Norfolk was nearly nuked

March 21, 2014

The Special Relationship between the UK and US: forged in the white heat of the world wars and the years following, right?

Or: England used as far-enough-away prep area for terrifyingly unstable early nuclear weapons. Some partnership!

If I ever had any doubt that this relationship was always, ultimately, carried out on the United States’ terms, then Eric Schlosser’s really excellent near-miss saga Command and Control put them to bed.

In the course of charting the development of the American nuclear capability (and the systems of control that grew up alongside), Schlosser covers this mindblowing episode:

In 1947 the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project decided that the final assembly of Mark 3 bombs must always occur outside the United States. The reliability of the weapon’s electronic, mechanical, and explosive components was unknown, and [Norris] Bradbury [director of the Los Alamos atomic bomb factory] thought that a crash during takeoff would pose “a very serious potential hazard to a large area in the vicinity.”

An area like, say, Norfolk:

The Mark 3 was considered too dangerous to be flown, fully assembled, over American soil. But no safety restrictions were imposed on flights of the bomb over Great Britain. Atomic bomb-making facilities were secretly constructed at two Royal Air Force bases, in Sculthorpe and Lakenheath.

Before attacking the Soviets, American B-29s would leave the United States with partially assembled Mark 3s and land at the British bases. Plutonium cores would be inserted into the weapons there, and then the B-29s would head for their Soviet targets. If one of the B-29s crashed during takeoff [as they had a tendency to so do] the RAF base, as well as neighbouring towns, might be obliterated.

Anticipating that possibility, the U.S. Air Force explored sites in the countryside of Norfolk and Suffolk where atomic bombs could be hidden, so that “if one blew, the others would survive.”

Dickensian debtors’ jails… in the modern US

March 17, 2014

A fifty-something woman, Debra Ford, is pulled over by the police in rural Alabama for a faulty taillight. She is driving without a licence and receives a fine which she struggles to pay, having been surviving on $670 a month disability payments after a car accident a decade earlier. What happens next is an astonishing example of the potential impact of part-privatisation of a criminal justice system, taken from an article published by The Nation:

Ford tried to meet her mounting debt to Harpersville, but as the months passed and the fees added up, she fell behind and stopped paying. In June 2007, the company sent a letter telling her to pay $145 immediately or face jail. But the letter was returned as undeliverable—a fact that did not stop the Harpersville Municipal Court from issuing a warrant for her arrest. Almost two years later, in January 2009, Ford was arrested on that outstanding warrant and promptly booked in the county jail—where, to offset costs, the town charged her $31 a day for her stay.

Ford spent seven weeks in jail, during which time her debt grew into the thousands. She did not, however, see the inside of a courtroom. All the lawyer hired by her family managed to do was to eventually get her transferred to a work-release program, which stopped her jail fees from growing and allowed her to live in a closed facility, the Shelby County Work Release Center, while going to work. Ford found a minimum-wage job at a local thrift store, but after buying food and handing a cut to the work-release program—40 percent of her gross earnings—there wasn’t much left to pay off the fines that kept her there. What had started as a simple traffic violation had become an indefinite sentence in a debtors’ purgatory—one that would take years to pay her way out.

Charged for each day in jail??? Is this just an isolated incident, the product of twisted small town demagoguery? It seems not:

What happened to Ford in the small town of Harpersville was tangled and unconstitutional—but hardly unique. Similar tales have been playing out in more than 1,000 courts across the country, from Georgia to Idaho. In the face of strained budgets and cuts to public services, state and local governments have been stepping up their efforts to ensure that the criminal justice system pays for itself. They have increased fines and court costs, intensified law enforcement efforts, and passed so-called “pay-to-stay” laws that charge offenders daily jail fees. They have also begun contracting with “offender-funded” probation companies like JCS, which offer a particularly attractive solution—collection, at no cost to the court.

There’s a lot of compelling stuff in this detailed article, including other examples of the impact on people struggling to make ends meet, and examples of the overweening influence of private probation companies on under-resourced courts. Terrifying when you think this is the richest country on Earth.

Margins: Independent People (chapter 24)

March 13, 2014

At the moment I’m reading an epic novel about Icelandic shepherds: Independent People by Halldor Laxness, written in the early 1930s. There are many moments of transcendent beauty amongst the brutal social realism of rural life, and lots of Hardyesque humour too. To celebrate the joy of the coming Spring, and the perennial joy of a good cup of coffee, here’s this:

Presently the smell of coffee began to fill the room. This was morning’s hallowed moment. In such a fragrance the perversity of the world is forgotten, and the soul is inspired with faith in the future; when all was said and done it was probably true that there really were far-off places, even foreign countries. Some day, incredible though it might seem, spring would come with its birds, its buttercups in the home-field.

Scarily clever tech teens skip college and… what else?

March 11, 2014

This weekend I read an in-depth account in the NYT of a trend in the US for incredibly bright and amazingly young tech entrepreneurs to make thousands of dollars in their teens by designing successful apps… and potentially eschewing further study as a result.

The sheer craziness of this kind of go-getting high-school ambition, and some of its potential drawbacks, is illustrated by this, for example:

On Jan. 15, 2013, the day before the launch of the app, Ryan pulled his first all-nighter, sending publicity notes to TechCrunch, Forbes and other media outlets. Within days the app, priced at 99 cents, was No. 1, en route to having 50,000 paid downloads. After Apple took its 30 percent, the boys split about $30,000.

Ryan’s dedication came at a cost to his grades. The previous spring, he was almost an all-A student; the fall before the launching, busy with business, he earned four Bs and two Cs. At school, he’d break the no-cellphone rule when he saw an incoming call from the 415 or the 408 area code. Silicon Valley, and potential business, calling.

But then grades going down the pan mightn’t be such an issue if this early success makes university irrelevant. Several of the kids profiled in the article are seriously considering whether college is worth it, even if they – and/or their parents – are conscious of the risk of pegging so much on continued success in Silicon Valley.

Can you imagine facing this kind of dilemma at such a tender age? Goodness.

It feels too easy to inflate the benefits of university in the face of this ultra-unusual set of circumstances… structured study and personal application, increased confidence and social connectedness, lifetime employment prospects: sure, all these flow from higher education.

But couldn’t a similar all-round ‘education’ – or even a better one? – emerge from three, four or more years of applied learning especially if, say, supported by one of the tailored tech-teen support programmes mentioned in this article?

Obama as imperial president: Nixon would be proud?

March 10, 2014

Today, I read this piece in the FT by the ever-readable Edward Luce, in which he argues that, when it comes to national security, the US presidency is as ‘imperial’ as ever.

(The reference to Arthur Schlesinger’s forty-year-old theory of an excessively powerful commander-in-chief  transports me back to a brightly-lit library in Oxford: cramming for finals.)

The evidence below is certainly uncomfortable for we Obamafans:

Through his words, Mr Obama suggests he is reluctant to use his vast capabilities. Through his actions, he conveys the opposite. In January Mr Obama rejected the advice of his own panel of legal advisers to take data storage out of the hands of National Security Agency. The NSA is proceeding with a storage centre in Utah that can contain a yottabyte of information – equal to 500 quintillion (that is, thousand trillion) pages of text. To you and me, that means infinite. No other facility on earth will come close. It will be able to store every electronic trace of everybody’s lives.

Luce ends the article by suggesting that only Obama’s good-guy image distracts us from the fact that he’s as over-weening as someone like Nixon.

It’s hard to argue that Obama has moved a mile from the ideals that he began with: in fact I doubt the man himself would claim to have stuck by them.

This left me wondering why. What balance of factors cause a president – or indeed any head of state – to act in ways they wouldn’t previously have condoned… the influence of security advisers? Political pressures? Sight of generally unseen information about threats? Gradual weakening of will?

How Michael Mann prepares to film

February 3, 2014

Michael Mann is one of my favourite directors, and Heat is firmly placed on my top ten of all time list, and so I read with great relish this interview with the usually elusive auteur. I thought this answer in particular was fascinating, especially the nugget about working with Pacino:

Listen, there’s something James Joyce wrote that I’ve never forgotten. “Impervious to fear is Rory’s son: he of the prudent soul.” I take prudence to mean preparation. It is prudent to be prepared. When you are really well prepared, you don’t have anxiety. Anxiety is fear of failure. There’s usually a reason. There’s got to be a reason. If, I’ve never done something before and I’m not prepared for it. I would have, should have fear and anxiety. I see it in some actors. The more prepared an actor is, when he’s prepared, two things happen: he’s great to deal with; second, he’s free because he’s confident. When an actor is totally prepared like, Al Pacino learns his dialogue cold two weeks before he shoots it, he never looks at the script the day he’s shooting, so winging it, taking chances, being on a high-wire without a net, he’s right there. I think no fear comes from knowing.

For me, I have no anxiety if I have a solid foundation in preparation — knowing why I’m shooting in a place or why the camera is here, where the furniture is, how characters walk in, why she’s oblivious to a threat, what’s on her mind distracting her and why. Different ways I may talk to an actor to set him up.

Knowing all that, I imagine you don’t have to worry about finding the movie in editing.

You have to find it again, make it be there in editing. Editing is writing with shot film. The mix is the ultimate writing the movie. At the last stage of the sound mix, your grasp of it can be the closest to the way it was when the whole story first occurred to you. It’s now become that, totally. The screenplay is, of course, the genome, but it’s also blueprint, theory about what’s going to work. Shooting is concrete, but it’s also theoretical about what’s going to work in editing. So, did it work? Yeah, this worked. This other day’s shooting that I thought was going to work, guess what? It doesn’t work. How else can I deliver this story point? Or, another story point I felt was critical to the act two curtain? I don’t need it. I don’t like it even if I did need it. I didn’t have to shoot it. So I make annoying discoveries like that.

Weirdly callous Seinfeld: uniquely 1990s?

January 6, 2014

What a treat: one of my favourite journalists/writers interviewing one of my comedy heroes – Oliver Burkeman and Jerry Seinfeld, in The Guardian today. Especially incisive is this, on Seinfeld’s inherent amorality:

A competing theory for Seinfeld’s low profile since 1998 is that his comedy belongs squarely to the 90s – an era of economic plenty, before 9/11, before widespread anxiety about climate change, when the bottomless self-absorption of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer felt excusable. Rewatching the show today is a curious experience. The haircuts are terrible, obviously. But the much-hyped focus on “nothing” – on overblown conflicts with doormen, restaurateurs and so on – feels familiar: it’s central to many of the shows that count Seinfeld as a major influence, from Arrested Development to The Office to Curb Your Enthusiasm. (The latter’s success fuelled yet another theory about Seinfeld’s post-90s career: that Larry David had been the genius behind the sitcom all along.) What stands out, in those old Seinfelds, is the weird callousness: a total lack of concern with anyone other than the central foursome, unmatched even by Larry David’s character in Curb, or David Brent, or the South Park kids. When George’s fiancee dies, poisoned by the glue in the cheap wedding invitations he’d insisted on buying, his pure relief is certainly funny, and in keeping with the famous motto of the show’s writers: “No hugging, no learning.” But it’s also more pathologically egocentric than anything you’d encounter, in a comedic context, on TV today.


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