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   not the anthropic principle
Monday, November 9 2015
Tonight I stayed up late finishing the book David (of Susan & David) had bought me several weeks ago entitled Command & Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. It was over 600 pages, but more than 100 of those were end notes and index, so it went more quickly than initially expected. Also, far from being padded toward the end, the density of previously-unknown information increased dramatically, particularly once the somewhat-tedious tale of the Damascus accident was done being told. (For its first 440 pages, the book had been cutting back and forth between that more personal story and a historical account of the rise and bureaucratization of America's nuclear program). There were a surprising number of scary nuclear stories from the 1980s and as late as 1995. I'd had no idea that in 1983 tensions between the United States and the USSR deteriorated to their lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that in his bumblingly aggressive manner, Reagan came close to provoking potentially-nuclear incidents on several occasions. I also didn't know that it was the made-for-teevee movie The Day After1 that finally shamed Ronald Reagan into doing something to stop the nuclear arms race. Still, a lot had to happen before the world became something other than a Titan II missile silo full of leaked liquid fuel. And there were setbacks along the way. I didn't remember the attempted military coup against Gorbachev in 1991 (I remembered one against Yeltsin), or the Norwegian Rocket Incident in 1995. I was also horrified to learn that the Soviet Union had relied on a Strangelovian dead-man switch to automatically launch a nuclear counterattack, and it was faith in this secret system that may well have kept them from accidentally retaliating against the false attack warnings they must have had over the decades of the Cold War.
Command & Control referred to a paper called "Do Artifacts Have Politics?," which addressed the idea of whether certain technologies are an expression of certain political leanings. Eric Schlosser (the author of Command & Control) introduces that paper as the beginning of an argument that nuclear bombs are inherently authoritarian. They depend on secrecy and strict chains of command of the sort that are inherently incompatible with a liberal democratic society. He goes on to write that the Soviets were thus better able to lock down their nuclear arsenal than was the United States, though their top-down society also made them vulnerable to a decapitation attack. Thus the dead-man switch.
Another fascinating aspect of nuclear weapons culture is the inherent dangerousness of devices designed and built beneath multiple layers of secrecy. Without fresh eyes with different perspectives, it's easy to hide vulnerabilities, lapses, and risks. This is the difference between the Linux code base and the one that produces Microsoft Windows. And, as Schlosser points out, none of this secrecy actually prevented the Soviets from having a better overall knowledge of our nuclear arsenal than any one person in the United States; there were things they knew that our military kept secret from American presidents.
Despite all this, somehow the world survived the Cold War. It's something of a miracle. Some day people might look back at it and say it had to be that way because of the anthropic principle. But the anthropic principle only works for explaining why things had to happen that way in the past. Anything that can happen can happen in the present.

1I remember, at the tender age of 15, watching The Day After the night it was broadcast on television. At the time, it was notable for being too depressing for ABC to interrupt with commercials. Unfortunately, my handwritten diary for Nov. 20, 1983 mentions only that I was about to watch it on ABC Channel 3, having just watched Ascent of Man (all of this television-watching happened on a black and white Samsung unit I'd bought for use as a monitor for the VIC-20 I'd bought some months earlier; to receive Channel 3, I'd strung up a bunch of extension cords as a temporary makeshift antenna). In that same entry, I'd also made some observations about a small American Chestnut that was just beginning to show signs of Chestnut Blight, which I referred to as "the Chestnut disease." In my entry for November 23rd, though, there was this:
Before Typing [the class] everyone went to the auditorium to see & hear the Thanksgiving assembly. We heard the quoir [sic] sing 10th rate religious numbers. Then a Baptist minister gave the featured speech. He mentioned the movie, the Day After, and said essentially that we need not worry nor concern ourselves with these problems, for God will lead us towards salvation in another life, a better life. Yes, that we need not do anything to worry ourselves in this world with a world of infinite good beyond the horizon. Yes, literally. Shit. That's what I whispered in my assigned seat. BJ Oberg, in his assigned seat looked up from his knees at me. Yes and the sea of heads in the auditorium, in their assigned seats heard the man say that we should thank God for our freedom. Our freedom to sit where we chose. Our freedom to chose Hell or Heaven. Our freedom to get Blown to Smithereens. Be thankful. BJ looked as bored as I did. The whisper of the word "shit" was the most exciting part of this sham of justice, disrespect of the freedom of State from Church. Only in Virginia.

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