Popular Mechanics discusses the EMP threat that could come from North Korea, with less startling conclusions

The mainstream media, so to speak, is starting to pay more attention to the possible electromagnetic pulse threat that North Korea could try, especially as retaliation for a US strike. Here is the source for an article today by David Hamburg of Popular Mechanics, which was shared by Resilient Societies.

The article gives somewhat different explanations of what the E1 and E3 pulses do.  The E1, it says. Might not harm cell phones or tablets or even laptops not plugged in, but probably many devices actually plugged in would be fired.  There is a real question as to how many transformers could be severely damaged by an E3 pulse. And apparently some states are looking at requiring utilities to install neutral ground blockers, but these are more expensive than some activists claims.

The article maintains that an EMP-intended weapon need not be as accurate as one intended to explode near the target and could be harder to shoot down at high altitude.  But it is not clear whether North Korea really has the ability to carry out this specific threat right now.

The article also links to a 2010 Oak Ridge National Laboratory report on the EMP threat and countermeasures.  I visited the facility in July 2013 and took the tour available at the time and asked some questions about this issue.

Back on September 4, 2001, one week before 9/11, Popular Mechanics had run a story on localized non-nuclear magnetic flux EMP weapons, which have remained relatively little known.

As the YouTube video included above shows, National Geographic had made a video on the EMP threat in 2013, and doesn’t seem to have been taken that seriously.  It may be a little over-hyped.

(Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

We need to be prepared, as a nation, to house people quickly after catastrophes

I can remember, even living in Arlington having returned to look after Mother, the shock in that late August morning of 2005 learning when I got up that Hurricane Katrina had been much worse than expected.

I would volunteer some time at the Red Cross in nearby Falls Church (mixing the shifts with substitute teaching at the time) finding with many callers there was very little we could do but tell them to wait hours on the line for FEMA.

Over time, a few hundred people settled temporarily in the DC area.  Many more settled in Texas, and I believe that in some cases families, or especially individuals, were housed in private homes.  I at least wondered if we could be asked to do this.  I’ve entertained this kind of emergency before (May 18, 2016).

The Sunday before Hurricane Sandy (which came inland on a Monday night in late October 2012) the pastor at an Arlington VA church gave a sermon on “radical hospitality”. Fortunately, there was little damage in this area from the storm.

I’ve also documented on this blog some of the issues with hosting asylum seekers, which I have suspended as I consider moving (no more details right now).

And I’ve noted the somewhat informal private hosting website “Emergency BNB”. And the sharing economy, developed by companies like Airbnb, many people, especially younger adults, may be used to the idea of keeping their homes ready to be shared, which is not something that would have been very practical for me during most of my own adult life. Younger adults may be less interested in collecting possessions that could be put at risk from a security perspective. Music and film could be stored in the Cloud.

Younger adults living in “earthy” neighborhoods (like New York City’s East Village) or in certain rural areas, even in collectives or intentional communities, and used to social interdependence, may be more willing to share their spaces with less attention to personal, material or legal liability risks.  Many do not have an economically realistic choice, beyond building on common social capital, as Rick Santorum or Charles Murray would describe the idea.

Along these lines, then, I wonder again about emergency housing in the context of disaster or catastrophe preparedness.  I see I took this up Sept. 22, 2016 (before the Trump election) in conjunction with preparedness month.

A few of my friends on Facebook do indeed come from the doomsday prepper crowd, and it rather alarms me how much they are into it.  A sizable number of people do not believe you can count of civilization to last forever.  They see personal self-reliance in a rural home as a moral prerequisite to participating in a world that goes beyond the immediate surroundings. Indeed, ever since 9/11, we have been warned that at some point, whole generations of people may have to rebuild the world from scratch, as in NBC’s series “Revolution” which predicates a bizarre kind of EMP event.  I say I would have nothing to offer such a world at 74,

We could indeed face a grave threat to personal security in the homeland even in 2018.  War with North Korea might be impossible to avoid, and at least a couple small nuclear strikes on the US homeland might be impossible to prevent.  As a matter of policy, what happens to the people who survive but lose everything?  Insurance doesn’t cover war (whether it covers terrorism is controversial).  Will the government indemnify them?  (It more or less did a lot of this after 9/11.)  Or will we depend on the volunteerism of “GoFundMe”? which to me has sounded self-indulgent and tacky sometimes.

It does seem that we need some kind of “national discussion” or town-hall on this.  Would seniors aging alone in oversized homes be able to take people in?  Would we expect that?  Well, we really don’t do that now with our own homeless.

Any North Korean domestic nuclear strike would probably involve a small low-yield nuclear weapon. If you look at charts like this one, you see that the number of casualties and total property damage in a city might be less than one expects.  The radiation damage is another matter.  But one can imagine calls for people in distant states to house and take in the “victims” as they may never have an uncontaminated habitable home neighborhood to return to (even with Katrina that did not hold).  It is appropriate to consider how effective the manufactured housing industry can be (with Katrina the result was not that good).

Again, another issue is the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse, which would damage all electronics in a very wide region.  Have Silicon Valley companies protected their infrastructure from this sort of thing?  One day we could find most of the Internet (and “GoFundMe”) gone forever if they haven’t.  There is very little written about this.

Nobody likes talk like this to be “thinkable”.  But the preppers have a moral point.  Resilient and prepared people are less inviting targets for an otherwise determined enemy.  Maybe that’s what “America first” means.

(Posted: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 3:15 PM EDT)

North Korea is changing the state of play

My own perception of the greatest external threats to “my world” seems fickle and to change over time, sometimes suddenly.

When I was writing and editing my “Do Ask, Do Tell I” book in the mid 1990s (July 11, 2011 will be the 20th anniversary of publication) and building my arguments about how to lift the ban on gays in the military, I perceived another war in Korea as the most likely threat.  At the time, I was not really aware of the potentially grave threat to the homeland that radical Islam (then in the form of Al Qaeda) could pose, as 9/11 was still several years out.  I had been aware of the economic consequences of oil embargos since the 1970s, but that threat had receded with the oil gluts of the late 80s (with a real estate recession in Texas, where I had been living).

Indeed, until 9/11, I still believed Communism, or post-Communism (which North Korea exemplifies, although with a bizarre royal history) the biggest threat.  And, indeed, where the biggest threat within Communism lay had changed with time.  I remember a day at the Reception Station in US Army Basic Combat Training in Fort Jackson SC in early 1968 where soldiers were saying it was much safer to go to Korea than to Vietnam.  At that time, it was.  It would not be now, as Korea is a flash point (with the whole of South Korea held hostage), whereas Vietnam is a more or less acceptable country. (I wouldn’t move there, but Anthony Bourdain had a good time there on his “Parts Unknown”.)  And although the Vietnam War got discredited with time, in the middle 1960s the “Domino Theory” to which President Johnson subscribed (and which Nixon had to solve by a fractured “peace with honor”) seemed credible enough to many of us, leading to the 1965 documentary “The War Game”.  Much of the argumentation in my first book regarding the military gay ban (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) referred back to earlier controversies over the male-only military draft and the possibility of “getting out of things” (as my own mother’s moral language put it) with student deferments.  It turned out, over time, that this unusual argument would be more effective than many people (who had forgotten the draft) expected  Discussions of resuming the draft (partly at the instigation of Charles Moskos) ignited again after 9/11.  They still go on, with a recent proposal to include women in Selective Service registration.

How serious is the threat to “average Americans”?  I’ve put together a few links in mainstream sources that analyze the risks and policy choices.

A few general observations are in order. One is that there is still some residual controversy over whether the July 4 test represented a true ICBM or an intermediate range device. But the best intelligence suggests that the missile comprised two stages, with the upper stage a new design.  ICBM’s have two to four stages.  Another observation is that North Korea is making much faster progress with missile technology than had been expected even a yea ago.  Still, DPRK would face tremendous challenges guiding a missile all the way to the continental US (as Tom Foreman has explained on CNN). And the DPRK does have nuclear weapons, but miniaturizing them to fit on ICBM’s will still be a major feat.  Still, the acceleration of DPRK’s progress is alarming.  It sounds conceivable that an ICBM nuclear threat to the US west coast could exist as early as 2019.  It’s not clear from media reports (and from classification of information) just how effective NORAD would be at stopping a missile, although there have been successful defensive tests recently.

In the meantime, North Korea can hold civilians in South Korea and even Japan hostage with its current weaponry.

North Korea’s motive is said to provide a deterrent from American attempts to upend the regime of Kim Song Un, who (like his father) is well aware of what happened to Qadaffi and Saddam Hussein.  Fox News may well call North Korea a mob state (“mobocracy”) that will do anything to survive as a mob family. But Un seems particularly sensitive to personal insults (as is Donald Trump, ironically).  There is evidence of the DPRK’s engagement of computer hackers (sending its own prime to school for this) even to punish western private companies like Sony Pictures (“The Interview”).  Could this extend to western private citizens?  Could he throw a tantrum and release a missile over an insult, despite his desire to “survive” obvious retaliation?

There is still another disturbing wrinkle.  Wednesday night, July 5, former CIA director James Woolsey appeared on Don Lemon’s show on CNN at 10 PM EDT and reiterated his claim that North Korea can launch an EMP attack against the US now from a satellite and has been able to do so since 2013.  Woolsey said that Trump is naïve about the real threat at that the ICBM issue really is superfluous.   I had covered this grim possibility in a posting here March 7.  Many other authorities consider this claim largely discredited, however.

Anthony Cordesman, however, this morning suggested on CNN that Trump could consider a limited military strike including an EMP attack on North Korea (which does not require nuclear weapons for more local effects).  But if North Korea has EMP attack capabilities from a satellite now, wouldn’t that invite an EMP attack on the U.S., as catastrophic retaliation (“One Second After”).  DPRK could even retaliate this way to a private insult (the Warmbier tragedy is indeed a dire warning).  I have no idea whether NORAD can disable or remove a hostile foreign satellite.

Of course, all of this brings up the question of civilian disaster preparedness and even “radical hospitality”.  I see a lot of material from doomsday preppers on Facebook all the time, on topics ranging from “bug-out” locations to sewing skills (especially from “Survival Mom”).  I’m personally an existentialist when it comes to these matters, and I won’t get further into the personal moralizing today.  I do think an issue like this calls into question a kind of “rich young ruler problem”, about putting all of one’s own life into orderly civilization and depending on it.

But another question comes up, why does an amateur blogger like me even dare to touch a subject like this.  Blogs are supposed to help people with specifics, so says Blogtyrant.  A lot of people see this kind of posting as rude, because most people believe they can’t do anything about external global catastrophes anyway (although they will march in climate change demonstrations, before returning to their identity politics).  My own life as an individual, however, has always been on the precipice of being affected by major events.  True, it may be related to my aversion to unwelcome personal interdependence.  More about that later.

I do think there are a few issues where the media has totally missed the boat, and not out of desire to spread fake news or support political correctness.  Power grid security is one of the biggest of the issues, and the conservative media companies (like Sinclair Broadcasting) seem closer to covering it right.

New York Times:  Surgical strike; Tough action; Five blunt truths

CNN

Vox:  Missile test explainedFive ways to spin out of control; North Korea history

CSIS Cordesman

(There are more links on March 7 posting and comments.)

(Posted: Thursday, July 6, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

Yellowstone Caldera attracting attention for catastrophic eruption potential, but maybe “it won’t be so bad”

There has been some hype in tabloid media (and on doomsday prepper Facebook accounts) in the past couple of weeks about the increase of small earthquakes in the Yellowstone National Park caldera area, interspersed with quiet periods.  Some sources say this could be a warning of a catastrophic eruption which could make two-thirds of the United States uninhabitable.  Other possible indications could be changes in water levels in various ponds and hot springs.

There are reports that that DHS has talked to at least four countries (one of them is apparently South Africa) on other continents about taking American “refugees”.  I could say, fat chance, given Trump’s attempts at travel bans!  There are predictions of at least a 10% probability of a major eruption by 2100.

The Pacific Northwest seems to have a massive eruption about every 650,000 years and we are near that time.  Each eruption occurs farther East than the previous one.   And scientists have found that the magma chambers under Yellowstone were even deeper and larger than previously thought.

But if you check more mainstream media, the sources indicate that earthquake swarms are common and not necessarily a sign of a major eruption. And more stable (and sometimes conservative) sites tend to suggest that the damage possible from a Yellowstone eruption is much smaller than the tabloids or Hollywood disaster movies predict.

Indeed, there would be massive destruction for at least 100 miles or so in every direction from the Caldera, more than was found with Mount St. Helens in 1980.

And there could be considerable ashfall over the upper Midwest, compromising farmland and gumming up streams and rivers.  Furthermore, the volcanic could would block sunlight and cool the Earth for several years, maybe substantially, reversing global warming temporarily and leading to shorter growing seasons.

I can recall that this risk came up on an Outwoods hike near Minneapolis back in the fall of 1998 when a University of Minnesota chemistry professor on the hike mentioned it, as a real hazard to civilization.

This site in the UK is rather sensational, as is Millennium Report, but these (Fox, Gizmodo, Livescience) make more temperate predictions.

I visited Yellowstone myself in May 1981 (also nearby Teton), and the Mt. St. Helens site in Washington State in July 1990.  I also flew over the St. Helens peak on a flight from Seattle to San Francisco in August 1980.

There have also been reports that Mount Rainier in Washington State could have a massive eruption.

Map of past eruptions.

Map of calderas.

Caldera photo.

Mt. St. Helens

(Posted: Friday, June 23, 2017 at 1:30 PM EDT)

James Woolsey (ex CIA) warns CNN that North Korea might be capable of detonating EMP weapon from orbiting satellite soon, even now

Today, Monday, March 6, 2017 Erin Burnett gave former CIA director James Woolsey an interview in the 7:30 PM slot, and Woolsey defended his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning that North Korea could pose a much bigger and more immediate threat to the United States even now than we realize.

Specifically, he suggested that North Korea could be capable of detonating a nuclear device from an orbiting satellite now.

Erin Burnett herself introduced the word “apocalyptic”.  Woolsey said there is disagreement as to how many US transformers on the power grids could survive the overload that would result.  Woolsey’s op-ed calls for strengthening the grid right now.  Bannon’s infrastructure programs so far have not mentioned this problem.  One way to strengthen the grids would be to require utilities to have their own small original generating stations and be less dependent on load sharing with other companies.  (That brings back the whole AC vs. DC debate in the early 20th century, as one time documented on the History Channel “The Men Who Built America”, 2012 episode).  Taylor Wilson (who has been supported by Peter Thiel, who supported Trump) has proposed that these small stations be shielded underground fission reactors.

I do recall many scenarios (as in “One Second After”) proposed where scud-type missiles fire off the US coast from clandestine ships create a high-altitude EMP result. There are even some non-nuclear magnetic flux devices that could be detonated on the group (as in a  mystery Popular Mechanics article shortly before 9/11 in 2001).  But I don’t recall mention of the satellite threat before, not even in Ted Koppel’s book “Lights Out”.

I do see, however, a report about North Korean satellites with this capability on a smaller conservative web site reported back in April 2016.    Wikipedia has details on one satellite.

There have been many reports in recent days of North Korea missile test attempts.  President Donald Trump has not said (or tweeted) much about them yet (except, “not going to happen”).  CNN has a story today, questioning whether North Korean missiles could overwhelm THAAD.

In November 2015, I was reading later chapters in Ted Koppel’s book on the Metro in Washington when a college-age young man looked over my shoulder to read it.  That someone that age would notice this subject matter is encouraging.

There are some issues, for preserving freedom for everyone, that seem more pressing to me than the bathroom bills.

(Published: Monday, March 6, 2017 at 9:45 PM EST)

Update: Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 10:45 PM EST

A Facebook friend (somewhat connected to the prepper crowd) passed on this link from a family security website discussing Woolsey’s predictions about North Korea and even invoking the “fake news” idea.  Note the mention of Popular Mechanics, which had discussed non-nuclear EMP in an issue shortly before 9/11 back in 2001. (The Washington Times discussed it in 2009).  Here is the link.

Update: Tuesday, April 11, 2017  6:15 PM EDT

Common sense would say that DPRK would already need to have developed a miniaturized device that could have been placed on a satellite.  Would we know?  Or could they deploy another satellite soon? DPRK’s statements remain belligerent after the Syria intervention by President Trump.

 

 

I dodge another big storm, and maybe stretch my luck

Today, my inherited Drogheda (e.g., “The Thorn Birds”, 1983  — and, yes, the pastor played by Richard Chamberlain eventually breaks down and cries) dodged another round of violent storms.  But, with time, accumulation of more opportunities for bad luck, and, yes, climate change, I know that disaster can happen to me.  None of us is above the possibility of having to deal with life in a shelter someday.  None of us is above needing others (and I could say, needing God).

This time around, it was particularly scary indeed, as the reports of tornados in the upper Midwest, popping out of nothing, kept coming on.  Even in the relatively safer location of the Mid-Atlantic, luck could eventually run out.

Most of my life, and especially during my boyhood, I’ve experienced physical stability, without a lot of danger from the outside world.  But, throughout history, most communities (all the way to whole nations) have had to deal with disruptions from outside threats.  That reality helps create a moral viewpoint where every “citizen” has to carry his or her own weight, metaphorically speaking. People have to step up to challenges and take responsibilities they did not necessarily choose (in the past, closely tied to gender), for the good of others in their communities, especially their families.  The severe weather scare today reminds me that my luck can run out.

So people “who are different” are pressured to conform to the adaptive needs of their origins.  I grew up in a particularly ambiguous position, where it was not clear whether I was genuinely disabled, or just mooching on the manual labor and risks others have to endure, even in my place.

That’s why I experience “morality” as an individual thing.  The individual ultimately will experience “it is what it is” – for him (or her) as an individual, and in sharing the “karma” of his larger group associations (usually starting with family).  That’s also why I don’t jump to “go to bat for” someone just because he or she belongs to a marginalized group.  But it also helps explain why “upward affiliation” became so tantalizing for me.  Ultimately, I dreamt of becoming someone better than me.  That may be the high point of distributed consciousness.

This whole process obviously leads to an obvious contradiction.  Josh Groban may have it right when he sings “You life me up” and it goes both ways.

My own life narrative threads on this idea, both in my own personal experience in sexuality and in how I handled my own speech later.   The way people reacted provides some pretty good fuel for inductive reasoning.

(Posted: Wednesday, March 1, 2017 at 9:15 PM EST)

September is “National Preparedness Month”: the arguments for “doomsday prepper” culture

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As the fifteen anniversary of 9/11 passed, we were indeed reminded that September is “national preparedness month”.

First, some of us are luckier than others in being able to live in areas that are less exposed to major natural disasters:  floods, tornadoes, major hurricanes, major earthquakes, and, especially in more recent decades in western states, wildfires, and even sinkholes.

Some of us don’t get to “choose” our level of exposure.  I would not like having to be prepared for evacuations if I lived in a coastal area – and that’s one reason I don’t care for Florida.  If I had “inherited” property in such an area, I would definitely have a well thought-out plan to move a lot of gear (especially electronics and computers) to a designated place inland.  I’d probably have storage inland.

And even in some parts of the country, some areas have more risk than others.  Wildfires present the greatest risk (usually) on the edges of exurban development.  (That wasn’t enough for residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta).  Large tornadoes are more common well north of Dallas, into Oklahoma and Kansas, than south in the Hill Country.  Even in the mid-Atlantic, which has a “safer” climate than most, there are areas that are more tornado prone.  Southern Maryland, and then north-central Maryland are miniature “tornado alleys”, the latter largely because of the exposure to southeast winds off the Chesapeake Bay, which add shear to low pressure cells inside thunderstorms (northern Virginia gets much less shear).  There is economic benefit, and more risk, in living near water.

I can recall a sermon by a local pastor (at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington) the Sunday before Hurricane Sandy in 2012, called “radical hospitality”, which encouraged people to be prepared to house each other in case of disasters.  As it turned out, Sandy, although creating 60 mph winds for as long as an hour, caused relatively little damage and few power outages, compares to New Jersey and New York.  In Manhattan, residents south of 34th Street did without power for a week because Con-Ed had not disaster proofed its transformers sufficiently against floods.  If you want to live in New York City, it’s safer if you pick a place over 100 feet elevation (much of the City is very low, even though you don’t realize it when you are there).  By comparison, the DC and Baltimore areas have much more of their residential areas above any conceivable flooding.

What many area homeowners face is the danger of massive destruction to their homes from falling trees – often neighbor’s trees that they can’t legally or safely do a lot about (legal article).

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Any homeowner who can afford it is well advised to provide an alternate source of power for his/her of the family’s home.  Solar is often the best option.  Another choice in many areas is a natural gas generator.  Typically, it costs about $10000 to power an entire house.  Gas lines are underground and cannot be damaged by falling trees, but they could pose a theoretical, although remote, risk of leaks.  A gas company hookup, properly installed by a licensed and approved contractor, is better than a propane tank setup.

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So, all of this aside, how important is it to learn all the skills (including self-defense) advocated by the “doomsday prepper” movement?

On Facebook, “Survival Mom” has a very bombastic page  where she refers to her blogs “The Survival Mom” and “Preparedness Advice” .  Some of her advice seems quite demanding in the essential wilderness survival skills to be expected even of kids (and one wonders if some of them, like hands-on CPR, should be high school graduation requirements).  Some of it is quaint (sewing skills), and some of it has an interesting moral tone (join a volunteer fire department, rather than depend on others to do this for you – Mormon-raised baseball p[layer Bryce Harper wanted to do this but his MLB contract won’t let him).   She also sometimes provides an evangelical Christian context which would not be the same as my own spiritual thinking. She also has a book, which I could get and review later.   I like her recent “top ten excuses for not prepping”.  She does use the term “Teotwawki” (“The end of the world as we know it”).

Is “Doomsday” inevitable?  I have always maintained we can “work smart” on climate change and power grid security, which I have written several articles about on this blog already.

There is another way to interpret this, however.  Our advanced technological civilization is very recent, compared to the entirety of human history.  Think ahead, how will future generations survive and prosper for millennia, maybe millions to hundreds of millions of years, maybe long enough for more civilizations to arise in “nearby” star systems and eventually become reachable.  It would sound that over the course of so much time, setbacks and cataclysm are inevitable.  Of course, evangelical Christianity has often professed “end of days” with debates over post v. pre tribulationism (which I used to hear debated on a car radio a lot when I lived in Dallas in the 1980s). But the “moral” need to provide future generations even in extreme circumstances sounds more compelling if it is our destiny to go for billions of years and finally leave the planet and solar system when our Sun becomes unstable and enlarges.  Imagine the moral debates of the future, over who gets to go on an “evacuate Earth” spaceship (actually a movie).  Procreation becomes a necessary virtue again.

I could compare humans to dolphins and orcas, who have about the same cognitive ability as us; but due to their aqueous environment and lack of usable “hands”, live a collective culture, even with distributed consciousness, depending on nature to grow their communications hardware biologically. They’ve been around millions of years longer than us and are pretty close to our equals as “aliens”;  but, because their environment doesn’t allow our kind of individualism to inspire quick innovation, they’re suddenly defenseless, against us.

I caught a bit of this, vulnerability to external catastrophe from enemies, growing up during the Cold War.  The Berlin Wall controversy erupted shortly before my own expulsion from William and Mary (covered elsewhere).  While I was a “patient” at NIH, I in 1962, I was the only patient who knew about the gravity of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I would “bully” or taunt other mental patients about their “worthiness” to survive an apocalypse.  Sounds very right-wing-y.  (Most men there would remain 4-F as for the draft.)  I recall, later, a 1965 British short film “The War Game” where survivors of a blast whine, “I don’t want to do anything” and lie down and perish.  Yet, I can understand how someone can believe readiness to go on and provide new generations is a moral ukase.

If surviving anything is a moral requirement, then it does seem morally incumbent on everyone to do his or her own share of preparation, so as not to burden others if and inevitably when something bad happens.   The ability to go on (and to build and keep marriages) would seem to add to resilience, the lack of which will get noticed by enemies.

One of the photos above is from the aftermath of the terror attack in NYC on September 17, which I cover more on another blog.

(Published: Thursday, September 22, 2016 at 3 PM EDT)

Disaster preparedness and prevention: is this about personal responsibility, or about having each other’s backs?

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Yesterday, on a little day trip, I drove down a remote creek valley road extending north west from the little hamlet of Gore, VA, about 10 miles west of Winchester on US 50.

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The road seems to follow a heavily wooded canyon (limestone or quartz rock walls several hundred feet high) around a stream, running in the western part of the Shenandoah Valley as the “Ridge and Valley Country”, leading to the Eastern Continental Divide eventually, starts.   There are numerous little bridges, some one lane, along the road (I think it is county 704) with warnings that the stream can flood.

I saw numerous homes, some of them mobile, some of them with small farms, and even a Boy Scout camp.  One home had a crude pontoon bridge crossing another little tributary to get to the house.  I didn’t look at my cell phone, but this indeed looks like life off the grid with sump pumps, self-reliance, gun ownership, and the like.

Apparently this area has been lucky enough not to flood during the numerous heavy rain events in the past three weeks as the heat wave finally breaks.  So what happened to Ellicott City could have happened here.  Or maybe it’s less likely – this area is farther area from water;  north central Maryland, by contrast, gets moisture from SE winds off the Chesapeake Bay, which makes the strorms in that area stronger with some wind shear that creates a small “tornado alley”.

But I was impressed by the fact that most “average people” do live in risky circumstances, and often are underinsured.  I don’t know whether flood insurance is required along this road, or how many people have it.  But when calls for financial help, donations, and even volunteer hours happen after a natural (or manmade) disaster, we often find that homeowners and renters had very poor or no insurance coverage (especially separate flood or earthquake insurance, since regular property insurance doesn’t cover floods and earth movement).

I wonder, do we live in a society with narrow “personal responsibility”, or do we need to learn more to have each other’s backs?

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We build on flood plains, and criticize people who do so – but when you drive through this canyon, you realize there is no place to live in the area except on a flood plain   We criticize people for building beach homes – but most landowners in resort areas (I know a woman who rents homes in Rehoboth) know the risk.  In Louisiana, residents in parts of New Orleans trusted the US government,, which failed them in Katrina;  and now residents around Baton Rogue face a flood that is said to be unprecedented, maybe related to climate change.  And many homeowners did not have flood insurance.

In the west, we build in urban fringes and into dry canyons that can be overrun by wildfires.  You don’t usually need special insurance coverage for wildfires.  But one match can destroy hundreds of homes.  So can dry lightning.  Look at what happened to Fort McMurray, in Canada.

Addendum: Trey Yingst of One America News reports on Red Cross volunteers in flood areas of Louisiana.

We could also stark a discussion about tornado storm shelters in homes in the Midwest and South, especially (some homes don’t have basements, normally), and even about tornado-proof steel construction (will return to this later).

 

 

(Published: Friday, August 19, 2016 at 2:15 PM EDT)

Assessment of Donald Trump’s “nation in peril” claims: it’s the quality (and novelty), not quantity, of threats that matters

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So, let’s take another look at Donald Trump’s vision of a “nation in peril”.

The progressive establishment says that total crime and violence is down compared to decades past. Quantitatively, that’s probably true.  Since WWII, “I’ve” lived through a lot of history.  Despite racial violence today, there was much more of it in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. Mob, organized crime, and drug-related violence was legion.  Rudy Giuliani’s cleanup of New York in the 1990s did make it safer (for Trump, especially), although probably exacerbating police racial profiling problems (bolstered by some notorious wrongful convictions, like “The Central Park Five”).  Some of this lingered for a long time (Rodney King) before resurfacing in many cities recently.

In fact, until probably the late 1970s, it was generally true that the big cities were less safe places to live (even in high rise buildings) than the suburbs.  That gradually changed in the 1980s, even as “white flight” continued with many corporate relocations (especially in southern cities). With a large classical record collection, I was concerned about property crime then, and I had a couple of narrow misses for burglaries in NYC and Dallas (in suburban-looking settings) from the late 70s into the 80s. Over time, technology has provided a lot of assist in protecting property (especially automobiles).

The real question seems to be about the kind of threat, and who could be in its cross-hairs.  It is a larger concern for “upper middle class” people today (especially whites) than it used to be.  Trump is right about that.  It’s useful to walk through the main changes in “quality” and play devil’s advocate for each point.

The first point seems to be that the pace of mass shootings and mass-casualty events have gradually increased since 1982, if you follow a Mother Jones report.  Supplementary charts at the Washington Post and CNN are helpful.  Most of these events were perpetrated by mentally unstable individuals with relatively little coherent ideology (although a history of bullying and workplace or school problems is common). But one can add to these (besides OKC) some mass casualty events overseas, especially in Europe, some by means other than assault weapons.  Radical Islamic terrorism has indeed (since 2014) increased rapidly as a threat to civilians, especially in Europe, and especially as a result of the implosion of Syria and Iraq. While Obama’s policies may have something to do with this vacuum, more important are European social and policy problems.  Peter Bergen’s recent perspective on CNN is relevant. There’s also an interesting counter-perspective today in the WSJ by Max Boot, “The Terrorist Past Has a Message for the Terrorist Present”.

All of this argues, it seems, and especially in a “law and order” campaign advocated by Mr. Trump, for a progressive position on gun control (background checks, closing loopholes, banning civilians again from assault weapons), and indeed gun control might prevent a lot of “ordinary” crime.  It seems that it does in Britain and Australia, but it doesn’t in some areas of Chicago.  Once so many weapons are out there, it’s pretty hard to keep them to the “good guys”.  And gun control (as we’ve seen in France and maybe other places, even Orlando) might weaken the public from self-defense against very deliberate, very malicious attacks.

The second point has a lot to do with our growing dependence on technology, especially the power grids, and the communications (less so transportation) that emanates.  I’ve already discussed the possible extreme disruptions from large solar storms, or from large scale terror events related to electromagnetic pulse or maybe cyber-war.  Again, it’s important to reiterate that this threat is more likely from enemy states (like Iran or North Korea) than ad hoc terror groups. It’s also important to understand that non-nuclear pulse threats exists, although they have never been deployed on civilians in the West yet.  It’s important to note the possible danger of a radioactive dispersion device (“dirty bomb”), which, in Donald Trump’s world, would be an existential threat to real estate values (he never mentions that, ironically).  Bioterror remains significant (was with the anthrax attacks in 2001) but a natural pandemic (like avian influenza or a SARS-like illness) is more likely (Zika seems relatively small in the grand scale of things, however tragic for the children affected).  The best protection for the public from biological threats remains rapid vaccine development.

I’ve just gotten Gretchen Bakke’s book “The Grid”  (not to be confused with Byron Dorgan’s novel “Gridlock”)   In the introduction, Bakke mentions “microgrids” that already exist (set up by financial institutions and technology companies) and these do help to start to decentralize the grids, making them more secure.  She also notes that some utilities will not allow consumers to hook up home solar systems to their grids.  Major security concerns include also the lack of ability to repair or re-manufacture large transformers and transport them.   As the CBS interview with Ted Koppel (“Lights Out”) above indicates, the perhaps inadvertent connection of many larger utilities to the  public Internet is risky and troubling.

New Gingrich mentioned the nuclear threat at the RNC, but not the EMP threat explicitly.  It’s true that an enemy could decide to go “all out”.  But against the kind of some of our enemies, the old MAD doctrine (“Dr. Strangelove“) no longer holds, as it had against the Soviet Union and Communist China.  An existential attack on our way of life seems even more sadistic.  I was in a bizarre situation at NIH in 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, a point that seems ironic today.

It is indeed true that “we” have faced quasi-existential “way-of-life” threats before — the Arab oil embargo of 1973 was a starting point.  These  potentially affected personal mobility (and lifestyle choice) then — and, however clumsily at first, we worked and produced our way out of these problems, only to find newer ones.

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The third major area is even a bit more disturbing.  I remember back in 1968 during Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, the topic of the Geneva Convention.  We were actually tested on it before graduation.  Donald Trump says he wants to gut it.  But one of the most disturbing aspects of recent attacks is the idea that ordinary civilians should become bargaining chips for retaliation for US foreign policy.  We heard this back in the fall of 2001 when the U.S. allowed Osama bin Laden’s “speech” to be broadcast on a Sunday afternoon after George W Bush announced the start of operations in Afghanistan.  Even more offensive is the idea that civilians bear personal moral responsibility (even in a religious sense) for what their governments do.  There’s no question that this was the attitude expressed explicitly by terrorists in some attacks (Boston, with Jahar’s “boat manifesto” and Paris, with explicit statements made at the Bataclan).  Indeed, as with Orlando, military style weapons have been turned on civilians, resulting in war injuries that need to be treated by military combat surgeons and rehab programs, not just by “gofundme” drives for medical bills.   Even more disturbing are scenarios that could target ordinary civilians in novel ways (as long as persons connected to them as in families) to make ideological points.  Donald Trump may have baited this idea in the past by threatening the families of individual suspected terrorists.  It’s this sort of thing that can be manipulated into rationalizations to clamp down on user-generated speech online (like “we’re at war folks”, like many European civilians during WWII, going all the way back to Londoners during the 1940 shellings, recently discussed by Sebastian Junger in his book “Tribe“).  Another personal aspect of this problem is the idea that there is something morally wrong is someone has “made enemies” even if the enemy is in some abstract sense morally wrong, too.  This was an attitude common in my early upbringing that was largely forgotten for much of my adult life, but that seems to have come back in the post 9-11 world.  Sometimes enemies appear because they feel we have brought them into a world where nothing is “earned” and where they have nothing to lose. Suddenly, as Donald Trump has (however crudely and with a lot of hypocrisy) forced us to face, it seems not so honorable to become a victim.  You still pay for the crimes of others yourself.

As for Europe especially, a booklet-length story by Rukmini Callinachi in the New York Times, front page, Thursday Aug. 4, 2016, reinforces all these concerns.

(Published: Thursday, July 28, 2016 at 4 PM EDT)

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Note: I gave a 38-minute sermon on 9/11 at the Dakota Unitarian Fellowship in Rosemount, MN in Feb. 2002.

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“Donald Trump”: How many times can I say his name?; Hillary Clinton needs Bryce Harper in her bottom-of-the-ninth lineup

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I could put a funny spin on Donald Trump’s “Be Very Afraid” speech last night in Cleveland at the RNC. In fact, the first subsection of Chapter 6 of my first 1997 “Do Ask, Do Tell” book was “Be Very Afraid”.  Let me dismiss some of the non-homosexual comedy, like the stuff about plagiarism, and Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement.

The “real” comedy is to say, well, Hillary Clinton gets to bat last and pull off a home team walk-off.  And maybe she could use Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy in her lineup in the “bottom of the ninth”, suddenly one run down.  I remember a baseball game back in 1978 when the Yankees led the White Sox 11-9 going into the ninth at home, when the White Sox got a three run homer and went ahead 12-11.  Then Chris Chambliss hit a homer in the bottom of the ninth in the short porch to win 13-12.  But remember, the Yankees won that famous Bucky Dent game in Boston on the road.

The Washington Post greeted its readers Friday morning with the headline, “Donald Trump portrays a nation in peril.”  The lead-off editorial reads “Mr. Trump’s apocalypse now.” Comparisons to Nixon in 1968 may be apt.  A recent CNN series (“The Seventies” and “The Sixties”) documented the radical left wing (as well as Palestinian) terrorism of the day (I remember the threats made by the People’s Party of New Jersey back in 1972).  Cities, including part of Washington along 14th St, were devastated by riots (while I was in the Army).  We had survived the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy assassination, and still bought the domino theory that led us into Vietnam, supported by male-only conscription and a divisive student deferment policy.

It may be true that absolute crime numbers are lower today.  But “average citizens”, middle class and up, may be in more peril today because of the “asymmetry” of the various threats, which might include WMD’s and cyberwar.    And I may closer to the “marginal” or even “slight” risk area because I’m somewhat dependent on “inherited wealth”, although not quite as much as some people think. Trump (and even Peter Thiel, below) neglected to mention specifically the strongest possible anchor for the “nation in peril” (or “western civilization in peril”) argument: the idea that our people have, for the most part (excluding the preppers, below) become so dependent on communications and physical technology. But a Trump with a pointing finger touching a red button could be another existential threat.

I don’t have the personal survival skills of a doomsday prepper, and I need civilization – and expressive, emancipating personal freedom to lead a meaningful life.   I wouldn’t be of any use in the world of NBC’s “Revolution“.  So I personally take sustainability and stability of out way of life — and threats to it from enemies, especially foreign — very seriously.  Processing some of the “threats” is problematic for me.  I experience locally weak social capital.  I don’t have anyone to watch my back, and I really don’t watch anyone else’s.  Yes, I call 911 if I see something.   But I can’t answer Remo Zero’s “Save Me”. I can’t make someone else “all right” when he or she isn’t.

In fact, a lot of people are irritated at me because I am always the one bringing up the peril posed by external events, and refuse to remain focused on the narrower needs of “my group” (and there is more than one group).   A lot of people just aren’t interested., in what happens “on the outside”.   They somehow believe their interpersonal ties (or religious faith, sometimes) will see them through if the external world around them is destroyed.   They would rather be “alive” than be proven “right” (a great line about this from the piano prodigy character Ephram appears in the TV series “Everwood”).  My concern about personal logistics and how external threats could derail it (and issue when I was coming out in 1973 and still in the suburbs) and need for personal mobility betrayed an unwillingness to form emotional attachments to people “where they were.”  Today, my concern about keeping my broadcast voice available (which Mr. Trump could conceivably turn off, claiming national security concerns over misuse of UGC platforms for terror recruiting) betrays a similar aloofness to “real people.”  When I am gone, people will go on without me,

Social capital gets talked about from two directions.  One is top-down, as with a recent sermon that I heard on “scruffy hospitality” to accompany “radical hospitality” as a foundation for a community’s resilience (from natural events or enemies).  Part of making everyone matter is allowing relationships with people with less obvious “ambition” really matter.  But the more troubling direction is “bottom-up”, which starts are a reaction to my own operations.  People wonder why I don’t like to “sell” other people’s messages, as if that were beneath me.  I’ll come back to this later.

I have to mention Peter Thiel’s peculiar speech last night.  He was dismissive of the attention given to the bathroom bills (“Who cares?”)  Trump sounded clumsy in saying “L G B T Q”.  The HRC blasted Trump as a “huge bigot” early this morning, somewhat perplexing supporters (story).  Maybe HRC regards Trump now as “Enemy Mine” (as in the 1985 sci-fi film).

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Still, I go on.  I think we can solve our problems.  I keep after the press to cover the most serious ones.  So far, only Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich have discussed the threats to electrical infrastructure specifically.  Why doesn’t Donald Trump talk about this, instead of bashing Hillary?  (The value of his own real estate holdings certainly can be undone by WMD’s).  Thiel, whatever criticism he earns for Gawker and other attitudes, is paying a lot attention to infrastructure and security as an investor – as all tech investors realize they must.  If we work smart, personal sacrifice and unwanted intimacy become less demanded.

One other thing:  no one person can “fix” the asymmetric peril for the country or for western civilization.  “No one knows the system better than me.  Which is why, I alone can fix it” is an absurd promise.  And a president Donald Trump can’t make you safe on day one of an administration without doing things we would all regret.

(Posted: Friday, July 22, 2016 at 11:30 AM)

Note: The iPhone baseball picture above, rotates in Google Chrome, but displays properly on IE, Edge, Mozilla, and Safari on any computer;  on any iPohone it rotates.  I had to rotate it in WordPress first.  This seems to be a small settings or software bug;  will report when i can find out.  Try this in Mozilla and Edge if you want to see the baseball picture display right.