Sunday, 3 December 2006

Polonium 210 as a murder weapon

The death of Alexandr Litvenenko and the expected death of his contact the academic Mario Scaramella from the effects of Polonium 210 have caused a storm of comment within the blogsphere and the conventional media most of it, typical of topics with a technial background, long on opinion and short on facts. Rather than rely on the uneven authority of Wikipedia, here is an accessible background paper on this evil substance, but the physical properties of polonium 210 raise a number of questions. Your comments would be appreciated.

Polonium 210 (Po210) was originally called Radium F when Marie and Pierre Curie discovered it in 1898. It is a very rare mineral and extremely radioactive. Po210 is so radioactive that less than a milligram (one thousandth of a gram) will glow in the dark with blue Cherenkov radiation. Po210 is so radioactive that the metal containers used to hold it become hot to the touch and can become hot enough to burn and blister skin. If the container is placed on a laboratory bench it could cause the wood to char and smoke. Po210 has been used as a heat source for the thermoelectric generators in satellites. How do you secretly poison someone with this? It's not as though you could sprinkle it on their food like salt.

Po210 is usually produced as a very fine dust, finer than talcum powder - so fine in fact that the particles can be as small as a few hundred atoms - too small to see. As Po210 decays, it releases alpha radiation which gives the dust particles a negative electric charge. Each particle then repels the other, and the dust moves towards the top of its container as though it was actively trying to escape. You had better hope that the container has a good tight seal because the dust is so fine that it will creep out of its container, even through a screw thread, and then disperse on air currents. I have no doubt that if the Po210 was delivered in a container, then whoever handled it has spread it all over themselves and all over wherever they have been and whoever they have been in contact with. Perhaps the courier and the poisoner were considered expendable but that seems more like fiction. Intelligence services do not throw away the lives of their officers. This does not, of course, eliminate ignorance or stupidity.

The alpha radiation emitted by Po210 is not normally dangerous as even paper is thick enough to block it, but if the dust particles enter the system then Po210 will immediately start to kill any cells it comes into contact with: blood cells, immune system cells, kidney and liver cells, and body cells. As the cells die they allow the entry of opportunistic bacteria, so the sufferer presents with a constellation of symptoms that are impossible to diagnose until the classic effects of radiation poisoning appear. If you are poisoned with Po210, you shed radioactive material in tears, sweat, saliva, urine and faces, so you contaminate whatever you touch and whoever you touch.

Po210 has a half life of 138 days, long enough for even a fraction of a gram to do its work. Po210 decays into Lead 206 (Pb206) which is stable and would be undetectable because each of us who live in an industrial society has accumulated lead from petrol, paint and other sources.

Where do you get this stuff? It is too rare to extract from pitchblende, unless, like the Curies, you dedicate years to the task. Most Po210 is the product of nuclear reactors where Bismuth (Bi209) is bombarded with neutrons to give Bi210, the precursor to Po210. A few grams of Bi209 are needed to make a milligram of Po210, so a lengthy chemical extraction process is required. It might be possible for someone with access to a research reactor – say a post-doc student – to make a small amount but usually management of a reactor is so tight that whoever runs the reactor would be aware of this happening. This suggests a government agency.

The media is reporting that Litvenenko's urine contained Po210 and Thallium (some mention Ruthenium) which is puzzling. You would expect some bismuth contamination, but nothing else, unless something other than straight Po210 was used. There have also been reports in various US blogs that X-rays of Litvenenko's stomach show three unidentified objects of 2cm diameter. Do these people know how big 2cm is? That's the size of an Australian dollar coin. It takes a bit of effort to swallow something that big. There are individuals who swallow coins. It causes great pain and when they present at the emergency ward, they are immediately scheduled as involuntary psychiatric patients because swallowing coins is considered a type of self-harm. It seems out of character for both Litvenenko and Scaramella to do this.

Po210 is part of the Radon 222 (Rn222) decay series. Rn222 is is a radioactive gas and is surprisingly common in small concentrations, being found in most houses in granite areas. Georgius Agricola's De Re Metallica, a mediaeval text on geology, mentions that the mines of Bohemia and Ruthenia were considered to be guarded by the earth spirits, the gnomes, whose spells caused the miners to die young. These mines produced uranium which was widely used as a lead substitute to stain glass and to replace the lead-lighting in church windows. Rn222 is present in large concentrations in these mines and it was the Rn222 progeny, including Po210, that killed the miners. Perhaps the Po210 was delivered by inhalation.

The decay series for Rn222 progeny is:
. Rn222 (half-life 3.8 days) -> alpha particle gives
. Rn218 (half-life 3.05 minutes) -> alpha particle gives
. Pb214 (half-life 27 minutes) -> beta particle gives
. Bi214 (half-life 19.8 minutes) -> beta particle gives
. Po214 (half-life 180 microseconds) -> alpha particle gives
. Pb210 (half-life 22 years) -> alpha particle gives
. Bi210 (half-life 5 days) -> beta particle gives
. Po210 (half-life 138 days) -> alpha particle gives
. Pb206 stable

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Jesse James and the Black Cobra

An edited version of this letter has previously appeared in Fortean times issue 214 in answer to previous correspondence about the plausibility of claims that Jesse James had had a black lieutenant in his gang known as the Black Cobra.

In 1949 a John Trammell, claiming to be 110, swore an affidavit that as a newly-freed slave at the end of the Civil War, but on the run from the law, he had strayed into the James gang camp. Jesse James had forced him into his gang as a cook and unpaid servant and that he had stayed with the gang for an unspecified time. The affidavit is light on details, being only a few sentences long and mainly concerned with Trammell’s statement that he had seen Jesse James alive after his supposed murder. Carl Breihan also quotes an equally brief letter from Trammell in his Saga of Jesse James (1955).

Redman’s Conspiracy Nation website features a web version of Del Schrader’s Jesse James was one of his names (Santa Anita Press 1975) in which Trammell has morphed into The Black Cobra, James’ right hand man. This does not appear to be supported by history. The James-Younger gang’s exploits have been thoroughly researched – researched to death in fact – with no mention of Trammell. James’ political sympathies make the story of a trusted black lieutenant as unlikely as Schrader’s thesis that James, William Quantrill, John Wilkes Booth and the Emperor Maximillian all survived their various ambushes, murders and executions to form a secret cabal ruling much of the US.

Jesse and his brother Frank came from a slave-owning family from the troubled Missouri-Kansas border. Kansas was a free state - the then capital Lawrence was settled by abolitionists - but Missouri was a slave state. Both states were mostly settled by small farmers to whom slavery was the major economic issue, not just a moral question. The brothers had spent their adolescent years in a country where both abolitionists and slave owners had formed militias and conducted raids and murders of their opponents. The burning of Lawrence by a slave-owners' militia force from Missouri and John Brown's Powatomie Massacre and his raid on the Harper's Ferry arsenal are the best known incidents from this pre-war period usually called the Border Wars or the Bleeding Kansas crisis.

During the Civil War both Jesse and Frank had served on the Confederate side under the command of the most fanatical and ruthless guerilla leaders. Frank had joined William Quantrill’s force and had participated in the infamous massacre of 200 unarmed opponents of slavery in Lawrence in 1863. Both Jesse and Frank were participants in the Centralia Massacre of 1864. Following Quantrill's death in an ambush, Jesse rode with Archie Clement who routinely robbed banks and executed prisoners and civilians, black and white, particularly black soldiers and white abolitionists. Jesse also served with Bloody Bill Anderson whose men not only followed Clement’s example but who also mutilated the dead and collected scalps. When he was killed in ambush Anderson was found with evidence of fifty-three scalps as his personal tally.

In the same period, the problem of the Missouri slave-owners who gave such strong support to these guerillas was solved by Lincoln's Secretary for War ordering a campaign of ethnic cleansing so ruthless that the region along the Missouri-Kansas border was known until recently as the Burned-Over Country and was uninhabited for many years. This did not win hearts and minds for the Union cause.

Following the Civil War, during the period known as Reconstruction (1868-1877), guerilla warfare continued throughout the Mid-West, much as it had preceded the war in the Bleeding Kansas crisis (1854-1860). Men like Frank Farris, the Younger brothers and the James brothers are the best-known leaders of bands usually described as “outlaws” but who should be seen as “social bandits” with a political agenda. Examples of social bandits would include Australia's Ned Kelly and Sicily's Salvatore Guilliermo.

During Reconstruction ex-Confederate soldiers, particularly officers ruined by the war, had spread into the Mid-Western and Western states, often homesteading or joining the restless populations of railroad and mining towns. Many pursued their political beliefs organising to dissuade African-Americans from voting or registering to vote, or from owing land or working in certain occupations. This usually involved violence or threats with over 1,000 lynchings taking place as well as 68 assassinations of congressmen and US government officials. The guerilla bands had supporters and occasional recruits from this population.

During Reconstruction in Missouri, black men were given the vote and white Confederate sympathizers were disenfranchised by the state government which was in the hands of radical Republicans (Lincoln's party). The James gang robbed banks and businesses owned by their political opponents and seem to have given support to the terrorizing of black voters. Jesse often left press releases at the scene of his robberies and sent letters to newspapers in which his strongly pro-Confederate views were articulated (although some of these manifestos may have been the work of sympathetic editors). The James gang also robbed the railroads that were being established by Northern business interests. The gang usually went after the strong box, although if one was not carried they were happy to rob the passengers.

Alan Pinkerton's detectives, good men for breaking a strike or guarding a payroll, were never quick enough to catch the James boys because the gang had extensive popular support. But as time went on this support waned as the Confederate cause seemed less relevant. The governor offered the brothers a deal if they would turn themselves in. Frank accepted and after acquittal in a trial where the fix was clearly in, was given a pardon for his crimes. But Jesse wasn't just whistlin' Dixie, he was a rebel, so the governor placed ten thousand dollars on his head and one day at a social gathering his friend Robert Ford said "Jesse, y'all like to reach up and straighten that there picture?" and with Jesse's hands away from his guns, shot him in the back of the head, to widespread rejoicing.

It is only in later years that Jesse James has been reinvented as a defender of the poor and a gallant outlaw. In his lifetime he was viewed as a partisan for a racist and reactionary cause, albeit a popular one. I cannot see him having a black gang member, let alone risking his life to rescue him. If Trammell served James it was probably in the role of, essentially, a post-Emancipation slave – a role that James would have derived some amusement from.

Faulkner's Three Laws of Telecommunications

"We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company."
- Lillian Tomlin

As of 2006, Australia, a nation of twenty million people, has one million business telephone lines, six million residential lines and eighteen and a half million mobile telephones. If you don't have access to a telephone then you are either very poor, very young or living in a very isolated part of the country. Despite this, our society has only ever partly adjusted to the telephone. Here at Antenna & Vine we seek to enlighten the populace by bringing you the latest in telecommunications research: the Three Laws of Telecommunications.

The First Law is Everyone hates the telephone company. It doesn't matter where on Earth you look or who the telephone company is, everyone hates it. Dealing with the phone company is never pleasant; at best they are patronising, often they are just rude. We all suspect that we are overcharged and their technology never quite does what we want it to.

But, as the Second Law states Everyone knows how to fix the telephone company. Now most people could not explain how their own telephone works, let alone exchanges, tandems, trunks and microwave bearers, so the only souls foolish enough to suggest a particular technology as the solution are free-market economists.

But even economists are hesitant to suggest a change to the structure and operations of the telephone company because it does not matter if the telephone company is run by a government department, a corporation or a vegetarian commune,the governance is identical. Telephone companies invest large sums in plant and equipment which as a low margin high turnover business, can take ten, fifteen or twenty years to amortise, so the company is very resistant to technological change. Part of the work force are highly trained technicians and engineers who demand high pay. Even if they are not highly unionised (and they usually are), market forces drive high salary levels. These staff with high level skills in science and mathematics and poor people skills, tend to dictate the speed of repairs, the attitude to complaints and, as they move into management, the corporate culture.

No, everyone knows that you fix the telephone company by changing its ownership. If the telephone company is state-owned then "the greater efficiencies of private industry" are the answer - the government must privatise the telephone system. If the telephone company is a monopolistic corporation then "it must be exposed to the bracing winds of competition" and competitors are allowed into the market. If the market has several competing companies, then "strategic infrastructure cannot be left to the whims of speculators" so the government nationalises the companies.

The appearance in the 1980s of the doctrine of economic liberalism (or economic rationalism as it is known in Australia) has accelerated this process with, as an extreme example, Brazil going from competition to socialisation to private monopoly to competition in ten years.

So we come to the Third Law, of recent discovery: Once you have fixed the telephone company, everyone still hates it.
"They're just as bad as the old company, maybe a bit worse. How did that happen? We did all the right things!"
"Wait, I know how to fix it."

Look out - he's got a computer virus!

Malicious Cryptography: Exposing Cryptovirology by Adam Young and Moti YungISBN 0-7645-4975-8 Wiley, NY, 2004

This book presents an initial, interesting idea - could a computer virus be written that attacks a computer by encrypting the user's data? This could be a tool for extortion or a unique Denial of Service attack. Now this is not a new idea. In 1993 that earnest student of computer virology, Dr Mark Ludwig in Computer Virus Development Quarterly Vol 1 no 4 released KOH a "friendly" encrypting virus. KOH would encrypt your files, thus protecting them from the agents of the New World Order. Of course there was the danger (nudge nudge, wink wink) that KOH could infect someone else's computer with a key that you alone knew, leaving them at your mercy, unless they have the cryptanalytic ability to decrypt their files.

Young and Yung's monograph proposes the same scenario with a new twist - the data is encoded with an asymmetric cipher, thus rendering it unrecoverable except to the virus writer. The authors state that such a virus has indeed been trialled in a proof-of-concept form, on a Macintosh SE30 in System 6. From memory, this is a nice environment to develop on, so there's no "whoops, where's it gone?" problem. There is some detailed high level discussion of techniques and pitfalls. The authors then go on to describe how contemporary cryptographic technology may be adapted to the theft of information such as secure data and passwords. This is all done at the level of mathematical relationships - there is no viral code.

Two new words are added to the language - cryptovirology (the study of computer viruses with a cryptographic payload, usually malicious) and kleptography (the application of cryptography to data theft).

Here are a few chapter or section headings to give a taste of the themes running through this work: Through Hackers's Eyes; Cryptovirology; Deniable Password Snatching; Using Viruses to Steal Information; Computationally Secure Information Stealing; The Nature of Trojan Horses; Subliminal Channels.

The book starts with an accessible piece of fiction, but quickly progresses to the opaque style common to much academic writing in this field. The reader is well advised to brush up on matrix algebra, Jacobians and Abelian and non-Abelian groups and to have a working knowledge of computer viruses (however obtained). There are appendices intended to provide brief tutorials on computer viruses and public key cryptography. But both these very different specialised fields require far more study than any pr_ecis can provide.

While the writing is often hard going there is an enjoyable first chapter describing three incidents in the life of a virus writer (a student at a US university) as he writes and releases a virus. It provides a vicarious experience of the motivation for such activity - the mental challenge, the adrenalin rush and the exercise of secret power.

The writing, as referred to above, is uneven and there seems to be some confusion as to who the audience is for this work. Adam Young developed the idea as part of his doctoral thesis with Moti Yung as his supervisor and some of the text seems to have been lifted from the doctoral thesis - you have been warned! It's an academic work, so academic cryptographers would be the principal readers. But since it's offered for sale to the public, one wonders who else would read it?

We can rule out some groups. If you refer to yourself as "133t", then you can count yourself out, as can those wannabees who capture virus code, do a partial rewrite, add their handle, then release their "new" version. There is no rip-off virus code here. Even whoever wrote Nimda or Code Red or NetSky will find this heavy going, competent thought they are in the mysteries of mobile code and system calls. Certainly anti-virus software coders will find this of little use.

The main audience is probably that large group of amateur cryptographers who form the backbone of the cypherpunk mailing lists. They will not be disappointed. The writing is at their level and assumes a base knowledge that most would be comfortable with. There are at least three wholly original ideas presented: cryptovirology, kleptography and the use of subliminal channels for data leaks.

If I can let my imagination run free, perhaps also among the audience are the legendary Hidden Masters of cyberspace, those hackers beyond "elite" in their esoteric knowledge, who work alone, do not meet other hackers except deep behind some firewall and who are never suspected, let alone arrested. Perhaps they will be inspired to even greater feats of data theft. But then we'd never know, would we?

Rasputin - the man they couldn't kill

An version of this, edited for space, appeared in Fortean times issue 196.

Legend has it that Rasputin had to be poisoned, then shot, then stabbed and later drowned before he could be killed - proof to many that he was under demonic influence. The myth of the indestructible holy man has a certain basis. He was poisoned, but without effect. The autopsy found no poison in the blood stream, three bullet wounds and a small amount of water in the lungs(1).

The “poisoned, shot, stabbed and drowned” version of Rasputin’s murder comes from Prince Felix Felixovitch Yusupov (or Yousoupoff) who, as an exile in America, dined out for the rest of his life as Rasputin’s murderer (2). A more objective account was written by Rene Fulop-Miller (3)who was granted access to files of the Tsar's secret police by the Bolshevik government immediately after the Revolution. Access to these files was later withdrawn by successive governments.

The recent re-release of these secret files has confused the matter since each murderer gave a different story to the police who themselves carefully avoided any detailed investigation since one of the conspirators was the Grand Duke Dimiti. As a member of the royal family his presence guaranteed that the murderers would not be prosecuted. The other conspirators were members of the right-wing Pan-Slavists, a loose grouping that had the support of Buchanan, the British Ambassador(4). They were alarmed by Rasputin’s desire for a separate peace with Germany. Rasputin had long been an opponent of war and believed that Russia's involvement in a European war would lead to a defeat followed by a revolution, similar to the unsuccessful 1905 revolution, but this time resulting in the overthrow of the royal family. That prediction did not require psychic skills - it was the opinion of the political left and most liberals, only the conservatives were in denial.

Members of the Pan-Slavists faction had made other attempts on Rasputin’s life including two made by Khvostov when he was Minister of the Interior. So when Purishkevitch, the director of a hospital train and spokesman for the extreme Right, made a particularly impassioned speech against Rasputin in the Duma, he was not surprised to be approached by Yusupov. The Prince had frequently expressed his contempt for Rasputin, and alarm at his relations with the Tsar and Tsarina. Despite this, Yusupov had recently begun to cultivate a friendship which may have had a sexual element. Some writers have identified Yusupov in drag as the mysterious "Sister Masha" who had become an occasional visitor to Rasputin and who last visited him on the evening of his murder then left thirty minutes or so before Yusupov appeared to drive Rasputin to his fatal appointment.

Yusupov was gay and a cross-dresser who used to cruise the nightclubs of St Petersburg(2) . His wife was a fashionable beauty who regularly entertained her own set of friends, often in her private rooms. Yusupov believed that an invitation to a discrete meeting with his wife was a plausible bait for Rasputin. Once at the Yusupov palace the prince enticed him to consume some slices of chocolate cake (some versions call them pastries) and wine which had been laced with potassium cyanide, but with no effect. The poison had been provided by Colonel de Lazovert, one of Purishkevitch’s doctors. All testimonies describe him donning rubber gloves to crush the cyanide crystals, but some add an interesting detail: the cyanide had to be crushed because it came in glass phials – the cyanide capsules used by secret services(4).

Three years earlier, at the assassination at Sarajevo that had started the war, cyanide capsules provided to the two assassins of Arch-Duke Ferdinand of Austria had also proved ineffective. Both men were working for Ujedinjenje ili Smrt ("Union or Death" - union of Boznia-Herzogovina with Serbia) better known as the Black Hand, a terrorist organization controlled by the head of Serbian military intelligence, Colonel “Apis” Dimitrijevic(5). The capsules seem to have been provided by the assistant Russian military attaché to Belgrade, Captain Verkhovsy who was later Kerensky’s Minister for War in the short-lived government that followed the abdication of the Tsar and before the bolshevik revolution(6). The Russian government had brought a batch of cyanide capsules from a German chemist some years before . Potassium cyanide is highly reactive and would quickly break down if a phial had an unseen leak.

Was the poison for Rasputin provided by the Russian secret service? Did those who provided it know that it was ineffective? Was there a connection between the assassination of the Arch-Duke (the trigger for the war) on 28th of June, 1914 and the attempted murder of Rasputin (an opponent of the war) on 29th of June 1914 by Khionia Guseva?

When the poison failed, Yusupov obtained a military revolver from one of the conspirators and fired point blank at Rasputin who collapsed but later regained consciousness and made a run for it.

Even shot at close range a large man like Rasputin would not have immediately died. The Russian army issue revolver of the period, the Model 1895 Nagant 7.62mm, had a high muzzle velocity(7). At close range the bullet could pass straight through a human body giving a fatal wound but with the victim in shock and expressing no pain. Rasputin's bulk would also have buffered him against blood loss.

Now panicking, Purishkevitch with his Colt automatic (or was it the Grand Duke with his Savage revolver?) shot Rasputin twice. His body was mutilated, wrapped in chains and then dropped off the Great Petrovsky Bridge into the Neva. Typical of the murderers' incompetence was that they dropped the body off the upstream side, so that instead of being swept out to sea, it became lodged on a pier of the bridge. The corpse was found with the hands raised and some water in the lungs so it was concluded that although mortally wounded Rasputin was still breathing when he entered the water.

Rasputin’s murder was a bungled and panicky affair, but it suited Yusupov to dramatise it, changing a squalid political killing into an heroic struggle against the spawn of Satan. That was his attempt to build a legend. But the story has entered the oral tradition with Rasputin as the hero - “All those women he had, all that grog he drank, and then they couldn’t kill him!” Proving that you’ve got to be careful when you create a legend.

(1) Moynahan, Brian. Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned. New York: Aurum Press, 1998.
(2) Youssoupoff, Prince Felix Lost Splendour.New York Putnam 1954.
(3) Fulop-Miller , Rene Rasputin the Holy Devil New York Putnam 1928
(4) Horne, Charles F (ed) Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, National Alumni 1923
(5) Cowles , Virginia The Russian Dagger London Crawley 1969
(6) The Orange Book of the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Service – Vienna 1916
(7) Smith WHB et al.Small Arms of the World Galahad New York 1969

"White powder" hoaxes

On Thursday 2nd June the Indonesian embassy in Canberra (federal capital of Australia) was closed and staff quarantined and decontaminated following the discovery of a white powder in an envelope. http://smh.com.au/articles/2005/06/02/1117568282365.html?oneclick=true

While this proved to be a hoax, there were some interesting security aspects.

The white powder tested positive for the presence of a bacterium of the bacillus family, of which anthrax is a member. The hoaxers were obviously aware that this test was routinely applied to all suspicious powders and that the test was unable to distinguish between anthrax and other bacilli, most of which are harmless (for example, a bacillus produces yoghurt).

The hoaxers were aware that any identified bacillus would have to be cultured for two or three days before identification could be made, and that during this period the embassy staff would have to be placed under quarantine and the embassy decontaminated, thus causing embarrassment to the Australian government and maximum disruption to the embassy while Australian security officials searched every room.

The letter which accompanied the powder was written in Bahasa, the official language of Indonesia, and described as containing “abusive words”. In Australia Bahasa is a widely taught language in schools, but few Australians outside of academic or intelligence circles speak it at an educated or even truly colloquial level. Indonesian police were given the note to identify the level of language. The text of the note has not been made public, allegedly for forensic reasons, but allowing the government to pursue the incident for narrow political ends.

The media have revealed for the first time that 360 “white powder” incidents have taken place since September 11th 2001 ("9/11"). This news had been suppressed by the government who had issued D notices to the media for all such incidents. So there has been one "white powder" incident approximately every four days, an astonishing number.


There are two interesting issues here:
- Suppression of news about “white powder” hoaxes does not seem to stop copycat hoaxes. So much for "denying them the oxygen of publicity"
- The hoaxers seem well informed on biological security measures and able to assess their vulnerability. What was the source of this information?


There was speculation at the time that this hoax attack on the embassy could either be payback from some Australian nationalist group or individual for Schapelle Corby’s imprisonment. (http://www.heraldsun.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5478,15429371%255E661,00.html) or else some type of provocation – it certainly produced inflammatory headlines and demonstrations in Indonesia.


Media coverage within Australia was at that time sympathetic to Corby with some commentators normally supporting the Liberal government being quite inflammatory. The hoax attack on the Indonesian embassy allowed the government to regain some ground with the media that it had lost over its inaction in the Corby case.


The Australia-Indonesia relationship is very delicate. The undeclared “Konfrontasi” war of the 1960s saw Australia, Britain and Malaysia defending Malaysian territory against Indonesian infiltrators. East Timor’s independence is seen by many Indonesians as part of an Australian policy to destabilise and break up their country. Certainly there is widespread support within the Australian public for independence for Irian Jaya province. The bulk of Australia’s $1.6 billion dollars in aid for tsunami victims is earmarked for Aceh, also seeking independence. At the time of the hoax here was an unsubstantiated accusation that a senior Australian intelligence officer had been suborned by the Indonesians.


No one was ever charged and the authorities have seemingly forgotten the incident, so we are left to speculate on the hoaxers' identity and motives.

That old time religion

An edited version of this is published in Amazon's book reviews.

Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism by Jenny Blain

Most people (mis)understand Norse ("Viking") religion as wooden idols and human sacrifice where the gods are an Ikea version of the Roman/Greek pantheon: Odin = Jupiter, Thor = Poseidon etc. But an important part of belief concerned fortune-telling and shamanistic possession. In the saga Arrow-Odd, we find this:

[Odd is the foster-son of Ingjald, a wealthy land-holder.] Odd cared little for sacrifices to the gods, but trusted to his own strength [...]

There was a witch-woman called Heid who had second-sight so with her uncanny knowledge she knew all about things before they happened. [Heid and her followers are invited to a feast by Ingjald, against Odd's wishes.] After the meal was over, people went to sleep, but the prophetess and her company went to carry out their night-rituals.

[The following morning Heid calls up all in the household.] She told each of them what the future held for them, and they were all pleased with their prospects. Then she predicted the weather for the following winter and more that was not previously known.

[Then, against his protests, Heid predicts Odd's life and death.] "Damn you for making this prophecy about me," said Odd. And as soon as she'd finished speaking, he sprang up and struck her so hard on the nose with a stick that the blood gushed onto the floor. [Odd states that he does not believe any of this and leaves Ingjald's farm. The prophecy, however, comes true in all details.]

The story of Odd indicates many issues covered by the book: prophecy as a slightly suspect practice, but one that the pragmatic Norse included in their beliefs. The fact that its practitioners were mostly female and that warriors tended to be hostile towards it. Very little is known about the practice, so those who are seeking their Pagan roots have to "re-create" the religion - they have to make it up. Oh dear!

Now read Gautrek’s Saga, and we find this:

[The raiding expedition of a warlord named Vikar has been becalmed. The wise men say that Odin requires a human sacrifice from the warriors but when lots are drawn Vikar always gets the short straw, so everyone retires for the night to consider their options.]

Then just after midnight Grani, nicknamed “Horsehair” [a respected land-holder], woke up his foster-son Starkad [the warlord’s most trusted man] and asked him to come along with him. They got a small boat, and rowed over to another island, […..] where a large group of people was gathered for a meeting. There were eleven men sitting on chairs but a twelfth chair was empty. Starkad and his foster-father joined the assembly and Grani Horsehair seated himself on the empty chair. Everyone present greeted him by the name Odin

[… Odin and another man identified as Thor then prophesy (negotiate?) Starkad’s future. Odin promises great successes, Thor qualifies or limits them. Odin speaks for the aristocracy, Thor speaks for the peasants.]

Then the judges decreed that all that had been declared should come about. [The meeting breaks up.]

“You should repay me well, foster-son” said Grani Horsehair, “for all the help I’ve given you.” “That I will,” said Starkad. “Then you must send Vikar to me,” said Grani Horsehair.

[Starkad then agrees to treacherously kill his commander, thus “sending him to Odin”. Before and after this incident Grani is just another Viking with no hint of any divine powers. All that has been prophesised for Starkad comes true.]

What's going on here? Is this shamanistic possession, role playing, priesthood in the Voodoo tradition of "divine horsemen" mounting their priests. It's nothing familiar to us in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. So who were the Norse gods: “aspects of the divine”, “spirits”, “alternate personalities", “acted-out Jungian archetypes”?

The example given in Arrow-Odd is the theme of the book: oracular seidhr - foretelling the future. The matter covered in Gautrek’s Saga has only a few brief mentions. The writer is a modern Pagan and seidhr practitioner but has little to say from personal experience. The best accounts are given by others, in fact just a handful of experienced and articulate seidh-workers. The book would have been better if it was a series of in-depth interviews with these people.

There are frequent references to seidhr as originating with the shamanism of the Sami people (known to most of us as the Lapps) and there is a whole chapter devoted to the shape-shifter Gunnhildr, the famous witch-queen of Norway, then later of York, who learned her skill from the Sami. A lot of ink is spent debating whether or not seidhr is shamanism, but since anthropologists cannot agree on what shamanism is (and don't like it much anyway), this seems wasted effort, as does the extensive argument developed from Queer Theory, but perhaps that's what you have to do these days in US universities. There are only a few quoted examples from the sagas and one particular example is worked to death.

One big unanswered question is "how good is it at telling the future?" But the interviewees use weasel words like "healing" and "insight" when describing their experience. So modern seidhr seems no more than another meditative technique. If you put your head under a blanket and cut off the supply of oxygen to the brain, you'll have visions, especially if you are chemically assisted as some practitioners are.

Written for an academic audience, this book has all of the good and bad points that we associate with that. It's well researched, but the text tends to be very dense and a bit of a hard slog. Its conclusions are cautious and supported by the evidence, but not exciting. This does have a place on my bookshelf, but you might be better off reading the sagas instead.

Why ID cards will not work in Australia

or not work as intended.

In 1985 the federal government accepted a proposal from the public service to introduce an identity card for all Australian citizens. The aim was to prevent fraud in taxation, welfare and immigration. The card was named the "Australia Card" and heavily promoted.

Initially most political parties supported the idea: the governing Labor Party and the opposition parties; the Liberals and the (conservative) Nationals. The only party opposing was the Democrats, a minority centrist party. Labor held government and a majority in the House but lacked a majority in the Senate, being only able to pass legislation with the support of the Democrats.

Under the plan, federal databases were to be merged to supply a single source of data on individuals. This was to be named "the register" to avoid the term "database". Both the card and the register were to hold a black-and-white photograph of the individual (fingerprinting was considered but rejected). The register was to be administered by the Health insurance Commission (the national health care system), rather than the police.

At first 70% of the population supported the idea, but a grassroots campaign soon grew to oppose it, helped by a split in goverment ranks. The Labor Party is highly factionalised on ideological lines. The (social democratic) "Centre Unity" faction supported the Australia Card while the (democratic socialist) "Steering Committee" faction opposed it. Sensing a political opportunity elements within the Liberal party effected a change in party policy to oppose the card, and were also able to swing the National Party around, despite their previous strong support for the card. The bill was defeated in the Senate.

Even before the vote, however, the government had discovered numerous serious difficulties with implementation and had lost enthusiasm.

The government task force given the job of implementing the Australia card had discovered that identity cards work in European countries because:
- there is a long history of their use, and therefore acceptance;
- national governments have detailed centralised records of all citizens;
- until recently there was little immigration, making record keeping easier;- until recently the population was not mobile - you died in the village or arondissment you were born in.

By contrast, in Australia:
- records are decentralised, with some being kept by federal and others by state, city or shire authorities;
-many Australians come from towns where records have been destroyed in natural disasters such as bush fires and floods;
- 21% of the population was born overseas, with many not having English as a first language. Many Asian and European governments (Greece is a good example) consider emigration and the taking of foreign citizenship an act of disloyalty and will not assist migrants to establish their identity in their new homeland;
- many migrants come from nations where government records have been destroyed by war or civil conflict;
- some migrants are refugees whose re;atives and friends remain in their homeland. These people have every reason to conceal their identities;
- there are 20 million Australians and at any time between half a milion and one million are travelling or working overseas, often for lengthy periods. Is the person who arrives in Australia the same one who left?
- the Australian population is highly mobile, frequently moving to where the jobs are. I can name one school on the NSW central coast where none of the students who enter in Year 7 are present in six years time when Year 12 graduates;
- while 93% of the population live in a few large cities, the rest of the population lives in very isolated areas. It is quite easy to "walk off the map" and vanish;
- it is not an offence under the laws of most states to go by an alias and individuals often take advantage of this to begin a new life in a new place;
- Combine this with out-of-date addresses, mispellings and variants on names and tracking an individual can be very difficult.

You could, of course, impose an ID card but there would always be some doubt as to identity - not much of an ID card.