The Grenfell Fire, and the Logic of Plastics in Cladding

For me, the most depressing recent news was the London fire, in which a high-rise of flats (apartments for Americans) somehow caught fire, and once it did, it spread like crazy. There is a lot of blame to share around for the death toll. Apparently people were told to stay in their flats, but that advice was given by firemen who were unaware that the building had no useful fire doors, or the other usual means of containing and retarding fires. After all, if the building is concrete, and there is no easy way to spread the fire, it should be able to be kept local. So what went wrong? We don’t know about why the interior of the building seemed to burn very nicely, but it seemed that the outside burned furiously. The outside had an aluminium cladding, apparently to make it look more attractive. The aluminium tiles were backed by polyethylene, which is essentially a solid hydrocarbon of structure similar to diesel, but a much larger molecular weight. That burns very well, and if you saw video of it, you would see great globs of fire falling off the building.

We don’t know exactly why the polyethylene was there. Some say heat insulation, others say to give the cladding rigidity. Much has also been made of the fact that for about $3 a tile more, the backing could have been fire resistant. I am not sure what that backing is as the maker’s website does not say, but would guess it is some sort of polyamide or polyurethane with non-flammable filler. These certainly do not catch fire as easily, but there is another catch with some of them: in a fire they do burn, and while not as well, they tend to give off some rather poisonous gases. There is another catch. According to the manufacturer, the fire resistant tiles passed ASTM E 84 tests, which are the standard tests for surface burning characteristics, but so did the polyethylene backed tiles. That sort of lab test does not represent a real fire.

This brought back memories of my past, when I got involved with two structural foams that could be suitable for building cladding. One was a glass foam, originally intended to be made from waste glass. This would make quite a good wall cladding without the aluminium, except possibly on the bottom floor because it does not have very good impact resistance. Thin glass shatters on impact, but it does not burn or corrode. You can also have a wide range of colours. The other is a plastic foam, for which you do not even need fillers to make it fire resistant.

The story of my involvement with that goes back to the late 1970s. In the late 1960s, New Zealand discovered a large offshore natural gas field, and the government took it upon itself to enter a “take or pay” agreement so the field would be developed. It was not clear what their idea was, but presumably electricity generation was one of them. However, when the first energy crisis struck, about 1972 from memory, there was a sort of panic, and after a lot of deliberation they decided to construct a synthetic fuels plant at Motunui, which was to use a process developed by Mobil. I was on a committee to advise on the science, and I advised this was a bad idea because they could not build it for anything like the costs presented to them. As it turned out, my projected cost was out by $200 million, but no site had been chosen, and my estimate was “plus site development”. (In the end, the site development would have been about $130 million, so I was rather pleased with myself.) However, at the committee, I was about 4.5 times greater than the figure they were comfortable with (and note the government was going to pay) so I was never asked to be on such committees again. However, when that process was chosen, I knew that there was one byproduct they would not know what to do with: 1,2,4,5-tetramethylbenzene. The reason: it is a solid, which is not good in petrol for cars. The good news from my point of view was that it could be oxidized to pyromellitic dianhydride, which would be a precursor to stepladder and even ladder polymers, and in particular to polyimide plastics. The bad news was that the top public servants did not want their synfuels project upstaged, and the politicians were unenthused, probably because they were totally out of their depth.

So to get rid of the road blocks, I needed a stunt. As it happened, the fire hazard with plastic foams was to be the subject of a half-hour nationwide TV program, and I was invited to comment as a scientist. I agreed, provided I could have a few minutes for a demonstration of fire resistant foams. That was agreed, so I made myself some polyimide foam. This was rigid, and not much use for furniture, but you can’t really do much development work with one day’s notice. So I turned up, and at the end of the program, which had the dangers of fires, and of the poisonous gases drilled into everyone, I had the cameras turned on me. I put a bit of home-made foam in the palm of my hand and directed a gas torch at it. It glowed a nice yellow-hot under the flames, and I just sat there. Eventually they got bored of watching this, and they turned off the torch, then made the comment, “It still stinks, though.” So, with a bit of acting here, I held the plastic up to my face and sniffed deeply, and made no expression. Since there was no fire, while the plastic was ablating slowly, once the torch was taken away there was no more reaction. Unfortunately, my wife forgot to record this so I can’t actually prove it.

The whole point of this, of course, is it is possible to make very fire resistant foams. Without the type of chemical plant I was proposing, such foams would be expensive, but the question then is, is preventing x number of deaths worth spending a few extra dollars (or in this case, pounds)? In my opinion, there is no real excuse. Yes, the foam I made was rigid, but as building insulation, so what? While science can provide answers to many problems, there is not much point in it if nobody in power takes any notice.

UK Election Fallout and Qatar: what would you do if in charge?

Suppose like me you are an author of fiction. Given the following situations, put yourself in someone’s shoes and ask yourself, what next?

The first event was the rather unfortunate end result of the UK election. What was delivered was what I consider to be the worst possible outcome. The problem is, voters are sucked in by “jam today”, or “I am annoyed about something.” So, what now? First, some background. The national debt of Britain now stands at £ 1.73 trillion, and the interest payment on this debt is about 6% of revenue. That might seem to be reasonably sustainable, but there is the overall issue of Brexit looming. The UK has apparently had a recent surge in GDP, despite the threat of Brexit, but it is not clear that will last, and interest rates will probably grow from their record low. Suppose they double, which is easy from such lows. 6% suddenly turns to 12%, and that is ugly. (The existing loans will stay at their agreed rate, but can you pay them back when they mature? Otherwise you have to borrow at the new rate.) It appears that Jeremy Corbyn was promising a lot of spending, together with an unspecified increase in taxes. My guess is a lot of the youth vote that went to Corbyn thought the rich would pay. The usual problem with that assessment is that while the rich can be made to pay significantly higher taxes, to get the amounts needed to make a significant difference in revenue tax rises have to go a lot deeper. There are just not enough rich to soak. On the other hand, people may well argue they needed more money to go to health, education, or whatever. The question then is, can you pay for what you want?

May was apparently promising austerity. That is hardly attractive, but it was also put forward in a rather clumsy way. Cutting out school lunches is not only hardly a vote winner, but it is also never going to make a huge difference. Putting that up front is a strange way to win an election. It seems that the Tories were so convinced they were going to win that they decided to put up some policies that they knew would be unpopular, so they could say later, “You voted for them.” The two who are believed to have largely written the manifesto have resigned (really, pushed by angry senior Tories) but the question remains, why were they left to write it? Why did the senior Cabinet Ministers not know what was in it, or if they knew, why did they not do something about it? There’s plenty of blame to go around here, folks, nevertheless there are two hard facts: if Britain and the EU cannot manage Brexit properly, there will be severe economic problems, and economic problems seem to be like a very active virus that goes everywhere very quickly. The second is, if debt gets out of hand, the country spends so much on interest repayments that it ends up in the position Greece is now in. Anyone want that?

So, put yourself in some position: what would you do? My opinion is the Tories should realize that Corbyn has no chance currently of forming a government (because he needs every non-Tory vote) and get on doing something that has at least some public appeal. May either has to go, or learn oratory and get some empathy for the others.

The other event is the Arab attempt at isolating Qatar, on the grounds it is financing terrorism. Actually, the Saudis are almost certainly the biggest such supporters. The real reason appears to be either Qatar is friendly with Iran, or alternatively Qatar is the home of al Jazeera, a TV network that tries by and large to report the facts, warts and all. The US position on this is obscure. President Trump has lashed out against Qatar, without any particular evidence, although Qatar is known to have given refuge a number of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The US is also bombing Assad’s troops in Syria to prevent them getting at fleeing ISIS fighters; it seems that terrorism is being actively supported by the US, which make no strategic sense. At first, it looks as if Qatar could be quickly invaded from Saudi Arabia, but whoever does that would have to be very careful because Qatar houses the biggest local US base in the region, and has 11,000 military personnel there. To add to the complications, Turkey has promised to send troops. Fighting Turkey should mean fighting NATO, although with President Trump nothing automatically follows.

So, imagine you are the leader of Qatar, what would you do? Return the Muslim Brotherhood members to Egypt where they would probably be tortured and/or executed? Promise to stop funding terrorists? (If you really are not, this is easy to keep, but maybe not so easy to convince others that you are keeping it.) Remember, whatever you decide to do, you have to be prepared for whatever consequences follow. Not easy working out what leaders should do, is it? Writing fiction is, of course, easier, because you control what happens next. But if you want that fiction to have some relation with reality, what happens next has to be plausible, so here is your chance to get some practice.

The Trump Enigma

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I am starting to wonder if “they” are on to something. In my novel “Dreams Defiled”, one part of the plot involved one of the protagonists put into one of the most powerful governing positions on the planet, and of course part of the story involves how she fell from that position. One of her problems was she wanted to get things done, but she did not bother too deeply about building the necessary political links to get things done. She was her own woman. Sound familiar, other than the gender? There were two major differences, though, between her and Trump: she had no ego, and she restricted herself to simply doing. One of the criticisms of her was she did not pay enough attention to her public image.

Which gets me to the James Comey sacking. Look at the uproar, especially from the Democrat politicians that not so long ago were baying for Comey’s blood. Now as far as I am aware, there was nothing illegal about Comey’s sacking. As far as I can make out, major appointments in government agencies in the US are political. However, in my view, Trump showed serious failings in the way he presented this accomplishment. In my opinion, this is an example of when less is more. My recommendation is that Trump should have announced something like this: “I recently sacked General Flynn because he made statements that he admitted misled the Vice-President. James Comey admitted giving misleading evidence to Congress, even though under oath, and the Director of the FBI, above all else, must follow the highest standards of legal procedure. Therefore I have no option but to also sack James Comey. If Flynn does not get the benefit of any mistake, neither does Comey.” After that, say nothing. But instead, Trump and associates gave out a strange mixture of various explanations. What Trump needs more than anything else, in my opinion, is a strong disciplinarian as Chief of Staff, who will tell people, including Trump, when to shut up, and when they are speaking, make sure what they are saying is self-consistent.

So, what follows? People are claiming Trump did that to shut down the investigations into his Russian connections. I doubt that, but if he did he was wasting political power. One of the pieces of advice my fictional protagonist was given is that when put into a very high position you are given a bag of power. The more you use it yourself, the more that power gets depleted. The more you can get others to do what you want done, the fuller that bag becomes. I think that is good advice for Trump. (If you take it, Donald, an acknowledgement would be gratefully received.) As for the investigation, surely nobody thinks Comey was investigating personally? At the Director level, his job would be to ensure that his immediate underlings were ensuring major projects were being carried out, and making sure the political reporting was appropriate. The actual investigation would be done several levels lower, and that will not stop. In fact it is probably out of the hands of the FBI now that an ex-director of the FBI has been appointed as a special Counsel toinvestigate whether there was cololusion.

Following that, there was the tweet where Trump seemingly threatened Comey if he went public. That was appalling, and, for that matter, stupid. Much better would have been for Trump to have reminded Comey (publicly) that his employment contract included confidentiality clauses, and he would expect those to be honoured. Yep, more advice: stop tweeting. It does you no good at all.

Not that it stops there. As expected, Comey took hand-written notes of a discussion with Trump, and these have been leaked to the NY Times. In this, Comey was apparently “asked” if he could put the investigation into Flynn to bed. The significance of that depends on what “asked” actually means. Trump would be out of bounds to order the investigation to stop, but it is not necessarily wrong to ask Comey to hurry up and get to a conclusion. The FBI must only investigate crime, not political “appropriateness”. Meanwhile, how come the FBI is leaking a Director’s confidential notes? That itself is a crime, so who is investigating?

Then, even more bizarrely, the Washington Post, using an anonymous source, claims Trump gave the Russian Sergei Lavrov classified information about ISIS, specifically about ISIS preparing to attack aviation using laptop computers, presumably modified to contain explosive. National Security Advisor General H R McMaster denied anything classified was discussed. My first response to this is that Trump has recently banned laptop computers from being taken on board aircraft destined for the US, so that is hardly secret. But wait, there’s more! Seemingly the Democrats have finally realized that maybe the information was not that confidential, so Nancy Pelosi went on the attack and said Trump had no right to give the Russians information, even if it were in the public domain. I suppose there is something in that; the news media is so full of fake news and political speculation, why give the Russians clues as to what is true? Of course it may have eluded the baying horde that Russia and the US are supposed to be fighting ISIS, not each other. However, now there is more still: the information was not Trump’s to give – it belonged to Israel. Presumably it is better to kill some Russians than get the ownership rights wrong.

Meanwhile, I am somewhat critical of the activities of US agencies. As most will be aware, there has been a major outburst of cybercrime in the form of ransomware. I suspect anyone unaware of this has been living under a flat rock and won’t be reading this, but the point I want to make is that critical pieces of code for this attack were apparently stolen from the NSA. Stealing from the National Security Agency? How secure! After that, it was apparently sold on the web. Did the NSA not know about the theft? Are they not monitoring the web? Exactly what are they surveilling? Perfectly legal (or questionably illegal) discussions between Americans and Russians? Meanwhile, their code helps create the tools to bring havoc to hospitals, etc, around the world. If they are watching all the web why can’t they detect who was using their code and bring the miscreants to justice? This is not one of the highlights of NSA activity.

Why Are Countries Separating?

In many of my futuristic novels, I have selected a form of government to be in the background. Thus I have had a theocracy, a dictatorship, essentially no government (for the initial settlement of Mars), anarchy, crumbling “democracy” (i.e. our representative republic), real democracy, and finally, something else that I shall call federalism. The concept behind federalism is that a number of countries willingly join a Federation, and on most issues they continue on as they have always done, but there was also an over-riding Council whose function is to set a limited number of rules, and act as referees to make sure the various politicians in the countries behave. Another function is to provide factual information, and prevent political movements from achieving goals by lying. (Hey, I thought about “fake news” before it was popular, but that of course is hardly true either. Telling lies to get votes was bread and butter for the politicians of the Res Publica, and many of the inscriptions on the walls of Karnak by Ramses II had little relation with the facts.) This Federation also has to deal with the futuristic problems that we can see now, such as energy availability, resource allocation, climate change, etc. Interestingly enough, at least for me, the problems upon which the novels depended invariably arose from a similar source: people gaming the system. That may merely reflect my lack of imagination, but I rather fancy that any system will work well if all the people try to make it work. Most Romans thought Augustus was a great leader, even though he was effectively a dictator and probably the greatest manipulator ever.

The plots of these novels focused on how people were trying to get around the various rules. If there were an underlying message here, it was that rules only really work when people can see the point in them. A classic example is road rules. I suspect most of us have, at some time broken the speed limits, and while I have no intention of being specific and attracting unnecessary tickets, I know I have. I actually try to obey parking limits, but some times, well, something happens and I can’t quite make it. However, wherever I am, there is a rule on which side of the road I should drive on, and I keep to that assiduously. There is no specific preference – some countries drive on the right and others drive on the left, but a country has to choose one and stick with it, otherwise there are messy collisions all over the place. Everybody sticks to that rule because they see the point. (Confession time – once I did not. I came over a rise in Czechoslovakia, it was pitch black, and there was a little fire to my left. Suddenly, I realized the problem – there was a tank with camouflage netting parked in the middle of the road. I evaded around the left, not the right, because being in a British car I could better see the space I could use on my right, and also because I was better trained in sliding on gravel, etc, at speed and getting back on the road from that side. Must have given the tankers a bit of a fright. They would see a car first coming straight at their tank at 100k, then it would evade towards them and start sliding sideways, sending up showers of gravel from the side of the road.)

However, the point is, in general people will happily accept such rules if they see a point to them. Which side of the road you should drive on has a very clear point. The speed limit, perhaps less so. We recognize that road construction usually requires speed limits but I know that in some hilly terrain, overtaking a truck would be more important than sticking to a number. The problem with such rules, though is the rule makers seem to get carried away and think there should be rules for everything.

Some may recognize this Federal system. I made it up in the 1980s, and I was inspired in part by the European Union. You may recall at that time there was talk of the currency being the ecu, or European Currency Unit. Accordingly, in my novels I invented the fecu, however I put in one rule that Europe ignored. (They should have consulted me!!) In the novels, the fecu is used for transactions between companies and major corporations, and has a fixed value, a sort of resource standard. However, salaries in different countries, and goods in different countries, are paid in dollars, drachmas, whatever, and the average citizen never sees a fecu. I think the euro is a weakness of the EU because I don’t think you can run a common currency when countries have different economic policies.

Another question is whether the UE, through Brussels, has too many rules. Some say yes, others say no, but in the various discussions on Brexit, there is a lot of talk about untangling the thousands of rules. If that is a problem, there are too many of them. Good rules have a wide acceptance, and they could stay.

Which naturally brings me to the French election. All the commentators I have read say the French were upset over EU rules, and wanted change. So, what do they do? They elect a plutocrat, a banker! Trust the French – reminds me of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr) which translates out as “the more it changes, the more it is the same thing”. So, how do you get rid of the rule of plutocrats? The French elect one. The British go the indirect way and try the “go it alone” way. Neither will probably work, but in answer to the title question, I think it is because so many voters have given up on traditional representatives acting in the interests of the population at large they are prepared to try anything.

Trump on Taxation

President Trump has announced the intention to make sweeping tax reform, and a significant tax reduction for companies, at present reducing from 35% to 16%. His argument is that by doing this, he will encourage multinational companies to stop hoarding money in offshore tax shelters and bring it back to invest in the US. So what to make of this? The tax reform is an extremely good idea. The simpler and more transparent the tax law is, the less time everybody wastes on minimizing tax and the more they devote to actually earning money. Everybody accepts tax reduction is good for them, but the problem then is, does the government earn enough money to pay for what it wants done? That is a detail that has to be left because it depends on what is available to tax, and how much the government wants to spend.

Company tax is an odd animal because one argument is that you collect more or less the same tax irrespective of the rate. It goes like this. A company earns money, but those earnings are spent in four basic ways: investing in new plant; buying goods/services from other companies; paying staff; paying dividends. Looking at these in inverse order, money transferred to dividends becomes personal income, and that is taxed, so what we are avoiding is double tax. Many countries avoid such double taxation by giving company tax credits with the dividends, and while I am unaware of US tax policy on this, as a general rule as long as there is no double taxation, lowering the company tax rate has no adverse effect on dividends because those on the low tax rates in general cannot afford the stock. The important thing is that unlike people, companies do not spend on themselves, leaving aside “perks” such as company jets. My view is such “luxury expense” for senior staff should be taxed as a personal benefit to them.

Paying staff means the staff pay tax on their earnings. Now, if the staff are low paid, lowering company tax does reduce the tax collected, because most staff do not pay the 35% rate, although some may be on a higher rate. Similarly, buying goods and services from other companies simply transfers the taxable profits, although if the goods are imported, the profits go elsewhere. The question here is, then, will the US increase local production? The reason many multinationals manufacture offshore is that wages there are seriously lower, and they do not have to pay benefits and compliance is less strict. There is rationality in thinking that such goods manufactured offshore should be taxed as if the company met home compliance and had paid home benefits and wages because that levels the playing field from the “own country” point of view, but of course it hurts developing countries.

The virtuous part, according to Trump, is that by lowering company tax, multinationals will bring back more of the offshore funds accreted, and all companies will have more money to invest and create new jobs, or pay dividends. The next question is, is this valid reasoning? I am not so sure. The problem with investing to create new jobs is you have to have something to invest in. That is not so easy to find. There is no real evidence that company tax is inhibiting investment because there is no real evidence that, leaving aside small individual companies in trouble, there is a widespread shortage of money. What I see is more a general shortage of ideas. Thus we see the new product is another mobile phone that is only a little bit different from the last one. Ask yourself this: what would you really want that is not currently available if you had the money to buy it?

What that suggests is the economic slowdown is not caused by higher corporate tax, but more through inequality. Those with money already have most of what they want, and those without money cannot afford much of what is there. If we really want to promote growth, then I am afraid the poorer have to have more purchasing power, because they are the only ones at the moment who could power acceleration in sales. Of course the rich will keep on buying, but only at their current rate, and that will not power the growth President Trump wants. So my question is, will President Trump do anything to reduce inequality?

The Killing of Syrian Evacuees, and MOAB

One of the biggest news items the previous week was “the mother of all bombs” was dropped on Afghanistan. My first thought was, how come the children came first? My next thought was, why did the Americans use those words? Suppose they had said, “We dropped an 11 t bomb to break up the ISIS tunnels,” they could have still shown the same footage, but it would not have sounded so arrogant. Since this bomb had to be dropped from a cargo plane, it would presumably only be used on populations that have no significant air defence. The Americans also claimed that they killed thirty-six ISIS fighters and no civilians. Exactly how do they know that? (Sorry, but I persist. I want evidence, or at least some reasonable explanation that evidence has been seen by someone who will tell the truth.) One of the clips showed the ground around where the blast took place, and there was plenty of green there. Explain to me why there were no tribal farmers there?

Another disturbing event occurred at al-Rashideen, in Syria. Busloads of Shia evacuees from Foua and Kefraya permitted to leave the al Qaeda held Idlib province were attacked by what appears to have been a van-bomb. At least a hundred and twenty-six were killed, and more will die, and of those who died, at least sixty-eight were children. You may recall President Trump spreading empathy for the innocent children who died at Khan Sheikhun; silence on this incident, though, and the question is, why? There was also essentially silence from the Western press. Why, after all the fuss made of the sarin event? Particularly since these people were being evacuated under an agreed exchange whereupon rebels were permitted to leave Aleppo in exchange for free passage for them. They were obviously killed by al Qaeda affiliates, so why no bombing of them? Presumably because they are “nice” Muslims. Has he already forgotten 9/11? More to the point, this is a clear indication that you cannot negotiate with such terrorists because they have no honour.

What should be done about Syria? In my opinion, ISIS and the al Qaeda factions should be eliminated. As von Manstein noted, in terms of military strategy the first requirement is to prioritize. It is true that Assad is currently handling his population rather badly, but nobody else seems to have any constructive suggestions as to what should happen. Everyone says, negotiate a peaceful settlement, but it is difficult to do this when the issues are discrete and if, as shown by the example above, one side will not honour the terms of any agreement. If it is one or the other, the absence of middle ground makes compromise near impossible. Neither al Qaeda factions nor ISIS will moderate their extreme views, so I am afraid they must be removed. Assad at least ran a secular government, and in my opinion, he is the only one visible who has any chance of doing that in the future and do it for long enough to be effective, so swallow the dead rat. The best example of what I fear was Saddam Hussein. Nobody would accuse him of being “good”, but nevertheless he ran a secular government, and under his government, there was no al Qaeda of any significance in Iraq. The US deposed him and executed him, and did not attempt to govern, despite the antics of Paul Bremer. Why not? Insufficient troops. The net result was that disgruntled Iraqi soldiers got tangled up with ISIS, and look where we are now. It is better to do nothing about Syria than make it much worse.

Why do I discount the military option? The troops needed for a military occupation depend on what is expected of the occupied population. During the Czech invasion, everybody expected the Czechs to behave, and from memory five divisions comprised the invasion. That would be somewhere between 50,000 – 75,000 men, and probably about another 30,000 support staff. However, they concentrated on “important” sites. I recall that if you stayed out of city squares, or around things like radio stations, the chances of actually seeing Russian troops were very low. You saw them on roads if they were moving, and of course they had bases, but otherwise they were invisible. I even drove essentially across the country and only saw troops using the road to go from A to B. That would not work in a place like Syria, where you have to assume everybody there will hate you. Al Qaeda and ISIS, and their sympathizers will definitely hate you; the Alawites will most likely hate you for overthrowing their man, and that leaves the Kurds and Turkmen, both of whom will fear your leaving with whatever ISIS morphs into remaining. In an occupation where you are hated, you have to remove all the weapons, you have to check all transport, and have frequent checks on people in the open. That is why Israel, which has recognized what occupation means, does what it does in Palestine, and overall, while the Palestinians hate it, it does a good job of occupying. For Syria, I think you would need at least 500,000 soldiers, and preferably about 700,000. Who wants to pay for that? And on top of that, if you want it to succeed, you had also better spend a lot on reconstruction. To make a job of it, it would probably take ten to fifteen years, and initially there would be a lot of body bags because the likes of ISIS will have secreted arms dumps. Not very attractive, is it?

Chemicals over Syria

The news over the past week was dominated by a “chemical attack” in Syria, and the US response. However, there was then a flurry of various theories as to what had happened, the most usual one being that Assad was at it again, using sarin on his own population. So, what do we know, and what theories are consistent with what we know? In my scientific books, I have maintained that for any subset of facts, the smaller that subset the more likely there is that there will be at least one other theory consistent with the facts. What one then does is design experiments to s falsify some of them, so that eventually you end up with just one, and that is most likely to be correct. With human activities that is a little harder to do, and we have to relax somewhat the Royal Society’s motto Nullius in verba, which loosely translated means, take nobody’s word. With something like Syria, you cannot check everything rigorously, but you can look for self-consistency and reliability.

So what do we know? First, a number of people, including children, died in Khan Sheikhun some time on the morning of Tuesday 4th April. Some survivors were taken to hospitals elsewhere. According to US surveillance, one SU 22 took off from Shayrat air base and dropped objects on Khan Sheikhun. That is about all we know. What is most likely to be true? First, the symptoms of the survivors were argued to be consistent with their having experienced sarin, although one of the hospitals reported the symptoms were consistent with sarin, but the clothing showed signs of chlorine, which implies there were two gases present. Strictly speaking, sarin does not give unique symptoms, and a number of other organophosphorus compounds would also give these symptoms, although not so acutely. One such compound might be methylphosphonyl difluoride, the precursor to sarin.

There are also video clips of white helmets as first responders helping the victims. They had no protection. Sarin is a liquid, and it is absorbed thorough skin. Had this been sarin, we would expect those first responders to die. There is a further problem with white helmets; there are also statements on the web that the white helmets, operating only in al Qaeda controlled territory, give preference to militants, and have staged scenes on behalf of al Qaeda. That does not mean they did so here, but it also raises questions as to the reliability of their statements.

Whether there were one or two agents is also important, and this point is not entirely clear. Two agents is more consistent with a dump having been hit. More confusion comes from one report that the town was struck by one rocket. Further, the town is a stronghold of al Qaeda affiliates, who are not necessarily going to tell the truth. Apparently, UN inspectors are trying to piece together what really happened, and in principle, these uncertainties should be clarified. The US intelligence statement states that at least one of the items dropped from the SU 22 was a canister of sarin, but how would they know that? There are also clips showing a shed that has no bomb damage and hence what came in must have been a gas canister. However, there is no evidence anything came in. The makers of such clips refuse to show holes in the roof, and while there is a clip of what looks like an undamaged munition being tested, from the way it is laying, either it was irrelevant or it had been moved.

There are at least three theories circulating for what happened. The first is the most popular: Assad’s air force dropped bombs with chemical weapons. The second is the Russian version: Assad’s air force dropped bombs on a dump of chemical weapons, or material for chemical weapons. The third is that ISIS/al Qaeda did it deliberately to get US involvement. A fourth might be that ISIS/al Qaeda did it accidentally. At this point it is important to determine whether the delivery was by one rocket. If so, the Syrian air force is off the hook, although the Syrian army could have fired it.

One argument against Assad having done it is that it makes no sense for him to have done so. He is gradually winning the war, and President Trump has indicated the US did not want to get involved with Syria. He would know that the US would be really irritated if he did, so why would he? To do so would be just plain stupid, but unfortunately this argument has a flaw: there appears to be no shortage of stupidity in the world.

Another argument against it is he handed over his chemical weapons. The problem then is, how truthful is this? On the other hand, if he had complied, the likes of al Qaeda definitely did not. They, and ISIS, control so much of Syria it is almost certain they would have had control over some such dumps.

Very shortly after, the US navy fired 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat air base. The US says all fifty-nine reached their target; some reports indicate that only 23 struck it. What happened to the others? Here is an example of the fundamental problem: some people are asserting statements that are not true. However, we have not heard anything of where rogue ones struck, so either Assad missed a trick, or the US story is true. Assad also missed another trick here. The US in some reports claims there were chemical weapons at Shayrat. If so, why did they fire weapons that would liberate sarin when it would almost certainly go to the local residential area? They would be doing what Russia asserts Assad did. So what is the outcome?

For me, the most obvious one is we cannot trust any report on this matter so far. Too many politics are involved. On a lesser scale, President Trump showed that he was not going to wait for evidence from the UN inspectors. He was an action man. What did he achieve by doing this? Apparently he damaged at least six Syrian aircraft, although five of them, from the photographs, look not hopelessly damaged but they also look obsolete. Relations with Russia have taken a dive. For me, there are two consequences I fear. The first is, if ISIS has any chemical weapons, now is the time to use them on innocent civilians. That will bring the US in demolishing Assad’s forces. One of the more bizarre aspects of this incident is that the US has entered a civil war (always a bad idea) and is actively supporting both sides. The second is that President Trump has also threatened North Korea. Bombing Assad’s forces is superficially consequence-free (in the long term it is anything but) but bombing North Korea would reset the Korean war. I only hope some real thinking goes on soon.