Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Homeland Security Committee Should Hold Hearings on Cyber-Nuclear Threat

I have been reading a very good book: Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons by Herbert Lin (Stanford, 2021).

It is filled with good stuff. 

Lin's conclusions, however, reflect a big mistake, in my opinion. As I read section Chapter 6, "Designing the Cyber-Nuclear Future: Observations and Imperatives," I thought, "This is exactly how a determined problem-solver goes at it: call out the main features, and take your best shot at limiting the possible damage associated with each." But something was nagging at me. This reminded me of something, a warning I had once heard about entrusting problems to people who assumed there was a solution.

Then I remembered: it reminded me of the testimony by Richard Feyman before the commission investigating the Challenger Disaster. This testimony has been described at length by Edward Tufte in his book, Visual Explanations. The thrust of that testimony, as I recall it, was that the colossal failure of the Challenger launch was because everyone who was looking at the conditions at the time was doing so from inside the paradigm of problem identification and mitigation, rather than willingness to acknowledge the possibility of total breakdown.

Herbert Lin has exhaustively documented the ways in which cyber threats probably make it impossible for nuclear weapons to continue to be exist without, sooner or later, a colossal failure. The question is: who has the authority to step outside the existing paradigm and deal with the consequences of this unfixable system? (To use the words of Tufte, to do the proper risk analysis -- from the outside in -- rather than "pitching" -- from the inside out.)

Richard Feynman before the commission into
the Challenger disaster
: "For a successful
technology, reality must take precedence over
public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."


Cyber threats to the nuclear weapons complex call for Homeland Security committee investigation. Imagine Congressional hearings on this -- perhaps not from the standpoint of the military (Armed Services) or diplomacy (Foreign Affairs), but from that of Homeland Security.

More resources on cyber and nuclear.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Why Do Nuclear Weapons Matter to Chicago?

The moment you visualize the effects of it on an actual place (that is real to you) -- as an actual eventuality that is really possible -- the topic of nuclear weapons becomes completely different.

For those who live in my former hometown, it's startling to realize that a metropolitan area like Chicago could be wiped out by a nuclear weapon.

The most-read post on this blog in the past three years -- far and away -- has been:
What Would a Nuclear Weapon Do to Chicago? (Go ahead, guess . . . )

One possible reason is pending Chicago City Council Resolution R2021-920 -- "Call for United States government to cease spending federal tax dollars on nuclear weapons, embrace United Nations Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and make global nuclear disarmament main focus of national security policy."

Similar resolutions have been passed in Skokie and Evanston.

In the days ahead, I'll be adding more materials to supplement the material originally provided in that post.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Coming Soon to the Great Lakes Region . . .

The Great Lakes from space

The topic of climate migration is very much on my mind. What might this portend for the Great Lakes region?

Here are a few of the posts from the past that have set my thinking in motion:

NJ Sense and Wising Up to the Climate Crisis

NYC + H2O = Uh-oh!

California and Climate Crisis: The End?

Climate: We All Need to Be Futurists Now

. . . as well as many more posts on the climate crisis. 

Additional resources

"Responding to Climate Change in Great Lakes Cities" by Angela Larsen, Alliance for the Great Lakes

"These will be the best places to live in America in 2100 A.D." by Peter Hess in Popular Science

"Here’s The Best Place To Move If You’re Worried About Climate Change" by Maggie Koerth onFiveThirtyEight

"Want to Escape Global Warming? These Cities Promise Cool Relief" by Kendra Pierre-Louis in The New York Times

"Every Place Has Its Own Climate Risk. What Is It Where You Live?" by Stuart A. Thompson and Yaryna Serkez in The New York Times

Human Flow -- a film by Ai Weiwei

Sunday, July 5, 2020

On Moving Mountains

Silent March against Racism in Bayfield, Wisconsin, July 4, 2020

Yesterday morning -- the Fourth of July -- we participated in an important event in Bayfield, Wisconsin, the mainland community closest to Madeline Island. It was a Silent March against Racism organized with the help of area churches and members of the Red Cliff band of Ojibwe.

In the evening, we watched the great 1983 film, Born in Flames. The film imagines the possibilities for a small band of activists who are determined to change the world. 

In the film, there was a 3 second snippet of a song I recognized from my teenage years. "That's Hendrix!" I said to Rachel.

The Hendrix song was "Voodoo Chile" - a song I used to hear every morning as I listened to Jimi Hendrix' album, Hendrix in the West. Here are the lyrics:

Well, I stand up next to a mountain
And I chop it down with the edge of my hand
Well, I stand up next to a mountain
Chop it down with the edge of my hand
Well, I pick up all the pieces and make an island
Might even raise just a little sand
'Cause I'm a voodoo child
Lord knows I'm a voodoo child

I didn't mean to take you up all your sweet time
I'll give it right back to you one of these days
I said, I didn't mean to take you up all your sweet time
I'll give it right back to you one of these days
And if I don't meet you no more in this world
Then I'll, I'll meet you in the next one
And don't be late, don't be late
'Cause I'm a voodoo child
Lord knows I'm a voodoo child
I'm a voodoo child

(Lyrics by Jimi Hendrix © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, source LyricFind)

Hendrix in the West

When I was 13, I found the lyrics of "Voodoo Chile" very mysterious. (Particularly in comparison to the words of "Red House" -- "There's a red house over yonder, that's where my baby stays . . . ." -- or "Lover Man" -- "Here he comes, baby, here comes your lover man.")

But something clicked yesterday hearing the words "I stand up next to a mountain, chop it down with the edge of my hand" in the context of the day -- the Bayfield march (where we saw people committed to anti-racism stream into the lakeside park from all directions) and of Born in Flames (a film about committed revolutionaries). I suddenly thought of a passage from Matthew (17:20) that we had been reading a few weeks ago, in which Jesus says:

"For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

When we reached that passage in our Bible study group, one of the participants called our attention specially to these words. She said that statement felt more true to her than a hundred other pious pronouncements of the Church.

"I stand up next to a mountain, chop it down with the edge of my hand."


 Videos of July 4 march in Bayfield here and here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Commonplace Book April 28, 2020: Helmet Crests

A few nights ago I watched Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera on Kanopy.

A detail that caught my eye: the footage of firemen wearing their crested helmets:

It made me think of this TIME magazine cover featuring Dmitri Shostakovich (suggesting his heroic role rallying the country both as both composer and firefighter):

It made me wonder about the function of the thing on top. (I figured out it's referred to as a "crest.")

I started to poke around and discovered that it's a common feature of firefighters' helmets. Does it serve a purpose, or is it just decorative?

I found a page with lots of images of Greek warriors with crests on their helmets, e.g.

The impression I get is that the crest is intended to cow opponents.

This morning*, I remembered that my sister had dubbed a cardinal that visited her yard "Menelaus." Cardinals do look like helmeted warriors! (*perhaps because yesterday we spotted a male cardinal in our yard - not that common up here in northern Wisconsin!)

As I am writing this, I am remembering the costumes in the original Fahrenheit 451 film, the helmets of which included just the hint of a crest:

(That's Oskar Werner in the role of "fireman" Guy Montag. A long way from Jules and Jim* !)

   * LOL ...  I'm referring, of course, to the film ... though I was probably also thinking of the pair of hummingbirds my sister called by those names! :-)

Saturday, April 4, 2020

A Tufte-esque Approach to De-Mystifying the INF and Its Locus in "Mittleuropa"

Napoleon's Russia campaign, 1812-1813

The image above is, perhaps, the iconic example of the thinking of Edward Tufte. It stands for the proposition: you can use graphics to help people greatly increase their perception of what is going on with a numerically dynamic situation -- the key is to use the plane of the paper to capture the interaction of multiple dimensions simultaneously.

This image illustrates four dimensions together: the size of Napoleon's army as he marched toward (and then away from) Moscow during the War of 1812, the location of the army, the time, and the weather conditions. One can instantly get the picture: an overwhelming force, heading off to fight in Russia, full of confidence and bravado, only to find itself retreating as it is annihilated little by little by cold and hunger and disease. (More about this image on Edward Tufte's website.)

Tufte says, in essence, that we remember to make the fullest possible use of our visual and spatial intelligence. Sure, text and stories are useful; but how about drawing me a picture? (To me, the position Tufte advocates resonates strongly with Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.)

I've been thinking about this particular image for a long time, since I first encountered it when I was in college in the late 1970s. Then, recently, several elements presented themselves to me.

The first is a chart of the pace of nuclear disarmament, showing the advance toward a peak US nuclear weapons arsenal in the 1960s and then progress -- in fits and starts -- in reducing that arsenal:

The American Nuclear Stockpile
Click to view full size on The New York Times website.

The second has been the increased attention that I have begun to give to NATO and the idea of Central Europe as the front line of nuclear confrontation. I read several books by Timothy Snyder, and realized that the bone of contention is an area of land that lies between Germany in the west and Russia and the east -- a place about which most people in the US have only the vaguest notion.

Since I first visited Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna in 1990, I have been fascinated by a sort of terra incognita that lies between the known West (France, England) and the Other in the East (Russia, China) -- a zone that is at once vaguely charming and vaguely menacing. I suppose I should get serious about understanding it; but there is also something appealing about letting it remain mysterious -- a Mittleuropa whose reality and destiny we can leave to someone else to worry about.

I had my "Tufte moment" when I read about a visit by Senator Sam Nunn in 1973 to meet with NATO commanders in Europe. Nunn was stunned to learn that the military assumed that they would use nuclear weapons if there were a fight in Europe. They had scoped out the geography (the chokepoint is a place called the Fulda Gap) and they had run the numbers (150,000 NATO troops vs. 450,000 from Warsaw Pact countries). "The invasion route would put the Warsaw Pact forces quickly within striking distance of Frankfurt and several large American military bases." (Philip Taubman, The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb, p. 198 ff.).

It seems to me that there needs to be an infographic -- analogous to the one of Napoleon's army - that conveys the state of affairs in Central Europe, and how it is controlling our destinies. Perhaps an ingredient that would be helpful would be the events of the 1980s centering on the deployment of Pershing II and SS-20 missiles (see Taubman, p. 230).

An infographic illuminating the historic nuclear confrontation in the center of Europe - this would be a timely inquiry. The US has pulled out of something called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Most people -- including myself -- struggle to understand what's really at stake.

Maybe it's time for someone to draw us a picture.


I was stimulated to finally post this note because I had to look up an unfamiliar word -- anabasis -- used by my son in describing the film, Apocalypto. "Anabasis" means both a military advance and a a difficult and dangerous military retreat, and the graphic that Tufte touted came to mind.

By the way, proponents of greater attention to another one of our multiple intelligences -- musical intelligence -- might note that the graphic about the War of 1812 is mightily complemented by one of the great works in our classical music canon: Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." But that is a blog post for another day . . . .

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Age of COVID: Are public perceptions changing?

What a difference a day makes.

One day the problem seems very distant. "It couldn't possibly have anything to do with me."

Then the next day everything has changed, and you see the situation with utter clarity.

I think, for myself, of the difference between Friday, March 6, and Saturday, March 7.

We don't like to contemplate that there can be massive breakdown in the fabric of our lives. Public health experts and scientists have been warning loud and clear about what we face (in terms of infectious disease, in terms of climate, in terms of nuclear weapons) -- and yet we just can't seem to bring ourselves to prepare, and to change our risky behaviors. And then suddenly -- when we come right up to the brink of dying -- we realize, "Oh! I guess I am willing to make the effort. I guess it really is possible to behave differently. We can do this!"

Add your thoughts to these Twitter threads:

Will #COVID19 open people's eyes to other #publichealth threats like #ClimateCrisis and #Nuclear #War?

Now that people are interested in the #fifthrisk, I hope they'll connect the dots to numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. #nuclear weapons

Related posts:

RISK: We Are Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad at Talking About the One That Matters Most

What's YOUR "appetite for risk"? (Eliminate nuclear weapons NOW!)