1. 1983: The Year the World Almost All Died

    Cast your mind back to 1983 when the cold war was heating up. Then President Ronald Reagan carried a cavalier attitude against the Soviet Union, calling them “evil” such as this speech from March 8 1983:

    In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

    The bold was added by this author. Rather than tact or diplomacy Reagan had taken policy into a fuzzy metaphysical world of good versus evil.

    A new military policy was introduced of Psychological Operations (PSYOP) on an extreme scale later that year. Just to fuck with the Soviets the US Air Force and Navy would enter and exit Soviet space. These cocky moves really messed with Soviet officials, then they did something atrocious and followed it up with poor diplomacy.

    In the Soviet Union, similar brinksmanship hijinks were discussed. In May, 1981 General Secretary Leonid Brezhniv and head of KGB Yuri Andropov boldly busted into a closed room session and announced the United States was plotting their destruction as they spoke. High time to figure out what to do and get those capitalist bastards.

    Thus, Operation RYAN (Ракетное Ядерное Нападение) which translates to the utilitarian name of Operation “Nuclear Missile Attack” was born. This was the largest and most ambitious intelligence gathering operation in Soviet history.

    In September 1 1983 after months of mindfucks from PSYOP by the US military, a civilian aircraft Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down. Near the Sea of Japan by Soviet interceptors for entering ‘general’ Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers were killed (hopefully painlessly, but I imagine death in the sky horrendous) including active congressman Larry McDonald. Initially General Secretary Yuri Andropov (former KGB head until 1982 who started Operation RYAN) denied any activity with the downed craft. This was against advice of the Foreign Ministry on the grounds it would be difficult to find the craft. No apology and no acknowledgment. Andropov was in poor health and as a result that may have clouded his judgment to pursue a bullshit stupid PR move of denying and then accepting with a shrug killing 269 innocent people.

    A few months prior Reagan had amassed the largest collection of weapons in peacetime US history. Including Pershing II missiles and a proposed batshit crazy idea for shooting down missiles in space. For the Soviets the fallout and obvious ill relations of Flight 007 as well as the US escalates meant serious fucking business.

    During this time uneasy autumn period NATO began preparations for a nuclear war ‘dry run’ called Able Archer. This was an exercise that would happen later that autumn but the preparations sent alarms to anyone with sense in Soviet intelligence. The Soviet Union fucked up with Flight 007 and for years the US had been mindfucking them. Now this exercise which unknown to Soviet intelligence was just an exercise seemed like a preemptive strike by NATO.

    Anything could have happened. With paranoid Soviet Union all but certain the US would attack and Andropov at the helm something did.

    25 days after the downing of Flight 007 on September 26, 1983 Soviet Air Defence Force lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov replaced another colonel at an early warning base.

    Been dumped? Broke a bone? Lost a job? Thank this guy because otherwise you would not be alive to experience anything.

    On that irregular shift for Petrov something irregular happened: the computer indicated four nuclear missiles headed for the Soviet Union.

    Petrov’s orders were to notify his superiors in this event if there was an attack. A decision would be made and then the Soviet missile system would throw all of its might against NATO nations, specifically the United States.

    Four missiles didn’t make sense to Petrov as a nuclear attack would be an all out strike. There would little time for retaliation. Petrov decided it must be a computer error and did not inform his supervisors or get anyone involved that would press the button. He just watched tensely and waited.

    Fortunately for all of us, he was right. Otherwise we would be scavenging canned food and fighting armed barbarian gangs led by Gary Busey. Or more likely be dead.

    Allegedly, Petrov was first heralded as a hero who averted nuclear war but then scolded for not alerting his superiors. He was not formally punished or charged but his military career was cut short leaving him to spend the rest of his life as a pensioner.

    That close call on September 26, 1983 was largely unknown in the West until after the Soviet Union collapsed. What changed Reagan’s attitude, deeply depressed him, and led to a new policy in nuclear deterrence was a science fiction TV movie The Day After.

    The film– which cast included John Lithgow, Wayne Knight, and Steve Guttenberg– was set after a schism between NATO and Soviet powers led to a nuclear war leaving most of the United States in dire straits. Set in Kansas City, it deals with the impact of radiation sickness, infrastructure destruction, and lawless gangs. The fictional President was even originally portrayed as a voice actor mimicking Reagan.

    For a TV movie its surprisingly good. It even haunts me today: I will never look at a nuclear blast as that boy did, the radiation scarred farmers furious they have to skim off top soil scare me, the President casually saying he is still in Canada angers me, and John Lithgow of all people quoting Einstein that World War IV would be fought with rocks has stuck with me since I saw it as a kid.

    In 1986 Reagan signed Intermediate Range Weapons Agreement at Reykjavik with Gorbachev. As a right wing politician, this contrasted Reagan’s 1983 era of PSYOPS, arms buildup, and even according to memos what an acceptable loss for casualties is in nuclear war. Reagan telegrammed the film’s director Nicholas Meyer saying: “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.”

    Damn. Pretty good for a TV movie, most directors cannot even dream of influencing such changes. Reagan, the B-movie Hollywood star, backed down from his policies that could have destroyed the entire world. The same man who quoted Star Wars as an insult against the Soviet Union. All because of a B-movie/TV-movie. Not bad all, for a TV movie.

  2. UVB-76, Secret Soviet Number Station, Dramatically Increases Activity

    UVB-76 Recording

    UVB-76 is a number station from Soviet days. Its purpose still remains a mystery. Rumors claim its a dead man’s switch to automatically launch nuclear weapons in the event of the Kremlin being destroyed– but that seems like sheer speculation. Today, August 24 2010, there has been three audio transmissions. What is odd is that in its 20 years of operation the station has only broadcast vocal transmissions five times– two of which were this week! Normally it sounds like a buzzer pulsating a coded message to unknown agents. Whatever purpose the station serves it still receives funding as is staffed. Anything else is a mystery.

    The message repeated three times says in Russian:

    UVB-76, UVB-76 — 93 882 Naimina 74 14 35 74 — 9 3 8 8 2 Nikolai, Anna, Ivan, Michail, Ivan, Nikolai, Anna, 7, 4, 1, 4, 3, 5, 7, 4

    UVB-76 from Satellite

    Possibilities abound. Increased military activity? A training excercize like Able Archer 83? Instructions for Iran’s nuclear reactor to come online? Maybe a plan to send more sexy lingerie model spies (yes please)? No one really knows.

    There is a live stream and UVB-76 blog dedicated to the enigma for all those amateur code breaks and counter-intelligence agents out there.

    Update 19:55: Cracked open my Russian dictionary thinking ‘Naiminia’ might be на имя which means “on names.” I never heard the word ‘naiminia’ before. I’m not a native speaker though, could be wrong.

    Update 20:43: An anonymous reader kindly clarified its на имeна the plural form for names and clearly what’s in the audio.

    Update August 25, 2010: The numbers could be simple  longitude and latitude coordinates (74.14 N, 35.74 E) pointing to a location in the Barrent sea. It just so happens this week that Russia is carrying out an anti-aircraft missile training exercise in the Barrent sea. Can we breathe a sigh of relief?

    Update August 26, 2010: Yup, according to a Wikipedia author, its longitude and latitude coordinates and the other numerical strings point to deserts located in Asia near installations of some kind. Too many instances for coincidence. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UVB-76#Patterns

  3. RIP Jack Horkheimer, Star Hustler

    If you live in the United States, there’s a fairly good chance you have seen Jack Horkheimer’s Star Hustler or recently dubbed Star Gazer.

    He delightfully explained constellations seeming something like Carl Sagan’s Uncle Buck. Low budget, outdatted effects and cheesy deliver no matter when it aired. It was a Tim & Eric skit but with a genuine passion for the stars.

    Horkheimer passed away at age 72 according to the Miami Dade Herald. His later life was surrounded in some controversy but he will be missed.

  4. Arcade Fire Frontman’s Grandfather Helped Invent the Electric Guitar

    What’s the diminutive of ‘mind-blowing’?  How does one indicate a spot on the continuum of emotions between ‘oh, that’s interesting’ and ‘holy sweet goddamn!’?

    Among my many areas of interest is that of instrument inventors.  I dabble myself, mostly in making electrical contacts that warp the frequency of a triggered sample, but still, there’s an aspirational admiration for those who have pushed through with their tinkering and made a mode of music that became a standard, that provided the very vocal cord of a whole means of expression.  And of that pantheon, there’s a special place for the tweakers of that universal weapon of the Western music canon, the electric guitar.  Credit due to Les Paul, with his electric log, and credit to George Beauchamp, for guiding this innovation.  Credit to the swamp-pop stylings of Willie Joe Duncan and his unitar.

    So I found it notable to discover that the grandfather of Win and William Butler of Arcade Fire is Alvino Rey, electric guitar pioneer.  Starting off with teenage experiments and progressing on to electrifying banjos, Rey (originally Alvin McBurney) was hired to produce the pickup that was used by Gibson in their first electric guitar, the popular ES-150.  Rey is also credited with creating the first talkbox, prominently featured in the clip above.

    Interested in making your own Stringy?  Speak, Wikipedia:

    In 1939, Rey used a carbon throat microphone to modulate his electric guitar sound. The mike, developed for military pilots, was worn by Rey’s wife Luise, who stood behind a curtain and sang along with the guitar lines. The novel combination was called “Singing Guitar”, but was not developed further.

    Rey’s death in 2004 was one of the inspirations for the title and grief of Arcade Fire’s breakout album Funeral.

    – – –

    Finding these connections between people who have made significant contributions to mass culture puts an image in my mind of a web of associations, bloodlines, shared paths.  For those on the outside, for those not related, connected or bonded to anyone who ever did something that changed the world, this can feel alienating, like the ability to shape events is something reserved for a certain elect or chosen.

    This is obviously loser talk.  If that destiny flows through certain currents, well, sure, you can mope in your own insignificance but that’s just one of two roads.  Either locate those currents and drink from its waters or you can wander around and rent DVDs about those who’ve hit on it from Netflix or whatever.

  5. VisitBritain.org Knows How to Make You Foreigners Comfortable

    Britain’s tourism agency, VisitBritain, has come through with a list of handy stereo… I mean, tips, on how to handle the strange  foreign visitors that may stumble onto the shores of Airstrip One.  Choice cuts:

    Do not be alarmed if South Africans announce that they were held up by robots.
    To a South African the word robot means traffic lights. ‘’Takkies’’ means trainers, a barbecue is a ‘braai’, and ‘’howzit’’ is an informal way of saying hello. When in a social situation with a South African do not place your thumb between your forefinger and your second finger – it is an obscene gesture.

    Avoid physical contact when first meeting someone from India.

    Avoid saying ‘’thank you’’ to a Chinese compliment.
    Instead, politely deny a compliment to show humility. If you compliment a Chinese person, expect a denial in reply. The Chinese are famous for communicating by “Saying it without saying it.” You will have to learn to read between the lines. Use only black and white materials for presentations, as colours have significant meanings in Chinese culture.

    Never imply Poles drink excessively.
    Despite stereotypes, Poles are not large consumers of alcohol and excessive drinking is frowned upon.

    What, no “Americans are heavily armed at all times”?  Nothing about the Germans having a strip of LEDs running down their shinbone?  What are we learning here, really?

  6. Versus Ugly Infrastructure and Useless Monuments

    Every reputable blog has been posting these amazing mockups for Choi and Shine Architects’ The Land of Giants project.   Such images instantly evoke that gut feeling of ‘why the hell haven’t we been doing this all along?’

    The chronicle of the infrastructure achievements of the 20th century will surely include the phrase ‘done on the cheap’.  Whereas once public works were a canvas for artisans and a symbol of the munificence of the rulers who ordered their construction, rarely has something functional been built in the modern age that has been a delight to behold.  Functionality with minimal adornment has been the  norm, replacing craftsmen with workers and leaving the most grand and inspiring of plans on the drawing board or, at best, the pages of architecture journals.

    Bursts of public beauty can be found in the trend across cultures to invest in monuments, often in remembrance of people or events.  It’s a strange contrast to infrastructure though, in that it seems almost taboo for a monument to serve a purpose other than memorial.  Perhaps it’s religion that inspires this disconnect.  After all, many religions apply a strict separation between sacred and profane places.  Think of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple and the restrictions many indigenous religions place upon who and how one may ascend sacred mountains.

    Perhaps this is the lead we follow in making our monuments as a break from the function of our living spaces.  We carve out a small section reserved as the domain of the gods, of heroes, of victims or of ancestors.  This has its worth when such a space creates a contemplative mood vital for meditating upon the significance of the thing referenced, such as the Vietnam Wall or the Battery Park East Coast Memorial.  However, quite often monuments are not contemplative spaces.  Manhattan is littered with statues, obelisks, and granite gardens with no place to sit or worse, fenced off from any interaction with their viewer.

    By building anything, we are sacrificing a natural space or the potential for the recreation of one.  If we are to forever alter our landscape (and our mindscape with it) by building, isn’t it imperative upon us to make something at least as functional, beautiful and inspiring as a stand of trees, a river or a beach?  What kind of people could we create by giving them a landscape alive with beauty that still cleans the air, filters the water and generates the power necessary to support human life?

    What especially impresses me about the project is its marriage of attention to the practical needs of production with the grandeur of a landscape of colossi:

    Despite the large number of possible forms, each pylon-figure is made from the same major assembled parts (torso, fore arm, upper leg, hand etc.) and uses a library of pre-assembled joints between these parts to create the pylon-figures’ appearance. This design allows for many variations in form and height while the pylon-figures’ cost is kept low through identical production, simple assembly and construction. (from Choi + Shine)

    What would have to change in our values and in the way we live our lives to demand that the aesthetics and artistic worth of structures be accounted for alongside their mere cost-effectiveness?

  7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Rip Off the Skateboarders From Hell

    Dangerous Minds tipped me off to this particular piece of cinema history. (Oh, NSFW, by the way… there’s like, four nipples shown).  The trailer for Skateboarders from Hell is one piece of 1980’s Loose Shoes, a movie composed of genre spoofs filmed as trailers for nonexistent movies.  Kind of like a whole movie made out of the intermission of Grindhouse.

    What really grabbed me, though, was the motorized skateboarders these feral thrashers use to reach the podunk town they terrorize.  They give a quick closeup at about 0:19 in the video above.  They appear to be the lovechild of a weedwacker engine and a skateboard, complete with a handheld throttle and some kind of brake.

    Besides wracking my brains for a plan to make one, what struck me was the similarities to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s ride of choice: The Cheapskate.  (Image from Amazon)

    While the toy sports some dumb, oversized hardware add-ons (the spotlight, the fan, a flag…c’mon, aren’t sewers too cramped for this Winnebago of skateboards?) I dimly recall that in the comics and the cartoon, the turtles carvied up the sewer pipes in more compact versions that closely resemble the sweet boards sported in Skateboarders from Hell.

    While at first blush these boards look like the sort of backyard engineering that chews off limbs and makes legends, these motorized skateboards are MotoBoards, a product that debuted in 1975, apparently still made to this day.  If you’ve got a spare $750 hanging around, these guys will get you on your way to full body road rash.  Other Wile E. Coyote-style transport like gas powered skates are available too.

    This being the internet, there’s a community Wiki for MotoBoard product enthusiasts.  Naturally.

    By no means are MotoBoard and Donatello’s workshop the only game in town for motorized skateboard enjoyment.  There’s an electric version on offer by some Australian fellas that looks pretty slick.  (watch out for those shipping costs before you do some drunk eBaying)

    For an exhaustive video survey of motorized boards, look no further than this here link.

    And if you’re dying to make one of your very own, after the jump there’s a gentleman with a duct tape band-aid who will walk you through how he made his own death machine out of a skateboard and a chainsaw.  (hint: it’s helpful to have a friend who’s a machinist)

    Read the rest of this entry »

  8. Dave Valentine’s £10,000 ($15,671) Crisp (Chip) Packet Collection

    Dave Valentine loves crisps, or more specifically crisp packers from the 1980’s. Accoring to his 1980’s Crisp Packet group on Facebook he started the hobby as family was poor and he could not afford to collect the usual childhood staples. His parents encouraged him to “keep Britain tidy” and the net result is he has a £10,000 collection. Unlike stickers or trading cards, this hobby paid off.

    Does he plan on selling them? No. According to Children’s BBC (always a good source):
    Dave Valentine has more than 500 different packets which he holds on to after he’s eaten the snacks inside.

    Most of them you can’t buy any more, and they’ve been valued at thousands of pounds.
    But although they may be worth a small fortune but Dave says he’s not planning on selling them and wants to keep collecting even more!

    Those interested in crisps, package design, or 1980’s design should check out the photo section of his 1980’s crisp package group. Some real gems there.