Thursday, July 05, 2007

Modern civil defense: Spin vs usefulness

It's really interesting how, despite the decades of additional knowledge available, today's "Emergency Preparedness" booklets sound an awful lot like those of decades ago. Just as in the 1950s, they're vague, incomplete and practically useless in a real crisis.

Recently I came across a print copy of the Emergency Preparedness Manual from the Northeastern District Department of Health (NDDH), the regional health agency that covers Windham County, CT. Having had frequent contact with NDDH people since last September, I know they mean well, are generally competent at their jobs, and have been holding periodic disaster drills of various types to improve regional response coordination. Unfortunately, this guide doesn't show it.

Simply put, such guides should be written assuming the reader has ZERO experience preparing for an emergency and knows next to nothing about the potential hazards. The bold text on page one certainly implies that: It states the agency wants people to be "in the know and ready to go," and tells us to "Prepare now so you'll be ready when seconds count."

Great. The only problem is that, 15 pages and a few passing references later, they still haven't told you how to do the most basic thing -- create an emergency kit. It has several pages defining highly unlikely weapons and diseases that might be involved in a crisis, including sarin, soman, shigellosis and Q fever, but doesn't say word one about what a kit should contain or where in the area to get its contents. Same is true of creating a household emergency plan. ##

The one clear emergency kit reference is itself problematic. Under the section on sheltering-in-place, it states, "Take your emergency supply kit [to your safe room] unless you have reason to believe it has been contaminated." Ummm ... If the kit's being stored at home and is contaminated, doesn't that usually mean the HOUSE is also? You shouldn't stay there, obviously, unless going elsewhere is worse.

Getting into what the guide does say, it's quite correct in noting that "where you should shelter during an emergency is different depending on the emergency." It recommends sheltering upstairs in biological or chemical crises (on the grounds that those toxins tend to be heavier than air, which is true), and underground in radiological or nuclear incidents (also true, with caveats we'll get to). When there, it recommends (as usual) keeping tabs on radio, TV, the Web and other news sources, which might be useful in some circumstances, but wouldn't exist (at least locally) in others.

It fails to note a serious catch-22 in its suggestion for securing that safe room by covering all doors, vents and windows with plastic "Home Guard Barrier Sheeting" (that's never clearly defined) to keep out air -- It notes that the air will eventually become unbreathable, but fails to note that it may be NECESSARY to stay in the shelter for several days (beyond the air's breathability limit) under some circumstances. That would put people in the unwinnable situation of having to choose between, say, radiation exposure and suffocation.

Of course, it also fails to note that the plastic sheeting might indeed keep out particles and toxic gases, but is useless against radiation. Later, when it defines radiation, it generalizes that radiation is "present all around us" (which is true) but completely ignores that different types of radiation (i.e alpha, beta and gamma) require different thickness of shielding and approaches to cleanup. Under "acute radiation syndrome," it lists symptoms, but fails to clearly ID the pattern of onset, the two that are generally seen as characteristic of serious exposure -- hair loss and blood changes -- or that the highest exposures typically spark the fastest symptom onset and have the worst prognosis.

The brief sections on earthquakes (not a big threat here), explosions, fire, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes are largely just common sense and need no comment. But those involving nuclear weapons are dangerously understated.

A glaring case in point is this line -- "... any shield or shelter will help protect you from the immediate effects of the blast and pressure wave" of a detonation. Although technically true, this depends greatly on how close to ground zero you are. Most structures that aren't built of reinforced concrete would become fast-flying shrapnel if you're unlucky enough to be too close.

Most likely, this area won't experience nuclear thermal or blast effects because we're too far from the nearest real target; the real threat around here is fallout, which could come from targets in almost any direction. In that case, residents do need to seriously consider the guide's question of whether to shelter nearby or evacuate the area, but a viable evacuation would depend on what the target was and if there were more than one. Being New England, there aren't many places that aren't at risk of some fallout, except maybe parts of Maine, but NE Conn. is much more susceptible than most. (In passing, it also mentions community shelters, but doesn't say where they are or which ones are potentially fallout shelters.)

That raises a concern the guide also doesn't touch at all -- psychological issues. In crisis, people tend to fall back on very basic, well-learned skills and reactions or, lacking those, panic. At the extreme, people literally shut down, becoming walking automatons or doing nothing at all and letting the horror overwhelm them. What is available to counteract that tendency? I know NDDH has some connections to local mental health services and the state DMH, but what could these agencies do NOW to help people buttress themselves during the crucial period between the emergency event and any relief effort (if there is one)?

From what I've seen, NDDH seems to be pretty good at training police, fire, EMTs and similar services to cooperate, but there's very little effort to get the everyday citizen in on the act.

## The state of CT's preparedness guide, by contrast, very clearly spells out what such a kit should contain, using the standard three-day minimum rule. It also notes something I find encouraging: The first statement (after political blathering) is "Identify and understand your surroundings, including potentially dangerous weather conditions, flood plains, chemical facilities, nuclear plants, etc." That info could be very important, and I'll bet a large number of people couldn't say what the potential risks are in this area. In case of nuclear detonations, I'd also suggest having an idea of what the possible targets are within, say, 100 miles and what the typical wind pattern is.

I also like its simple checklist for creating an emergency communications plan, including the important reminder to have contacts in the area AND out-of-state to contact in case of separation. That would be beneficial in all but the worst catastrophe (namely, nuclear holocaust).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Did we learn nothing?

From Nukes on a Blog comes this note:

According to a June 7, 2007 press release from Nuclear Watch New Mexico, “The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has invited Members of Congress to ‘celebrate’ on July 2 its production of its first certified plutonium trigger (AKA ‘pit’ or ‘primary’) … produced by the U.S. certified for deployment to the nuclear stockpile since 1989.”

So…a party to celebrate the first new plutonium pit certified for deployment to the stockpile since the year the FBI raided and closed the old plutonium pit facility?

If the scientists are claiming the existing stockpile of pits are stable and will work for the foreseeable future, why do we need more? Clearly, regardless of what they SAY about non-proliferation, this administration intends to create a system by which the U.S. is actually building MORE nukes, not just replacing the old ones, as they claim they want to do with the RRW program.
One question: If they don't yet have Congressional funding for RRW (recently zeroed-out), where is the money coming from for the new pits for those weapons we aren't building?
Another question: Who benefits? As the old saying goes, follow the money ... and we'll see who is really behind this push for new nukes, when many military people recognize they aren't practically useful.
Of course, practicality has never mattered much to this administration. All they care about is politics and image, and nukes are excellent for that purpose -- they look strong (if sold properly, which this admin is terrible at), but they're impotent because they can never be USED. Having nukes is a lot like having AIDS -- if you know it, you should be responsible enough to stop transmitting it, because you know it will eventually KILL you and your partner(s).


Bringing Aug. 6, 1945 home

It hasn't gotten a lot of coverage yet, but hopefully it will:

Steven Leeper, the American who was recently appointed to run the Hiroshima Peace Museum, is trying to find people across the U.S. to help him display photos, artifacts, and so forth in an effort to remind people just how nasty nuclear weapons really are.

An L.A. Times article is here.
The museum's site is here.

I intend to help Leeper's effort, and could use any help from my readers as possible, especially if you're in MA or CT and/or can pass the message on far & wide. His initial note to me read:

Thank you for contacting me and your offer to help with the exhibitions. Very soon, we will be sending out a letter to potential allies in this effort. You will be on the list. After you receive the letter, you will probably still have some questions. Please write to me at this address and I will be happy to tell you everything I know.

We do need allies, but we have lots of them in MA. Can you do CT? Or Rhode Island?

Anyway, please wait for the letter, then respond quickly and we will be underway.

Thanks again,

I'll keep everyone informed of progress.
My idea at this point is to use whatever he has in mind as a centerpiece for a display that also features art, poetry and other materials by local people, educational efforts in the local schools, and so forth. It's still in an embryonic stage, obviously.

One thing I DON'T want is for it to include a broader critique of nuclear power. While that issue certainly has problems -- primarily surrounding disposal -- that desperately need to be dealt with, including it here only muddies the water. To me, nuke power still has the potential to be a good thing, if used properly, and we can solve the problems by thinking creatively. But nuke weapons have no redeeming value at all -- they ARE the problem.
We've all seen a definite increase in the frequency of nuclear disaster references in the popular media -- repeats of "The Day After," the series "Jericho," specials on Hiroshima specifically and cataclysmic disasters generally, new books like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," political blathering from all over, and even an episode of the cartoon "King of the Hill." To me, it seems like the atmosphere today is beginning to be as "nuclearized" as it was back in the 1980s, with one major difference ... There's not enough political outcry from the people-at-large. I hope helping an exhibit like this will change that.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Little" wars cause huge problems

Climatic Consequences of Regional Nuclear Conflicts
by A. Robock, et al
Published in Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics Discussion 11/22/06

Last fall, a decidedly unpublicized climate conference revealed what anyone with common sense probably already suspected: even little nuclear wars suck.
Read it here
Not only would a regional war using "just" 100 Hiroshima-sized warheads (about 15 kt each, or a total of 0.03% of the globe's nuclear killing capacity) potentially kill the same number of people as died globally in World War II, but it would likely cause temperature and precipitation changes that would rival those that made the Little Ice Age (c. 1450) such a fun time to be alive, with the Black Death, famines, and related problems.
The report, by six scientists including Turco and Toon of TTAPS fame, argues that such a war would cause the average amount of shortwave radiation reaching the earth's surface globally to fall by nearly 10 times the amount it would rise given a doubling of atmospheric CO2. But while the latter doubling has been projected to occur over decades, the post-war decrease would happen within the first year, and conditions would only gradually improve over the next 10 years or so. During that time, the world would likely see a 10% average decline in precipitation and a 1 deg. C average temperature decline for at least five of those years.
While that may not sound bad to the average person, the report's charts and maps are significantly more chilling right after a war: Some parts of the world could see temp. drops of as much as 7 deg. C, with large swaths of western and central Canada, most of Europe, parts of Siberia,most of Australia and the African Sahel hardest hit. At the same time, screwed up atmospheric circulation could cause huge precipitation changes, cutting the rainfall over much of N. America by 20-40% and the Amazon by around 70%, while increasing rainfall by 70-100% over the Sahel and Sahara.
Obviously, losing 70% of the Amazon's rain is likely to have a significantly larger effect than doubling the Sahara's.
Add those things together, and the Robock team is predicting large changes in the growing season for most of the world's breadbasket regions, with North America, western Eurasia and southern South America losing up to a month's growing time for several years.
In doesn't take much to realize this combination of factors bodes ill for lots of people. What the report doesn't look at, however, are other synergies: radiation and/or toxins making some areas uninhabitable (Hiroshima was reinhabited quickly because its bomb was an airburst with little fallout, but wars using multiple bombs detonating in a fairly small part of the globe -- say, India & Pakistan, or Israel & Iran -- aren't likely to be so clean.); numbers of traumatized refugees and injuries that will easily overwhelm the world's medical and humanitarian system; long-term genetic concerns, for those directly affected and globally because of the increase in average radiation levels; economic chaos possibly leading to further wars that might involve the major powers, etc. These may seem exaggerated -- after all, the study looks a war that doesn't directly touch any of the world's major industrial nations -- but the last time we saw such a death toll and economic impact, most of the world had several years to prepare for and absorb it. This one could happen literally overnight.
Our government is making a big deal of Iran's supposed quest for the Bomb, and that should indeed be a global concern. But we need to put as much pressure on India, Pakistan and Israel to come clean about their programs and, far more importantly, resume GLOBAL negotiations to get rid of nuclear weapons forever...

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

The uniform is NOT a religious tool

In my day job, I have nearly fallen asleep at some events I was covering, but have never been so offended by one. Until now.

The offending event? A Veteran's Day dinner.

Going into it, I knew it was being sponsored by a local church, but that didn't concern me too much since it was public, free, and at a public school.

For the most part, the speakers who made religious references did so in ways that were at least in context to their stories. I've never had a problem with people believing their faith played some role in their survival in battle, even if I think their training and teamwork (and a little luck) was actually the cause. Nor did I bridle at the prayers the minister gave; that, after all, is his job. But I did find the keynote speaker extremely offensive.

According to the oath of office every military person swears upon enlistment, the job is to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic." Tell me, where in that phrase do you find any reference to the Bible or any other religious text?

Apparently, the event's keynote speaker did, somewhere other than among the "enemies" of the Constitution. Correctly noting that the event's purpose was to give veterans, cops, firefighters, and others words of encouragement, hope and thanks for their bravery, he went off the deep end by blatantly proclaiming "the only message of encouragement and hope" is that of salvation through Jeebus.

Veterans Day is about recognizing bravery and sacrifice in service to our country. I don't give a damn what someone believes privately, but if they're publicly representing the nation -- and anyone wearing an Armed Forces uniform speaking at an event is -- they'd better NOT be promoting any form of religion. He was, arrogantly assuming he had the right to preach one narrow religious viewpoint to a school gymnasium full of people celebrating the millions who have served. Many of those present were probably not Xian, and that's definitely true of many of the people who put their lives in danger for their fellow Americans.

As far as I'm concerned, his assertion that he serves and obeys the Xian god is in serious conflict with his oath to serve the United States. What if we elect a non-Xian president (we've had several Deists, people whom the Xian right would never consider Xian)? What if the military had to fight against an ostensibly Xian country or to suppress a fundamentalist uprising in ours? By proselytizing while in uniform, he dishonors the service of people like my father (Army in 'Nam) and grandfather (Army in WW2) who are essentially secular, anyone who is Jewish, Muslim, Pagan or any other religion, and anyone who is atheist.

That's especially true because he says his "mission" is to spread the Xian doctrine ... one many of us see as anathema to the principles of freedom (all Xians are "servants," per the Bible, and servants are by definition not free), peace (Jesus pledged to bring a sword), civil order (his followers were expected to desert their families), and even the principle of military obedience to civilian leadership (kings in Biblical days led by force, not popular will). The existence of that kind of fanaticism in our armed forces reminds me all too easily of the lunatics in Dr. Strangelove and al Qaeda. It is the kind of attitude that provokes crusades (jihads) and witch hunts, and leaves little room for negotiation or compromise -- one the future can do without.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

"...Pahk yuh kaah..."

I guess my mother will be happy to know she succeeded at making sure I didn't have a significant New England accent....

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Midland

"You have a Midland accent" is just another way of saying "you don't have an accent." You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas. You have a good voice for TV and radio.

The West
North Central
The Northeast
The Inland North
The South
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Musing on cyber-money

Earlier today, I had to hit the bank to deposit Jenn's check, and was listening to Midnight Oil's Blue Sky Mining album. I'm not sure what about those things inspired the following, but something did...

For many people, the cyber-economy is a fiction, a place where people can manipulate numbers without real world consequences and the numbers themselves have little or no validity. Trillions of dollars flow through cyberspace daily, multiplying with little link to the "real world."

To some degree, I agree with that attitude. But this morning, it also occurred to me that the cybereconomy, if properly managed, has far greater potential to meet humanity's needs than does the traditional economy.

The cybereconomy is not, in fact, rooted in nothing; its roots tap the various intangibles we as a society should put a much greater value on -- creativity, independence, personal uniqueness, entrepreneurship, community and intelligence. These things are not just "business" attributes, they're things most people share, and the cybereconomy actually acknowledges this fact. Combined, these traits provide the basis for an economic system that can truly be global, even go beyond this planet when we do, and include everyone capable of coming up with a new idea. The cybereconomy even has a place (although today's "leaders" won't like this concept) for hackers and counterfeiters, because they create value where none previously existed ... just like the speculators of the old economy.

The traditional economy, by contrast, gives those concepts lip-service, but doesn't really abide by them. Because it's rooted in material resources -- gold, silver, furs, crops, whatever -- it is inherently subject to control by the relatively few people who have those things. Regardless of what avenue of economy a person wants to be active in, there are invariably restrictions of some kind and inconveniences placed on the flow of goods and ideas to benefit a few who claim to "own" them.

As a zero-sum system, the old economy favors certain kinds of interactions -- namely, exploitative ones -- among people and between humans and nature, often to the detriment of both. The only difference is that the "loser" gets harmed immediately, while the "winner" gets harmed in the long-term. It is, by its very nature, a form of both autocratic and scarcity thinking, yet its practitioners deny that fact, to the detriment of everyone.

One example of the fundamental difference between the two economies is art. In the old system, access to art is severely limited, by wealthy patrons (including governments) owning it outright or limiting its circulation to museums that only a relatively few people have access to, for fiscal or geographic reasons. Although many people express their creativity artistically, a small handful tend to define what is economically valuable, and thereby greatly limit the potential of art as a means of livelihood.

By "cyberizing" art, however, the original, physical work still exists, but a vastly larger number of people have access to it and the opportunity to see and be inspired by it. The focus of what's valuable shifts from the actual object to the idea of art and the mindset behind the act of creation.

The same thing could really be said about many things in cyberspace, especially simulated communities. There, people have the choice to literally change the world into something they'd want to live in and an opportunity to experiment with ideas or behavior that very rarely exists in the "real" world. While some people use that opportunity to escape from physical reality, others use it to discover who they are and what they believe. While some of the concepts expressed are hostile, I think the fact they can be expressed and shared makes hostile acts less likely in the long run.

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When I read this story in the Arizona Republic, an admittedly slightly paranoid idea struck me: they know the voting machines are crooked.

Early voting strong in Maricopa County

Robbie Sherwood
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Voter turnout for the Nov. 7 general election could be high if early-ballot requests are any indication.

Early voting is strong in Maricopa County, with approximately 470,000 requests received by Friday's deadline, said Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne. There are 1.5 million registered voters in the county.

She cautioned that Election Day turnout might not be very brisk because of a long ballot.

Osborne did note one "anomaly": Nearly 90,000 more Republicans than Democrats have early ballots but have not yet mailed them back. The gap is usually only half that large at this time, she said.

Republicans typically vote by mail in larger percentages than Democrats, but the numbers could be a sign of an extra effort by state and federal candidates to get out Republican voters in the GOP stronghold of Maricopa County, said Doug Cole, a campaign strategist.

Of the early-ballot requests in Maricopa County, 52 percent came from Republicans, 32 percent from Democrats and 16 percent from independents and unaffiliated voters.

More than 125,000 mail-in ballots have been cast.

Statewide, early-ballot requests were nearing 700,000 late this week

This is also an election that features yet another of those Constitutional amendments (Proposition 107) to prohibit gay marriage. According to the Phoenix New Times, it "would also eliminate health and financial benefits that normally accrue to a civil union or couples living together." If anyone reads this blog from AZ, please vote against such nonsense -- it's short-sighted, ideologically-driven bigotry that has no place in a free society.

(I realize I don't live there now, but I did, and think part of me still calls Arizona home.)


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Reinventing the Middle East ... and more

Hmmm... Ralph Peters has an interesting concept of what a future Middle East could look like. Among other things, he proposes new nations like an Arab Shia state, "Free Baluchistan," and "Greater Kurdistan," and the "Islamic Sacred State;" significantly enlarged Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Yemen; and significantly shrunken Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Some of those things make sense, some don't.

Truthfully, I've thought along those lines, too. Being a map buff, I've played with maps of the tribes and languages in that area to craft an alternate Middle East, and it shares a few points with Peters. For example, I also came up with Kurdistan and Baluchistan, but his vision of a mega-Afghanistan makes no sense culturally. That nation even as it is today is a mess of peoples that don't function as a nation. It's Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Kyrgyz & other groups often don't share linguistic or cultural heritage. Some of them have significant numbers of their tribe in neighboring nations (namely, Pashtuns, who are also numerous in Pakistan, and Tajiks & Kyrgyz, who have their own countries), while others are seriously discriminated against (namely, the Hazara).

He leaves a rump Pakistan that has little cultural history at all -- the only reason Pakistan exists today is that it defined itself by its Muslim majority in the 1940s, after British India threw off London's yoke and Gandhi got assassinated. A real split based on cultural lines would eliminate Pakistan entirely, giving some (mostly the western regions) to other countries (above) and unifying the bulk of its people into what was, before and somewhat during British rule, a resurrected state of Punjab, which would include part of NW India.

Speaking of India, I think it's interesting that Peters only targets MUSLIM nations for dismemberment. Hindu India is the world's biggest polyglot nation, with literally hundreds of linguistic minorities and a history of being divided into many co-existing (and sometimes warring) nation-states. The nation's disunity stretches back millennia, to the days the first Indo-European tribes migrated from the north and settled in the Ganges valley, but left a large Dravidian population in the south.

To be sure, India has been unified numerous times in its history, but that unity was often a surface unity only, with urban areas (especially the Ganges Valley) accepting whatever the current imperial dynasty was but tribal areas (especially in the south) rejecting him. A great example is Ashoka's Empire, possibly the greatest Indian emperor. The top map is how his realm is typically depicted in historical atlases, but the bottom shows how puzzle-like it really was.

The fact that India is today a functioning democracy is largely despite those centrifugal pressures, but we still see them emerge at times. Today's most notable example is the Tamil Tiger revolt in Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese Buddhist majority is trying to prevent the Tamil Hindu minority from slicing off the nation's NE third. Those Tamils have a significant presence on the Indian mainland, being a large majority in the state that bears their name, Tamil Nadu.

In some respects, I think Peters' proposal is merely a reflection of the current trend away from big nation-states and towards more ethnically-homogenous entities. Although he's unfortunately correct when he says that 5,000 years of experience shows that ethnic cleaning works, as we've seen in the Balkans and Iraq, I don't think a resurrection of tribalism or regionalism HAS to involve mass murder, as the mostly peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia and the USSR proved.

In some cases, such breakups would probably be beneficial in the long run. Take Turkey: Why does Ankara WANT to keep the fractious Kurds in the country? Why not let them form their own nation and wash Turkish hands of the problems caused by the feuds with PKK & similar groups? The primary reason is probably a vestige of Turkish memory of imperial glory, since the Kurds are the last remnant of the dozens of nationalities the Ottoman Empire ruled for centuries. But the more practical reason I can think of is water -- the Kurdish population resides in the highlands that spawn the Tigris & Euphrates rivers, while most of Turkey itself is semi-desert. An independent Kurdistan would be a major regional player for that reason (not to mention oil wells near Kirkuk & Mosul).

At times, I think this concept should be extended to the US, too. As time goes by, it seems like the liberal, cosmopolitan Northeast and Pacific coasts seem to be sliding away from the conservative, more segregated South and central states in attitude, education, religiosity, dialect, and various other factors. Are we seeing the development of new cultures? Probably; every major state in history (except maybe China) has given birth to new societies rooted in the old one. Many of those spin-offs happened violently, either by invasion or revolution, but we can't afford that today.

Instead, maybe it's time for the people of various states and regions to consider whether their interests are truly best served by being part of a federal America, or whether democracy is best served by having several countries and maintaining friendly contact via modern communications technology and family ties, but not political ones. There's no reason the US couldn't be similar to Europe, with several independent nations linked together by economy, geography, shared interests, and more-or-less open borders to travel and commerce. I think smaller states enable people to watch over and participate in government more easily and are therefore able to be more genuinely small-d democratic. Since this is likely to happen in time anyway, we might as well manage it consciously so as to ensure as much as possible that the outcome is peaceful and orderly. Otherwise, history shows it's very likely to be bloody and chaotic.

Thanks to Kelly at Singularity for the tip.

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