Monday, December 30, 2013

Einstein's Eidolons: Vacation Dilemmas

First choice: reading about the end of the world

Vacation presents unique opportunities and challenges centered around the need to make choices between activities as diverse as extended bicycle rides, house cleaning, and catching up on reading about nuclear war. Grabbing a soft teddy to offer some comfort, I dove into "Command and Control" by Eric Schlosser. This book hit me like a megton of bricks. It's incredible. 

Not only would I agree that it deserves all the positive reviews it has received, but I would rank it as one of the best. It's possible I feel that way largely because the timeline covered by the book is almost exactly my own, and that it's a subject that has fascinated and horrified me since about the time I was able to duck and cover. 

In addition to those personal factors, though, the book is extremely well-written and researched. Schlosser uses the Titan II missile explosion at Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18, 1980 to power through a history of nuclear weapons safety. It reads more as an action-packed page-turner, rather than a history of political infighting and technical glitches and missteps that have repeatedly pushed us to the brink of ultimate disaster, but it also presents a cold and necessary portrait of the 17,000 or so nuclear devices which currently live in our world: while none (that we know of) has detonated accidentally or at the hands of a madman (a fact which seems almost inexplicable after reading the book), past performance is no guarantee of future results. 

Given that actual security locks (PALs and strong-weak links) on all American nukes is a relatively recent event, and when you learn that the code to unlock all the missiles for launch was 00000000, and when you think about Cold War Europe with soldiers near the front armed with Davy Crockett M-28 nuclear devices, and review the long list of accidents/fires/explosions, the bike riding option, the one in which you get to spend time outdoors enjoying the warm sunshine under clear blue skies feeling alive while it lasts, sounds pretty good.

An earlier book that had a great influence on nuclear me

At some point between Nixon resigning and Reagan reluctantly leaving office, we collectively decided that civil defense in preparation for nuclear war is a crock. We stopped storing tins of saltines and dried beef in basements of public buildings along with Geiger counters and shovels; we slowly and without much fanfare took down the yellow and black fallout shelter signs that used to adorn back stairwells and alleyways. Reagan proposed a $4 billion CD plan in 1982 to evacuate the residents of major cities to rural shelters, but by that time, the concept of decamping to the countryside while the hydrogen bombs rained down was wearing thin.

The end of the Cold War certainly hastened the end of CD-thought. Culturally, I would date the acceleration of the demise of CD-thinking to between the movies "WarGames" (5/7/1983) and "The Day After" (11/20/1983). The first one cemented in the concept that we (and it is us, no one else to blame, right?) could destroy humanity due to a bumbling series of unfortunate events, while the latter burned in the imagery of multiple white exhaust plumes of ICBMs growing like columns out of the prairie as the first and only sign that everything, and everyone, would be wiped out within four to six hours. 

The anti-CD development ran counter to my Boy Scout upbringing, which firmly engrained in me that to Be Prepared was a great virtue, that through dint of learning, practice, pluck, preparation, discipline, and the right tools, by golly you can make it through anything. Eventually, though, we came to recognize that between the massive gigatonnage overkill, the gamma rays, EMP and radioactive fallout, to the Nuclear Winter, and all the anti-human effects which would occur between and after those, the tins of saltines and shovels wouldn't help much.

To update the reality of nuclear holocaust to the present age for a new generation: not only will Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, etc cease to exist, but even the smart phones will go dark, as the networks to support them will black out, at the same time that there won't be anyone else left to text, anyway. This is a clear and undeniable symptom that the weapons won: our destruction in the event of nuclear conflict is assured, and that assurance may be the single factor deterring it.

Speaking of deterrence, I am receiving a text about cleaning the house. It's currently about 65F and sunny in Phoenix. Who's up for a bike ride? All personnel considered essential.

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