Saturday, November 16, 2002

Last month we found out that North Korea continued a nuclear weapons development program, even though they had signed an agreement to stop. This was hardly a surprise to anyone who has even a passing interest in Communist regimes.

Now it appears that North Korea has also been developing biological weapons. Can't say I'm surprised about that, either.

Next thing you know the Communists will admit to mass murder of their own people to keep their regime in power.

There's an old folk tale from Poland that says that dogs used to be able to speak. They had a magical treasure of never-ending pork chops, bacon, steaks and (I suppose) cat poop covered in crunchy kitty litter. Afraid that their treasure would be stolen, the dog king had it buried in a secret location and then cast a spell to remove the power of speech from his subjects so they'd never be able to tell where it was hidden.

Then the dogs forget exactly where they hid the magical meaty feast (which is understandable considering that they can't read or write). Since then dogs have an urge to sniff at the ground and dig random holes in an effort to find their lost legacy.

I thought of this tale while watching the History Channel. The program I was watching was about Viking longships, but that wasn't what caught my eye. There was a commercial during the program that advertised something that the Sci-Fi Channel was doing. It seems that they're paying for some archeologist to dig up Roswell, NM in an effort to find a UFO.

Yeah, well, whatever. My readers can guess which treasure I think the archelogist is more likely to find. I just hope he doesn't keep all the bacon to himself. My dogs would be so disappointed.

Megan McArdle is all over this story.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Computer expert Jack Burton has two very interesting posts on his blog.

In the first, Jack notes that proposed legislation would increase the penalties for hacking so the guilty get more jail time than murderers. Jack doesn't seem to be enthused about the idea. Of course, he might be biased considering that he's an ex-cop. Actually going out and arresting people does tend to make one realize that killing someone is more serious than screwing up the data on a hard drive.

In his Comments section I ask "How many people have died or been injured due to a hacker attack?" If anyone can come up with a verifiable incident please mention it in the Comments section of Jack's post.

In the second post, Jack mentions a Brit hacker that invaded U.S. government computers so he could look for secret evidence of UFO activity. He also mentions the likely penalty for the hacker if he should be extradited to the U.S.

So I see on the Yahoo! news server that PETA protesters disrupted a Victoria's Secrets fashion show. They were carrying signs that protested the wearing of fur, but most of the outfits were so skimpy that I doubt many animals had to die to make them.

Rest assured that I'll be keeping a very close eye on this.

I've noticed that most people who don't shoot are surprised when they find out the range at which accurate, aimed rifle shots can be made. Conversely, it seems that those same people will then inflate the numbers and make incredibly dopey claims as to the distances possible. Not that they're to blame. This is the websight of a company that's trying to sell Russian made sniper rifles, and this is the page with the technical data. Notice that the company claims that the rifle has a "killing range" of 3200 meters. This is preposterous.

So how far can a rifle accurately shoot? Depends. Yeah, I know, that's not very satisfying. But it's the best that I can do until I lay some groundwork.

Probably the most accurate rifle ever issued to a whole army is the M1 Garand, which was the official military rifle of the U.S. during WWII. Notice that the web page at the last link states that the maximum range is 3,200 meters (2 miles), same as the Russian website I linked to above. This is as far as the bullet will travel if the conditions are absolutely perfect, but if the target is that far away then you obviously can't expect to hit anything. The farthest that a trained, competant marksman could be expected to actually aim at and hit a single target with the M1 is 400 meters (440 yards, or 1/4 of a mile). This is pretty good for an unscoped, general issue rifle. 60 years later and no one has ever been able to top this performance.

The M1 was made in to a sniper weapon by attaching a scope and tightening the tolerances (this means that the parts were fitted so they were tighter. Not only does this just about double the cost of the weapon, but it also makes it more prone to jamming and breaking). As this web page states, the new sniper version could hit a man out to 600 yards, an increase of about 35% effeciency. That, too, is pretty good for a general issue weapon.

That was then, this is now. Today someone can shell out a few hundred bucks and get a rifle that's capable of aimed shots out to 800 meters. Well, at least the gun is capable of it. It still takes a steady hand, keen eye and exceptional powers of concentration to make shots out that far. Not to mention the practice and dedication to develop the skill that makes such a feat possible.

In general it wouldn't be too far off the mark to say that the average rifle can easily make aimed shots out to 100 yards. Almost certainly 200 yards. Probably 300 yards. 400 yards? Depends on the caliber of the gun and how fancy your gun is. Almost anyone can shoot 500 yards with the right equipment, but only if they practice at it. Anything more than 600 yards is pretty much the realm of the dedicated long range shooter. No one else has the patience to get that good.

So we know how far an average person can shoot with most average rifles (400 yards). We know how far they can shoot if they have some training and the right off-the-shelf equipment (600 yards). But how far can the really dedicated professional shoot?

The U.S. Marine Scout Snipers claim that they can consistently make aimed shots against individual targets at 850 meters. Of course, that's just what the least talented of this very talented group can do. On average I'd say that it wouldn't be surprising if most of them could make 1,000 yard shots under favorable conditions. A sizable percentage can probably hit the bad guys at 1,250 yards without too much trouble, but that would be some mighty fine shootin'.

As for me I'll stick to my shotgun. Up close and personal, that's the kind of guy I am. I suppose that I'd have to find other methods of keeping multiple attackers at bay if I ran out of ammunition and didn't have time to reload.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Jonah Goldberg, journalist for the National Review, weighs in with some thoughts about how the U.N. approved the Iraq resolution proposed by the U.S.

Mr. Goldberg notes that many people and newspapers of a Left political persuasion are giddy that the resolution passed unanimously, even though most of the countries that belong to the U.N. are insignificant.
"Why we should breathe easier knowing we got a green light from Cameroon is something nobody's been willing to explain."

He notes that the U.S. had to bribe the members of the Security Council for their "yea" vote.
"I mean, if the U.N. were half the thing it ought to be, our U.N. partners would have dropped those concerns the way Cincinnatus laid down his plow. And if the United States is as wrong and selfish as the anti-war crowd says, then the rest of the Security Council are just a bunch of whores willing to do the wrong thing if we pay them enough."

Cincinnatus and whores in the same paragraph. Pure gold.

Go read the whole thing.

Blog goddess Natalie Solent points out that Sherlock Holmes once mentioned Bertillon during one of his famous cases.

That old, discredited system of identification is really interesting. I'm glad Henry developed his fingerprint system because it's so much easier, but there's some sort of appeal about strapping a felon down and getting out the calipers.

One of the leaders of the world's defense analyst companies is Jane's Defence. Although they charge really big bucks for their very interesting articles and other material, they do have a free non-subscriber service. They just released the latest for this week.

Time to Buy American
With increased trade and traffic across national boundries, precise navigation is absolutely vital. But what if a foreign country has better equipment and standards than your own? This item states that Europe is having problems because they can't agree on equipment or procedure standards, which means that costs are high due to duplicated systems and higher training costs (an airport in Rome, for example, would need seperate radars and transponder equipment for every country whose commercial carriers operated flights out of there).

Asia has had few problems even though commercial air traffic is increasing at a rapid pace and over vast distances. The reason is, not surprisingly, that China dominates the market. The equipment the Chinese manufacture for navigation is what's installed and used. By everybody.

Now if the European Union would just buy stuff that works (coughAmericancough) and stop screwing around we could give China a run for it's money.

You Mean They're Actually Making Progress?
N.A.T.O. has taken it on the chin lately. Back in 1992 N.A.T.O. said that they'd have a 60,000 man Rapid Reaction Force ready to be deployed anywhere in the world. When trouble reared it's ugly head they'd gear up, load up and move out. Except nothing ever happened.

So the European Union said that they'd put together a 60,000 man force to do the same thing. Nothing ever happened about that, either. (Those Europeans. Talk, talk, talk and no one ever does anything. Sort of like teenage boys bragging about sex).

Well, this was getting too idiotic. Then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently proposed a 20,000 man force. Sure it's only 1/3 the size of what has been talked about for 10 years, but maybe they'd choke it down if it was in smaller chunks.

This article from Jane's states that many N.A.T.O. member countries are really excited about the new Rapid Reaction Force. They're trying to work out equipment, training and force ratio standards before a meeting in Prague next week. They think that they will finally (finally!) be able to pull it off.

I'd love to see our allies be able to project force beyond their borders. For some reason I'm not holding my breath, though.

Predator Was a Movie About an Invisible Hunter
This item states that the recent Hellfire missile attack in Yemen against wanted terrorists has really given the project a kick in the pants. Military commanders are trying to expand the use of Predators in an "armed reconnaissance" role.
"Doggerel" is any bad or trivial poetry. People have their own standards as to what's good and what's bad, of course. One man's doggerel is another man's stirring and emotional anthem.

Most people interested in poetry don't much like Kipling, for example. He wrote for the common man, mimicking the terrible English that was spoken in barracks and on the street. They say that the imagery and emotions that he manipulates in the poems are simple, common, old hat.

I was surprised while reading Prof. Reynold's blog to see that he had linked to an article about how a liberal academic quoted Kipling to a snotty Euro. Hey, there may be some hope for the Ivory Tower yet!

The poem quoted was Tommy, and it is the most eloquent rebuttal to those who scorn the people who serve in uniform as I've ever found.

"Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap.
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an` Tommy, 'ow's yer soul? "
But it's " Thin red line of 'eroes " when the drums begin to roll
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's " Thin red line of 'eroes, " when the drums begin to roll."

It's worth it to read the whole thing.

Search back through the history and evolution of the criminal justice system and you'll see that there has always been a need to figure out if someone is a criminal or not. It's not easy. The most obvious way to tell if someone is the bad guy or not is through eyewitness testimony. Ask anyone involved in law enforcement and they'll tell you that it's probably the worst method there is. Witnesses to a crime are usually scared, excited and eager to please when the authorities show up. Details of the crime and criminal alter and flow in an instant as the witness goes over the events they saw. If it's tough for a witness to get it straight then imagine how it is for the victim!

One way to permanently mark criminals is by branding them with some sort of symbol that would warn honest citizens, as well as punish the guilty through the pain caused by the process.

Branding isn't a reasonable punishment for most lesser offenses, and before the development of modern identification methods there was no other easy way to tell if a person had a criminal past. One of the solutions that was found when the first modern police force was formed was through people with incredible memories.

These men would never forget a face, literally. Carefully hoarded when their special gifts would come to light, they soon became indespensible for linking a felon with the criminal past that they were so desperate to avoid. But there were never enough of these savants to go around. Another answer would have to be found.

Technology provided an answer through photography. A picture would allow an investigator to compare the face of a suspect to a gallery of those previously arrested. Soon whole buildings were devoted to storing the bulky photos of the time. Many people in law enforcement were hoping that the reliance on an officer's good memory would soon be a thing of the past since everyone, no matter how poor their recollection, would have perfect recall with the new files. In fact, the phrase "photographic memory" was first used by the police to describe the officers with near-perfect recall, who they said had whole filing cabinets full of photos sifting through their heads.

But even this is a flawed solution. People age, they change their hair and clothing styles, scars and physical injury can alter a person's appearance virtually overnight. Although useful (and still used today), the photograph wasn't the answer that many people hoped for. That had to wait a few more years.

Just as a parting thought, today we have hopes to link computers and cameras together and recreate that amazing ability old cops had to recognize a perp by face alone. I suppose it's true that what's old is new again.

At least it is if you can get government funding for the project.

Computer expert Jack Burton has some choice thoughts about facial recognition here.

France may have fallen behind in devoloping cutting-edge science in recent decades, but at one time it was French scientists who led the way in exciting theoretical disciplines. One of these disciplines was physical anthropology, the study of how humans interact with their environment through their bodies.

One of the people who was interested in this new science was a man named Alphonse Bertillon. He was an avid collector of medical data (which is looked upon as weird and spooky today, but was considered a harmless diversion back in the mid-1800's). He thought that a way to identify people would be by measuring the bones of the body. The idea was that the length of the bones never changed after the person reached maturity, and it could be worked out to a string of numbers using a mathematical formula. Go to the section of the files where all the cards that had this same formula were stored and root around until you found a match. His Bertillon System of indentification was adopted in France in 1882. This system worked pretty well, but there were both advantages and disadvantages to it.

The major drawback was the large number of measurements required. At least 30 different body parts would have to be carefully measured, something that would be impossible if the suspect was fighting or resisting. At least 30 different cards would have to be filled out PER PERSON for the measurements to be fully cross-referenced. This also means that you'd have to find 30 different places to store these measurement cards so they wouldn't be mixed up. As the number of files and cards grew, the time to search the archives to verify the identity of a suspect stretched to several hours per person.

There were a few advantages. No matter what disguise a person assumed they would still have the same measurements. As long as accurate measurements were taken they couldn't hide their identity. Another plus was that a person's remains could be positively identified as long as most of the skeleton could be found (and he had been measured in the past). It was also the first time that easily verifiable identification could be sent quickly (send the measurements in a telegram).

So the Bertillon system was adopted by almost every law enforcement agency in the Western hemisphere. One of the most enthusiastic was the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which had a collection of Bertillon cards that rivaled any police department's in the world.

The procedure to make the system work and the enormous filing headache was a major pain in the fundament, but there really wasn't a better system. It had long been known that finger and palm prints were distinct and could, in theory, be used to identify someone. Mark Twain, for example, related a fictional tale in his book Life on the Mississippi where the survivor of an attack that killed the rest of his family tracked the murderer down using a bloody palm print. The problem was that there wasn't a system of classification to help find a particular set of prints out of all the rest. Until such a system was developed the only way to use prints was by laborously examining each and every example in the files until a match was found. This obviously wouldn't work.

An Englishman named Sir Edward Henry came up with the Henry Classification System in 1898. Although adopted by Scotland Yard and other agencies in the U.K., most everybody else wasn't interested. The reason was that they had spent decades and much money collecting Bertillon files on the bad guys. It would take decades of collecting fingerprint cards before the Henry system could be anywhere near as useful.

This all changed in 1903 when a guy who had been found guilty of theft was sent to Sing Sing Prison, even though he insisted that he never committed a crime in his life. This guy was named James West (no cracks about The Wild Wild West, please). Unfortunately there was another prisoner there named Jim West, a ruthless career criminal, who looked exactly like the other one. AND he had the same Bertillon measurements, something that was thought to be impossible. When the fingerprints of both men were taken it was immediately obvious that the prints were seperate and unique.

So much for the Bertillon system. I just wonder what they did with all of those cards.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

So a fool proof system of identification was finally realized: the Henry classification system. Relatively easy to use after a short training period, it has proven to be completely unbeatable and all efforts to defeat it have failed.

Or have they?

The easiest way to get rid of fingerprints is by simply chopping off a hand or a few fingers. But what if you have a fondness for picking your nose. Can prints be altered or obliterated surgically?

This article was originally printed in 1934, and it details the first time that fingerprints were changed by surgery. A man who injured his hand had to have skin grafts, which altered his prints. It's important to note that the man in question wasn't trying to pull a fast one. He was just a victim of circumstances, and the case is presented as a curiosity.

When John Dillinger was finally shot and killed by FBI agents it was found that he had tried to alter his fingerprints by burning his fingers with acid. Besides being rather painful, enough of the prints were unaltered to make identification easy. Even if ol' John had managed to scar up the tips of his fingers enough to avoid using them for identification, the rest of the hand has plenty of pressure ridges covering it. Prints from the palm of the hand are more than sufficient to do the job.

Probably the most successful in trying to alter his fingerprints was some guy named Roscoe Pitts (sorry, I can't find much about him online to link to). An incredibly incompetent criminal, ol' Roscoe spent most of his life behind bars. In 1942 he heard about a plastic surgeon who had an idea to obliterate a person's prints by skinning the tips of the fingers and grafting new skin on to the wounds. Roscoe found the surgeon and volunteered to be a test subject.

The doctor skinned Roscoe's fingertips and, under Roscoe's armpits, scraped the top layer of skin off. Roscoe had to walk around with his arms across his chest, fingers tightly bound to his armpits, until the skin grafts took. The doctor had to feed him, bathe him and (ahem) wipe when necessary (there's a reason why this was only tried once).

Finally the day came when the bandages were removed. Roscoe went out on a simple safe cracking job....and got caught in the act. When the fingerprint technician tried to take the prints Roscoe puffed out his chest and bragged about how he was the only man ever to have no prints. He even obligingly showed the curious cops where the scars were under his armpits from the grafts.

So the technician just took the prints found one knuckle down from the tips. THEY were distinctive enough. The word also went out to every law enforcement agency in the U.S. For the rest of his life every cop would immediately know who they had caught if the perp had no fingerprints.

Now most criminals who don't want to leave prints just wear gloves. I'll let the reader decide which is the more effecient method.

This article that was linked to at the Guardroom states that one of the most useful tools for solving crimes are fingerprints. This comes as no surprise at all.

The world champion for collecting fingerprints is the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has collected 200 million fingerprint cards since they started in 1924 (that's 2 billion fingers!). The FBI has, through it's vast experience, set the standards for reading, storing and collecting prints. Even with all of these cards, no set of fingerprints has ever been shown to be identical. They've been able to gather such an impressive collection because every law enforcement agency that receives federal funding is required to submit a fingerprint card for every felony arrest made (the police department I worked for in Columbus, Ohio would submit a card for every arrest, felony or misdemeanor. You never know when you're gonna find that the guy who was brought in for drunk and disorderly is wanted for killing whole families with an axe.).

Many jobs now require that fingerprints be checked before the employee can start, and the FBI keeps a copy of that card in it's files. This keeps those with criminal records from sensitive jobs like security guard, nurse, or any employment that requires any type of bond. Some grocery store chains are now experimenting with automated fingerprint systems, and many financial institutions are refusing to honor checks without a fingerprint in an effort to reduce fraud.

Since 9/11 many people have called for using computerized fingerprint databases to improve airport security. This is fine as long as people realize the limits of the technology. Having a computer check the finger on the scanner's glass against a picture in it's memory is one thing. Having the computer sort through billions of fingerprints, checking to see if a wanted terrorist is trying to board a flight, is something else. The delays of taking everybodies fingerprints and checking them against the files of wanted felons would take too long. Hey, everybody is complaining about how the security procedures are taking too long at airports already! How would they like it if it takes 30 minutes per passenger?

One solution to this problem is to fingerprint everybody just as soon as they reach their fifth birthday. That's about the time that the fingers have grown large enough so a clear print can be taken (though very skilled technicians can lift prints from smaller fingers). Then every time you need to cash a check or you get pulled over for speeding, you just type your social security number in the keypad and slide your finger on the glass. No other types of ID would ever be needed.

Proponents of this system say that the government already has a record of your life. A set of fingerprints wouldn't make that much difference, and it would mean that there would be less fraud and theft because it would be so easy to make sure that people aren't trying to pull a fast one.

I have to admit that there were times that I wished such a system was in place, such as when I was trying to identify a body that had turned up. But I also think that the authorities probably do a better job tracking innocent people then it should, so any expanded database is probably a bad idea.

Monday, November 11, 2002

Ask just about anyone who's serious about home defense and most (but not all) of them will say that a shotgun is the best thing for home defense. There's some very good reasons for this.

A shotgun gets it name from what comes out of the barrel when you fire one. The gun fires a cloud of little pellets, and those pellets are called "shot". Instead of a single bullet fired at high velocity, the shotgun instead relies on a big ol' fist of lead to punch big holes in stuff.

Usually the weight of the shot in a single shotgun shell is about 3 or 4 times the weight of a single comparable rifle bullet, and it's going about 1/3 as fast as the rifle round. This means that shotguns can't penetrate as much stuff as a rifle can, and the cloud of pellets cover a much wider area so air resistance slows them down before they've gone too far. For comparison, the average .30 caliber rifle is accurate to 400 yards or so, and a shotgun firing shot is pretty much useless if the target is more than 80 yards away (and I'm being very generous with the 80 yard range here).

Okay, so shotguns make really big holes in stuff close up. The pellets slow down before going too far and without going through too many walls. Perfect to stop someone who's right on top of you (like in your house), and it minimizes the risk to the neighbors. Sounds perfect, right?

Well, it pretty much is perfect for home defense. When talking about in-the-house distances any off the shelf game load will perform adequately as a man-stopper. This means that fancy, ultra expensive, high tech loads aren't really necessary. This saves you money. Another consideration is that the guns themselves are pretty cheap. Oh, sure, there are fancy guns that are used in the movies, but all you really need is a basic pump shotgun. Some of these durable, well made and perfectly functional guns sell for less than $300.00, which means that they are probably the most cost effective firearm there is.

Another point to consider is that a shotgun is useful in an incredibly diverse number of situations. The same gun loaded with different ammunition will perform like a completely different firearm. This means that you can use the gun for home defense, hunting small game, hunting large game and sport shooting all by swapping out the shells and loading up some new ones. It's really that simple.

But many people react with horror and outrage when I suggest a shotgun for home defense. Some handgun enthusiasts have even gone so far as to suggest that I'm mentally deficient for even suggesting it. Why would that be?

I think the main reason is connected to the largest drawback to a shotgun: mainly the recoil. It can certainly be intimidating, and it's important that people who aren't comfortable with it should seek out other solutions. But, all in all, I have to say that it's probably the best gun for whatever shooting problem you can think of (except for long range shooting and deep penetration. For that you should stick to a rifle).