Tag Archives: risk

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare by Bertrand Russell

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare was a 1959 book by Bertrand Russell. The title is clearly tongue-in-cheek because these are two things that don’t mix. Here is a fun quote/paraphrase relating the book to the present day, provided by History News Network:

Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s. In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff. Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward). A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label. According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version: nuclear “Chicken.” He wrote: “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.” But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.” Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side.” When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

This might be the biggest problem of all with having nuclear weapons around. Even if rational adult supervision is present 99% of the time, and even if there were no risk of terrorism, it only takes one irrational leader one time to pull the trigger and fuck up our world permanently.

nuclear proliferation and non-state actors

This post on Lawfare talks about three ways people and groups other than nation-states could get their hands on nuclear weapons.

That entails blocking the pathways to terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon. There are three possibilities for how a terrorist organization might acquire the bomb: transfer—the sale or handoff of a weapon from a nuclear-weapon state; leakage—the theft of a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material; and indigenous production—the construction of a nuclear device from illicitly obtained weapons-grade fissile material.

Each pathway to nuclear acquisition by a non-state terrorist group is contingent on an act of commission or negligence by a state. The “leakage” of a weapon to a terrorist group would originate from one of the nine nuclear-weapon states or the 22 states (at current count) with weapons-grade fissile material in their civilian stocks. Among this group, the countries of greatest concern regarding the nexus of proliferation and terrorism—North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia—are each continuing their development of nuclear weapons and risking broader proliferation, including to non-state actors.

North Korea is on the verge of a strategic breakout both quantitatively, by ramping up its number of warheads to possibly as many as 100 weapons by 2020, and qualitatively, by mastering warhead miniaturization. And it would have few qualms about selling nuclear materials for the right price. Pyongyang is known, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, for its willingness to “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” Pakistan continues to build up its nuclear arsenal (including the development of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons), employs terrorism as an instrument of state policy, and faces the internal security threat of radical Islamists attempting to infiltrate its nuclear establishment. And Russia, which inherited the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal and stocks of fissile material, terminated its nuclear-security cooperation with the United States under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program put in place by the Nunn-Lugar Act in 1991.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!


climate change and shareholder revolts for big oil

According to Bloomberg, the board at Exxon just lost a fairly key shareholder vote on revealing business risks due to climate change. Part of the story is that large institutional shareholders like venture capital funds are concerned about these risks. These aren’t good guys acting out of purely ethical concerns of course – they are concerned about risks to the profits they are expecting.

Growth in support was driven by unprecedented majority votes for shareholder proposals asking Exxon Mobil Corp., Occidental Petroleum Corp. and electric utility PPL Corp. to report on the long-term business impacts of climate change. This proxy season marked the first time that kind of proposal has passed over board opposition. It also marked the first time BlackRock Inc. and likely more of the companies’ largest shareholders voted in its favor.

“When a company as prominent as Exxon Mobil loses a vote,” the board or corporate governance team may change its negotiating stance in the future so that it doesn’t happen again, James Copland, a senior fellow and director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute, told Bloomberg BNA…

Even though the proposals aren’t binding, boards that fail to respond to climate concerns could be held accountable come director election time. That’s already happened at Exxon Mobil, where BlackRock voted against the re-election of two directors after repeated requests to meet with the board to better understand its oversight of climate risk and other issues were rebuffed.

We are starting to see amoral, conservative actors in the finance and insurance industries demand action to mitigate climate risk. The good news is markets will respond and action will be taken. The bad news is amoral investors and markets tend to react to big and short term risks, and by the time the risks are big and short term, the best chances to take meaningful mitigation action may have passed.

getting out of a burning building

There’s no perfect way to get people out of a burning high rise quickly.

Fire evacuation in high-rise buildings: a review of human behaviour and modelling research

A review of literature related to fire evacuation in high-rise buildings was carried out with the following objectives, (1) to identify the key behavioural factors affecting the performance of people during a fire in a high-rise building, the singularities associated to this type of buildings and areas of future research; (2) to review the procedures and strategies currently adopted in high-rise buildings; (3) to review and analyse the capabilities of evacuation models by reviewing their current characteristics and applications in the context of high-rise building evacuations. The review included both findings on human behaviour in high-rise buildings and modelling techniques and tools. Different categories of building use were taken into account, namely office buildings, residential buildings and health care facilities. The individual or combined use of different egress components was analysed. Egress components include the use of stairs, elevators as well as alternative means of escape (e.g., sky-bridges, helicopters, etc.). The effectiveness of the egress components is strongly affected by the building use and the population involved. The review shows that evacuation models can be effectively employed to study relocation strategies and safety issues associated with high-rise buildings. The suitability of egress models for high-rise building evacuations is associated with their flexibility in representing different egress components and complex behavioural processes. The review highlights that there is not a definitive model to be used but that the predictive capabilities of evacuation modelling techniques would be enhanced if more than one model is employed to study different egress aspects. Future research and model developments should focus on the study of the impact of staff actions, group dynamics and people with disabilities. Given the increasing height of buildings and the gradual reduction in the physical abilities of the population, the effects of fatigue on evacuation need further studies.

opioid law suits

The Ohio attorney general is suing pharmaceutical companies over their role in the opioid crisis. Who knows if it goes anywhere, but if it does I can imagine this being as big as the tabacco lawsuits, and eventually every state will want a piece. In other words, the argument would be that massive highly profitable companies are making their profits by killing their customers, are well aware of it, and are hiding it. Unlike cigarettes though, there are clearly legitimate uses of the drugs, they are prescribed by doctors, and there are all kinds of warnings printed on the labels.

This also reminded me of the very long expose from the LA Times called Oxycontin’s 12-Hour Problem. I admit I haven’t read the whole thing, but the basic problem is they tell people in excruciating pain the drug will work for 12 hours, only it doesn’t, so they take it more often to help with the excruciating pain, but it is only safe to take it every 12 hours.

May 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The public today is more complacent about nuclear weapons than they were in the 1980s, even though the risk is arguably greater and leaders seem to be more ignorant and reckless.
  • The NSA is trying “to identify laboratories and/or individuals who may be involved in nefarious use of genetic research”.
  • We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Some experts think the idea of national sovereignty itself is now in doubt.
  • Taser wants to record everything the police do, everywhere, all the time, and use artificial intelligence to make sense of the data.
  • The sex robots are here.

Buzz Aldrin’s plan for Mars

Buzz Aldrin has a plan to go to Mars.

Establishing private outposts in LEO [Low Earth Orbit] is just the first step in Aldrin’s plan for Mars colonization, which depends heavily on “cyclers” — spacecraft that move continuously between two cosmic destinations, efficiently delivering people and cargo back and forth…

Step two involves the international spaceflight community coming together to build cyclers that ply cislunar space, taking people on trips to the moon and back. Such spacecraft, and the activities they enable, would allow the construction of a crewed lunar base, where humanity could learn and test the techniques required for Mars colonization, such as how to manufacture propellant from local resources, Aldrin said…

Aldrin foresees these various cycler iterations enabling a crewed mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2020 and a Venus flyby by 2024. If all goes well, the first future Mars settlers could launch in the early 2030s, he said.

So a sustainable Mars colony could be not an ambitious goal for the next 100 years, as Stephen Hawking just suggested, but 20 years or so out.

nuclear complacency

This article on History News Network asks why there is so little public outcry over nuclear weapons today compared to the 1980s, when the risk is arguably higher and leaders are arguably more reckless. It gives five possible reasons:

One factor is certainly the public’s preoccupation with other important issues, among them climate change, immigration, terrorism, criminal justice, civil liberties, and economic inequality.

Another appears to be a sense of fatalism. Many people believe that Kim and Trump are too irrational to respond to reason and too autocratic to give way to public pressure.

Yet another factor is the belief of Americans and Europeans that their countries are safe from a North Korean attack. Yes, many people will die in a new Korean War, especially one fought with nuclear weapons, but they will be “only” Koreans.

In addition, many people credit the absence of nuclear war since 1945 to nuclear deterrence. Thus, they assume that nuclear-armed nations will not fight a nuclear war among themselves.

Finally―and perhaps most significantly―people are reluctant to think about nuclear war. After all, it means death and destruction at an unbearable level of horror. Therefore, it’s much easier to simply forget about it.

We shouldn’t be so complacent of course. A brief study of military leaders’ willingness to use nuclear weapons in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam is enough to dispel the idea that mutually assured destruction is enough to keep us safe. We just happened to have strong civilian leaders who stood up to the military in each case, and there is no guarantee we will have that in the future. It is simply a risk we can’t take. As proliferation continues to get worse, the chances of some kind of nuclear detonation at some point get higher and higher. And finally, I feel like I am hearing more lately about tactical nuclear weapons being back on the table as a serious consideration. (No, that thing the U.S. dropped on Afghanistan recently was actually not the “mother of all bombs”.

I suspect the idea that people are distracted by other things and just not thinking enough about nuclear weapons to be worried, is closest to the mark. I don’t find in comforting at all.