Kids are not cracking enough safes these days

Is there anything cooler than the image of a guy dressed in all black sneaking into a secure compound of some kind and using elegant and complex techniques to crack a safe or vault? I submit that there is not, however the sad truth is that despite the popularity of caper movies, the art of safecracking has been in tragic decline since the 1960’s!

Tim Hukin has written an article entitled “Illegal Engineering” in which he covers a great deal of history about safes, safe construction, and and safe cracking. He also goes into detail about how locks (both combination and tumbler based) operate, and can be defeated. Tim is clearly not a locksmith or a safecracker. He even admits that he has never been able to successfully pick a lever lock, which is really not a tough as he makes it sound, so long as you have a nice set of picks. He does, however, clearly and accurately articulate the mechanics behind these devices, and I like his summary of why safecracking is increasingly a dying form of art.

He suggests that:

1) There are fewer and fewer people with the practical skills and confidence to even try to break into a safe. Metal, electronics and wood shops in schools have been transformed into craft studios, where kids make things out of cardboard, not weld and cut steel.

2) Today’s criminals are more barbaric, and tend to favor relatively crude techniques. They would just rather smash the security system with a brick than learn how to overcome it.

3) The rewards of breaking into a safe have declined. Banks are just not keeping as much money in them as they used to.

Read Tim Hunkin’s article >
Learn the basics of safecracking >

Interview with the Brothers Chaps

Interview with The Brothers Chaps from Cliff Pearson on Vimeo.

Several months ago my friend Chuck found this interview with the guys that put together The “Brothers Chaps”, as they refer to themselves, have created an internet cartoon series with flash that has quickly gained popularity. Most new cartoons come out on Mondays, which gives us all something to look forward to, and helps make the first day of the week tolerable.

As fans of the site will discover, the coolest thing about this video is that you finally get to see the people behind the voices. On the screen is a guy you’ve never seen, but out of his mouth is coming Strong Bad’s voice. The voice of Marsipan looks nothing like I had imagined she would, but why should she? I don’t really know why I expected her to look like a broom in the first place.

Sorry it’s an WMV file. We don’t always get to pick the way these things come to us, but check out the video… I think you’ll enjoy it.

Watch the video >
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Clearing up misconceptions about diving historical wrecks

In the world of archeology there are no digs more difficult than those lying beneath watery depths. With land sites archaeologists are sometimes faced with extremely difficult challenges such as such as the environment in Ozette Washington where they found themselves digging through sticky mud and trying to preserve spongy artifacts. Or the Inca site of Machu Picchu where the air is so thin that it’s difficult to breathe, and the sun so intense that it burns the skin almost immediately. No matter how difficult the dry land dig, however, some basic human needs exist in this environment that are simply not there underwater. The most obvious is air and gravity, but there are literally a myriad of other logistical challenges that become apparent when a team goes to plan an underwater dig.

Digging underwater has in fact, proven so difficult that most archaeologists find more reasons to avoid these sites than to dig them. When an underwater site is taken on the team will sometimes resort to extremely complex and costly ends to make it a dry site. They may, for instance, attempt to divert or drain the water from a shallow site, effectively making it a dry land dig, avoiding the challenges involved with a submerged site. Techniques like these are not cheap, and require massive amounts of time and planning so the fact that they are done in the first place tells us that if at all possible any archaeological project is best dug on on dry land. This gives us a hint as to how complex and challenging an underwater dig must be.

Why is it so difficult? Shouldn’t a team just be able to put on some scuba gear and head on down to the site? After all, the bottom of the ocean is silty and soft; shouldn’t that make it even easier to dig? In this study, I will talk about some of the less obvious problems involved in underwater archeology; the ones that people might not think of right away like physiological and mobility issues. I will start by talking about shallow water digging which is usually the simplest, then more on the more complex problems with digging deeper sites in the 100 to 500 feet deep range. I’ll then move on to the most complex challenges with underwater digs that lye in very deep water like the Titanic or the Yorktown. These sites are tens of thousands of feet deep and if it’s not amazing enough that they’ve been found in the first place, the obstacles involved in actually digging them are mind boggling. Finally, I’ll conclude by talking a little about some of the political and moral issues involved in underwater archeology and explain why it is important that these sites are responsibly dug.

In almost all cases, projects that involve digging in shallow water (15-50 feet) are the simplest. They render only slight physiological complexities and divers are usually able to stay down much longer than on deeper dives. This is, however, not to say that they aren’t without their challenges. How for instance, does an archeologist remove the silt covering the artifacts without causing the water around him to become so clouded with sediment that he can’t even see? One might think that you could just brush the silt aside and the water would carry it away but it doesn’t. Once the visibility has been ruined it can take several hours for it to settle again. Underwater archaeologists have had to invent techniques and tools that literally suck up silt, leaving behind the covered artifacts. These giant underwater vacuum cleaners are usually powered by the thrust generated by the boat’s propeller, and the silt is forced by the engine away from the site, while the artifacts are filtered out by a screen on the front of the vacuum hose. (Martin)

Of course if the site is at the bottom of a river or in an area of the ocean where there is a current, the silt is simply washed away by the moving water, but how does the team keep themselves and the artifacts from being washed away as well? I can say from my own experience that fighting against a strong current gets to be exhausting and frustrating after only a few minuets. It is important also to remember that in a current the simple action of the water moving over the sediment will kick it up and ruin the visibility without any help from the divers. When we take this into account, it is no surprise that the sites with the least visibility tend to be the ones with the most current. Archaeologists have gone so far as to build structures around a shallow site that divert the current. This technique does not actually emerge the site, but rather acts as a shield against the current much as a car’s windshield diverts the strong wind from the driver’s face. This allows for a calm area over the site where the visibility will be improved and the archaeologists won’t have to tether themselves to a solid object or swim against the current. (Martin)

Finally there is the concern of air consumption. If the water is extremely cold, a diver must plan for his dive taking in to account that his bottom time will be shorter because his body has to work harder to keep warm, thus needs more oxygen. However, even under ideal conditions, using divers with the most developed breath control, a team can’t really expect a diver to get more than about an hour out of a single 80 cubic foot tank. More tanks can be added to increase bottom time, but it is important to remember that the more tanks a diver must carry, the more difficult it is for him to move around and the more quickly he will grow tired. It is exhausting enough to work in an underwater environment where every movement is met with the resistance of water; the effect is only compounded when more gear is strapped on. It has to be expected then that a diver can only work four or five hours as day and not the eight or ten he would be able to in a dry land environment, thus the project either has to employ many more people, or it will take much longer than a conventional dig.

When it comes to SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) some unique problems begin to pop up when the diver gets to depths of much more than thirty feet and they become the primary concern at depths in excess of one hundred feet. Since very few shipwrecks lie in shallow water and the cost of diving on an extremely deep wreck is often too great, most underwater archeology in done in water in water ranging in depth from 100 to 500 feet. As any experienced scuba diver will attest to, these are the depths where the danger in scuba becomes most apparent, but they are also the depths where you will find the most interesting things, especially if you are into wrecks. So why is it more dangerous to dive on sites at these depths than those in the fifteen to thirty foot range? One might think that it would be because of the risk of equipment failure or the diver running out of air, but in reality, these are of very little concern. The real danger at these depths come from the way a diver’s body reacts to the pressure from the water above him.

The most notorious of these physiological complications is the bends or DCI (decompression illness). Most people have heard of this, but many who don’t dive don’t understand exactly what it is. Whenever a diver goes underwater, he is under the pressure of the water above him. This is why your ears hurt when you dive to the bottom of a swimming pool. At around thirty feet, the pressure is twice what it is at sea level and it grows greater as the diver descends. As the depth increases and the pressure increases each breath the diver takes consists of air that is denser because of the outside pressure. This means that at thirty feet, the diver is breathing twice as much air as he is breathing at sea level. As we know, our bodies absorb the gasses from the air we breathe into our bloodstream and since normal air is almost all nitrogen, our blood is absorbing more nitrogen than anything else. (McCallum)

Take for instance a diver at sixty feet. With each breath he is absorbing roughly three times the nitrogen of a person on the beach. This doesn’t become a problem however until there is a change in pressure. After all, everyone has a good deal of dissolved nitrogen in their blood at any given point, but we need not worry about it because we know the pressure around us is not likely to change much. With the diver, however, this is not the case. If he has been working at a site lying in 200 feet of water four twenty minuets, he’s been absorbing outrageous amounts of nitrogen into his bloodstream and if he were to suddenly decide to come to the surface, the dissolved nitrogen, like any gas in its liquid form under pressure, would turn back into its gaseous state as the pressure diminished.

As we know, having gas bubbles in our bloodstream is extremely dangerous, and in some cases it can even lead to death, so those planning underwater excavations at these depths must take great care and planning to avoid this dangerous problem. Many divers use, for instance, dive computers which will calculate how much time a diver spent at a given depth with his rate of air consumption to determine the nitrogen levels in his blood and tell him when he must come up and at what depths he must make timed decompression stops to outgas nitrogen. These computers allow divers maximum flexibility in their work because they can dive right up to their physiological limits, yielding the best bottom time. (TDI)

If the site is under water ranging in depth from sixty to one hundred feet, the team may chose to use a special gas mixture called NITROX to yield even more bottom time than can be achieved with normal air. Historically, this gas has been used by the navy and research teams, but in recent years, it has fallen into the mainstream of casual scuba. NITROX doesn’t actually introduce any unfamiliar gasses into the compressed air, but rather increases the oxygen level, replacing some of the nitrogen. This means that if a diver is breathing a 40/60 (40% oxygen and 60% nitrogen) blend, he is dissolving roughly twenty five percent less nitrogen into his bloodstream, allowing him to stay on the site longer. (C.N.P Program)

Why then don’t underwater archaeologists simply breathe pure oxygen and eliminate the nitrogen completely from the equation? The answer is that under pressure, oxygen levels in a divers blood can become too high causing the diver to convulse. As I mentioned above, the deeper a diver goes, the more actual gas he breaths, and at even a very shallow depth pure oxygen will cause blood-oxygen levels to become so great that they are toxic to the diver. NITROX, then is a very customizable gas and a team will choose the best mix for the depth of the site. If, for instance, the site is in eighty feet of water, the team might use a NITROX blend of 40% which would become toxic if the diver was to descend to eighty five, but yields the best bottom times at eighty because of the reduced nitrogen levels. The trouble with NITROX is that it is only beneficial for relatively shallow dives because you quickly reach a point of diminishing return as you go deeper. If a team needs to reach a depth below two hundred feet, even the air we are breathing now has oxygen levels that are too high and would become toxic. (C.N.P Program) How then do teams carry on projects at say three hundred feet?

The answer: use a gas called TRIMIX by partially replacing both the nitrogen and oxygen with helium. This type of diving is highly theoretical and is usually reserved only for the Navy, research teams and highly trained technical divers. However, if the financial and technical resources are available, archeological teams may sometimes use it to conduct their excavations. Since these dives usually involve very long decompression stops on the way back up, and since the gas mixtures consumed at the bottom are often so thin in oxygen that they wouldn’t even support life at sea level, it is not uncommon for as many as eight individual tanks to be used by each diver on a single dive. (TDI) This is extremely expensive and the diver’s bottom time is usually limited to only a few minuets, so the work must be conducted quickly and sometimes with haste, since a high element of danger hangs over each diver’s head. The team usually needs to have a recompression, or hyperbaric chamber on location to deal with any instances of DCI, as well as many diving teams since a single diver may only be able to make one or two.

Again, diving with TRIMIX is extremely expensive. Depending on the blend a single tank of TRIMIX can cost as much as $80, and each diver needs a separate regulator for each blend of gas he breathes. (TDI) Hyperbaric chambers often have to be leased from the government or hospitals and the staff that runs them costs in the realm of two hundred dollars per hour. Each diver is highly trained and faces a strong element of danger, so they don’t come cheap, and the team usually needs a full fledged research vessel just to carry all the gear. These dives are also extremely dangerous. DCI is not an uncommon occurrence, and since the depths they are dealing with are so great, any slight error in planning leads to disastrous consequences. It is not surprising then that only the most glamorous projects at these depths are taken on.

Even TRIMIX reaches a point of diminishing return at about six hundred feet (although at least one person has made it past one thousand breathing it). Thus, for very deep wrecks like the Yorktown, another solution must be found. Without a tremendous budget, raw determination and the latest sonar technology, Pieces of history like the Yorktown and the Titanic can’t even be found, let alone dug. Bob Ballard, above all others, has pioneered this technology, and exemplified the strong will it takes to discover wrecks at these astronomical depths. On his deepest discovery, the Yorktown, he combined a vast array of technological innovations and sheer luck to discover and make the three mile trip down to the ship’s decks. (National Geographic)

So where does an archaeologists begin to take on a project of this magnitude? Well, as it would logically follow, the first challenge is actually finding the wreck. On his search for the Yorktown, Ballard used mostly eyewitness accounts and charts from World War II to outline a one hundred square mile section of midway which he searched by using a massive research vessel to pull a navy sonar module in a criss-cross pattern. As he covered the ocean floor, he took note of anything unusual that came up on the sonar screen and charted them as possible sites of the ship. Once he had the possibilities narrowed down, he attempted to send an unmanned Navy probe into the depths to try and get a first hand look at what he thought was sure to be the Yorktown. He didn’t get his chance this time, however, since four hundred feet from the ocean floor, the probe imploded and needed serious repair. Navy technicians spent days repairing the crippled probe and it was only after the second dive that Ballard was able to confirm that what he had found was indeed the Yorktown. (National Geographic)

Needless to say, not every archeologist has access to a research vessel and cutting edge Navy sonar and submarine technology, so clearly this type of research is left to those like Ballard with the highest budgets. But the cost of a project like this only begins with finding the site. Once the wreck is found, deep diving research subs and costly camera equipment must be obtained to properly map and chart the site. If the decision is made to bring artifacts to the surface it can take years and costly chemicals to properly preserve them. For these reasons, most sites at these depths will never be explored. Tragically, there are simply not enough institutions willing to foot the bill for such expensive research.

Since we can’t have a shipwreck to explore without a wrecked ship, and since the action of a ship wrecking tends to kill people, archaeologists, have to be sensitive to the idea that in most cases these sites should be treated as graveyards. Some archaeologists like Ballard take great care not to disturb the wrecks he finds. He refuses to bring any artifacts at all to the surface and focuses instead on mapping and charting the sites. This “take only pictures, leave only bubbles” mentality shows great respect for those who have perished and their families. The archeologist is still able to discover and learn key facts about the history of the ship or the way it went down but the wreck is left intact.

All too often, however, another team will come in after the serious archaeologists have left and pillage the site. The most notorious of these cases is the Titanic where Ballard, as usual, went to great effort not to disturb the anything, only to have a French team come in later and recover artifacts so they could sell them for a profit. This kind of treasure hunting really is a tragedy, not only because it shows no respect for the people who have died, but because it causes governments to be cautious about letting anyone conduct research in their waters. Countries have had so many artifacts stolen from them in this way that they often assume any archeologist is a treasure hunter and refuse to give research permits to anyone at all.
If our base of knowledge is to continue to grow with respect to maritime history and ship construction, it is absolutely essential that archaeologists are allowed to continue exploring both the very shallow and the very deep wrecks alike. For this to happen, universities and research institutions must be willing to finance these projects, and there must be some world wide provisions put in place to eliminate the trend of treasure hunting so that countries will be able to trust this delicate research to those most qualified. Bob Ballard stands out as a shining example of a good scientist with his priorities firmly in place. He has respect for both the memories of those who died in the wreck as well as the countries who’s waters hold these fascinating sites. Anyone planning an underwater dig would do well to follow his lead.

Photos from some of my TRIMIX wreck dives >
Photos from various other TRIMIX and NITROX dives >


Martin, Dean (1995).
Archaeology underwater: The NAS guide to principles and practices
London: Archetype

McCallum, Paul (1970).
The Scuba Diving Handbook
VA: Betterway

Pearson, Cliff (1998).
Cliff’s NITROX Project (computer program)
Pearson: Pearson

Publishing Staff (1999).
National Geographic Explorer: The search for the Yorktown
Film Archive: National Geographic

Publishing Staff (1999). TDI Website.

Downing Street Memo picks up traction

Not to revisit recent topics, but I must say that I really am amazed that the mainstream press has finally started talking about the Downing Street Memo. More than two months after the memo was leaked, the so-called “liberal” media has finally gotten around to covering it, albeit not with much enthusiasm.

Not that they came to it on their own, mind you. Bloggers have bee covering it since it came out and congress has taken note with many House and Senate Republicans demanding an explanation from the White House. Democracy For America even has a petition with more than a half a million signatures calling for an independent investigation, yet somehow, up to now, the major news sources have fallen silent.

When bloggers, and the United States Congress cover a political scandal like the Downing Street Memo long before the major news sources we are supposed to be trusting for independent, objective reporting, we have to start asking ourselves about the integrity of our Nation’s media. We are living in a time when multinational conglomerates control both our politicians and our news sources. They used their money to finance the campaigns of their pocketed politicians, and their news channels to ensure the public maintains a favorable opinion of them. While voters maintain an illusion of the electoral final say, the truth is a disturbing flourish of Orwellian smoke and mirrors.

Sign the petition! >
Read the Memo! >

Skydiving at Z-Hills

Back in February my Mom and I took a trip to Orlando Florida, and while we did not see Tony Orlando, we did have a very fun time. Since we were there for an entire week, and had relatively few plans, we started looking around for fun things to do, and I began thumbing through one of those glossy advertisement amalgimations that seem to magically leap into the pockets of of unsuspecting tourists everywhere. Swamp boat tours, Disney World, a million and one places to eat, and… Wait a minuet… Skydiving!

Not really thinking my Mom would be into it, I asked her jokingly what she thought about going skydiving. I nearly had to pick my jaw up off the floor when she said that she had “always wanted to jump out of a perfectly good airplane”. Immediately I picked up the phone, called them, and asked about how we could get involved. The next day, after two hours of driving across the flat, hurricane battered fields of central Florida, we pulled into the coolest little airport village I have ever seen. A huge tenting area to the left for free camping, showers directly ahead, a skydiving pro shop to the back, and a deck with a snack bar to the right, I realized that Z-Hills is pretty much village of skydiving gypsies. And I loved it!

Now it turns out that most people decide to go on a tandem skydive for their first time. The instructors call this “slinging meat”, which is a good name for it, since it’s really just a matter of the instructor strapping you to himself and making sure he has a large enough parachute for two. The passenger is pretty much just along for the ride in a tandem, and since I’m really not much of an “along for the ride” kinda guy, I decided instead to enter into the AFF (Accelerated Free Fall) program, and sit through the 9+ hour ground school so that I could jump, more or less, by myself.

Ground school for skydivers, it turns out, is about three hours of how to make a safe skydive, and six hours of what can go wrong, during which time, I started to get a little twitchy. It really would not have been that bad, had it not been for the video depicting all the various types of chute failures that can happen. To be perfectly honest, I started feeling a bit relieved as we looked out the window at the end of ground school to see winds gusting past 14 MpH, which is the limit for student skydivers. Relieved at least until I tried to go to sleep that night. It was three days before the weather improved enough to make the jump, which to me, translated into three nights of restless sleep and cold sweats.

The morning came to make the jump, and as we drove out to the drop zone, I was resolved to jump, but still feeling nervous. I was quickly assigned an instructor who who wrote my name on the board, and helped me get my gear together. I went through some final training, geared up, and climbed into the most uncomfortable airplane I have ever been in. Not that Twin Super Otters are uncomfortable as a rule, it’s just that they get that way when you remove all the seats, and cram more than twenty sweaty skydivers into them. As we climbed to altitude, I started thinking about how I would NOT be coming down with the aircraft, and the reality of what I was doing hit me more than ever. Still I was resolved, and as I do before a big technical dive, I meditated my way through every aspect of the experience that was to come.

My instructor indicated that we were getting close to our jump altitude, and I donned my helmut and goggles. We made our way up to the open door and I was suddenly faced with the moment of truth and a lot of wind. As instructed, I rocked back and fourth two times, and on the third rock, we exited the safety of that miserable airplane.

I had now jumped from a large airplane and was playing chicken with a small planet. All I could think of was how much I hoped my chute would open cleanly and that I would not have to go to my reserve as the poor people in those terrifying videos had. From what I have been told, studies have shown that a skydiver’s heart rate goes through the roof just before jumping, then drops a bit, and goes back through the roof again when it’s time to pull. I have no idea what my heart rate was doing through the jump, but I do know that it settled down quite a lot after I pulled and felt my chute open!

The rest of the skydive was much more interesting that I had thought it would be. Flying the canopy was a lot of fun, and getting into the landing pattern was an interesting challenge. Overall, however, the approach and landing went well, and I while I did not “stand it up”, I was quite happy to be back on the ground.

That night I learned just how much fun Z-Hills can be! Since I had passed my AFF level 1 jump, I was traditionally obligated to buy a case of beer at the dropzone bar for everyone to share, and we drank it around one of the biggest bonfire I’ve seen. I have six more jumps to make before I’m cleared for solo jumping. Then some coaching and a some logged solo jumps should get me my “A” license. The plan, as it stands, it to head back next winter and get as far as I can towards my license. I can’t think of a better way to spend a week in Florida.

More skydiving photos >
Skydiving Video >
Z-Hills and Skydive City >

What’s up with the new CMS?

There are quite a few reasons I decided to move away from PhPNuke, but the biggest of the all was the fact that it is simply FULL of security holes. Day after day I read about SQL injection vulnerabilities that would allow a user to gain administrative access to the site, and go at it with a hatchet. I was simply tired of always worrying that someone would hack my site and leave me with a big headache.

I was also getting increasingly frustrated by the fact that PhPNuke never supported pingbacks, trackbacks, or xmlrpc. I read something months ago about someone developing trackbacks for PhPNuke, but it would seem he went the way of Jimmy Hoffa, and nobody ever heard from him again. As time went on, it was becoming more and more clear that PhPNuke needed to be abandoned for a better product, and the only question that remained was which product to chose.

I’ve always liked Mambo, but while it is much more secure than PhPNuke, it still lacks pingbacks, trackbacks and xmlrpc. Drupal is a very nice product that does everything I wanted it to do and more. There is even a script that will migrate all the users and data from PhPNuke into Drupal, but in the end, I was just not happy with the look and feel of the site under Drupal.

Casey over at had recently moved his site from P Machine to Word Press, so once I confirmed that it had Gallery2 Integration I decided to take a look to see what he liked so much about it. He had written a really cool statistics plugin called bstats, and overall the CSM presented things very cleanly. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the software. It does everything I want it to, and it’s quite nice to have the option of managing my stories through xmlrpc with Ecto.

Casey Bisson’s bstats plugin > 
Word Press Gallery2 integration >


Howard Dean Speaks for me!

I’m getting a little sick and tired of hearing supposed Democrats wine and complain about how Howard Dean in not speaking for them. Dean mentions that Republicans are mostly a “White, Christian” party; a statement that is entirely backed up by scientific data, and these cowards get scared and start knifing him in the back again.

Maybe it’s true. These fair weather Democrats have clearly bought into the Republican lies and rhetoric, and are now feeling guilty about their own political party and convictions. In that case, Howard Dean, a person who is willing to stand up for his beliefs and the values of his party, is most certainly not speaking for them, or anyone else who lacks the backbone to speak out against those in power.

I have a message for these wavering politicians. Howard Dean speaks for me, and he speaks for a lot of other people that would still be cynical and uninterested in government had it not been for his empowering message! Not only is he the first politician I have ever campaigned for, he is also the first political candidate to whom I’ve made a campaign contribution. If the Democratic party is to form a cohesive unit with a single, powerful message, we need Howard Dean at the helm.

So join me in demanding that these “Democrats” stop knifing the leader of our party in the back. By doing this, they are not only weakening their own credibility, they are destroying our chances of taking our country back from the Neo-Conservitive radicals in power.

Sign the “Howard Dean Speaks for me petition > 
Cheney’s runs his mouth again >