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Saturday, Dec 16, 2017
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The Reading File: Excerpts from interesting articles

The finger on the button

The editors of Scientific American argue that "No One Should Have Sole Authority to Launch a Nuclear Attack." Read their column in full at http://bit.ly/2vqT2t7. Here is how it begins.

In just five minutes an American president could put all of humanity in jeopardy. Most nuclear security experts believe that's how long it would take for as many as 400 land-based nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal to be loosed on enemy targets after an initial "go" order. Ten minutes later a battalion of underwater nukes could join them.

That unbridled power is a frightening prospect no matter who is president. Donald Trump, the current occupant of the Oval Office, highlights this point. He said he aspires to be "unpredictable" in how he might use nuclear weapons. There is no way to recall these missiles when they have launched, and there is no self-destruct switch. The act would likely set off a lethal cascade of retaliatory attacks, which is why strategists call this scenario mutually assured destruction.

With the exception of the president, every link in the U.S. nuclear decision chain has protections against poor judgments, deliberate misuse or accidental deployment.

Our strange new normal

In the Atlantic, Kurt Andersen believes that "the nation's current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history." Read "How America Lost Its Mind" in full at http://theatln.tc/2vr7MZh. Here's an excerpt.

Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can't prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What's problematic is going overboard — letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts.

The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies — every American one of God's chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will.

In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation — small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven't realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.

Much more than the other billion or so people in the developed world, we Americans believe — really believe — in the supernatural and the miraculous, in Satan on Earth, in reports of recent trips to and from heaven, and in a story of life's instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.

That sly dog Churchill

Coming on the heels of the movie Dunkirk, the website LongReads prints excerpts of the book Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson. The idea: "For years, historians have blamed King Leopold of Belgium. But did they fall for Allied propaganda?" Read the excerpt "Whose Fault Was Dunkirk?" in full at http://bit.ly/2vnHCs1. Here's a passage.

By the last week of May (1940), the British forces had begun their retreat toward the beaches of Dunkirk, pursued by German troops and strafed by dive-bombers as they fled down dusty roads and lanes leading to the port. Churchill renewed his appeals to the French to stand and fight, never telling them until after the evacuation began that his own troops were leaving the field of battle.

Also left in the dark was the Belgian army, which had borne the brunt of Germany's aerial and tank juggernaut, shielding British and French troops in Belgium from much of its fury. Churchill's failure to inform the Belgians of the British retreat was not an oversight; he was counting on them to help keep the German forces at bay while British troops boarded the armada of small boats and large ships being dispatched to Dunkirk.

Ode to the 15th century

In the Medium, a post by an author who writes under the name "Medieval Indonesia" explains why "The Fifteenth Century is the Most Interesting Century." (A tip of the hat to the website The Browser for calling it to our attention.) Read the essay in full at http://bit.ly/2vJnP72. Here's an excerpt.

Within only a few decades of Columbus' first voyage, everyone everywhere was eating new foods (potatoes in Europe, peanuts in tropical Asia, cassava in Africa, sweet potato in China, chicken in the Americas); dressing in fabrics made of new fibres ("Egyptian" cotton came to Egypt, sheep's wool to America); and perishing from new diseases (smallpox/Yersinia pestis/measles/flu; syphilis). New ingredients were relished and incorporated everywhere almost immediately, meaning that any pre-Columbian cuisine not preserved in cookbooks is now lost to the ages. Millions died and different millions were saved from death by new crops and imported technologies. Some languages spread and others vanished at frightening speed, many of the latter likely unrecorded in any form.

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