Thursday, April 14, 2011

Our Worst Frailty - An Electro Magnetic "Hit"

The Electric Infrastructure Security (EIS) Council agitates for better infrastructure protection against electromagnetic threats. EMPACT America is a bipartisan, non-profit NGO for citizens concerned about protecting the American people from a nuclear or natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP) catastrophe.

This is serious and sobering stuff. The EMP-vulnerability of our electric grid, our machines, transportation systems, tools and homes, is probably the most glaring, "acute-impact" threat on our horizon.

To be clear, we face other dangers of a chronic nature, for example the need to develop sustainable energy to escape dependence upon foreign oil-masters and to possibly save the planet. Educating a smarter generation and rescuing our decaying infrastructure also matter a great deal, over the longer time scale. But acute-imapct threats fall into another category. They are events that could possibly knock us flat in a single day, or instant. Those of us with memories of the Cold War know how it feels to be constantly aware of a Damoclean Sword, hanging overhead..

By that standard, an EMP calamity ranks higher than anything else visible on the horizon - unlike the trumped-up panic and distraction that were foisted upon us over "terrorism."* (We could have suffered a 9/11 hit every month for the last ten years and still maintained a vibrant, healthy civilization. Our parents suffered worse in WWII. It was one long scam.)

There are two possible ways that we might be hit by an EMP pulse strong enough to cripple a continent.

1) Natural cycles can apparently lead to the sort of solar flares that did little to disturb our ancestors - other that creating scary-gorgeous aurorae - but that could devastate an electricity-dependent civilization. For example, the "Carrington Event" of 1859 and another large solar storm in 1921 show that such things happen fairly frequently, and we've been lucky, so far.

Even lesser events can wreak havoc. According to a report in IEEE Spectrum: "In March 1989, such a geomagnetic disturbance took down the entire Hydro-Qu├ębec power grid, leaving six million customers in the Canadian province without electricity for 9 hours, and also knocked out power stations in the Northeastern United States. That disturbance occurred at one peak of an 11-year solar cycle,"

A Congressional EMP Commission report recently estimated that a once-in-a-hundred- years solar flare could cause $1-2 trillion worth of damage, if the electric grid went down for weeks. Worse, if most truck transport failed, millions of Americans might simply starve.

2) A devastating electromagnetic pulse can also be man-made. Already, more than half a dozen nuclear-armed nations have missile capabilities that - now or soon - would tempt them to try knocking out Pax Americana with a single blow. Just one warhead, detonated high over North America, could cause untold amounts of EMP chaos. Weighing the scenarios, this is a no-brainer. Sending such a missile to take out one US city would be a nasty hit, but it would leave us almost intact and ready for vengeance. But knocking us back to the stone age? Far more tempting, whether it is realistic or not.

With the number of nuclear armed states rising, is that a temptation we really want to be left on the table?

At recent congressional hearings on the matter, several agency heads agreed with the assessment that "it is now a matter of if, but of when." According to Lifeboat Foundation member Paul Werbos: "One official said, after looking at the report, that $1-2 trillion was a ridiculously low estimate of the risk. 'Yes, we
have three months food stockpiled, but with electricity out for more than three days, it will all go bad. And how long can we live without water?"

"So there was serious talk of the end of civilization (their words) and of more than half the US population dying (and likewise other nations), and so on. Franks, a staunch conservative from the oil business, basically said "hey folks, this is no CO2 thing, this is real..."

Werbos continues: "And so stakeholders will take strong and vigorous action. In the face of 2012, there will be stakeholder' s meetings. And maybe some education campaigns. And a few more spare transformers. But will anyone install the relatively simple isolators to protect transformers? Will the planning include anyone who knows what a transformer IS? And all of the usual complex ways of doing nothing useful all come into play, in all the usual myriad of ways. It will be interesting to see whether a few meager bits of light can help.... maybe..."

Now, in full disclosure, let me say that I haven't really pored through the thousands of pages of material, and there is certainly a lot I still have to learn about this topic, as it has evolved since I last studied it.

But I have been talking about this general danger for 30 years, urging that a very small annual investment - perhaps as little as fifty million dollars a year, plus some arm-twisting with industry - could equip our grid and our vital tools to bear the brunt of such an event.

The best time to act on this was decades ago. The second best time is now.


*Other than a contractor greed-fest and wasting a trillion dollars on draining, debilitating "nation-building" land wars of attrition in Asia.


rewinn said...

One first glance, this would seem to give Yet One More Reason for local resiliency efforts, e.g. on-site power generation, food localization. As if we needed more ...

... but some of the necessary efforts (e.g. GPS satellite protection) can't be done by small-scale efforts. Or by cutting taxes.

Stefan Jones said...

I was hoping that a grid upgrade would have been part of the stimulus spending of a few years back.

Imagine if Obama announced funding to buy enough spare transformers, switches, and cable to repair every major trunk line . . . and required the parts to be Made in America!

The hardening could have been made in conjunction with upgrading the net to make it easier to ship watts from wind farms and desert solar arrays to where they were needed.

'griauli': Delicious fish sauce of Basque origin.

Tim H. said...

Some of us remember stories from eyewitnesses of the "Good old days", my paternal grandparents spent much of the thirties sharecropping and thought the only good thing about them was that they were gone. By all means update the grid, the re-depression is bad enough!

astranavigo said...

I wrote a short-story about twenty-five years ago entitled "We Interrupt This Broadcast...." about the effect of a 50-megaton weapon detonated 200 miles above Kansas.

My editor wouldn't publish it. First, there were no casualties - just a flash in the sky, and everything with a chip in it went dead, including the grid. Second, there was no post-apocalyptic 'angle' - just ordinary people, trying to recover and make the best of things in a surreal landscape where all the big bank buildings and porn-shops and casinos and - you get the picture - were still there.

Thanks for discussing the economic particulars. Most people don't bother to look up....

David Brin said...

Some of you will have heard of the "Bible Code" Based on earlier work by others, it claims that by using "skip codes" one can find all sorts of predictions about today's events encoded in the Bible. A skip code is a code where one starts at a particular letter (for the Bible, in Hebrew), and then skip ahead a specific number of characters to read the next letter in the secret message, and then keep skipping ahead by the same number of characters. Critics, however, applied the same technique to modern novels and found very similar "hidden messages". So, basically, in a rich enough body of text, you can find anything you want encoded there.

For example, this link shows "predictions" of the assassination of various world leaders within the text of Moby Dick:

Read more about this at a site by this guy I know:

Jonathan S. said...

The EMP angle was also part of the backstory of the TV series "Dark Angel" back in 2000. A terrorist group had managed to steal a large number of nuclear warheads from Russia, and used them to generate EMPs in the US and Europe. Our heroine was a bicycle messenger in Seattle post-EMPocalypse; she was also an escapee from a pre-EMPocalypse genetic-engineering program...

Pangolin said...

I live in Northern California where the seasons are fire, flood, mudslide and earthquake. You'd think people would wise up and do sensible things like cut firebreaks around their homes after twenty or thirty years or so of watching fires eat other people's homes on the horizon.

No such luck.

Every year we get our usual round of wildfires. Every year the local media acts surprised when some eccentric engineer fireproofs his home and it remains standing while his neighbors burn to the ground.

They aren't going to harden nuthin. It's basic human species blindspot #1278: "Bad things that might happen only once in a century are not worth a weeks labor avoiding."

sociotard said...

and it worked out so well for New Orleans too.

gmknobl said...

With the current crop of neocons running things, both economically and governmentally, this is not going to happen. Why? Because upgrading anything costs money with no short-term profit to be made. And in an overly free-market economy with not enough worthwhile checks and balances in place, there is absolutely no incentive to do something with only a long term benefit or chance for profit or possibly no profit at all. This is one reason why fascism is bad.

So, instead, you get people talking about worthwhile ideals that will benefit us in the long term but it is just talk with no concrete action.

Similarly but on a much lesser scale, at my place of work, there's much talk about encourage alternate forms of transportation, including bike riding. And yet covered bike racks are not installed around campus, bikes are not allowed in buildings and people are passively discouraged from riding or walking to work as they are given no economic incentive to do so, even where bike racks (uncovered) are available.

I plan on sneaking my bike into the building anyway and hiding it in a no storage fire hazard area that's out of the way of traffic. Technically, I'll be breaking rules but who ever heard of a bike catching fire to a building!

David Brin said...

Obama caught on open mike in an accidental 'gaffe"... simply saying the kinds of things he can and should say openly:

ell said...

Diabetics who need to keep their insulin refrigerated will be in a heap of trouble when the grid goes down. Especially if it goes down for weeks or months or years. Especially if trucks carrying fresh medical supplies have electronics that were zapped by the solar flare/nuke. How DO you start a modern vehicle when its chips are fried?

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

Obama caught on open mike in an accidental 'gaffe"... simply saying the kinds of things he can and should say openly:

Hmmmm, I have to wonder if this sort of thing is as "accidental" as it's made out to be. I remember the fictional President Bartlet ("The West Wing") making a similar comment on a live camera he "thought" had stopped broadcasting. It lets him get the message out with a bit of plausible deniability that he'd NEVER actually SAY such a thing in public.

The fictional press secretary admired the move as "old school." I tend to agree.

I've gotta say, without having thought too much through the consequences of President Obama's speech, that my first approximation impression is that he FINALLY (first time in two years) came out swinging. And I finally (for the first time in two years) contributed money toward his re-election campaign and separately to the Democratic Party. Because I agree with the guy who does the "Please Cut the Crap" blog--if we want the President and the Dems to do good things, we have to support them first. We can't withhold support until they do everything the way we wish first. That way lies a Republican majority and President Palin.

LarryHart said...


How DO you start a modern vehicle when its chips are fried?

It might be a good time to invest in horse and donkey futures. After a large enough EMP, we might be living in the world of "The Flintstones".

Makes one wonder why John Galt took such a long, tortured route toward bringing down civilization.

That "This isn't global warming--this is real!" comment might be telling, though. The corporate masters might actually not want technological civilization to fail. Sure, they'd last longer than anyone else, but is that the kind of world they'd want to be stuck in? Is it too much to hope that the likes of the Cato Institute or FOX News might actually push FOR hardening of critical infrastructure?

LarryHart said...

As to the "Please Cut The Crap" blog, in case anyone's interested:


sociotard said...

I hope the president makes comments of that sort often, just not in public. Speaking frankly isn't a bad way to get things going with other people, but it doesn't look good on television. It's one of the parts of legislative sausage-making that makes people lose their appetite.

Pangolin said...

Anybody who understands the concepts can make a refrigeration system in a few hours using standard plumbing parts. Look up the Crosley Icyball or simply follow this link.

For similar information on how survival is possible without infernal combustion engines and electricity see Low Tech Magazine. Entertaining reading if nothing else.

SteveO said...

Horse and Buggy?!? Jeez guys, just buy an old car or truck - it will work fine after the EMPocolypse. I am not a mechanic, but I'll bet even modern cars will run - internal combustion is mostly mechanical anyway. Not sure about the spark though...

Interestingly, most people hear, "a one-hundred year event" and think "I'll never see it." But that doesn't mean that it waits 100 years from the time you do the study - it means it happens, on average, once in a hundred-year block. If you work the stats, though, you are actually quite likely to see such events.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi, I am a mechanical engineer so I'm not that up with the effects of an EMP on normal electronics,
I can understand long conductors acting as antenna’s and dumping damaging voltages into control gear – but a car’s electronics are in a metal box inside another metal box – would a Carrington event damage a running car?, a parked car?, a car parked inside a steel garage?, replacement ECU’s in cardboard boxes?

On the grid – the US government could not pay for an upgrade because I think most of it is privately owned.

When we had the Y2K scare a lot of the panic was from people who did not realize that computer systems are always failing and most companies had developed (and practiced) workarounds

This is what makes JIT work – you don’t sit and wait for a supply failure – you plan (and practice) your back-ups

The parts that a Carrington event would destroy have a normal failure rate, and some parts in stores around the country – not enough for a whole grid but some

Here in NZ all councils have diesel back-up generators, as do hospitals and a lot of companies.

We have just installed a new unit – (Perkins) It is electronically controlled BUT it uses a mechanical fuel injection system – I could get it going with no electronics running our Civil Defense in about an hour
It lives in a big steel box – a faraday cage??

Can somebody who knows more about the effects of an EMP on electronics help calibrate me - please

TheMadLibrarian said...

I should think there would be an easy-peasy place to guarantee electronics would survive a Carrington event (is that the recognized term for one of these CME--EMP spewing things?) We have thousands of steel shipping containers worldwide. Anything inside one and isolated from the outside world should be safe from an chip-frying EMP; instant Faraday cage.

I'm with Duncan -- I don't know enough about the mechanics of the phenomenon to know how much hardening might be required, or how easy it would be to protect electronic gear. I suspect that it's a great deal like Y2K. Someplace between nothing will happen, and house wiring catching fire inside the walls, the details being unsure. The only thing about which I am certain is that if there is money to be made from apocalyptic thinking, the hucksters will come out of the woodwork, and not because it's on fire.


sympeddi -- children's symphony

Tacitus2 said...

Without otherwise commenting on its merits it should be noted that we also appear to be engaged in some sort of nation building exercize in Africa. Not a ground war, true, but in the context of expenses in straightened times those Tomahawks are not free either.

Or, I suppose when one considers the degree of military resistance our forces have met, you could just consider it extended target practice in an area where NIMBY does not matter.

Detritus of Empire

David Brin said...

(Not ranting at you Tacitus, but 30 degrees to your right.)

I have no objection to nation building.

I object to people who decried "the failed and discredited notion of so-called nation building" - who then hypocritically launched us into the most expensive and draining quagmires of nation building, in horrifically unfertile ground, via trillion dollar land wars of attrition in Asia.

Unlike many liberals, I WANTED to go after Saddam. We owed it to the people Bush Sr betrayed - in own names - in 92. But this was a monumental exercise in doing everything as stupidly as possible, in order to SPEND as much as possible, via Bush family cronies.

Such people have no business criticizing anything Obama does in foreign policy... just as those who predicted that the Bush tax cuts would - in and of themselves - result in erasing the debt, deserve no credibility on economics matters, ever.

LarryHart said...

Likewise, those who spent like drunken sailors under the theory that "Reagan showed us deficits don't matter", turning the budget SURPLUS they inherited into a trillion dollar annual deficit by their departure from office have zero credibilty when they're "Shocked--shocked!--to discover that deficit spending is going on here."

Yes, the debt is a problem. I was saying that in the 1980s. But if you (Republicans) are going to ignore that problem during boom times, you have no business deciding that NOW, IN THE F-ING MIDDLE OF A DEPRESSION!, we can no longer afford to do what governments MUST do during a depression, which is to loosen the money supply.

Maybe instead of posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings, the Bible-thumpers should post the story of Joseph instead. You SAVE during boom times so that you've got something to live off of during the famine. The Ryan plan amounts to: instead of following Joseph's advice, Egypt ate all their food during the seven good years, and also suplemented their habit by importing MORE food. Now, during the famine years, Pharaoh notices (for the first time) that importing food costs money, so we're not going to do it any more.

LarryHart said...

Paul Krugman gets it exactly right (again) in this week's column (not blog entry):

What happened over the past two weeks, then, was more about staking out positions than about enacting policies. On one side you had a combination of mean-spiritedness and fantasy; on the other you had a reaffirmation of American compassion and community, coupled with fairly realistic numbers. Which would you choose? 

Paul said...

The idea of EMP damage to car/aircraft electronics comes from actual nuclear testing. But cars and aircraft can survive a direct lightning strike (and presumably a geomagnetic storm) without damaging their electronics due to their pseudo-faraday cage.


Which makes me think that a standard faraday cage will do nothing against EMPs. (Either a real faraday room for a generator, or a pseudo-faraday cage like a shipping container or vehicle.) Testing is required, not assumptions.

(abradne: The least picturesque village in scotland.)

Abilard said...

Duncan said - "Here in NZ all councils have diesel back-up generators, as do hospitals and a lot of companies."

Hospitals, many schools, businesses and other government buildings here in the US also have generators, as well as a fair number of private individuals. Probably comes from having one of the world's most hoary grids. Outages in many parts of the country are not uncommon.

But, from what I have read, the electronics that run the pumps at gas/petrol stations would also be fried by EMP. So, for the first couple days life might go on as normal. Eventually people would realize that replacing just one transformer takes months and that to replace all of them would take decades, just like the first time.

Then all those frustrated Christian Dominionists who are migrating en masse to our mountain states get to say, with all piety, how sorry they are that God destroyed Sodom just so that they could rebuild the nation in their image.

Tacitus2 said...

Regards Joseph;

The GOP in WI is proposing the establishment of a rainy day fund that must be funded, albeit at a low percentage, even in difficult times. More so in the good times. Bitter opposition from the D side.

Easy on them bowlderized all caps...often linked with high blood pressure imho.

All these discussions would seem comical or grotesque in a post Carrington economy.

I suppose as the medical system undergoes a massive RIF I would fare better than the dermatologists or the post electricity radiologists. But even emergency medical care would be a lesser issue if we have a disparity between resources and population.

But heck, I have a surprisingly strong back and a modicum of kludge engineering skills. I figure I could make myself useful chopping wood and hot wiring things until the first Hunger Winter.

At that point there would be a vote on whether my ilk would be placed on half rations to help preserve the essential children, young women and a cadre of soldiers, electrical engineers, librarians and Amish.

To be true to my convictions I would like to think I would vote aye, but this is said with the benefit of a good breakfast and a generally sunny outlook on life.


Ian said...

Personally, I fully endorse the proposal that christian fundamentalists relocate en masse to the interior North Western mountain states.

Especially if that relocation could be completed by,say, October, 2012 (although I'd be even happier if it were completed before Republican Party primaries for 2012 started).

Ian said...

A quick and inadequate check on details of the original Carrington Event suggests that it's impact was far more serious in North America and Europe than in Asia.

Assuming this was because these areas were facing the sun when the CME hit, this suggests that significant parts of the world would survive a repeat with much less damage.

so if the impact is worst over North America, Japan, china , South Korea and Australia may come off relatively unscathed - or vice versa.

LarryHart said...


I don't know local Wisconsin politics, so I can only venture a guess as to why Dems would oppose a rainy day fund. I know I'd be for such a thing in principle. I also know that, here in Illinois, it was the REPUBLICANS in charge who squandered the surpluses of the 1990s so there was no rainy-day money in the 2000s.

(Sorry 'bout the all-caps, but I tend to use that to show emphasis on a particular word in a sentence. A relic of comic-book grammar. Do I do it so often that it bothers you?)

Anyway, my question would be how Walker is proposing to fund the thing?

If 'twere funded out of tax revenue, I'd say it's a great idea (for any state). Knowing the GOP though, I'm making a guess that his proposal involves slashing services even more draconianly in order to save the money, and then only using SOME of the savings for the rainy-day fund, the rest going for tax breaks for the wealthy.

If that's the case, I'd vote against it too. Saving for rainy day is a good idea. Starving to death in order to save for a rainy day is not.

Tacitus2 said...

Here are the details, sorry I can't do html links easily at work

0.5% in lean years, as an almost symbolic gesture. Up to 6.5% in good times. And a need for a 2/3 majority to reach into the cookie jar. This is a response to the prior Gov. who raided various funds to keep the card game going.

Not the worst leg. I have seen proposed, but now stalled.

All caps are a pet peeve. As such the fault is mine, not yours.


ell said...

Hi, Larry Hart.

Yes, how does one watch Fox news on a steam-powered television?

Or better yet, a horse-drawn television?

ell said...

Hi, SteveO.

Even my quarter-century-old car has electronic fuel injection. I think the throttle and other essential parts may be electronic, too. It would take a lot of retrofitting to make it run after an EMP. (Years ago when the engine's computer died, the car was the proverbial doornail. With a new computer part, the car runs like new.)

Hi, Abilard.

As for gasoline station pumps, they could be bypassed, theoretically. There is a huge tank in the ground with a round metal lid. With a long-enough hose on your jackrabbit pump (a hand-cranked pump), you might be able to draw up some gasoline. Are there any gas station attendants out there who know how practical this idea is?

ell said...

The Starfish Prime EMP knocked out streetlights 900 miles away.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Let's assume you have the rainy-day-cookie-jar. I can foresee a day when, despite an obvious need, politics of the day prevent tapping the fund. A legislative majority being overruled by a gubernatorial veto, and the overruling vote never making it past the screaming-on-the-House-floor stage.

We had one of those cases, where our state had a fund which had been superseded by legislation. During the last budget crisis, the legislature wanted to use the money in the orphan fund to keep the state running. The governor said no, and succeeded in roadblocking its use, leading to school and state office furloughs. Meanwhile, while the schools and health inspectors languished, the lawmakers and governor busily pointed fingers and blamed the fiscal crisis on each other.

Tacitus, thank you for valuing my profession enough to suggest I might be worth saving in an post-apocalyptic world. Despite the current vogue that all worthy things may be found online, when the computer system crashes, I still can find it for you on the shelves.


pindskr -- newfangled ski bindings

ell said...

A solar flare might knock out the electronics on only one side of the earth, but it will also knock out communications satellites on that side. If the transatlantic cable survives, a hardened telephone system might be able to call Europe for help.

On the other hand, a very long flare or a series of solar flares could knock out both hemispheres.

Modern civilization might be confined to Antarctica. Brr-rr.

Paul said...

"Modern civilization might be confined to Antarctica. Brr-rr."

Wouldn't the poles be worst hit? What with the magnetic field lines all running vertically.

Paul said...

A lazy man's guide to saving America.

soc said...

Noam Chomsky on the Arab revolutions

sociotard said...

Chomsky thinks Obama is even worse than Bush? Huh. He says the the West is hated in Libya and they don't want intervention, but I'm pretty sure they've appreciated the no fly zones and wish they'd been established earlier.

Listening to Chomsky is weird. He agrees with me on a lot of things. (I'm a nut who thinks that the US needs to drastically cut back the scope of its foreign policy and minds its own stinking business)

Even so, when I listen to him, its like trying to walk with sandpaper underwear. Something just chafes, even when he says things that I mostly agree with. Maybe its that he goes even further? I don't know. Its weird.

David Brin said...

Tacitus, I agree that the GOP is to be lauded for PROPOSING a rainy day fund in Wisconsin. Will that lead them out of hell, for EFFECTIVELY TRASHING all thought or action on a fund, regarding the Clinton surpluses?

I don't think so. It is like all the posturing over illegal immigration. If it is loud and accomplishes nothing to ACTUALLY reduce illegal immigration, the GOP will push it! But the moment a republican gets into the presidency, his FIRST action is always to cut manpower at the ACTUAL bodrder.

Sociotard. Chomsky is evidence for my model that leftists are NOT the same thing as liberals, and we need to keep reminding ourselves that, wherever that achieved actual real power... often hell ensued. (I do not call Swedish social democrats "leftists." Their social engineering is motivated by ambitious liberalism, wanting to equalize the starting gate... not equalize outcomes.)

LarryHart said...


Well, you live there in Wisconsin, and I don't, so I won't attempt to lecture on Wisconsin politics. I don't think either of us will change the other's preconceived notion of Walker: Yours that he's a beleagured public servant trying his best to do a thankless but necessary job; mine, that he's a conniving bastard who overplayed his hand, proved himself untrustworthy, and now whines like a spoiled brat because no one will work with him.

My impression of both parties, at least at the national level, is that neither party is willing to cut spending when they're in power. The difference between the two is that Dems are "tax and spend" while Republican are "BORROW and spend". Thus, Republicans can complain that Dems raise taxes, and Dems can complain that Republicans raise deficits. Both sides can (rightly) assert that in order to stop the reckless borrowing/taxing, spending must first be cut. Neither side will actually cut, because the voters want their government services.

What's bizarre about 2009-2011 is that Republicans are complaing about deficits. The next FOX News reporter or Republican official who asks Obama about the absolute need to reduce the deficit right now, he should ask them back, "So you mean Reagan was WRONG when he taught you that deficits don't matter?" Seriously, I wonder how they'd answer.

Yeah, voters make inconsistent demands. So do businessmen. Everyone in business KNOWS that there's a trade-off between "fast", "cheap", and "good". You can maximize one at the expense of one of the other two, but you can't maximize all three any more than you can decrease borrowing, decrease taxes, and INcrease spending all at the same time. Yet, what do bosses consistently answer on any project if you ask whether they want it good, fast, or cheap? "All of them." Invariably.

The private business sector isn't any freer of fantasy than the public political sector is.

soc said...

I understand Chomsky defines himself as an anarchist or a Libertarian Socialist. Anti-state socialists in Europe were the first to use the term "libertarian," apparently.

Communists are statists who want to use the power of the state to carry out a social engineering project, but if Chomsky is anti-statist then surely he's unlikey to provide that kind of danger?


If you have any affinty with libertarianism (the American kind), then that's probably why you agree with him but feel awkward at the same time. He's your leftwing half-brother. You share one parent(skepticism about government power), but not the other(free-market capitalism).


LarryHart said...

Sociotard, I have no idea if you're old enough, but do you happen to remember the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"?

The scientist is interviewing a bunch of people who have had contact with the aliens. One old geezer is doing a good job of describing the experience. Then he says, "I saw Bigfoot once too." You can feel the air deflating from the room. He just tarred anyone who had a genuine alien-contact experience with the stigma of being one of "those" people.

I suspect that's why you're uncomfortable with Noam Chomsky. You agree with (some of) what he says, and yet the fact of agreeing with him makes you look like an insane, spoiled child.

Ian said...

Listening to Chomsky on politics is like listening to an engineer defending Young Earth Creationism.

David Brin said...

Reminder. Libertarians and Chjomsky anarchists get sorted perfectly in the landscape I show at:
or use


Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Guys

I have done a quick bit of research on EMP effects

The pulse that destroys electronics (E1) will not be caused by a Carrington event.

A Carrington event will induce voltages in long conductors - this will disrupt the grid - but all of the smaller distributed power systems will remain Ok

Replacing the fried parts would not take anything like as long as building the system,

Example, Christchurch's sewer system was very badly damaged in the earthquake - it took weeks to get it back working (limping but working) rather than the decades it took to build

Ian said...

To return to the fantasy/SF discussion for a moment.

Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy and its sequels appears at first glance to be a typical fantasy construct: dashing young princes, noble barbarians, dueling good and evil wizards and a society that's stood still for centuries.

Then you fidn out that:


The "good" wizard is narcissistic megalomaniac who deliberately manipulates events to keep things the way they've always been.

David Brin said...

Ian you just described Bakshi's WIZARDS... the single most evil film I have ever seen and I am including Nazi propaganda. Top to bottom, every frame pushes evil.

Just rented INCEPTION. Even better 2nd time.

Oscars should weigh "difficulty" like gymnastics. KING's SPEECH maybe good, but Nolan had a vastly harder task. Shoulda won.

Hey, there've been 4 recent successful SF reality-twist flicks! A trend away from cliche remakes?

Abilard said...

Duncan, the problem is that during a large event there would not be enough transformers in storage. They would have to be manufactured, from factories that might also be down.

More info on the potential scale of the problem if you are curious:

PDF - EMP Commission Report to the U.S. Congress

So, if you are a utility and your job is to fix everything trashed in Figure 2 of the summary above, you are going to need a LOT of hardware on a lot of trucks, which means either a fuel convoy or a lot of handpumps just to keep the trucks moving. Decades.

rewinn said...

Because there's just not enough science-based humor: "Staggering Drop In Global Temperature" by the delightful Denial Depot: "The current temperature anomaly for March 2011 has just come in at -0.1C. That's MINUS 0.1C which is below the freezing point of water, so how can the arctic be melting?

... wanna bet someone cites this line of argument as truth, not humor?


While rainy-day funds are excellent ideas, a state executive who admits that his most famous idea for saving money for his state does not actually save any money for his state cannot be considered in any way serious.


I'm not sure Y2K is a good predictor of behavior in a Carrington event, since it was a potential problem with a defined occurence date. A better example might be a catastrophic earthquake/tsunami combination - something we know will happen but since we don't know when, an organizations that bets that it won't happen in the near future gains a competitive advantage over those who do plan for it.

Tony Fisk said...

Ah yes! Humour. It's done quite well, so I daresay someone's going to take the bait!

Shall we start a conspiracy about those nefarious scientist scroundrels hurriedly adding an upward jump to hide the inconvenient truth?

Carrington: is a scary prospect, but with the sun under the current amount of scrutiny, we should have ample warning of an incoming event... assuming that someone has the gumption to damp the power grid down on 15 minutes notice!

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Abilard

We are talking about two different possibilities here

Nuclear explosion EMP
Carrington event

A Carrington event would be hemisphere wide BUT would not effect electronics
Long conductors would be vulnerable but properly fused and protected equipment would not all be destroyed
Back-up generators, cars, trucks, gas stations would still be OK

Nuclear explosion EMP would be more localized,
I'm not sure where the EMP kills cars comes from,
Cars in the UK had no "vital" electronics until the middle 80's
When the EMP tests were done a car didn't have any electronics

I think a car ECU in it's metal case in a steel car body is likely to be more resistant than a 1960's transistor radio in a plastic case

Being a more localized event even if an EMP explosion did destroy electronics across half of the USA the rest of the world would be able to help you rebuild

LarryHart said...


While rainy-day funds are excellent ideas, a state executive who admits that his most famous idea for saving money for his state does not actually save any money for his state cannot be considered in any way serious.

That's one of the two things I'd be leery of with actual propoals for a rainy-day fund (despite thinking such a thing is a good idea in principle). Just as with "deficit reduction" at the national level, governors like Walker would use rainy-day savings as an excuse to draconianly cut government services even when building up a surplus he controlled. Anyone want to take any bets that the fund would eventually be "given back to the taxpayers" by way of tax cuts to the rich and corporations?

It's an old pattern now. Republicans insist on lowering deficits when Dems are in charge, but then they give away any "savings" to their own base when they are in power. This is what turned me away from BEING a deficit hawk. In theory, I'd like to eliminate the debt and have lower costs in the future. But if any reduction in spending will INEVITABLY be used to splurge on wars or tax cuts for the Koch brothers, then I'd rather keep the deficit high and have the spending.

LarryHart said...

Duncan Carincross:

I think a car ECU in it's metal case in a steel car body is likely to be more resistant than a 1960's transistor radio in a plastic case

Do car exteriors even HAVE metal in them any more?

I exaggerate, but you get my point. My understanding is that all but the biggest luxury models are more plastic than metal.

Tim H. said...

USAF did EMP testing, (Some of it after the BUFF was updated to solid state electronics.) don't know if any of it is declassified. Maybe someone will get some Tesla coils and a sacrificial car ;). ECM'd cars started showing up in the 70s, but fairly rare.

Tacitus2 said...

Since I am more likely to have noticed than most of the other regulars---your Salon version of this subject was linked by Instapundit yesterday.

The resulting "Instalanche" of viewers is an accolade of some substance in the blogosphere.

Detritus of Empire

Tacitus2 said...

I stand corrected. It was the IEET site reposting contrary Brin.

But you have already figgered that out by your ripostes on that site.


Detritus of Empire

soc said...

Just continuing the Chomsky thing a bit. Here's Johann Hari's take on Chomsky.

Hari is a British journalist and writes for the Independent but also Slate and Huffington Post in America.


Just to go back to the markets. He has used the word “bullshit” to describe the idea that markets in any way generate wealth. I believe markets are a tool need to be extremely tightly regulated – markets will have a tendency to do things that are completely unacceptable like abuse workers’ rights or trash the environment, and that’s why you need to have very strict, tight democratic regulations and strong trade unions. But nonetheless, within those regulations and checked strong trade unions, markets do actually do something very important: they generate wealth. Chomsky denies that, and I think, therefore, there is this really big hole in his interpretative framework.

You go back to 1800 and the average European lived on 90% of what the average African lives on today. Something happened in between now and then. And I agree that many things that happened between now and then, not least the rise of the democratic movements and the spread of the Enlightenment – but also, and just as important, market economies became much more efficient with the specialization of labour and so on. Chomsky denies that. So, for example, within Chomsky’s world-view there is no reason why, say, South Korea is wealthier than North Korea. I am not saying he supports the North Korean tyranny – obviously he finds it disgusting, authoritarian and wrong. What I am saying there is no explanation from him for why North Korea – a country with no markets – has 3 million people dying of famine in the 1990s and South Korea – a country with markets – doesn’t. If the state was the primary agent of generating wealth and markets were irrelevant, it would be the other way round.

I agree there are lots of other reasons why societies become wealthy, but markets are an essential ingredient. Obviously there are market fundamentists like the MIF who take this to an absurd extreme. I thought of a pretty lousy analogy to express this: if you want to make bread, you need yeast. But if you try to eat yeast alone and forget the other ingredients, you only have stinking fungus. The IMF and World Bank are ramming yeast down the throats of the poor – but Chomsky is chucking the yeast in the bin, and saying thata nybody who believes in yeast is a defender of the likes of the IMF and World Bank.


soc said...

On Chomsky saying that it is more important to be critical of your own government, for which you are responsible, than other governments.

The problem with that argument is that he then becomes very fixated. You end up having a kind of trick of the light where people are trying to make comparisons between your own power structure and someone else power structure, you end up – unwittingly probably in Chomsky’s case – downplaying the crimes of the other power structure. So I think the Serb thing is a very good example. What he says about Milosevic – he’s not pro-Milosevic, it would be ridiculous to say he is – but what he ends up doing is saying, “Why are you talking about these crimes they aren’t so bad: look at this”. And the statement “They aren’t so bad” – well they are bad.


But the problem is when you become so abusive and mocking towards the people who are trying to expose these crimes, saying, “Why are you talking about this? This is small beer compared to X, Y or Z”. The things he’s said about Samantha Power or Susan Sontag for example – really good decent center-left people – are absurd. It sounds like I have a personal thing but I think calling me a “Stalinist” and calling me “beneath contempt” is over the top. I disagree with Noam Chomsky, I respect him – I disagree with him. I can’t think of anyone Noam Chomsky disagrees with who he doesn’t say is a evil lying tool of the far right.

soc said...

Oops, link for the above:





Tyler August said...

I'm going to have to side with Chomsky about one thing: markets don't create wealth.
Work creates wealth. People create wealth.
Markets may (or may not) be an effective way to channel that effort-- but they don't, in and of themselves, have any magical wealth-creating property.
The two shipwrecked bankers can trade that old bowler back and forth as often as they'd like-- but they don't, in fact, return to civilization filthy rich. That's why that scenario is a joke. Unfortunately, it seems like it's one most people won't get these days; people look at me like I'm some sort of insane Marxist freak when I point out that Wall St. and the Holy Market don't actually do anything to make us richer.

David Brin said...


You have ahuge metal forming press. Worker pulls a lever and all sorts of machinery feels in metal and presses it into a new shape. I guess the worker "did" it. He "made" the part. But... are the machine that built our cornucopia. When oh when are liberals going to learn that the leftists who hate markets are just as bad as the oligarch-rightists who want to ruin them.

Markets are a liberal invention! They are ours! Libertarians, (randroids) who fantasize that markets are natural laws... mystical jerks who can cite no historical evidence for this assertion.

Oligarchs who think that "private property" is the sacred essence of markets and that cheaters can do no wrong, as long as they are "private."

And lefty dopes who learned nothing from the 20th century.

ALL are enemies of the pragmatic machinery that Adam Smith - THE FIRST LIBERAL - started to defend, at long last, for all our sakes. When liberals wake up that markets are the machinery that makes the wealth. And that most liberal notions - public education, health, civil rights and so on - are totally justified in SMITHIAN TERMS! They equalize the staring grist of (true) capitalism by maximizing the number of savvy, ready, knowing competitors!

When liberals wake up and remember all this, they will finally be able to defend the Revoltution. The only revolution worth spit, in all of history



David Brin said...

See a new series on SciAmerican: "What Cool Problems Are Too Hard for Science?" Read - and tweet-vote to see my contrib to the series! h@cqchoi

David Brin said...


Unknown said...

Anymore, the left right paradigm is a lie to provide the people the illusion of having a choice. While in all actuality, both parties are controlled by the same interests (for the most part).
Every blog I happen across, has it's share of political arguments going back and forth, but they are all still trapped in the false left/right paradigm.
One of these days the American people will open their eyes to the 'continuity of agenda' between the liberals and the conservatives.
In all things truly important to them, they come banker bailouts... etc. The rest of it, in its entirety, is purely theater.
Why can't we agree to have liberty as the founders intended, and simply be bound by the Constitution.

Ron Paul 2012

Anonymous said...

As for whether a Carrinton event would fry auto electronics, don't estimate yourself short like the electrical engineers at Toyota. If high tension power proximity can interupt the elctromagnetic function of micro digital circuits, imagine what an electro magnetic storm would do. Go ahead, put an average magnet next to your Mac and comprehend the impact of degauzing the OS of any chip. Most modern autos have five computer systems. Don't worry, you can use your all important I-Phone as a paper weight.

Anonymous said...

Pardon the mispelling/typo of Carrington- but the point being that while telegraph conductors were impacted by a magnetic storm in 1859- enough magnetism to generate a strong electical current that will undoubtedly burn through a modern electrical grid; then there are bigger concerns.

If you've been on the ground at a natural or man made wide scale disaster event- think of the logistical nightmare to even provide basic services. How many trucks were used to provide one pillow per Hurricane Katrina refugee at the Astro Dome?

Those who desire debating partisian politics, think of the power of deciding whose infrastructure (life or death) will recieve extremely rationed replacement and those that will rise to great power as civilization is rebuilt.
No greater end to a deficit than to erase and cull the serfs and creditors.

Don't forget that light is an electromagentic wave, just as the most dangerous element in acid rain is hydrodioxygen.

Bill in NC said...

We actually have tested modern cars & trucks vs. EMP - they are well-shielded and did just fine (only a few cut off, nearly all of those just needed to be re-started)

I enjoyed "One Second After", but it remains fiction, with some very liberal dramatic license for effect (e.g., the whole 'insulin must be refrigerated' plot-line)

Continent-wide EMP requires a megaton-yield (fission-fusion) device detonated at the edge of space, several hundred miles over the central U.S.

Currently only China & Russia are plausible antagonists (i.e., any attacker could NOT remain anonymous)

No, a Scud missile launched from an offshore trawler doesn't have the payload capacity or range.

In the end, EMP doesn't make sense for a terrorist attack - any group would get far more mileage from detonating a device near a high-value target instead - say, in the river off lower Manhattan.

Spud said...

As far as rainy day funds are concerned.
Wasn't this what Social Security was?
Did not Reagan admin spend this fund?
Prepping for the future does no good if you use it today.

Hank Roberts said...

belatedly, answering the "EMP kills" question, that probably comes from the Russian tests, which were inland. Would it apply to modern vehicles and diesel equipment? Dunno. Ask the people who did the tests how long they ran their engines after the pulse and whether the rate of failure was different over say the next month or so. Starting up isn't the problem, from this record:

Electromagnetic Pulse
Soviet Test 184 - EMP

"... the 1962 Soviet nuclear EMP tests over Kazakhstan.... The diesel generator problems usually occurred some time after the detonations due to dielectric breakdown in the generator windings ...."