Saturday, 19 September 2015

When School-Children Asked Me How To Make A Bomb

As many students do, I spent a summer abroad doing a charity thing. Don't get me wrong, this was no posh-boy's year out, I raised pretty much all the money myself and it was via a university society which specialised in overseas aid projects.  But yes - it was one hell of a good time. I got to go to Nepal, which as a keen mountaineer at the time was a dream come true, if a little frustrating - I had a couple of thousand pounds to spend on my two months there, most of which was spent on flights, trains and directly to a school in Sundarijaal, just outside Kathmandu, and the lovely local family who housed and fed us.  Fancy actually going mountaineering in Nepal? Well you're going to need somewhere in the region of 100 times the money I had available for the project. I could see the classic summits from my books, but there's no way I was going to even set foot on them.

On the other hand, we lived and worked with some wonderful people, and helped lay the groundwork for a new school building, mostly by carrying saplings over the same two mile route up a hill and planting them to stabilise the land the school had been able to buy with, in part, the funds we raised from drunk people in Edinburgh.

But we also had a few days in the main school itself, which was incredible.  The kids were the best behaved and most intelligent you can imagine by UK standards. On my first day in the school the head teacher asked me what my area of interest was - science, and in particular physics, as you'll realise if you've read much of this blog.

So I was introduced to a class of around 30 kids, all around 14 years old (and bear in mind I'd just turned 18), and I expected to maybe help out as a bit of a classroom assistant.

"Hello class, this is Mr Robbins, he'll be teaching you science for the next hour."

Then she left.

"Mr Robbins?  Oh. Oh crap.  That's me."

So I'm left with my first, and to date, only classroom full of children who are looking at me and expecting something cool.

So fair enough, I realise, I'm kind of here as a novelty lesson, but at the same time I don't want to mess up any existing plans the teacher has.  So let's find out what they've been learning about so far.

As it turns out, a bit of everything - optics, basic electrical and electronic stuff, simple mechanics, everything you'd expect from a science class of the same age in the UK. Nothing, in particular, is a particularly important focus as far as the kids are concerned. Probably a good thing, because if they're really focussing on atoms and I start throwing quantum tunnelling into the mix just to be funky and interesting then they're all going to confuse the examiners at the end of the day.

"OK. So what do you want to learn about?"

One hand went straight up. "How do you make a bomb?" - the rest of the class seem to be in delighted agreement.

Which leaves me with a bit of a problem - because bombs are both deadly, and dead easy. There's an unspoken agreement between almost every geek on the planet that we don't generally talk about how to make bombs, because it's so damn easy to do. Especially in a country where you can buy reasonably large quantities of certain chemicals without suspicions being raised. UK, Nepal, wherever. Maybe a bit easier in Nepal in the 1990s than the UK today, but there's not an enormous difference.  And I quite like these kids, I don't particularly want to see any of them losing arms and legs, however much they enjoy my lesson.

On the other hand, there's one particular style of bomb that they can't easily make, but which has some lovely theory surrounding it. Atomic structure, chain reactions, a little bit of E=mc^2.

Yes, I spent the best part of an hour teaching kids how to make nuclear weapons.  And if anyone thinks that this is a fundamentally bad thing, I'll point out that at the time of writing a kid of the same age in the USA has been arrested for taking a home-made "breadboard" style electronic clock to school, on the grounds that it "looked a bit bombish".

Frankly, kids deserve better. I knew how to make a bomb, and had access to the materials, at around 14 too. Almost every kid of that age who can, doesn't.  Because being smart enough to build it means you're smart enough to not build it.  Arrest every kid who could and you end up with kids who aren't willing to admit they're smart, they just go and flip burgers for 20 years. And then they snap. And build their bomb.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Scotland Calling

[The stats on this blog show the majority of my readers are in the USA, so for UK readers this post may seem to explain the obvious at times.]

We live in interesting times. The UK is a couple of months away from a general election, and we're looking at the most fractured and unpredictable split in voting for a very long time.

Since around 1930 British politics has consisted of two main parties, the right wing Conservatives (aka the Tories) and the left wing Labour party, plus lesser support for various incarnations of a middle-ground Liberal party.  We've always had other minor parties too, the far right British National Party, the Raving Loonies (a surprisingly long running "joke" party) and parties specific to the member nations - Plaid Cymru (PC) in Wales and the Scottish National Party (SNP) up here north of the border.  (Northern Irish politics is immensely complicated in its own right, I'm going to leave those issues aside for the moment.)

The last time the UK had a government that wasn't either Labour or Conservative led was in 1918, when the Liberals won. We're currently in the unusual position of having a coalition government of the Conservatives being supported by the much smaller Liberal Democrat party, but for the last hundred years or so the UK has basically been Conservatives versus Labour, and they've never seen eye to eye.

But Scottish politics has always been a bit different. We've consistently voted for left wing parties, traditionally Labour but with the SNP becoming more and more popular over the last thirty years. Since 1999 Scotland has had its own government which deals with purely Scottish matters (similar to the State v Federal split in the US), and despite being designed to prevent majority governments the SNP managed to win a majority of seats at the last Scottish election.  It should be pointed out that unlike most parties with "National" or "Nationalist" in their name, the SNP are on the left of the spectrum, generally described as social democrats - major policy splits from the main UK parties include providing free university education, a focus on renewable energy investment (Scotland currently produces over 40% of its energy needs from renewables, mainly wind and hydro), and crucially, a pro-independence stance.

As you probably heard, we held a referendum last year, asking "Should Scotland be an independent country?", which resulted in a roughly 55% to 45% vote in favour of staying within the UK, and saw an enormous turnout of over 84% of voters go to the polling booths, a figure unheard of in British politics.

During the hard-fought campaign most UK parties campaigned for a "No" vote (eg Scotland staying in the UK), and we saw the extraordinary sight of senior Conservative and Labour politicians stand shoulder to shoulder against the SNP (who were supported by minority Scottish parties including the Greens and Scottish Socialist Party).

This has caused a collapse in support for the Labour party north of the border. Now, while Scotland only return 59 MPs to Westminster (around 9% of the total), these seats are crucial to the Labour party. But now this support seems to be evaporating in favour of the SNP, who are predicted to win the majority of them at the next election.

All good for the Conservative party, you may think, but they've got their own woes in England, with the UK Independence Party threatening to take a lot of their support.

So we're in the odd situation of a predicted general election looking something like this:

Conservatives - 286 seats
Labour - 280
SNP - 38
Lib Dems - 24
Others (~6 parties) - 22
(Source -, figures at the time of writing)

In this situation no party has a majority, and under UK law the largest party must try and form a coalition. The SNP are opposed to Conservative policies to such an extent that they've already ruled out any kind of support, the Conservatives would have to gather the support of most of the Lib Dems and "others" to form a government.

If this option fails, Labour could form a government with the SNP, although the SNP have already ruled out a formal coalition, preferring to offer support on the basis of "confidence and supply" - if Labour propose policies the SNP support, they'll vote with them, but there's no guarantee.

Or, of course, there's the option of a Con/Lab coalition, something we've only seen before during wartime, and could cripple the support for the two main Westminster parties for years to come. This is generally seen as unlikely, but as we get closer to the election more and more people are putting it forward as an option.

So we've reached the weird point where the balance of power in the UK government could be held by a party who do not want to be part of the UK government.

So what's the SNP position on the continued fight for Scottish independence? It's not 100% clear. Their statement immediately after the referendum was that they would "continue to work for Scotland's interests as part of the UK", and it would clearly be a bit odd to hold referendum after referendum until they get the "right" result, it would make a bit of a mockery of the process.  At the same time, however, the close result last year and rise in SNP support has spooked the main parties to the point where they may never agree to another referendum anyway.

I suspect we'll see a gradual slide toward a federal UK, with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments gaining more powers and Westminster slowly being relegated to dealing with only UK-wide matters such as foreign policy and the military. This does leave the obvious gap of an English parliament, although the shout of "English votes for English matters" has become common ever since the referendum

After winning a vote to keep Scotland as part of the UK, the UK government now feel their greatest threat is Scotland - and the Scots, having voted to remain, find they have flipped the tables and have a new-found and far more powerful role at Westminster.

Who "won" the Scottish independence referendum? I'm really not sure, but the next five years are going to be interesting.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Spontaneously Exploding Pint Glasses

Right, time to move away from the beer and back to the science - but I'm going to ease myself into it with a post on pub-based science.

This one has Glenmoray in it.

I have to admit to a whiff of paranoia when I
picked this glass up specifically for this post!

The classic British pint glass, the "nonic", is in my humble opinion one of the great pieces of design. It holds beer, you can stack them when empty (making a bartender's life so much easier), and the little bulge both improves grip and prevents the lips of two glasses from coming into contact, a little hygiene feature that nobody usually notices.

And they're tough, seriously tough. You can plunge a nonic into icewater straight from the glasswasher (at around 70C) and it'll cope with the thermal shock. You can stack them 30 high and they'll survive (not recommended for safety reasons, but you can).

The reason for this toughening is in the heat treatment they go through when they're manufactured. Each glass is slowly heated to around 720C and then rapidly cooled with chilled air. As the glass cools the inside (actually inside the glass, not "inside" as in where you put the beer) cools more slowly, leaving the whole structure under compression - it literally squeezes itself, resulting in a tougher glass that won't crack easily, and when toughened glass does break it does so in spectacular style, shattering into hundreds of small cubes and relatively few dangerous shards, meaning there's a much lower chance of serious injury due to accident or malice.

There is a downside to this heating process though, and it's all down to something called nickel sulphide (NiS).  This is a common contaminant in making glass and is very tricky to remove, especially when you're trying to make reasonably cheap glasses for pubs. It exists in two forms, or "phases", alpha-phase and beta-phase. The beta-phase is the everyday form, stable at normal temperatures, with the alpha-phase being stable at temperatures over 715C - crucially, this is just under the temperature required to harden the glass.

So when we rapidly cool our pint glass and it hardens we can end up with little bits of alpha-phase NiS stuck inside it, squeezed into not popping back into beta-phase because it would have to expand by about 3% to do so.

Now these "NiS inclusions" as they're technically called, will eventually pop back into the beta-phase, but it can take years. When they do though, they can cause an enormous amount of stress - up to 125,000 pounds per square inch, concentrated into a tiny area inside the glass. For comparison, the water pressure in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the oceans, is "only" 15,000psi.

This is easily enough to cause a crack to shoot through the glass at supersonic speeds, blowing the entire glass to pieces.

It's not a predictable effect, it can happen at any time. A slight shock to the glass (literally just flicking it with a fingertip in the right place) or even an ultraviolet ray from the Sun can set it off. Or it can just happen spontaneously, and there's plenty of reports of people's pint glasses simply exploding while sitting on a table. It's an interesting complaint to deal with as a bartender, in a decade behind bars I had to deal with incredulous customers twice and saw it happen to unattended glasses a couple of times.

The failure rate is small enough to be acceptable in pubs, especially given the other safety benefits of toughened glass, but this is a serious problem in glass being used for construction, such as modern skyscrapers and funky new bits of architecture, and is known as "glass cancer".

I believe this video is probably the result of a NiS inclusion - I'll buy a couple of pints for the first bartender to catch it on CCTV, statistics suggest it must happen weekly in the UK alone.

Further reading:
Nicely readable detail: Glass Breakage & Nickel Sulphide Inclusions  

NSFW but we're talking your-pint-exploding language: Real Life Account

Friday, 30 May 2014

Armageddon For Brewmeister

Brewing is huge in Scotland, both in terms of popularity and the sheer number of breweries producing some truly wonderful beers. We're blessed in many ways, with enormous tracts of ideal land for growing barley and a plentiful supply of crystal clear water combined with mineral geology that is second only to Burton Upon Trent's legendary supply.  The industry has a worldwide reputation which is close to that of our whisky industry.

The business has changed over the years - the post-WWII period were dark times, and the industry went into decline, but over the last few decades many new breweries have sprung up, from the (literally!) archaeological origins of the Williams Bros, through the more traditional such as Stewart's and Harviestoun, and even tiny little one-man bands like Barney's, working from a little room in the centre of Edinburgh.

And, of course, there's the big bad punks of the world, Brewdog.  This relative newcomer have caused a bit of a stir with their anarchic marketing and PR, taxidermy bottles and experiments at the edge of what can be called "brewing", producing mouth-puckeringly bitter IPAs, annoying their critics with super-low-ABV beers that still taste of something, and most notably getting into an arms race to produce the "world's strongest beer" by using freeze-distillation to remove most of the water, leaving behind "beers" which are in excess of 50% alcohol.

And now to Brewmeister, who are trying do do almost exactly the same thing.  Same "anarchic" marketing, same fringe-brewing techniques, and a couple of beers claiming to be 60%+.

Only there's a huge problem.  Brewdog know what they're doing.  Brewmeister...well the kindest thing I can say is that they're incompetent.

After suspicions were raised by many people who had tried Brewmeister's Armageddon, a self-style 65% ABV "strongest beer in the world", the man behind the excellent Beercast blog teamed up with Edinburgh craft beer pub The Hanging Bat and had a few tests run, on both Armageddon and Brewmeister's follow-up beer, Snake Venom.  The results (to the nearest percentage point) are horrific.

Claimed ABV: 65%
Tested bottle: 23%

Snake Venom
Claimed ABV: 67.5%
Tested bottle: 41%

 Rich's full blog post on the matter can be found on his Beercast site and is well worth a read.

There's so many problems here it's difficult to know where to start. Firstly there's the fact that declaring the alcohol content of drinks is mandatory, and you have to be accurate to within a percentage point.  Get this wrong and you not only face legal action, but your customers (which for a brewery includes pubs and off-licences) could end up in court themselves.  It happened to a friend of mine with a bottle of vodka that had been adulterated, the court ruled that the only defence was testing each drink with a hygrometer, which no pub has ever done and is completely impractical.

Secondly it reveals, at best, a shocking lack of control in their brewing and freeze-distillation process.  It could have been done intentionally, but I have seen no evidence of this.

Thirdly, a complete lack of control shows that this isn't experimental brewing to push the limits of the science, it's what respected US beer blogger Garrett Oliver calls "clown brewing" - simply an attempt to garner publicity through shock value.  This is from a company who's stated intention is to "deliver you to drunksville", a concept that is firmly rejected by every other Scottish brewery, no only because it breaks alcohol marketing laws but also because it's tacky, stupid and is counter to just about every principle brewers pride themselves on.  You can't taste beer properly if you're utterly smashed.

Would you believe it can get worse?  It gets worse.

 Brewmeister have replied to some of these issues in a few paragraphs in the middle of a bigger blog post.  Their implied solution to the problem?  Adding industrial ethanol.

Seriously, if their beers aren't up to ABV after brewing and then freeze-distilling then their first suggested solution isn't changing the label on the bottle, but pouring in neat alcohol.

They seem cagey on whether they've ever actually done this, but the very idea is farcical.  If you do that it's not beer anymore, it's hardly even an alcopop.  It's just industrial alcohol flavoured with an overly-expensive malt extract, and frankly that sounds foul.

 It's not brewing.  It's not even clown-brewing, it's just...well, I don't know what it is, but they need to hand their reputations in and try not to let the jugs of alcohol hit them on the arse on the way out.  They're doing unimaginable harm to the Scottish brewing industry by simply existing and the sooner they fall by the wayside the better.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

What Am I?

(Random rambling brought on by reading Why Would A Fundamentalist Christian Become An Atheist)

OK, so I'm an atheist.  But I hesitate to describe myself as such.  After all, I don't describe myself as a non-stamp-collector (although, as with religion, I gave it a go as a kid),  I don't find defining myself as a lack-of-a-quality to be useful in any way.  I could try capitalising Atheism, and joining other Atheists to talk about Atheism, but if Twitter is anything to go by this ends up being the same arguments going around and around and fact the best people to talk to on Twitter about atheism tend to be the theists, as they are generally more likely to have a grounding in the relevant philosophy, Pascal's Wager and so on and so forth.

I'm certainly not a "New Atheist", they're far too pushy for my liking.  Religion is (currently) a part of humanity, we can't bully people out of it, and there does seem to be a psychological need to find an answer to "but why", which I'm guessing is why atheism and science, particularly maths, physics and cosmology tend to be associated when there's actually no logical link other than the fact that science classifies "god" as outside its remit.  On this count, living in a world where people disagree, I'm a Wheatonite.

Nor would I describe myself as an agnostic - I don't believe any current definition of "god" is good enough for me to accept as a possibility, and the standing "bigger than the universe" criterion means we won't have a good enough definition until we're finished doing science, which won't happen in my lifetime at the very least.  On this count I'm certainly an ignostic, but I find that even less satisfying as a definition than atheism, which at least defines what it is...or isn't, at least.

OK, so I'm a human, so what about Humanism?  Even then, it's a group of people who have got together and decided what a Humanist is, and written down the rules, and are probably still arguing over them.

I did toy with the idea of being Vulcan - yes, like in Star Trek - there's a lot to be said for the mentality, but I happen to like laughing till I cry and feeling overcome with beauty and all the other stuff.  Ditto Jedi and Avout - I may have bought the monk-style dressing gown, but I'm not going to buy into it 100%.

So I'm just going to stick with being Geoff.  I reserve the right to change my mind.  Your results may vary.

I'd recommend you try the same.  Not being me, of course, just being you.  You can try being me if you want, but trust me, it's just confusing.  I'm actually very happy with it, but it does (in my experience at least) take nearly 40 years of training to be me.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

How To Prove Einstein Wrong

Physics exists on a spectrum, from the incredibly rigorous, through the vague and "hand-wavy" to the borderline crackpot - and there's plenty of room at the bottom.  For some reason physics attracts the crackpot, there's no shortage of claims of perpetual motion machines, "proofs" of god and the great favourite, "I've proved Einstein wrong" - ask any physicist and you'll probably find they've received plenty of emails along those lines, almost all of which "aren't even wrong", a very specific physics insult used for hypotheses which aren't testable, well defined, or rely on the Universe doing things which would break every known and tested physical law.

Why does Einstein get singled out? Why don't we see claims of "proving Planck wrong" all over the internet? Or even Arthur Stanley Eddington, who despite being an excellent physicist had some exceedingly crackpot ideas himself and is very easy to prove wrong - and yet returns zero results?  I'd suggest Einstein's continuing fame is a major factor, everyone wants to beat the person at the top.  Add to this the fact that there's some known "issues" with Relativity, specifically the Dark Energy and Dark Matter problems, and he becomes the prime target.

But whilst the majority of attacks on Relativity lie firmly in the realms of crackpottery, "proper" physicists continue to examine, reformulate and test the theory.  A great example is Mike McCulloch's work, which I've spent some time getting my head around recently.  He's a lecturer in geomatics, the study of measuring positioning in space which, while technically and historically is a branch of geography, is conducted using GPS and other satellite based systems these days, which means you're working almost exclusively in Einstein's realm, the mathematical model of relativistic spacetime.

The theory he's developing is called "Modified inertia by a Hubble-scale Casimir effect", or MiHsC, and it's a fantastic example of a proper, non-crackpot, approach to the problems in modern cosmology.

The Problems

There are three main issues with the basic theory of Relativity, one from a theoretical basis and two brought up by observation. 
  The first is the simple fact that in the last fifty years we've not been able to mesh the two main theories of physics, General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory.  Both work, and for all everyday purposes we can pick whichever theory we need, quantum theory for anything very small (such as the subatomic experiments being conducted at the LHC) and relativity for the big stuff, like the orbit of planets or the behaviour of clocks on satellites.  We can even use them at the same time, such as the relativistic change to atomic clocks on satellites (which GPS relies on) or the way the LHC can give protons an bigger "punch" and create much heavier particles like the Higgs.  But push things too far - like the center of a black hole or the behaviour of the universe in the first tiny fractions of a second and things break down.  The graphs go off the scale, the theories don't mesh, and we end up with nonsensical results - that kind of thing makes a physicist's brain itch. A bigger theory is needed.
  The other two problems are both brought about by observation - if you take the simple, original version of relativity then it doesn't match what we see in the sky - galaxies rotate too quickly (known as the "Dark Matter" problem) and the universe is not only expanding, but the expansion is accelerating, which is the "Dark Energy" problem.  Don't let these names fool you, they're both really placeholders for whichever correction-or-replacement is needed in the current theory.

The Theory

MiHsC is a whole new approach to the origin of mass - specifically inertial mass.  It may surprise you to hear, but there's lots of different kinds of mass. The two we're looking at here are gravitational mass (the one that gives something "weight") and inertial mass, which is what makes something big more difficult to move.  The two are thought to be the same thing, something referred to as "the equivalence principle", but note that this is just a principle - plenty of experiments have been performed to check this principle, from Galileo dropping cannonballs from the Pisa's tower to the Apollo 15 astronauts dropping a hammer and feather on the Moon.  If the equivalence principle holds then dropped objects will always fall at the same speed - the inertial mass will always match the gravitational mass perfectly.  But these experiments aren't conclusive - we've not tested it in every regime, there's plenty of wiggle room for a difference to be found.
  What McCulloch is proposing is a new idea for an origin of inertial mass, and this could potentially result in the slight changes in behaviour at low accelerations, which could explain Dark Energy and Dark Matter without having to discover new particles or new energy fields, something which has so far eluded experiments.

This new origin is based on something called the "Unruh Effect" (in itself, not a proven concept, but a well developed and reasonably testable theory), which predicts that an accelerating object will "see" a field of radiation, in effect space "pushes back".  This already sounds like a form of inertia, and McCulloch develops this idea to look at what happens at the extremes.  The radiation pushing back must have a wavelength, and as the object accelerates faster the wavelength must be shorter, in the same way the Doppler effect makes a police siren sound higher and higher pitched (ie a shorter wavelength) as it accelerates towards you.  At the opposite end, for very low accelerations the wavelength must become longer and longer...which eventually gives us a bit of an issue. 
  The length of a wave can be limited - you can't have very long waves in small harbours, to steal his example, if there's a barrier of any kind then there's a limit to the wavelength, and we have a very considerable barrier at the largest scales, the "cosmic horizon".  The longest wavelength that can be part of the Unruh effect, he claims, is twice that of the diameter of the observable universe, in other words two nodes, like a guitar string being plucked with no harmonic.  To be longer than this the wave would need to originate outside our universe, to have started before time itself started, which is impossible.  This means that there's a limit to the Unruh effect at low accelerations, which means a limit to the inertia of an object - very low forces no longer perfectly obey Newton's laws of motion, there is a minimum acceleration possible, which is all starting to sound a bit like quantum theory.
Some physics-equivalent of back-of-an-envelope calculations shows that this could (to within an order of magnitude or so) provide the basis for Dark Energy - as the universe expands the cosmic horizon changes, meaning our "quanta of inertia" drops, leading to a feedback loop causing cosmic acceleration.
  Again, a rough application to galaxies shows that if inertia is reduced at very low accelerations - the outlying edges - then gravity would seem to have a larger effect than expected, which looks just like the solution to the Dark Matter problem.
So it's an attractive theory.  There's a realistic mechanism, it makes predictions which are testable within the limits of current or near-future technology and observations, and natural solutions to the two big problems within Relativity seem to just "fall out" of the theory.

Putting my "realistic" hat on there's plenty of pitfalls - it relies on an unproven effect and it's still at the "orders of magnitude" scale of development, the cosmology equivalent of a sketch.  But it's a recognisable sketch and it's a sketch doesn't rely on disproving the existence of metaphorical paper and pencils.  It doesn't prove Einstein wrong, it simply provides a slightly bigger picture which includes Einstein's work, but with subtle changes to make the limiting cases behave in a realistic manner - precisely what Einstein did with Newton's work in fact.

And so what if he does eventually turn out to be wrong?  If McCulloch didn't propose it then somebody else would eventually come up with the idea, so there's no time wasted, and the payback if he's right is huge, yet another "new view of the universe" moment.

And if we do want some crackpot in our theory? Well, it does raise the idea of blocking inertial effects in some way...


Physics From The Edge - Mike McCulloch's Blog
arXiv paper - Testing Quantised Inertia On Galactic Scales
Mike McCulloch on Twitter

Thursday, 23 January 2014

What's It's Really Like To Be Under UK Government Surveillance

Our topic this evening, ladies, gentlemen and sleeper agents, is the world of government monitoring of their citizens.

There's clearly a lot of this in the news, with both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden playing a modern day Robin Hood and Guy Fawkes, and especially with the revelations of the extent of US and UK monitoring of their own civilian population.

Nobody seems surprised, of course, we all suspected it was going on (to various levels of tin-foil-hattery), but everybody's clearly annoyed that they've been covering up what we all presumed anyway.

At best, that's a big waste of taxpayer's money.

But let's flip it around, look at it from another angle:  My life since I was 16.

For the last 22 years of my life, I've let the UK government (specifically the military/intelligence networks) have privileged access to my life.  I signed up for a scheme that was (probably still is) called "positive vetting".  I'd applied to join the RAF and they obviously need to be able to check on applicants in some depth.  I essentially signed a bit of paper allowing them to spy on me to various levels without the whole court order thing required between the police and civilians, for example.  I don't remember the detail, but it was things like being allowed to monitor my communications (this was early 90s) and interview people who knew me.

Crucially, it doesn't expire.

My RAF career fell through just before I'd formally signed up and just after they taught me to fly, which was both disappointing and utterly exhilarating. But at no point since have I cancelled my permission for them to vet me.  I've never really felt the need to - bear in mind I was applying to this organisation knowing "fiery ball of death" was a realistic (but hopefully avoidable) part of the career ladder.

So for the last 22 years of my life "the establishment" have had legal permission to monitor me far beyond the levels revealed in the Snowden leaks, and I've been no angel.  I've not been an angel on the phone, at work, and I've not been an angel on the internet a LOT.

To be fair, I've never suggested actually overthrowing the government (in fact, I had to sign another piece of paper promising not to), but I've certainly had a good old bitch about various parts of the "establishment" over the years.

I'm into physics, and have done more than my fair share of searches on nuclear physics.  See also my interest in long term energy policy which involves the details of nuclear reactor design.

I'm a hacker.  I describe myself as such, specifically a white-hat but just being a hacker may raise a flag.  I'm interested in cryptography and the state's capabilities and/or denial of such. Quantum computing is a related interest.

I've smoked the odd joint. I've been involved in plenty of pub scraps and pickpocketings over the years - most of which I'm proud to say involved either people being mates at the end or thrown into police vans respectively, but working as a pub licensee is a really good way to stay on the radar.

My interest in science leads me to the science/religion debate, and that leads me to comparative theology, which ties in nicely with the current themes of terrorism and religion.  I've got one particular Muslim friend who loves cracking terrorism jokes with me. 

I'm quite honestly proud that the all-time most popular article on this blog is one of the top Google results for "how to destroy the universe."

You can see how that kind of thing can be read the wrong way.

I've got mates who are police officers, civil servants and serving members of the armed forces.

If people are going to be interrogated for their internet activities then I'm a prime candidate. 

But it's never happened.  

OK, if you want to get conspiratorial then my police/government/army mates are spying on me, but to be honest it's worth it if that's the case, they're genuinely lovely people.