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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The *original* Fat Tony....

Just Finished Reading: How to Stage a Military Coup – From Planning to Execution by David Hebditch and Ken Connor (FP: 2009)

When I saw this on Amazon I honestly burst out laughing. I laughed even more when I discovered that it was neither a work of fiction nor a comedy. Written by a documentary film maker and an ex-serving member of the SAS this is actually a stage by stage exploration of military coups from around the world over the past 50 years or so (with the occasional deep history visit to the early 20th century) looking at what went wrong and, more importantly, what want right for each of them. Lessons are then learned and important aspects of each from each point in the process are noted for future reference. Not too surprisingly a copy of this very book was found amongst the belongings of a would-be coup leader on the brink of overthrowing an African dictator. As the authors gleefully pointed out the would-be military leader missed several important messages in the book which would have prevented their coup being discovered and foiled before it got off the ground.

Of course part of the fun of reading a book like this in public (well, at work in my case) in the funny looks you get from people. I had something similar some years ago when I read a book about European counter-terrorism called ‘Shoot the Women First’ on the train on my way into work. But I do enjoy the opportunity to add to my ‘reputation’. No doubt I’m on a watch list somewhere (again). But actually, although this book is about military coups and looks at some of them in considerable depth, the title is something of a misnomer. A more accurate title would have been ‘How NOT to Stage a Military Coup’ as the book spends a great deal of time showing how mistakes either during the planning or execution phase of the coup ended up getting people thrown into prison or shot for their trouble. Naturally lessons are learned from other people’s mistakes but only in a more general sense. Ideas for planning a successful coup are more hinted at than laid out for anyone to try out next time they fall out with the government of the day. If you wanted (or want) to learn how to overthrow your government you’d need to do a lot more reading than this! Luckily there’s a few good books mentioned in the notes section for anyone who fancies it to do some more background reading.

Generally I liked the style of the book very much. Knowledgeable and detailed with more than a hint of sarcasm and sometimes rather dark humour it was often a delight to read. Just about the only thing that irritated me throughout the book was the fact that each section – on the road from planning to execution – was prefaced by a short fictional account of a military coup in England. I actually think the odds of something like that happening are so long that it makes winning the lottery look like a dead cert. Unless something had gone very wrong with this country I doubt very much indeed if any significant numbers of military personnel would even consider overthrowing the government. It’s just silly. I think probably the only case of it ever happening here is at the end of the Civil War in the 17th century and calling it a coup might be stretching the point a bit. But even with this niggle (actually the fiction bits were rather well done!) this was still a fascinating read and will lead to more books on this and similar subjects – the Iranian coup which installed the Shah fostered by both the British and the Americans looks definitely worth more investigation. But if you are planning a coup in the near future you could do worse than start here. It’ll definitely point out some possible pitfalls you might then avoid before you end up in front of a firing squad. But if you are serious – keep on reading once you’ve turned he last page. One book on any subject is generally not enough – especially when your life might depend on it.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"Science promised us truth, or at least a knowledge of such relations as our intelligence can seize: it never promised us peace or happiness. Sovereignly indifferent to our feelings, it is deaf to our lamentations. It is for us to endeavour to live with science, since nothing can bring back the illusions it has destroyed."

Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, 1895 

Cartoon Time (click to enlarge).

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Big harpoon is 'solution to space junk'

Jonathan Amos, BBC Science correspondent

15 March 2018

Airbus is testing a big harpoon to snare rogue or redundant satellites and pull them out of the sky. The 1m-long projectile would be attached, through a strong tether, to a chase spacecraft. Once the target was captured and under control, the chase vehicle would then drag its prey down into the atmosphere to burn to destruction. Airbus has been working on the concept for a number of years now, developing ever bigger systems. It is a response to the growing problem of orbital junk - old pieces of hardware that continue to circle the globe and which now pose a collision threat to operational satellites.

Something in the region of 20,000 items of 10cm or larger are currently being tracked. The latest Airbus harpoon is being designed with the capability to capture one of the biggest rogue items of the lot - Europe's defunct Envisat Earth observation platform. This 8-tonne behemoth died suddenly in orbit in 2012. "Envisat is the outlier," explained advanced project engineer Alastair Wayman. "If we can design a harpoon that can cope with Envisat, then it should be able to cope with all other types of spacecraft including the many rocket upper-stages that remain in orbit."

The testing at the aerospace company’s facility in Stevenage, UK, involves firing the harpoon, using compressed air, into a panel that is representative of the kinds of material used to build satellite structures. Typically, this takes the form of 3cm-thick, composite honeycomb panels that incorporate a lot of aluminium. "The harpoon goes through these panels like a hot knife through butter," said Mr Wayman. "Once the tip is inside, it has a set of barbs that open up and stop the harpoon from coming back out. We'd then de-tumble the satellite with a tether on the other end." This is where harpoons should come into their own, over other methods of capture such as nets and robotic arms. A harpoon is relatively simple. You line up the target and shoot. "Many of these targets will be tumbling and if you were to use a robotic arm, say, that involves a lot of quite complex motions to follow your target," Mr Wayman explained. "Whereas, with the harpoon, all you have to do is sit a distance away, wait for the target to rotate underneath you, and at the right moment fire your harpoon. And because it's a really quick event, it takes out a lot of the complexity."

You still have to bring the tumbling satellite under control using thrusters on the chase vehicle - but computer simulations show this should be possible. The European Space Agency, which is responsible for Envisat, is considering all options at the moment, and the demonstration missions that fly in the next few years will almost certainly go for easier, more cooperative targets first. Indeed, a miniature version of the Airbus harpoon is set to launch next month on a mission called RemoveDebris. This demonstrator satellite, developed at the Surrey Space Centre, will carry its own piece of junk which it will release and then attempt to retrieve. It will trial a net, but will perform a harpoon test as well to further knowledge about how such systems will behave in the weightless environment of space. For the big harpoon back in Stevenage, it is now ready to move to its next development stage. This will involve firing the projectile over a distance of 25m, the sort of separation over which the real flight model would have to work.

[What a BRILLIANTLY simple idea! Get close enough to the object, fire a harpoon into it (images of while whales again) and drag it out of orbit until it burns up in the atmosphere. Return and repeat as appropriate. Of course, over and above its use to get rid of some of the bigger space junk no doubt other agencies are thinking about its potential as a weapon. Send a harpoon enabled vehicle up and park it next to an ‘enemy’ satellite. Harpoon it and then send your vehicle into a deliberate dive into the atmosphere ‘killing’ both vehicles. The destroyed satellite might not even be able to report what killed it. It’s just go off-line and disappear. You’d have total deniability – so they’re probably doing it already!]

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block (FP: 1964)

Billy Maynard is lucky to be alive and he knows it. Caught cheating at a high stakes card game in Chicago he was relived to get out with a damaged hand and a few chipped teeth. Heading for New York he pulls up in a small town to get his teeth fixed and rest his hand. There his dentist offers him a friendly game with his buddies. Whilst not exactly in his normal league Billy is in new of some folding money to pay his hotel bill and anyway needs a bit of practice for his damaged hand. Playing with people completely unaware of his skills is quite relaxing until the wife of one of the players drops a hint that she knows exactly what he’s up to. Oblivious to the hidden meaning of their conversation the players play on and Billy walks away with $30 and a problem. Mrs Murray Rogers, Joyce, knows what he is. The question is: What’s she going to do about it? The answer comes soon enough. She wants out of the marriage but she wants to keep her husband’s money. But that’s another problem. He’s a top lawyer in town and has tied up his marriage in legal knots. She can’t divorce him and can’t even kill him. But there are other ways to get Mr Rogers off the scene – like frame him for a murder he didn’t commit. But what if Murray gets wise to the deal and what if he’s smarter than Billy and Joyce combined?

I must admit that this was probably the best of the 10 Hard Case Crime novels I’ve just finished (one more to review). A nice simple story with a strong plot. A believable main character with history, depth and many likable qualities. A feme fatal with an equally convincing background which explains why she’s the way she is. A bunch of secondary characters that you could meet anywhere and probably recognise. The frame-up makes perfect sense and might even have worked but, as this is a 60’s crime novel just couldn’t could it. I think it’s the sign of a well-constructed novel when you actually feel for the protagonist – even when he’s ‘bad’ as in this case. A very enjoyable read. No great mystery as such as there isn’t really a crime to solve before the detective gets there but there’s still a great feel of oppressive dread especially towards the end. Recommended for all those lovers of crime without the blood or sex of much of today’s fare (although to be honest there is some sex in this one!).