Category Archives: Energy

This Day in History: 1945 US Dropped Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan

Japanese cities destroyed by strategic bombing in World War II. Source: “Tokyo vs. Hiroshima,” Alex Wellerstein, September 22, 2014

The usual story told in American history classes is that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan saved American lives. This is mostly false.

Studies now show nearly as many Americans died from nuclear radiation and fallout during creation of these bombs, as died in Japan from the bombs being dropped.

Source: “Some Unintended Fallout from Defense Policy: Measuring the Effect of Atmospheric Nuclear Testing on American Mortality Patterns,” Keith Meyers, University of Arizona

One might still say American soldier lives were saved at the time these two bombs were dropped (instead of invasion), even if so many Americans were killed at shockingly high rates for decades afterwards.

The problem with this theory is the atomic bombs didn’t force surrender either.

Nonetheless a story told in American policy circles has been that dropping two bombs on Japan proved such a level of superiority in warfare (“assured destruction”), it somehow suddenly compelled the Japanese to immediately give up… not to mention a story also told that atomic bombs held the Soviets at bay afterwards. All this unfortunately is false history (see “Hidden Hot Battle Lessons of Cold War“, for additional perspective).

Here is Truman’s famous June 1st, 1945 speech calling on Japan to surrender, just to set the context of what the public was hearing at the time:

Take note that the warning was after massive bombing campaigns like March 9-10, 1945 where some 330 B-29 bombers burned 40 square miles of wood-built Tokyo to the ground killing over 100,000 civilians.

Source: “A Forgotten Horror: The Great Tokyo Air Raid,” Time, March 27, 2012

However Japan didn’t fear civilian casualty loads and couldn’t have really understood at the time why this new bomb mattered in August after a long summer of entire cities being destroyed. In a chillingly ironic manner US military leaders also didn’t fear civilian casualties.

Source: “Dar-win or Lose: the Anthropology of Security Evolution,” RSA Conference 2016

Japanese leaders instead greatly feared Soviet declaration of war on them. They thought Stalin’s shift to formal enemy would very negatively alter the terms of surrender (Soviets no longer would mediate a surrender that Japan had been asking about for weeks before the bombs were dropped).

I don’t write these things to be provocative, rather to help us better educate people about the past and also to plan for the future. Perpetuating a false narrative doesn’t do America any favors. And most of what I’m writing here is old news.

In 2013 for example Foreign Policy published “The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan … Stalin Did

Japanese historians contended it was the USSR declaring war against Japan that convinced their Emperor and gov that surrender was the only option.

In fact American propaganda dropped into Japan at that time (translated here to English) emphasized the Red Army invading, a “ring of steel” approaching with no mention of bombs at all.

Source: “Paper Bullets: a Brief Story of Psychological Warfare in World War II” Leo J. Margolin, 1946

Japan referred to atomic bombs like a “single drop of rain in the midst of a hurricane”, given that they already had seen months-long fire-bomb raids of Tokyo that left it over 50% destroyed with 300,000 burned alive and 750,000 injured.

The reason Tokyo wasn’t targeted with atomic bombs was it was too destroyed already — atomic effect wouldn’t have been measurable (125,000 were killed in atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which would mean it was similar in effect or even less than a single night of the fire bomb raids hitting Tokyo for months)

Two years before the Foreign Policy piece, a 2011 article in Boston papers offered the following insightful analysis in “Why did Japan surrender?

“Hasegawa has changed my mind,” says Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” “The Japanese decision to surrender was not driven by the two bombings.” […] “The bomb – horrific as it was – was not as special as Americans have always imagined. …more than 60 of Japan’s cities had been substantially destroyed by the time of the Hiroshima attack, according to a 2007 International Security article by Wilson, who is a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In the three weeks before Hiroshima, Wilson writes, 25 cities were heavily bombed. To us, then, Hiroshima was unique, and the move to atomic weaponry was a great leap, military and moral. But Hasegawa argues the change was incremental. “Once we had accepted strategic bombing as an acceptable weapon of war, the atomic bomb was a very small step,” he says. To Japan’s leaders, Hiroshima was yet another population center leveled, albeit in a novel way. If they didn’t surrender after Tokyo, they weren’t going to after Hiroshima.

It’s very hard to argue with these common sense points. Massive civilian casualties were mounting and having little effect. Did novelty of a bomb that was a secret suddenly change minds? Even common sense would say no, and the historical record increasingly confirms this.

Or as DW puts it in their documentary, why did American drop a second bomb on Nagasaki if that Hiroshima one supposedly could send a message to surrender?

Video F18ODD8YyuE deleted from YouTube

Or here’s the BBC “accounts of American justification” for dropping a second bomb.

Civilian suffering had never coerced Tokyo to change tactics, and these bombs also failed in that sense. Hiroshima was the 69th city in Japan destroyed by bombing and Nagasaki wasn’t even the primary target (chosen after primary target had unfavorable weather) so it was destroyed just for the sake of bombing someplace at all.

In the end, America dropped these bombs most probably to see what the effects of dropping atomic bombs would be (expressed in the now deleted DW video above as “…my mother fell apart like dry sand when I touched her foot…”) and then the US Air Force created a supporting narrative to justify continuing the program.

Historians have been trying to explain the false stories away ever since.

Drone Countermeasures Against Laser Weapons

I’ve been getting involved in a counter-drone market for many years now, including time spent in government offices with operators discussing the “latest” technology advances. Not everyone seems excited to hear about details in this area of security research.

One thing that regularly has come up is whether the venerable laser weapons are yet effective. I have to use the term venerable because the US Air Force itself will tell you they’ve been experimenting with lasers shooting down drones since the early 1970s (according to AFD-070404-025).

…1972 when technicians fired a ground­ based 100 kilowatt CO2 laser that propagated at 10.6 microns against a variety of stationary targets. The tests went so well the project elevated to firing the laser at a moving airborne target. On November 13, 1973, the laser was used against a 12 ­foot­ long Northrop MQM­33B
radio controlled aerial target, a drone, in an attempt to knock it out of the air. Indeed, the drone did drop, but not precisely as planned.

Northrop (Radioplane) OQ-19/KD2R/MQM-33 drone was produced for over four decades

In theory the laser tracks the target drone and then emits hot light to melt inexpensive plastic. Popular Mechanics has just posted a good example of this theory being turned into real-world application, called “This Is How a Laser Weapon Torches Drones Out of the Sky“.

Unfortunately the story was written around “a simple promotional video for Rafael’s Drone Dome, an anti-drone laser weapon”, making it a bit of PR extending the PR released by the manufacturer themselves.

Instead of taking the video at face value, better analysis is in order.

Here are a few thoughts on why perhaps it’s not such a bright idea (pun intended) for journalists to uncritically post a laser vendor’s demonstration.

1) Light reflection. Mirrors are a simple and logical countermeasure. As Dr. Seuss might put it, any chrome drone would bounce a drone dome. The dissipation of energy, to be fair, isn’t child’s play so the mirrors have problems to tackle. But an Office of Navy Research is definitely proving the point with their work on Counter Directed Energy Weapons. More to the point, the Air Force says the latest reflective anti-heat technology developed for energy efficient buildings (windows and roofs) is something that could be applied to all their weapons systems.

2) Dissipation of energy. In a famous case in Mexico, a liquid-cooled door greatly slowed police battering rams. The point here really is to push energy into heat sinks or disposable parts to slow absorption. Again, energy efficient buildings are developing things like phase change materials to absorb energy that easily could be applied to drones. Slowing the energy effectiveness on the drones could mean a moderately-sized swarm might easily overwhelm or avoid laser weapons.

3) Obfuscation. Both above technologies have very useful civilian applications, and thus are likely to improve faster than any expensive laser weapon can innovate. There’s also a more traditional countermeasure, which is to foul the environment a laser has to pass through. Drones could generate a synthetic cloud or fog. A swarm of drones could even create a blanket or corridor that renders laser weapons ineffective. NASA a couple years ago described a version of this working.

10 canisters about the size of a soft drink can will be deployed in the air, 6 to 12 miles away from the 670-pound main payload. The canisters will deploy between 4 and 5.5 minutes after launch forming blue-green and red artificial clouds.

Again slowing down the laser weapon is all that is needed. As one counter-counter-drone researcher put it to me “the glitter bomb is a zero cost defense”.

4) Counterattack. Lasers depend on being able to see, and be seen, so drones can fire lasers back at the source in order to blind the tracking systems or disrupt the light waves.

There are four devastating examples and more probably exist. In every one it’s economics, a matter of having inexpensive and rapidly iterating countermeasures that bypass the extremely expensive and slow-developing laser weapons.

Let me be clear, laser weapons are effective against operations that are not explicitly trying to build countermeasures to laser weapons. There is still a need for laser weapons. However, journalists do us no favors by promoting vendor PR and repeating nonsense like “100% effective”, given we have nearly 50 years of evidence how and why laser weapons fail.

Interactive Map of U.S. Supply-Chain Vulnerabilities

Years ago I wrote about the secret history that lurks behind a famous American dessert.

Nobody else, at least to my knowledge, has been thinking and writing about the supply-chain vulnerability management required for America to promote itself as home of the banana split.

Now there’s an interactive map of supply-chain vulnerabilities, which seems like it would be ideal for speeding up research and illustrating stories like the one I wrote.

FEW-View™ is an online educational tool that helps U.S. residents and community leaders visualize their supply chains with an emphasis on food, energy, and water. This tool lets you see the hidden connections and benchmark your supply chain’s sustainability, security, and resilience.

FEW-View™ is developed by scientists at Northern Arizona University and at the Decision Theater® at Arizona State University. FEW-View™ is an initiative of the FEWSION™ project, a collaboration between scientists at over a dozen universities (https://fewsion.us/team/).

FEWSION™ was founded in 2016 by a grant from the INFEWS basic research program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The opinions expressed are those of the researchers, and not necessarily the funding agencies.

However, there are two problems I see already with the map. First, it doesn’t go backward in time. The illustrations would be far more useful if I could pivot through 1880 to 1980. Second, the interactive maps allow you to break out a booze category but I have yet to find a way to filter on bananas and pineapples let alone ingredients for three flavors of ice cream.

Glory to the Modern Propagandists

The nature of propaganda is that a tiny seed of truth is grown into massive distraction.

People tend to overlook the basic fact that an adversary has used a tiny seed to confuse their whole plans. Any sense of real progress — ultimately a target’s fractured resources are more easily divided or disabled from within than confronted as a whole directly from the outside — falls victim to a tactic that really shouldn’t be so easy.

The problem, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is that it’s much easier to manipulate people than to persuade them they’re being manipulated.

I’ve presented about this many times in the past, such as 2012 when I explained how Vanuatu’s rapid mobile phone adoption made it ripe for a political coup by manipulating voters. Most recently I spoke of the Russian government targeting foreign athletes with psychological warfare to “get in their heads” and reduce competitive performance against weaker Russian athletes.

Some new analysis from the alliance for securing democracy shows how this all works. Their “Hamilton Dashboard” highlights two important findings in a post titled “Why the Jeffrey Epstein saga was the Russian government-funded media’s top story of 2019”

…few topics dominated the Russian government-funded media landscape quite like the arrest and subsequent suicide of billionaire financier and serial sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. In its year-end review, RT named the Epstein saga “2019’s major scandal,” and RT UK media personality George Galloway listed it as his number one “truth bomb” of the year (ahead of all the aforementioned events). Given the lack of any notable connection between Epstein and Russian interests, the focus on Epstein highlights the Kremlin’s clear prioritization of content meant to paint a negative image of the West rather than a positive image of Russia.

The first finding is a somewhat obvious one that Russia actively uses seeds that are meant to destroy positive imagery of the West (i.e. reverse the “Hope” campaigns that had resulted in President Obama). Epstein falls into this category.

The second finding is more subtle and implicit. Russia fails miserably to generate any positive image of itself. Every analysis I have read suggests Putin is both desperate and incompetent at forming a national identity, despite ruthlessly positioning himself as a long-term dictator with total control of all resources.

To put it in some context, Putin is a trained assassin, with little to no evidence he can develop a sense of national interest or ability to convey any leadership story about belonging. In fact, these two positions may be contradictory (inherent weakness of being an assassin) given how anyone forming greater identity and purpose would be assassinated; rise of identity could be seen as potential threat to the man with an artificially inflated sense of self worth above everyone else.

Anyway the graphic for the Hamilton Dashboard of the securing democracy site really caught my eye as a beautifully done rendition of the classic Soviet propaganda art that Putin seems incapable of achieving (a bit like doing the work for him):

The Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, a project of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, provides a summary analysis of the narratives and topics promoted by the Russian government and Russian state-funded media on Twitter, YouTube, broadcast television (RT), and state-sponsored news websites.

For comparison here’s some actual Soviet propaganda that celebrates creating a powerful aviation industry (a suspicious claim given staggering death tolls in their airline: in 1973 alone the Soviet aviation industry had 27 incidents and 780 people were killed)

This genre of “positive” spin poster of prosperity was backed by a complete suppression of any and all “unfavorable” communication that would challenge a progressive narrative (e.g. propaganda seeds of despair pushed by running a story about Epstein). Especially suppressed by the Russians were news of crimes against humanity (massacres, famines and energy/environmental disasters on Russian soil).

In other words, two diametrically opposed threads can be tracked in Cold War propaganda, posters of hope by the Soviets and counter-posters of despair by the CIA (the subject of Putin’s study while in the KGB).

Example of a Soviet poster pushing a positive narrative of prosperity from labor:

Map of the Soviet Union highlighting the contributions to the economy of its major cities and regions, each represented by symbols for dams, factories, mines, agriculture, and so on. Quoting Premier Nikolai Bulganin (served 1955-58). Source: Boston Rare Maps

Contrarian example of a CIA poster pushing negative narratives (indirectly via Italian media platforms) of demoralizing labor brutality:

A map flanked by long text notes describing the Gulag’s size — “if consolidated, would make a submerged empire the size of Western Europe” — and its staggering brutality, with an “average mortality rate… exceed[ing] 12% a year.” Source: Boston Rare Maps

In the modern context, being the typical self-promoting KGB agent trained in the art of copying everything the CIA did and trying to use it for his own gain, we see clear evidence in the Hamilton Dashboard that Putin is pushing a despair campaign using today’s social media platforms. He doesn’t, however, seem to be able to come up with any positive sense of identity for his own nation.

And I have to say, despite me being a student of these communication methods (even having a degree related to their usage) my attempts at art in this domain simply pale in comparison to what the Hamilton Dashboard has come up with.

Hats off to them…although really I would expect some despair in their graphic if they wanted to play this game right. I mean it seems a bit counter productive to gift the enemy with banner-level positive glorification imagery that everyone sees when they come to study the enemy.

The same mistake probably should be said for me, in retrospect, as here’s my 2017 image that used to show up in many of my presentations:

“cyberbombs away” 2017

It was a refresh of the 2016 rendition that was even more snarky about the U.S. being way ahead in kinetic yet woefully behind in the more pressing cyber domain…

Quebec Converts Crosswalks to Pop-up Car Barriers

Based on the new Quebec initiative, and old Dutch campaign against murder with cars, this is my draft image for the kind of mechanical pop-up drivers need to see when they approach any pedestrian crossing area

Here’s a shocking revelation: crosswalks don’t protect pedestrians.

As you maybe read here before when I joked about the fantasy crime called “jaywalking”, or wrote about cultural disparities in road safety, crosswalks are an unfair conspiracy by American car manufacturers that removed non-motorized forms of transportation (including pedestrians and especially women on bicycles) from the road.

Creating crosswalks and enforcing them has been by their nature extremely political acts.

They transfer a huge amount of power to car manufacturers, their car owners, and away from everyone else. The following paragraph from a 2019 paper that suggests the “street view” of your house predicts your chance of dying should surprise nobody:

It turns out that the car you drive is a surprisingly reliable proxy for your income level, your education, your occupation, and even the way you vote in elections.

Using cars as a proxy for power (enabling privilege and holding down the poor) is an inversion of what was supposed to happen with “freedom” of movement in America.

If you read the history of stop-lights in 1860s London, for example, a red light and an arm lowered to inform cars to stop being a threat. That’s right, stop-lights were initially designed (just thirty years after the concept of police were invented by Robert Peel) to allow pedestrians to move about freely. Somehow that concept was completely flipped to where pedestrians were pushed into a box (and harassed by police).

Consider how a lack of crosswalk, “ridiculously missing” as some would say, even has been linked to intentional unequal treatment of city residents.

Police detaining and questioning people for not using crosswalks (see points above) repeatedly has proven to be racist, to top it all off.

In brief, if you see a lot of cars on roads and few bicycles, check your value system for being anti-American, let alone anti-humanitarian.

Car manufacturers conspired through crosswalk lobbying to shift all rights away from residents in order to force expensive cars to be purchased for “freedom” to move about safely.

This devious plot runs so thick, Uber allegedly emphasized to its drivers that it would be better to sit in crosswalks to pick up passengers. The logic is they don’t care about blocking pedestrians, but do care about blocking other cars (note some US states also have laws encouraging this anti-pedestrian move).

Also worth noting is the flagship propaganda from Tesla this year has been bulletproof oversized trucks better suited for war zones where freedoms are missing than the public spaces of streets originally encouraging freedom of human movement and play.

Given the American context of turning streets into corporate-controlled death zones, the problem has been bleeding into Canada’s famous culture of “niceness”.

Thus Quebec has posted a video of crosswalks attempting to physically stop cars by telling them to be more polite to others:

It begs the question what damage or fine would be for running over the pop-ups, as they don’t seem to be designed (aside from the surprise) in a way that cars incur cost for disobeying them.

It also reminds me of the Ukrainian art experiment in 2011 (regularly featured in my talks as an example test for driverless car engineering) that popped up human-shaped balloons in crosswalks to stop speeding cars (triggered by a radar gun).

What if these pop-ups in Quebec were shaped like humans instead of just rectangles? That would be an even greater surprise with more psychological deterrence.

I like that the pop-ups are a throw back to the original concept for 1866 traffic stop lights of London, England.

However it seems the Quebec design is more of an art experiment for shock/suggestion and education than a real safety control, and on that note the pop-ups could be a lot more creative and shocking.

I mean if you’re going to pop-up a bunch of columns, how about make the columns rise and to a scale that represents the increasing death rate of pedestrians year-over-year from cars? Then stick a “stop killing our kids” message on that barrier…as Small Wars Journal has illustrated:

Small Wars journal graph of eight basic effects at play in the information environment

Africa Foreshadowed U.S. Abandonment of Allies in Syria: Opening Doors for Russian and Chinese Military Expansions

During Southern Accord 2012 U.S. Army Africa, and other U.S. military forces foster security cooperation while conducting combined, joint humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping operations and aeromedical evacuation exercises. (U.S. Army Africa photo by Sgt. Adam Fischman)

Big shift from previous US policy on Africa.

The latest analysis of the Syria crisis increasingly reveals it is a Russian plan that the White House has swallowed hook, line and sinker. Both Russia and China stand poised to expand into areas formerly allied with America, to expand their own operations that will erode American relations and influence.

Unilateral withdrawal clearly harms U.S. interests both short (UN Security Council now comparing it to Bosnia, with regional destabilization) and long (high bar to gain foothold or respect for re-entry) terms, yet America somehow allows Executive-branch folly to proceed.

Perhaps you recall just a few months ago a similar withdrawal story was brewing in Africa? That probably should have been reported as a much starker warning of what was to come.

Gen Waldhauser said the troops will be deployed to missions where the US sees as high-priority.

“We all realise, you know, Africa, with regards to the prioritisation of our national interests … there’s no doubt about the fact that that it’s, you know, it’s not number one on the list,” Gen Waldhauser was quoted as saying.

The Trump administration views preparation for potential conflicts with China or Russia to be of higher priority than combating terrorism in Africa.

Now with the White House flying a white flag in abandoning its Kurdish allies in Syria, inviting Russia to roll right in afterwards, there might be a clearer explanation for abandonment of African forces.

The Kremlin’s goal is to emulate China’s success in fostering economic, diplomatic, and military links with Africa. To become an important partner, Moscow is organizing the first-ever Russia-Africa summit on 23-24 October.

The American pull-out from Africa serves the opposite of preparation elsewhere for potential conflicts with China or Russia.

Consider that turning tail and intentionally opening doors to Russian military sales expansion has been manifested by a brand new announcement that Russia is abruptly now pushing into new African allegiances:

While Moscow is focused primarily on other regions, it regards Africa as an attractive venue to evade international sanctions imposed by Western nations and deepen ties with old and new partners while scoring points at the expense of the United States.

Part of Russia’s engagement in Africa is military in nature. The Russian military and Russian private military contractors linked to the Kremlin have expanded their global military footprint in Africa, seeking basing rights in a half dozen countries and inking military cooperation agreements with 27 African governments

America claiming to be redirecting its military towards confrontation with Russia is double-talk. It’s pulling its hands off the wheel, literally opening the door and handing keys to arms dealers to drive. This will mean a spread of anti-humanitarian influences and locking the U.S. out of “forward” stations for military and civilian operations, which will greatly increase risk of harm to the United States (along with any democratic nations and states).

What is especially baffling is how China and Russia are doing basically the same expansionist plan, threatening American influence and ability to protect values, yet get such different treatment by the White House.

Replace the word China with Russia in this next story and you should see the problem with the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from Syria as well as Africa:

“There are two concerns about these investments,” said Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs, the top Republican on the Subcommittee for Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. “First, the dual commercial and military uses of these assets; second, that the debt incurred by these countries will tie them to China in ways that will facilitate China’s international pursuits and potentially inhibit U.S. overseas operations.”

We’ve seen this already as China uses its offer of loans to later squeeze control of ports

Kenyan government risks losing the lucrative Mombasa port to China should the country fail to repay huge loans advanced by Chinese lenders. In November, African Stand reported on how Kenya is at high risk of Losing strategic assets over huge Chinese debt and just after a few month the Chinese are about to take action.

Bottom line is that pulling back to confront Russia and China is counterproductive. Advance deployments and influence is what was designed to prevent a lopsided confrontation, by forming global alliances that maintain what Eisenhower wisely referred to as the American need for a confederation of mutual trust and respect.

Losing alliances also means American warfare technology (which depends increasingly on intelligence) becomes less reliable in the very near future. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious but things like “Simple map displays require 96 hours to synchronize a brigade or division targeting cycle…” will get performance gains faster/better through augmenting human alliance networks in the field rather than pulling out and relying on AI alone.


Update October 24: LSE’s Stephen Paduano and alum John McDermott write in The Economist that the rise of Russian activity in Africa has been accompanied by senseless violence.

When three Russian journalists tried to investigate their country’s shady operations in the Central African Republic they turned up dead in July 2018

Update December 31: A Compassion International Senior Security Specialist for Africa comments on a Washington Post article

How do you expect to counter China if you’re leaving where they are going? From the article, in response to China hosting leaders from 54 African countries yearly, “At the launch of Prosper Africa in Mozambique this year, the United States failed to send even a Cabinet secretary.”

Why Your Toaster Has a Firewall

Presentations I have given over many years about cloud safety will reference the fact a ground fault circuit interrupt (GFCI) made toasters safe.

My point has been simply that virtual machines, containers, etc. have an abstraction layer that can benefit from a systemic approach to connectivity and platform safety, rather than pushing every instance to be armored.

The background to the toaster safety story is actually from a computer science (and EE) professor in the 1950s at Berkeley. He was researching physiological effects of electric shocks when applied to humans and animals to (pinpoint exactly what causes a heart to stop).

He narrowed the cause of death enough to patent an interrupt device for electric lines, which basically is a firewall at a connection point that blocks flow of current:

The first regulation requiring GFCI was for electricians working on swimming pools:

GFCIs are defined in Article 100 of the NEC as “A device intended for the protection of personnel that functions to de-energize a circuit or portion thereof within an established period of time when a current to ground exceeds the values established for a Class A device.” Class A GFCIs, which are the type required in and around swimming pools, trip when the current to ground is 6 mA or higher and do not trip when the current to ground is less than 4 mA.

Fast forward to cartoonists today and some obviously have completely missed the fact that selling consumers a firewall for connected toasters is a 50-year old topic with long-standing regulations.

Why Does NYC Hate Cycling to Work?

The mythical NYC bike commuter in a car-dominated toxic landscape

The other day I pointed out a strange disconnect between transit safety models in Holland and NYC.

While the Dutch claim their density is what causes their cycling safety, there’s no such effect in the US. San Francisco is far less dense than NYC yet far more progressive in terms of cycling safety.

Amazing analysis coming in from CityLab confirms the US has something else going on:

San Francisco tops the ranking of large metros in the index, followed by Boston and New York. What’s interesting is that the New York metro leads on three of the four variables of the index. It has far and away the largest share of households who report no access to a vehicle, 22 percent. (That’s more than three times the share in both San Francisco and Boston.) New York is also the clear leader in the share of commuters who use transit to get to work, with more than 30 percent, almost double San Francisco’s share. And it has the edge on the share of commuters who walk to work, roughly 6 percent.

But New York has a far smaller share of commuters who bike to work. It even fails to crack the top 10 on this metric, coming 101st out of 382 metros, or 22nd out of 53 large metros.

Full disclosure: I have commuted by bicycle in cities around the world all year through wind, rain, snow, sleet…up hills and down.

The reasons against cycling to work in NYC definitely are not topographical or weather related. San Francisco obviously is hilly and many other cities have comparable temperatures and precipitation than NYC.

56% of Copenhageners ride a bicycle for transport daily. 75% cycle all winter.

“Rush Hour Copenhagen” by Mikael Colville-Andersen

The core reason, I believe, is the politics of NYC and how they perceive personal power accumulation measured by dollar bills in their bank accounts to be inversely related to the health of the environment they commute in/through.

The city has a pollution-loving history with a huge “we’re busy trying to get rich/famous, leave us alone” lobby that claims doing the right thing for “others” is economically unfeasible in their list of priorities.

The term “economic feasibility” has been subject to debate in the past. When the city banned styrofoam, it said that recycling the stuff was not economically or environmentally feasible. Restaurants and other industry sued in disagreement — and it took several more years and some back-and-forth in the courtroom before the ban was finalized.

The typical NYC powerful resident would go to the gym and spin to look “better than others” in work or personal life, but has little interest in getting on a bike for the same workout when told it results in making the city a better place to live for others.

Anthropologists can probably explain why trains have escaped this dilemma, and it likely just has to do with momentum (Victorian cycling trends that benefited women most can be wiped off the streets in a day by car lobbyists, but it takes a lot more to kill popular yet unprofitable trains).

This of course is not saying NYC has no residents concerned with the environment.

It is to say the people who care have very little political power in a city filled with Napoleonic Ubermensches who blatantly ignore the genius lessons of Grant’s anti-Napoleonic ethic (memorialized yet disrespectfully hidden away at 122nd Street) and instead believe they must constantly be stepping on others to get ahead.

The city’s Five Borough Bike Tour shows how good-intentioned people of the city are so disenfranchised they have exactly the wrong attitude, marketing safe cycling as some kind of weird special event:

The idea of seeing all five boroughs in one day and seeing the streets shut down is such a unique opportunity

First, the streets aren’t shut down. They are being used more effectively. Stop calling proper use of streets to maximize throughput a shutdown.

Second, people are restricting their movements because cars make it so painful to go any distance let alone the magic 30 minute commute in a city that’s pushing a sad 40 minute average. Five boroughs is not actually much distance to cover in a day.

Third, this should not be seen as a unique experience. It needs to be a monthly event if not weekly. A single day for cycling to be made safe is pathetic in a city that claims it wants always to be “on” and alive.

I’ve written before about the benefits of cycling in cities and the bottom line is the economics are clear and simple. What’s unclear is who in NYC has the political power and sense to do the right thing?

The real story presented by Citylab data is bicyclists must find a LaGuardia-like talent to overcome NYC power culture now rooted in the self-gain mindset of cars that brings willful disregard for others’ safety and health.

Here’s what the National Motorist Association said to block NYC allowing multi-passenger high-density traffic priority over individuals in cars:

…what is really tedious is that we are not allowed to drive, but you expect money from motorists…

That’s crazy talk (absolutism and a fallacy), given how redirection from one street in an entire city doesn’t mean cars are being banned from all streets.

Think about what the motorist association is claiming: a single person who pays any amount of money demands that they are entitled to blockade hundreds or even thousands of others on the street just because they like to sit in public inside a private inconvenience box.

Thinking inside the box. Cyclists demonstrate the stupidity of cars

Drivers were being told they would have to avoid a street (small inconvenience) where a dedicated bus lane was being created for greater good… and that car association said no way would they allow smarter traffic planning if it takes away one inch of asphalt for them to generate harms, because they’re wealthy.

This is not an isolated case according to repeated psychological studies of motorists:

Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Piff monitored intersections with four-way stop signs and found that people in expensive cars were four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers, compared to folks in more modest vehicles. …expensive cars drove right on by 46.2 percent of the time, even when they’d made eye contact with the pedestrians waiting to cross. Other studies by the same team showed that wealthier subjects were more likely to cheat…

If I were the city, I’d point out that motorists are heavily subsidized already and thus stealing from others by not paying nearly enough for the damage to infrastructure they cause:

American Infrastructure is crumbling. The ASCE has given American infrastructure a “D+”. It could cost almost $5 trillion to fully fix and upgrade American infrastructure. Congestion charging systems could potentially raise billions of dollars per year.

Here, let me frame (pun not intended) this another way: if a car is on the street then that street in NYC should be declared shut down.

I mean if we use that first point of the Five Borough Bike Tour properly, when cars use the streets the streets are effectively shut down and highly polluted (from brake dust to exhaust it’s a huge mess with slow cleanup).

People forget how influential and successful LaGuardia was dealing with the predatory and selfish mindset in NYC, and that his rural experiences and humanitarian values arguably are what made his vision of the city so great.

When will the next LaGuardia ride into town?

German Prosecutors Bring Criminal Charges Against VW Execs

In a stunning move by German prosecutors, criminal charges have been brought against VW leadership for failing to disclose to shareholders (in a timely fashion) the huge financial risks of cheating diesel emissions tests.

It is certain the team bringing this level of charges against a CEO is very well aware what it means to the German economy; they are doing the right thing anyway.

In fact the American diesel companies effectively ran similar cheats as VW yet, politically speaking, they seem to be facing little or no reaction unless you count some legal wranglings starting in 2018.

…class-action lawsuit filed today accuses Ford and Bosch of knowingly installing emissions-cheating software devices in 2011-2017 Ford 250 and 350 Super Duty diesel pickup trucks, akin to the devices at the center of Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal, allowing the affected pickups to pollute at levels up to 50 times legal limits, according to Hagens Berman

In a completely unreported event earlier this year, Ford tried to tell the court their executives are immune to charges of cheating and fraud because “no true defeat device” can be defined.

Thankfully their silly fallacy seems to have been thrown out.

The Court agrees that Plaintiffs’ claims are not contingent on their ability to prove that Ford used defeat devices in its vehicles. […] Ford fails to point out that even if Plaintiffs were no longer able to refer to Ford’s alleged use of defeat devices, Plaintiffs could still succeed with their fraud claims. The true issue with regard to Plaintiffs’ fraud claims is whether or not Ford materially deceived (under the various state laws) its consumers. The Court finds that Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a claim for fraud, under state laws, without relying on Ford’s alleged use of defeat devices. […] Plaintiffs’ overpayment theory is sufficient to provide standing to sue Bosch LLC because of its role in the use and concealment of a cheat device that allegedly constrained the emissions control system of the vehicles purchased by Plaintiffs.

That’s still a very long way from Ford executives being accountable for anything, let alone facing criminal charges for deceptive practices.

Last time I checked the only CEO scandal at Ford was firing the guy who failed to build electric cars fast enough for market demand after the company proudly removed regulatory requirements to build electric cars faster and quickly destroyed its own fleet of them.

Try to figure that one out.

With the widely promoted news about VW cheating America basically lit a fire under German regulators, while seemingly doing little domestically about the same. Have you heard of any real diesel emission cheating impacts to Ford or GM? And those aren’t the only three. Many car companies were cheating…

The impact to VW has had the perversely competitive effect of passively warning American manufacturers about emissions cheating by making an example of a foreign company that is held back now under real accountability to its regulators.

I’d suggest we consider at this point whether German behavior is some kind of time-capsule from Allied 1940s ethical thinking about doing the right thing, instilled during the Eisenhower occupation of Germany; a mindset sadly that has faded away in modern America.

Imagine today seeing posters like this one that told Americans to read and appreciate black history in order to defeat fascism:

US anti-fascism posters encouraged Americans to read about black history and culture

Industries of Nazi Germany infamously went along willingly with obviously toxic policies of Hitler such as using slaves to build vehicles. Only when bombs were raining down on Nazi car executives’ own heads did change begin, and even then reparations have been slow.

“The ghost of the Third Reich will hang over every Volkswagen car unless the company takes action and provides justice to the thousands of its former slave labourers around the world,” Mr Weiss said.

Some Nazis who experienced the ill-gotten wealth from white-nationalism have even recently said they don’t object to how their company used to engage in slavery to increase their own wealth.

…her remarks that the firm did nothing wrong when it employed 200 forced labourers during World War II were thoughtless. […] Former forced labourers have failed to obtain compensation from Bahlsen in individual lawsuits, with German courts citing statute of limitations laws. […] Verena Bahlsen has also been criticised for boasting about her wealth and love of conspicuous consumption. “I own a fourth of Bahlsen and I am very happy about that. I want to earn money and buy a … yacht,” she said at a business event in Hamburg earlier this month.”

The difference today in Germany, after Allied bombing campaigns cleared the way, seems to be that government prosecutors are in position and willing to go after abusers early, with real authority to hold executives accountable and force their course-corrections.