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That a world-mapping should include our assumptions

Friday, May 13th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Lorenz’ butterfly : tornado :: Fukushima’s rat : earthquake? + Brussles metro attack ]
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Brussels map
Brussels metro & tramway map

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For every unintended consequence, there’s an assumption that was assumed and thus overlooked, forgotten, unfairly assigned to oblivion, amirite? Sometimes we’re fortunate, and a pattern emerges that can then be written into checklists, and repeat unintended consequences subsequently averted, if we heed the checklists, ahem.

Consider this stunning paragraph, from a Union of concerned Scientists‘ 2013 piece titled Fission Stories #133: Mayflies, and Squirrels, and Rats, …:

Fukushima Daiichi recently received worldwide media attention when another power outage once again interrupted cooling of the water in the Unit4 spent fuel pool for several hours. The culprits in 2011 were an earthquake that knocked out the normal supply of electricity to the cooling system and a tsunami that disabled the backup power source. This time, a rat was the culprit. It chewed through the insulation on an electrical cable, exposing wires that shorted out and stopped the cooling system. It was also the rat’s final meal as the event also electrocuted the guilty party.

Part of what’s so conceptually audacious here is the implicit risk equation, okay, perhaps I should call it the implicit risk approximation:

earthquake = rat

**

Take the Brussels metro attack: in my less-than-graphically-ideal mapping below, the left hand column shows what was intanded by the police to be the order of events as they initiated them in response to the airport attack a little earlier:

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while the two centered annotations in red indicate the unverified assumption that interfered with the sequence of events as intended by the police, and the right hand column shows what actually transpired.

Exceopt that the situation was wildly more complex than that — a point not germane to my argument here, but elaborated upon in today’s WaPo article, The email that was supposed to prevent the Brussels metro attack was sent to the wrong address. Which see.

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Getting back to Fukushima, the earthquake and the rat, perhaps we can now take the title of Edward Lorenz‘ remarable paper that gave us the term “butterfly effect” — Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas? — out of the realm of speculation, and into the realm of improbable yet actualized comparables, by rephrasing it thus: Predictability: Does the Bite of a Rat’s Teeth in Fukushima Have Comparable Effect to an Earthquake in Fukushima?

Oh, and just because something is predictable doesn’t mean it’s predicted — and just because something is predicted doesn’t mean the prediction will be heard or heeded.

And that’s an anticipable consequence of the way we are.

**

In the matter of Quixote:

I have this quixotic wish to see a map of global dependencies — it’s something I’ve thought about ever since Don Beck told me “Y2K is like a lightning bolt: when it strikes and lights up the sky, we will see the contours of our social systems” — and I’ve talked about it here before, in eg Mapping our interdependencies and vulnerabilities [with a glance at Y2K].

It’s a windmill, agreed — a glorious windmill! — and indeed, combining all our potential assumptions about even one single Belgian metro station in the course of just one particular morning and adding them to a map — or a checklist — would be another.

Tilting at windmills, however, is one of the great games of the imagination, frowned upon by all the righteously serious among us, well-suited to poets — and having the potential to help us avoid those damned unintended consequences.

Surrealism and surreal reality

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — perception and plutonium ]
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The sureralist master and master surrealist Salvador Dali here invokes optical illusion to illuminate the fickle nature of our perceptions of (non-surreal) reality:

As for reality itself, it has its own form of surreality — in this case, the dismal facts of plutonium stockpiles and their disposal, and their implications for politics (not to mention its conceivable / inconceivable continuation by other means).

All of which is unpleasant to conteplate, seldom discussed, and thus itself a form of perceptual illusion:

FWIW, I see a visual connection between these two images, although that may ba a personal quirk not shared by others. Again, a quirk of perception?

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Readings:

  • RFE / RL, As Putin Swipes At U.S. Over Plutonium Disposal, Nuclear Cooperation Takes A Hit
  • Cheryl Rofer at Nuclear Diner, Plutonium Disposal Difficulties
  • Yesterday’s learnings in science and religion

    Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — theo-ecology, with a side of spaghetti ]
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    First, a Nobel laureate makes a distinction that should be of interest to all who study war — as also to those who “ain’t gonna study war no more”. Lucy Hughes-Hallett begins a New Statesman book review titled Chernobyl and the ghosts of a nuclear past thus:

    “This not a book on Chernobyl,” writes Svetlana Alexievich, “but on the world of Chernobyl.” It is not about what happened on 26 April 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded near the border between Ukraine and Belarus. It is about an epoch that will last, like the radioactive material inside the reactor’s leaking ruin, for tens of thousands of years. Alexievich writes that, before the accident, “War was the yardstick of horror”, but at Chernobyl “the history of dis­asters began”.

    If we are not approaching the Eve of Destruction, nor the Zombie Apocalypse, nor an outbreak of nuclear war or some abominable plague, nor the Islamic Qiyama nor the Christian Armageddon, nor the drowning of our major coastal cities nor rapid heat death of most or all human life on earth, and if we forgo the notions of the anthropocene age, or the impoending singularity, why then the distinction that we have left the age of war (as teh major concern of the human race) and entered the age of disaster may be of interest, taxonomically speaking.

    But I understand that last paragraph contains a vast “if” encompassing a large range of “nors”.

    **

    Okay, getting back to what I hope is the positive side of the ledger while keeping an eye of the negative, A Western Soto Zen Buddhist Statement on the Climate Crisis just came out:

    As Buddhists, our relationship with the earth is ancient. Shakyamuni Buddha, taunted by the demon king Mara under the Bodhi Tree before his enlightenment, remained steady in meditation. He reached down to touch the earth, and the earth responded: “I am your witness.” The earth was partner to the Buddha’s work; she is our partner, as we are hers.

    From the Buddha’s time, our teachers have lived close to nature by choice, stepped lightly and mindfully on the earth, realizing that food, water, medicine, and life itself are gifts of nature.

    The Japanese founders of Soto Zen Buddhism spoke with prophetic clarity about our responsibility to the planet and to all beings. In Bodaisatta Shishobo/The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Dharmas Dogen Zenji, the founder of Japanese Soto Zen, wrote:

    To leave flowers to the wind, to leave birds to the seasons are the activity of dana/giving.

    **

    One particular concern of mine has to do with the impact of global warming on the heartlands of Islam, and Mecca in particular, as mentioned here in an NYT piece titled Deadly Heat Is Forecast in Persian Gulf by 2100:

    The research raises the prospect of “severe consequences” for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that draws roughly two million people to Mecca to pray outdoors from dawn to dusk. Should the hajj, which can occur at various times of the year, fall during summer’s height, “this necessary outdoor Muslim ritual is likely to become hazardous to human health,” the authors predicted.

    Here’s another distinction worth pondering, this one drawn from the same NYT piece, quoting Erich M. Fischer of the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science at ETH Zurich:

    Anyone can experience the fact that humidity plays a crucial role in this in the sauna. .. You can heat up a Finnish sauna up to 100 degrees Celsius since it is bone dry and the body efficiently cools down by excessive sweating even at ambient temperatures far higher than the body temperature. In a Turkish bath, on the other hand, with almost 100 percent relative humidity, you want to keep the temperatures well below 40 degrees Celsius since the body cannot get rid of the heat by sweating and starts to accumulate heat.

    **

    Staying with Islam, and parallel to the Zen declaration above, we have this Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. Section 2.8 reads:

    In view of these considerations we affirm that our responsibility as Muslims is to act according to the example of the Prophet Muhammad (God’s peace and blessings be upon him) who –

  • Declared and protected the rights of all living beings, outlawed the custom of burying infant girls alive, prohibited killing living beings for sport, guided his companions to conserve water even in washing for prayer, forbade the felling of trees in the desert, ordered a man who had taken some nestlings from their nest to return them to their mother, and when he came upon a man who had lit a fire on an anthill, commanded, “Put it out, put it out!”;
  • Established inviolable zones (harams) around Makkah and Al-Madinah, within which native plants may not be felled or cut and wild animals may not be hunted or disturbed;
  • Established protected areas (himas) for the conservation and sustainable use of rangelands, plant cover and wildlife.
  • Lived a frugal life, free of excess, waste, and ostentation; Renewed and recycled his meagre possessions by repairing or giving them away;
  • Ate simple, healthy food, which only occasionally included meat;
  • Took delight in the created world; and
  • Was, in the words of the Qur’an, “a mercy to all beings.”
  • **

    It is curious to find Walid Shoebat, a vigorously anti-Muslim Christian apologeticist, making some of the same points in a piece titled It Is Now Confirmed And Scientists Now Predict That Mecca Will Be Destroyed By Extreme Heat:

    While many will cry “global warming”, it will actually be the sun heating up (Deut 28.23,24) (Zech 14.17). Another form of judgement prophesied by Isaiah appears to be extreme heat – heat severe enough to kill people:

    ‘Therefore … the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left’ (Isa 24.6)

    The book of Revelation appears to speak of the same end time events and predicts extreme weather as part of God’s judgement upon the nations. There will be fierce, scorching heat:

    ‘The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. Men were scorched with fierce heat …’ (Rev 16.8,9)

    The Bible also predicted (as scientists now do) that Mecca will be “uninhabited”: “After her destruction, Babylon [Arabia] will merely be a home for demons, evil spirits, and scavenging desert creatures” (Revelation 18:1-2).

    **

    And finally, on a lighter note — sticking with religion, at least arguably, but definitely moving from science to science fiction, we have this (theological) ruling from a Nebraska federal district court in Cavanaugh v. Bartelt:

    This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a “religious exercise” on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds. 6 See, Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (Dell Publishing 1988) (1963); Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (Putnam Publ’g Grp. 1961). Of course, there are those who contend—and Cavanaugh is probably among them—that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not “religious” simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line.

    And may the force be with you — or what’s a metaphor?

    On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 2: to spark a messianic fire

    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — it’s what we won’t notice that can blindside us ]
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    Dabiq issue 1 graphic
    al-Malhamah al-Kubra, the great end-times battle

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    To recapitulate: in my previous post I suggested that “apocalyptic, end-of-days” movements are qualitatively different by virtue of the immediacy of their divine / transcendant mandate. Richard Landes sums the matter up nicely in his book Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience:

    For people who have entered apocalyptic time, everything quickens, enlivens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused — everything has meaning, patterns. The smallest incident can have immense importance and open the way to an entirely new vision of the world, one in which forces unseen by other mortals operate. If the warrior lives with death at his shoulder, then apocalyptic warriors live with cosmic salvation before them, just beyond their grasp.

    **

    Here’s my concern, having lived a while in Malibu — and once watched on a friend’s TV in Santa Monica as a fire that had leapt the Ventura Freeway and swept down towards the Malibu Colony – rerouted by the fire service to go down the sparsely inhabited Corral Canyon, where as it happened I then lived..

    Brush fires.

    The human terrain is dry tinder, not yet ablaze – but a spark will ignite it, and the blaze then spread “like wildfire”.

    The problem here is that we are far more disposed to read surfaces than undercurrents, news articles than the comments beneath them, what’s happening than what’s primed to happen, kinetic rather than potential energies. And so when potential goes kinetic, we are blindsided, caught off guard, faced with events we then characterize in retrospect as “unanticipated” — even though a little observation of what’s stirring below the surface would have allowed us to anticipate them…

    What’s the equivalent, in contemporary Islamic terms, of dry underbrush of the sort that can suddenly ignite?

    An expectation of the Mahdi’s coming – present enough in AQ some years back that AQ Central issued a caution against its people making premature claims concerning the Mahdi; present in IS but distanced by the possibility of a sequence of Caliphs preceding the Mahdist moment [cf McCants, Appendix 4]; and overall present to a considerable degree in the Islamic countries Pew polled in 2012:

    The survey also asked respondents about the imminence of two events that, according to Islamic tradition, will presage the Day of Judgment: the return of the Mahdi (the Guided One who will initiate the final period before the day of resurrection and judgment) and the return of Jesus. .. In nine of the 23 nations where the question was asked, half or more of Muslim adults say they believe the return of the Mahdi will occur in their lifetime, including at least two-thirds who express this view in Afghanistan (83%), Iraq (72%), Turkey (68%) and Tunisia (67%).

    A qualification is in order here. The British scholar Damian Thompson has shown in his remarkable study, Waiting for Antichrist, that it is possible for people to express expectation of a messianic “soon coming”– and still save for the college tuition of children who would presumably arrive at college age during the epoch of the “new heaven and new earth”. Expressing expectation, then, in a soon-coming Mahdi as much as a soon-coming Christ, does not necessarily imply “on the edge of one’s seat” expectation in real time. It is, however, suggestive…

    Given dry conditions, then, to return to our analogy, what sort of spark can start a wildfire?

    **

    The Zipper metaphor.

    In my simplistic way — and switching metaphors — I like to use the analogy of the zipper on a windbreaker. There are two elements that need to come together, in my view: some ancient prophetic utterance in scripture, and what appears to be a strong confirmatory event in contemporary affairs. Let me give you two examples:

    The Chernobyl zipper

    Nicolai Berdyaev, in his The Russian Idea, declared that “Russian people, in accordance with their metaphysical nature and vocation in the world, are a people of the end.”

    Revelation 8. 10-11 reads in the English of the King James Version:

    Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it was made bitter.

    Nothing especially marks this visionary verse as prophetic to Anglophone ears — but to our cousins in the Orthodox world, it suddenly attained significance on April 26, 1986, when the Chernobyl power plant blew up in a Level 7 nuclear event, showering Belarus, Ukraine and Russia with massive amounts of radiation – for as The Orthodox Study Bible notes:

    Wormwood (in Slavonic, “Chernobyl”), an extremely bitter plant that would make water undrinkable, symbolizes the bitter fruits of idolatry…

    Chernobyl had already been the site of an apocalyptic movement in the eighteenth century, when a group of Old Believers known as Chernobylites “preached the arrival of the Antichrist and the imminent end of the world.” I’m drawing here on my colleague Michael J. Christensen’s presentation, The Russian Idea Of Apocalypse: Nikolai Berdyaev’s Theory Of Russian Cultural Apocalyptic delivered at the Center for Millennial Studies conference in 1998. As you can see from his paper, the topic is a complex one, but the key comment for my purposes is this one, analogous to the Pew research referenced above:

    According to a survey of 485 Belarusian citizens I commissioned in April 1996 (during the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl), nearly one third (31.2%) considered the Chernobyl nuclear disaster a prophecy specifically predicted in the Bible.

    The Israel Zipper:

    My other and perhaps more powerful example concerns Israel, and is a clincher that isn’t only notable to eastern Europeans. Tim LaHaye, in Charting the End Times, describes Israel as “God’s Super Sign of the End Times, writing:

    The study of Bible prophecy is divided into three major areas: the nations (Gentiles), Israel, and the church. More detail is given prophetically concerning God’s future plans for His nation — Israel. When the church takes these prophecies that relate to Israel literally, as we do, then we see a great prophetic agenda that lies ahead for Israel as a people and nation. When the church spiritualizes these promises, as she has done too often in history, then Israel’s prophetic uniqueness is subsumed and merged unrealistically in the church. God has an amazing and blessed future for elect individual Jews and national Israel. Israel is God’s super sign of the end times.

    Mark Hitchcock describes the connection between the founding of the State of Israel and prophecy in his 2003 book, The Second Coming of Babylon:

    In the 1940s, who would ever have believed that the Jewish people would have a national homeland by 1948? The Jewish people were exiled from their homeland in AD 70. It had been almost 1900 years! It was unthinkable. But the Jews endured the horror of the Nazi death camps, and within a few years thousands of them were home. Over the past fifty years, millions of Jews have returned to Israel. About 37 per cent of the Jews in the world now live there. The current and continuing stream of Jews back to Israel is setting the stage for the Antichrist’s peace covenant with Israel that will trigger the seven-year Tribulation (see Daniel 9.27).

    Once again, it’s a powerful “proof” – and once it’s accepted as validating the connection between prophecy and current affairs, it’s only too easy to fit the rest of current affairs, seductively if selectively, into the same overall pattern. The cover of Charles Dyer’s The Rise of Babylon all but screams at his 1991 readers:

    Saddam Hussein is rebuilding the lost city of Babylon. The Bible says Babylon will be rebuilt in the last days. Could ours be the last generation?

    But then we invaded Iraq, captured, tried, and executed Saddam.. and twenty-five years have passed since Dyer’s prophetic book was published..

    In sum:

    When there’s one single, strong (perceived) correlation between prophecy and news, in other words, the connection between them works like the zipper on a windbreaker – connect these two particular pieces together, and its fairly easy from then on to “see” current events in prophecy / prophecy in current events all over the place. The single strong case validates all sorts of other apparent correlations that would seem a lot less definite in its absence.

    **

    Next up: On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 3: Taiping and Falun Gong

    Two-sided nuke-rattling against the ISIS third?

    Thursday, December 17th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — trying to catch up with posts here when working on book proposals ]
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    Consider these two statements made in recent days:

    SPEC DQ nukes ISIS

    How does a war game — or game theory, for that matter — deal with the differenes, similarities, or continuum between threats and exercises on the one hand, and the actions they threaten or game on the other?

    **

    I have eagerly forgotten what temperature a nuclear strike inflicts on its human victims, and just how quickly they arrive there from room temperature. A sahih (trustworthy) hadith found in Tirmidhi tells us that the Prophet reserved the burning of infidels for God in the hereafter, and rejected its use by his followers in carrying out a death sentence:

    That ‘Ali burnt some people who apostasized from Islam. This news reached Ibn ‘Abbas, so he said: “If it were me I would have killed them according to the statement of Messenger of Allah (saw). The Messenger of Allah (saw) said: ‘Whoever changes his religion then kill him.’ And I would not have burned them because the Messenger of Allah (saw) said: ‘Do not punish with the punishment of Allah.’ So this reached ‘Ali, and he said: “Ibn ‘Abbas has told the truth.”

    I lasck specific knowledge of contemporary commentary on this hadith, but it occurs to me that in the time of the early Muslim community’s war for survival, apostasy would be equivalent to desertion. The US sentence for desertion in time of war, to this day, is described thus in the US Manual for Courts-Martial:

    Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct,

    The death penalty for desertion in time of war was last administered by US authorities in 1945.

    **

    Don’t we have something pretty close to a taboo on the use of nuclear weaponry?


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