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.



Water, salt, sediment, and power. And the future

Well, I finally finished reading Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (Amazon link), and I highly recommend it, if you haven’t read it already, even though the original text was written in the 1980s.  For those who haven’t read it, the thumbnail is that it’s a muckraking history of water works in the US, primarily in the western US in the 20th Century.  The reason I strongly recommend it is not just for what Reisner got right (or apparently got right), but also what he got wrong, like his prediction of the huge water crisis of 2000.

I’m not going to do a book review here.  Rather, I’m going to talk about some of the things I got out of it, including how hard it is to predict when water crises will hit.

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Gen. Alexander and the Legacy System from Hell

Here I am venturing into something I know nothing about: the Internet. Recently, I read a 1999 quote from Steward Brand, in The Clock of the Long Now (BigRiver Link), that the internet could “easily become the Legacy System from Hell that holds civilization hostage. The system doesn’t really work, it can’t be fixed, no one understands it, no one is in charge of it, it can’t be lived without, and it gets worse every year.”

Horrible thought, isn’t it? What I don’t know about are the legions of selfless hackers, programmers, techies, and nerds who are valiantly struggling to keep all the internets working. What I do know some tiny bit about are the concerted efforts of the NSA, under General Keith Alexander (who’s due to retire this spring), to install effectively undocumented features throughout the Internets and everything connected to them, so that they can spy at will. Perhaps I’m paranoid, but I’m pretty sure that every large government has been doing the same thing. If someone wants to hack us, they can.

So what?

Well, what I’m thinking about is the question of trust, rather than danger. The idea that cyberspace is dangerous goes well back before the birth of the World Wide Web. Remember Neuromancer? Still, for the first decade of online life, especially with the birth of social media, there was this trust that it was all for the greater good. Yes, of course we knew about spam and viruses, we knew the megacorps wanted our data as a product, and anyone who did some poking or prodding knew that spy agencies were going online too, that cyberwarfare was a thing. Still, there was a greater good, and it was more or less American, and it pointed at greater freedom and opportunity for everyone who linked in.

Is that still true? We’ve seen Stuxnet, which may well have had something to do with General Alexander’s NSA , and we’ve seen some small fraction of Edward Snowden’s revelations, about how the NSA has made every internet-connected device capable of spying on us. Does anyone still trust the US to be the good guys who run the Internet for the world? Even as an American, I’m not sure I do.

This lost trust may be the start of the Internets evolving into the Legacy System from Hell. Instead of international cooperation to maintain and upgrade the internet with something resembling uniform standards, we may well see a proliferation of diverse standards, all in the name of cyber security. It’s a trick that life learned aeons ago, that diversity collectively keeps everything from dying from the same cause. Armies of computer geeks (engineers by the acre in 1950s parlance) will be employed creating work-arounds across all the systems, to keep systems talking with each other. Countries that fall on hard times will patch their servers, unable or unwilling to afford expensive upgrades that have all sorts of unpleasant political issues attached. Cables and satellites will fail and not be replaced, not because we can’t afford to, but because we don’t trust the people on the other end of the link to deal fairly with us and not hack the systems they connect to.

I hope this doesn’t happen, of course, but I wonder. Once trust is lost, it’s difficult to regain. On a global level, can we regain enough trust to have someone run the internet as an international commons? A good place? Or is it too late for that? I’m quite sure that US, Chinese, and Russian cyberwarfare experts all will say that their expertise is defensive, designed to minimize damage, and they may even believe it. Still, in the face of so many soldiers and spies amassing online, why trust our lives to this battlefield? Anything we put online might be wiped out or compromised, victim to a battle we neither wanted nor approved of.

Even though I don’t have a reason to like him, it would be sad if General Alexander’s legacy was starting the conversion of the internet into a legacy system. It will also be instructive too, a lesson in how the buildup of military power can backfire (something I think even Lao Tzu commented on). Fortunately or unfortunately, any history written on a legacy system will most likely vanish when the last expert walks away and the owners pull the plug. That’s the problem with legacy systems, you see. Their data can vanish very, very quickly.