Existential Threats

[The following is slightly adapted from a comment written for a Facebook post, based on this article about President Obama’s December 6, 2015 speech, which for some reason Facebook would not allow me to post. Possibly because, at nearly 3,500 words, it’s too long. What can I say? I felt inspired. The comment that inspired me basically expressed doubt that Obama has put as much thought into “ISIS and the implications of radical Islam” as the article’s author thinks. I have adjusted some formatting and added some links.]

You may be right about Obama not thinking through the full implications of radical Islam, but the exact same can be said for people on the right who posit radical Islam as a threat to “Western civilization” (a fluid and undefined term if ever there was one) on a par with German fascism or Soviet communism. Lest this seem like a tu quoque argument, I’ll even concede that Obama might underestimate the short-term threat posed by radical Islamism, but only because I believe the proponents of the radical-Islamism-as-mortal-threat viewpoint drastically overstate its dangers—furthermore, by arguing for such an aggressive stance against it, they paradoxically serve its aims. Continue reading


Europe’s Forgotten Bunkers

Sometimes the temptation of clickbait-y headlines is too much to resist, but sometimes it leads you to something fascinating*. This was the case with a ViralNova post enticingly entitled “They Stumbled Across This In The Woods… Beneath It Was A Terrifyingly Awesome Secret,” which begins with “Deep in the woods in the middle of northern Germany…”

This piqued my interest for at least three reasons:

  1. Obscure history from World War II and the Cold War are a hobby of mine (and it seems safe to assume that any “terrifyingly awesome secret” found in a German forest dates to that period in history.)
  2. I find the idea of long-lost underground structures fascinating, albeit usually in a tragic way—like the abandoned tunnels in Ghostbusters 2, or the slightly-less-fictional “mole people” (not a very nice term) of Las Vegas, New York, etc.
  3. We’ve been watching the Sundance series Deutschland 83, which just had its season finale.

Deutschland 83 deserves its own post, but to summarize: It is about a young East German soldier sent to spy on West Germany by posing as the newly-assigned aide to a general in the West German Army. I haven’t seen much of the show The Americans, but I suspect they share some thematic similarities. As the title indicates, Deutschland 83 is set in 1983, the year we came closest to nuclear annihilation since the Cuban Missile Crisis 21 years earlier.

Getting back to the ViralNova post, it sets up the story as follows: Continue reading


The Charleston Conspiracy (Theory)

At the South Carolina National Security Action Summit, an attendee apparently stated that the Obama administration recently tried to detonate a nuclear weapon in Charleston, South Carolina (h/t Jason). The attempted nuking of Charleston is a delusional fantasy, but it’s terrifying to me that the public statement made by this person is something that actually happened.

By Khanrak (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The woman included this in a question to Rick Santorum, who didn’t do much of anything to correct her on the issue*. It turns out that the Charleston thing has been making the round long enough to have its own Snopes page, which declares it to be false. Dave Weigel also wrote about what happened (h/t Steve Benen): Continue reading


Today in History: The Day the Earth Didn’t Catch Fire

The world might have descended into nuclear catastrophe thirty-one years ago today, September 26, 1983, had someone other than Stanislav Petrov been in charge of the Soviet early-warning system at a key moment. Via BillMoyers.com:

On this date in 1983, a Soviet lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer in the command center for the USSR’s early warning system when Russian satellites twice detected the launch of five ICBMs from the US. Had Petrov followed protocol and reported the “attack,” Moscow might have retaliated, bringing about a global nuclear war. But he didn’t trust the newly-installed system, and doubted a nuclear strike would begin with only handful of missiles. So, without any additional information, Petrov decided it was a false alarm and kept it to himself. The incident came to light after the fall of the USSR.

This was only three weeks after a Soviet plan shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, so there was already some tension.

Via Wikipedia:

Had Petrov reported incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched an assault against the United States, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. Petrov declared the system’s indication a false alarm. Later, it was apparent that he was right: no missiles were approaching and the computer detection system was malfunctioning. It was subsequently determined that the false alarm had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite. Continue reading


Mandela and Marxism

South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsLast week, we learned of the passing of Nelson Mandela, who may rank closest to a true hero that the human race has had in living memory. Alas, we also endured a litany of complaints from those for whom any association with the communism of the 1950 and 60’s is enough to taint a person forever.

This post at Booman Tribune captures the problem of applying our Western, especially our American, perspective to Mandela’s struggle. BooMan first offers Mandela’s own words, from his famous “I am prepared to die” speech delivered from the dock on April 20, 1964:

It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences, amongst those fighting against oppression, is a luxury which cannot be afforded. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and as their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society. Because of this, there are many Africans who today tend to equate freedom with communism. They are supported in this belief by a legislature which brands all exponents of democratic government and African freedom as communists and bannned many of them, who are not communists, under the Suppression of Communism Act. Although My Lord I am not a communist and I have never been a member of the Communist Party, I myself have been banned, have been named under that pernicious Act because of the role I played in the Defiance Campaign. I have also been banned and convicted under that Act.

It is not only in internal politics that we count communists as amongst those who support our cause. In the international field, communist countries have always come to our aid. In the United Nations and other Councils of the world the communist bloc has supported the Afro-Asian struggle against colonialism and often seems to be more sympathetic to our plight than some of the Western powers. Although there is a universal condemnation of apartheid, the communist bloc speaks out against it with a louder voice than most of the western world. In these circumstances, it would take a brash young politician, such as I was in 1949, to proclaim that the Communists are our enemies.

*** Continue reading


Fun SciFi Trivia: 2001 Originally Had Nukes in Space

MatchCutRemember the early scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the newly-smartened proto-hominid beats the leader of the competing pack to death with a bone, throws the bone up in the air, and the bone turns into a spaceship? Did you know that spaceship was originally supposed to be an orbiting nuclear weapons platform?

I just though that was an interesting bit of trivia. The film originally set up a continued nuclear stalemate between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the first spaceship we see was meant to be a missile launcher. At the end, when Dave Bowman appears above Earth as the Starchild, he was going to detonate all the nukes in orbit, which I guess was meant to bring Peace on Earth. Or a massive EMP returning Earth to the Stone Age. One of those, probably.

Anyway, Stanley Kubrick’s most recent film at the time was 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, so he was kind of over telling Cold War nuke stories. As Wikipedia says:

Another holdover of discarded plot ideas is with regard to the famous match-cut from prehistoric bone-weapon to orbiting satellite, followed sequentially by views of three more satellites. At first, Kubrick planned to have a narrator state explicitly that these were armed nuclear weapon platforms while speaking of a nuclear stalemate between the superpowers.[60]

This would have foreshadowed the now-discarded conclusion of the film showing the Star Child’s detonating all of them.[61] Piers Bizony, in his book 2001 Filming The Future, stated that after ordering designs for orbiting nuclear weapon platforms, Kubrick became convinced to avoid too many associations with Dr. Strangelove, and he decided not to make it so obvious that they were “war machines”.[62]

Alexander Walker, in a book he wrote with Kubrick’s assistance and authorization, described the bone as “transformed into a spacecraft of the year A.D. 2001 as it orbits in the blackness around Earth”, and he stated that Kubrick eliminated from his film the theme of a nuclear stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union, each with a globe-orbiting nuclear weapons. Kubrick now thought this had “no place at all in the film’s thematic development”, with the bombs now becoming an “orbiting red herring”. Walker further noted that some filmgoers in 1968-69 would know that an agreement had been reached in 1967 between the powers not to put any nuclear weapons into outer space, and that if the film suggested otherwise, it would “merely have raised irrelevant questions to suggest this as a reality of the twenty-first century”.[63]

In the Canadian TV documentary 2001 and Beyond, Dr. Clarke stated that not only was the military purpose of the satellites “not spelled out in the film, there is no need for it to be”, repeating later in this documentary that “Stanley didn’t want to have anything to do with bombs after Dr. Strangelove”.[64] Continue reading


The crazy things we’ve done

Starfish5Monday was the fiftieth anniversary of Starfish Prime, a high-altitude nuclear test the U.S. conducted over the Pacific Ocean. Via Phil Plait, a/k/a Bad Astronomer:

On July 9, 1962, the US launched a Thor missile from Johnston island, an atoll about 1500 kilometers (900 miles) southwest of Hawaii. The missile arced up to a height of over 1100 km (660 miles), then came back down. At the preprogrammed height of 400 km (240 miles), just seconds after 09:00 UTC, the 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead detonated.

And all hell broke loose.

It pretty much looks like what you would expect a nuclear explosion in low-earth orbit would look like. Nuclear explosions release huge amounts of radiation, obviously, plus electrons and heavy ions. The electrons basically crashed into the molecules of the atmosphere and created an aurora visible for thousands of miles. Then it got crazier: Continue reading