomber’ scenario. They want to create a hull puncture at high speed and altitude (and preferably over an ocean) which will cause a catastrophic decompression and enough vibration to tear the airframe apart and maybe even cause the fuel to ignite.

      All you get is many square kilometers of burnt shrapnel, luggage fragments, and body parts and it’s pretty hard for investigators to figure out what happened, whether it was even an attack, or how to prevent it in the future.

      What you really want it one of these, or any kind of water-impulse charge setup, which I’ve seen in action, and are 1. Awesome! yet 2. Easy to make from household materials or just buy cheaply online, and 3. Alas, also easy to get on an airplane, perhaps unpreventably so.

      You just need something to mimic the internal shaped-charge or PETN primacord effect (assuming you can’t also smuggle those things on an airplace, which you shouldn’t do).

      And the lithium battery / powdered-oxidizing-metals problem is, alas, a big one (though, again, not in the amateur’s way of producing a tiny bit of hydrogen gas and making a coffee cup go ‘poof’.)

      Anyway, it’s a good thing terrorists tend to be dummies and that smart ones willing to self-detonate and which can get through our measures don’t come along that often.

      • I did think it rather odd that lithium AA cells are sold in the “secure zone.” Wonder if they’re also sold in prison canteens? The article is rather reminiscent of the “prison weapons” exhibit at the Crime Museum in Wash., DC.

        My conclusion was that it is not impossible that the joker is not a joker at all, but a Government agent; and that the piece in question will be used to justify the Airport of the Future, where we will fly naked and anesthetized, stacked like cordwood.

        • Handle says:

          Heh, no, he’s clearly some kind of self-promoting showman. Whenever people are frustrated with some government policy, they really, really want to believe it’s both unnecessary and stupid. It’s motivated thinking that, if true, would remove the rationale for the frustration. You see the same thing from the ‘torture never works’ crowd. If only that were true, no one would have to make hard ethical choices! The end-point of dogmatic universalism is that there are no hard choices, only right and wrong choices a la Andrew Sullivan, “It’s just wrong!”

          So, with the TSA, there’s a market for the message that it’s all “security theater” and “there is no threat” and “even if there was, it’s incoherent and doesn’t work because it wouldn’t stop any terrorist from doing his terrorism thing” These are all pretty lies, but there is an eager market for pretty lies.

      • The “coffee cup” example would have been considerably more impressive if he had used the batteries to power a simple electrolysis cell (kindergarten physics) outgassing (H2, O2) into the condom, and touched it off with the toy car remote sparker.

        With no catalyst, electrolysis efficiency is maybe ~20%. The battery used in the example is rated at about 2000mA/hr, 1.5v, or ~3000mW/hr. A few dozen of these, a flask of water, and a large balloon, would suffice for a rather impressive demolition.

        A proper miscreant could even use the power sockets conveniently provided on airplanes for this purpose, rather than batteries.

        Likewise, ever wonder why a suicide bomber wouldn’t simply implant an arbitrarily-large bomb, of any composition he likes, into his abdominal cavity? If the guards were to throw him out of the airport, he could sue for “fat discrimination.”

        The reason why this experiment – or other variations on the theme – has not yet taken place is that blowing up airplanes simply isn’t very useful. The only people whose political interests it advances are already securely in power.

        • Handle says:

          Very good Stanislav, airplane-provided electricity is indeed a prime attack-vector enabler. I’m glad you’re not a bad guy.

          • I still predict an inevitable “Straightjacket Airlines.” Fly in a hospital gown; mandatory choice of knockout drug or handcuffs.

            Passengers may grumble, but airlines don’t actually need passengers in the era of bailouts.

  1. spandrell says:

    It’s a tough world for mad scientists these days. 100 years ago he would’ve been a hero.

    • Handle says:

      We still have plenty of mad-scientist guys like that, and they are treated like heroes, but they’re all on the inside. If you do it on the outside, you’re an enemy.

      In 1925, somebody meaningless once said this totalitarian thing:

      “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

      When it comes to things that go kaboom, that’s a good description.

      • “Mad” science is almost by definition the work of outsiders. In the more general case: think of Afghani smiths hand-carving AK out of junkyard rubbish, annealing in bonfires.

        The fellows on the inside are obedient eunuchs, issued world-class “golden hammer” equipment, but coloring strictly within the lines. Then again, perhaps you’ve working in some very different government labs, in a parallel universe, and encountered the other, now thoroughly-extinct kind of publicly-funded American science.

        • Handle says:

          There are places where the right spirit lives on. Of course, it’s hard to get access to those places if you’ve ever done something seriously wrong in your life, so the recruiting pool is thin and, with the generational shift in norms, shrinking. So, I am disappointed with how old everyone seems to be. I think that saps a certain amount of creativity and energy and willingness to take risks. There is also the issue of what happens when all these people retire en masse. And soon …

          • I’m rather curious what you mean by “seriously wrong” – my impression is that security clearances are now issued even to people who have smoked dope, converted to Islam, etc.

            The real reason many people turn their nose at working for secret Government labs is best described in this Dilbert comic:


            Your work may not be burned in front of you at the end of each day, but you are forbidden from carrying it on under a new employer, or even describing it in detail during an interview. So once you’re in the belly of the beast, there you generally stay. A little like joining the mob: probably not for everyone. I once applied to work at such a shop, and, in retrospect, I’m rather glad they turned me down.

            It won’t surprise me if the U.S. Government eventually takes up the Soviet concept of “невыездной” – forbidding those who have seen official secrets from leaving the country. And, an expert lawyer could probably throw together a comical but technically-valid extension of this ban to the entire newspaper-reading public – in much the same way that DOD employees are required to report sightings of leaked classified material from news media on their workplace computers, and to perform sanitation rituals.

            Ever wonder what it was like to live in East Berlin when the Wall was just a painted line on the asphalt, getting a little bit thicker now and then, chain link fence in just a few spots?

          • Handle says:

            ‘Ever wonder what it was like to live in East Berlin when the Wall was just a painted line on the asphalt, getting a little bit thicker now and then, chain link fence in just a few spots?’

            I love this, it has great rhetorical effect.

            Instead of невыездной, we just make everyone sign NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements). And, as I understand it, the Apple corporation is currently the subject of a large, class-action lawsuit for getting one-step closer to невыездной, by having made it its routine practice for decades to forbid all employees from even working in the same field should they leave apple. Even the USG doesn’t do that!

            That’s like telling a lawyer, “If you ever leave the firm, you lose your law license”. But Apple’s gotten away with it for years. We’ll see which side the courts favor. Without stubborn Saint Jobs at the helm anymore, Apple’s got so much cash in the bank they’ll probably just settle.

  2. James says:

    Handle, if you please I would be interested in your answers to the following questions.

    1. How does one reconcile Sunstein’s Simpler: The Future of Government with the power of regulatory bureaucracy, and what you have written about the importance of obfuscation?

    2. I think I have some intuitive sense of the interaction between culture and politics, but I’d like more concrete facts.

    Suppose a new youth culture emerges. It isn’t political or criminal, but its members eschew mass media, higher education and popular culture on principle. Perhaps they compete for status in endogenous charities and put on Palestrina concerts.

    I think it would be an unusual development that worries the powerful. What do you imagine would be the response of (which elements of) the American bureaucracy?

    • Handle says:

      1. I don’t see any evidence that Sunstein accomplished anything significant, or has anything important or new to say. Look at the size of the Federal Register! Look, you could call this “Regulatory Bandwidth” – the number of words of new federal laws, regulation, policies, directives, memoranda, instructions, manuals .. all federal issuances. RB is at an all time high and growing. Look at Obamacare or Dodd-Frank. So much for “Simpler.

      And anyway, you could make the ultimate simple regulation, “Stalin does what he wants.” But that’s not ‘rule of law’. As Hayek said, the real purpose of the rule of law, whether those laws are wise or not, are so independent actors can comprehend the overall scheme, and predict consequences of their actions in the long-term with good amounts of certainty. That allows people to take actions and plan for the future.

      Incomprehensible law, of enormous length, that can and do change all the time, and that is interpreted in crazy ways by the judiciary, is not much different, confident-prediction-wise, than “Stalin does what he wants.” One is insanely complex, the other is insanely simple, but neither is consistent with the classic ‘rule of law’.

      Ok, all regulations should be sane and meet clear cost-benefit analysis tests. Guess what, the entire EPA doesn’t, and arguable neither does half the FDA, even after Sunstein. The problem isn’t with the meta-regulations. The problem is that you can fake the analysis with politicized pseudoscience to come out any way you want. CO2 / anti-coal regulations are the best example of ones that are facially indefensible, and yet I doubt if Sunstein would ever admit it.

      If the dangers to human health of various pollutants were as severe as the EPA routinely claims, 100 million Chinese would drop dead every year. Think I’m exaggerating? Don’t take my word for it. Look up EPA estimates for health impacts on any chemical. Then see some study of the prevalence of that same chemical in China. The EPA is always off by at least an order of magnitude.

      2. All I can say is that I see no chance of such a ‘tune it out’ youth culture emerging.

      • EPA does the job it was built for quite well – raising entry costs into industry of every kind, to benefit “old money.”

        “Tune out” culture might yet come into existence, when the free money handed out as a “respectability prize” to obedient youth willing to push paper (e.g. Mr. Snowden’s $120K) finally runs dry. Seen the employment statistics of fresh graduates?

      • James says:

        Incomprehensible law, of enormous length, that can and do change all the time, and that is interpreted in crazy ways by the judiciary, is not much different, confident-prediction-wise, than “Stalin does what he wants.”

        This is only true from the perspective of an average citizen. From Stalin’s perspective, a large organisation such as the NKVD is difficult to steer in spite of one’s arbitrary power over individuals. Stalin’s purges became an organising principle that escaped his control, and could even have targeted the dictator himself.

        I would guess that perhaps, if Sunstein’s book’s hubristic title does not thoroughly exaggerate his caste’s power, he might be in a similar position: it’s time to rein in the bureaucracy’s chaotic excesses. I get the impression, e.g., that recent bouts of money-printing and the public reaction have been an embarrassment to progressive leaders.

        The recent popularity of the idea of ‘basic income’, replacing a patchwork of means-tested welfare, would fit this pattern.

        All I can say is that I see no chance of such a ‘tune it out’ youth culture emerging.

        A good answer, the premise is implausible.

        What I’m trying to elicit, however, is information, in addition to things that Foseti has said and books such as the Crossman Diaries, that would allow me to understand a progressive bureaucracy better than as a big, Machiavellian black box.

        You seem to agree that, although it isn’t the only political actor, the bureaucracy alone would e.g. be able to regulate Bitcoin into obscurity, purely because it’s a threat. But this is so abstract.

        • Handle says:

          ‘You seem to agree that, although it isn’t the only political actor, the bureaucracy alone would e.g. be able to regulate Bitcoin into obscurity, purely because it’s a threat. But this is so abstract.’

          Ok, let’s make it concrete. “The bureaucracy” isn’t actually some Machiavellian unified conspiracy. It is a bunch of individuals ‘just doing their job’ and occasionally given a bit of discretion which they usually use not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of what they consider the proper or enlightened point of view. Very, very infrequently do they perceive what they are doing as naked, raw abuse of power. Very infrequently does anyone have to explicitly direct that they act in these ways.

          So, with Bitcoin. Someone at TFI or FBI or elsewhere in the IC is going to find some Al Qaeda types using bitcoin in an effort to shield their transactions. After all, anything that lets ordinary people hide from the government will let bad people also hide – the kind of bad people that the ordinary people want the government to be able to detect and stop.

          The directive is “Stop terrorism”, but the implication is “hack bitcoin” in order to perform investigations and “write regulations” that make it very hard for terrorists to use bitcoin. Anything the terrorists discover that can evade the regulations will only invite more regulations, and there will be inevitable spillover into the innocent activities of ordinary people. There is no, I repeat, no way to avoid this – it’s the nature of the beast.

          • James says:

            One could say something similar about the Holocaust. It doesn’t preclude a history in which ‘public opinion’ and institutional ‘enlightened points of view’ are effects as well as causes, and some individuals exercise more discretion than others.

            I accept that I’m asking too much. Because only a tiny elite seem to have appreciable oversight, it’s likely that the American system will only be well understood once major aspects of it have been discredited.

            (I haven’t meant to say that I agree with ‘Simpler’, or that bureaucracy is easy to reform–or that there’s any reason to take sides in such an argument. I do quite like ‘Nudge’, even though it obviously can’t be taken at face value.)

          • Handle says:

            I did not like Nudge at all. I thought it was very intellectually sloppy. I should write a Nudge review to show how sloppy and sneaky it is.

            For example, consider the following choice-architecture circumstance:

            The population consists of two groups, A and B (actually, it’s a distribution, but bear with me). They are deciding between options X and Y.

            What Nudge says is that we have a social problem.

            Members of group B ought to be choosing X, because Y is bad for them. That’s the paternalism, but we can pretend to mitigate it by waving our hands and say, “Well, even B’s, when they aren’t faced with immediate temptation, and if we make them take the time to think about it, and explain the situation to them fully, will say, ‘yeah, I should really choose X, it’s true'”

            But darn it, when you actually put them in the situation again, if the lure of Y exceeds its relative inaccessibility compared to X, the B’s will lack willpower, will be ‘time-inconsistent’, and still choose Y which is bad for them.

            So we can gradually increase the ‘cost’ of access between X and Y until the B’s stop choosing bad Y and choose good X. We aren’t ‘banning Y’, it’s not entirely coercive exactly, we are just making it annoying, difficult, and costly to get. You have to reach, or jump through hoops, or pay more, etc. The idea is that we improve a lot of those B lives in the process.

            Ok, but what about the A’s? Some of the A’s also really like to choose Y, but it’s not bad for them at all. Maybe Y is even really good for them and X is bad for them – so much so that they’ll continue to choose Y even though you’ve raised the cost so high.

            So, they’re grateful you didn’t ban Y outright, but now you’ve killed a lot of their time, money, etc. in order for them to get it. And you had no good reason to do this to them – you were really just concerned with those troublesome B’s.

            So you see the problem. You may indeed have helped some B’s (though, in practice, it’s usually barely noticeable), but you’ve definitely hurt some A’s. Putting aside the Nozickian question of ‘utility commensurability’ – how do you know you’ve done the B’s more good than the harm you’ve done the A’s?

            This is not a subtle or sneaky question. It’s an obvious analysis. It occurred immediately to me upon reading Nudge’s first few chapters, and many other peoples, and I was amazed that they gave it only the more cursory nod, but without trying to answer the question with any amount of rigor.

            The essence of the problem is the very American bias towards universal laws of equal application – not just for administrative convenience (though that’s important) but for ideological reasons.

            The solution to this problem is obvious – be able to identify and distinguish between A’s and B’s, and treat them differently, according to their particular needs for paternalism, at the moment of choice. The same way a parent might do for his various children with differing levels of maturity and discipline. Indeed, I’ll go farther and say that ‘rational discrimination’ in the law as opposed to ‘equally applied universalism’ is a key difference between reactionaries and leftists.

            But that would involve some kind of judgmental test of one’s need for paternalism, and Sunstein definitely isn’t interested in that. Thus, the “Nudge” nonsense.

          • The funny part is that the stereotypical terrorist is funded perfectly adequately by ‘Hawala’ – the 8th-century ‘bitcoin’ which doesn’t require Internet, electrical power, or even paper. And against which the Government remains powerless.

          • Handle says:

            Not so powerless actually. TFI has a whole Hawala section since it’s been working on the issue for over 12 years now.

            Hawala requires communications, trust, and, eventually, actually money transfers or transport. People end up using the same network nodes and edges over and over, and they send lost of messages and make lots of calls inquiring about whether things went through. A lot of the graph analysis work is multidisciplinary, interagency, and automated.

            Also, it helps that the Pakistanis, Egyptians, Yemenis, and other broke (i.e. non-OPEC) Arab countries are perpetually running out of hard foreign exchange, which gives USG a certain amount of … leverage … when it comes to learning what they know about their own domestic Hawala networks. No surprise, turns out the local guys know a lot.

            We’ve definitely killed our share of roaches by following those little breadcrumbs they leave behind.

          • Your point of view is beyond naive. It’s not a matter of whether some inane bureaucracy, Indian or Chinese or whatever, tries to or imagines itself to be trying to or succeeding to “regulate” Bitcoin.

            It’s strictly a case of whether the powerful of Bitcoin will still continue to view the charade of “India” or “China” or whatever else as amenable to their worldview. Strictly, strictly that.

          • Handle says:

            ‘…the powerful of Bitcoin …’

            An interesting construction. Is this like, ‘the strong of heart’? Do you mean, ‘owners of many bitcoins’, or, what?

  3. Dan says:

    The guy’s blog is priceless.

    Aspergery guy, antisocial, poking around, thought physics and chem was cool in high school, apparently no clear goal in mind, just wants to dabble with NUCLEAR FISSION… gets what he needs (i.e. highly controlled radioactive substances) by taking apart old crap he finds on Ebay, and then….

    INSTANT WORLDWIDE FAME… and he includes about 100 links to himself in the news in countries all over the world. His blog says he doesn’t like crowds, but now he is world-level famous.

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