BOOK REVIEW: Peter Watson’s “Fallout” shows how the nuclear world we got didn’t have to be this way—and doesn’t

As the Justice Department investigations and Congressional hearings into Watergate closed in, Richard Nixon—as a brag—once said something to the effect of, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.”

That was when he was sober. In the depths of his stress and depression, the U.S. president was also mixing alcohol and sleeping pills, and his natural paranoia became even worse.

“He really got paranoid when he got three drinks in him. There are things I’m not even going to discuss that were said, but they were the result of drinking. He could not handle drink,” one of Nixon’s political strategists said.

This is a man who semi-regularly “beat the hell” out of spouse Pat Nixon. Considering that more than half the mass shootings in the United States involve attacking a former or current romantic partner, it’s not implausible that a too-drunk Nixon might have gone too far hurting his wife and decided to kick off the destruction of humanity by picking up a phone to kill 70 million Russians half an hour later. Legally, there was nothing anyone might do to stop him, except perhaps invoke the just-passed 25th Amendment.

Otherwise, all United States presidents since Harry S. Truman have had and still have the legal authority to translate a vicious, narcissistic whim into genocide, and along the way, America’s nuclear arsenal grew so that power became omnicidal, capable of unilaterally ending all human life on earth without requiring any return shot.

Since the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union, the reasoning for that godlike authority remaining vested in a single person no longer exists: there is no longer a prospect of an unannounced first strike that’d have no ability to respond to without deliberation.

Yet, by inertia, the imperial presidency of the United States still has this capacity, and it seems unlikely any White House willingly would devolve such a power back to a legislature or extend the process to involve oversight and review.

As a candidate, publicly and presumably as a president, privately, Trump has expressed some befuddlement at the idea of the United States having nuclear weapons but not being able to use them except in a retaliatory exchange. Our only reassurance is that he’s said a lot of things on nuclear weapons; we sleep at night assuming the best interpretation of those inconsistencies and not the worst.

The Roman emperor Caligula thought he was a god, but Caligula couldn’t end the world in reaction to an especially scathing sketch on a re-run of Saturday Night Live.

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Time’s arrow being such as it is, cause and effect being understood such as they are, each discrete step makes sense from conceptualizing the nucleus of the atom and discovering fission to release theretofore unimaginable energy, all the way till now where all trace of human achievement rests on one emotionally brittle septuagenarian not exercising his veto on the existence of complex terrestrial life.

Young Millennial and Gen Z humor tends toward a particularly absurdist flavor of nihilism, which dovetails quite well with our entire conscious lives involving inescapable, looming murder—from mass shooters to nuclear catastrophe—for no reason other than “that’s just the way it is”.

People with power could make direct and obvious changes for the better, but the status quo is easier and most benefits those who currently have power.

So here we are.

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BOOK REVIEW: In the future of “Unscaled”, AI will keep the rich different from you and me

“The rich are different from you and me.”

“Yes, they have more money.”

No exchange like that between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway ever took place, but it’s a lot more fun to imagine that it did. The initially curt put-down contains within it the germ of a much more intense concurrence the more you think about it.

Unscaled by Hemant Taneja, or “How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future” manages to embody both readings of that exchange.

The multimillionaire venture capitalist’s book often reads like a literal vanity-press product, talking of its subjects as an excuse to brag about all of the occasions Taneja’s investments thus far have paid off. That includes investments you’ve heard of like the temporary-messages app Snapchat as well as those you probably haven’t, like the “consumer digital health company“, Livongo.

In that way, the experience of reading Unscaled is very much like anyone who’s ever been cornered at a house party by someone you’ve just met, quite sure everything they do will be as interesting for you to hear as it clearly is for them to recount.

But, the rich are different from you and me, and what interests Taneja versus what does not is almost like reading an alien species talk about the implications of technology for the future.

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BOOK REVIEW: Christian Davenport, for one, welcomes our new “Space Barons”

The Space Barons is the longest and best-written press release I’ve ever read.

When, in the ending acknowledgment, author Christian Davenport thanked the billionaires so gracious with their time, including his own ultimate boss at the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, it became much clearer how such a long work of this genre had come about and my disappointment resolved itself into a numb acceptance.

The title the publisher chose promised a very different sort of book, more critical and honestly probing than an employee can reasonably be expected to write of their employer while maintaining employment. In a world where journalism continues to desiccate because its lifeblood is disappearing into the distended bellies of Facebook and Google, all journalism resembles tech journalism.

“Oh Golly wow! Which public-private space company is going to be the neatest going forward?” is about as much as a person could reasonably ask for, and the competing book Rocket Billionaires by Tim Fernholz stole the more serviceable title and likely the original pitch.

However, the title I had was The Space Barons, and I was not prepared for the sincerely fawning devotion to a cyberpunk dystopia that I discovered myself to be reading.

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