Sunday, December 28, 2008

Israel, Hamas and Palestine

Conflict has flared up once again along the Gaza Strip.

On one side, airstrikes. On the other side, militants and rockets.

It's pretty obvious that a lot of this is politically motivated by Israeli leaders trying to pander to the right wing vote, but votes or not, bombing Gaza on such a scale is quite a dumb move.

As I wrote about China and Tibet, brute force isn’t very effective in a counter insurgency campaign.

Even if you ignore military complications (that is another topic altogether), it's not very smart to try to totally obliterate Hamas. Hamas isn’t exactly very competent; the fact that the Israelis managed to kill so many their leaders suggests that they have penetrated their network. However, as the root cause of Hamas' existence - hate of Israeli - and the will to achieve that is still there, new groups will spring up even if Hamas is gone.

Given that, Israel should have tried to maintain the status quo. It's essentially playing mole with Hamas: wherever Hamas pops up, whack it down, but never totally kill them off. The occasional irritation that Hamas might cause this way is a lot more manageable than having some new, more competent outfit (think: another Hezbollah) spring up.

Unlike China in Tibet, Israel can’t shut off the Western media by threatening boycotts or having gangs of worked up nationalistic students cause trouble in foreign capitals, so mass media cannot be avoided.

Nothing draws reporters and works us up more than seeing innocent helpless civilians suffer. And Hamas, like any other terrorist group, loves to use innocent civilians as human shields, and get journalists to come watch them get killed in the crossfire so as to turn international opinion against their enemy.

However, even if Israel can’t use this tactic (as if they want to), they can use the media too. They should have publicized the carnage of every rocket attack and suicide bombing in the international press so as to work up international opinion, and justify having such a campaign. Even if they can’t get something as emotion wrenching as 911, Beslan or Mumbai, the subconscious effect of seeing suicide bombing / rocket victims everyday on an international audience is extremely powerful.

Sanctions of essential needs should never have been implemented. Other than driving the Palestinians into poverty, which they would naturally hate Israel for, it's impossible for Israel to regulate the smuggling - it's not possible to see from an airplane whether food or weapons is passing through a tunnel.

History has shown that when people are deprived of the opportunity to make a decent living, they get desperate enough to get into wars and revolutions - like the French, Russian, Chinese and plenty of others. What they should have done is to allow trade with the outside world - and only ban the weapons. It is well known that if people have the opportunities to earn a decent living, most of them would rather live decently in peace than go fight for whatever cause. If the Israelis would do that, the extremists would lose their "trying to help oppressed Muslims" image and be exposed as irrational warmongers.

It’s time for the Israeli right wingers to learn that overpowering response doesn’t necessarily generate the best results.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Gift giving

Now, as Christmas draws near, we see the usual barrage of gift giving and crazed shopping. As retailers love to advertise, giving gifts to people are a sign of how much you value them.

But is it really necessary to give gifts to friends?

We always value the intangible things of friendship more than the tangible - a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand in their times of trouble. These are unique things about friendship that cannot be found anywhere else. If not, then it wouldn't be friendship anymore, but rather a parasitic relationship.

Opportunity cost also factors in here. Will giving an expensive gift make the person happier? Usually not, particularly in our consumer society. And for us students, should we be spending our parents' hard earned money so easily?

Given that, I don't think I'll be giving the retailers much business this Christmas.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Spudgun #1: The First Step

What is a spudgun?

Essentially, a spudgun is a homemade cannon, made from readily available materials. Like just about all firearms, its purpose is accelerate a projectile down the barrel and shoot it some distance.

The Spudfiles wiki has a pretty good writeup about the different types of spudguns:

Here, the focus is on pneumatic spudguns, since I only build pneumatics. Reason is simple: combustions need fuel, which means paying for every shot. A pneumatic can easily use a bicycle pump and muscle power, which doesn't cost money.

While obviously much less powerful than a real gun of equivalent size, a spudgun is much more versatile: pretty much anything can be a projectile, so long as it can go down the barrel.

Of course, like all guns, spudguns can be dangerous. Like real firearms, they can also explode, not to mention the obvious danger of someone getting shot. So, safety must be observed.

The First Step

Basically, all pneumatics can be split into 3 parts: the chamber to store compressed gas, the valve, and the barrel. Most of the improvements in spudguns are in the valve anyway.

This is my first spudgun, made in May 2008. It is extremely simple, utilizing a simple ball valve. While highly inefficient, the ball valve needs no modifications, is simple to assemble and is extremely reliable. It took 15 minutes to build and about S$10.

Here is a picture of the gun:

Most of the gun was constructed from PVC plumbing fittings. It is cheap, lightweight, and easy to obtain in various sizes, making it ideal. However, due to the high pressures involved here, only high pressure rated pipe can be used. It must also be solvent welded properly. Improper construction or insufficiently pressure rated pipe runs the risk of an explosion, which can injure or even kill.

The chamber is a used 500ml PET Coke bottle. The threads used for capping the bottle were filed off and the bottle neck epoxied into the 3/4” end of a 3/4”-1/2” PVC reducer fitting. A hole was drilled at the back of the bottle and a Schrader valve attached into the hole.

The Schrader valve was taken off a used bicycle tyre and the rubber removed from it. This is because epoxy does not bond to rubber, and it would thus leak with the rubber on.

There are no aiming sights fitted because ammo and firing pressure is never constant, and thus calibrating it is pointless.

Total cost: $15. Time spent building: $15.

Pressure testing (underwater) has shown that the Coke bottle chamber can withstand at least 160 psi, according to my bicycle pump gauge. Nevertheless, as PVC will degrade in sunlight, the gun must be stored out of sunlight.

Performance wise, it wasn't very efficient, but the sheer chamber volume gave it a lot of power: an AA battery shot at 120 psi at an angle of around 80 degrees can easily go over 5 storeys, as shown in the video.

The Next Step: PVC chambers

The first spudgun, though powerful, had one problem: the bottle wasn’t specifically designed for such high pressures and I had no idea how long it could last at the high pressures that I was using at. Not worth the risk anyway.

Hence, the next step was to simply switch PVC pipe instead of a Coke bottle for a chamber.

2 such guns were made: 1 with a chamber about the same volume as the coke bottle, and another with a very small chamber.

The first one had little difference from the original, while the underpowered gun was used for teaching purposes: with such low power, there was little risk of damage if someone used it wrongly.

The coke bottle ones were then decommissioned and given to Mr Jason Chan as a teaching aid for teaching the general gas law. It essentially allows students to see for themselves what happens at high pressures.