The Casual Blog

Tag: nuclear weapons

My new crown, and notes on health and violence

 

New construction on Hillsborough Street

This week I bit the bullet and went to the dentist to get a crown on my bottom left molar (tooth number 18).  The filling in that tooth was worn out and starting to crack, and a replacement was needed. The procedure involved a lot of drilling.  The anesthetic worked, and the drilling wasn’t painful, but the noise, the burning smell, and the uncertainty were not pleasant. But it’s good to have operational teeth, and I am  grateful for modern dentistry.  

I took my first yoga class in many moons last Tuesday morning.  I’ve been working out at the gym most mornings, but yoga fell out of my routine after a teacher I’d liked left.  Returning to Blue Lotus, just across the street from our building, I was reminded vinyasa is harder than it looks, but also more calming than it looks.  It’s good to contract and stretch, to move in sync with others, and to be reminded to breath deeply.

I suppose we could spend too much time on our bodily health, but for most of us, that risk is theoretical; we usually err in the other direction.   At times our bodies seem so solid, and at times so fragile.

There was a fascinating, though also gut wrenching, piece in the NY Times this week about the effects of an assault rifle shooting into a human body.  Guns like the AR-15 propel bullets at two or three times the speed of a handgun, and so unleash exponentially greater energy.  Five trauma surgeons described the gruesome effects of such bullets. They make a small entry wound, then tumble, exploding bones and causing widespread tissue and organ damage, and then tear a large exit wound.  One surgeon noted that seeing a victim of such a shooting is traumatizing for bystanders.

Kudos to the high school students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and elsewhere who have been making themselves heard on the  subject of assault weapons and other guns.  A lot of us who think the lack of reasonable gun laws is very bad policy have gotten discouraged and wondered if we’ll ever get anything positive done. These students are righteously angry, and they are hard to ignore.  They may be changing the terms of the debate.

Now if we could just get some of that energy focused on addressing the risks of thermonuclear weapons.  While assault weapons on public streets are very dangerous, the destructive potential of the world’s nuclear stockpiles, including the US’s, is incomparably worse.  Apropos, recently there was a short interview with Daniel Ellsberg, who worked as a nuclear strategist in the 1960s.  In Ellsberg’s view, only amazing luck accounts for our not already having had a nuclear apocalypse.

I started reading Ellsberg’s recent book, The Doomsday Machine, in which he recounts learning that in the early 60s, US war planners expected in case of any nuclear war to kill several hundred million people.  We know now that they underestimated, and that the blasts, fires, pulses, fallout, and famine from nuclear winter could well mean the extinction of all humans, not to mention many other life forms.

There are serious voices trying to get this issue on the table, though they get little play in US mainstream media.  A few weeks ago, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists put the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight   signalling the closest we’ve been to disaster since 1953 and the height of the cold war.   Last year 122 nations in the United Nations voted in favor a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.  This year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.   

This essay by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is well worth reading.  It explains that we need to de-escalate international conflicts and enter into nuclear control diplomacy. As the Scientists note, humans created this problem, and they can solve it.  

Rising like the phoenix from the ashes — new construction viewed from Casa Tiller

 

Our nukes problem

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We live in a time of bad ideas. Not just a few bad ideas, but many, with major consequences, all around us. I used to think that the worst widely accepted and destructive ideas were mostly in the past, or at least had almost passed – the Inquisition, alchemy, witchcraft, fascism, Communism, anti-Communism, etc. I thought we had gradually gotten less likely to be swept up in a tide of confusion, fear, and hysteria. But I no longer think that.

As a passionate amateur of science, I’ve read a lot about the amazing power of the human brain, with its many billions of neurons and incredible complexity. And the human brain is a remarkable thing. But let’s not kid ourselves. All of us, including the very smartest, are full of biases, unfounded assumptions, and prejudices. Our powers of reasoning are frequently misdirected by logical fallacies and overwhelmed by our basic urges. We are prone to making poor decisions.
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But this doesn’t come close to explaining our worst ideas. Here’s a major example: holding the entire world hostage to nuclear weapons. This week the NY Times reported that the U.S. would not declare a policy of no first use, meaning that it claims the prerogative to unleash the almost unimaginable force of our nuclear arsenal without being attacked first.
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I seriously doubt that we (excepting Donald Trump) would do this intentionally. But nuclear mistakes can happen – they have happened before, with nearly disastrous consequences. See Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser. For now, it looks like we’ll continue to maintain our arsenal at the ready to obliterate entire populations, with a nuclear winter to follow that would destroy many or all of the rest of us. Thus we continue to face the risk each day that a computer glitch, mechanical malfunction, or human misjudgment could start a catastrophic chain reaction.

This is a dire situation. You might think that even if people were not so prone as they are to being easily panicked, they would still be terrified. Unlike many of low probability events we greatly and pointlessly fear (shark attacks, random terrorists, men in women’s restrooms ), this risk is truly existential. Yet amazingly we somehow mostly ignore it.
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To some extent it has surfaced recently because of North Korea’s recent nuclear tests and missile tests. It is, of course, frightening to think that the bizarre dictator of that unfortunate country might target us or our friends with nuclear missiles, or use them to threaten and extort. And I hope we can find a way to stop the North Korean program.

But it’s hard to hold the moral high ground against the unlovely Kim Jong-Un, when our government, the only one ever to use nuclear weapons, continues to maintain on hair-trigger alert an arsenal big enough to destroy the planet and claim the right to wreak mass destruction at will. We ourselves pose an enormous threat, to the rest of the world and to ourselves.
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I was surprised that President Obama decided not to embrace no first use , because he clearly understands the nuclear peril and has spoken passionately about reducing it. Perhaps he felt constrained by military leaders and the other stakeholders in the status quo, like the arms manufacturers and their politicians. At any rate, maintaining the nuclear hair-trigger that could so easily destroy the world is not acceptable. We’ve got to de-escalate.

For me, when I am shaken by the nuclear risk or other bad ideas, it is both calming and motivating to do some hiking and focus on the fragile beauty of the natural world. Nature is such a great artist of life. There are so many tiny, beautiful things flying, crawling, growing. May they live in peace. Let us work for life and peace.
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Summer flowers, good Indian food, soccer, Chomsky, and a nuclear question

Tiller7Bug 1-2Saturday morning I went over to Durham to see what was blooming in Duke Gardens. It seemed like summer had arrived. The forest was really lush, and the birds were singing, but the riot of colorful spring flowers had passed. There were some swelling roses and irises, and lovely magnolias. I was hoping for butterflies, but saw only one, a buckeye, who declined to pose for a picture. As usual, walking through these beautiful gardens was calming and inspiring.
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That evening we tried a new south Indian vegetarian restaurant in Morrisville, Sai Krishna Bhavan. My colleague from the subcontinent recommended it as one of the best in the area, and we concurred. We had somosas, a rava masala (potato) dosa, and paneer tikka masala curry. We’d been forewarned that the food tended to be quite spicy, so we asked for a mild approach, and that worked well for us.
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We went from there to see the Railhawks play the Jacksonville Armada (soccer). The start of the game was delayed because of the threat of a thunderstorm, but we passed the time happily chatting with friends. Eventually, the Railhawks played, with moments of brilliance and moments of sheer ineptitude. The final score was 0-0, though it could easily have been 3-0, or maybe 0-3.
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We watched a documentary on Netflix, Requiem for the American Dream. It was centered around an interview with Noam Chomsky, a lefty intellectual I’ve long admired for his scholarship, courage, and honesty. In this film he addresses wealth inequality and related issues, including how government advantages the rich over the not rich. Chomsky, now 87, seems as lucid as ever.
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This week Hillary Clinton let loose a stinging attack on Donald Trump, and landed some body blows. She had some fun pointing up his more bizarre ideas, and posited that he is temperamentally unfit to have his finger on the trigger of the largest nuclear arsenal on earth.

I certainly agree, and would even agree that the thought of HC holding the nuclear football is not as alarming as DT. But here’s the thing: there’s no human temperamentally fit to wield nuclear super powers. We’re all prone to intense anger, fear, and other strong emotions that overwhelm our ability to think clearly. Every one of us has unknown biases, unfounded assumptions, and unsuspected blind-spots. Even leaving all that aside and assuming we’re able to be completely rational, our decisions can go awry because of misinformation or lack of data.

There are none of us that can be relied on with absolute certainty to make the right decision in an existential emergency. That’s one of the reasons we need to focus on reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear stockpiles. As long as humans hold the power to unleash a catastrophic nuclear war, we are in dire peril.

I realize this is not particularly pleasant to think about. But there are uncomfortable realities of life that we have no choice but to eventually address, and this one needs to go at or near the top of the list. Of this I’m sure: we need to get over whatever is holding us back from moving forward in this discussion – maybe some combination of complacency and hopelessness. The first step is to recognize that the risks of nuclear miscalculations or accidents are real and unacceptable, and we don’t have to just accept them.
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A big spin, an op ed on free speech, Korean death fans, the unbelievable Donald, and what to say about Hiroshima

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Work bled over into Saturday, so I didn’t get outside for a photo-walk (these photos are from last week), but I did do an early spin class at Flywheel.All of my previous Flywheel spins there were 45 minutes, but this one was a full hour. I had some concerns that that extra quarter-hour could cause problems (such as woofing, or death), but I survived. Final score: 398. Finishing position: number one. Endorphins: plenty.

This week the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer published the op ed piece I co-authored with Michael Gerhardt about HB2 and the First Amendment. The thesis was that legislators who threaten retaliation for those who speak out against the transgender bathroom bill are chilling free speech guaranteed by the Constitution, and that should not be tolerated.

After I’d noticed the issue and decided it was serious, I reached out to Michael, a UNC Law professor and constitutional law expert, to see if he concurred in my analysis, and he suggested we collaborate on the piece. It was fun working together, and I got a kid-like thrill when the piece went live and people started posting reactions.
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Speaking of little newspaper pieces, there was a fascinating one in the NY Times this week about South Koreans’ fear of electric fans. South Koreans, a notably hard-working, sophisticated, tech-savvy people believe that sleeping with an electric fan blowing in the room can result in death. Fans are sold with special sleep timers. There are government warnings and media reports of fan deaths. Apparently this fear doesn’t exist outside South Korea.

We might once have thought it almost impossible for a large population to adopt an idea so comically loony, but no more. For example, right here in the USA, there are those who deny the fundamental facts of climate change or the need to do anything about it, including Donald Trump. And there is the stranger-than-truth story of Donald Trump, as of this week the official presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for president.

How could any significant number of people believe this man would make a good leader — of anything? How could anyone watch him for five minutes and fail to notice that he’s ignorant, crass, and shallow? How could large groups of people ignore the florid delusions and the almost non-stop lying, big lies, lies so blatant and transparent that they they seem proudly designed to be understood to be lies? Or the bullying, mean-spirited nastiness?

I’m not saying he’s all bad, mind you. At time he’s funny, and every now and again he says something that is not crazy. But it would be madness to entrust this guy with responsibility for addressing climate change, preventing nuclear war, or for cleaning up after himself, which is to say, any significant or insignificant responsibility. I continue to think that he will lose in a landslide that sweeps out a lot of other worse-than-useless pols. But even in that case, we’ll still have the not-so-funny, puzzling, and fairly disturbing reality that millions of our fellow citizens do not think the Donald is a contemptible joke.
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What would Trump say at Hiroshima? One shudders to think. This was clearly a problem this week for President Obama, a person in many ways Trump’s opposite. Let’s say you have sufficient moral capacity to understand it was horribly wrong to do a demo of the first atomic bomb by killing 140,000 civilians. Yet it would roil diplomatic alliances and certain important constituencies to apologize for this atrocity. So Obama, ever brilliant, delivered the most apologetic non-apology imaginable. He highlighted the horror, hugged victims, and called for movement towards a world without nuclear weapons.

His speech was in places Lincolnesque – moving, stirring, and inspiring — though also in places oddly ambiguous, disjointed, and restrained. Here are some of the good parts:

Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become. . . .

Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

That I why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. . . .

Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again. . . . The memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945 must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change. . . .

Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. . . .

It’s clear that Obama understands the enormity of the nuclear peril, including the risk that our gigantic stockpile of nuclear weapons could end up destroying most every living thing on the planet including us. He’s repeatedly called attention to this existential risk. But he hasn’t made much progress in actually reducing it.

There are, of course, powerful institutional forces supporting the status quo of standing on the nuclear precipice – the military-industrial complex, now much more powerful than when President Eisenhower named it, and the fearful conservative mind set that exaggerates possible threats and reflexively resists reform. What if Obama just ordered destruction of half of our nukes? Would the missile officers refuse the order? Would there be impeachment proceedings, or a coup?

I doubt it, but there’s something that holds him back. Anyhow, he has made a judgment that he needs to change minds to prepare the way for a changed reality, and perhaps his speech will help with that.
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In the news: some problems with our nukes

This week there was some good and some bad technology news, but first the good news. Kudos to the European Space Agency, which managed the remarkable feat of landing a robot on a modest-sized comet. Understanding and managing the risk of asteroid and comet collisions is a big challenge, and it appears we’re making progress. Also three cheers that the world’s two largest contributors to global warming (that’s us and China) officially agreed to work on it. Sure, talk is cheap, but it’s a step in the right direction.

But I wanted to call attention to a news story that you may have missed, as I almost did: two separate Pentagon studies concluded that the infrastructure of our nuclear program is in serious disrepair and will cost billions to fix. The NY Times put this on page A16 (news death valley).

Though far from the front page, the language was strong: “a searing indictment” of how nuclear weapons facilities have been allowed to decay. They described “a culture of micromanagement and attention to the smallest detail . . . creating busywork, while huge problems with equipment and readiness, most arising from the age of the systems, were ignored.” One study found that morale was low and turnover high among crews for intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. Missile submarines were frequently out of service.

You may remember the cheating scandal involving missile crews of some months back. One of the new reports blamed not the crews but “a culture of extreme testing” in which tests were required to be near perfect so that good results could be reported up the chain of command, instead of a program to improve the crews’ readiness.

A few months back I wrote about reading Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book cites chapter and verse of major problems in our nuclear program, including some that put Americans at serious risk of a catastrophic accidental nuclear explosion. Schlosser found there had been important improvements in safety, but the Times story made me worry.

The Times also reported that the President had told the Pentagon to plan for 12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers, and 400 land-based missiles. Holy kamoly! I thought we were at least keeping in sight the possibility of reducing our nuclear stockpiles and the threat of nuclear war.

Before we spend billions or trillions more, I’d like to hear a good answer to the question, what is the purpose of our nuclear weapons? What good do they do?

The conventional wisdom, more or less, is that we need them to deter nuclear attacks and maintain our prestige. But no nation is currently threatening us, or anyone, with a nuclear attack. Only one nation has ever been the victim of a nuclear attack (by us, on Japan). All other nations without nuclear weapons – that is, those with no deterrence forces – have not come under nuclear attack. That includes ones that got us and other nuclear powers really mad, like North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Furthermore, even if North Korea or Iran somehow managed to destroy one of our cites with a nuke, does anyone seriously think we’d retaliate against their civilians with a massive nuclear attack? I submit that deterrence, whatever its validity as a theory in the cold war, is valid no longer.

As to prestige, our nuclear weapons have not appeared to strengthen our negotiating power with enemies or friends. Iran and North Korea have been notably unimpressed. And our nukes certainly haven’t saved us the trouble of fighting conventional wars. We have surely not won the contest of who can spend the least on actual war fighting, having spent over a trillion dollars fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nation with the most nuclear weapons is also the nation that has lost the most treasure through conventional warfare.

A major nuclear war would not only destroy millions of lives directly, but would alter the earth’s ecosystem so as to cause untold additional deaths. As Jonathan Schell explained in The Fate of the Earth, it could amount to the end of human civilization, not to mention the extinction of countless other animals and plants.

It would be nice to think that mismanagement of our nuclear force has reduced this risk, but I’m afraid that it suggests an increased risk of nuclear accidents, and an uncertain capacity for disaster. I submit we need to change our direction, and recommend a visit to http://nuclearrisk.org

Let me close on a positive note: civilization still exists! In fact, right here in Raleigh, NC, there is great music making and art. Last Sunday, the N.C. Opera did an excellent concert presentation of part of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This is very dramatic, romantic music. They did the prelude and second act, which focuses on the intoxicating love story of the title characters. Jay Hunter Morris, who was a sensation in the Met’s recent Siegfried, was a sensitive and moving Tristan, and Heidi Melton was an Isolde for the ages. Her voice was amazingly powerful, but also warm, flexible, and true. Conductor Timothy Myers seemed to have a real feeling for this strange and irresistible music, and he had a good band. Thank you N.C. Opera!

I should also give a plug for the current exhibits at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, which we visited on Sunday afternoon. We started with the late works of Joan Miro. I liked his sculptures, better than his paintings. It was inspiring to see him continuing to experiment with new ideas into his 70s and 80s. There was also a strong exhibit of the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I never quite got Rauschenberg before, but it really helped seeing the wide range of techniques and concepts he worked with. It turns out he was serious about his photography, as well as his painting and constructions. I liked it.