Putting the life back in science fiction

Raven Rock, tinfoil hats, and continuity with the future

I wish I could say that I was busy writing a new book, and that’s why I haven’t posted in a month, but really it’s more about life getting in the way of art, or something.  One note is that between last April and this April, I wrote 21 responses to environmental documents for the California Native Plant Society and attended way more meetings than that.  This isn’t due to the current administration in Washington, but rather more that we’re in (or just past) the height of the current business cycle, so every bad idea for a development has lumbered out of its crypt, demanding a new life.  Or, less, poetically, projects are on their second or third go round after having been rejected the last time, because the land was available for cheap, and some developer suckered some investor into buying it on the promise that the land was so cheap they could afford to deal with all the legal hassles this time.  And if it doesn’t work this time, there will be a next time as long as the land remains in private hands.  But I’m getting side tracked.

I’ve also had some time to do a bit of reading, and I’d recommend Garret Graff’s Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us DieIt’s a history of the US government’s attempts since Truman to figure out how to save the presidency from a nuclear war, secret undisclosed underground bunkers and all.   It’s fun reading if you’re into this kind of thing, and I suspect it does play into modern politics in some ways that the book itself doesn’t go into.

One important point is that most of this planning is for the executive branch.  The House of Representatives only had the now decommissioned Greenbrier bunker to save itself.  If they could get out of Washington DC in the 15-60 minutes they had to save themselves, and the Supreme Court was even less prepared to evacuate.  Moreover, as we found in 9/11, the one time they actually activated what they call the Continuity of Government System (COG), a lot of the billions of dollars in plans they made didn’t mean squat, either because people wouldn’t evacuate, or they couldn’t evacuate, or critical systems broke down.  Of these, the first point is perhaps the most critical, or it was until Trump took office: most presidents, when faced with the question of whether they’d evacuate the White House during a nuclear attack, decided early on that a) they didn’t want to start a nuclear war, and b) if faced with the threat of incoming nukes, they preferred to stay in the White House, leading the defense of the US until they died.  Most officials followed their bosses’ lead without even knowing they were doing so.  Even Dick Cheney, who was in Washington during 9/11, refused to evacuate, trying to hold everything together from the little bunker under the  White House while Bush was evacuated into a randomly flying Air Force One and incidentally (accidentally) left out of touch with the levers of power.

Under Bush and Obama, the planning changed, and now the idea is that the Presidency and other offices will devolve in a huge long complicated line of succession as office holders get destroyed.  Rather than making elaborate and likely unworkable plans for getting hundreds of people moved hundreds of miles in a handful of minutes, their new attempt at making sure the US executive branch continues to work apparently centers around having lots of people in the line of succession.  If this ever becomes an issue, we may well have a civil war if two people claim the presidency (President and Anti-President, I guess), but that seems more workable than asking dedicated people to leave their posts and families on the vague promise that they’ll somehow survive in an under-tested bunker or jet.

And it turns out that the tinfoil hat crowd was largely right: COG is a huge, decades-long, multibillion dollar set of poorly supervised programs, led in large part by an agency now known as FEMA.  It also turns out that post catastrophe US government will almost exclusively be the executive branch running in authoritarian mode with martial law, at least until (heh heh) elections can be held, judges can be appointed, and the legislative and judicial branches can be properly reconstituted, since their survival plans suck dead rat.  So yes, the idea that FEMA is this (sinister?) organization designed to implement authoritarian rule in the event of an emergency turns out to be largely true.  While it’s now, finally, doing good by helping ordinary Americans deal with natural and other disasters, that wasn’t its first or arguably even its biggest purpose.  It’s been through a lot of name changes and ping-ponged between civilian and military control, but the agency now known as FEMA got its start building bunkers for the Cold War, simply so we could fight a nuclear war with the Soviets, on the apparently workable premise that if both sides had something like a Dead Hand to launch nukes after being attacked, neither side would attack. And, more importantly, to spend billions of poorly audited dollars doing so.  How much of it is good, how much evil?  Hard to say, but most of it (thankfully) was trashed without ever being used.

There are at least three systems at play in (preventing) nuclear war: the Soviets and now the Russians have their Dead Hand, an automated system to launch surviving nukes if nuclear explosions are detected, even if the human command system is knocked out.  The US has the COG system to insure that human hands stay alive to push the buttons from somewhere, the UK prime minister gave their UK nuclear sub commanders sealed, hand written orders to be opened in the event of nuclear war, and who knows how the other nuclear powers handled retaliation.   And some version of all of these systems is still active.  And it’s unclear whether any of them will work, let alone how many fully functioning missiles exist in the world right now.

One thing I wondered, while reading Raven Rock, is how knowledge of the Continuity of Government Programs shaped the way Washington works.  Cheney and Rumsfeld were intimately involved in COG ops starting in the Nixon White House, and while their actions during 9/11 makes them seem a bit less evil than I’d imagined (Cheney stayed at his post, while Rumsfeld was reportedly at the Pentagon carrying stretchers after the attack until someone finally collared him and forced him to go back to doing the Secretary of Defense/COG stuff), both of them both knew that the legislative branch was considered expendable in emergencies and were used to using disasters and disaster planning as a way to spend a lot of money and garner a lot of power.

I also suspect current leaders in Congress kowtow to the White House now because they have this idea in the back of their heads that they’re ultimately expendable, that if things got really bad they’d be swept aside just to keep the US government running.  If true, I can easily see how such a notion would poison the confidence they currently need to actually govern.

Yes, there were also, initially, plans to help more of the US populace survive, at least back in the 1950s and sporadically thereafter.  These plans largely turned out to be unworkable, things on the order of finding a big enough church hall, stocking it up with basic food supplies (e.g. stuff that various commodity programs had too much of), implementing brilliant plans like having bulldozers contracted to cover 40-foot high church roofs in feet of dirt quickly so that said hall could function as a makeshift underground bunker, then ignoring the supplies and plans for 10-30 years until they all had to be thrown out and started again.  And most people don’t do individual disaster prep adequately (that’s a crime I’m guilty of).  Ultimately, initial, early 1950s proposals of burying all US cities to make the US bombproof faded in the 1960s and 1970s as planners realized that Americans are pants at preparing for any disaster.  Thus, protecting the US morphed into COG programs that only tried to keep the top of the executive branch alive and functioning, and even these turned out to be unworkable on 9/11.  Still, they’ve learned a lot from that failure, and it’s a lot less clear what current COG plans look like.

Going forward, I’m a little concerned with having people like Steve Bannon intimately involved in planning COG.  It’s not just about nuclear war, although I suspect Trump would be the first POTUS to break with tradition and scuttle for the bunkers as soon as things looked scary.  But that’s not the biggest problem.  The biggest problem COG faces isn’t terrorism or nuclear war, it’s climate change.  FEMA itself talks about climate change and Continuity of Government in some of its documents, but only on a superficial level.  Thing is, I know they’re thinking about it, and I suspect they’re thinking about what happens if there are so many migrants that the whole idea of nation-states with control of their own borders starts to break down.  In that case, I can see COG figuring out ways to switch to a more authoritarian, and presumably more survival-oriented, mode of governance.  Worse, I can see people like Bannon influencing who has their fingers on which buttons, and what they target with their plans and weapons systems.

While we can spin the paranoia endlessly and end up embarrassing ourselves with unintentional anti-immigrant rants, there is a real problem here:  what Raven Rock demonstrates is that the US has a long history of expensive, authoritarian, poor overseen, poorly designed, overly elaborate plans for keeping the executive branch alive at all costs.  I’m quite sure they’re still doing it, but I’m a lot less sure about whether the plans will do anything more than sow chaos.  They may work okay in a short-term terrorist attack, but I’m really concerned about what they’ll do as they grapple with long-term, slow-moving problems, like climate change and human migration.  Guess we’ll find out.

The Future Looks Like Hawai’i?

Haven’t posted for a month, because (among other things) I’ve been out marching with posters and everything (Marches for Science and Climate), and then I went on vacation for two weeks to the Big Island of Hawai’i.  And in honor of the vacation, I’d like to post about one of the more misleading thoughts I’ve had for years: the future looks like Hawai’i.

I’m sure you’re now thinking of girls in grass skirts and coconut bras dancing to the ukelele under the coconut trees by the beach while you eat mahi mahi, avoid the bowl of poi,  and drink mai tais  while you wait to be entertained, and that’s the image I don’t want to promulgate.  That’s the Hawaiian fantasy of cruise ships and expensive luaus, and that’s not at all what I’m talking about here.

No, I’m thinking of the real Hawai’i.  We stayed a week each in two vacation rentals, one on the southeast Puna side (the rainforest where, it is said, the government likes to relocate its witnesses) and one in the Kailua-Kona area on the touristy west coast, near where the chiefs used to seat their royal rumps when they weren’t out playing their version of the game of thrones.

So what do I mean by the future looks Hawaiian?

–The people are ethnic, often indeterminately so.  They’re really hard working (the work traffic on the Kona side started before 6 AM), but mostly not paid so well.  Meanwhile, a lot of the land is bound up in big ranches (like the Parker Ranch), resorts, and other such things.  So a few rich people, and a lot of people working hard to get by.  Sound familiar?

–It’s kinda hot and humid all the time, unless you go up in altitude, which means you go somewhere into the island’s interior, which isn’t flat to speak of.  The Big Island at 4,000 square miles is a bit smaller than LA County (or Connecticut), but when you realize that it’s basically all one big volcano with a bunch of subsidiary cones, you understand that it’s literally oozing topography (from Kilauea).  And geography too, with a desert in the center and the tallest mountain on Earth.  Indeed, much of the island (including the high ranch areas on the northwest and Hilo) remind me more of Oregon than of a tropical paradise.  At least if you don’t look at the plants too hard.

–Speaking of the plants, that’s the eyecatching thing for a botanist: it’s mostly weeds, unless you’re really high up, in which case it’s just fairly weedy.  There are great rolling grasslands composed primarily of introduced pennisetum grass, with eucalyptus for shade (or Mexican mesquite down lower, or Brazilian peppertrees).  Parts of the Kohala range look for all the world like Oregon, and the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea looks like eastern Oregon, unless you know your plants.  On the Puna side, there were native Ohi’a trees, but they were interspersed with all sorts of things, including the Schefflera actinophylla, the octopus tree, which is a close relative of the Scheffleras we neglect as house plants.    Most of the birds are non-native, as are almost all the mammals, the lizards, the coqui frogs, the…you get the picture.  When climate change takes off and everything’s migrating, I’d expect California and many other places to be more like weedy ol’ Hawai’i.

–Oh, and the Ohi’a trees are being taken out by Rapid Ohi’a Death, caused by the fungus (probably a species complex) Ceratocystis fimbriata This is another one of them difficult problems, and there were shoe cleaning stations at the entrances to many parks.

–If you read Hawaiian history, you’ll find out that King Kamehameha I, who was born on the northwestern tip of the island on one of the windiest areas I’ve ever seen a small airport in (did you know a Cessna could hover?  Neither did I.  That’s headwind it dealt with right after it took off, and I’m only slightly exaggerating), presided over a population crash from somewhere north of half a million people when Captain Cook arrived (extrapolating from their estimates of 400,000-500,000), to somewhere around 130,000 people when the first missionaries ran a census fifty years later.  That’s the effect of the virgin ground pandemics that hit the chain, starting with Cook.  While the social system did break down (the tapu system was abandoned, Christianity was promulgated, the Parker Ranch was founded on what used to be densely populated farmland…), the monarchy did not break down for another hundred years or so, and that’s an important hint for how radical depopulation could play out.  Total anarchy is not guaranteed, and indeed, some people may use the disruption to grow wealthy and/or powerful.

I could and probably should go on and discuss the chaos that will happen when the islands are cut off from the mainland, but I’ll leave it there.  As Gibson noted, the future is already here, but it’s just not very evenly distributed.  I’d suggest that Hawai’i shows many aspects of that future.  Unfortunately, and especially on the Kona side, the place is getting over-run with California-style gated communities and planned developments, with malls of multinationals, tract housing, the whole nine yards.  The irony here is that a somewhat hopeful view of our possibly dystopian future is getting over-written by the greed of the present.  But that’s the kind of stuff I go on vacation to see, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Syria, Part II

Confession time: I can’t stand to watch the videos of Syrian people suffering and dying from the latest Sarin attack.  Since I have asthma, I may very well die gasping for breath, and this particular horror strikes too close to home for me to watch.  Here’s Charity Navigator listing their best charities for the Syrian conflict.  Or you can give to the UNHCR for Syria.

Anyway, I decided to look back at my 2013 post on the Syrian Water War, to see where we are 3 1/2 years later.  Has anything changed?  Is there anything we can learn, especially with the current regime in the White House? Continue reading

Hot and Cold Running Evolution
April 6, 2017, 9:31 pm
Filed under: deep time, evolution, Hot Earth Dreams | Tags: , ,

I’m not following the primary journals as much as I used to, so this pop-science article in Quanta on the rate of evolution caught my attention.  It claims, apparently on the grounds of several different lines of evidence, that rates of mutation and evolution appear to run faster at short time scales than long time scales.  In other words, there’s more genetic and morphological variation over short time spans than over long ones.

Paradoxical?  Not quite. Useful?  Very. Continue reading

Tekelili! The Wilkes Land Gravitational Anomaly

Another little post, this one on a news item a few months old.  Whenever someone spots a gravity anomaly in Antarctica, people get silly, write things about how the tinfoil hat brigade think it’s a UFO, or an alien base, or NAZIs.   They’re so silly.  Of course it’s shoggoth (not sure what the singular or plural is.  Since shoggoth is sort of like concrete or nanotech, is it singular, plural, collective singular, collective plural, or what?).  Anything that close to the Transantarctic Mountains has to be.  it’s canon.

More seriously, there’s some potentially interesting science buried under the ice.   Continue reading

The Reichstag match factory?
March 14, 2017, 2:07 am
Filed under: nonviolence, Speculation, Syria | Tags:

Since spring has Sprung with a vengeance around here (See this, for example), I’m wearing my botanist duds and getting away from the computer quite a lot.  Which is a good thing.

In the meantime, here are a couple of articles on the actions of the current Republican Administration.  Someone said that was the calm way to have a discourse without empowering you-know-who, and I’m beginning to believe that True Names are those where ad companies send you revenue and eyeballs when your name is used.  But I digress too much.

The title’s in reference to the Reichstag Fire. Hopefully it will make sense by the end. Continue reading

One of Them Difficult Problems

I don’t know why Agent Orange’s First Official Joint Session made me think about parasites, but there you have it.  This is actually something I’ve been dealing with for awhile now, and since the problem is only going to get worse unless (and until) we innovate our way out of this particular pickle.

The problem is fairly simple: if you want a sustainable society, you need to recycle almost everything.  The problem with recycling stuff, especially organic materials, is that it makes controlling pests, pathogens, and parasites very, very hard, because they move very well in streams of unprocessed materials.  After all, a large majority of species on Earth are parasites (per Zimmer’s Parasite Rex), and we, erm, they, evolved over the last billion-odd years in a world where the elements of organic matter are recycled extremely well, give or take some oil and coal fields.  So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that our attempts at recycling and repurposing are spreading parasites and pathogens all over the place.  Continue reading