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September 21, 2013

Inaccuracies
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:56 AM *

John Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on Friday, 20 January 1961. For those who don’t remember those times, the Cold War was pretty darned cold right then. The Military Assistance Command in Vietnam would be established a bit over a year later, in February of 1962, while the Cuban Missile Crisis came around about six months after that, in October of that same year.

Against that backdrop: Two days after Kennedy asked not, just after midnight on 23 January 1961, a B-52 carrying two thermonuclear devices broke up over North Carolina. We now learn that one of the bombs came close to exploding.

This isn’t new information: Dr. Ralph Lapp told the story in his book, Kill and Overkill: The Strategy of Annihilation in 1962 (a used copy goes for about three bucks these days).

What is new is this: the story has been confirmed. Thanks to the automatic declassification schedule, what was Secret then is unclassified fifty years on. And due to a Freedom of Information Act request, someone has found other documents relating to this event. The Guardian has the original document: It’s commentary by Parker Jones, the gent who was responsible for the mechanical safety of US nuclear bombs. He nitpicks Lapp’s book. It wasn’t an “incident,” it was an “accident.” It wasn’t a 24 megaton device, it was a 2.4 megaton device (silly bugger slipped a decimal point!). And it wasn’t five out of six safety interlocks that failed, it was three out of four, and one of those four wouldn’t have functioned in the air anyway. Lapp claimed that the sequence of tripping the interlocks was important. Not true.

Not that a 2.4 megaton device is inconsequential. That’s a crater a third of a mile across and full-thickness burns out to nine miles.

My guess is that this is the classified document that Daniel Ellsberg claimed, back in 1981, that he had seen that confirmed Lapp’s claim.

So. Good thing they used four interlocks instead of just three. As Parker Jones says:

“Lapp’s report lacks objectivity and accuracy. His sources of information are patently erroneous, or he chooses to misuse them for his own benefit. But the central point is correctly stated. One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe!”
(Exclamation point in the original.)

Jones’ conclusion:

If a short to the “arm” line occurred in a mid-air breakup, a postulate that seems credible, the Mk 39 Mod 2 bomb could have given a nuclear burst.

Now imagine that it’s just after midnight on 23 January 1961: John Kennedy gets a phone call: Someone just nuked Goldsboro. What’s Kennedy’s next sentence? “Count all our nukes to make sure it isn’t one of ours,” or “Launch!”?

Comments on Inaccuracies:
#1 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 11:24 AM:

I'm guessing, "Goldsboro? Why the fuck Goldsboro first?"

#2 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 11:30 AM:

What isn't generally known is how inaccurate ICBMs were at the time. Untested technology fired over the North Pole? Goldsboro could have been "Aimed at the Durham/Raleigh research triangle but missed."

#3 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 11:37 AM:

John: that would depend on who JFK heard the news from, and who got his ear first (and possibly how much pain he was in, or what he'd taken to be able to sleep). He at least understood the concept of thinking -- but he allowed some ridiculous schemes against Cuba to go forward.

A more paranoid thought: would he have been persuaded to launch simply because the military couldn't afford to let it be known that they were transporting a working H-bomb inside our borders? I don't know anything about the tech, but I'm unimpressed by the discussion of interlocks; does anyone know enough (about the tech, or about 1950's military doctrine concerning practice with live ammo) to say why the bomb could not have been made incapable of detonating until it was at its destination?

#4 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 11:50 AM:

I figure he'd've launched. He was still callow enough to almost blunder us into war over the Cuban crisis years later. If he'd had enough time to say, "Why just Goldsboro?" then reason might have clicked in. But probably not.

(Here's a topic: Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton. Which is the most overrated president of all time?)

Jim @ 2: Was the Research Triangle such a big deal fifty years ago?

#5 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:06 PM:

There would be nothing unusual at all about having aircraft in the air carrying live nukes at that time.

Remember deterrence and Mutual Assured Destruction? Up to 1/3 of our bombers would be in the air at all times carrying warshot nukes. That way the evil Ruskies couldn't destroy them on the ground. After the assumed Soviet first strike there would still be enough ordnance available to destroy the Soviet Union. This was common knowledge. See the 1964 movie Fail-Safe, based on the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler (serialized in the Saturday Evening Post!). I'm pretty sure there were public service films shown on TV and in schools explaining the Nuclear Triad. Can't scare the Russians with it if they don't know about it.

The US no-first-strike policy meant that when the presumed Soviet first-strike arrived, the rest of our arsenal would be use-it-or-lose it. Are we going to wait to hear that the second explosion took out the ICBMs in Minot? That the third takes out DC so we can't give the launch order because we're now dead, so we never get to hear about the strikes on New York and Chicago?

I have my own theories about the Incident at Exeter (the famous 1965 UFO sighting) which link to our nuclear defense strategy at the time.

Those were different times. We had a pile of nuclear-war and post-nuclear-apocalypse novels. Ask some of the folks who were there how sure they were growing up that they'd die in a nuclear war. The Cold War was scary.

#6 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:10 PM:

Jim @ 5: The US no-first-strike policy meant that when the presumed Soviet first-strike arrived, the rest of our arsenal would be use-it-or-lose it.

As I recall, the policy as of the eighties was that the US would not disavow making a first strike, whereas the SU (fearful symmetry FTW) did disavow a first strike (whether in good faith or not is an open question, as far as I know).

I don't recall whether that changed over the years or not. It's been a quarter of a century since I actually studied this.

#7 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:17 PM:

5
I was in 6th grade in 1961-62. My teacher that year told the class that we would be among the first places hit. Heck of a thing to tell kids...

#8 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:17 PM:

Oh jolly, we were stationed a Langley AFB at that time. Atomic bombs were the boogeymen of my childhood.

I think Kennedy would have launched -- there were a lot of places that "mistake" COULD have been aimed for...shudder.

Reagan is the most over-rated President. I suspect Clinton is bathing in the reflected glow of the economy at that time.

But...Kennedy -- my grandparents adored him. So much of the halo around the man is the lamp of "what might have been." There is a part of me that will always mourn that.

If that makes me a fool, so be it.

#9 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:22 PM:

That's "stationed AT" -- and the ohno second strikes again.

Must...have...more...coffee.

#10 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:24 PM:

The US wandered back and forth over the first-strike/no-first-strike line a lot of times. The watchword was always "Credible Deterrence."

No matter the announced policy, everyone assumed that the other guy would make a surprise first strike. The raid on Pearl Harbor had been less than twenty years before when Kennedy took office and he would have remembered it clearly.

#11 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:25 PM:

It's a bit weird to think of ICBMs being around in '61; it's probably the influence of Dr Strangelove, but I think of bombers not missiles when I think of nukes of that era.

That's one short alt-history Kennedy presidency.

#12 ::: Andrea Phillips ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:30 PM:

Jim @ 5: Those were different times. We had a pile of nuclear-war and post-nuclear-apocalypse novels. Ask some of the folks who were there how sure they were growing up that they'd die in a nuclear war. The Cold War was scary.

I was pretty sure I'd die in a nuclear war, too, and I grew up in the 80s. One of the things that really struck me when I read Watchmen for the first time (as an adult, in 2010 or so) is how perfectly it captured that utter hopelessness I remembered from the Reagan era. I'd forgotten what it was like.

Though in the interest of full disclosure, my mom was the crew chief on a B-52 and I grew up reading helpful military manuals about surviving a blast and safe distance from ground zero. So my experience may have been a little more intense than most.

#13 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:37 PM:

One of the odd things about the 60s: it was a truism that pretty much wherever you lived, it was going to be one of the first places the nuclear bombs hit. Everybody wants to be Important, and there was no more important position than Nuclear Target.

#14 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:41 PM:

The Soviets deployed their first strategic rocket units in 1959. The three legs of the nuclear triad were strategic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and land-based aircraft.

Back in the sixties my family had a book of Trips For Kids in the New York area. We used that book a lot. It's where we first heard of Mystic Seaport, for example.

One of the Trips for Kids was to visit the Nike Missile batteries guarding NYC against Soviet bombers.

#15 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 12:46 PM:

When I took "History of the Atomic Bomb" in college, one of the handouts was the article from The Progressive about how a hydrogen bomb was built. Another student was ex-RCAF and annoyed about how inaccurate the info was so he did corrected drawings for us. The thing he talked about that stuck in my mind was that he'd been one of the guys who had to arm a particular no-longer-made bomb in flight by reaching down a hole into the bomb, and how if the clamps that held it in place had released it would have ripped your arm off at the shoulder. He still woke up with night sweats about the practice drills...

#16 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 01:06 PM:

Tom: 40 miles east of SF Bay. Guaranteed to get something unpleasant.

#17 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 01:08 PM:

Many years ago, I had a best friend (sadly no longer with us) whom I used to nickname Andy Aircraft Disasters. This was because he worked for the Civil Aviation Authority, and any accident or near-miss involving an aircraft in this country would end up causing a pile of paperwork on his desk, even if it was a military aircraft. Andy was based at Heathrow, but every now and then he'd be packed off somewhere else to look at planes, not necessarily in this country. He had a pretty interesting job.

One afternoon - this would have been late '85 or early '86, because he died in March '86 - there was a massive panic at Heathrow. Something unexpected was showing up on the radar, and it was coming over the North Pole. I don't recall all the details now, but Heathrow certainly went on lockdown overnight (which meant all the staff who were there at the time had to stay there) and there was much frantic phoning going on to try to establish what this was, and, most importantly, whose it was. Andy, along with all the others, was convinced he was about to be nuked, though he was remarkably philosophical about it. I didn't find out until later that he knew he didn't have long anyway.

Finally, the mystery was solved. It turned out that the American aviation authorities had re-routed Concorde over the North Pole... and forgotten to tell the CAA. The story never made the papers, as far as I'm aware. I suppose making the Americans look silly was rather frowned upon.

#18 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 01:08 PM:

One of the British nuclear weapons was Violet Club, using the Green Grass warhead, which was rebuilt as Yellow Sun Mk 1, and was so unsafe that it was only to be flown to be delivered to a target. The warhead was used from 1958 to 1961 (maybe stretching into 1962 because of the production rate of the Mk 2) and the RAF apparently had over 60 of the things.

The warhead used highly enriched uranium, more than a critical mass, in a large, thin-walled, hollow sphere. There was a risk that it would go critical in a crash. It was designed for the sphere to be filled with ball-bearings to prevent significant crushing, which would be released onto the ground before take-off.

These things would have been most likely based at Finningley and Waddington, uncomfortably close to where I live.

Oh, and that B-52? Goldsboro was where it was based, and it crashed while returning to base with problems. So if that Mk 39 had gone off it wouldn't have been that far from a military target, maybe 30 miles. And it might have been thought to have been launched from a submarine: the first Polaris launch from a submarine was on the 20th July 1960, and the Soviet Navy had a few Whiskey-class boats with a land-attack cruise missile.

Against that, it was known that a B-52 was struggling home carrying live nuclear weapons, and the detonation would have been close to the last-known location of the plane. But panic is quite possible.

#19 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 01:25 PM:

All I can think is that if it had blown I wouldn't have seen my fifth birthday. All of us born in the Nuclear Age lived in the shadow of those damned mushroom clouds.

#20 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 01:28 PM:

Dave Bell@18: everything I've read about the colour-coded indigenous British nukes of the early Cold War has horrified me. "We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it", Bevin said; and we ended up in charge of some terrible homemade contraptions.

Fred Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol relies on the Soviet Union blowing up a USAF base in East Anglia with a small imported nuke that would look like an accidental NATO detonation as part of Kim Philby's plan for a Neil Kinnock General Election victory followed by an internal Labour Party putsch by Communists. Not a great novel, and not one of Michael Caine's greatest films. If a NATO nuclear-weapons site does go bang, one hope there's some sort of checklist for determining whether it was sabotage, or an accident, or a genuine first strike.

#21 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 01:29 PM:

The SAC base at Goldsboro, where they'd have know that one of their aircraft was in trouble, might have been difficult to reach immediately after a nearby nuke explosion. Tube-based radios and copper-switch telephones might have been more resistant to EMP than transistors and ICs, but we're looking at a 100% fatal circle of just under twenty miles, and some serious local disruption.

There are some very feasible ways this could have played out that would have been very, very bad indeed.

The hotline wouldn't be implemented 'til '63 so a direct link to the Kremlin asking, in real-time, "WTF, was that you?" wouldn't have been possible.

As it stands, all that kept the nuke in Goldsboro from going off was the fact that the wire between the "Arm" switch in the cockpit and the bomb didn't short out as the aircraft broke up in flight. Jones stated that was a "credible" possibility, and he was the guy who would have known.

#22 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 01:30 PM:

Nuclear targeting: how many warheads do you have, and how many will get to the target and work as advertised? Both the USA and the Soviet Union had a lot of targets, and not enough warheads to be sure of hitting them all. Also, unlike the UK, they were big countries.

In 1961 I lived within 30 miles of at least twenty obvious targets, three miles from one of them, and many of them would have justified multiple missiles being launched to make sure of them.

One of those targets was the city of Hull, but there were not enough sandbags in the whole country to protect it as recommended in Civil Defence handbooks.

#23 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 01:36 PM:

I was born in 1953 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. We lived there til I was almost 9. Convinced that mushroom clouds were in my future? Why, yes I was.

#24 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 01:45 PM:

Being that Dad went from the Air Force to the Department of Defense, we never lived anywhere that didn't have at least one Bomb targeted on it.

When we moved to Ohio, we hit the jackpot: DCSC, Ohio State, Battelle Memorial Institute, Lockbourne AFB, Rockwell, and other items too numerous to mention. Dad figured there had to be three ICBMs slated for the area.

(Dad occasionally took me to the base with him when the computer (IBM 360) went T-U on the weekends. He would make the computer sing for me by placing a transistor radio on top of it. I never got to see the inside of his workplace at DCSC.)

#25 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 02:07 PM:

(The originally-claimed 24MT would have been huge for a single device back then, wouldn't it? Getting close to the publicity-stunt territory of gadgets like that year's Tsar Bomba.)

#26 ::: Nightsky ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 02:10 PM:

I was a child in the SF Bay Area in the 80s, and it was common knowledge that we'd be one of the first targets. My parents said so. Everyone did. (Weirdly, this helped me make peace with the whole thing. If I was going to die in an instant due to sociopolitical things I had no control over... well, at least I wouldn't suffer or have to watch my loved ones die.)

It's only much later that I question the wisdom of nuking San Jose, let alone nuking it *first*. Not only that, literally every person I've asked, no matter where in the US they grew up, says they heard the same thing: their location was target #1, or at least high-priority enough to be in the hypothetical first wave.

#27 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 02:10 PM:

Jim @21

The plane was on a 24-hour airborne alert flight. I think it's unlikely that SAC headquarters wouldn't know it was no longer available. But whether they would know the detail, I wouldn't care to guess.

I'm inclined to think that somebody would have scrambled anything on the ground, but with the tech of the time I wonder how many missiles would be ready for immediate launch. The Thor IRBMs, just down the road from me, were kept in shelters, un-fueled. And they were not well-protected. Even the fastest possible response took time.

The ballistic missiles of the time used LOX and kerosene. The hair-trigger was very slow to work.

#28 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 02:19 PM:

We lived about 4-5 miles from March Air Force Base when I was a kid. During the Vietnam War B-52s flew over our house several times a day, probably with a full load of conventional weapons destined for Hanoi. Damn those things were loud.

Kids these days don't have a good Armageddon to worry about. The economy? Global Warming? Feh! Those aren't Armageddons, they're just minor inconveniences!*

Come here child! I'll show you Armageddon! Take off those rose colored glasses and sit on the couch! I've got a couple movies to show you. We'll start with "Fail Safe," and then we'll watch "Dr. Strangelove*," then you can get under the table and put your head between your knees! Do you think it would help? Huh! Do you sonny?"

*If you think an economic downturn is Armageddon it's because flouride in your drinking water has turned you into a sissy-boy!

**Yes, they're in black and white. We hadn't evolved color vision when they made those movies!

#29 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 02:50 PM:

I don't think anyone in Okemos, MI (just east of East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, and therefore just a little easter of Michigan's capital, Lansing) thought we would be a first or early target. Detroit, now...Detroit was just down the road a piece, and we could well believe IT would be an early target, to take out our conventional-warmaking capability. Early on people still believed that there would be conventional war to be made after a nuclear exchange.

By the time I was in junior high, IIRC, people had realized that there were enough nukes in play to Destroy The Entire World A Bajillion Times Over, but not that a huge portion of those weapons would be taken out in the first strike, and that they were there for redundancy. We all thought we'd be overkilled, because of course the USSR would carpet bomb the entire US and its allies, leaving nothing but radioactive waste, and that our retaliatory strike would do the same to them and theirs...and for some reason we assumed that all the neutral countries would get carpeted too, leaving nothing alive in the world except dying rats and thriving cockroaches, who would then evolve into the next dominant species (OK, only the SF geeks believed that last part).

Note the assumption that of course the conflict would begin with the USSR launching a dirty first strike. I got some people really angry at me for challenging this. "List all the countries of the world who have used atomic bombs in war," I'd say. "Who's more likely to do something, someone who's done it before, or someone who never has?" (No one ever pointed out that the sneak attack and nuclear attacks in that war were on opposite sides. Not sure why not.)

I think I've mentioned before that our "Tornado Drills" in grade school were conducted out of a pamphlet marked "Civil Defense." The ridiculous ideas for surviving a nuclear attack ("get under your desk, with your arms crossed over your head!") are actually fairly sensible when the feared event is a tornado.

#30 ::: Anatoly ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 02:52 PM:

I grew up in the Soviet Union. I remember when we were issued gauze face masks at school. That would be in the early 80s, I was in second grade. We practiced putting them on and off, I think they were meant for chemical attacks. For a nuclear attack we practiced some sort of duck-and-cover routine - I don't remember the specifics.

I kept the gauze mask in a drawer in my room, and sometimes I would take it out, wear it and imagine that WW3 started. I had a few nightmares about it.

What we were taught in school was that the socialist countries were peace-loving, but forced to participate in the arms race by the evil imperialists who controlled all the capitalist countries. They promoted the arms race both for personal gain and to keep the poor people of their countries in check. We would do everything to avoid war, but if the capitalist rulers become especially greedy and stupid, it might happen.

#31 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 02:52 PM:

I lived 27 miles from the Air Logistics Center in Warner Robins, GA from first through twelfth grade. So I was convinced that I would die in a nuclear strike, but from radiation, not the blast.

And yeah, I was pretty sure I wouldn't make 30.

#32 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 03:00 PM:

Nightsky @26 -- My father was one of the people who helped develop the Polaris, the Fleet Ballistic Missile System -- I still have some of his cigarette lighters and several internal Lockheed models of the missiles. (They're actually way cool!) So I grew up in Los Altos Hills, and he was commuting to the Sunnyvale Lockheed Missiles and Space facility. So, yeah, I know what you mean there.

#33 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 03:09 PM:

Lord knows, the future we're currently living in is far from the best that could be imagined . . . but compared to most of the futures I was imagining when I was first a kid and then a young adult back during the Cold War, this one is a vast relief, not to mention an occasional source of wondering gratitude.

#34 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 03:09 PM:

@17 Mongoose
Finally, the mystery was solved. It turned out that the American aviation authorities had re-routed Concorde over the North Pole... and forgotten to tell the CAA. The story never made the papers, as far as I'm aware. I suppose making the Americans look silly was rather frowned upon.

Um. Just because it made my brain hiccup: CAA is the Canadian Automobile Association. The Cdn equivalent to the FAA is TCCA (Transport Canada Civil Aviation). Air Traffic Control is handled by Nav Canada.

During the 80's, my high school history teacher taught us that we were not targets, but that we would be caught by anything aimed at the US - either by accident when something fell in the wrong place (we were, after all, the flight path between the USSR and the States), or afterwards when the wind blew north from NYC. Engendered some positively un-neighbourly feelings in us, it did.

#35 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 03:23 PM:

#30 : Anatoly

And how cool is that, looking from the present back to the Cold War era, that someone actually from the USSR would be joining in this discussion.

Wow. Never would have thought, back then.

#36 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 03:52 PM:

Who would have thought we'd be doing the same duck-and-cover drills?

(Xopher: also good for earthquakes. A heavy desk or table keeps Things from falling on you. I like steel desks of the linoleum-top persuasion for this.)

#37 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 03:58 PM:

Anatoly @30: My FF also grew up in the Soviet Union, and we have discussed our opposite-side memories. She didn't mention gas masks, but I'll have to ask her about those. I did have nuclear air-raid drills in elementary school, plus the usual propaganda in the late 60s on.

I find it fascinating to look back on those days, and contrast that with her experiences.

#38 ::: Chris W. ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 04:09 PM:

Steve with a book @11:
ICBMs were definitely very new technology in 1961. The first American ICBMs had only come online two years earlier, and most of the megatonnage in any nuclear exchange would still have been delivered by plane. This would be especially true in the sort of sudden crisis situation that a nuclear detonation in North Carolina would have been. Early ICBMs were all liquid fueled, and because rocket fuel is nasty corrosive stuff, you can’t just fuel up a liquid fueled rocket and leave it for days or weeks and expect it to work when you want it to. So it would have taken several hours at the very least from the time that a command was given to the time that the ICBMs were ready to launch. I don’t have enough information to actually do the math, but from what I know, it’s entirely plausible that the B-52s orbiting over the north pole would be able to reach their targets in Russia before the ICBMs could be launched and land.

And yes, 24 MT would have been unreasonably huge. 24 MT would have been larger than any device the US ever detonated, and second largest ever behind Tsar Bomba. I think the largest weapons (as opposed to testing devices that were proof of concept for a design, but never could have actually been delivered by anything smaller than a medium size ship) that the US ever actually built were in the 6-7 MT range. And the current US arsenal doesn’t have anything more powerful than a tenth that size.

#39 ::: wychwood ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 04:14 PM:

@34 Cheryl - yes, but in the UK, where Heathrow is, the CAA is the Civil Aviation Authority, which would be the relevant body.

#40 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 04:25 PM:

Anatoly 30: What we were taught in school was that the socialist countries were peace-loving, but forced to participate in the arms race by the evil imperialists who controlled all the capitalist countries. They promoted the arms race both for personal gain and to keep the poor people of their countries in check. We would do everything to avoid war, but if the capitalist rulers become especially greedy and stupid, it might happen.

I don't know if the socialist countries were peace-loving, or if the USSR would have done everything to avoid war, but the rest of this sounds depressingly accurate.

Really, really glad to hear this from you, though. It proves that my parents were right when they told me "kids in the Soviet Union are probably taught that..."

Jim 35: Right there with you, my friend, both in the delight and the dizzying contrast to what was possible back in the day.

P J 36: (Xopher: also good for earthquakes. A heavy desk or table keeps Things from falling on you. I like steel desks of the linoleum-top persuasion for this.)

This also makes sense. How ironic that this government-issued bullshit, designed to keep the American people fooled about the reality of nuclear war, actually saved lives, not against human-created threats, but against natural disasters.

Ginger 37: I did have nuclear air-raid drills in elementary school

I remember wondering why the "tornado warning" siren was called an "air raid siren." A tornado isn't an air raid, right dad? He looked grim and didn't answer.

#41 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 04:42 PM:

Debra Doyle @ 33... compared to most of the futures I was imagining when I was first a kid

"Soylent Green"

#42 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 04:44 PM:

Serge, it occurs to me that dystopian future novels from the cold war era fall into "blood" and "dust" categories. SG is in the "blood" category.

#43 ::: Errolwi ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 04:55 PM:

It turns out that building standards for earthquakes are also good for resisting external explosions - both require tolerance for sideways force (not just vertical force i.e. gravity).

#44 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 05:06 PM:

@39 wychwood

For some reason, I thought mongoose was Canadian. No idea where I got that idea.

My mistake, of course.

#45 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 05:40 PM:

Indeed, I am a British mongoose, but being taken for Canadian is not uncomplimentary. I did seriously consider emigrating there at one point.

#46 ::: GlendaP ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 05:45 PM:

I grew up in the '50s and '60s in San Antonio. My elementary school was about a mile from Ft. Sam Houston, where both of my parents worked. There were four Air Force bases within a dozen or so miles. None were individually first wave targets, but the aggregate might have been. At a very young age I came to the fatalistic conclusion I preferred being at ground zero.

My dad was in Ordinance at what was then Fourth Army HQ. I'm fairly sure his work directly dealt only with conventional weapons, but he had peripheral involvement with nukes. He had no idea how many of his oblique references were quite intelligible to a young SF reader.

#47 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 06:04 PM:

GlendaP #46: There's a bit of a difference between "ordnance" , which has to do with things that go "boom", and "ordinance", which refers to laws, regulations and other matters of that kind.

#48 ::: Fragano Ledgister hath been seized by angry Gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 06:06 PM:

And is now in some dark tower in Zurich. Please send me $2,500 dollars so that I can return to the bosom of my family.

#49 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 06:37 PM:

Re: "air raid sirens"

The alarm sequence for an armed air strike is quite different from the one used to signal a tornado warning. You should have seen my former AF boss come running out of his office when the local sirens were set off using the "air raid" sequence.

Of course, I was on my feet looking out the windows trying to figure out what was going on. That was when the guys at the controls got on the horn to announce it was a mistake. Dick and I shook for the rest of the afternoon...

Even worse was the pagan festival where the local volunteer fire department used the "nuclear strike alarm sequence" to call their people to the firehouse in the event of a fire. Seven AM, and this goes off, and tents started disgorging occupants in vary stages of dress and distress.

#50 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 06:43 PM:

In suburban Wilmington, Delaware, we had drills for windstorms-- sometimes getting under desks if I remember correctly, and sometimes going into the basement next to the lockers.

We were never taught anything about the possibility of nuclear war, but as a science fiction fan, I had background worry about it-- somewhat amplified when I found out that halfway between New York and Washington would be a reasonable place to damage both of them. (I don't know whether that's true, though it's reasonable that if either was targeted, Wilmington wouldn't be that much of a miss.)

In any case, since Delaware didn't get significant wind storms in my memory (just the edge of hurricanes, and not dangerous to go out in), I rather despised the school for not admitting they were doing bomb drills.

#51 ::: GlendaP ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 07:01 PM:

Fragano @47: It's all autocorrect's fault. Unh-hunh. Yeah. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

#52 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 07:10 PM:

Up until I graduated high school in 2002, our tornado drill signs were 'In case of DISASTER or ATTACK' with a tornado threatening a small schoolhouse and bombs pointed straight at it. We weren't taught that we were a high-priority target-- that was Chicago, thank you-- but we were also pretty close to the nuclear power plant, so if we wanted to fantasize about being awesome survivors that was the disaster. Or any number of miscellaneous apocalypses.

#53 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 07:14 PM:

The bomb drills we did during the Cuban Missile Crisis were labeled bomb drills.

Not that trooping into the hall and crouching down facing the walls would help a lot, but getting away from exterior glass windows was probably a good idea.

#54 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 07:19 PM:

By the time I was conscious of such things, in 6th grade or so, we lived in Ann Arbor which wouldn't have been a major target at any rate. OTOH, we'd have been well within the fallout pattern from Detroit. I did a junior high-school project on that. I was a morbid child; I read the Limits to Growth book around then too, and really didn't expect Western civilization or me personally to make it to the year 2000, let alone this far after.

When I moved to Honolulu after college in 1980, though, I hit the jackpot in terms of targets. I heard from a military type that the USSR was believed to have a total of something like 40 megatons worth of ICBM warheads targeted for the island: Pearl Harbor, where the nuclear arsenal for the entire Pacific fleet was/is stored at West Loch, plus other Army, Air Force, and Marine bases scattered around 'Oahu. It was kind of a relief actually, to know that in the event of a war, I would have been dead very quickly with little planning to do or lingering to worry about.

#55 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 07:29 PM:

Nancy@50: In any case, since Delaware didn't get significant wind storms in my memory (just the edge of hurricanes, and not dangerous to go out in), I rather despised the school for not admitting they were doing bomb drills.

As a school kid in Tornado Alley, I once had what I suspect, looking backward, was the opposite experience.

One overcast, windy spring day, the school I was attending had what the teachers informed us was a surprise, unscheduled, "civil defense drill" (as they called them locally), which involved all of us leaving the classrooms and standing in fidgety rows in the building's interior hallways for about ten minutes, then returning to the normal school schedule.

At the time I just filed it under "stupid things they make us do", but looking back, what I suspect was actually going on was a tornado on the ground somewhere nearby. Getting us out of the windowed classrooms and into the windowless interior would be a sensible precaution, and letting us think it was just another civil defense drill would have kept us from panicking.

#56 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 07:35 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ 50: Suburban Wilmington Delaware for me too. I can't for the life of me remember what if anything we were told about why we were supposed to get under our desks, but I knew. I think I knew before we got sent home one day during the Cuban missile crisis, but definitely afterward.

#58 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 07:59 PM:

Xopher @ 42... On the opposite end of the storytelling spectrum, there was "Star Trek", which told us there was a future that didn't have us choking on our own refuse, one where we could put our differences aside and thus we'd flourish beyond our wildest dreams.

#59 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 08:21 PM:

Someone upthread mentioned "Failsafe" -- I'll add two more (if you haven't read them), "On the Beach" and "Alas Babylon" are good too.

The first time I saw the film "Failsafe," my little brother was in bed and Mom was at school. When she got home, I must have been white as a sheet, because the first thing she asked was "What's wrong?" When I told her, she said, "Yeah -- it got to me too, the first time I saw it."

#61 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 08:35 PM:

Did anybody else see the "Failsafe" remake done live on TV some years back?

#62 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 09:30 PM:

Hey, if you want to see the documentary of how Britain got hit by a nuclear attack in the 1960s: Peter Watkins' The War Game. It's on YouTube, but I won't link to it -- it is extremely triggery, and very very powerful. The BBC banned it in 1965, after commissioning it. Watkins is one of the most effective directors of mockumentaries ever, and I recommend anything he's done if you have the stomach for them. His Punishment Park is about how the counterculture got treated after they were made illegal; it's still very plausible. Again, not linked directly.

#63 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 09:35 PM:

In the early 60s they would have civil defense drills in which we had to all go out in the hall, lie down on our stomachs and put one arm around our heads--supposedly to form an air pocket to breathe from in case there was poison gas. That did not help; for one thing I could not form a hermetic seal that way, and for another thing there would not be enough air in that pocket to last me 5 seconds let alone 5 minutes. I really didn't like it when those drills happened; when I grew up I worried about the bomb just like everybody else. In 1989 when the wall came down, I figured I could breathe easy. Silly me. But don't get me started on how much of the stuff I heard in school and also at home was total crap.

#64 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 09:40 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz@50 - Odd, since we're about the same age. (I was in the Mount Pleasant School District.) We were always told they were air raid drills, and sometimes they'd have us stand in the hallway or sometimes we'd do under the desk drills. (The elementary school version didn't include the phrase "and kiss your ass goodbye".) We also got told how to interpret the fire siren, which had different patterns depending on which volunteer fire company was being called.

After I moved to California, we were visiting my wife's mother, and there started being a rumbling noise. My wife went over and stood in the doorway, and after I didn't immediately do the same, she told me to come stand in the doorway. We may have learned about air raids as kids, but earthquakes weren't covered... nor were tsunamis and flash floods.

And the first time I heard the Emergency Broadcast System announce "this is not a drill" was really freaky; it was the late 80s(?), and they'd apparently decided that emergencies weren't just for nuclear war any more, and they should use the EBS for flood warnings and other emergencies that actually happened.

#65 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 10:25 PM:

I was at Mt. Pleasant, too. (Carcroft and Silverside for elementary school.)

Now I'm wondering if I might have misremembered, though it's also possible that we just had different teachers or were there for slightly different years.

#66 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 10:43 PM:

#62 Tom Whitmore

The War Game has been in mind since the thread started. It was my introduction to triage. I'd have seen it as a college student in the late 60s.

I've been wondering about looking it up. As you say, extremely powerful (and triggering).

#67 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 10:58 PM:

Being a child of the 80's, they didn't make us do duck and cover drills, having presumably realized that getting under our desks was ridiculous.

We got "bomb in the school" drills, though, which were called Green Grass Alerts (god knows why) and involved us leaving the school and getting as far away from the buildings as possible. Never had one for real, although we did go into lockdown a couple of times--escaped convict and (sigh) my father's boa constrictor one time, which got out of the car after the "snakes are our friends!" presentation. Dad's attempts to explain to the principal that a six-foot boa couldn't possibly eat even a very small kindergartener somehow were not met with total calm. Go figure.

I had friends try to convince me several times that they were TOTALLY going to be bombed because they were IMPORANT and I fear that even at age eleven, I was not convinced that anyone felt the veneer mill in Mill City, Oregon, was a strategically important target.

#68 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 11:38 PM:

Carol Kimball @66: I had occasion to watch it again recently (we were working on a "10 Best Science Fiction Films" article for a website, and ended up including it). I still found it incredibly powerful; and my partner Karen, who is about my age and had never seen it, was every bit as impressed. Watkins gets my vote as the most neglected great director of SF films: most of them are "alternate history of the near future", an uncommon form anyway, and really depressing.

If you watch it again, be prepared for it to be even stronger than you remember. It was for me.

#69 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2013, 11:54 PM:

I'm a child of the 80's who grew up in Phoenix. I'm not sure if they still do it, but as late as the early 2000's, Phoenix was still testing the air raid sirens on Saturdays at noon. There was a siren VERY close to our home, and I grew up hearing it go off routinely.

I grew up figuring we were uncomfortably close to ground zero. It was only a few miles to Luke AFB, and the valley's flat.

(As an aside, I've always wondered just how bad of a mess it would be if they had to evacuate Phoenix in a hurry. There's only a handful of roads in and out of town and a couple million people.)

#70 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 01:05 AM:

#68 ::: Tom Whitmore

Yeah, that fear is what's kept me from going back to it.

#71 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 01:34 AM:

UrsulaV, #67: ... the phrase "the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree" comes to mind here. (That is intended as a compliment.)

Cygnet, #69: Probably a lot like the evacuation for Hurricane Rita was here -- which is to say, a nightmare. I knew people who were nearly 12 hours getting from Houston to Austin, which is normally a 3-hour trip. It was the same weekend as FenCon, and we weren't sure we were going to make it; in the end, I drove the BHV up there with a friend who helped me run the booth while my partner stayed home to batten down the hatches. It only took me 6 hours to get from here to Dallas (normally a 4-hour trip), but that was by virtue of getting off the freeway (which was totally jammed, and then had a disastrous vehicle fire that killed a bunch of people) and taking the back roads.

#72 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 02:18 AM:

I was born in 1970, and grew up 3 miles from an air force base and about 10 miles from MIT. My main concern was making sure I was in the crater, because instant vaporization sounded much better than full-thickness burns or radiation sickness. I was certain, from the 1980 election on, that it would happen. Adults were unable to provide me with any plausible reassurances. The best my parents could do was to raise me on a diet of Tom Lehrer, for purposes of whistling past the graveyard.

I still occasionally get the nightmares. When North Korea was making belligerent noises earlier this year, I had a remarkably vivid one, down to hot blast wind. Sometimes it's just generalized stress that comes out as "the bombs have been launched and these are your last twenty minutes."

That moment in Watchmen where Nixon says "We go to DEFCON 2" was not fun for me to sit through. My (much younger) friend noticed me white-knuckling my seat arms. I had to explain. She was born in the Soviet Union, but it broke up when her age was still in single digits. Different fears.

The first time I heard the Emergency Broadcast System used for a weather warning, I was in the car. If I'd been driving, I'd probably have driven off the road. I hadn't known they were broadening its use. I still jump when I hear that tone, even if I KNOW it's just a snowstorm.

If this one had blown? I wouldn't have been born. My parents would never even have met.

I'll just go have the shivers now.

#73 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 02:31 AM:

I was born in 1970 and I never believed we would "all go together when we go." Not ever. Closest I got was when we bombed Libya, and that was more about the start of a war than about imminent doom.

I've been known to be blindly optimistic about other matters too. But, hey, we lived.

#74 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 02:43 AM:

Fear of nuclear annihilation is supposed to be a common feature of my age cohort (born mid-’60s), and I had friends who had it in high school (early 1980s), but I never did. It just always seemed obvious to me that the negative outcomes were so much greater than any positive outcome that nobody’d have an incentive to do the thing. If I’d known about the mistakes and near-misses, or about how incredibly stupid political leaders can be, maybe I’d’ve been less blasé.

#75 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 02:48 AM:

Fragano @47, so ordnance comes out of a cannon, and ordinance from a canon.

#77 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 06:40 AM:

Nancy @78

And is comes down through the generations. My grandfather in one war, my father in the next, and me in the Cold War, things passed down from generation to generation, and our individual twists added.

It was maybe easier to be fascinated by WW2 than to think about nuclear annihilation. I wonder a little if it all has anything to do with not having children: is there still some lurking fear nudging me away from wanting to bring a new life into this world?

And how much was down to barely voiced medical opinions, forty years ago, that I couldn't expect a long life?

Does a chronic illness, which can kill if mismanaged, produce a low-level PTSD pattern?

#78 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 07:52 AM:

UrsulaV @ #67, after 9/11 one of my daughter's friends was completely convinced that Gainesville, GA would be Al Qaeda's next target.

Which led me to envision a meeting of the local terrorist cell: "You fool! I said bomb the CAPITAL of Georgia, not the CHICKEN CAPITAL of Georgia!"

Lee @ #71, a friend of mine once evacuated from Jacksonville, FL to Atlanta ahead of a hurricane (can't remember which one) and it took 12 hours--with two cats in the car.

IIRC, that was the clusterfuck that led to the reversible lane system on I-16.

#79 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 10:24 AM:

I wasn't particularly worried about nuclear war growing up in suburban Atlanta in the 1970s. We did have a local air raid siren that was tested every Wednesday at noon; hearing that always made me stop and think "Is it Wednesday? Is it noon already?" but that was about as far as it went. We did have tornado drills in high school, in which everyone went and sat in the hallways, lined up along the walls. My chief reaction to those was annoyance that we didn't really all fit but had to squeeze in anyway.

However, I went to college in Washington, DC, starting in 1981. We all figured that we would be at ground zero* for a nuclear attack. And I, for one, was glad about that. If there was going to be a nuclear holocaust, I wanted to die instantly. By then I'd read On the Beach and watched the TV movie (miniseries?) The Day After, and I really didn't want to deal with the aftermath.

And after the Soviets shot down that Korean air liner in 1983, I remember sitting by Baltimore Harbor** on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, hanging out with friends and waiting for the world to end.

*Yes, the term was in use by then.
**It was Worldcon weekend.

#80 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 11:08 AM:

Avram #75: Indeed so.

#81 ::: Tom Hanlon ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 11:44 AM:

I hadn't seen The Wargame before. Terrifying. Even more so as a father.

#82 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 12:36 PM:

Not only that, literally every person I've asked, no matter where in the US they grew up, says they heard the same thing: their location was target #1, or at least high-priority enough to be in the hypothetical first wave.

All the Europeans who grew up during the Cold War smile wryly and know that wherever they lived would've been annihilated long before the US would suffer its first hit, with the Germans well aware of the unofficial but truest definition of a tactical nuclear weapon being one that explodes in their country.

#83 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 12:41 PM:

Tom @81: if you think the War Game was scary, do not watch Threads.

#84 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 01:23 PM:

There's also When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs, which traumatised at least one generation of British children who read/watched it expecting something charming and light-hearted along the lines of The Snowman or Fungus the Bogeyman. Things... don't quite work out that way.

(The War Game, ye gods. I saw that in the cinema a few months back and damnnear had a panic attack at some scenes.)

#85 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 01:34 PM:

There was a TV version of "A Christmas Carol" with Sterling Hayden as you-know-who, and when he goes with the Ghost of Christmas to come, he sees the aftermath of atomic war.

#86 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 01:40 PM:

Another novel: Warday by Whitley Streiber and John Kunetka (1984). The Warner paperback (1985) had a ton of blurbs by Important People in the frontmatter. (Also interesting: in the author's introduction, where Streiber explains why the protagonists are named Whitley Streiber & John Kunetka -- he says that he's always annoyed when the protagonists of a first-person novel have different names from the name on the spine. What this says about his later novel, Communion, which many folks treat as true because the protagonist's name is Whitley Streiber....)

If I recall correctly, the background for Golding's Lord of the Flies is an off-stage nuclear war.

Interested folks might want to find American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film by David Seed (1999)

#87 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 02:21 PM:

It's been a long time since I saw 1965's "The Bedford Incident", but I remember the ending quite well.

#88 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 02:52 PM:

Re: The Day After -- Remember the missiles rising out of the cornfields?

Well, in the late 1980s my Mom lived near Vint Hill Station, which appeared to be a quaint little military base just outside of Manassas, Virginia. Signs on the access road said "No Admittance after 5:00 PM." You cannot see the base from the road.

So one early Autumn day, after a Summer drought, we're driving past the sign for the base, and as I'm gazing across the fields I realized they are covered by very large brown circles. I asked Jan to slow down, then said, "OMG, those are silos -- Mom's living next to fields full of ICBMs!"

#89 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 03:32 PM:

Jim Macdonald @86: Chester Anderson had a short preface to The Butterfly Kid in which he said much the same thing.

#90 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 03:37 PM:

Lori Coulson @ 88: Re: The Day After -- Remember the missiles rising out of the cornfields?

And that poor bastard trying to hitchhike home.

And remember how the warmongers threw such a hissy fit over that one-night movie that they got the seven-part, week-long mini-series Amerika (which surprisingly didn't suck beginning to end) to balance it all out?

"Fair and balanced, balanced and fair,
Prove it's unmanly to grow you a pair."

I probably ought to trademark that, but wotthehell.

#91 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 03:43 PM:

I never saw Threads, but Testament just about killed me. (Now that I have a kid, I don't think I could watch it again.) That, and Miracle Mile. Those were the days, eh?

#92 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 03:49 PM:

A supremely stupid nuclear war movie: Crimson Tide (1995; Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington). The list of Things Wrong With This Movie is about two miles long.

A decent nuclear war paranoia movie: Miracle Mile (1988).

If anyone is working on a movie track for some convention, Atomic War/Historical retrospective might not be a bad theme.

#93 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 04:12 PM:

A few months back the This! movie channel ran a somewhat-cozy-catastrophe movie, "Panic in Year Zero!"

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056331/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Competent Dad (Ray Miland) and family head up to their cabin in the woods, just ahead of H-bombs falling on Los Angeles. They hole up in the hills and wait for things to settle down. The folks along the way they buy food and gas from seem utterly unaware that the big one has dropped not far away.

There is lip service to radiation poisoning, but no trace of scarred and burned and desperately ill people. For all the tens of thousands fleeing the ruins, they only seem to have to deal with a handful: A storekeeper they'd dealt with, and his wife, who turn refugee after looters catch up with them and to whom they give the cold shoulder, and a group of sinister-beatnik twenty-somethings.

#94 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 04:22 PM:

Jim @ 92: What I liked best about Miracle Mile was the doubt I had (even knowing about the movie, I still felt it) about whether there really was a war coming. That, and the tar pits, which almost felt comforting, in a Stoic sort of way.

#95 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 04:36 PM:

"On the Beach"

#96 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 06:58 PM:

Nancy - I was at Carrcroft, so maybe it was Silverside where they didn't call them air raids.

John A Arkansawyer @91 - Testament is one of those nightmares-25-years-later movies, as opposed to the blood&gore&explosions nuclear war movies which didn't have much beyond immediate shock value.

#97 ::: Teka Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 07:48 PM:

@74: I didn't really think any government would release the nuclear hounds on purpose, but I lay awake terrified that the proverbial flock of seagulls or some sort of electronic botch would cause a trigger-happy technician or official to start World War III.

I was pretty mad at Reagan for his little "joke", "The bombs start falling in five minutes." Still not happy about it, actually.

#98 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 08:38 PM:

I went to Carrcroft through grade 3, then Silverside.

I'm beginning to wonder whether they called them air raid drills when I was too young to realize what that meant, and shifted to wind storm drills later.

The book that got to me the most was Level 7.

#100 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 09:26 PM:

I recall growing up in a semi-rural area and told that the location I was in wasn't a first-strike area, but a third-strike area -- first strike would be military targets, second strike would be command-and-control and major cities, and, well, we'd be hit next because the local highly-strategic asset.

I also moved and travelled a lot. By the time I was 15 or so I realized that there couldn't be 5 different places #3 on the list, and this was more a sign of perceived local importance than actual local importance and stopped worrying about it.

#101 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 10:29 PM:

Two more movies: By Dawn's Early Light (1990; James Earl Jones) and Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977; Burt Lancaster).

#102 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 10:33 PM:

Born in the early 1980's, I did not grow up with nuclear paranoia; I did grow up with earthquake drills that were essentially the same as what others have described as "air raid drills".

My perspective on nuclear destruction comes from having spent half a summer in Hiroshima. I can visualize the area of near-total destruction, stretching from there to there, caused by a bomb that was pretty much equivalent to the detonator cap on modern nuclear weapons.

#103 ::: J.D. Rhoades ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2013, 11:14 PM:

@1: Why the fuck Goldsboro first?

Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. And Wilber's Barbecue. Never underestimate the morale effect of destroying a primary distribution node for pulled pork.

#104 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 01:08 AM:

#69 ::: Cygnet
I'm a Phoenix native and definitely remember the air raid siren tests every Saturday. I think they quit right around 2000. Nowadays, you'll just get a text message.

We never did "duck and cover" in school (1970s), although it was on the "emergency procedures" memo posted in the classrooms.

I have a friend that's Russian, and it was somewhat amusing to take him to the Titan II Missile Museum south of Tucson. The staff (mostly retired military) was also amused by the irony. They also mentioned that there is a similar museum in Ukraine.

#105 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 01:34 AM:

Jim Macdonald @86, I wonder if Streiber’s read any Gene Wolfe.

#106 ::: glinda ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 01:39 AM:

Oh, Testament. That had me crying for days afterwards.

Me = born in 1950. Neighbors built a backyard bomb shelter. My father was a scientist, and read SF (which meant *I* was reading SF, in early grade school); I can still remember some of his snarking about the uselessness of that sort of shelter. And of our duck and cover drills. (I don't think we'd have been at Ground Zero unless a missile went thoroughly off target, but I knew enough to *want* to be at Ground Zero, rather than to die slowly.)

#107 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 02:01 AM:

One other memory... I know people though it was unrealistic that "War Games" had a tour group. Well, Cheyenne Mountain may have been closed to tourists, but I did get to tour the SAC facility in Avondale, AZ around 1980 (now closed). It was a field trip for my high school computer class, but the amusing thing was how outdated the hardware was even for 1980.

We got to walk around inside the facility's computer. Yes, inside -- it was huge racks of vacuum tubes. The guide showed us a module with a couple tubes and said it was an AND gate. The building also had a gigantic air conditioner to keep all the tubes cool. The electric bill must have been mind boggling.

I also got to see the "blue room", the central monitoring room. It was nicknamed that due to the dim blue lighting, to allow the operators to see the CRTs. One showed me how he could "shoot" a blip with a gigantic light gun and return the transponder data for it.

#108 ::: Adam Ek ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 11:37 AM:

We had air raid drills in elementary school and high school in Lyons Falls, NY.

I was most freaked out one late night drive near home when there were two over the horizon thunderstorms. One in the direction of Fort Drum, 30 miles away NNE, and the other in the direction of Griffis Air Force Base, 30 miles away SSW, and I couldn't get anything on the radio but static.

#109 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 11:43 AM:

#107 -- Remember the IBM 360 I mentioned up thread? Dad and his buddies programmed it to do a little "intro to the base" printout, whenever someone important visited.

The computer building was always cold...which must have been quite a feat in Summer in Tidewater Virginia. It was also the biggest single room I'd ever seen, and the computer filled it, banks and banks of boxes with huge reel-to-reel tapes on some of them.

Memory asserts that the place was as long and wide as a football field, but I was a very small child. Surely, it couldn't have been THAT big?

#110 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 12:14 PM:

Jim @92: A supremely stupid nuclear war movie: Crimson Tide (1995; Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington). The list of Things Wrong With This Movie is about two miles long.

Oooo. Can we get a top ten list, at least? I vaguely recall having seen it, but can recall almost nothing except for the Hans Zimmer score and the egregiously misplaced comic-book banter (courtesy of script-doctoring by Tarantino).

IOW, I have no dog in this fight other than the standard enjoyment of seeing Jim expertly expound on stuff.

#111 ::: nnyhav ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 12:47 PM:

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/09/30/130930crbo_books_menand?currentPage=all

#112 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 12:52 PM:

The very best nuclear age move was Matinee with John Goodman as a William Castle type movie promoter.

#113 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 01:17 PM:

What has reinforced my cynicism was finding out how basically the UK governments of both parties colluded in keeping the public in the dark. Once the USSR had ICBM's and megatonne yields nukes, the UK was one big target which would have been wiped out in minutes. The basic plan which the governments adhered to was to let the plebs, usually estimated at half of them at least, die of fallout or starvation, whilst the politicians and suchlike (e.g. my grandfather the local chief constable) would hide out in bunkers and emerge when it was safe to do so.

Or they could have responded more humanely, by building lots of shelters like the Swiss and others, or admitted that we'd all be fucked if a nuclear exchange broke out and been less eager to have and boast about nuclear weapons. Instead, you're left with the impression of a bunch of selfish chickens running around with no better idea than to save themselves and avoid spending money on proper civil defence for everyone else, and if it had all gone wrong, they were hoping that the army would be willing enough to shoot everyone who objected to their half baked plans.

#114 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 01:40 PM:

Steve C @ 112... I remember that movie.

#115 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 03:26 PM:

Alan Hamilton in #107:

What you describe sounds like a SAGE installation. From Wikipedia I see that Luke Air Force Base, near Avondale, had one.

Recently I wrote about finding that a comic book devoted to atomic war had artwork "swiped" from a particular issue of Life magazine. Some of the photos there resemble your description closely: light guns, blue rooms, vacuum tubes, etc.

The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment station would have belonged not to SAC, the Strategic Air Command, but rather to the Air Defense Command. The latter's job was to defend the U.S. against enemy bombers; the former's, to be the "enemy bombers" in someone else's sky.

#116 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 03:59 PM:

115
That was my thought: that it sounded like a SAGE system. Frisbie saw the one at North Bay (Ontario) around 1983, before it was decommissioned and turned into museum pieces. 'On your left, ladies and gentlemen, are bits 4 through 7 of the accumulator' - but they had their maintenance routine to where the down time was in minutes per year. (At North Bay, the computer was part of the heating system.)

#117 ::: Bernard Yeh ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 04:39 PM:

@107:

I actually did go on a tour of Cheyenne Mountain (including going into the mountain) in 1989. One of the students at my high school had parents who knew someone who knew someone and was able to get an inside tour for about 20-30 students and teachers. The guest list for the tour had to be submitted at least a month in advance for a cursory background check.

What I vaguely remember (noting that this was in 1989):
* Passing a massive steel? door going into the mountain.
* Couldn't see the primary control/monitoring room because our officer tour guide said it was undergoing an upgrade and refurbishment. (Looking at the wikipedia article, looks like that was correct). So I have no clue whether the primary room looked like War Games, or even like NASA Mission Control.
* Did see a backup/alternate monitoring room. Looked pretty much like an air traffic control room of that era w/o windows. While we were in the room, CRTs were scrubbed of everything interesting except for the MIR space station orbital track. No big monitors or CRT projectors in the backup room.

#118 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 04:57 PM:

re 99: The Soviet cases lead me to believe that we would have been more likely not to launch, though I think it would have been a very close-run thing. The realities of the weapons of the day would have forced some time for reflection, and the level of surveillance (SAGE and BMEWS were both in operation) would probably have presented the lack of any other "attack" and the juxtaposition of the accident and the explosion correctly. Whether this information would have reached the decision-makers in time (or at all) and have been considered an interpreted correctly is anyone's guess, but it's hard for me to believe that Curtis LeMay represented the inclinations of the entirety of the US decision-making apparatus, or for that matter, that he would certainly have acted out his rhetoric when put on the spot.

For me at least there is a decided asymmetry in what I've seen about policy, namely, that it's all from a US perspective. Except for a relatively recent discussion of a dead-hand function the Russian system, everything I've found talking about Soviet policy is in terms of reaction to what the US was doing. I do find it striking that the Soviet side incidents are described in terms of personal decisions by named individuals, while the US incidents are not. The picture is thus created of a very decentralized Soviet decision-making system versus a very tightly coupled and centralized US system. I wonder how much this was really the case.

#119 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 06:07 PM:

IIRC, one of them main reasons the US didn't rule out "first use of nuclear weapons" was because of the ground force superiority of Soviet-bloc countries against NATO nations. I think that NATO doctrine was that tactical nukes would be a deterrent against a hypothetical massive Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

#120 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2013, 07:26 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ 98: I remember Level 7. That was creepy in many different ways. It was similar in its creepyness (but very little else) to the novel Peter George wrote after Fail-Safe, Commander One.

Steve C. @ 119: That is exactly right, at least as things stood in the eighties. I'm trying to remember whether we ever learned in The Day After whether the US used the first nukes. Given the situation, I'd assume they did.

On consulting Wikipedia, I see that both the first tactical exchange in Europe and the first strategic strike were made ambivalent. I get why, and would have done the same with the strategic strikes, but the tactical exchange is cowardly.

#121 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 10:09 AM:

C. Wingate @118: One possible reason for the difference is that the Soviet Union is gone. So individual Soviet personnel can come forward to talk about what happened 20-60 years ago without too much fear of repercussions. In the US, while there have been some individual reports, it sounds like a fair amount of information (or at least confirmation) has come from de-classified official records.

#122 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 10:38 AM:

Martin Wisse: Remember, the semi-official reason, in Britain, at least, for NATO was "to keep the Americans in [Europe], the Soviets out, and the Germans down."

I don't think that, reasonably, there could be any other way to make things work, in the event of the 1000km tank rally from Ostdeutchland. That doesn't make it any more humane.

The US Nuclear option was also, simply, recognition that they couldn't defeat the Soviet tactics that worked so well in 1944 conventionally without effectively turning the US Army into "the American Expeditionary Force" and West Germany into Ft. Patton.

We didn't really have bomb drills in Alberta the way it was in the US; but we certainly did worry about shorts. However, when I went to Waterloo, even in the 90s, I was commenting about being "just far enough away from the blast to have a nice view" (as Toronto was an hour away). My colleagues pointed out "hey, you know that Raytheon building with that big antenna that wipes out AM radio 2 seconds out of every 10? And RIM headquarters (back when Blackberry was big enough that we were jealous when our friends got a "RIM job" (crude pun definitely intended))? And..." Oh yeah, right.

It wouldn't surprise me that the big terrorist fear isn't partly because of the generations that grew up knowing "We will all go together when we go" thought they were safe from that finally, and now "whoops, wrong dayplan". Again, totally random and under no possible control of the person, *and* they aren't actually the target, they're just the damage.

Finally, the Canadian view of the world from that time: The Flowers that Boom in the Spring.

#123 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 12:29 PM:

#2 Jim
A B-52 breaking up over North Carolina should have been noticed by the various air traffic and air defense radar installations providing coverage of the region. A B-52 is a Big Ugly Fucker and had/had a Really Really Big radar crosssection. Lots of pieces flying around where there had been a big honking radar signature, and then a giant blast "Oh shit! Something that was onboard that airplane which disintegrated must've been really explosive! Oh shit!"

The Soviets did not have fighter planes which could have gotten to North Carolina--note the Belenko, when he defected with a MiG 25, had the plane flying on -fumes- at the end of the flight--the old USSR restricted the amount of fuel it allowed in fighter planes to deter pilots from defecting (not enough fuel to get sufficently far out of the country and its airspace) and fighters generally don;t have long-range tanks on them. (the unrefuelled range of an F-106 was from was it Florida, to a mile short of the Peterson Air Force Base/Colorado Spring Municipal Airpot in the mid-1970s, or less distance than flying across the Atlantic)

#13 Tom
Colebrook, NH is in the area which was just about the safest place to be in the USA in case of WWIII, due to the wind patterns among other factors (Mt Washington has its uses)

#17 Mongoose
I wonder if my relative who'd been involved with radar since a year after MIT started working with it, read/remembers the report on that plane--I expect that he did read it, he's probably read more aviation crash reports than anyone else in the world.

I expect the British MoD was involved, not only "the American aviation authoris had forgotten to tell the CAA," in failing to communicate. The GIUK gap coverage, involved MoD tracking, not only tracking by US air surveillance.

#124 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 12:36 PM:

It would obviously be remiss to let any discussion of Nato defences against Soviet invasion go past without mention of the chicken-powered nuclear landmine. And so: the chicken-powered nuclear landmine.

"It does seem like an April Fool but it most certainly is not. The Civil Service does not do jokes."

#125 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 01:02 PM:

Gnomed post (mentions that a B-52 with Unconventional Material on board would be noticed rather immediately from radar tracking. The -instant- the radar detected something weird or there were a big blast in the vicinity of where a SAC bomber had been flying, the SCC/SOCC/RCC/ROCC (the names/acronyms changed over the year) would be sending highest priority alerts and messages in several different directions and would be on the phones immediately.)

#107 Alan
There were tours inside Cheyenne Mountain.
I rememeber being annoyed at not being able to go into the Front Room of the then-Space Defense Center to ask a question about a new launch being tracked, because there was a tour group present there.

Important stuff about "obsolete" hardware: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

#126 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 01:31 PM:

growing up in S. Africa I figured we would not be nuked, just have to live in a nuked world, which seemed in many ways worse than dying quickly.

Anatoly @30,
"What we were taught in school was that the socialist countries were peace-loving, but forced to participate in the arms race by the evil imperialists who controlled all the capitalist countries. They promoted the arms race both for personal gain and to keep the poor people of their countries in check. We would do everything to avoid war, but if the capitalist rulers become especially greedy and stupid, it might happen."

We were taught that we noble white SAffricans were fighting Russian commies who wanted to oppress all the world's poor people, as well as grinding the faces of their own peasants into the dirt..
In America I met a Russian woman through work, who told me the same thing as you - I had been a demon in her childhood just as she was in mine.

"Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite." - JK Galbraith

#127 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 01:54 PM:

Bill Stewart @64

Discussions of earthquakes, standing in doorways vs lying in bed (current recommendation), with or without discussion of PTSDs makes me want to slap the twits and their "recommendations" upside the head. I'd like to make them lie in a bed on a shake table, blindfolded, and while the bed is being shaken vigorously, toss random bits of things onto their bodies. Can we say PTSD anybody? I was less than a mile from ground zero for the '94 Northridge quake. I was up on my feet, standing next to the window, prepared to go OUT should the building start coming apart. Lying on a bed may be bodily safe, and I have my doubts, but on my feet is psychologically much "safer" for long term mental survival. Irritated much?

Avram @75

Thank you. I needed that.

Air raid sirens: I was visiting Oklahoma City when the "air raid sirens" went off. I looked at my then-not-ex and asked, "what's with the air raid sirens?" He said, "tornado warning drills." Ah.

As a child, I did wonder how "protected" I would be doing a duck-n-cover on a large expanse of blacktop-covered playground, but that's what we were told to do when the sirens went off. I also learned that there are some questions adults do not want to hear from a child.

Pre-made bomb shelters: A lot of people in the Midwest in the 50s/60s bought bomb shelters and were laughed at by "city slickers" who thought they were just dumb farmers. Not even close. Backhoe to dig hole, drop in, cover back over. Reinforced concrete shelter with accommodations for several people, it was an instant tornado shelter.

#128 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 02:25 PM:

Paula Lieberman @ 125: Important stuff about "obsolete" hardware: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Oh, Paula! How can vendors make any money with that philosophy?

Lin Daniel @ 127: I grew up not too far north of OKC, in Enid. I got very, very used to those sirens.

I also learned that there are some questions adults do not want to hear from a child.

Which is why I'm teaching OWL at my church. I can't really say I want to hear every one of those questions, but I'm willing and answer truly.

Reinforced concrete shelter with accommodations for several people, it was an instant tornado shelter.

When we had our big flood in Enid, bar bs gur avar pnfhnygvrf jnf fbzrbar jub'q gnxra ershtr va n gbeanqb furygre, gura pbhyqa'g yvsg gur qbbe qhr gb gur jrvtug bs gur jngre nobir vg (ROT-13'd for horrible).

#129 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 03:33 PM:

James E at 124:

Somehow, I'm reminded of Charles Stross' very recent Equoid, which is, among other things, about the horror of badly judged procurement.

Avram at 75:

That's brilliant. Sometimes I feel as though the history of the universe is conspiring to make a pun work.

#130 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2013, 08:22 PM:

My cold war experience: A little late for the real serious twitches- the Anthony Bourdain "I never planned for adulthood" approach- but close enough to NYC that my plan In Case Of Nukes was "Get on the roof facing south and get an all-over tan".

As far as Jim Macdonald's Far Side cartoon @60: I was expecting this one but the judges will accept your answer.

#131 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 12:23 AM:

James E @ #84:

When I first read When the Wind Blows, in primary school in the late 1980s, I thought it ended on something of an anti-climax.

This, I discovered many years later, was because the school library's copy was missing a whole lot of pages at the end.

It has to have been a deliberate decision (it ended, far too neatly to be an accident, just after we learn Jim and Hilda have survived the explosion but before it becomes apparent that their troubles are only just beginning), but by the time I found out it was far too late to go back and ask whose.

#132 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 03:40 AM:

Lori Coulson @ #109, the room at the Comm Ctr I worked in in Japan held an IBM S/360 and a DSTE (picture) terminal. Maybe not a football field, but 10 or 15 yards.

#133 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 08:24 AM:

Jim @14: Little-known factoid about the R-7 ICBM -- the first Soviet one, only deployed in single-digit numbers and hastily retired when better designs came along[*] -- Korolev designed it with cryogenic LOX and RP4 as propellants. So it had to be fueled up on the exposed above-ground launch pad before it could be fired, just like Wernher von Braun's WW2 era V2. The grim joke is that fueling up an R-7 took six hours; and the launch sites were four hours inside the Soviet border as the B-52 flew.

Being a member of the launch prep team on one of those ICBMs probably amounted to a suicide mission.

[*] The R-7 went on to a stupendously successful afterlife as the Soyuz launcher, and is still in volume production to this day.

#134 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 08:38 AM:

Speaking of targets: I grew up in Leeds, in West Yorkshire.

Five miles east of my home was the Vickers tank factory (where they built Chieftain MBTs). Twelve miles north-west was Leeds-Bradford Airport. In the middle of town, a major railway station. Ten miles due south was the junction of the M62 (main east-west motorway) and the M1 (main north-south motorway), like a gigantic cross-hairs. Note that the M62 ran from Liverpool (major port, in the west) to Hull (major port, in the east) -- NATO convoys would land supplies in Liverpool, truck them across the Pennines, and send them out to the continental mainland from Hull. Finally, about

While the city of Leeds wasn't itself a target, the circle of targets around it made it unlikely that there'd be many survivors there.

(The UK as a whole ditched civil defense in the late 1960s, after the government realized that the six month survival rate after a nuclear war would probably be on the order of 2-5% of the population. The USSR had a lot of IRBMs that didn't have the range to reach North America but which could certainly do a number on America's unsinkable aircraft carrier off the Normandy coastline ...)

#135 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 11:31 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ #129: James E at 124: Somehow, I'm reminded of Charles Stross' very recent Equoid, which is, among other things, about the horror of badly judged procurement.

Ooh, new Laundry story! Thanks for pointing that out.

Also, on reading the story, I realised that it's actually got a reference in it to the chicken-powered nuclear landmine James E mentions. Which I wouldn't have got if it hadn't been for James E mentioning it, so thank you also, James.

#136 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 11:34 AM:

Linkmeister, yes I remember seeing that computer -- but there was row after row of refrigerator-size machines that had pairs tape reels bigger than a 33rpm vinyl record on front, the tape looked like it was almost an inch wide.

I have no idea what those were or what they did but I thought they were part of the computer?

#137 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 11:44 AM:

136
They're magnetic tape drives. They really were that big. Before there were multi-megabyte disk drives, there were tape drives.

#138 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 11:45 AM:

Come to think of it, it's entirely possible I learned of the chicken-powered nuclear landmine† via Charles Stross, either here or on his own blog. And thus the circle of nuclear madness goes round and round...

†I promise I am not posting about this only because that is such a fun phrase, even though it is. Say it with me!

#139 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 12:22 PM:

P J 137: And many now-standard computer algorithms were designed to deal with the limitations of a tape. For example, if your file takes two tapes to store, and you have no other storage, how do you sort it? Well, merge-sort, which is now an absolutely standard sort algorithm.

If we'd had fast computers and efficient storage 40 years ago, a lot of things might not have been developed. Who cares if your compiler is efficient if the difference is 3 seconds instead of 2? If it's 18 hours instead of 12, you care!

I remember being taught to use an IF followed by a REPEAT-UNTIL (in Pascal, my first programming language) rather then WHILE, because the program would run faster if it had one fewer jump (if there's a bigger loop around the whole thing, which was typical). Later I was told that the new compilers would optimize that out (that is, the machine code would do it the faster way even if you wrote it the slower). Now, computers are so fast that I wonder if they still bother with optimization.

Yeah, we had to optimize our own code, both ways, in the snow.

#140 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 12:24 PM:

Some of the earlier home computers used cassette tapes as tape drives. I had one for my first Atari.

The IBM AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central was built in the mid-fifties. When it was scrapped the parts were bought by Hollywood. You can see components in By Dawn's Early Light, The Time Tunnel, The Towering Inferno, WarGames, and the 2000 remake of Fail Safe.

#141 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 12:31 PM:

139
Xopher, tell me about it. ;)
I remember when 64K of RAM was what you had - before the device drivers. (Frisbie had a graphics machine with a diode-matrix boot ROM, and actual core memory.)

#142 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 01:17 PM:

Cygnet @69: as late as the early 2000's, Phoenix was still testing the air raid sirens on Saturdays at noon.

Boulder has a comparatively new (like, installed sometime in the last fifteen years) civil defense siren that gets tested on the first Monday of the month, at 10am and 7pm. Makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck every time I hear it.

9/12/13 was the first time I know of that it was used in earnest.

#143 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 01:23 PM:

64k? Luxury! Some of us had to plug in an external RAM pack if we wanted more than one kilobyte, and we didn't have any of that fancy tactile feedback from our keyboards, either. Of course, you try telling the young folk that...

#144 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 01:26 PM:

I grew up assuming that I was at or very near a nuclear target, because New York is the largest city in the United States (that's aside from the financial center or the good port). The "Fallout Shelter" signs on the walls of schools and apartment buildings were probably also a factor. (I don't remember bomb drills, but given the timing my elementary school likely had them.)

Then the Wall came down, and my assumptions changed: not so much that New York seemed less like a target, than that I stopped worrying about nuclear war. Some of those fallout shelter signs are still there, fading slowly, but they seem irrelevant in a different way: not "that won't help" but "I guess nobody bothered to take the signs down."

That sense of relief lasted ten years. I don't expect the sort of all-out nuclear exchange I grew up worrying about, but as the beginning of this thread points out, it only takes one bomb if you're in the wrong place. (I'm no longer living or working in Manhattan, which probably affects my odds on this one.)

#145 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 02:34 PM:

Jacque @142, here in the Chicago suburbs the air raid sirens are tested at 10:00 am the first Tuesday of the month. But these days we mostly call them tornado sirens, and they DO get used in earnest every few years, during particularly bad storms. My husband actually retreated to the basement when he heard the sirens going off, one day when he was home sick. And my husband is NOT the sort to retreat from wild weather; he's rather watch it.... (Best as we can tell, the tornado may have jumped right over our house; there were touchdowns a couple of miles on either side of our house, identical linear track, and the tall trees of our neighbors had the tops twisted right off...)

I had to explain to a young coworker (well, he seems young to me; he's probably in his early 30s) why the sirens were going off, one Tuesday morning a few years ago...

#146 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 02:54 PM:

Vicki @ 144: On the other hand, some bombs have bigger right places (for values of right that include wrong).

#147 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 03:40 PM:

I think I experienced one (1) "duck and cover" drill as a kid. More than enough, thank you very much.

Rikibeth @72: That moment in Watchmen where Nixon says "We go to DEFCON 2" was not fun for me to sit through. My (much younger) friend noticed me white-knuckling my seat arms.

Friend of a friend reported, from that era, getting a Stern Talking-To from his commander: "Remember, the chain of command goes through me."

Dave Bell @77: And [PSTD] comes down through the generations.

And laterally, as well.

Does a chronic illness, which can kill if mismanaged, produce a low-level PTSD pattern?

I can't imagine why not.

Jim Macdonald @86: What this says about his later novel, Communion, which many folks treat as true because the protagonist's name is Whitley Streiber....

Streiber was straight-up that Communion was autobiographical. Saw him in a live interview at the Conference on World Affairs some years ago, and he contended that he glossed as much as he did primarily to protect the identities of his neighbors of the time.

#148 ::: dotless ı ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2013, 04:35 PM:

Xopher #139: If we'd had fast computers and efficient storage 40 years ago, a lot of things might not have been developed.

I'm not sure how many algorithms that applies to. There are always problems too big for whatever your fast storage is, in which case you have to go to the next stage of your storage hierarchy, which will be larger, cheaper, and slower (and may also favor sequential access over random access), so algorithms designed to deal with hierarchical storage remain useful even as the nature of that storage changes. And even if a diminishing percentage of computer programs are large enough to really take that into account, the absolute number of such tasks is still much larger than it was 40 years ago, so there would still be a motivation for people to work on the relevant algorithms.

#150 ::: Jennifer Baughman ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2013, 02:51 PM:

Xopher #139:

Now, computers are so fast that I wonder if they still bother with optimization.

Oh, yes. The software engineering courses I've been auditing through Stanford and MIT are very clear on that--while computers have gotten faster, datasets have gotten larger, especially in the sciences. The efficiency of your algorithm matters when your dataset is in the billions.

Though I remember the days of tiny RAM and tape drives; my first home computer was a TI-99/4a, and we had an inexpensive Radio Shack cassette tape recorder attached as a "tape drive".

#151 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2013, 03:50 PM:

Somewhat related to the topic at hand, it is 30 years ago today that Stanislav Petrov decided not to start a global nuclear war. I may tip a glass in his direction.

#152 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2013, 10:31 PM:

I have snapshots from the middle 60's of open day at RAF Leuchars in Scotland. I seem to have not taken any of the Vulcan bomber with the Blue Steel standoff bomb. From what I've read, they needed to be fueled, so the warhead probably wasn't installed or fused. But I have stood within a few feet of a nuclear weapon.

#153 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2013, 01:34 AM:

It is at least a small comfort that there were still humans in the loop that thought, "Hmm, this 'attack' doesn't make any sense, so it's probably a false alarm."

Thanks for the corrections -- it was a SAGE facility I toured around 1980. It looks like they were shut down a few years later.

Although not "broken" per se, the slow processing speeds and enormous maintenance and power requirements pretty much doomed them.

#154 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2013, 11:37 AM:

Xopher #139, Jennifer Baughman #150: Not only does work expand to fill the (computer) time (and storage) available, but some of what we use computers for is "vast" problems, notably simulation of the natural world. For a vast problem, the answer to "how much computing power do you need?" is, "how much you got?"

#155 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2013, 02:00 PM:

"How much computing power do you need?"

"More."

#156 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2013, 06:03 PM:

and crossing the threads - how do you think No Such Agency cross-references *trillions* of twits and cellphone call metadata, and all of the other information that references all of it to "the suspect"?

Almost 20 years ago now, I took a "topics in data structures" course where a lot of it was "how to make structures that turn search from a log(n) operation into a log(log(n)) operation. Because when n=2^35, even if the operation was more complicated, 5 of them ran faster than 35 of the faster ones. And then you add "closest match" (rather than "found/notfound") to the game...

This was for the Help feature for the online OED. And it's only got worse, with Google's databases, for instance, never mind the other one above.

Definitely the "More" answer. All that more computing power and more storage gets you is the opportunity to think of bigger yet problems.

#157 ::: Mycroft W begnomed ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2013, 06:05 PM:

I hope for gratuitous math, and not three spaces anywhere. And here I just finished the box of bottlecaps (which have been turned into pill-sized candies, instead of things that looked like bottlecaps. My childhood is ruined).

#158 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2013, 01:31 PM:

Mycroft W. @ 157:
This is just to say

I just finished
the box
of bottle
caps

(which
have been turned
into pill-sized
candies,

instead of things
that looked
like bottlecaps.
My childhood is ruined)

#159 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2013, 06:17 PM:

John A: Ouch. Or thanks. Or...

#160 ::: Tehanu ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2013, 10:14 PM:

I grew up in various small towns in central California so I don't recall thinking that we were sure to be a target. In fact, I definitely recall thinking that it would be better to be a target -- if you were at Ground Zero, it would all be over in an instant, as opposed to being horribly burned and maimed and then slowly dying of radiation poisoning, or attacked by other survivors for your stuff, or ... well, list of horrors. Also, "Level 7" gave me nightmares for months.

#161 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2013, 02:36 PM:

Mycroft W @ 159: I was expecting, "I forgive you, but don't do it again.'

#162 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2013, 03:04 PM:

Interesting and germane remark in today's Atlantic article on Tom Clancy's death:

Many Cold War military officers I've spoken with have described some of the insane plans for which they trained to fight the Soviets; in every instance, the officers felt sure—if only on a gut level—that they'd never have to do those jobs in real life. The world just wasn't that crazy.

#163 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2013, 07:45 PM:

Heh, I thought it was a reply at first, and then realized the words sounded too familiar.

Given the only WCW thing I've done on ML is a oneliner perl not-a-.sig it's kind of nice to see I've pulled it off (even by accident).

Why should I ask someone stop doing something that elegant? It was *horrible*, but not either bad or a misappropriation of my words.

It's not a pun, but it certainly got Vlad Taltos' "second highest compliment" from me, edging quite strongly into "leaving the room holding my nose" but not quite making it.

#164 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2013, 07:50 PM:

Vlad Taltos? I associate that with Spider Robinson.

#165 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2013, 08:10 PM:

Vlat Taltos: Steven Brust

#166 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 12:52 AM:

David G., #164: It's the "leaving the room holding my nose" bit that's pinging Spider Robinson for you. People holding their noses and fleeing screaming from the room was the highest of compliments for a pun at Callahan's.

#167 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 06:47 AM:

Working at a bookstore, Tom Clancy is the archetype of what I call a "shelfbuster". A zillion titles, and all the hardcovers are slabs. I'd post a picture, but I'm off work for most of two weeks (nothing to do with the shutdown, the boss is heading off somewhere).

#168 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 11:09 AM:

Wasn't it Shaw who first said that about the highest compliment given a punster?

Google doesn't find it though. Maybe it's a misattribution.

#169 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 11:15 AM:

Jacque @ 155: Reminds me of Tim Allen: "So I hooked up a motorcycle engine to the computer -- more power!"

#170 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 11:54 AM:

167
'Red October' is his shortest novel.
I think he's a fine example of 'famous writer needs good editor'.

#171 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 11:55 AM:

ginger, there's a Rich Tennant cartoon of a nitro-fueled engine hooked up to a computer.

#172 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 11:56 AM:

Ginger: :-) Yeah, that would be a very Tim Allen approach.

#173 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 12:57 PM:

Xopher #139:

Now, computers are so fast that I wonder if they still bother with optimization.

When I was in grad school (years and years ago) I remember going to a lecture that was talking about advances in scientific computing over the previous couple decades, from the first Cray to then current time ('95 or so).

One slide mentioned that algorithmic advances in doing matrix computation had advanced _faster_ than the hardware side, and that was covering something like 3 orders of magnitude of speedup on the HW side. (Essentially, people had gone from naive matrix inversion to l/u factorization to approximate iterative methods that converge in some very small number of iterations.)

At the time I was doing iterative finite element analysis using exact methods, and burying workstations for 12 hours at a time. I shudder to think how fast my stuff would run 15 years later, with improved hardware and software. (my ipod has several times the processor speed, memory and storage of the biggest machines I was using.) I suspect that it could be near real-time on a real computer. (and I also suspect that I was >||> this close to figuring out the math to do it in much closer to real time on the machines of the day)

Anyway, to merge subthreads, I think I once sold a computer to the guy that Tom Clancy dedicated Red October to.

#174 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 01:43 PM:

P J Evans (170): Tom Clancy is my prime example of what I call '800-pound gorilla syndrome': bestselling authors whose books get long and flabby, presumably because if they sell like hotcakes anyway they Don't Need Editing.

I can never tell, as a reader, whether their editors stop trying to rein them in or whether the authors just stop listening (with or without explicit threats to take their books to another publisher if thwarted).

#175 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 10:11 PM:

Mary Aileen @#174

A newspaper review of one of Clancy's novels recommended starting at page 400 and reading to page 800 or so. The book was something like 1200 pages in paperback, Iirc.

#176 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2013, 10:20 PM:

Henry Troup (175): Sounds about right.

#177 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2013, 12:58 AM:

Mary Aileen writes in #174:

Tom Clancy is my prime example of what I call '800-pound gorilla syndrome': bestselling authors whose books get long and flabby, presumably because if they sell like hotcakes anyway they Don't Need Editing.

I have had this thought too, and discussed it with other readers. But I wonder.

Dear Publishing Insiders reading this: Is it true?

#178 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2013, 02:17 AM:

That's been my theory when a book would be improved by being cut by a third. Some of Cherryh's later books strike me that way. I call it Too Famous To Edit Syndrome.

#179 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2013, 01:24 PM:

As I heard it, Stephen King suffered from bullying his editor for a while, but then wised up and recovered from the syndrome.

#180 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2013, 01:47 PM:

I am a Clancy fan. Everything that is mentioned in the early parts of the book will have a bearing on the events in the finale.

I like the fact that he develops bit players, and that they may assume greater importance in later tales.

I stopped reading him when I found out he'd killed of the Ace of Spades.

#181 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2013, 07:36 PM:

I always liked the story about King's meeting with his long-time editor when he started on Lisey's Story. If I remember correctly, he met with his editor and said "You're a good editor, I've worked with you for a long time and want to work with you again, but this next novel has a female protagonist and neither of us is female, so I need a female editor for it to make sure I don't screw up something that would be obvious to a woman but that you or I would never see."

#182 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2013, 08:48 PM:

Xopher Halftongue, #139, eric #173

Now, computers are so fast that I wonder if they still bother with optimization.

Boy, do they. But only for certain tasks.

For linear programming (cf Red Plenty), still a very important computational task, the improvements in algorithms for large problems over the past three decades are about as big as the improvements in computer speed.

Linear algebra gets optimised extremely intensively, as well, but the optimisation techniques are different. The big bottleneck is getting numbers on and off the chip, so optimising the flow of data through the caches is an increasingly big deal. More recently, a Texas researcher with the impressively-relevant name of Goto* made the fastest freely-available linear algebra kernel by hand-optimising the use of the translation lookaside buffer, which handles conversion from virtual to physical memory addresses. And now there's a lot of work on getting graphics chips to do the component steps.

In the other direction, though, ordinary scientific programmers don't optimise nearly as much as they did.


* Kazushige Goto. Dr Goto was originally from Japan.

#183 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2013, 04:28 PM:

Thomas @#182

After all these years, a counter-argument to "Goto considered harmful"!

#184 ::: spinetingler ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 01:30 AM:

Here, blow stuff up!

http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/

#185 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 08:42 AM:

Welcome, spinetingler!

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